Sermons, Uncategorized

Jesus Watches the Offering


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

Jesus watches the offering. He sees the offering made by the rich people and He watches the poor widow put in her offering. He sees who puts in a lot, and who puts in a little. He knows who has an abundance and who lives in poverty. But more than that, Jesus sees what is in their heart as they give those offerings. Jesus sees the motives for giving and the faith or lack of faith behind the giving.

That should probably give us pause: Jesus watches our offering, too.

Dear Christian friends: You all know the story, but you don’t know all the story. Our text that we’ll examine together this morning (evening) is the familiar story of the widow’s mite. We’ll look first at some of the things everyone knows about the text, then at something you may not know, and finally at one thing nobody knows. We’ll start with some things quite certain and move to some things less certain, and let’s see what God has to say also about our uncertainties.

Some things everyone knows about the story of the widow’s mite. I suspect we all know the story itself; it’s really very simple. Let’s review it again, our text for today, Mark 12:41-44:

And [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And [Jesus] called His disciples to Him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus sits down in the temple courtyard and watches people put in their offering. Offerings weren’t handled the way we do today, at a specific moment in the service. Instead, there were thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles in the courtyard of the temple. Worshipers would walk up and drop in their coins. They had no paper money, just copper or silver or gold coins. Often, people would mill around and watch—and give an appropriate reaction when a particularly shiny offering was made. As Jesus sits there that day, there are plenty of those offerings, probably duly noted by the people as they ooh and aah when they hear the clanging of many coins.

Then along comes a woman, a widow, obviously poor, with a couple of little copper coins, leptas, also called “mites” in the King James Version. These were the smallest coins in circulation—one sixty-fourth of a denarius, the common daily wage for a laborer. The widow’s offering could have been earned with just ten to twelve minutes of very ordinary work. It is a very small amount—unless it is all that you have! Jesus calls His disciples and tells them her offering is the greatest of all the offerings. Other guys gave more in raw dollars, but she has given all she has to live on. We all know the story, don’t we?

All of you probably also recognize this story teaches proportional giving. Jesus said the rich had given out of their abundance. It was a surplus, an overflow. They made a lot, and they gave a lot. But the woman gave all she had, 100 percent. The total dollars couldn’t compare, but percentage-wise, her gift was tops.

Proportional, or percentage giving is always the way God prescribes. Old Testament Israel was required to give 10 percent of their crops or whatever form of income they received. The tithe was God’s system of percentage giving. One reason God prescribed percentage giving is that it works at any income level, it grows or shrinks with the paycheck. It works for everybody.

Here in the New Testament, in our text, God still speaks about percentage giving, but He doesn’t demand a particular percentage. We can give more or less than 10 percent, right?

Right. But our offering should still reflect the way we’ve been blessed. How do our financial blessings compare with those of the widow of the text? More important, how have we been blessed spiritually compared to those Old Testament people who had to give 10 percent? They were blessed with the promise of a Savior to come someday. We are blessed with the certainty that the promise has been fulfilled. The Savior, Jesus Christ, has come. We know He died and rose from the dead for us, that He has taken away our sins, and made us His own in Holy Baptism. Could we really consider giving a lesser proportion of our income than people who only looked ahead for the promise?

The story of the widow’s mite teaches us that percentage giving is alive and well and God’s plan also for us in the New Testament. You all knew that too, didn’t you? Okay.

Now something you may not know—or may not always consider—about the story of the widow’s mite: It isn’t primarily a story about giving at all. All those rich guys putting money into the treasury—undoubtedly they were giving a hefty proportion. Ten percent was commanded; you can be sure anyone giving for show would exceed that! But someone could even give 100 percent and not be commended by the Lord. If we think our giving gets us good with God, then no percentage is good. No, the story of the widow’s mite is not primarily about giving. It’s primarily a story about faith.

Faith is recognizing what God has done for us in the past and believing what He will continue to do for us now and in the future. The widow in our text had so little of everything except faith. Yet somehow this woman believed God had done right by her and trusted that He would continue to do so in the future.

Christian giving is always a matter of faith. Do we recognize what God has done for us in the past? Do we trust He’ll be there for the future? God has given us all we have. He has given us a Savior. Do we believe He’ll continue to provide and save for the future? If we believe as the widow did, our giving will be in substantial proportion, too. Christian giving, therefore, is primarily a question of faith, isn’t it? Of trust that God will take care of us. The widow in our text trusted totally. Boy, does that come into play on the last thing we want to talk about.

One thing no one knows about the story of the widow’s mite: What happened to her after she gave? We like to think we know: surely Jesus and the disciples took her under their wing. Maybe she became part of their entourage. Unlikely. The women mentioned as following Jesus were women of means; they actually provided for Jesus. Surely Jesus didn’t walk away without helping that day, but what about future days? Did she starve? Maybe. It’s absolutely possible. We’d like to say, “No way! God would feed her!” But we don’t know that.

It’s no accident that Mark doesn’t tell us. If he did, it would ruin the story. If he did give us some earthly happy ending, we might think the point is that if we do what God wants, He’ll take care of us. If we tithe, our income will go up next year. If we pledge, God will be sure we don’t lose our jobs. If we obey God, He’ll care for us. But that is superstitious, even unscriptural. God cares for us because He loves us, not because we make a deal with Him.

Mark fully intends to leave us in uncertainty about what happened to the widow, because our Christian offering is always to be given in the face of uncertainty; it is always to be an exercise in faith. We don’t know about our jobs next year. We don’t know if the crops and their prices will be good. We don’t know we won’t face catastrophic bills. Losing your job and unexpected bills are absolutely possible. They’re always possible, because God doesn’t promise that kind of security.

What we do have is a far greater security—one that is altogether certain. Our Epistle from Hebrews reminds us, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time… to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him” (Hebrews 9:28). Here’s something that’s never uncertain. Christ is coming back for us. Heaven is one certainty every Christian can hold on to. Jesus has secured it for us. His death and resurrection has made it certain for everyone who believes. And if we matter to God that much, we can also be certain that He will care for us every day in the meantime—somehow.

This was the faith of the woman. Not that she’d have a meal tomorrow; she didn’t really know where her next meal was coming from—or if there’d be one. Not faith in the next meal, but faith that God would take care of her—His way. Maybe a well-to-do widower would walk into her life tomorrow. Maybe friends would take her in. We don’t know the whole story, and she couldn’t possibly know it. She was giving into uncertainty, wasn’t she? Maybe she would starve, but if so, it would be the culmination of what she’d really been trusting all along: provision, security that would be perfect, complete, and would never end.

As you consider your future this morning (evening), you don’t know for sure your income for the coming year; you don’t know you’ll have an income. You don’t know you’ll have a job. You don’t know what your expenses might turn out to be. But you don’t have to give in to that uncertainty. You do know you have the Lord. You do know He has earned for you eternal life, and that’s absolutely certain. And you do know He already cares for you and that He’s going to care for you. That’s certain, too.

You know, ironically, the woman of great faith in our text probably didn’t realize that the one she was trusting was sitting so near her that day watching her offering, noting her God-given faith that trusted the Lord and His provision no matter what her current circumstances.

We do know the one we trust is with us, watching our offerings as well. We know that He sympathizes with our struggle. He understands financial uncertainty; His whole ministry was spent traveling, living day to day by the good graces of others. He understands our struggles against doubt, our fear about really committing our resources to God. He was tempted just as we are—but without ever giving in! In fact, when called upon, He offered up everything He had—His whole life—on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for sins. Jesus laid down His life and entrusted Himself into the care of the Father’s hands (Luke 23:46).

Risen and ascended to the Father’s right hand, Jesus is here with you today, and you can be certain He’ll be with you in the future. In Holy Baptism, He has made you a child of God, co-heir with Him of the kingdom of heaven, and has given you His Holy Spirit as a deposit. His Word and Absolution assure you of His love and grace. Along the way, He feeds you His very body and blood, for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.

Christ’s love and sacrifice motivate and enable you to offer your whole life to Him as your daily offering of gratitude. Go in the peace of the Lord and serve Him with joy, 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.


Eschatologically Blessed, Already Now

Allerheiligeninbild by Albrecht Durer
“Allerheiligenbild” by Albrecht Durer

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

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

We observe the Feast of All Saints today. But you may rightly ask: Why? Why have such a day on the Lutheran church year calendar? Do “saints” have any significance for our faith?

Let me say this at the outset: The saints are not important for us for our faith because they might in any way be the mediator between Christ and us. And certainly, the saints are not important because they might be the recipients of our prayers and petitions, as if we were afraid to address almighty God directly. And most certainly, the saints are not important to us and to our faith because they performed so many good works that they could pass some of them on to us.

Friends! There isn’t anyone on the face of the earth who is able to over-fulfill the works our faith calls for. On the contrary, there is no saint in heaven or on earth who is not totally dependent on the mercy and undeserved grace of Christ and the forgiveness He has promised to grant to any repentant sinner. However, Christ Himself shows us what kind of help for our Christian faith the saints can provide and why it is good to remember them. We commemorate the saints:

  1. Because it frees us from relying on our own spiritual achievements.
  2. Because it encourages us to grow in faith.
  3. Because it directs our focus to the final goal.

We are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), the faithful here on earth and above in heaven, encouraging and helping us to persevere in the Christian faith. The saints are with us and they are waiting for us.

Fittingly, each of our readings for this day has an already now/not yet feel to it. Theologians describe this already now/not yet view as eschatological, a word meaning, “regarding the end times.” As Lutherans, we understand that we are already now living in the end times—the period of time from Christ’s ascension to His return on Judgment Day. Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father, reigning over heaven and earth. His kingdom has come in His life, death, and resurrection. It comes to us already now individually as God makes us His children through water and Word, a deposit on the even greater blessings to come.

In the first reading, St. John has a vision of the throne room in heaven. He sees a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, clothed in white robes and worshiping God. Drawn onward and upward by the magnificence of this hope in Christ, God’s people join in the heavenly chorus even now, as we sing “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” How incredible to be part of that blessedness!

In our Epistle, St. John reminds us that we are God’s children now, and we have even greater things ahead—what we will be has not yet appeared, when Christ appears we shall be like Him.

In the Gospel, this already now/not yet tension is reflected most obviously in the tense of the verbs, repeated in each verse: the present, “Blessed are…” and the future, “they shall…” Though we will not fully experience the glory of His kingdom until the Last Day, we nevertheless possess the blessings of the reign of heaven even now: forgiveness, Baptism into Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit for faith and obedience, the nourishment of the Eucharist, the fellowship of the redeemed. Jesus declares that we are eschatologically blessed, already now.

It is Jesus Himself who turns sinners into saints. Those thus made saints in our Gospel are not dead; rather, they gather as a large, lively group on the hillside next to the Sea of Galilee to listen to the Sermon on the Mount.

You become a saint when Christ calls you “holy.” “Holy” means something like “belonging to God,” “set apart for God.” And you become holy when Christ Himself declares: “You belong to God; you can now live in fellowship with Him forever.” Therefore, let me tell you this: Christ already declared you holy, made you a saint, in your Baptism. So all of you here this day, you are all saints. And you didn’t earn this title of honor because you have led or will from now on lead an exemplary life. You were beatified, declared to be a saint.

Just such an action was carried out by Jesus among the people gathered on the hillside at the lake. He led them into God’s kingdom—not because they were able to point to some immense spiritual achievement or because they passed a holiness test, not even the testing of their faith. Nothing of their own qualified them to be called “saints”—except this: that they came to Jesus with completely empty hands, that they had nothing to offer to God that could have impressed Him. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v 3). That’s the way Jesus makes saints.

That’s the way Jesus acted on you, and there was and is nothing that you added. You became a saint, were made holy, because in Baptism, God took you to be His child, without you adding anything to that act. And nothing will change that until the day you die. What counts at the end of your life is not the number of spiritual brownie points you accumulated through all sort of “good works.” At the end, only this will count: that you stand before the judgment seat of Christ, show Him your totally empty hands, and beg Him to fill them for you.

This is what we ought to practice in our Christian life on earth: asking Christ constantly to shower His gifts of grace and mercy on us, not to expect anything from ourselves but to expect everything from our Savior. This is what the saints who have gone before us can teach us.

In various old churches in Germany, you can still find the old Lutheran confessionals. On these confessionals, you can see interesting depictions of the saints. You see Peter and the rooster, David after his adultery with Bathsheba, the prodigal son. How encouraging this must have been for those coming to confession and absolution! Look at these saints of old—they were no better than you. The only thing that counts is God’s forgiveness in Christ, so richly promised to all penitent believers. You do not have to rely on your own meager spiritual achievements; in fact, you should not. We learn that from the examples of Peter, David, and all the saints of old.

Did you notice it in our Gospel? The people whom Jesus receives into the kingdom of heaven, the ones whom Jesus declares to be saints, are pretty much the opposite of what most people in our society aspire to. Poverty is not our goal; we seek possessions. Instead of suffering, we would rather have fun. Forget meekness! Use your elbows to shove others out of your way. Instead of mercy, we choose cleverness. And we do not want to sacrifice our lives, but strive to keep them at any price.

But there is one who has done all these things—Christ Jesus! And He has done them for you, in your place. Though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich. The eternal Son of God made Himself nothing, taking the form a servant, and being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient even to the point of death. Jesus, the Son of God is the Prince of Peace. He literally hungered and thirsted for righteousness’ sake, resisting temptation in the wilderness and suffering on the cross. He was mocked and scorned, yet opened not His mouth. Those who trust in Jesus are blessed by being God’s sons and daughters, heirs and co-heirs with Christ of His heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that’s blessings we have even now in part, but will fully enjoy in the new heaven and new earth.

When Christ invites people into His kingdom, He puts His imprint on them, empowers them to live lives that from then on follow His footsteps. The examples of the saints gone before encourage us to lead the different life, not do what “everybody else” thinks proper. That’s why we commemorate the saints. They give us encouraging examples of the counter-cultural Christian life of faith and hope.

All sorts of exemplary models of sainthood could be mentioned at this point, both of the past and of the present. Let me just mention a few examples of sainthood in daily life you might recognize. There’s St. Dorothy, St. Walt, St. Gwen, St. Doris, St. Pat, St. Sarah, St. Dorothy, St. Paul, St. Dorothy, St. Donald. These are the members of the congregations in our parish who have passed away since All Saints Sunday last year.

Like all other saints, none of them earned their way to heaven by their deeds of love or the strength of their faith. They received grace and thus can be an encouragement to our faith. They were baptized into the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. They were clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Fed with Christ’s very body and blood. Declared forgiven and holy through God’s Word. Through these means of grace, they were blessed.

Christ Jesus makes some amazing promises to those He calls “blessed”—promises that go far beyond anything fulfilled in our lifetime. Jesus promises nothing less than heaven itself to “the poor in spirit… those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” And He promises never-ending consolation to those who mourn and are reviled for His sake. Indeed, they who are pure in heart shall see God. Christ Jesus thus directs our eyes to that goal at which so many before us have arrived. He fulfilled the promises He had made in the Sermon on the Mount. They now stand in God’s presence. They see what they believed, participate in heaven’s unending life, are forever consoled, and sing unceasing praises to God’s holy name.

What encouragement to us, my fellow Christians, to stick to it, to persevere in the faith, never give up or fall away, always focusing on the goal to be achieved. God has led the saints of old in their faith; in Baptism, He promised to do the same for you.

You do not walk toward the goal by yourselves, alone. You are surrounded by the multitude of saints, both those visible sharing with you the church pew this day and those who have gone before to their final completion in Christ. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus called out to all who were persecuted because of Him. “Rejoice and be glad,” He calls out to all of us. You’ve not taken the wrong road, even though it may at times look like that. You are on the right road to the right goal, to the kingdom of heaven, where they’re waiting for you already: David, Peter, your own loved ones who have died in the faith, and innumerable others as well. Isn’t that a terrific reason to “rejoice and be glad”?

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve Him with joy, you saints of God! You are blessed. You are holy. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. 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.

This sermon is an adaptation of sermon by Wilhelm Torgerson, published in Concordia Pulpit Resources, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House), Volume 22, Part 4, Series B, p. 40-42.

Sermons, Uncategorized

The One Truth in a World of Many “Truths”

comforting-lie-cartoonClick here to listen to this sermon.So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).

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

At the dawn of the Reformation, the church in Germany was led by Joachim, an elector from Brandenburg, and his brother, Albert, who was bishop of Halberstadt and archbishop of both Magdeburg and Mainz. To get these jobs, these men contributed millions of dollars to the church in Rome. But because neither brother had this much money, they borrowed it from a family of bankers. Loans must be paid back, of course, and Pope Leo allowed Albert to raise money to pay this loan by selling indulgences. Half of the money they received from selling indulgences went to pay their debt to the bankers, and the rest went to Rome to help pay for the building of the Basilica of St. Peter.

With Pope Leo’s approval, Albert chose a monk named John Tetzel to sell the indulgences to the German people. This would give Albert the money he needed to repay his large debts. It would give the pope the money he needed to build his magnificent church in Rome. And in the mind of the people, it would give them the indulgences they thought they needed to buy forgiveness. It seemed like the perfect plan… except for one thing: it was not grounded in the truth!

Martin Luther preached against indulgences. Forgiveness cannot be bought or sold. The only way to avoid hell and go to heaven is through Christ, not through people’s own efforts, and certainly not through buying a piece of paper. Yet the selling of indulgences went on. Hoping to shine the light of truth on this unscriptural practice, Luther wrote a list of objections, called the Ninety-five Theses, and he posted it on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Little did people realize that these hammer blows on the door of the Castle Church would change Western Christianity as well as the course of history.

And we may rightly ask this Reformation Day: How could one man do it? Short answer: he couldn’t, and he didn’t. Looking at all the subsequent events of what we have come to call the Reformation of the Church, it’s not about Martin Luther. It’s not about the Ninety-five Theses. Rather, the Reformation is all about the one truth in Christ instead of the many “truths” around us.

When Luther issued his Ninety-five Theses to the Church—he was challenging Christians—no, not just the high and the mighty, like the pope and the bishops and the abbotts and the prelates—He was challenging all Christians to come back to the source of faith and hope: the Word of God, the Bible.

Admittedly, at the time, the Church was “doing fine”—if your standard is possessions, activity, people involvement, and influence. If you were to have considered the Collegiate Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, better known as the Castle Church, everyone would have been, perhaps was, full of admiration. A college of seven priests, subject to no local bishop but only to the pope in Rome, drew thousands of visitors a year. They conducted no less than nine thousand masses a year—you heard me right: nine thousand. That provided a sizable income for the clergy. But even more so, people received assurance for the quicker release from purgatory both for themselves and for their family members. A good deal all around, and of great economic benefit to the city. And here came this monk and said… Well, what did he say?

Father Luther did not say: Don’t listen to the Church; they don’t really have anything to say anyway. That would be the general Protestant idea: anybody can believe anything he wants to. Dr. Luther would be horrified. No, Luther said, preached, and wrote, “Retro ad fontes” (“Let’s get back to the source”). And the source of faith and therefore of the Church is the Word of God.

Jesus said: “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples” (v 31). And how did His listeners respond? “We are offspring of Abraham, they declared” (v 33). In other words, “We have no need to rely on the words of anyone else; we are proud of being descendants of this great prophet.” And at Luther’s time, the response of Church leaders was simply this: “You keep out of this, Luther; we know best.” And today? “I’ve been Lutheran all my life. I know how these things are supposed to work,” some would say.

That’s all good and fine. But dare I ask you about your faith in Christ or your faithfulness to God’s Word? Because that is what the Reformation events were all about. Not about a mythical German hero named Luther, but about God’s grace that helped us recover the hidden, the falsified, and glossed-over Word of God. And here (show the Bible) you have it. All of God’s mercy, packed in words, and the whole Christ, crucified and risen for you, speaking to you His full message of repentance and salvation in your own language.

But look around this day. There will be Reformation Day services elsewhere. There will be people who might claim the name “Lutheran,” with the same translated Bible for daily use and preaching in the Church, and yet their proclamation differs so much from ours that you might begin to wonder what “Lutheran” means these days. There seem to be—even in the Church—so many different views, opinions, philosophies, and convictions that others begin to ask: What does the Christian Church stand for? What does it mean to be Lutheran?

“If you abide in”—that is, listen to, stick to, remain with, hang on to—“My Word, you are truly My disciples,” says Jesus. The best medicine prescribed by the doctor will be of no use to you if you don’t take it! Abide in His Word.

And how do you “abide”? It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Christian education, catechism instruction, and regular worship for the survival of each Lutheran in his Christian faith.

It is nothing but life threatening, a threat to your spiritual survival, to disregard the Word of God or to separate from it. And churches and preachers who do that put the faith of their listeners in jeopardy. In the end, they must give an account for every soul lost. With the content of the Bible firm and clear, preachers have no right—and certainly the Church has no authority whatsoever—to “reinterpret” the proclamation contrary to the Bible so that it might better “fit” modern views.

Obviously, such an insistence on the one scriptural truth will not be appreciated everywhere by everyone, even in the realm of Christendom. There will be debate, disagreement, and contention. But then, was it that different at Jesus’ time? In our text and the verses immediately after, Jesus says to those who had believed in Him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin… I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill Me because My Word finds no place in you… You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning” (vv 34, 37, 44).

No sweet little Jesus here. Jesus minced no words when he spoke with those who relied on themselves, prided themselves in their condition, and rejected Him and His Word. Strong words. And let me add: Sermons that cover up all sorts of spiritual mess, that don’t uncover sin, that do not show us our fundamental need for spiritual healing and restoration, such sermons ought to go directly from the computer to the trash can, never coming near a pulpit.

Perhaps what I’ve said so far was all a bit too much for you. Perhaps you had hoped today to hear more praises of Martin Luther, hear other great men and women of the Reformation. Well, this is not a course in history. This service is not about the past. Our worship service is always a message for the here and now—and its content—Christ’s Holy Word and the blessed Sacrament of the Altar—strengthens us for the road to the Christian’s final goal.

“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (v 32). That truth we learned from men like Dr. Luther. And from those following him, including the teachers and preachers in our Church who expound the truth of Christ. And that truth says: You cannot free yourself from what you are. “The sinner,” says Jesus, “is a slave, bound, tied up, loaded down.” But Christ Jesus, God’s truth, is the truth that frees us.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), Jesus said. What a claim! And what a promise! For Christians, truth is not a theory nor a philosophy nor ideology. The truth embraced by Christians and expounded by the Church is incarnational. It centers in a person as God’s final and saving promise to each of us. The promise is nothing less than true life, life in eternity, life constant and joyous in God’s presence.

What do you have to do to realize that promise in your own life? Absolutely nothing! It’s already been done for you. In our text we hear: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36). And the Son has set you free! By Jesus’ death on the cross for all your sins, you are free! Indeed!

So this day, we are gathered not to celebrate a man or a movement—though it is certainly fitting to thank the Lord of the Church for His servant Martin Luther. We do not put out a list of who does what in order to reach the Christian’s goal—even though there are Christian communities that do just that. This day’s worship bids us to praise and thank Christ our Redeemer for giving us all for nothing, leading us from a world of “truths” to the one Truth, for taking us from captivity to self into the glorious spiritual freedom of the children and heirs of God.

Without any merit on our part, we again hear Christ declaring us free and loose from sin through the words of absolution spoken here. We listen to the Gospel of eternal liberty worked for each of us by the sacrificial death of Jesus; and—awesome as it is!—we witness the power of the Savior’s words, making of ordinary bread and wine the bearers of nothing less than the body and blood of our holy Lord. Out of these simple earthly elements, the creative Word of God makes “a medicine of immortality” for our lifelong walk to the gates of paradise.

Now why would anyone want to miss that?

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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

A Remnant Chosen by Grace: Devotion for Pipestone Zone LWML Rally

One of the quilts made for Pipestone County Hospice.

Click here to listen to this sermon.

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

St. Paul writes in Romans 11:1-5: “I ask, then, has God rejected His people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have demolished Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.’ But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”

“A remnant chosen by grace.” Whenever I hear the word “remnant” a slight shiver still goes up the back of my neck, though it’s been over fifty years. With its wonderful assortment of candy and toys, the Ben Franklin store in Flandreau was usually a great place for a six-year-old boy. But not on the days when my mom was getting ready for a new sewing project. For a young boy who would rather be outside with his Dad doing chores, there are few things worse than standing in the fabric department, quietly waiting for your mother as she shops for material.

The first place to which Mom always would head was the remnant table. Though I’m sure the whole ordeal scarred me for life, and I’ve managed to blot out most of the details from my mind, the experience did provide some important life lessons. Though the dictionary definition of remnant is “the small remaining quantity of something,” I quickly learned that remnant actually means “good deal.” Following patterns that fit children from the ages of 4 to 6, my frugal stay-at-home Mom could find enough fabric to make several shirts and dresses for very little money. I’ve since applied the same strategy when looking for smaller sections of carpeting or linoleum or scraps of wood.

Perhaps one of the most common uses of fabric remnants today is for quilting. I know many of your societies and/or congregations have quilting groups. A group that meets here at Our Saviour’s makes quilts for the Pipestone County Hospice House, using donated materials. What is not big enough to make an article of clothing can be pieced together with squares of other remnants and make a beautiful, warm, comforting quilt.

A stay-at-home mom or quilter can do a lot with a remnant… but God can do so much more. Time and time again, throughout history, God, with a remnant, chosen by grace, builds His Church.

From Paul’s description in the verses prior to our text it is obvious that Israel as a nation is in serious trouble for their repeated rejection and apostasy. Through Moses, the Lord had declared: “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nations I will make you angry.” Through Isaiah that Lord declared: “I have been found by those who did not seek Me; I have shown Myself to those who did ask for Me. But of Israel, He said: All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:18-21).

Given all that, should Paul give up on them? Or a more pertinent question: Has God given up on them?

Paul answers his own question with a resounding no, first offering himself and his apostleship as an example of God’s ability to work His saving will under difficult circumstances; and then, going back to the situation at the time of Elijah (1 Kings 19).

Despite Elijah’s God-given success against the prophets of Baal, Israel as a nation, did not rally behind him. Instead, they aided and abetted the enemy. Fearing for his life and feeling more than a little sorry for himself, Elijah hid in a desert cave, crying out, “Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have demolished Your altars, and I alone am left and they seek my life” (Romans 11:3).

Are we ever tempted to think or talk like Elijah? This world—our very nation—is in severe moral decline. Perversion of every kind is rampant—some even given a stamp of approval by the government. There is a low regard for the sanctity of human life. The family, a central piece of God’s design for an ordered society, is broken.

And the Church doesn’t seem to be faring much better. Many religious leaders feel that Scripture has very little to say to today’s world. Others are shifting with the winds of cultural change to stay relevant, and too many who know better are afraid to speak out.

We look at our congregations and they seem to be shrinking and growing older. Funerals outnumber baptisms. Regular attendance, once thought of as weekly, is now defined as twice a month, or maybe even one a month. Our communities don’t have near as many young families as they once did. And when new families do join, it doesn’t seem to take long for them to grow slack in worship attendance as the busyness of the world overwhelms them.

Are you feeling like a modern-day Elijah? Alone in your beliefs. Unpopular with society. Therein lies the danger. This text isn’t addressing the blatant unbelief of the “world,” but the condition of our own trust in the Lord. Self-pity and frustration opens us up to another set of temptations. We may begin to harbor a “judgmental mentality” which sees the wrongs all around and wishes God would “do something” about it. But what about me and my sin and my need to repent?

At the same time, we may be tempted to lose confidence in God’s Word. We may be led to throw up to our hands and shout: “Does God really know what He’s doing? Does God really care about me?” And then… to run away and hide.

But God does not leave us alone for long. He comes to us; He speaks to us, though not in the way we would expect. Not with spectacular displays, but in the quietness of His grace.

God did not reveal His presence to Elijah in the mighty wind, or the earthquake or the fire. Why not? Because the Lord was waking Elijah up from doubt and despair to a recognition of His control and His grace. The Lord’s truth was this: judgment, law, and wonders don’t convert or win back hearts. Patience, peace, and grace, do. Elijah, take Me at My Word!

What was the message of the whisper? The text doesn’t tell us explicitly, but the quietness caught Elijah’s attention. The Lord was telling him not to lose confidence in God’s control. Saving souls is the Lord’s main interest, and the message of grace is His main tool. The solution to even the toughest of life’s problems is found in the consistent application the Word of God—just a whisper, not a show of force.

St. John calls Jesus “the Word”—the one who communicated the will and love of God to sinners. Jesus was clear—He preached, “Repent.” He also announced, “Peace.” The Gospel works quietly—we won’t “wow” anybody into belief. We won’t argue anyone into the kingdom of God. Only the message of forgiveness of sin through Christ converts. Wake up. Take heart.

Was Elijah “the only one left”? Not at all! God revealed that He had preserved 7,000 men who had not bowed to idols.

Reviewing this account in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul makes this application his day (and I think, by extension, to our day as well): “So too, at the present time there is a remnant chose by grace.” Such comfort and assurance speaks directly to our fears and anxieties. We are not alone. God promises to preserve His faithful believers in every difficulty wherever they are.

You are a remnant chosen by God’s grace. Purchased not with silver or gold, but with the holy precious blood of Jesus Christ. I can’t wait to see the beautiful ways He has in mind to work in you and through you. Go in the grace of the Lord and serve Him with joy. 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

Sermon for the Funeral of Donald Long

Donald LongClick here to listen to this sermon.

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

Near the end of his life St. Paul wrote at least two letters to one of his understudies—a man named Timothy. The second is a farewell letter in which the apostle warns the young pastor of false teachers and exhorts his charge to carry on his preaching of the Gospel even as he has begun. In the last section, chapter 4, verses 6-18, Paul begs Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, for he knows his time on earth is short. This will be the basis for my sermon this afternoon:

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing.

“Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:6–18).

There he was: an old man whose life’s journeys were now drawing to a close. His travels were now measured in terms of feet and yards, as opposed to the miles that he had once been able to journey. The years had taken their toll and he was tired clear down to his bones. Indeed, his movements were restricted by his physical condition. In fact, he knew that the end of his life was at hand and he looked forward to the time when the Lord would call him home to the glory that awaited him. His desire was to depart and to be with Christ which would be far better.

At this point in his life, his needs were few and they were very simple. In his present condition, only the basics of physical and spiritual life were important to him. One of his blessings was to have the medical care that was required. Luxuries, accumulation of material possessions, prestige, and past accomplishment were unimportant at this stage of his life.

His restrictions in movement also came from his surroundings. He could only move about when others allowed it. He was not free to go wherever he wanted, in fact, he was confined. Indeed, when he wrote to Timothy, Paul was a prisoner in Rome awaiting his execution for being a Christian.

As we think about what Paul’s needs were, we can readily see that Don’s were similar. In his letter, the apostle included the request that Timothy bring his cloak. The combination of age, the winter, and the chill of his dungeon left Paul desiring to be kept warm. So also with Don. The man who had always been so active, pursuing his interests collecting coins and guns, hunting and fishing, flying and bird watching—the man who just two summers ago bicycled over 400 miles on the paths around Pipestone was confined—first indoors because of health issues, then toward the last, imprisoned in his own mind. There was the need for the immediate physical necessities—warmth, food, shelter, clothing, and medical care.

But there was also the self-recognition that he needed spiritual care as well. One of the marks of faith is to recognize the need to take care of one’s soul. Men like Paul and Don confessed their sin and looked to God for forgiveness and salvation and eternal life. Whenever they were able, they worshiped their Lord. They were not like those who were once members of the church, but who, like the man named Demas, “was in love with this present world,” and who deserted the faith and had no place for God any longer. No indeed, they acknowledged that they were sinful in thought, word, and deed. They knew that Christ had died for their sins, taking the penalty of their guilt upon Himself on the cross.

Their hope was in the Lord Jesus who rose again from the dead to ensure victory over death; and that they had if only because of God’s grace. Christ was their confession of faith, the only One in whom there is hope for life in the face of death—the only one each of us will face. For each one of us will come to the end of this life here on earth.

Paul knew that his death would come at any moment at the hands of the Romans. Don did not know when the good and gracious will of the Lord would be done—when the Almighty would call him into eternal glory. But both were ready. Both could say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Are you ready? Could you say the same thing? Just as surely as the mortal remains of Don are before us today, so also will it be for each of us here, unless the Lord should return first. When will your end come—will it be today on the way home, suddenly and unexpected, or will you live to be 94 years old like Don did?

Perhaps the most important question is “Will you be ready?” What are you going to do with this Jesus? For those of you who have neglected your spiritual welfare or that of your family, let both the words of Paul and the reality of Don’s passing demonstrate your need for a faithful relationship with the Lord.

Paul stated the truth that those who have no such trust in and worship of the Lord will not partake in the joys and blessings of heaven, but that those who do fear, love, and trust in God can have the greatest confidence when he wrote: “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing.”

That same hope was Don’s and it can be yours, too, for the sake of Christ. We are always in the shadow of death in this sinful world, and we don’t know how much time we have left here. But we can say with confidence, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.” No matter what lies ahead, you always have more life to look forward to—eternal life.

Remember that, and remember that it is all for the sake of Christ. See, you might feel very certain of your salvation now, but uncertainty becomes the devil’s haunting weapon of terror when death draws near.

For now, you continue to fight; and it’s a good fight because you’re a child of God, because the Holy Spirit sanctifies your life for the sake of Jesus. But it’s a fight all the same, as the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh work hard to make you feel miserable for being a Christian. For now you run the race, and it’s a good race, too. Your pace might be faster or slower, but the finish line means eternity with the Lord, not the end. Keep your eyes on the prize—Christ and His crown of righteousness. Keep in the means of grace—God’s Word and Sacrament.

When Paul was no longer able to go about freely and be with the congregation for worship, his desire was still to have the Word of God brought to him. He asked Timothy to bring the books and the parchments to him—to have the Word of God brought to him in his prison cell.

When Don was no longer able to come to church, his desire was to have the Word of the Lord brought to him. From the monthly times when he received the Lord’s Supper and heard Bible readings to the times groups would sing to him and other residents of the nursing home, he was kept close to his Lord.

I might add at this point that all of us, but especially you children, need to take a lesson from Don with respect to memorizing the Bible passages, hymn verses, and the liturgy. When his eyes became such that he could no longer read and when no one was there to read to him, he had the Scriptures because he knew many verses from memory.

Paul wrote that he wanted Timothy and Mark to come to be with him. He needed to have people around him. The same was true with Don. All of the visits by family, friends, and members of the congregation were greatly appreciated. Even when Don was no longer able to speak, he would still smile and hold on tight to your hand as you said good-bye.

Therefore, I am confident that his parting words for you who have come here to remember his life and to pay your last respects, he would say: “Thank you for coming today.” And for those of you who are Christians and who will see Him in heaven one day, he would probably say something like this: “God be with you until we meet again.” Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.

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

The Unremembered Days of a Satisfied Life

Farm Sale
Photo credit Suzanne Jaton

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity… [But] everyone to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart” (Ecclesiastes 5:10, 19-20).

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

The day of my Dad’s farm auction, his landlady also sold the land he had been renting from her family for over 35 years. When my Dad asked her if she was happy with price the land brought, she said it had brought more money than she would have ever hoped for. She only had one regret about selling the farm that had been in her family for three generations: “I just wish you could’ve gotten some of the benefit,” she told my Dad. “That’s okay,” he replied. “I’m very satisfied with the life we’ve had here. I’ve been able to do what I love for a long time. And it was a good place to raise three great kids. I wouldn’t trade any of that.”

I had often noticed how content my Dad is, but never more than that day. He taught me that a satisfied life comes from having your priorities straight, in remembering what is truly important, and being thankful for what you do have. He finds joy and satisfaction in the simple things of life: his work, his family.

So, where do you find joy? Where do you find satisfaction?

Is satisfaction found in earthly treasures that are seen? In money or wealth? J.D. Rockefeller was once asked, “How much money does it take to satisfy a person? The billionaire snapped back, “Always a little more!” Ecclesiastes says, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money” (v 10). Those who love money never have enough.

How about in our search for peace? There are exceptions to this (and we can all think of a few people), but most of us do not want a life of conflict. We would rather have a life that is peaceful and serene. We want to be at peace with ourselves and others. Can you find satisfaction in a life free of conflict?

Our culture holds up material success as the key to peace—if you have enough of the things of this world, you will insulate yourself from external and internal conflict. But a materialistic culture proves itself wrong.

Money does not buy peace with others—in fact, it often increases conflict. Ecclesiastes tells us, “When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?” (v. 11). The more one acquires, the more hangers-on there are to consume the goods. An elderly woman once won the lottery and went from a modest income to being a millionaire. She commented on how many long-lost relatives she had rediscovered since winning the money. So many, in fact, that she moved and shut off her phone service just to have some peace from others.

Nor can money buy internal peace. A man might become so wealthy that he has more riches than he could ever use; all he can do is “feast his eyes on them” or sit in the vault and count them all day like Scrooge McDuck. For all his wealth, such a man isn’t much better off than a poor man who also feasts his eyes on riches he can’t use.

Still another person might have enough money to be a man of leisure, but for one reason or another is never able to enjoy his leisure. When earthly possessions are the most important part of a person’s life, they can quickly take over one’s mind and bring restlessness and worry and sleepless nights. Ecclesiastes warns us, “The full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep” (v 12b). In contrast, is the godly laborer whose sleep is sweet. Although spoiled by the fall into sin, work is still a blessing. Productive work is one of the most satisfying activities of life.

All the riches of this world cannot buy external or internal peace. “Vanity, a grievous evil,” says Ecclesiastes. Not only can striving for riches bring no real satisfaction, once a person has them they bring all kinds of new concerns. In his greed, a man might hoard his wealth. He becomes so obsessed with it that he becomes a slave to it. And despite his strictest vigilance, there is no guarantee that he won’t lose it through some calamity anyway.

Is satisfaction found in our search for eternity?

We have all seen buildings and monuments that bear the name of the wealthy person who gave the money to erect the building. The thing about these structures is that they do not last forever. They will crumble and fall and, on the Last Day, be destroyed with all the earth. So much for making a lasting name for oneself. So much for money buying anything eternal! “Vanity,” says Ecclesiastes.

What about leaving a legacy of wealth for a person’s descendants. Ecclesiastes reminds us that he has seen where “riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but has nothing in his hand” (v 14). Look at Europe. On the continent, there are descendants of once wealthy nobility who today possess grand titles but whose family fortunes have been lost for generations. All this is “vanity,” says Ecclesiastes.

Nor, as the expression has it, can “you take it with you when you go.” Even if a man should become rich and manage to maintain his wealth for a lifetime, there eventually comes a time when he must leave it behind. It is said that when Alexander the Great lay on his deathbed, he commanded that contrary to the usual custom his hands not be wrapped. He wanted everyone to see his empty hands as he was carried to his grave. And so in death, the great conqueror and king of nations was on equal terms with the poorest beggar.

When Job lost all his wealth, he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). Ecclesiastes puts it, “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (v. 15). Notice that in the Ecclesiastes passage, Solomon does not add Job’s words of trust in the Lord. The man living under the sun without God has no such comfort. All the riches of this world cannot buy eternity. “Vanity,” says Ecclesiastes.

So what is at the root of all this “vanity” of earthly possessions? Remember the words of our text, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income, this also is vanity” (v 10). There is that key word, “love”—that is not “love” as mere affection or emotion, but as devotion that reflects God’s love for us in the fear, love, and trust we are to bear to Him.

One of the most misquoted verses of Scripture is 1 Timothy 6:10, which is wrongly cited as “money is the root of all evil.” In fact, Paul wrote that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” And so it is. Whatever one trusts in and loves so much that it is the most important thing in his or her life has become that person’s god. Remember the catechism on the First Commandment. “You shall have no other gods.” What does this mean? “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” This is the heart of the problem in a search for satisfaction in life. How you answer the question: “Who or what is your god?” makes all the difference in whether life even has meaning or if you will ever be satisfied.

Well, if satisfaction is not found in treasures that are seen, can it be found in treasures that are not seen?

In the final verses of our text, Solomon paints a much happier scene than in the previous verses. He shows us a household where godliness and contentment reign in place of greed and discontent. He portrays a child of God, a believer. Although labor remains “toil” for this person, he is able to find satisfaction in it. God enable him to enjoy his possessions and enjoy his toil. This worker accepts his lot in life—his particular talents, opportunities, challenges, and possessions. His work is not a frenzied attempt to pile up riches. He works because it is the lot God has given him in life. In the words of St. Paul, we are to do “all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). We try to make the best possible use of our lives as ways of saying thanks to God for the gift of life and for His many others blessings.

True peace is, in fact, meaningful. No, it is not found in the love of money or the quest for possessions. But earthly possessions are not in and of themselves evil. Ecclesiastes say, “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God” (v 19).

All that we have is a gift from God. To know this is to understand that all good things are gifts to be enjoyed. After all, we confess, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” and in so confessing we acknowledge God’s creation is good. It was created to give us satisfaction, to provide all that we need to support this body and life.

Finally, the godly man “will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart” (Ecclesiastes 5:20). He isn’t filled with worry but with gladness. A cheerful heart is a gift of God. It allows life’s most difficult experiences to pale in comparison with the inexpressible love the Lord has first demonstrated to us by grace alone

Jesus says: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:25, 33).

Where does one find gladness of heart and the kingdom of God and His righteousness? They come only from listening to God’s Word. The Bible alone tells us of God’s love in Christ the Savior—promised in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And St. Paul reminds us, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).

“Let us [therefore] run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ” (Romans 8:16). To have Christ is to possess the highest wisdom and most priceless treasure. Without Him nothing satisfies. All is vanity. With Him, your life will be truly satisfying regardless of your circumstances for you have the treasures that last through eternity—grace, forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. Indeed, 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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

How Good Is Good Enough?

Click here to listen to this sermon.

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

And as [Jesus] was setting out on His journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:17-18).

This interaction between Jesus and the man reminds me of a line from The Princess Bride. Throughout the movie, the evil Vizzini constantly states that things are “Inconceivable!” Eventually, an exasperated Inigo Montoya looks at him and says: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

There are several words the man in our Gospel seems to misunderstand. The first is “good.” “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” In essence, “You keep using that word, ‘good.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.” The man has a faulty understanding of what it means to be good.

It is this misunderstanding Jesus seeks to correct first. “Why do you call Me good?” He asks. “No one is good except God alone.” Jesus is not denying His divinity but wants the man to examine his own speech and motives. If this is empty flattery, it is worthless. If the man wishes to call Jesus truly good, then he will be speaking of His divinity. And that would have implications for a far different conversation if the man realizes and believes he is talking with the Son of God.

The man’s faulty understanding of good is closely related to his own understanding of himself. In Matthew’s account, he not only addresses Jesus as “good,” but asks what “good deed” he must do to inherit eternal life. He is thinking too highly of himself and what he can do and not nearly highly enough about God and what He has done, is doing, and will do on behalf of man and His creation.

Jesus changes the focus from the man’s works to who God is. The challenge for the man is to stop counting his own good works and to see the enormous demands a perfect God can and does make. Then his hope will go from Law to Gospel, from His deeds to the saving action of God in Christ.

The second word the man misunderstands is “inherit.” “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks, using the correct theological terminology that connects salvation to an inheritance in God’s kingdom. But the word does not mean what he thinks it means. And so, it is a flawed question. After all, what do you do to inherit anything? It is something that is done to you. Someone out of the love and graciousness of his heart, makes you an heir and bequests what is his to you upon his death. An inheritance is not given based upon merit. There is nothing that can be done to earn birth (or adoption) into a family which provides the inheritance.

His question tells us that this man assumes he can work his way into heaven by the things he does. What he is asking Jesus is this: “How much more of God’s Law do I have to keep in order to earn my way to eternal life? What good deeds do I have to do? Am I good enough?”

Although the man is sincere, he is far from faith. He doesn’t want to Jesus to save him from sin, but to approve of who he is and the good he has done.

Since the man asks a question about keeping the commandments, Jesus gives him an answer about keeping the commandments meant emphasize what it really means to be good. The commandments are a natural complement to the perfect goodness of God. God’s perfection is reflected in His commandments. Jesus says to the man who would be “good”: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother’” (Mark 10:19).

But this preaching of the Law only leaves the smug man in his sin: “Teacher (notice how he is no longer calling Jesus good), “all these I have kept from my youth.” The verb “kept,” phulasso, occurs only here in Mark. It is the careful watching of a shepherd over his sheep (Luke 2:8), the guarding of a strong man over his goods (Luke 11:21), and the fierce preserving of His own by Jesus (John 17:12). The man has not merely observed the commandments but claims that he has zealously protected them. He says he has kept the commandments since his youth. I do not think “kept” means what he thinks it means.

Ironically, while he has, in his own estimation, such a perfect record, yet he is driven to find greater security by asking what else he has to do to earn his salvation. Salvation by works drives one either to empty vanity or desperate searching. The man in our text embodies both at once. If you seek to be saved by being good, you never really know if you’re being good enough.

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

Only Mark tells us Jesus “loved him.” Jesus does not speak harshly or out of anger, but compassionately, winsomely. He seeks to strip away the man’s self-deception about having kept the Law while He also opens the door to a true relationship with Himself and eternal life. Though Jesus knows the man’s coming rejection, He truly loves him and invites him to follow Him.

Instead of showing the many occasions when the man has broken the commandments, Jesus offers him a new path. Just as a new path has been prepared for Jesus, so Jesus offers this man a new way through one step. Charity doesn’t earn eternal life, but Jesus is talking this man’s language, speaking to his heart. Will he “keep” the commandments or his fortune? Giving away all he has will be a true test of faith, faith which alone saves.

“Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). Certainly, this is one of the most ironic verses in the Bible. The man has riches and, in his opinion, a faultless moral life. And yet, since he cannot part with his wealth or admit his failings, he leaves sorrowful. The word “disheartened,” stugnadzo, occurs only here and Matthew 16:3 where it describes the stormy sky. The man’s hopeful beginning darkens severely. How unnecessary is this man’s sorrow! For the love of him and the whole world, the Son of God is about to give up all things, even His life, and bear the sorrow that now crosses this man’s face.

The rich man walks away. And Jesus lets him go. He loves the man, but in love He will not force the man to be repentant.

Jesus will, however, go to the cross and die for the sins of the rich man. If, later on, the man repents of his sin, the benefits of the cross will be there for him. Just as it is for every man, woman, and child who turns from his or her own self-righteousness, works, or merits, and instead trusts in Jesus’ blood and righteousness for forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Those who hear God’s Law and see their sin, who hear the Gospel and see their Savior.

So…what about you? What did you hear today in this text? Did you use this story as a spiritual mirror to examine yourself? To look in your heart for your idols? If so, did those words leave you disheartened? Will you go away sorrowful? Or will you repent of your sins and self-righteousness and depart in peace?

Unfortunately, many people feel this Bible story does not apply to them. But if you don’t think the Law applies to you, you’re misunderstanding Jesus’ words. We all have our idols. We all have things we fear, love, and trust in instead of our Savior—even if it looks to the outside world like we’ve got it all together. We all have a tendency toward self-righteousness.

The man’s outward life was most likely impressive. Yours may be also. But Jesus is not interested in how the man presents his own self-righteousness. Jesus exposes this man’s true inner self by asking him to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor. This is more than the rich man can bear. “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful…”

It’s too bad that this is the way the story ended. This is how the rich man should have begun—sorrowful. Sorrowful for his sins. Kneeling in repentance, rather than as a matter of protocol. Following Jesus, trusting in Jesus’ mercy and love for eternal life, rather smug in his self-righteousness, or burdened with the guilt of unforgiven sin that still remains in his otherwise very respectable life.

The next time you kneel down in prayer, think of the rich man who knelt before Jesus. Remember that Jesus sees you both on the outside and on the inside. Instead of saying of God’s Commandments like the rich man, “All these I have kept from my youth,” pray something like this instead: “Heavenly Father, empty me of anything that would stand between You and me, including my self-centered goals and my self-centered religion. Empty me of all sinful attempts to establish relationships with others that benefit primarily myself and my goals. By Your spiritual medicine—the Word of your Law and Gospel—heal me from the deadly disease of self-righteousness. Through Your gift of repentance, take away my self-righteousness and replace these filthy self-righteous rags with Your true and perfect righteousness…”

Or you may kneel before your pastor for private confession and absolution. Say something like this: “Pastor, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will… I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those who I have hurt, and those who I have failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin.”

If you wish to confess specific sins, continue by saying: “What troubles me particularly is that…” and then confess whatever you have done against the commandments of God, according to your own place in life. Then conclude by saying: “I am sorry for all of this and ask for grace. I want to do better.”

Or as you just did a few minutes ago, kneel or stand with your fellow sinners and say: “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable, sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”

As you hear Christ’s absolution of forgiveness from your pastor’s mouth—whether privately or corporately—you can be certain that his forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness. Your sins are forgiven by Christ Himself.

Then properly prepared, come forward to the rail and silently kneel to receive the love of your Savior in His Holy Supper. Don’t promote yourself. Don’t excuse yourself. Don’t say anything but “Amen.” Just open your mouth and receive Christ’s very body and blood given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. Receive His blessing and depart in peace, even as the rich man would have, had he not gone away sorrowful that day.

Jesus has laid up an eternal inheritance kept in heaven for you. Go in the peace and joy of the Lord. You are forgiven of 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.