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Your Redemption Draws Near

Advent 2
Luke 21:25-36

✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    There is a huge difference between Jesus’ first coming and His second coming.  In His first coming Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, noticed almost by no one.  In His second coming He will be clothed with light, and every eye will see Him.  In His first coming Jesus rode into Jerusalem in lowliness on a donkey.  In His second coming He will ride on the clouds with power and great glory.  In His first coming Jesus bore the cross, despised and forsaken.  In His second coming, the risen Lord will be accompanied by hosts of angels, and to Him every knee shall bow.

    It is important for us during this Advent tide, then, to focus our attention on both of these advents of our Lord–His coming at Christmas, and especially His coming again on the Last Day.  You don’t get one without the other.  The baby in the manger and the Judge of the living and the dead are one and the same person.  First Jesus comes to win our salvation.  Then He comes again to bring us our salvation in all its fullness.  Not only do we look back in faith to what Christ has done, we also look forward in hope to what Christ will yet do.  This age is coming to a close.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand!

    A pastor friend of mine once wrote: Advent reminds us that Christmas may not happen this year.  Have you ever thought about that?  That’s what we’re talking about here.  Jesus’ return could be at any moment.  So the question is: does that fact bring to you a sense of joy and hope or a sense of annoyance and perhaps even dread?  There’s really no middle ground on this, is there?    Either Jesus is returning to this world as Judge to condemn and punish you, or He’s returning to this world as Savior to deliver you into everlasting life.  His coming will either be a source of great happiness and relief or great terror and despair.

    If the Last Day and the return of Jesus is not something you’re eager for, why is that?  Is it that you fear facing God because of your sin, especially those sins that you struggle to let go of?  If so, then repent and believe the Gospel that Jesus has already taken those sins from you.  He answered for them all at His first coming.  Hold on to Him, not your guilt.  To those who believe, Jesus comes not as an enemy but as a Redeemer and a Friend.  

    Or is there another reason why you’re not so eager for the second coming?  Is it that you’ve got so many attachments to this world, so many plans and dreams for your life, that the return of Christ would actually throw a monkey wrench into it all?  “Not before Christmas and our family gathering!  Not before that trip we’ve been planning on taking!  Not before the birth of our child or grandchild!  Not in the middle of the kids’ sports season!  Not before I finally get to retire!”  It’s because we so often get our priorities turned upside down that the Scriptures say: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.”  And Jesus reminds us today: Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with good times and all the cares of this life.  For indeed that Day “will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth.”  Beware of becoming so at home in this fallen and cursed world that you lose your desire to be free of its empty glories.  “The heavens and the earth will pass away.”

    That has direct implications for how you’re going to live your live your life, and what the priorities are going to be for yourself and your kids and your grandkids.  Think about how your conversations might be different, how the way you spend your time might be changed if it’s always done with a view toward the Last Day.  Christians live day by day in the joyous hope of Jesus’ coming, desiring His return and seeking to order and orient our lives toward that goal.

    For there is a time when time will come to an end.  That’s why it’s important to note how Jesus speaks in the Gospel about signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.  For these heavenly bodies are the markers of time.  Scripture says that they were appointed for signs and seasons, for days and years. They found one of their greatest fulfillments, one of their greatest markings of time, in drawing the wise men from Babylon to Bethlehem to worship the Virgin’s Son, Jesus.

    The heavenly bodies are counting down to the end of time, and eventually they themselves will pass away.  Every sunset is a reminder of our impending death.  Every sunrise, though, is a promise of the resurrection to come on the Last Day.  The movement of the sun and moon and the stars are predictable.  So also is the return of the King–not that we can know the exact time of His return.  But we can predict with absolute certainty that, as sure as there are stars in the sky, Jesus is coming back.  Every moment He is postponed the tension grows greater, for the time is nearer.

    Look and see if there is unusual solar or astronomical phenomena.  Look and see if nations are distressed with perplexity and political upheaval, if there is unusual weather and natural disasters, men’s hearts failing them from fear of what is happening.  Know then that the Day is surely drawing near.  Time will come to an end; it will not continue forever.  The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory.  Watch therefore, and pray so that the Day will not ensnare you.

    We prayed in the Collect: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord.”  That is a dangerous prayer to pray.  For we are not praying: “Lord, give us a warm, glowing feeling in our hearts, make our lives comfortable and leisurely, make us popular with our friends.”  No, to pray that God would stir up our hearts is to ask that He would shake things up in us, that He would awaken repentance in us and renew our faith and prod us into action. “Stir up our hearts” is a plea for God to end our complacency, overcome our laziness, and stop our self-absorbed melancholy and wallowing. We ask Him to intervene for us against one of our wiliest foes, our own selves, and on the most dangerous battlefield of all, our hearts.

    For while the Bridegroom delays, the dangers increase. Salvation is indeed closer now then when we first believed.  But do we have the same zeal we had then to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior?  It is easy to grow weary and to be seduced by the devil’s promise of rest.  “Why fight it?  Why work so hard?  Why care so much about what God says when it doesn’t seem to help?”  The devil advises you: “Take care of yourself.  Don’t offend anyone, and lay up for yourself treasures where you can see and enjoy them.”

    But that is most certainly the way of death.  And so we pray, “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, against the devil and our old nature!  Make ready the way of your only-begotten Son.”  Man does not live by mammon and worldly praise.  The Baptized live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  All other things will fade away.  But the Word of God will never pass away.  It never lies, never changes, never fails.  Store up your treasure in heaven.

    On the great and dreadful day of the Lord’s return, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the “spiritual but not religious,” and all those good people who thought they could come to God apart from the grace of Christ alone will no longer be able to deny His power and authority. Satan’s many masks and false names will finally be stripped away.  Then all the spiritually self-sufficient will know the dark lord whom they’ve been worshiping all these years, and they shall be burned up in God’s wrath.  But to you who honor the Name of the Lord, who trust in the mercy of the God born of Mary, He, the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings.  Look up; lift up your heads.  Your redemption draws near.  Your suffering, your trials, your troubles are at their end.

    The decisive battle for your soul was fought outside Jerusalem, where there was another great sign in the heavens.  The sun was darkened in the middle of the day for three full hours as all the blackness of sin’s judgment descended upon Christ.  He bore that for you to set you free.  That’s why the Last day is not a day to fear.  Judgment day already occurred for you on Good Friday.  The last day for you is redemption day!  For it is your Redeemer who is close at hand.  The Father has given you a full pardon through the death of His innocent Son. The Spirit of Life and Resurrection now abides in you.

    It is a dangerous business living in this fallen world. But the end is certain for those who belong to Jesus.  Fear not.  Do not be afraid.  The Savior has not died in vain.  The devil is a liar, already defeated.  Jesus died and rose again for our salvation.  He reconciled all mankind to His Father, and the kingdom of heaven is open to all believers.  Blessed are all those who trust in Him, who rest in Him, who confess Him.  You will not be disappointed.

    So lift up your heads, then, and lift up your hearts to see the sign that the Lord is giving to you right now, the holy Sacrament of the Altar.  To the unbeliever it seems like nothing all that important.  But to you who believe, it is a marvelous sign.  For it assures you that the One who comes to you now hiddenly with His body and blood for your forgiveness will come again visibly to deliver you.  It is written, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  And so the church continually prays, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to David Petersen)

Watch Therefore

Matthew 25:1-13
Trinity 27, Last Sunday of the Church Year

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that Scripture begins and ends with a marriage.  The creation account can be rightly understood as wedding preparations.  God even hangs the lights in the heavens for the event, and then, like a father of the bride, He literally walks Eve to Adam and presents her to him as they are joined together in the one flesh union of husband and wife.  Those preparations that God did are reflected in many ways in our own wedding planning.  And especially in today’s Gospel, they point us to the great wedding feast that will take place on the Last Day, when the union of Jesus the Groom and His Elect Lady, the holy Church is celebrated with all of creation, and the consummation of all things comes to pass.

    What we do with wedding planning on a small scale with earthly marriages, the Holy Spirit summons the whole Church to do on a much bigger scale. The joyful events that will come at the close of this age is what we are given to be focusing on and preparing for as a matter of highest priority.  We are called to watch and be ready at all times, for unlike most weddings, we don’t have an exact calendar date to shoot for; we know neither the day nor the hour in which our Lord is returning.  

    Now, as we heard last week, some will mock this notion of Jesus’ return as the stuff of fairy tales, a too-good-to-be-true delusion for weak and foolish minds.  But we know from Scripture that in the Lord’s delay is His mercy.  He doesn’t want any to perish or miss out on the gladness but for all to come to repentance and faith and be saved.  He wants all to experience what the Old Testament reading speaks of, the new creation in which there is no more sickness or sorrow or pain.  “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.... They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”  To many that sounds like fantasy and nothing more. But we know it’s real and true, and that it’s even better than any human words can describe it.

    Isaiah expresses very clearly that God’s original plan for this creation has not been set aside. God made this world to be a place of security and peace, where there was no death and no fear, where humanity reigned over God’s world as His vice-rulers, where human beings could walk through the darkness of the night without anxiety or fear.  We’ve made it something else, something dark and terrible. We’ve turned this beautiful world God gave us into a horrible hunting ground and cosmic cemetery, where death reigns.  But the Prophet Isaiah announces to us today that God’s work with this world isn’t done until He has created it anew – new heavens and a new earth where joy fills everything, because the source of sadness and grief – death and sin – will be banished forever, having been conquered in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    And the joy of that future is described, again, as a wedding.  In the days before His appearing and the great festivities to come, He speaks of His Church camping out in this age, like people waiting for the chance to get once-in-a-lifetime tickets to a concert or sporting event.  The church waits with joy for that moment to break in when Jesus will return in glory and lead His people home, and there will be light and laughter, dancing and singing, celebration and feasting forever–a new age where the love of God for His Bride, for His people, is all in all.  Who would not look forward to that?

    The fact is, according to today’s Gospel, that some are not looking forward to that in any serious way.  They’re not prepared to wait for a long time, or they just don’t think it’s worth it.  And so they are distracted and turn aside to other things.  These are the foolish in Jesus’ parable.  The five foolish virgins think they can make it through to that day with what they already have in their lamps. Not so. They need the extra reserves of oil. They need what God constantly supplies through the preaching of the Gospel and the celebration of the Supper. That’s where you get the “oil” which is the Holy Spirit Himself, who is yours in the lamp of the Word.  He is the One who will see you safely through to that joyous day by sustaining in you the flame of your faith in Jesus Christ.

    The foolish at first appear to be the ones who are wise and more “balanced” in their approach to life.  They’re not so “extreme” as to be preoccupied with the bridegroom’s coming, carrying around extra oil.  The foolish think: “Why overdo it?  I know about Jesus, I pray sometimes, I don’t need the Church; I went through Sunday School as a kid.  I was confirmed.”  They make the horrible mistake of trying to get by with a limited supply of oil.  It won’t work for the long haul.  For we are all cracked vessels.  The oil leaks out through the cracks of our sin.  It needs to be regularly replenished through the Word and the Sacraments, lest the flame of our faith go out.  In the end, the foolish lose out on the wedding feast they had been waiting for. “The door was shut.” And when they come late, asking for admittance, all they hear are those horrible words: “I do not know you.”

    When our Lord says to us, “Watch therefore!” He is not urging us to try to calculate the time of His return.  In fact it’s probably good for us that we don’t know, so that we don’t become complacent and turn our attention away from Him and fall away from the faith, thinking we’ll always have time to repent later.  No, when our Lord urges us to watch, He is simply urging us to camp ourselves out by the spiritual flasks of the Church, Jesus’ words and body and blood.  That is where the oil of the Holy Spirit is that fills us and keeps our faith burning brightly until the day of Christ’s return.  To live our lives devoted to them–that is how you watch; that is how you are counted among the wise.

    The flasks of the Church are truly full to overflowing, for they are supplied from the Lord Jesus Himself, who fills them to the brim with His Spirit and His life. This is the life He came from heaven to give us, that He brought into our very flesh and blood in Mary’s womb. This is the life He died on the cross to pour out for us and into us: the gift of forgiveness, the Life of the Trinity, the Peace and Joy and Love that the Holy Spirit gives and that the Holy Spirit is.  It’s all there for us richly in the flasks of grace.

    But remember, no one else can camp out at the flasks of the church for you, like someone waiting in line to buy tickets for you.  No one else can receive the Spirit for you, and so no one can believe for you. The wise cannot give their flasks to the foolish. Each must have his own. So it’s not a matter of your mother being in church or your sister or your father or your brother or your spouse. It’s a matter of you being where the flasks are full, filling your lamp to keep it burning bright.  

    Thanks be to God that the Church’s jars cannot run dry. For her supply flows from the Blessed Trinity. You will never exhaust the oil that God has placed into your Baptism, into the preaching of Christ crucified and risen, into the absolution spoken over you, into the life-giving body and blood of Christ. “My cup overflows!” says the Psalmist, and it truly does.

    And here’s one final point that you cannot miss today. The Blessed Trinity has made ready for every one of you to be at the glorious feast on the Last Day, to share in the new world where death will be gone and tears a thing of the past. Your place at the table is prepared; there is a card with your name on it reserving your spot.  Remember, Jesus speaks these words of today’s Gospel during Holy Week, just hours before He will taste the fullness of the darkness of this world, bearing our guilt in His own flesh on the cross.  For He knew that in so doing He would bring forgiveness to destroy sin, and life everlasting to destroy death.  In his resurrection the new age has begun.  In Jesus it’s all been prepared for you.  

    It was in that utter confidence that St. Paul could write to the Thessalonians and to us: “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we should live  together with him.”  What marvelous words those are!  Do you grasp what they are saying? God has not appointed a single one of you for wrath and judgment but for salvation in Jesus Christ.  And if God has appointed it, then it’s real and true and sure.

    Brothers and sisters of Christ, believe that Gospel Word firmly, fully, and even fanatically.  Go overboard when it comes to your flasks of oil.  Camp out by the rich vessels of grace, longing for the joy of the Last Day and the return of our Savior Jesus.  For already today, the Gospel cry rings out, “Behold, the bridegroom is coming!  Go out to meet Him at His holy altar!”  You will not be surprised or caught off guard at Jesus’ second coming because you have long been in the habit of going out to meet him here in His divine service.  

    “Therefore, let us not sleep as others do, but let us watch and be sober” as we eagerly look forward to the consummation of this age and the great wedding feast.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to William Weedon)

How to Count Your Blessings

Luke 10:17-20
Thanksgiving Eve, 2023

In the Name of Jesus

    You’ll often hear at this time of year that you should “count your blessings.” The idea is that you should survey your life and find all the good things in it.  Which is fine and right, but not necessarily as easy as it might seem. For we often have a difficult time as fallen creatures in recognizing the true blessings God gives us, and think them to be nothing particularly special. And on the other hand we frequently look at things that are lesser gifts and think them to be the greatest of all.

    So how exactly do we go about counting our blessings?  Our Lord’s rebuke of His rejoicing disciples is a good starting point. The disciples had been sent out with a mission. They were to announce the Messiah’s presence, the fact that the Creator had broken into His creation in order to re-create it, to redeem it, and to restore it. And, much to their amazement and joy, they found great success in their mission. Even the demons submitted to them in Jesus’ Name.  But then, strange as it seems, comes the Divine rebuke: “Rejoice not in this,” Jesus says, “but rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

    What was the problem that causes Him to reign in their joy?  It was this: Just because the demons submit to them in Jesus’ Name does not mean that the demons have stopped being dangerous.  Nor does the fact that the mission enjoyed such success mean that their ministries are going to be easy, fun, wealth-building enterprises that will gain them prestige and status in the world.  For hard days are coming.  There will be joy in their ministries; there will be triumphs.  But that will not be the dominant thing.  Measured in that sort of a way, from the point of view of earthly success, their ministries will be failures.  They build no cathedrals.  They obtain no worldly fame during their lives.  They live out their days in poverty and  humility and difficulty, and finally, all but John will be martyrs for the Lord.

    Our Lord’s rebuke is serious. His rebukes always are. “Rejoice not in worldly happiness and success and stuff, but rejoice that this world is not all there is.  Rejoice that your names are written in heaven, and that no one can take that away from you.”

    So it has to do with how you count and what you count as your blessings.  What was the main blessing of the disciples’ mission?  Was it their success?  Was it the fact that the demons submitted?  No.  Those things were good, but they were the byproducts.  The real blessing was the Word they preached, the Word they themselves believed, the Word by which they themselves were saved.  The real blessing was the Gospel–the Good News of the Creator’s presence, true God begotten of His Father from all eternity, and true Man, born of the Virgin Mary–that He, Jesus the Christ, had come to seek and save the lost.  That message had gone forth and done its work. The powers of darkness are overcome by the light of the Gospel. That was the great blessing of the disciples’ mission in which they were to rejoice.

    So then, the way we count our blessings is measured first of all by eternity.  What has God given to you that’s going to last forever?  Scripture says that God did not spare His own Son, but gave Him for us all.  Jesus Himself is your own possession by faith.  From Him flow the Father’s blessings of forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, and the resurrection of the body.  Everything else in life is meaningless and useless without these things.  For all the pleasures and the prestige and the stuff of this world can’t undo the torments of hell.  Our 80 or 90 years in this world are a mere blink of an eye compared to eternity.  We must begin counting our blessings, then, with the Word and the Sacraments.  Your names are written in heaven because God wrote His name on you in holy baptism.  You hear God’s own eternal voice of mercy in the Gospel.  You have everlasting life because He puts His life into you with His body and blood.  God’s abiding and infinite gifts of grace are our greatest blessings.

    Now the material things we enjoy are certainly also gifts of God, the daily bread which He teaches us to ask for, our spouses and children and families and friends.  These things, too, certainly come from God and are indeed blessings.  All we have comes from Him and nothing good comes apart from Him.  He is the cause of anything good that anyone, believer or unbeliever, has and enjoys.  He causes the rain to fall both upon the field of the Christian and the pagan, even though one doesn’t recognize the true source of the gift.

    However, even daily bread is subject to abuse.  That is the difficulty with counting these material things.  They can be blessings, and they can be curses.  Our Lord’s earthly gifts can be misused and can quickly become temptations and then curses.  For example, certainly alcohol has noble purposes, for cleaning wounds and killing pain, and for enjoyment and merriment of the soul. It is, however, also the cause of many evils.  Yet it is a gift of God.  Likewise, your new house or car or truck. Is it possible that you become more attached to it than to God?  Is it possible that holding on to and maintaining your stuff drives you to stinginess and an anxious devotion to money and work?  And is it possible that even the spouse and the family whom God has given you as a blessing–is it possible that they can become more important to you than God Himself?  During the holidays especially, it’s important we remember Jesus’ words, “Whoever loves father or mother [or] . . . son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:37).  We must always be on guard against using God’s blessings in such a way that they become curses in our lives.

    The same thing is true with how we think of curses. What constitutes a curse? Sickness, disease, poverty, tragedy? All of these might be counted as curses, but all of these are also used by God to chasten His children for their good.  Psalm 107, which we just prayed a portion of, goes through example after example of how the Lord humbled people so that they might repent and call upon His name and be saved.  Only then were they truly able to give thanks to the Lord.  Those bad things, then, in God’s hands become blessings.  Those of you who have unbelieving or straying family members or friends–wouldn’t you rather that they experience some difficulty in their life that turns them back to the Lord than that they have a life of ease and self-fulfillment that leads to eternal separation from the Lord?  Prosperity can be a curse, affliction a blessing.  

    For the worst and most cursed affliction of all was what Jesus had to suffer.  Was there ever a greater curse than what was experienced by Our Lord in His Flesh on our behalf?  How feeble and small our own suffering is in comparison.  Scripture itself says, “Cursed is the One who is hung on a tree” (Gal. 3:13).  And yet, by way of that Greatest of all Curses comes all of our blessing.  By way of the cross comes our forgiveness, our joy, our peace in Him.

    So I hope that you get the point our Lord is making: “Do not rejoice simply in temporary earthly blessings; and do not despair simply over temporary earthly curses; but rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven forever.”  That’s how the Apostle Paul could say in the Epistle, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. . .  I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Let us not find our greatest joy in the things of this world, even the good material blessings which God has given us.  Nor let us take the Gospel for granted and merely give superficial thanks for it.  Rather, rejoice above all in the One who is the Giver of every good gift, that through Christ we have fellowship with God Himself.  Rejoice in the Gospel, the Scriptures, Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper.  Give thanks even for the crosses He gives you to bear.  And then count only secondarily, and hedgingly, the other things in this life that you enjoy.  

    For not everyone’s name is recorded in the Book of Life. Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” is known by Him.  But you have that.  To have God know you by name in Christ; to receive the Justice of God appeased through the death and resurrection of His Son; to be declared holy, righteous, and innocent, without blemish or sin for the sake of His Love and His Mercy–to have that is really to have something to be thankful for.

    So, on this Thanksgiving Eve, and every day, do count your blessings; and while doing that, remember especially to give thanks that your names are written in heaven.

In the Name of Jesus

(With thanks to David Petersen)

The Brothers of Jesus

Matthew 25:31-46
Trinity 26, 2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

    When Lutherans hear today’s Gospel, sometimes they get a little uncomfortable or confused.  For on the surface it seems as if Jesus is saying that the sheep receive eternal life because they did the good works of feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and so forth, and the goats go into eternal fire because they didn’t do those good works.  How does that square with the Scriptural teaching that we’re saved by faith apart from the works of the Law?

    Usually the way we deal with this is by pointing out how these good works are the fruits and evidence of faith.  We’re saved by faith in Christ alone, but faith is never alone.  It is always busy and active in good works.  And that is certainly correct and true.  Scripture says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:16).  Even though unbelievers also do good works (from a human perspective), apart from faith in Jesus, they are still unrighteous deeds in God’s sight.  For even the good that we do is stained with impure motives and self-seeking desires.  For instance, if I do a good work just to fulfill an obligation or to calm my guilty conscience or to gain some sort of benefit for myself, is that really even a good work?  Only the blood of Jesus can cleanse our works and make them actually to be good.  In that sense then, God even forgives our good works and makes them to be righteous and acceptable deeds in Christ.  

    But we should recognize that today’s Gospel is talking more specifically than just about doing good works for our neighbor.  To be sure, whatever good we do for another person, we are truly doing it for Christ.  For He shares in the humanity of all people; He has joined Himself to our very nature.  And so by faith we see the face of Christ in others, especially those who are in need or suffering.  For Jesus Himself was in need and suffered for us.

    However, you’ll notice that today’s Gospel is not talking simply about doing good generally to everyone but particularly to Jesus’ brethren.  So who are the brethren?  In Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus, the angel at the tomb said to the women, “Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.”  “My brethren” there refers to the 11 apostles, the 12 minus Judas.  At Galilee, Jesus gave the command to these 11 brothers of His, “Go and make disciples of all the nations . . .”  They were to do this by baptizing and by teaching all His words.  In today’s Gospel reading “all the nations” are now gathered before Christ.  The “brethren,” then, are clearly the apostles whom Jesus sent and also all those after them who are in the apostolic office of the ministry.  The brethren are those whom Christ has given to baptize and preach the Gospel in His name to all the nations until the close of the age.  The brethren is a reference to pastors, those who are ordained to stand in the stead of Christ, undershepherds of the Good Shepherd who care for His flock.

    Most pastors have had the experience of a young child coming up to us, thinking we were Jesus.  Well, no, a pastor is not Jesus; but in a profound way, actually yes.  Jesus said in Matthew 10 to the disciples whom He sent out to preach, “He who receives you receives Me.”  Jesus had bound Himself to them so that their words were His words.  To welcome them was to welcome Christ Himself.  In fact, Jesus said, “Whoever gives one of these little ones [the least of these My brethren] only a cup of cold water because he is My disciple, I tell you the truth, he certainly will never lose his reward.”  That act of giving a cup of cold water doesn’t merit anything of itself.  Rather, it is a sign of faith, that the hearer believed the Gospel of Jesus which His brothers had preached.  That’s why I will almost always accept a drink of water offered to me on my visits, even if I’m not thirsty at that moment.

    Jesus’ still says to His preachers and His missionaries, “He who receives you receives Me.”  For such men are called by Christ to be His representatives and ambassadors.  You know that when a pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins . . .” he is not speaking for himself but in the stead and by the command of Christ.  When he says, “This is My body,” that is not his voice but Christ’s.  The same thing is true of holy baptism.  Martin Luther said, “To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men but by God Himself.  Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act.”  The fellow whom Jesus uses to do that is really secondary; he’s covered up in robes to show that he represents not himself but the Lord.  To receive a brother of Jesus, then, a preacher of Christ, is to receive Christ Himself–not because of the merits of the minister certainly, but because Christ is truly present in the ministry of His words and sacraments for your salvation.

    Of course, the flip side of the coin is also true.  Jesus says to His preachers in Luke 10, “He who rejects you rejects Me.”  You can’t believe in Jesus but reject or ignore those whom He has sent to preach and teach His words.  A lot of your family and friends think that they’re Christians but don’t want to submit themselves to the shepherding of a pastor.  And it’s usually not just that they don’t like one particular pastor because of his personality or something, since they don’t end up going to any faithful shepherd to receive the words and the gifts of Christ.  In fact, they chafe at pastors who try to guide or correct them with Scriptural truth, who encourage them to come back to divine service regularly, and they accuse them of being overbearing or unfriendly or whatever.  This is a rejection of Jesus.  In the end, those who try to be their own shepherd turn out to be the goats.

    So with this understanding of who the brethren are, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel make a lot more sense regarding faith and good works and why the sheep are saved and the goats are not.  Imagine again the scene:  Jesus is seated on the throne of His glory for the final judgment.  All the nations are gathered before Him, all the nations to whom He sent His apostles and preachers to make disciples.  Jesus says, “I have sent to you My brethren, the preachers of the Gospel.  I have given them to speak My words of repentance and to shower you with My mercy and forgiveness and righteousness.  You on My right have received them and their message.  You have believed the Gospel, which was made known by your care for those who proclaimed it to you.  You provided food and drink, a place to live and clothes to wear.  You may not have been aware of it, but whatever you did for My brethren who acted in My stead, even the least and most ordinary and lowly of these men, you did for Me.  But you on My left did not receive My preachers or their message.  You trusted in your own wisdom and works.  You did not believe the Gospel, which was made known by your failure to show any real regard for those who proclaimed it.  You may not have been aware of it, but whatever you didn’t do for My brethren who were acting faithfully on My behalf, you didn’t do for Me.”

    There are some important reminders for pastors in this.  When Jesus refers to the brethren here, He always refers to the least, which is how every pastor should see himself.  It’s not about him or how impressive he is; it’s always only about Jesus and faithfulness to Him.  And with Jesus, it’s about the cross.  Pastors should be ready to suffer if necessary.  “I was in prison and you visited me.”  That’s about sticking with your shepherd and faithful leaders of the broader church when they have to pay the price for faithfulness with civil punishments.  Our Lord was arrested, and then in the book of Acts, so also were Peter and Paul.  The disciples at first ran away when Jesus was arrested.  But of course we know that they were brought back, and all of them were arrested and martyred themselves for the sake of the Gospel, except for the Apostle John who was exiled to Patmos.  The apostle Paul was greatly comforted and encouraged by those who visited him and who prayed for him in prison.  Finally, Paul also lost his life for the sake of the Gospel, being beheaded in Rome.  

    So it’s all about faith in the Gospel of Jesus, a Gospel that is proclaimed by flesh and blood men, men who are either received or rejected.  The final judgment is being played out right now in the world.  Pray that the Lord would continue to send out His brethren into the ministry.  Pray that many might be given hearts to support these missionaries and ministers of the Word and that we would receive them as we would Christ Himself.  

    For our Lord Jesus  made Himself to be the least of the brethren so that you would receive the greatest of His mercies.  He was weak and hungry in the wilderness.  On the cross He said, “I thirst.”  He Himself took your infirmities and bore your sicknesses in His own body on the tree.  He was treated like a stranger amongst His own people.  He put Himself into the bondage of your hellish prison so that He might burst the bars of your captivity from the inside out by His mighty resurrection.  Through Christ you are set free from death and the devil; you are released from your sins; you are cleansed and forgiven in Him.  It is He who showed the truest and highest charity, paying with His own blood to redeem you, that you might live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  For Christ is indeed risen from the dead; He lives and reigns to all eternity as your King and your Savior.

    On the Last Day Jesus will certainly say these very words to you who believe, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  The Father has truly blessed you by giving you the new birth of water and the Spirit into His heavenly family.  All that He has is yours.  Christ has given you to share in His everlasting inheritance.  And like any inheritance, it’s not yours because you’ve worked for it, but simply because you’ve been adopted into the family.  In fact, this inheritance was being prepared for you from the beginning of creation, before you were even around.  It’s all a gift, given to you through the merits of Christ.  Believe that Gospel.  Trust in that promise.  For just as Jesus will come on the Last Day with all His holy angels, so also He is here even now with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to bring you His kingdom in the Sacrament of His body and blood.  Come, you blessed of the Father, receive the kingdom; receive the King.

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

See, I Have Told You Beforehand

Matthew 24:1-28
Trinity 25, 3rd Last Sunday in the Church Year

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

    The temple area in Jerusalem was a rather impressive display of architecture and engineering.  In the years before Jesus’ birth, King Herod had engaged in a multi-decade project to turn the entire temple mount into a place rivaling the glories of Rome, with dozens of huge colonnades and porticos and archways and structures surrounding the temple.  And the temple itself was a sight to behold–renovated and upgraded by Herod.  Because it was a building of white marble and gold, with bronze entrance doors, it was said that you couldn’t look directly at the Temple in full sunlight or it would practically blind you. The disciples were impressed by all this glory, and they point it out to Jesus.

    However, Jesus bursts their bubble.  The glories of this present world, even of the temple itself, were passing away.  Jesus, who is the eternal temple, the dwelling place of God in the flesh, tells them that those huge, expertly-crafted, marvelously-placed stones would all be destroyed and thrown down, not one stone left upon another.  This must have been a shocking thing for the disciples to hear, and it gets them to thinking about big apocalyptic things, like the end of the age.

    That’s what Jesus wants us to do, too, especially as we begin to wind down to the end of the church year.  Now is the time for us to ponder ultimate and eternal things and not just what is impressive in this world.  We, too, can rightly marvel at amazing feats of architecture, like the ancient pyramids, medieval and renaissance church buildings, modern stadiums and skyscrapers.  We, too, can be amazed at technological wonders like GPS and artificial intelligence.  But lest we get too full of ourselves and what humans can achieve, Jesus bursts our bubble and gives us a dose of reality.  It’s all going to be thrown down and destroyed–including this building, including the things you’ve built up in your life–all of it.  Don’t get too caught up in temporary wonders and accomplishments, or you’ll go down with them.

    Jesus gives several signs which are intended to keep us focused on the main thing, the big picture of life with Him.  The events that led up to the cataclysmic destruction of the temple are a microcosm of what will happen to the whole world in the last days.  And so Jesus talks about both of these things together.

    First, Jesus says that in the last days, you should watch out for false Messiahs and false prophets so that you are not deceived by them.  Whether it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon “latter-day saints” or Muslims or Hindus or generic spiritual gurus, they all present a false Christ–not the historical person who is truly God in the flesh, who died on the cross as the sacrifice to atone for all sin, not the one who is the only Lord and Redeemer, but some person of their own invention.  Even within the church there are many who lead away from the Christ-centered truth of Scripture to the deceitful wisdom of man.  So be on guard; pay attention to doctrine.  Be sure that you are taking in the Bread of Life and not the carcinogens of false teaching.

    Next, Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, of famines and pestilence and earthquakes.  Sounds a bit like our nightly newscasts, doesn’t it?  Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Hamas, other conflicts brewing from the far East to right here at home.  And nature itself is often in upheaval.  Yet all these things, Jesus says, are just the beginning of the birth pains.  

    Now when labor pains come, what do the parents do?  They get everything ready for the delivery.  They head to the hospital.  They focus on the new life about to come into the world.  So what do we do when we see these signs?  When everything looks like it’s coming apart wherever we turn, too often we get anxious and fearful and cynical.  But Jesus gives us the signs of the end not so that we’ll focus worriedly on those troubling events but on Him whom the signs are pointing us to.  Just like birth pains, these signs are meant as a wake-up call.  Get ready!  New life is about to come.  We don’t know exactly when–labor is sometimes short, sometimes long.  But one thing we know for sure: Jesus is returning soon.  And that’s a good thing!  So you’re in the right place, this hospital, this divine service.  Do the spiritual lamaze of breathing in and breathing out His holy words.  Receive the medicine of immortality in the Sacrament of the Altar to strengthen your hearts.  Don’t dwell on how everything is crumbling down.  Rather, keep your eyes fixed on Him who is building up and bringing in the new creation for you, even in this moment.

    It’s important to do this, because Jesus says that Christians will be hated and killed for the sake of His name.  How’s that for an evangelism message?  “Come and die with us.”  Those who love the lies and the false promises of this world hate those who hold firmly to Christ and His words of truth.  So don’t be surprised at how violently irrational this could get.  Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me first.”  You are given to be like your Lord and to walk the way of His cross.

    Be prepared for this, so that you don’t stumble and fall away from the faith.  Jesus says here, “Many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.”  Former Christians will turn on their former brothers and sisters.  And on a larger scale our Lord says, “Because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.”  Sometimes lawlessness is accomplished (ironically) by using legal levers of power.  What greater example could there be of love growing cold than the majority voting to legalize the killing of innocent unborn children?  And yet this was a major theme of our nation’s elections this past Tuesday, even in supposedly conservative-leaning states like Ohio.  Why are people so motivated to maintain this “right” to slaughter helpless human beings?  Because of the sexual lawlessness that abounds in our porn-saturated culture.  When it comes right down to it, sexual freedom is more highly prized in this country than the human life it inevitably conceives.  Lawlessness and cold-heartedness go hand in hand.

    However, not all of Jesus’ signs are bad news.  The last sign He speaks of is very good news, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”  Missionary work is a sign of the last days!  Even in the midst of the chaos and disorder of this fallen world, the new world is already breaking in through the preaching of the Gospel.  The kingdom of God is coming right now by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  His kingdom is in our midst wherever two or three are gathered in His name, assembled around His words and body and blood, receiving His forgiveness and life and salvation by faith.  The fact that you have gathered like this today is a witness to the nations of the presence of God’s kingdom and the sure hope you have in His mercy.  In this world of upheaval and constant change, you know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  You can count on Him who is your Rock and your Fortress.  Jesus gives you this promise, “He who endures to the end shall be saved.”

    That’s what you are called to do: endure.  Continue to hold on to Christ and His promises.  For they will come to pass.  Wait with patience for His return.  For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  When you see all these signs that He speaks of, know that Jesus is close at hand.  The very gates of heaven are about to be opened in the sight of all.  His glory will soon be revealed to us and in us.  The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church of the living God.  You can endure with confidence because our victory is assured in the crucified One.

    And that brings us finally to this mention of the “abomination of desolation” in the Gospel.  Israel, of course, was under Roman rule in Jesus’ day.  And the Romans demonstrated their dominion by placing their image upon the lands they ruled, the image of the eagle.  The eagle insignia was even attached to the front of the temple.  For the Jew, these graven images were an abomination and idolatry.  Eventually a large Jewish rebellion arose against Rome in 66 A.D., one which would be crushed in the following years.  Jesus said in Luke 21, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near.”  The sign of the eagle arrived in force with these Roman armies.  They entered into the temple, burned it, and tore it down in 70 AD–the abomination that brings desolation.  Wherever the carcass is–the dead bodies of war–there the Roman eagles were gathered together.

    And yet we can see that there is a greater meaning to these words of Jesus.  For just as the destruction of Jerusalem foreshadows Jesus’ return in glory, it also points back to Jesus’ death in dishonor.  “Wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.”  Didn’t Jesus die at the hands of the Romans–Pontius Pilate who condemned Him, the soldiers who flogged Him, the centurion who stood guard at Golgotha with his troops?  The sign of the eagle was certainly there as the dead carcass of Jesus was taken down from the cross.  The real abomination of desolation was that God incarnate was crucified under the authority of Caesar. And the holy of holies, Christ’s body, was violated as a Roman spear pierced Him and the sacrificial blood of the Lamb of God was poured out.  And yet precisely because Jesus endured this great tribulation, because He underwent this greatest of suffering at the hands of the powerful for you, the tribulation that you must endure will not be your undoing.  Your powerful enemies, Satan and sin and the grave, have all been conquered by the greater insignia, the sign of the cross.  Marked with that sign in baptism, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.  “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:28).  For the sake of the elect, the days of tribulation have been shortened–for your sake.  They are temporary.  Then have an end in Christ.  “See, I have told you beforehand,” Jesus says.  He has prepared you for this.  He will see you through it.

    So it’s no longer about carcasses and eagles for us.  Now we rejoice to say, “Wherever the risen body of Jesus is, there the sheep will be gathered together.”  We assemble at His table where our hearts are warmed and stirred up to love by His forgiving presence.  His coming is hidden now, but not on the Last Day.  “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.”  Remember how the angel at Jesus’ tomb had a countenance like lightning.  When he descended from heaven there was a great earthquake as he rolled away the stone.  Imagine, then, what an earth-shaking, radiant event it will be when the Lord returns with the whole angelic host, when your grave is opened, and you share bodily in Jesus’ resurrection.  So it is that we pray with the whole church, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

What it Means to Be Blessed

Matthew 5:1-12
All Saints Day

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    Usually when someone says that they’re “blessed,” it means that things are going pretty well for them.  Their health is great, their financial situation is solid, they’ve got a close family or faithful friends.  They’re blessed.  Life is good for them.  No one who just got a cancer diagnosis or lost their job talks about how blessed they are.  However, in today’s Gospel Jesus lays down a different kind of blessedness that the world cannot understand, for it is to be found only in the crucified One, who is the embodiment of all these words.

    The world says, “Blessed are those whose spiritual principles have brought them success and self-satisfaction in life.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  To be poor in spirit is to have a contrite and repentant heart.  It is to know that you’re a poor sinner, with no spiritual power of your own.  It is to stand before God not in pride but in humility, with nothing to give and everything to receive from His gracious hand.  Those who are poor in spirit have no source of security within themselves, but in Jesus alone.  They believe the words of today’s Psalm, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

    Jesus made Himself poor for our sakes.  He was lowly and crushed in spirit.  Though without sin, He shared fully in our weaknesses and suffering in order to redeem us.  He cares for the poor and the lowly and the distressed and the hurting.  Through His poverty we have become rich, heirs of the kingdom of heaven, lavished with His extravagant forgiveness and mercy and life. The poor in spirit trust that through their baptism into Christ, they will share forever with Him in His resurrection and the treasures of heaven.  They pin all their hopes on Him, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are those who are carefree, who are always enjoying themselves.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  By mourning, Jesus doesn’t only mean sorrowing over those who have died.  He also means sorrowing over the fallen state of this world and the judgment that will soon come upon it.  Those who mourn refuse to be in tune with the world, refuse to accommodate to its standards, refuse to just go with the flow.  The followers of Jesus see beyond the facade and the lies of the culture.  They know that the time is growing short and the coming of Christ is close at hand.  Jesus’ disciples mourn for a world that is deceived and dying.  While others try to ignore reality and achieve their “best life now,” Christ’s disciples wait in hope of a new and better life.  Their comfort comes from Him who mourned over Jerusalem, who longs for His wayward people to return to Him, whose heart is overflowing with compassion for us in our affliction and sorrow.  Those who follow the Crucified and Risen One find their comfort in His words, which give them strength to endure, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are the strong, the mighty, the powerful, the intimidating, for they rise to the top.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  Meekness here doesn’t mean weakness.  Meekness has to do with the strength of self-control, not having to lash out every time you’re disrespected, not always having to assert your rights and get your way.  When the disciples of Jesus are struck on one cheek, they offer the other.  When robbed of their cloak, they surrender their tunic.  When cursed, they bless.  They love their enemies, and they do good to those who hate them.  They pray for those who slander and defame them.  They do not make a scene when they suffer injustice.  They do not seek revenge, but leave vengeance to God.

    For this is how it was with Jesus.  He was struck and beaten without retaliating.  He gave up His clothing to the soldiers who took it from Him.  He prayed for those who nailed Him to the cross, saying, “Father, forgive them.”  The power of God is hidden in the meekness of Christ’s death.

    Baptized into that meekness, Jesus’ disciples trust in the promise that they shall inherit the earth. What the strong and the violent now possess by force will be given as an inheritance to those who belong to Jesus.  In the new creation the power of the cross will be revealed in the resurrection of the faithful.  The last will be first, the humble will be exalted, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are you when you are overflowing with self-esteem, when you have achieved self-fulfillment, when you are content with your spiritual condition.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

    The disciples of Jesus renounce their own righteousness.  For everything they do still bears the stain of sin.  They yearn for a righteousness that cannot be produced from within.  They hunger for living Bread and thirst for living water.  The disciples recognize that they now live in a wilderness.  

    Nothing this world offers can satisfy; only Jesus can.  Jesus’ disciples  trust in Him who died in thirst.  They live entirely on His promise that “they shall be filled” with a righteousness not their own–fed by the Bread of Life, given to drink of His cup of salvation.  Jesus gives His disciples His own body to eat and His own blood to drink.  He fills them with His righteousness, His perfect life and death and resurrection, the only righteousness that satisfies eternally, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are those who hold on to their own pride and honor, who look out for number one.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”  The disciples have forsaken their own honor so that they might have true honor and dignity in Jesus.  Living by faith, they humble themselves to show mercy and kindness even to those who don’t deserve it.

    Jesus set aside His dignity to eat with tax collectors and sinners.  He reached out to touch the demonized, the diseased, the desperate.  He died in dishonor on a cross to show mercy to all.  The disciples of Jesus are eager to let His mercy flow through them also to others.  Those who follow Christ trust that on the Last Day, they will be shown everlasting mercy, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are the movers and the shakers, the crafty and smooth talkers, those who can manipulate things and make things go their own way, for they will be like gods and goddesses.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

    Pure in heart means innocent, as Adam and Eve once were before the Fall.  Pure hearts are not run by ulterior motives, but entirely by the Spirit of Jesus. It isn’t simply right actions, but right desires that matter. It isn’t only what we do, but why we do it that counts.  Who then can say that he or she is pure in heart?  No one but Jesus.  And He creates clean hearts in us, hearts purified by His Word, cleansed by His blood, softened by His promise, so that He alone may reign in them.  In Jesus we see God by faith.  And it is written, “We shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.”  And so we are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are those who mind their own business, who don’t care about other people’s issues and conflicts.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

    The disciples of Jesus are reconciled to the Father through the wounds of the Prince of Peace.  Baptized into Him, they seek to work reconciliation with others and to live peaceably with everyone.  His shed blood can overcome bad blood; His cross can put feuds to death.  Peacemakers sometimes get turned on by both sides.  But they know that it’s worth it in the end.  They will be called sons of God in the Son of God, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are those who maintain the status quo, who keep what they believe to themselves, who compromise with the world, for that’s how you get ahead in life.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

    If you seek kingdom of God and His righteousness, persecution will come, because the world doesn’t want anything to do with that.  It wants a righteousness based on its own good living and not on Jesus.  But the disciples love the righteousness of Christ above all else despite the cross it brings.  Notice that the persecuted disciples receive the same promise as the poor.  “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  And so the blessing comes full circle.

    Finally Jesus turns and speaks directly to His followers.  Only His disciples can understand this last benediction. “Blessed are you, when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  To share in the persecution of the prophets is to share in the sufferings of the One the prophets proclaimed, Jesus Christ.  Therefore He says, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”  If you have been united with Jesus in His death, you will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.

    For now, you can only believe that promise of our Lord.  But in the end you will see what He has promised.  You are not cursed.  You will come to the fulfillment of your baptism, and all those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb will be gathered before His throne–from the newly baptized, to prophets and apostles, saints and martyrs, blessed Mary and Paul and Peter and John, as well as the saints whom we will remember in a moment today.  On that Last Day God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.  There will be no more sorrow or pain; for the former things will have passed away. You will no longer hunger and thirst, but you will sit at His table and be filled with His goodness and life forever.  And so you are blessed indeed in Jesus.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to William Cwirla)

Render to God the Things That are God’s

Matthew 22:15-22
Trinity 23

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    Politics and religion are things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation, if you want to avoid conflict.  But our Lord Jesus was never one to avoid conflict, and the Word of God for today requires us to talk about both politics and religion.  For God is at work in both arenas–in the left hand kingdom of the Law, and in the right hand kingdom of the Gospel.

    For some people, politics is almost a religion in itself; they daily pay attention to the latest news and polls and political talk shows, acting as if everything important hangs on who gets elected–as if Jesus isn’t still at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all and King of kings.  Everything is seen through a political lens, conservative or liberal, republican or democrat.

    And it goes the other way, too.  Some are very political in their religion.  They see their religion as a means to accomplish political goals in the kingdoms of this world.  For them being Christian is all about “social justice” or getting certain laws and policies enacted and trying to set up the kingdom of God on this earth, as if sin and evil could be overcome and a near-perfect world could be established by the right laws and political structures.  But the kingdom of God is not of this fallen world; we know that no utopia can be established that is comprised of and run by sinful human beings.  We are only pilgrims here, this is not our home.  And so while Christians do work for the good of their fellow man in this life, the church is especially about proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ so that people might have eternal life with God.  One of the results of the fall is that we tend to confuse politics and religion and their God-given place in our lives.

    That certainly happens in today’s Gospel reading.  The Pharisees try to entangle Jesus in His talk.  They don’t like many of the things He’s been saying, so they see if they can trip Him up publicly.  These religious Pharisees get together with some Herodians, who were political types, supporters of King Herod and the Roman political structure.  The Pharisees had nothing in common with the Herodians except that they both wanted to get rid of Jesus–politics makes strange bedfellows.  After trying to flatter Jesus, they asked the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Of course, here’s the trap.  If Jesus says “no,” then He is guilty of treason against Rome and the political Herodians would be the first to report Him.  If Jesus says “yes,” it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, then He is guilty of disloyalty to Israel, and the religious Pharisees could use that to turn the common people against Him.

    They must have thought they were pretty smart; they must have thought they had Jesus cornered.  Just as we like to think we’re pretty smart, too, the way we can turn everything into a complicated ethical dilemma as soon as the Word of God starts getting a little too close for comfort and condemning us for our sin.  We’re good at changing the subject or coming up with questions about the latest issue of the day that distract from the main issues of repentance and forgiveness, of who Jesus is and what He’s done for us.   Don’t play tricks with God; don’t try to avoid His words to you with the clever language of lawyers and loopholes.  He knows the way you try to evade Him and who He is and what He says.

    Repent.  Jesus will not be distracted.  He will not be caught in men’s feeble traps.  He asks the Pharisees and the Herodians to show Him the tax money.  And He says to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”  They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”  The coin had a portrait of Tiberias on the one side, and a picture of him seated on his throne on the other.  The inscription declared Tiberias to be the great ruler.  Then Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they marveled at His words and went their way.  You get the sense that Jesus wants to get beyond mere politics to the real business of theology, the things of God.

    But first things first.  Politics does have its place.  Romans 13 says that God has established those who are in civil authority, whomever they might be.  Therefore, we are to honor them, pray for them, follow the laws of the land–as long as they do not cause us to sin–and yes, we are to pay our taxes, even if at some point paying taxes feels more like being extorted. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  

    Now if the civil authorities try to cause us to sin–to deny His Word in some way, to do things that are morally wrong or that go against our faith in Christ, then we are duty bound to disobey Caesar.  We only honor Caesar for God’s sake.  And if Caesar wants us to deny the God who gave him his civil authority, we must obey God rather than men, as Peter says in the book of Acts.  And so we don’t submit to Caesar’s sinful redefinition of marriage just because it’s “the law of the land”; we don’t support or condone in any way the legal expendability of life in the womb.  And after the huge overreaction of the government to COVID and their big grab for power and control, we’ve certainly learned that if they ever try to tell us again that we can’t gather for worship or that we can only gather in a certain way, we will respectfully reply, “We’re going to listen to God’s commands, not yours, thank you very much.”  If the day comes when the church is persecuted for standing firm for her beliefs, we recognize that God is even at work there.  He works all things, even the evils of ungodly government for our eternal good, for the purification of the church and for the strengthening of our confession of the faith.  The church has always been strongest in times of persecution.  For God accomplishes His greatest good through suffering, most especially through the cross of our Lord Jesus.

    Which brings us to the second half of Jesus’ statement, which is really the more important.  “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”  Well, everything is God’s, so give Him everything.  Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”  Paying taxes is really nothing, then.  God wants all of you–all you are and all you have.  He doesn’t just want a couple of hours on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning and some money put into the plate so you feel like you’ve done your duty.  And then you get back to your real life out there.  He wants to be your real life everywhere, 100% of the time, at the heart of all you are and all you do.  He Himself is your life, isn’t He?  The Source, the Creator, the Redeemer.  To render to God the things that are God’s, then, means to honor Him as the true owner of everything you have and to manage it in a way that is pleasing to Him.  That starts with the 10% that should go in the offering plate here–why should we give less than Israel did in the OT?–but it continues with the other 90% that you are given to use and manage out there for the good of your neighbor and the glory of God.

    Remember, it’s all about the image.  The coin bore Caesar’s image, so it was given to Caesar.  And what bears God’s image?  You do.  You are in the image of God.  And so you are given to God.

    But also remember this.  You do not give yourself to God.  You are brought to God in Christ. For while you are in God’s image, Jesus actually is the image of the God Himself according to Colossians 1.  The image of God was broken in us through sin, and it is restored only in Christ. Just as an image of a president is pressed into a coin, so Christ Himself is the image of God “coined” in our human flesh.  And as money is offered up to pay taxes, so Jesus was offered up to God to pay for our sins on the cross, rendered to the Father as a sweet sacrifice. Jesus purchased and redeemed you, not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood.  And there was even an inscription that was placed over Jesus head at Calvary by an agent of Caesar himself.  It read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  There is Jesus on His throne for you.
    You see, when it comes to settling accounts with God, you can do one of two things: either you can render to Him your own works and your own goodness, which always fall short, or you can trust in the works and the sacrifice of Christ rendered to the Father as the full and complete payment for your sins.  So then at its heart, to render to God the things that are God’s is simply to rely on Christ and believe in Him.  It is to point to Christ the crucified and say, “There is my salvation.  He alone is the offering that wins for me everlasting life.”  To put it another way, we render to Caesar obedience, but we render to God the love and trust of our hearts.

    And there is still more.  For through your baptism into Christ, the Lord put His own inscription on you, His own Triune name.  On you, whose image was tarnished and corrupted, Jesus stamped the sign of the cross and joined you to Himself.  In Jesus the very image of God is restored to your humanity.  You are now God’s holy coinage, His cherished treasure.  What shall we render, then, to the Lord, for all His benefits to us?  We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, calling on the name of the Lord.  And living in Christ, we offer up our bodies by the mercies of God as living sacrifices by loving our neighbor.

    For we know that we are now citizens of heaven.  We are as foreigners who are only passing through to our true homeland.  So we don’t have to live as if we’re so attached to the things of this life.    You are citizens of this country only for a short time; you will live under Christ in His kingdom for all eternity.  Set the deepest love of your hearts, then, on that better, heavenly country.  Let your highest attachment be not to the American flag but to the holy cross.  Let that be the real joy and delight of your hearts.  St. Paul wrote in the Epistle, “We eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body.”  By the all-encompassing power of the Lord, these lowly bodies of ours will undergo a wonderful and mysterious transformation on the day of resurrection, so that they will be like the glorious body of Jesus after His resurrection.  Your bodies will finally no longer be threatened by all of the troubles and the sin and the sickness and the death they experience in this world.  Rather, you will live before God amidst the holy pleasures of the new creation eternally.

    So, render unto Caesar what is his and to God what is His.  Let us above all else, give allegiance to the eternal Father, and to Jesus who is Lord over all things for the sake of His church, holding to His saving Word and to our catechism and creeds which faithfully confess that Word.  Let us raise up the holy crucifix of Christ as our great flag, the banner of salvation.  For though it is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles, Christ’s cross remains the power of God and the wisdom of God and the only way to enter His everlasting, unshakable kingdom.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠