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Jesus, the Unjust Steward

Luke 16:1-13

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

If you want to understand the meaning of a parable, one of the things you can do is to look for the part that seems a little bit strange and unexpected.  In the parable of the Lost Sheep, it’s the shepherd who leaves the 99 alone in the wilderness just to go after the one–that’s odd.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan it’s the  fact that the good guy is not the respected priest but the despised foreigner–what’s up with that?.  In the parable of the Sower and the Seed, it’s the Sower scattering seed recklessly on all types of soil–doesn’t He know better?  And in today’s Gospel parable it’s that the one being praised is the unjust steward.  Jesus actually holds up as an example a man who mismanaged his master’s goods and then cheated the master out of what the people owed him so that after he was fired they would give him room and board.  That unexpected and unusual thing is the key to this parable. So what are we to learn from this? What is Jesus’ point?

To begin with, we should ask the question: whom does the steward represent?  First of all, he represents us according to our old Adam, who have often been poor stewards of the goods of the Master, the things the Lord has entrusted to us.  Have we always used the money and possessions and abilities that we’ve received from God to serve our neighbor and to help build up the Church and the ministry of the Gospel?  And when we have done that (because we know it’s the right thing to do), has there still been a struggle against the flesh which wants to use our resources for other things?  Isn’t it usually harder to give a significant amount of money in offerings to church or an anonymous charitable gift than it is to spend the same amount for entertainment or a trip or some new thing you’ve always wanted?  Or in our stewardship as parents and grandparents, have we encouraged our children’s devotion more to extracurricular activities or to the Word of God, pleasing their peers or pleasing the Lord?  Are we more concerned about them making a good living or having eternal life?  And are we ourselves more concerned with how we look to family and friends or how we look to God?  More interested in our physical health and appearance or our spiritual health and endurance in the faith? The truth is, if we were called before the Lord to give an account of our stewardship, to lay out not only our bank statements but also the dreams and desires and motivations of our hearts, there also would be cause for us to be dismissed from our stewardship.

However, I would suggest that in a deeper sense, the steward in the parable actually represents Christ Himself, the eternal manager of the heavenly Father’s goods.  For remember what occurred right before today’s Gospel.  Jesus had just finished telling the story of the prodigal son in chapter 15.  Jesus had just been accused of wasting His time and efforts on tax collectors and sinners, throwing away His Father’s “goods,” mercy and forgiveness, on people such as that.  And now He tells a parable about a steward who was supposedly mismanaging goods.  Do you see?  He’s talking about Himself and the way things are in the kingdom of God.

For what does the steward do in today’s Gospel?  He goes around to everyone forgiving debt!  To the one who owes 100 measures of oil, his bill is reduced to 50.  And to the one who owes 100 measures of wheat, his bill is reduced to 80.  The steward desires to be received by them, and the way that happens is by forgiveness, by debts being cut and taken away.

That is the way of Jesus.  He comes to us as one who “mismanages” the Father’s goods, throwing away God’s mercy and forgiveness on us.  It doesn’t matter to Jesus that He’s accused of giving away God’s grace too cheaply.  After all, His grace is not cheap, it’s free, since He purchased it for us at the greatest cost of His own blood!  Jesus’ mission was to bear every accusation, to take all that we are justly accused of and make full payment for our debts.  Jesus made eternal friends of us, not by hoarding things for Himself, but by living as one with no home of his own, no place to lay his head.  The material things of this world He used entirely in the service of others, having nothing but literally the clothes on His back.  He became poor so that we might know and receive the riches of His mercy.  He even gave away His own body into death, so that through His atoning and all-sufficient sacrifice we would be cleansed from all unrighteousness.

Jesus the Steward desires to be received by us, into our homes and into our hearts.  That doesn’t happen by some decision or commitment that we make; it comes by the forgiveness and the release from the debt of sin that He freely gives.  Jesus has done much more than cut your bill by 20% or even 50%.  He’s taken care of it all.  “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  All of it.  You are debt-free toward God in Christ.  Repent and believe that Gospel.

Which brings us to one more important point about the steward in the parable–his faith.  Jesus praised him not only because he was shrewd, but also because he trusted in his master’s mercy.  That’s the key.  He believed that the same master who didn’t have him thrown into prison for wasting his possessions (when he could have) would also be merciful to him by honoring the debts he reduced (which the master didn’t necessarily have to).  The steward knew what sort of a gracious and good master he had, and that’s where he put his hope.  He believed his master to be a man of generosity and forgiveness, and he staked his salvation and his future on that.  So it’s not just the steward’s shrewdness, but it is his faith in the master’s mercy that is praised here.

So also, you are called to trust that the Father is a God of mercy who will forgive your debts through Christ, that you may be received into an everlasting home.  We stake our salvation and our future on the generosity and forgiveness of our God.  It is that faith God desires and which He praises.  We believe that God the Father will be merciful to us for the sake of Jesus–just as Jesus relied on His Father’s mercy and trusted in Him even on the cross.  Remember, as a true man Jesus also lived by faith; He believed that the Father would honor His death in our place to cover what we owed and that He would raise Him up on the third day.

And now Jesus has ordained stewards to stand in His place, to distribute the eternal blessings He has won by His death and resurrection.  Jesus commends His stewards when they “squander” His possessions in the ministry of the Holy Gospel and cancel the debts you owe Him.  That is my job as a pastor–to be a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:5), to the take the Master’s goods and give them away to penitent believers.  Whenever you hear the Gospel and the absolution, it’s as if I am asking you, “What does your bill say?  What impossible debt do you owe because of your sin?  Sit down, take your bill, and write 0, paid in full.”  You are all squared up with God in Christ–and then some.

Believing that, living in that faith, you are freed to be shrewd like the steward in the parable. As Jesus said elsewhere, we are to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.  If the people of the world can be passionate and smart about worldly things–money and politics and pleasures–why can’t we be passionate and smart about eternal things?  By faith you are given to use mammon not only to make friends in this life, but to put it to use to make eternal friends in the fellowship of the Gospel, supporting the mission of the church in your offerings and in your estate planning, investing in the things that will last into eternity, using the things of this life with an eye toward the life of the world to come, desiring to be received by your fellow saints into the everlasting home prepared for you by Christ.

That’s what Paul is talking about in Philippians 3.  Paul had much that He could boast of.  He had a noble family lineage; he was a leading Pharisee who was honored as a wise and zealous religious leader.  He had a bright future ahead of him.  But what does he say after his conversion to Christianity?  “What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.  Indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”

Here in divine service, unrighteous mammon is put to a righteous use in the sacraments–in the oil of baptism, in the wheat of the supper.  In this way eternal friends are made, bound together by the love of Christ.  Common bread and wine are consecrated to be the holy, eternal body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for your forgiveness.  He is with you.  And in the end when all the accounting is done, there will be an eternal dwelling for you, a permanent home, mortgage paid in full by the Son of God, who gave Himself for you to give you life forever.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Beware of False Prophets

Matthew 7:13-23

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

Jesus speaks a harsh truth at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading: most people are on their way to hell.  Most people are going to be damned.  I take no pleasure in saying that, but Jesus clearly teaches that when it comes to numbers, many take the broad way that leads to destruction; only a few find the narrow way that leads to life.  And you don’t really want to believe that this is true.  At the very least you try to ignore it.  I know you do, otherwise you would behave differently.  You wouldn’t live as if everything is going along fine with yourself and with the people you care about.  You wouldn’t make excuses about them being absent from church and the saving gifts of Christ.  There would be an urgency for the condition of their soul and their standing before God.  But we are generally content just to keep the peace, to worry about financial matters and political matters and family matters more than spiritual matters.

That’s why Jesus gives us an urgent warning in today’s Gospel: Beware of false prophets!  This world is crawling with those who make it seem that you’re odd if you’re not walking the broad path that most people are taking.  The world is full of prophets like Jeremiah described who say, “No evil shall come upon you.”  “You shall have peace.”  “Pretty much everyone goes to heaven unless they’re just a horrible person.”  Beware of who it is that you’re listening to.  Always engage in spiritual discernment of what you’re hearing.  Don’t assume that just because something isn’t explicitly theological that it doesn’t have implications for your faith and people’s spiritual welfare.

Never forget that even if a person doesn’t go to church, they’re still going to be hearing preaching every day.  Every time you watch a TV show or movie or video on social media, every time you listen to music or a talk show or a podcast, or go to a concert or some entertainment venue, there will  be some morality, some worldview, that is being pushed on you with disarming humor or compelling images or emotional rhetoric.  The broad way preachers tell you that there are many different paths to the divine, that you must follow your heart and your dreams and your passions.  Just believe in yourself and express yourself.  Speak your truth and live your truth–as if there were more than one truth, no Truth that is higher than us regardless of what we think or feel, just the truth that supposedly flows from our hearts.  But then there’s God’s Word which says, “The heart is deceitful and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).  Jesus Himself said, “From within, out of the heart...come wickedness and deceit” (Mark 7:21-22).  That’s no place to be looking for truth.  

Beware of false prophets also in our education system.  People falsely assume that because public schools are secular that therefore they are neutral with regards to our faith.  But no school can exist without some sort of moral and spiritual worldview and framework.  Setting up a system that explicitly excludes God from the conversation is itself a religious and theological position.  That God-vacuum is going to be filled by something, usually a version of atheistic secular humanism.  Especially in the upper grades and in higher education, we see the godless Marxist emphasis on understanding the world as a power struggle between various identity groups; we see the acceptance and even the promotion of gender and sexual deviancy; we see the overt mocking of Christian teaching.  Christian parents spend thousands upon thousands of dollars sending their kids to secular universities, and unless there’s a good campus ministry and church for them to connect with, all too often they come home as very nice and slightly arrogant pagans.  Martin Luther’s words are on target, “I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme.  Every institution that does not unceasingly pursue the study of God’s Word becomes corrupt. . . I am afraid that the schools will prove to be the very gates of hell, unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them in the heart of the youth.”  

And beware of false prophets especially in the church.  In fact that’s the whole point of the wolves wearing the sheep’s clothing, so that they look like they belong in the church, pretending to be sheep of the Good Shepherd.  The most dangerous false prophets are pastors whom people trust to give them the truth, but who instead speak a vision of their own hearts, not from the mouth of the Lord.  

And in particular I am compelled today to speak out against a particular Christian group–not the followers of the pope with all his errors, not the evangelicals with their rejection of the Sacraments.  I must today speak out against a group that calls itself Lutheran, the so-called Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the ELCA, the largest Lutheran body in this country.  Just because a group calls themself Lutheran doesn’t mean that they are.  And sadly, the ELCA is not.  Their official teaching and practice stray far not just from what Martin Luther and the reformers taught and confessed, but from the Scriptures themselves.

In fact, the ELCA officially teaches that not all of the Bible is God’s Word.  They say that some of it didn’t happen or is the product of human invention or is only the opinion of its writers, especially those they disagree with like the Apostle Paul.  And how does one determine which parts are God’s Word and which parts aren’t?  Well, I guess that’s yours to determine, which of course makes the Bible into bit of a wax nose.  This turning away from God’s Word has led the ELCA to engage in the ordination of women, which the Bible explicitly forbids, since pastors are given to be icons of the man Jesus to His bride the Church.  In the same vein, the ELCA has embraced same-sex marriages and homosexual clergy and transgenderism and much of the “pride” agenda against clear Scriptural teaching.  On the day that the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade abortion decision, the head bishopress of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton even tweeted out a weasily pro-choice statement that justified the killing of unborn children.  Their church health plan and therefore church offerings pay for abortions.  It’s no surprise, then, that the ELCA has officially entered into communion fellowship with Protestant groups that deny the bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament and with the Roman Catholic church which denies that we are declared righteous by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone apart from our works.  The theology of the ELCA is more driven by the broad way of the culture than by the narrow way of Scriptural faithfulness.  There may indeed be faithful congregations and faithful Christians within the ELCA--I don't want to be misunderstood about this--but we certainly shouldn’t assume that, especially since the body they are willingly a part of is so openly in rebellion against God’s Word.  Beware of the ELCA.  Beware of false prophets.

Always remember, whoever it is that you’re dealing with, it never is a loving thing to deny sin and treat it as if it’s OK.  We think that’s the nice thing to do because it keeps the peace and makes people happy.  But to deny sin is to deny the forgiveness of sins and the mercy of Christ which is at the heart of the Gospel and which we all so desperately need.  And in the same way, it’s not helpful for people and church bodies to “agree to disagree” about what the Bible teaches and just go ahead and commune together anyway, as if the doctrine doesn’t really matter.  To minimize doctrine is to minimize Christ who is the heart and center of all biblical teaching and doctrine.  How is that loving?  We are called to speak the truth in love. When we compromise Scriptural teaching, when we justify sin, we only show that we care more about what people think than about what God thinks.

So let us repent of our sin, and let us always keep the focus on Jesus and His words in our teaching and preaching.  For He is the True Prophet and the fulfillment of all prophecy.  He is Himself the narrow way which He calls us to enter by.  For He said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  This path is narrow and difficult because it is the way of the cross.  It’s not about self-fulfillment, but sacrifice.  It is the Way of Jesus who bore the cross for you so that you may follow Him through suffering to share with Him in the resurrection of the body.  Jesus walked that narrow way of sorrows for you to Calvary.  He died to take away your sins; He cleared the path and opened the narrow gate of faith in Him, so that you may have eternal life purely by His grace.

So in the midst of all the spirituality talk and God talk that you hear out there, ask yourself, is the focus on me, or is it on Christ and what He has done for me?  Is it about how I can have a better life in this world through my own spiritual exercises and efforts, or is it about how I can have a new life in Jesus solely through His suffering and death and resurrection?

Remember the words of Jesus, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”  And the will of the Father is all wrapped up and centered in Christ.  He is the one who does the will of the Father perfectly.  He is the One who prayed to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but Yours be done.”  The will of the Father was that Jesus go to the cross to suffer and die as the ransom price to redeem you and save you.  And so the will of the Father for you is that you trust in Christ and cling to Him alone for redemption and follow Him day by day in the callings He has placed you into.   It is written in John 6, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  That’s what it means to do the will of the Father: to cling to Christ as the way of life, to believe in His words and stake your life on Him.  He alone is the way into the kingdom of heaven, He who is fully God and fully man, who was crucified, resurrected, and ascended in the flesh for the salvation of sinners.  The will of God is fulfilled in Jesus for you.

So beware of preachers who teach something different than this faithful pattern of Scriptural words that you’ve been given in the catechism and the creeds.  Read the Scriptures, come to Bible class as a defense against the world’s false preaching and allurements.  Beware of those who cast aside the liturgy for something that is more like a stage show, whose teaching doesn’t square with the words of divine service and the preaching that you hear in this place.  Even if you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, just flee from them.  And flee to Christ.

For the good tree in the Gospel that bears good fruit is none other than Jesus’ cross.  As it is written, “Christ Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we having died to sins, might live for righteousness.  By His stripes we are healed.”  Jesus is a sheep in wolves’ clothing.  He is the pure Lamb of God who allowed Himself to be cloaked in darkness and sin at Golgotha in order to put them to death in His body, so that you would be delivered from all evil.  In Jesus the wolf has been conquered.  Sin, death, and the devil have been undone for you.  Taking refuge in Christ, you are saved and safe forever from all the lying anti-Gospels that are out there.  You are the church of God which He has purchased with His own blood.  Even when your feelings say otherwise, you belong to Him still; He will never leave you or forsake you.  Nothing in all creation can separate you from His love.

Come, then, to the holy tree and receive the holy fruit of His blood and His body, which cleanses you of your sin and gives you everlasting life.  By His fruits you will know Him.

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

Bread of Death, Bread of Life

Mark 8:1-9
Trinity 7

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

Even in our age of keto, paleo, low-carb diets, bread is still a basic staple of life.  Our Lord tells us to pray for our daily bread, which of course includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body.  And yet we sometimes forget that the reason we eat bread at all is a result of our fall into sin.  Bread is a sign of the curse.  For God said to Adam and to all his descendants, “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life . . . In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”

There was no bread in beginning, in the Garden.  Before the Fall Adam and Eve simply ate the fruit of the trees and the vegetation which God had freely given, and which they were given to tend to.  Without any burdensome labor on their part, God provided to them all that they needed to sustain their lives.  There was no exhausting tilling of the fields or grinding the wheat or kneading and baking as with bread.  Food was simply given to them in abundance as a gift from their Creator.

But that all changed when Adam and Eve rebelled against the Lord by reaching out for the one food that He had not given them to eat.  They wanted to do things their own way, be in charge of their own lives, become their own gods.  The devil promised them great things, but that promise turned out to be a lie.  Instead of gaining something, they ended up losing their life with God and were left empty and famished.

We, too, know the temptation to reach for that which God has not given, to consume the things and the philosophies of this world and to trust in them to bring us happiness and contentment.  Satan wants your spiritual diet to consist of satisfying your own desires, focusing not on the Lord and His words but on the pleasures and the honors of this temporal, passing world.  To appease your spiritual hunger, the devil tries to sell you junk food.  He hisses in your ear, “If you would just get better and newer stuff, maybe even a better and newer relationship, if you would just spend more time on self-care and recreation, if you would just buy in to the self-help spirituality of our culture, why then you would be fulfilled.”  But the devil is a liar.  He offers nothing of substance, nothing that lasts, like state fair cotton candy that melts away in the rain.  The more we feed on such things, the more empty and famished we will become.  None of these things can truly satisfy the gnawing hunger of the soul.

And the eating of bread is meant to serve as a reminder of that.  Every time you choose between white or whole wheat, ciabatta or a pita, even a corn tortilla or a gluten-free wrap, you should remember that you’re no longer in paradise.  You may not have to literally sweat for your bread, but you are paying for it in one way or another.  You’re in a fallen, desert world that is vastly different from what God first made.  Romans 8 says that all creation groans under sin’s curse and is in bondage to decay.   Weeds and thistles infest the ground.  Children are brought forth in pain.  There is sickness and hardship, harsh weather and earthquakes.  We can sometimes come up with temporary solutions to these problems with technology or medical advancements.  But in the end, we are all given to eat the bread of death.

However, into this barren world breaks the very Son of God Himself to save you.  For where is Jesus in the Gospel?  He is in the wilderness with a multitude of people who have nothing to eat, those who are feeling the effects of the curse very concretely.  Christ took on your human flesh and blood and put Himself smack dab into the middle of this fallen world in order to rescue you and raise you up.  Man’s sin turned the world from paradise into a bleak and harsh place, and so Jesus entered into that bleakness and harshness as a true man in order that He might undo the curse on creation and restore you to paradise.    

Jesus said, “I have compassion on the multitudes.”  That word, “compassion,” in Greek has to do with your inward parts, your heart, your guts.  In other words Jesus feels for you deeply in His inner being with the greatest possible empathy.  So fully does Jesus feel for you in His gut and in His heart that He went so far as to make your problems His problems.  Jesus cares not only for the spiritual but also the physical welfare of these people.  He doesn’t want them to faint on the way. Jesus feels for what happens with your bodies.  He knows what you’re going through.  In His great mercy Jesus came into the world to suffer with you and to suffer for you in order to take your suffering away forever.  He made Himself a part of your blood and sweat and tears in order to redeem your bodies and souls and renew the fallen creation in which you live.

That’s what is beginning to take place in this miracle of the feeding of the 4000.  The curse on Adam had been, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”  But here the second Adam, Jesus, reverses the curse and produces bread in abundance apart from any sweaty or tiring labor.  In this moment He restores the bounty of the Garden of Eden, where food is received in overflowing measure from the gracious hand of God.  Here you see God the Son beginning to break the curse of decay and death.  You see a small glimpse of how it was in the beginning and how it will be even more so in the new creation of the age to come.

Jesus would complete His work of breaking the power of the curse on the cross.  The wages of sin is death; and so Jesus took those wages you had coming and died your death for you.  Sin’s deathly power was broken and undone in the body of Christ the crucified.  And therefore, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of life now streams to you from His pierced side, flowing to you from the baptismal font [as it did for young Chloe this day].  For if sin has been undone, so also are the wages of sin undone.  Remember, this miracle occurred on the third day in the Gospel.  That’s Easter language.  Death and hell have been taken away from you, and you have been given a new life to live through the resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples to set before the people.  Still today, Jesus speaks His words of thanks and consecration,  and His ministers distribute the blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  The seven loaves were multiplied to feed and fully satisfy 4000 people.  Still today, Jesus uses the smallest amounts of bread to multiply His grace and feed and fully satisfy the church with His very life-giving body.  He said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

When all had eaten there was more left over than what they started with.  Seven small loaves became seven large baskets.  This is a sign that the Lord’s love and compassion cannot be exhausted; it never runs out.  There is no sin of yours so great that His multiplying mercy cannot overcome it.  In fact, not only does Jesus overcome it, He makes things better than before.  The seven loaves stand for the seven days of creation.  The seven large baskets stand for the even greater creation to come at Christ’s return.  It’s not just that the Lord is going to restore you to what Adam and Eve knew in Eden.  He is going to exalt you to something much greater and better than that.  The place being prepared for you surpasses even the Paradise of Eden.  For by sharing fully in your humanity, Christ has lifted you up to the very throne and glory of God.  You’re not just going back to paradise, you’re going forward to a new creation.

And all this Jesus has done by turning the curse into a blessing.  He takes the things that once were signs of death and makes them signs of life for you.  The deathly curse of the cross is now for you the thing which brings the blessing of life.  When you see a crucifix, you see your hope and salvation.  And when you come to the altar, cursed bread is now for you the thing which brings the blessed body of Christ in the Sacrament.  Our Lord turns evil for good to redeem you.

So as you eat the daily bread that God provides day by day, be it a dinner roll or a sandwich or even a doughnut after church, remember not only the fall into sin but especially Christ the Bread of Life who has undone the fall into sin and broken the curse.  Every meal is, in that sense, a sacramental sign of God’s grace and goodness toward you.  Though man ate of the tree that brought death, there is now the tree of life, the cross, from which he may eat and never die.  

In the Gospel, there is no sweating to work your way into God’s favor, no wages or merits to be earned from the Father.  There is only the gift of life in His Son.  As you receive Him who is the Bread of Life,  you are being given a taste of paradise.  For heaven is where Christ is, and Christ is here for you.  “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.”  “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who trusts in Him.”  

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

Am I in the Place of God?

Luke 6:36-42; Genesis 50

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

In today’s OT reading, Joseph said, “Am I in the place of God?”  Joseph’s brothers were afraid that he was going to judge and condemn them.  A long time earlier, you recall, they had plotted to kill Joseph. They saw that their father favored him; and Joseph had told them these seemingly-delusional fantasies of his that one day his family would all bow down to him. And so they took him and threw him in a deep pit, leaving him to die. But then they saw some traders passing by on their way to Egypt, and they decided to sell him. They got twenty pieces of silver for him. And Joseph became a slave in Egypt.

Even in the midst of this web of hatred and betrayal, of suffering and loss, God was at work. He used the evil done by Joseph’s brothers to put Joseph in a position to become a ruler in Egypt, and in that way to save the very brothers who had plotted to kill him.

But now, their father Jacob is dead. And the brothers are fearing that Joseph will, at long last, get his revenge. It must have been tempting for him. Joseph had soldiers and guards to command. He had more money and more power than we can imagine. But instead, he said to his fearful brothers, “Am I in the place of God?”

Let us ponder that question today as it applies to us.  For that is precisely the thing that Jesus is addressing in today’s Gospel reading. When you show no mercy, you act as if you are God in place of God.  When you judge someone not under your authority, you seize the right of God and act as though you are the Lord.  Who are you to condemn? Who are you to withhold forgiveness? That is what Joseph was saying. “Am I in the place of God? Only God has the right to judge you. Vengeance is the Lord’s.  It is my place to forgive and show mercy, and even though you harmed me, I will forgive. And besides all this, I see that while you meant it for evil, God meant it for good.”

We learn something most important in Joseph’s words: God uses even evil for His own purposes; the Lord uses the disordered wickedness of the evil one to accomplish His own good and gracious will.  We should keep that in mind in the midst of all the evil and suffering in the world that we see.  God is not the author of any of it; but He does enter into it to accomplish real good for us.  The ultimate example of this is the crucifixion, where God takes the greatest evil ever perpetrated–the murder of the Jesus His Son–and works that suffering for good: the taking away of the world’s sin, the forgiveness of your sin and mine.

And so both Joseph and his brothers are examples to us: Joseph’s brothers confessed their sin and asked for mercy; and Joseph forgave them readily.  Nothing is better for family unity and reconciliation than openly acknowledging sin when it occurs and freely forgiving sin.

When Jesus says, “Judge not!” we could put His meaning this way: “Stop having an attitude of criticism and fault finding.”  Our lives and relationships are corrupted by this, especially those we know very well–when we’re constantly focusing on other people’s flaws and problems rather than focusing on their strengths and good qualities and explaining everything in the kindest way.  Beware of creating narratives in your head where the other person’s good qualities are minimized and their flaws are magnified.

Now, these words of our Lord, “Judge not” are among the very few verses that unbelievers like to quote, right?  “Judge not” is often misused in a deceitful way to rule out any discipline at all, to take off the table any notion of absolute right and wrong.  But Jesus does not rule out the legitimate use of judging.  A judge and jury in a court has not only the right but the duty to judge; a teacher in a school must judge the students and grade and assess their work, despite recent efforts to avoid real grading; parents have the commandment of God to discipline and judge and correct their children; citizens have the right to judge and debate whether this or that law or this or that candidate is the best one to vote for; pastors have the commandment of God to call people to repentance and to faith in Christ alone; and the whole church, all of you Christians have the command to judge doctrine and discern the spirits, whether they are from God, and to avoid all false teaching. It’s interesting to note that Jesus’ “Judge not” statement occurs also in Matthew 7.  In that very same chapter Jesus tells us to “Beware of false prophets.”  And that requires you to judge whether or not what they are saying is true and according to God’s Word.  In fact, you could make the case that a lot of what has gone wrong in the world is that governing officials and citizens, parents and teachers, pastors and believers have stopped doing the judging that God has told them to do for the good of all.

So Jesus is not declaring anarchy here and the end of all legitimate judgments, or that the commandments no longer apply and we should just be fine with everyone living however they want and rejecting what is true and good.  Rather, what Jesus is doing here is calling out our constant tendency to criticize and find fault in others. In the same way that we naturally cover up our own imperfections, we should be applying the same courtesy to others, as St. Peter says, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

When we exercise our God-given duty of making judgments in one of our various vocations, that is right.  But to do so outside of that is wrong.  So within our offices, where God has given us authority, we are to exercise judgment in a godly way.  But to our neighbors, where God has not made us judge or put us in any office over that person, then we are to show only mercy.  Our attitude is to be just as Joseph’s: “Am I in the place of God?” “Who am I to judge you?”

Jesus asks, “Can the blind lead the blind?” Jesus warns us about being blind to our own faults. We easily see the speck in our brother’s eye, but do not so easily perceive the log protruding from our own face.  If we are careful to analyze the depth of our own sin, the faults of others will then appear as mere specks by comparison. St. Paul spoke of himself as “chief of sinners,” and that’s how we are to consider ourselves.  And by the way, those who demonstrate that sort of humble attitude are much more likely to actually be able to help others with their specks.

So when we see someone else sinning, even doing some wrong against us, we should learn to see that as a tiny speck of sawdust.  For if God graciously forgives our many sins and is resolved to forget our big beam, how can we not be merciful in regard to our neighbor’s speck?  We should say, “Dear brother, may God who has overlooked my many planks and has forgiven all my sins, may he also forgive your splinter of sin.”

In doing that, of course, we are not condoning sin, nor are we earning merits to save ourselves–Christ has accomplished that for us. We are learning how to be disciples and followers of Jesus, which means loving our enemies and forgiving those who trespass against us.  This is what it means to live as a Christian.  Our Lord says,“Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” He doesn’t mean be merciful only to people we like, people who are close to us, or people from whom we can expect some good thing in return. He means be merciful to people we can’t stand, people who have hurt us, people that we would like to write off and never talk to again.

And of course, that’s not easy! We don’t want to do it. So when that challenge comes, we have to remember this: We have broken every commandment in one way or another.  We have despised God and His Word. He would be justified in saying, “Why should I not send those wretched hypocrites straight to hell?” But instead, He sends the rain to water our earth, He gives us food from the earth, and makes the sun to shine. He gives us beauty and joy in this world, a body to delight in His creation; and beyond all of that, He sends His Son to redeem us and give us eternal life. That is the kind of mercy He practices, and it is the kind of mercy He wishes for us to learn to practice.

So constantly meditate on how merciful and kind God is to you. If you think God is a harsh judge, then that is how you will treat others. But when you remember that He is merciful, that He is love, then you will want to be merciful and loving to your neighbor as God in Christ is to you.

 So, in the light of that truth, we can now see Joseph’s rhetorical question in a very different way: “Am I in the place of God?”  And the answer actually is “Yes, you are in the place of God, to show mercy even as He does.”  You are in God’s place because God put Himself in your place.  God in Christ took on flesh, and all the judgment for your sin was poured out on Him to set you free.  Jesus suffered all the vengeance of the whole world’s sin on the cross to take it away.  Everything that you had coming, everything that anyone else deserves, too, Jesus experienced that in your place to save you.  The cross has absorbed all vengeance and has freed us to love and forgive even our enemies.  

So in a very real sense, Joseph was in the place of God.  He stood in the stead of Christ, as an icon of Jesus in giving the forgiveness of the Lord to his brothers.  That’s how it is in the church still today, both for pastors and laypeople.  You are in the place of God.  According to my office I stand in Christ’s stead as an icon of Jesus to give you the forgiveness of the Lord in the absolution.  You are forgiven, fully and freely.  And then you also stand in Christ’s stead as an icon of Jesus to give the forgiveness of the Lord to your neighbor wherever God has placed you in this world.  As a member of the body of Christ, you stand in the place of God to forgive and love one another.  For Christ dwells in you by your baptismal faith to be merciful just as your Father in heaven in merciful.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Christopher Esget)

Fear the Lord, Come to the Feast

Luke 14:15-24, Proverbs 9:1-10

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

In today’s Old Testament reading it is written, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  That’s a Scripture verse you don’t hear much any more.  It certainly doesn’t fit in with the contemporary worldview.  But it is absolutely foundational to a proper understanding of the Christian faith and our relationship with God.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

To fear the Lord first of all means just what it says, to have a healthy fear of Him who is your Judge, who holds your life and your destiny in His hands.  Jesus once said, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (namely God).  Too often God is conceived of as nothing more than a permissive grandfather, the nice old man in the sky.  It is true, He is the God of love, but for those who insist on living outside of His love, He is the God of great and dreadful wrath. It is written that our God is a consuming fire.  A proper fear of His wrath is the beginning of what makes a person wise.

But just as importantly, to fear the Lord means to have a proper reverence and respect for Him, to recognize the awesomeness of who He is as the Creator and Preserver of all things, and to bow the knee to Him for it.  Someone who fears the Lord looks to the Lord for help and trusts that He will be gracious to us as He has promised.  A God-fearing person believes that the consuming fire was directed toward Jesus on the cross in our place; God’s wrath has been appeased by Jesus’ death, and the Father is now merciful to us for Jesus’ sake.  To fear the Lord, then, also means to love Him for all He has done for us and to worship Him, as the meaning to the 1st commandment states, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

Only a person who fears the Lord like this has even the beginning of wisdom.  No matter how well educated, no matter how smart or intelligent someone may appear, if they don’t fear God, they are fools before Him.  We can see little evidences of that around us as the cultural elites publicly flaunt their ungodliness as somehow being good and wise, or in the way even the average person thinks he can live more or less according to the feelings and dictates of his own heart with no sense of divine consequences.  As the fear of God decreases, those in authority are no longer properly honored.  We see much less respect shown to parents in the home and to teachers in school and to police and other authorities, and much more defiance and disrespect.  We think we’re getting so much smarter all while disorder grows and institutions crumble around us.  There’s no fear of the Lord, no belief in His judgment, no reverence for who He is as the Creator and Redeemer.

Where there is no fear of the Lord, people make excuses.  That’s what we hear in today’s Gospel reading.  The invitation to the divine banquet of salvation has gone out.  But it is written, “They all with one accord began to make excuses.”  They all were looking for ways to get out of this Gospel invitation.  They had other things they thought were more important to do.  Honoring the Giver of the feast, being with Him and sharing in the joy of His meal was low on the priority list.  It was something they could live without.

The first man’s excuse is that he has bought land–and the idea here is of a large estate, a big farming operation, or ranch. He will have workers, men under him, and he will have dominion. This was the first sin: man, who was given dominion of the earth by God, instead sought to grasp that dominion apart from God.  Delighting in his own power, he could not bring himself to submit to the greater power; this is at the heart of Lucifer’s fall as well: the desire to wield the power yourself, to become like God.

The next man has bought five pairs of oxen. This would be very expensive, and a typical family farm would only need one pair, not five.  So we can see excess here.  The number five is often used also of the senses, seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, smelling; and many of the senses come in pairs like the oxen: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two hands. Now what do oxen do on a farm? They turn up the earth; so we can see in this man a devotion to earthly things, a devotion to what his hands can touch and what his eyes can see.  God who is spirit, and beyond being apprehended directly by man’s senses, is disregarded and ignored.

The last man, pleading marriage, puts his family, his bride, before God, and even the desires of his flesh first. Jesus said, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”  So we can sum up the three men then as being overwhelmed by pride and a spirit of domination, a love of earthly things, and the idolatry of family and a devotion to fleshly desires.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “This would be a good message for so-and-so who isn’t here today.”  He or she shouldn’t have made an excuse not to be here and miss out on this feast.  And that may be true.  But look in the mirror. Do you not see pride and a desire to control in your actions? Do you have an oversized love of earthly things? Are you devoted more to your family and your fleshly desires than to God?

Repent. Give up your need to control others and get your way. Look beyond what your eyes can see and what your fingers can touch and the lusts of your heart. Care less about what your family thinks and more about what God thinks and what He gives.

Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees, but Luke recorded it for you and me.  Through it the Holy Spirit wishes for us to turn from our inverted priorities and to come to Him with holy fear.  For Jesus said to the Jews who refused the Lord’s invitation to the feast of salvation, “None of those who were invited shall taste my supper.”  That is a fearful thought to ponder.  They thought it was based on their own merits when it was solely about the graciousness of the Host.  You do not deserve what the Lord offers, but He gives it freely anyway, without money and without price.

In the end the only ones taking part in the feast are beggars and foreigners.  For only they  were given to see their need for what the Master had to give.  This is what you also must become before God: a hungry beggar, a needy foreigner.  You must be brought by God to see that of yourself you are spiritually empty, wasting away, with nowhere else to turn but to Him.  The divine Law must expose your desperate need so that you will crave the Bread of Life.  Only then will the great supper be not just another thing on your to do list.  It will be the One Thing that you cannot do without, the very source of your life.  For the meal is Christ, who is the Life.

Our Lord Jesus offered up His body on the cross to be “roasted” in the flames of judgment, that consuming fire.  He literally suffered hell in our place at Calvary.  Having rescued us from sin and Satan by His holy death, and being now raised from the dead, Jesus offers Himself to the whole world as heavenly food that we might receive His saving gifts and be nourished by them.

The Gospel cry rings out to you today, saying, “All things are now ready.”  God has done all things for you.  He has taken up your flesh, lived and suffered, died and rose for you.  He has endured hell’s fury and fire in your place.  He has left the enemy spent and dead on his own sword.  He has crushed the serpent’s head and dissolved the chains of guilt and shame that held you.  He has flung open wide the gates of heaven and removed the guards.  The flaming sword keeping man out of Paradise has been doused in the Blood of the Lamb.  The angel of death passes over.  You are safe. There is no one to accuse you, no one to keep you out, nothing to stop you from this victory and joy given for free from on high.  God Himself, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit loves you and invites you to come to the feast.  He wants you there.

So fear the Lord, but do not be afraid.  Do not think yourself unworthy or dwell upon your past sins.  They are gone.  They are forgiven.  If you are weary, heartbroken, lonely, wracked with guilt and uncertainty, hear the words of the Lord:  Come to the feast.  It has been made ready for you to heal and restore you. The greatest and the least, the outcasts and the popular, the cool and the uncool, the wealthy and the poor–everyone is invited!  Leave behind the love of temporary things.  Dwell upon the love of Christ who has loved you beyond all telling.  The highways and hedges of this world are not your home.  He brought you here this day to His House and to His Feast.  The God who is a consuming fire gives you to do the consuming now.  The banquet table is laid before you, His flesh and blood which give you life and the resurrection of the body.  Partake of this holy, life-giving food.  Fear the Lord, which is to say, love and trust in the Lord with all due reverence.  You are reconciled with God and righteous in Christ.  Believe in Him and be saved.  Receive the foretaste of the feast to come.  For blessed is He who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.  And the kingdom of God is here.

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

(With thanks to Christopher Esget and David Petersen for some of the above)

Not Many Gods, but One God

John 3:1-17

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

We tend to take for granted the belief that there is only one God.  And of course, that belief is true; that’s what we’ve come to learn and know from God’s Word–it is written, “The Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4).  But apart from Scripture fallen mankind has more commonly held to the pagan belief in many gods.  Fallen man has tended to believe that there are different gods for different areas of life and of the world–the god of the sea, the god of war, the goddess of love and fertility, and so on.   Pagan people believed that they would have success in battle, or better health, or increased wealth if they did the right religious things to cause the gods to bless them.  Even today, there are those who give reverence to the spirits of trees and animals and mountains as if they were divine, or will pray to their ancestors as if they were gods.  This is one of the reasons why we reject praying to the saints and calling on deceased loved ones.  Looking to them for guidance and for help is nothing else than a dressed-up version of the old paganism.  

And when we talk about belief in only one God, we’re not merely talking about some generic higher power, some impersonal universal force that we can tap into spiritually somehow.  That is the way of Hinduism and new age belief–that in reality we all are gods, we all are little pieces of the one divine soul of the universe.  What a great deceit the devil works, making people think they’re spiritual and wise while they basically worship themselves.

You’ll notice in all of these false religions that there is a common theme, namely that the divine, the “gods” end up being just a projection of human beings on a higher scale, just a more powerful version of ourselves.  The gods are made in man’s image in other words, or sometimes even in the image of animals and other created things.  St. Paul speaks of this in Romans 1, “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man–and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.  Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves”–notice how idolatry and sexual immorality are connected–“(they) exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

This is why we have Trinity Sunday, so that we can take a moment to get all of this right.  For it is only by God’s own revelation of Himself in His Word that we come to know the truth of who He is.  Apart from the Word, we can know that He exists and that He’s powerful; but sin so clouds our minds and hearts that we cannot know Him rightly; the truth is inevitably distorted and we are drawn into devilish deceit.  In fact Scripture specifically says that the worship of gods other than the Holy Trinity is worship offered to demons (1 Cor. 10:20).  

We believe in the God who is not simply a higher version of ourselves, not a stronger creature, but One who is beyond creation: God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things, visible and invisible, and in His Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, who for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man, and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  The one, true God is triune–one divine Being in three Divine Persons, Trinity in Unity; three distinct Persons, yet not many gods but only one God.  It’s not something you can fully explain–how could you ever expect to fully understand the almighty and eternal God?  You can only believe and confess His Word.

You may try to picture the Trinity, but be careful.  No analogy really works completely.  Some compare the tri-unity of God to the three phases of water–solid ice, liquid water, gaseous steam.  Ice, liquid, and steam are three forms of one thing, water.  However, God exists as all three at once; He’s not the Father sometimes and the Son sometimes and the Holy Spirit sometimes, like water.  He’s all three all the time from all eternity, as at the baptism of Jesus, for instance.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit aren’t temporary modes or phases or roles of God.  They are three distinct, eternal persons in the one Godhead.

Mathematics and geometry offer a little help.  The triangle has three distinct legs.  Take away any leg, and you no longer have a triangle.  The cube has three dimensions; lose any one dimension and you no longer have a cube.  But that still makes the persons of the Trinity only part of God rather than fully possessing the divine essence.  My favorite analogy is the simple equation: 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.  But at the end of the day, probably the best thing we can do is simply to confess what the creeds say and leave it at that.

God reveals Himself first as Father.  This is particularly important in a time when fatherhood is often cast aside as non-essential.  Our society is experiencing a whole host of negative consequences and fallout from the diminishment of fatherhood and all the things that metastisize to fill its place.  Patriarchy isn’t the problem here; sin is the problem.  The answer isn’t matriarchy or some new non-binary gender fluid paradigm.  It’s a return to the Fatherhood of God as it is exercised rightly in the home and church and government.  God is our Father, not our mother.  As Father, He is the source of all things; He is the head, the provider, the protector, the One who is full of goodness and mercy in His Son, the Man Jesus Christ.  When people try to apply “mother” language to God, inevitably feminine concepts like the cycles of the earth and the circle of life enter in, which again are really nothing other than paganism and the worship of creation rather than the Creator.

We do have a spiritual mother, however–the Church.  The blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of our Lord, is a picture of the Church.  For as she gave birth to our Lord Jesus, so we are born again in the Church through our baptism into His body.  The holy font is the watery womb of the Church.  There we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection and given a new life.  

This is what Jesus was speaking about with Nicodemus when He said that you must be born again.  Your first birth was a still birth, spiritually speaking.  All the sins that bug you–or that don’t bug you but should–those are the symptoms of your still birth.  You may have been a perfectly healthy baby, but you were born into the death of your father Adam.  And you can’t fix it or reform yourself.  You must die and rise.  You must be born from above, of water and the Spirit.  That’s creation language, when the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters in the beginning and brought life to the world.  That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing still today, bringing new creation and new life to fallen human beings through water and words. Your first birth made you a mortal child of Adam.  Your new birth in Jesus makes you an immortal child of God.  You are in Christ, and so you are a new creation.  The old is gone; the new has come.  You are a member of God’s family.  Jesus the Son invites you to pray with Him, “Our Father.”  Our mother, the Church, teaches us these things by the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word.

And so we stick with the Triune Name of God which He has revealed and given to us in His Word.  He is the Father who begets the Son who sends the Spirit; and He is the Spirit who proclaims the Son who brings us to the Father.  If you think about it, we come to know the Trinity in reverse order like that: the Holy Spirit teaches us of Christ our Savior, making us children of the heavenly Father.  In love for this dying world the Father sends His beloved Son into the world, conceived in our flesh by the Holy Spirit to restore us to life.

It’s important for me to make a particular point about this here: not everyone who believes that there is only One God has the same God as we do unfortunately.  Our Jewish and Muslim and Mormon neighbors are not worshipers of the Trinity, and therefore they have a different god.  They don’t even worship the Father.  Jesus was very clear about this when He said, “He who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” (Luke 10:16).  Since Jesus is God, if someone does not worship Him as God, sadly they have a different and false god.

Only the true God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son Jesus to be the medicine of immortality to rescue you from the deadly venom of sin.  He was lifted up on the cross for you to take away your sins, so that whoever believes in Him by the working of the Holy Spirit will not perish but have everlasting life.  That’s the Trinitarian love of God for you.

That is why we joyfully confess the doctrine of the Holy Trinity today.  For it is our very life; He is our very life.  This is why we hold tenaciously to Scriptural confessions of faith like the Athanasian Creed and reject anything that is contrary to it.  It’s not out of an arrogant intellectualism.  Rather, we know that this is the only true God who is love; this Jesus is the only one who is the way, the truth, and the life.  And no one comes to the Father except through Him.  Here’s the only medicine that can heal you.  All the others are just quacks.  Ultimately it is out of love for our neighbor that we reject all false religion, so that they may know and believe the saving truth of the Holy Trinity–the Father who reaches out to us fallen creatures in mercy, whose Son takes on our nature and bears our judgment and saves us, whose Holy Spirit delivers to us all the saving gifts of Christ in the preaching of the Gospel and the holy supper.  It’s all from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit; and back again in the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.  This is our God.  This is our Lord.  We desire no other.

Blessed, then, be the Holy Trinity and the Undivided Unity: let us give glory to Him because he has shown mercy to us!  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.

Keeping the Words of Jesus

John 14:23-27

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

In our “spiritual, but not religious” culture, meditation is something that is fairly fashionable.  Meditation is something that most people will accept as a positive form of spirituality.  The problem is that meditation can be about any number of different things.  Of itself it’s really neutral; it doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with the divine.  Meditation is defined by its focus, by what you are meditating on.

The fact is that everybody meditates, whether they realize it or not.  Meditation has been described as passive thinking, where the mind focuses on a particular thought, and then that thought takes over and leads to a stream of related thoughts and ideas.  Daydreaming is a form of meditation, where you aren’t actively in control of your thoughts, but your mind has wandered to a particular place and you are focusing there almost without even realizing it.  (Hopefully there isn’t too much of that going on right now!)  Worry is a form of meditation, where your mind constantly returns to a particular source of stress and concern and keeps running through all the possible things that could go wrong and how you might deal with it over and over again.  You don’t have to tell yourself to worry.  But your mind is focused on that worry and it takes over the direction of your thoughts.

Our problem as fallen human beings is that it’s much easier to meditate on the things of the world more than on the things of God.  Paying attention to a 3-hour sporting event or a 2-hour movie comes much more naturally than paying attention to a 1-hour church service, even though it gives eternal gifts.  We focus our minds on the wrong things.  We meditate on how we’d like to get back at that person who wronged us.  We meditate covetously on that dream vacation.  We meditate lustfully on one who is not our spouse.  We meditate greedily on all the better stuff we want to get for ourselves.  We meditate on days past that our hearts long to go back to.  We let our hearts and minds get all wrapped up in and dominated by things that pass away.

Even most religious meditation has gone wrong; you may run into this in exercise programs like some forms of yoga.  The spirituality of the world teaches you that meditation is about focusing within yourself, getting in touch with your inner spirit, drawing upon the resources and the strength you have inside, or else getting in touch with some sort of cosmic life force that has nothing to do with the true God.  In the end all of that is nothing but self-worship and a spiritual running around in circles.

Holy Scripture gives us the proper object of our meditation.  It says first of all in Philippians 4, “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–meditate on these things.”  Don’t let your mind be filled with the junk of pop culture which seeks to infiltrate your homes and your lives.  Dwell upon the good gifts of God and the virtuous and noble things He has caused and allowed to be in existence in this world.

In particular in today’s Gospel Jesus tells us of the #1 focal point for our meditation.  He says, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”  That word “keep” is very important.  It means in the original language “to hold onto, to treasure, to cling to,” like Mary who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”  It doesn’t simply mean “obey.”  It involves taking Jesus’ words to heart, meditating upon them, inwardly digesting them, trusting in them, following them.  “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”

The best way to think of this is the way you would treat a love letter or a Valentine’s Day card–or even an email or a text from someone you really care about.  When you get a communication like that, you don’t just skim through it and quickly throw it away or delete it.  You dwell upon every word.  You consider what every word is saying.  You read between the lines.  You remember most of it by heart.  You treasure it and hold onto it and refer back to it again in your heart and mind.

So it is with the words of Jesus.  If you love Him, you want to hear what He says to you, not just once and that’s enough, but over and over again, always uncovering more of the meaning that is there in His words to you.  No guy would ever say to his girl, “I love you, but I don’t want to listen to you.”  In the same way, no Christian would ever say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t want to listen to His words and preaching.”  To be Christian is to hang upon Jesus’ words and to draw your life from them continuously–not simply showing up for church and then zoning out, but meditating on and pondering Christ’s teaching and letting it form your faith and your way of living.

Martin Luther once compared the Word of God to a spice which releases the fullness of its flavor and aroma the more it is crushed and broken apart.  In the same way the sweet aroma of Scripture is released more and more as we meditate upon it and break it apart and consider each life-giving word.  This is why we need regular, even daily contact with the words of God.  They help in forming those paths and patterns in your mind and heart and spirit that conform to God’s truth–which is especially important in a world which is daily preaching and  peddling lies to you.  “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”

Now, you might be asking yourself, “Why all this stuff about meditation on Pentecost?  I haven’t heard anything yet about the Holy Spirit.”  Well, I’ve been talking about meditation on the Word because the Holy Spirit comes to you through that Word.  Jesus said, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”  The Holy Spirit made sure that the disciples remembered and wrote down for us the things that Jesus said and did truly and correctly.  And now the Holy Spirit is all about bringing those words and deeds of Jesus to you, teaching you all things about Jesus through the Scriptures so that you may be filled with His light and life.

That’s the central thing that happened on Pentecost.  There were the miraculous signs of the coming of the Holy Spirit–the rushing wind and the tongues of fire.  But the main event which the Holy Spirit brought about was that the Word of God was preached and confessed, not only in the Hebrew or Greek tongue, but in the native tongue of countries well beyond Israel.  For indeed this Gospel of Christ the crucified is for all the nations.  

The Word of God is filled with the Holy Spirit.  That’s what we mean when we say that the Scriptures are inspired by God.  Literally, that means they are God-breathed, full of the breath and Spirit of the living God.  Jesus said, “My words are Spirit and they are life.”  To hear those words and consider them, to meditate on them in true faith is to be instructed by the Holy Spirit Himself and to receive in them the life of Christ.  

Jesus said this about the one who loves Him and keeps His Word, “My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”  Through the words of God which the Holy Spirit teaches, Jesus comes to be present in and with the believer.  And where Jesus is, there the Father also makes His home.  The Father loves all those who love His Son.  The Father loves you who love and trust in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  You are never alone, no matter how isolated you may sometimes feel.  For the Blessed Holy Trinity has made His home with you.

He first made His home with you by pouring His saving Word onto you in Holy Baptism, marking you with His own name as His treasured dwelling place.  And the Large Catechism says, you have enough to meditate on in your baptism for the rest of your life.  The Lord makes His home with you as He speaks His life-giving Word out loud right into your ears in the absolution and in the spoken meditation we usually call the sermon.  In fact hopefully the Word of God will cause you to meditate on even more than the sermon can say.  I’ve had people thank me for something they thought I said in the sermon, some good Scriptural insight, but which I hadn’t directly addressed.  That’s how meditation on the Word can works, where the Spirit opens the Scriptures and applies them to you in just the way that you need.  And God also makes His home with you in the Sacrament of the Altar.  For there you receive and eat the Word made flesh, the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for you on the cross for the full forgiveness of your sins.  By the power of the Word, Christ is truly present here and comes to make His home in your very flesh and bones.  Truly, God has given you so much to meditate on and ponder, so much to draw your hope and salvation from, so many ways to keep His Word and live from it.

But none of it would do you any good apart from the working of the Holy Spirit.  Only the Spirit of Christ can make your meditation on His words fruitful and beneficial.  Without Him the sermon will seem useless, the liturgy will seem like dead ceremony.  We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him.  The Holy Spirit must open our understanding and enlighten us with the Gospel, as it is written, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  

And finally, Jesus teaches us here that through that Gospel we receive peace.  The only meditation that gives real and lasting and indestructible peace is meditation on His words.  Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”  There is no reason to fear any more.  For Jesus has conquered your death by the holy cross.  He absorbed into His body all that makes you fearful and restless, and He crucified it.  Isaiah prophesied, “The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.”  You have been reconciled to the Father in Christ.  You are at peace with God.  And if you are right with Him, then you can face whatever is going on in your day to day life with His strength and with the confidence that He is with you and will guide you through His Word.  This is not worldly peace which fails; this is peace given by the Spirit of God which never fails and which endures forever.  

Now may this peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.