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The Lamb Who Judges Righteously

jeremiah-preaching-to-his-followers
“Jeremiah Preaching to His Followers” by Gustave Dore

Click here to listen to this sermon.

The Lord made it known to me and I knew; then you showed me their deeds. But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more” (Jeremiah 11:18-19).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s the cry of Jeremiah, surrounded by those who plot to take his life. But it’s worse than that. Reading through the rest of chapter 11, you find that it’s the villagers of Anathoth who plot against him. Anathoth was set aside by God for the Levites—for the priests of Israel; therefore, as the prophet of God declares God’s Word, it is the priests of the land who are plotting his death.

It’s even worse than that. Read chapter 1, and you find out that Anathoth is Jeremiah’s hometown. These aren’t just priests of the land: these are neighbors, maybe kinsmen who want him dead and gone. You’d expect better from family and friends. No such luck for Jeremiah.

What’s more, Jeremiah didn’t know that they were plotting against him. Whether it was naiveté or miscalculation on his part or complete treachery by the hometown, Jeremiah is apparently in far more hot water than he expected.

And the reason for the animosity? Things are better around Anathoth than they used to be. This is after Josiah’s reign, and Josiah started to put Judah back on track, back on the way to worship of the one true God. He called for repentance and restoration of the temple. But there’s still need for more of the same. God has called Jeremiah to sound the alarm, and the priests of Anathoth don’t want to hear it. “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,” they say. The fruit of any prophet is his prophecies, his words: destroy the tree, and the speaking stops.

We want to note a few things about Jeremiah in our text. First, one would imagine that he faces a heavy temptation to make peace with his hometown, for a prophet is always without honor there. Maybe he’s tempted to quiet down a little bit or bend God’s Word to shape it to their liking. However, by the grace of God, Jeremiah continues to do the prophet’s work that God has given him to do. Given the anguish he often expresses in this book and Lamentations, this really is quite remarkable—especially in our current day, when emotions often win the argument. Jeremiah resists the temptations and continues to speak the Lord’s Word.

Second, he goes in unarmed. He goes like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. He has no escort of armed guards or even the luxury of a few tough guys to glare at people. He doesn’t get to intimidate people to keep them a step back while he gives his message: all he has to go on is the Word that the Lord has entrusted to him. No sword—just the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God.

Third, Jeremiah prays for vengeance—but remember, he has nothing but the Word of God. Vengeance isn’t his to dole out: “‘Vengeance is Mine,’ says the Lord.” Therefore, while Jeremiah may desire vengeance on those who oppose him, he doesn’t devise any schemes himself: he entrusts that to the Lord: “But, O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see Your vengeance upon them, for to You I have committed my cause.” Jeremiah is God’s messenger. Their fight is with God’s words, and Jeremiah is only repeating them. The Lord will deal with them, and they will have to deal with the consequences.

Fourth, as the King’s messenger, Jeremiah has the unique privilege of foreshadowing Jesus. He may be like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, but he is not the Lamb of God led to the slaughter. That is left to the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. In our Gospel, Jesus drops the bomb: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And when He is killed, after three days He will rise” (Mark 9:31).

Jesus is on the road to the same situation as Jeremiah. The priests are plotting against Him: not the priests of Anathoth, but the ones in Jerusalem. He speaks the truth, and they don’t want to hear it. He is the Prophet delivering God’s saving message, and they want to destroy this Tree with its fruit. He is God Himself and He could easily defend Himself with force; yet He goes to them as a gentle Lamb led to the slaughter. He could destroy them with one word, yet He will remain silent and allow Himself to be sacrificed for their sins. For your sins.

The one on the cross is the Lord of hosts in human flesh, the same one in our Jeremiah text. He judges righteously, and He will condemn the sinner. But before that Judgment, He endures judgment. He dies for the sins of the world. He suffers His Father’s righteous judgment for sin, God’s vengeance against evil—so that all who believe in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life.

That is the Savior whom Jeremiah proclaims and represents in our Old Testament lesson. He is your Savior, too. Jesus judges righteously, as Jeremiah prays. But before righteously judging you for your sin, He takes your unrighteousness upon Himself and suffers that judgment on the cross. Having suffered the sentence for your unrighteousness already, He pardons you and declares you righteous. Thus, He judges you: He announces the verdict of “not guilty,” and says that the kingdom of heaven is yours.

The Church does well to learn lessons from Jeremiah. We live in a time where Christianity is losing influence in culture, and where many have arisen who oppose the Christian faith, claiming it to be everything from utter foolishness to hate speech to child abuse. The Lord has given us the honor of proclaiming His Word to a world that increasingly does not want to hear it. Yet this does not drive us to silence or compromise: recognizing the blindness that comes with unbelief, we want to proclaim the truth that makes eyes see and hearts believe. Thus we follow the lessons of Jeremiah.

For one thing, we hold to the Savior’s Word and speak it in its truth and purity. Obscuring God’s Word or compromising may bring some relief for us from those who oppose it; but it will not bring them relief from their sin.

For another, we enter into this battle only with the Word of God. Jeremiah didn’t carry a sword to force people to hear or believe, and neither do we. There are reasons for this, including the simple truth that you can’t force people to hear or believe, anyway. But perhaps more important is this: forgiveness is a gift of God, and you never force gifts on anyone. The idea of forcing conversion is a doctrine of false religions, such as Islam; and when it has been taught by the Church, it has only proven that the Church has departed from God’s Word.

A third lesson from Jeremiah is this: Christians face opposition in this world,  be it actual physical attack or unkind letters to the editor. Should we face such opposition, we do not seek vengeance. Rather, we commend such people to the Lord and ask that He would judge them righteously. How He does so is up to Him in His wisdom, not ours. We pray that it would include their repentance and belief in Jesus, so that the Lord in His righteous judgment might judge them righteous. If they persist in unbelief, though, we leave it to the Lord to break and hinder their counsel and will. As His messengers, it is not given to us to work vengeance: it is only given to us to proclaim life in His name.

Finally, the fourth lesson: unlike Jeremiah, we don’t foreshadow Jesus because He has already come. But God grant that our proclamation always points to Jesus. Current evangelism strategies today often say that the Church should reach out to the world with other messages first, then follow with the Gospel. This presents the very real danger that the Church might become fixated on the other message, or that those to whom it speaks may never hear the Gospel. May the Lord, in His mercy, grant that every visitor hear the Gospel at St. John’s/Our Saviour’s/Trinity and depart having heard that his sins are forgiven.

Our Old Testament lesson clearly has much to say to the Church as a whole about proclaiming the Gospel to a world that does not want to hear; but there is also application here for individual Christians, too. I have previously noted that the devil will use the things you treasure the most against you, trying to turn them into false gods that you value more than the Lord. We talked about leisure, entertainment, cars, clothes, beauty, hunting, fishing and all sorts of things. The devil likes to take the gifts of God which give you the most happiness and use them to turn you against God. Our Old Testament lesson points us to another aspect of this: friends, loved ones and family whom we hold dear, but who do not believe in Jesus or have chosen to live in unrepentant sin.

This is a painful one, because you dearly want them repentant, forgiven and confident of their salvation. You’ll be tempted to grow impatient with God, and to question whether or not His Word really is powerful and effective. You’ll also be tempted to tinker with God’s Word, to rewrite it so that it makes room for the sins of the one for whom you care. You may even be tempted to leave the faith yourself so that you might be at peace with the other. Be forewarned: Satan well understands how much we value our relationships with other people; and if he can use those to drive a wedge between you and your Savior, he’ll be happy to do so.

Against these temptations, you have the words of Jeremiah. You know that the Gospel is the message that the Lord has entrusted to your lips; and while there will be all sorts of pressure to bend it or abandon it, only the Gospel is the power of salvation for all who believe. Changing the Lord’s message might bring peace with others temporarily, but it destroys peace between you and God. Therefore, you hold fast to the message.

You also acknowledge that, with the message, you’re just the messenger. You have no sword to compel anyone, and—even when your motives are the most noble and sincere—you can force no one to believe. This means that you don’t rely on yourself to convert people: rather, you entrust them to the Lord who saves. You pray for them. He saves by His Word, and it is given to you to speak His Word now, while you have breath. Should those you love not listen now, it may be the Lord’s Word spoken at your funeral which comforts them in their mourning and brings them to repentance and faith.

From Jeremiah, you know that your desire that someone have forgiveness and life may not be received well. Different beliefs can account for a lot of awkward silences at get-togethers. This does not mean that the Lord has failed in His Word; it simply means that sin resists Christ and the life that He gives. Thus you pray that the Lord would judge righteously: especially, if it be His will, that those who do not believe might repent, so that the Lord might judge them righteous for Jesus‟ sake.

This is all about Jesus, for He is the One who saves. He is the One who was led as the gentle Lamb to be slaughtered for the sins of the world, for the sins of those whom you love, and for your sins, too—so that you might be saved from that condemnation. Dear friends, this is a darkened world; but Christ has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. By the waters of Holy Baptism, He has cleansed you of your sin and made you righteous. By His Word and Supper, He continues to forgive your sins and strengthen your faith. His Word still saves, and He graciously places it in our ears and mouths.

Take heart, for you are the Lord’s; and there is no better news than that you are judged righteous for Jesus’ sake, that you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

Out of the Depths: Sermon for the Funeral of Dorothy Brockberg

Out of the DepthsClick here to listen to this sermon.“Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If You, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness, that You may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with Him is plentiful redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Psalm 130).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Our text begins at the place where a man’s life is being overwhelmed, inundated, and flooded. We might imagine being in a small boat on a lake when high winds strike and the waves consume the craft in an instant. One minute you’re safe inside the boat, and the next moment you’re swept away.

While drowning is not a particularly pleasant death, it is generally quick. You don’t have a lot of time to ponder death. But imagine an overwhelming death that takes a long time, as your stranded boat floats nearly submerged over a period of years. The water up to your nose. There you are, right at death’s door, but never quite going through it. And while you wait, what do you say to God?

That’s what it must have been like for Dorothy in the last few years of her life. Only instead of it being water that rose to overwhelm her, it was Alzheimer’s. That dreadful disease took away her ability to do the things she enjoyed—serving people and volunteering. Eventually it took away even those basic things most of us take for granted—eating, drinking, walking, and even the ability to engage in conversation.  That was frustrating for everyone involved, I know, but it had to be especially frustrating for Dorothy because she lived with it all the time.

About two months ago when I visited Dorothy, she surprised me. I asked her if she would like me to read some Scripture. “Yes, I would,” she said. Somewhat shocked to find myself in a two-way conversation, I could only say, “Okay.” I would have to say that that’s the only time in the last few years that Dorothy ever had more words to say to me than I had to say to her.

Sometimes, Dorothy would join me in the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer—voicing some of the words and mouthing the rest. It still amazes me how often God can use His Word to give voice to a confession of faith in one who is usually silent. But even when she could not speak, Dorothy would blink her eyes and indicate she understood and believed. She would firmly hold my hand as we prayed, giving it an occasionally squeeze as if to say, “Thank you for saying the words to God I can’t say aloud myself.”

During my visits, I reminded Dorothy that, no matter what, she could always talk to God with the thoughts and prayers in her mind. I told her even when we didn’t know what was on her mind and heart, that the Lord heard her silent prayers and her cries for help. I reminded her how the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for word. And I reminded her that the Lord loves her. He would never leave her nor forsake her. He had promised to be with her always, and the Lord always keeps His promises!

Trapped inside a failing body and mind, Dorothy Brockberg knew well what the psalmist meant: “Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!”

But this psalm is not primarily about slowly drowning in the depths of a lake or even being overcome by the awful effects of a debilitating disease. The condition this psalm addresses is a spiritual one. It deals with a soul being overwhelmed with sin and the effects of sin. “If You, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

Or in other words, “If You, O God, should keep a list of all the sins that are charged to me, how could I remain standing? If You marked off not only the sins I do, but also the things I don’t do that I should do… If You kept track, not only of the things I said that were sins, but also those times when You required me to speak and I kept quiet… If You marked the sins of my heart… O dear God, if You kept track of all these things, could I still stand?”

The answer is a firm, “No!” No one could stand. I couldn’t. You couldn’t. Dorothy couldn’t. Not one of us could stand in the Judgment by ourselves. We’re all sinners and deserve to be consumed, overwhelmed, and drowned in the depths of the eternal Lake of Fire. And that’s a whole lot worse than any physical affliction any of us will ever experience.

The psalmist points us to the only solution to our problem of sin, “But with You there is forgiveness.” Dear friends, Jesus, the Son of God, brings us that forgiveness. In love, He takes the guilt, the shame, and the punishment of all our sins to the cross. Jesus endures all the shame, pain, and grief that others have laid on us. There, on the cross, Jesus pays the eternal price for all our sin as the wrath of God is released upon Him instead of on you and me.

The shed blood of God’s Son cries out for our pardon, and we hear His Word from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” The broken body of Christ hangs on the cross, and out of the depths of hell He says, “I thirst.” Denied and crucified by man, assaulted and tortured by the forces of evil, and abandoned by the Father, Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Out of the depths, Jesus cried, and His question was answered with only silence from God. That, dear friends, is what our sins cost Him. That is what our salvation is worth to Him. This is Jesus, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). What a blessed privilege for us to confess with the psalmist, “But with You there is forgiveness.”

To those like Dorothy, and you, and I, who know the Savior, and who trust in Him, the message of forgiveness becomes ours through Baptism and the Word. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we live in daily contrition and repentance. Invited to the Lord’s Table, we receive His body and blood, in, with, and under the bread and wine, to strengthen and preserve us in body and soul unto life everlasting. Having been forgiven our many sins, we forgive those who have sinned against us. Having been adopted as God’s dear children, heirs of His kingdom, we gratefully look for ways to serve our heavenly Father and His kingdom now. Trusting Jesus’ promise that He has gone to prepare a place for us, we patiently wait for our Lord to bring us home one future day.

For what seems to us to be a long time, with her body continuing to deteriorate, but with her soul healed and cleansed through Word and Sacrament, Dorothy waited for the Lord to bring her home. No doubt, it was not an easy wait. She waited like the psalmist “more than watchmen wait for the morning.”

Yes indeed, “more than watchmen wait for the morning,” Dorothy waited for the Lord to bring her home. And her loving Savior was by her side all the time. And then when it was just the right time, on Friday morning, Dorothy became the beneficiary of the same promise the repentant thief heard, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.”

The psalmist urges, “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord.” At all times, but especially at times such as this, the Christian’s hope is in God and in His Word. The Word of God’s promises in Christ are what will sustain us with the hope that does not disappoint. Though we mourn Dorothy’s passing from this earth and will miss her dearly in the days and years ahead, “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and that for His sake, we will also have eternal life.

On the Last Day, the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, and Dorothy and all the dead in Christ, will rise, and we will be caught up together to be with the Lord forever. Then Dorothy will be able to say all those words she’s wanted to say to you during the past few years of silence. You’ll have eternity to catch up. And together Dorothy, you, I, and all believers in Christ will be able to give praise and glory to God forever. Amen.

Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

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A Perfect Man

waitingfortheperfectmanClick here to listen to this sermon.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:1-2).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

There once was a man who, while listening to a sermon in church was convicted of his sin, and he set out to do better. “I have sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed,” he’d said week after week, but this day he especially sensed it was true. He reasoned that his evil thoughts often caught him off guard and might be difficult to change. His evil actions, he decided, were often a product of his thoughts and words. So he would first focus on his words; his words were more likely something he could change. If he could catch himself before he said something he’d regret, he would also have more control over things he did and, in time, perhaps eventually even over the things he thought.

For a while, the man was very successful. He always took his time. He didn’t speak without first considering what he would say. Oh, he wasn’t perfect, but then who is? As time went on, though, he found himself back to his old habits. He hurt people with what he said. He created problems for himself with what he said. “I’ll try even harder,” he thought, and he committed himself to being more diligent. But the harder he tried, the more he failed, or so it seemed. Finally, he gave up.

The story, really, is the same for every one of us, isn’t it? The only question then is this: What do we mean when we “give up”? Are we simply defeated? Or is there a “giving up” that’s really moving forward?

Again this morning (evening), the Epistle confronts Christians of every age—and so also each one of us—with the inconsistences between faith and actions. The warning we hear this morning (evening) is very clear, and what’s also clear is that no one is immune. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:5b-6).

We need to respect the mighty power of the words we speak. “Talk is cheap,” people say. “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.” James strongly disagrees. Although words seem to be merely moving air, although the tongue is just a three-inch muscle, wet, floppy, and only partially visible, it is tremendously powerful. Like a tail that wags the dog, the tongue drives our lives. James gives examples of little things that have big effects:

  • The bit in horses’ mouths. That little piece of steel in a horse’s mouth, when managed properly, can control a 1,500 pound animal with the lightest touch.
  • The rudder on a ship. That little shaped plank, most invisible beneath the waterline, enables a captain to control the course of an immense ship filled with cargo, crew, and passengers.
  • A spark in a forest. Under control, a spark can make a small fire to warm cold travelers and cook their food. Out of control, a spark can cause an inferno that can reduce thousands of acres of mighty trees to blackened, smoking stumps.

James thinks it urgent that people learn to control their mouths, not only to avoid hurting other people emotionally and spiritually. But an uncontrolled tongue can also turn on the uncontrolled talker, corrupting the whole person, poisoning his or her mind, and plunging the body into the dangers of the fires of hell.

In last week’s Epistle, James addressed the issue of favoritism, but many of us may have dismissed ourselves from those charges. “Not me; I would never show favoritism in church!” But now, his charges run deep and should cut deep into the heart of everyone who hears. Your tongue is an agent of harm. It is on fire with the fire of hell. “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:7-8a).

No fallen human, not one, is innocent—not you, not me, no one. And to drive the point home, James reminds us of what we are all too capable of doing: we can sit here in the Divine Service, praising our God in heaven, and then leave here cursing His most precious creations—other people. We praise God one moment, and then the next the very same tongue, can utter such filth about others and even to others. “Look what he’s doing! What a hideous man! Look at her! Imagine what God must think about her! O God, I thank you that I’m not like those people!”

St. Paul writes: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). James would agree wholeheartedly. His proof is the tongue. His proof is your tongue. Ours are tongues that cannot be tamed. Sure, we try. We try and we try. Just like the man in the opening story, we put our mind to fixing the problem. After all, we are children of God. Such a fiery tongue is not befitting us. Wouldn’t God want us to tame it so that it speaks only words that glorify Him? Sure he would. He does. But the harder, we try, it seems, the worse we do.

James offers the hypothetical perfect man: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2b). It is as if James is saying, “If anyone could do this without flaw… well, that guy would be perfect in every way, wouldn’t he?” But I am not a perfect man. Neither my tongue nor my body is bridled. With St. Paul, I must confess: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).

So, is there nothing we can do? Are we doomed to live this life in a never-ending battle against a tongue that would just as soon destroy us as it would honor the God of our salvation? Well, in a way, yes, and in another, no. The battle will go on for each of us. But the very same words of the Epistle point us toward the victory that is ours in the battle. The battles rage on, but the war is already over. Listen again: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle His own body” (James 3:2b).

And here is the good news of God’s grace toward imperfect men and women such as you and me—He sends us the perfect man. Isaiah writes of Him:

For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:2–7).

There is one who bridled his tongue and bridled his whole body. There is one who lived the perfect life you and I cannot live. There is one who deserved  none of what He received at the hands of those who hung Him on the cross, but silently suffered every moment as He bore the burden of our sinful tongues.

That perfect Man, our Savior Jesus Christ, lived and died and rose exactly because our tongues are “a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:6). He bridled His tongue even in the face of death so that we might receive His righteousness as He now lives in us. So we need not “give up,” not in the sense of living in despair or guilt. Instead, we live as children of our heavenly Father. We live as those given the inheritance of the only Son of God, who was silent on our behalf. We live by giving in.

Talk is not cheap. Words do wound. Words can build or destroy a person’s self-confidence. Words can turn someone’s proud achievement into humiliation. Words can create or destroy relationships. Words can spread hate or love. Words can sow truth or plant lies. Words can cause suspicion or build trust. Words are powerful. But God’s Word is even more powerful.

God’s Word is His means to rescue people from hell. A sermon, a Bible study, a catechism lesson, or an evangelism visit all look tame and ineffectual. But God’s power to save people, to create and sustain saving faith, rides with words, with His spoken and visible Word.

In the waters of Holy Baptism, that fire that burns from your tongue was extinguished. The Word of God that you hear fills your mind and your heart with the pure truth from God. That Word replaces all of the “other words” and gives your tongue something righteous to speak. As you receive the body and blood of Christ under the bread and the wine, in your mouth and on your tongue, by faith,  the wounds inflicted on you by the things you say are healed. God’s grace is a saving flood that not even the fires of hell can stand against. And what you are helpless against on your own, you conquer in Christ.

There is no one perfect except Jesus. You will try to bridle your tongue and your body and your mind, but they will fail you. And though you will never stop trying, your trying must now be in Christ—giving up on yourself and giving in to Him. In Him, you receive the forgiveness of sins that goes beyond giving up. For, “all things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23b). What’s impossible for you, perfection, is yours in Christ. In the forgiveness of your sins, God makes you perfect—and thus renews you, strengthens you, and guides you according to His will.

Perfection comes only through the one perfect man, Christ, but it does come through Christ. In Christ, the story does not end for that man we heard of at the beginning of the sermon, nor does it end for you, in despair and uncertainty. In Christ, it ends in victory. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a). All is not lost, and your tongue, though it rages with the fire of hell, will not condemn you. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

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Does Anything Astonish You Anymore?

Devotion for the Pipestone Zone LWML Board meeting

Then [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to Him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged Him to lay His hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, He put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, He sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more He charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:31–37).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

We live in astonishing times. When I was a kid, if someone had a phone in his car, it meant that he was very rich. Some people had color television, hardly any had more than three channels. A single computer filled a large room. Now many kids over the age of twelve have a smart phone that they can use to watch videos, text, talk with friends, video chat with someone practically anywhere in the world, and which has more computing power and speed than the most advanced computers had just a few ago. I could go on and on, listing all the astonishing things that are happening in our world.

Yet what’s most astonishing to me is that none of this seems to astonish us anymore. We’ve become so used to technological advances that they no longer surprise us—unless they don’t work or operate fast enough. That begs the question: “Does anything astonish us anymore?” More important: Have we lost a sense of astonishment when it comes to our God?

The case was pathetic, beyond the ability of any physician to heal or even to improve—a man who was deaf and mute. Friends of the man brought him to Jesus. Since the man who was deaf and mute could neither understand easily nor express himself readily, Jesus took him aside privately. Then using some exceptional sign language, the Lord made the man understand what He was about to do for him. Jesus placed His fingers in the man’s ears; He would give him hearing. Jesus spit and touched his tongue; He would give him the ability to speak clearly.

By looking up to heaven, Jesus showed the man that the cure He was bringing him was more than an ordinary man could perform. It came from God. The sigh was a physical sign of His compassion.

Then Jesus spoke one word, Ephpphatha, which means, “Be opened!” This Aramaic word was later used in the Church’s baptismal liturgies to emphasize the Spirit’s power to open ears to the Gospel. And the man was immediately and completely cured. His ears were opened. His tongue was released. He spoke plainly. The barriers to sound and speech were shattered in one moment and the pent-up words of praise came out with astonishing clarity.

And Jesus charged them to tell no one. How ironic that the newfound gift was to be silenced. Not only was the man to keep the secret, but also his family and those who saw the miracle. This command to silence is one of the many times Jesus prohibits the spread of His work or identity. However, as it happened before, the more He commanded, the more they joyfully disobeyed.

Jesus commanded the people not to tell anyone because the Jewish people of His day had a totally false, political conception of the coming Messiah. Christ made it clear that He had not come into this predominantly Gentile territory to organize a political insurrection. He had come to earth to lay down His life a payment for the sins of the world. He was determined to let nothing compromise the purpose for which He had come.

Jesus knows that the crowd’s praise will eventually force His enemies to kill Him. However, He must have time also to do the miracles and teaching before the end. So He must generally limit the spread of the news until Palm Sunday when the crowds can sing out without restraint.

St. Mark tells us the crowd was astonished beyond measure. While many crowds have been impressed by Jesus, this crowd has reached a new level of astonishment. They are astonished by the healing He brings with His Word.

Do you know what is really astonishing? Our Lord still works in people’s lives through His Word! That’s why you are encouraged to worship, to be in the Word in your daily devotion, to sign up for a Bible class. Through His Word, Jesus speaks His people, life-changing Ephphatha to your heart. With the Law, He exposes your spiritual deafness. With the Gospel, He tells the astonishing story of His love for you in manger and cross and tomb. With that message, He is about to open your heart. He makes your sin-dulled ears to hear clearly again the Good News of His love and forgiveness.

Through His Word, our Lord is able to astonish when no one else can. Hearing what God has does in Scripture opens your eyes and ears to the astonishing things Jesus did in His death and resurrection and is even now doing in your life through His Word and Sacraments. Making you His dear children in Holy Baptism. Creating a clean heart and renewing a right spirit in you. Strengthening and preserving you in body and soul with His body and blood unto life everlasting.

Most astonishing of all still remains the future we can’t yet see and can only hear about: the eternal beauty and joy and love and delight of heaven. Oh, that will astonish us! and in ways, so we hear, that can’t now even be put into words.

Yes, God is doing astonishing things in our lives through Christ Jesus. May we, like the people in the region of the Decapolis zealously proclaim: He has done all things well! Amen.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Faith v Works: A False Dichotomy

Faith v WorksClick here to listen to this sermon.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

As the delegates drove onto the campus where the district convention would take place, an unlikely figure appeared. The woman was obviously out of place. She was not dressed properly for her surroundings, nor were her advances asking for help welcomed. Throughout the week, she moved among the delegates, who rarely even acknowledged her presence. Occasionally, someone might talk to her, but only long enough to get her to move on. More than one person asked: “What is she doing here?” Or, “Why doesn’t security escort her off campus?”

As they gathered for a final day, the delegates’ thoughts were focused on finishing up and going home. Suddenly, there was a commotion near the back door of the auditorium. It was the bag lady insisting that she be allowed to talk to whoever was running the convention. The district president motioned to her to come up to the podium. They looked at each other, smiled, and he turned to the microphone to speak. He introduced the bag lady to the delegates. She was a member of one of their congregations. Stepping to the podium, she addressed the delegates, telling them how she had been treated during the week. Some had helped her a little. Others were at least polite to her. Most just ignored her.

The convention ended differently than most. When the “bag lady” finished speaking, the district president led the delegates in a time of confession and absolution. And they left the convention with a better understanding of the connection between faith and works.

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

With those words, we are thrown into an age-old debate of “faith vs. works.” But faith vs. works is a false dichotomy, a logical fallacy in which something is falsely claimed to be an “either/or” situation, when in fact there is at least one additional option. Faith and works are not mutually exclusive. In fact, when it comes to our relationship to God, you can’t have one without the other.

That’s not to say that we are saved by faith and works—something one of my Roman Catholic friends tried to argue when I posted a meme that said, “You are saved by works; but not your own,” and had a picture of Christ on the cross. He admitted that nowhere does Scripture directly say we are saved by faith and works, but asserted that this can be determined by deduction from passages like our text.

I asked: Why would God leave something so important to understanding our salvation to deduction, which has the potential of faulty human reasoning? Wouldn’t He make it clear in Scripture how we are saved?

He has! And He has made clear the relationship between faith and works. In Ephesians 2:8-10, we read: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Do you see the relationship between faith and works? Lutheran theologian, Urbanus Rhegius, a contemporary of Martin Luther writes:

Scripture everywhere exalts and praises good works and never says anything bad about them. Accordingly, whenever it is said, “Faith alone makes godly,” good works are not being rejected, but instead it amounts to saying: Only the grace of God in Christ makes us godly and blessed, our worthiness does nothing to this end. For no creature in heaven or on earth can perform such a great, magnificent thing as to merit the removal of sin, to justify and save, to abolish sin and death. Our only mediator Jesus Christ alone can and ought to do that… Therefore, whenever we extol faith, we are not scorning works; rather we are extolling the genuine source from which all good works spring. It is impossible to do good works without faith.

He goes on to say: We insist that a line must be drawn between faith and good works and the purpose of each be kept distinct. Faith makes us righteous before God. Good works give an external testimony of this inward righteousness to our neighbors…

Faith, without good works is no faith. Works without faith are not good works. Therefore, these two, believing and good works, must go together as long as we live. Those who do not improve their lives and do good works should know they are not Christians.[i]

So, we’ve got this, right? It’s all about order. Works do not count for our salvation. We are saved only through faith in the righteousness of Christ, a righteousness carried out in His suffering, death, and resurrection and given to us by the grace of God in our Baptisms. We have the doctrine right. But then it’s the actions that follow (or do not follow) that seem so inconsistent.

There are two sinful outcomes of a Christian’s life when we dismiss works because they can’t save. We either then do whatever we want because God’s grace is there to pick us up; or we do nothing because it counts for nothing.

The former is a kind of “cheap grace.” I’m reminded of our former UPS man. Although he was always in a hurry, he still found time for brief theological discussions. One day we were discussing the differences between his Lutheran church body’s teaching and ours on same-sex marriage. Noting the disparity, he smiled and said: “Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter—we’re all saved by grace, right?” As if grace were some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for sin.

I would think that most of us are more likely to fall into the latter temptation—to think that since we are already saved only by grace through faith, there’s nothing more we can or must do. It’s important for us to understand that what we do or don’t do does matter. Moreover, those actions are connected to our faith—not in order to be saved, but because we are saved.

Notice how James begins his letter. “My brothers.” James is not writing to those who are outside the faith. He’s writing to those who are of the faith, brothers made so by God’s grace through the gift of faith. James confronts a problem in the Church—the disconnect between the faith we profess and how we live out our faith. For example: Two men enter the assembly, the gathering of believers in the presence of God. One is dressed well, the other not. The one dressed well is distinguished among the brothers. The other is given a lower place. James writes: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (2:8-10).

So what we do really does matter! And what we do not do? But how? It can seem as though all of James’ words, including those about faith being dead without works, all add up to this: “Do better!” Is that it? Do better? Do better so people can see you’re a Christian? Do better so God knows you’re serious about Him?

If that’s all James is saying, then why don’t we simply do better? Why don’t we just do everything God says? After all, God said to do it; just do it! But we don’t. In fact, we can’t. If James is saying nothing more than “Do better!” he’s actually doing exactly what he condemns in verse 15-16 of our text: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

On our own, we can’t “do better” just because James says so any more than the poor person can be warmed and filled by our words alone. That’s because our sinful nature always has its own agenda. Our sinful nature always looks out for itself, not for our neighbor in need. So the age-old debate of faith vs. works is set before us: Either James’ words are empty encouragement for us as we live our lives in perpetual disappointment to God, or there’s more.

Indeed, there is more! In verse 7, James makes what seems to be just a passing comment in the middle of his encouragement to do good. He refers to the “name by which you were called.” However, it’s not just a passing comment; it’s filled with the answer to the problem here. It suggests there was action of the one who called us, for we can’t call ourselves. It’s God, of course, who’s called us. He’s called us into a relationship with Him that’s lived out in relationship to one another. It really is all about order. It all begins with God’s action toward us and continues as we live out His action toward us in our actions toward others.

Both faith and works come from God. And that is Good News!

The content of our faith is Jesus Christ and His work of salvation on our behalf. He lived the perfect life we cannot live. He died to pay the price we cannot pay. He rose to defeat death, so that His righteousness might become ours. Our faith is in a work, but not our own. Our faith is in a work accomplished on a cross and emanating from an empty tomb. Our life begins, continues, and ends with Him and in Him, which is why what we do and what we don’t do really matters.

The life we live is the life God has worked for us in Christ. He is the content of our faith and the content of our living. Therefore, He is the content of our works. Any other understanding of the relationship between faith and works creates an either/or proposition—either faith or works. Rather, Christ in us and Christ through us creates a both/and proposition—both faith and works; first faith, then works, and never one without the other.

Now, what about when I fail? In the either/or proposition, our failure means one of two things. Our failure means either we have no faith or our failure doesn’t matter. We know our failures can’t simply be overlooked—God is holy and just and cannot tolerate sin. So in the either/or proposition, we’re sent back within ourselves to do better. We’re left to find our own inner strength. And one cannot find spiritual strength in the weakness of our own sinful flesh.

Our faith, though, isn’t in ourselves; it’s in Christ and in His work. This is where the both/and proposition of faith and works finds a firm hold on our lives. Because if everything begins with Christ, then He is where we go when we fail. When we fail to live as we should, we’re sent back to Christ. We’re sent back to His Word and reassurance of God’s grace given in Baptism as we hear His Word of forgiveness. We’re sent back to feed on Him in His Supper in order to receive from Him strengthening of our faith and love for our neighbor. We’re sent back to the One, who has graciously called us to Himself and has given us His name.

His grace is your salvation, and His grace is your strength to live, to live lives that look like what you are—children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ.

“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” But you are not dead. You are alive in Christ. Go and live and work in His name. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

[i] Urbanus Rhegius (Preaching the Reformation: The Homiletical Handbook of Urbanus Rhegius [Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2003], 5).

 

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Pretty as a Picture; Ugly as Sin

Dorian Gray

Click here to listen to this sermon

And [Jesus] said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a thought provoking tale that plays on the difference between what is on the inside of a man versus what is seen on the outside.

An artist named Basil Hallward meets a young man named Dorian Gray. Impressed by Gray’s beautiful physical appearance, Hallward paints a picture of him. A friend of Basil’s named Lord Henry Wotton promotes a worldview that beauty and sensual desire are the most important things in life. Falling under the influence of this philosophy, Dorian wrestles with the harsh reality that his beauty will one day fade and thinks aloud that if only the picture could age instead of himself, he would sell his soul. A Faustian bit of magic grants this request, with the caveat that the picture will not only age instead of Gray, but also take on the changes in appearance for all the evil acts the man commits.

Dorian Gray therefore goes through year after year of life looking perfect and beautiful on the outside, while his picture becomes hideous and disfigured, the embodiment of all the evil within him. He remains “pretty as a picture” while the picture becomes “ugly as sin.” Only in the end, as a distraught Dorian stabs the picture trying to cover the evidence of his own depravity, does he become the picture, dying with a knife through his own sin-filled heart, and leaving behind his own twisted corpse, a final hideous representation of his own sins.

The connection to the text is clear: the evil that is on the inside of each of us doesn’t show itself at first, but is eventually revealed in our actions and attitudes. Even when we can keep it hidden, in the end, judgment brings to light all the evil we would try to hide.

In our Gospel Reading last week, Jesus faced the criticism of the Pharisees and the scribes because He and His disciples did “not walk according to the tradition of the elders” but ate “with defiled hands.” Jesus took them to task for “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men,” and “rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish [their] tradition.”

But Jesus does not simply refute and criticize the Pharisees, this week He also teaches the people the correct understanding of God’s will and human nature. Jesus turns the pharisaical conception of impurity upside down. What defiles a person is not what goes into a person—what they eat or drink—but the darkness that lurks within their hearts. You can’t whitewash a tomb and rid it of the corruption of death it contains inside. A pretty façade won’t fix a building that is structurally unsound.

We are a “beauty is skin deep” culture that too often judges value by appearance. But even worse is how we judge sin. Our nature is to focus on external sin rather than on internal sin—the outward actions rather the source.

We are much like the Pharisees in focusing on external sins of others rather than recognizing and repenting of the sins that come from within ourselves. We see a married man hold hands in public with a woman twenty-five years younger, not his wife, and assume the worst, but we don’t see what’s going on in our hearts when we flip the remote back to the channel we shouldn’t see. We see a woman flaunting her furs and jewelry, but we don’t see the envy and greed that surge through our heart. We see the story in the paper about the latest mass shooting, but we don’t see how being angry with someone at church is murder too.

What is inside of us is killing us. We are also those people who may look okay on the outside but are actually dying on the inside.

The old radio show The Shadow always began by asking, “Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Well, someone knows even better than the Shadow. Jesus pointed out the evil that lurks in our hearts that we may be able to hide from others. It’s not what goes into us but what is inside of us that is killing us. We are sinners, by nature, wicked and rotten to the core.

God looks into the heart, not to outward behavior. And like a spiritual MRI, Jesus diagnoses the source of our problem—the condition of our heart: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Now, if I’m not mistaken, Jesus just told you that all of these things come from your heart, and that they defile you. And I also did not hear the word “if”—if these things proceed from your heart they will defile you. No, our Lord tells us that in fact all of these things proceed from all of our hearts.

Beginning with sexual immorality, twelve kinds of evil thoughts and actions are combined in a dreadful litany of vices. The first six are in the plural form and describe behaviors; the last six are in the singular and have more to do with attitudes. These twelve vices, all of which come from within, leave no doubt to the wretched impurity of the fallen human heart. These things rage first within the heart and them come out in actions and attitudes.

Dear Christians, it is essential to our eternal welfare that we understand the seriousness of our situation. Sin, the transgression—the breaking—of God’s Law, is not limited to outward sinful acts—the evil things that we’ve done, the good things we’ve failed to do. You are fooling yourself if you think you’re doing all right simply because you haven’t killed anyone yet, never had a marital affair, committed grand theft, or perjured yourself in a court of law. All of us have sinned against God through anger, lust, covetousness, failure to help another, the list goes on and on. Jesus looks into the hearts of man and sees that nothing proceeds but sin and iniquity. This has been the case for all men since the birth of Cain and Abel.

Now, the world around us likes to put in its own two cents about the goodness or badness, if you will, of mankind. One popular notion is that man is basically good, and that it’s the evil found in society that corrupts him. If we just fix society, then people will be free to live out their basically good lives. Another idea that is popular among Christians is that man is born neutral—that young children are neither good nor sinful, and their upbringing will determine what kind of people they are to become.

Scripture, however, says something else entirely. It tells us that the desires of man’s heart are only evil continually, that through one man sin came into the world, and on account of sin, death. Scripture further declares that we are conceived and born in sin. So much for being basically good!

So, can’t we do something about it? Knowing that we have original sin, doesn’t that just mean that we need to try harder?

Well again, what does Scripture say? It says that we are born dead in our trespasses and sins, following the course of the world, living in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and mind, and were by nature children of wrath. The last time I checked, dead people can’t do much for themselves. And even if we could, it’s pretty clear that we would not want to. And even if we wanted to, Scripture also tells us that the wages of sin is death, and that one who breaks the minutest detail of law is guilty of breaking it all. So much for evening the score and making up for our own sin and guilt!

Jesus points to the condition of our hearts because He wants us to recognize our fallen nature—that we’re not sinful because we sin, but rather we sin because we’re sinful. It all begins in the heart, which is sinful and is deserving of everlasting death even before one is born and breathes air for the first time. Jesus teaches that people are not defiled by food or things entering the body from the outside, but rather by their own evil inclinations and sinful behaviors.

This teaching exposes the uselessness of our own excuse-making and self-justification. It dismisses our claims that other people and things are to blame for our shortcomings and failures. It demonstrates the futility of simply trying harder to not sin and do the right thing.

However, Jesus does not merely condemn; He also sets free. It takes something completely outside of you to wash you clean on the inside. God looked into His heart, not yours, to devise a plan for our salvation. It wasn’t anything inside you that paid for your sins—no good, pure thoughts of the heart, no outward action that would please the strictest Pharisee. It was the God of heaven, infinitely above us, completely outside of us, who came to earth and paid the price for sin: His life on the cross. Look away from yourselves; look to Jesus up there on the cross; His pure, undefiled, sinless heart broken, pierced through for our sinful ones.

And then the Holy Spirit—from outside—comes into our sinful hearts and brings the cleansing of Jesus’ death. He comes to you in the water of Baptism, which washes away your sins in a miraculous way. He speaks to you, not in a whisper from within (our sinful hearts could play all kinds of tricks with that!), but in God’s external Word—of preaching, of absolution, when you read and study the Bible—and He declares you pure, holy, and forgiven. And while nothing outside a person and coming into him can defile you, taking into yourself Jesus’ very body and blood in the Lord’s Supper does purify you. It brings forgiveness so real to you that you can taste it.

Through the means of grace—God’s Word and Sacraments—God creates faith in your hearts. And a heart of faith is a clean heart, purified of that sin within, and it receives eternal life. In Christ, you are washed clean of the sin lurking on the inside. Your heart is no longer ugly as sin, but pretty as a picture—the loving heart of Christ. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sermons, Uncategorized

You Turn Things Upside Down!

20180825_133900Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’ You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding?’” (Isaiah 29:15–16).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Like the plot of a good action thriller it goes down to the wire. At the last minute, God mercifully intervenes to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrian horde poised at the city gate. But something is wrong. The people do not see beyond the immediate threat they have just avoided. They fail to recognize the hand of the Lord or their sin and idolatry that brought them so close to utter ruin. God’s deliverance does nothing to turn them to repentance and the promises of the Messiah. And so the deliverance will only buy them a few more years until the Babylonians come and destroy Jerusalem and the temple. Now that’s judgment!

But Isaiah reveals another aspect of God’s judgment: He will give the people of Jerusalem what they want! They are to continue in their unbelief and rejection as long as they wish. They will see God’s deliverance but will not turn away from sin. They will hear the message of the Gospel but continue to resist God’s grace. God will even prevent them from hearing and seeing the truth and believing it!

The Old Testament is a history of God’s dealing with sinful humanity by grace. No human effort or thought moves God to create Adam. Or call Abraham to be the father of His people. Or bring Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Or promise a Messiah who will undo sin and overcome death. No human faithfulness makes God fulfill His promise. God does all these things for His own sake solely by grace without any merit or worthiness on anyone’s part.

Thank God! Many believe His wonderful promises and trust in His grace. But not all do! The human heart can be so perverse, so unbelieving, so rebellious. Not long after God brings the Israelites out of Egypt, they make a golden calf and worship it. The Lord threatens to consume them with His wrath, but Moses intervenes. And for the next forty years, God patiently endures their grumbling while He tests His people in the wilderness.

During the period of the judges, the people of Israel repeatedly sin against God. He disciplines His rebellious, idolatrous people, sending them difficulties to call them to their senses. They repent and return to the Lord. But the pattern persists. And the sinful cycle escalates. Things get so bad that at the end of Judges we read this sad news: “Everyone did what right in his own eyes” (21:25).

When we come to Isaiah’s day, we reach another level in the war between faith and apostasy. God’s people can no longer even be moved by His discipline. The close call with Assyria doesn’t wake them up. They refuse to listen to the prophets that God sends them. They do not return to the Lord. When they hear the truth, it does not penetrate their faithless hearts, but only confirms their unbelief.

Still, God’s promises are fulfilled. There is still a remnant who remain faithful to the Lord. They trust in Him and treasure the wonderful promises of the Messiah who will save them from sin, death, and the devil. Isaiah ministers to them, giving them hope, strength, and comfort.

A remnant remains, but the majority understand nothing of these promises. Their hearts are far from the Lord. That’s not to say they’ve left the outer trappings of the one true faith. They are very religious. They still have the temple… priests… and rituals. But these are now used for idol worship. Blinded by their sin, they believe this is pleasing to the one true God, but they have lost the true essence of God’s revelation. They do not understand His grace and the promises of the Messiah. No wonder they don’t recognize and accept Him when He comes.

This passage does not speak only of people whose hearts are not in their religion. It also speaks of those whose hearts are sincere and devout but whose beliefs are wrong and without Christ. Such people believe they are worshiping the true God when they follow rules taught by men, or doctrines hatched by demons. Many are devout and zealous in their beliefs, but they are without Christ. Such was Saul of Tarsus before his conversion on the Damascus Road. So it is with the devout adherent of Islam or the sincere Buddhist or dedicated Latter Day Saint.

Even those within the visible Church can have hearts that are far from the Lord. When they abandon the message of the cross and adopt social issues and political agendas, they begin to adhere to rules taught by men. Whenever the free and gracious gifts of God become rewards earned by human behavior, worship and religion become hollow ritual, not meaningful spiritual communion with the Lord.

Isaiah compares the sinful and rebellious human heart to a potter and his clay pot, imagery that dates back to the account of God forming Adam. For the clay to command the potter turns things upside down. How foolish for the pot to deny its maker, to challenge his authority, or to claim that its maker has no knowledge or skill. Yet sinners do deny their Maker and so challenge the knowledge and action of the Lord and Creator of all. Think about it. Every time we sin, every time we write our own religion, we do, in fact, claim to be superior to the Lord. When God says, “Do not…,” the sinful heart says, “I know better. I’ll do it anyway.” When God says, “By grace you are saved through faith,” the perverse human heart says, “I must have to do something to earn God’s favor.”

Sin turns everything upside down. The sinful heart does not want the God of the Bible—the God who promised and sent Christ. The rebellious heart resists the grace of God and wants instead a god without the cross of Christ. A god who accepts good intentions and sincere effort. A god who will not punish sin. A god “who accepts us just the way we are.” A god who ignores human depravity.

Through Isaiah, the Lord declares to such people (to people like us): “This people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment taught by men.” The Lord isn’t about to be molded by His rebellious people to fit their sinful desires. Instead, He condemns their idol worship for the false doctrine that it is.

The warning is simple, frightening, and timely: for those who do not have a proper fear of God, the Scriptures will remain a sealed book. Unbelievers cannot comprehend God’s Word. However, this doesn’t stop them from thinking they do—that they have the correct understanding and believers have it wrong. Thus, God’s Word will often be invoked to defend all sorts of false teaching and sin.

That’s the warning. Here’s the Good News: the Lord is always faithful. For along with the words of judgment, the Lord also repeats His promise of the Messiah. He declares that He will “do wonderful things.” In that day the deaf shall hear… the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.”

You hear of the Holy One in our Gospel. Jesus is making the blind see and the deaf hear. He is giving hope and joy to the poor and the meek. Wonderful things are happening! The Pharisees and the scribes are unhappy with this Messiah, though. He is turning their whole world upside down. And their present complaint is a biggie: Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before they eat!

Don’t laugh. This is a serious matter to the scribes and Pharisees. It’s not in the Bible, but they’re teaching it’s a sin to not wash your hands before you eat. Just to be clear, I do appreciate good hygiene. I’m not against the signs posted in restaurant lavatories: “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.” But what’s going on here is far more sinister.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with germs.  The hand washing they insist upon is to get rid of any uncleanness they might pick up from contact with the Gentiles!

But this is just a symptom of something even more insidious happening here. In their painstaking care of the Law, the Pharisees have falsely concluded that you’re saved by keeping the Law—most certainly including all the little rules they’ve added to it themselves. They’re teaching salvation by works!

How can this be? After all, this is not what the Bible teaches, and they are the professional biblical interpreters and teachers. But because they have no faith in the promised Messiah, they cannot rightly understand the Word. However, they are completely convinced that they’ve gotten the Word right. And if they are right, that can only mean that Jesus is wrong! Thus, they reject Jesus, all the while believing that it is the godly thing to do. They’ve turned everything upside down.

They’ve rewritten God’s plan for salvation, and now they expect the Son of God to conform to their revision. But once again, the Master Potter refuses to be molded by the clay. And He rebukes them for their unbelief. You know what happens then: the Pharisees and scribes plot to kill Jesus, eventually succeeding. If God isn’t going to approve of their religion, then it’s time to kill off God.

God gives us His Law and we have two possible reactions. The first reaction is this: We realize that we are failing miserably, and try as hard as we might, we cannot keep God’s holy Law perfectly. At this point, if we don’t hear about God’s grace, about Christ coming to keep the Law for us, we are left in despair and hopelessness. The other reaction to the Law is just as dangerous. We may look at the Law and conclude that we are doing just fine. This, I fear, is the most common among us. We are hypocrites, Pharisees at heart.

How often when you hear a preacher talk about the sins of society do you think to yourself: “Well, I least I’m not doing that!” Dear people of God, it doesn’t matter what sin we speak of, you and I are guilty of it. Jesus always pushes God’s Law to our breaking point. He sets the bar so high that no one can reach it. He does this not to push us to despair but to draw us to Him as our Savior.

It is only in seeing that we are “poor miserable sinners” who “sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and left undone” that we can see our total need for Christ—His saving work for us, His atoning death as paying the debt for our sin, His perfect life of holiness and righteousness lived for us. That is the purpose of the Law. To show you your sin and spiritual poverty. To drive you to repentance, casting yourself upon the mercy of God. So that you might behold the wonderful things God has done for you in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Wonder upon wonder, Jesus, the Holy One of Israel, has come for you. He lived a perfectly holy life and kept the Law for you. He laid down His sinless life for you on the cross and then took it up again for you.

Ascended to the Father’s right hand, He continues to be with you always in His means of grace. Through His holy Word preached and read, He speaks His grace to you. He gives you faith. He opens your ears to hear the words of His book. He opens your eyes to see His cross. In Holy Baptism, He cleanses you of every spot, stain, and blemish of sin. In Holy Communion, He feeds you with His body and blood to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul unto life everlasting.

All that you might see and hear and believe this wonderful Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.