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While Still a Long Way Off

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“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by James Tissot

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“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

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

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one demands his father give him his inheritance now. Amazingly, the father honors this brash request, and divides his property between his two sons. Not many days later, the younger son gathers up everything he now has and takes a journey to a far country. There he squanders it all in reckless living, whatever that might be.

A famine arises, and the life of a penniless foreigner is especially difficult when there is little food around. It gets so bad he hires himself out to a pig farmer. He’s so hungry that the pig slop starts to look appetizing.

Finally, he comes to his senses. He realizes that his father’s hired servants have it a lot better than he does. They have more than enough bread, while he is wasting away from hunger. So, he hatches a plan. He will return to his father and beg for mercy. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”

And so he heads back home.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The young man doesn’t even have the chance to beg to be his father’s hired servant, when the father begins reestablishing his sonship in the eyes of the community. “Bring the best robe, and put it on him,” he tells his servants. “Put a signet ring on his hand! Get him a new pair of shoes! Bring a fattened calf for a feast! For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found! It’s time to celebrate!”

One of the keys to understanding any of the parables is to look for the point where it departs from regular everyday life. In this parable, there are many departures from everyday life, almost to the point of absurdity.

What the younger son does in asking for the father to give him his share of the inheritance is a most outrageous request in first-century Israel, and for that matter, in any culture, even our own. Inheritance was only handed over at the father’s death or in some other extraordinary situation, but never at the request of the younger son. This request amounts to asking the father to “die” so that the younger son might freely take what would be bequeathed to him.

The possibility exists that the father might tell the older and younger sons how he would divide the inheritance, usually two-thirds for the eldest son and the remaining third for the other sons minus the dowries for any daughters. But the father would never grant the sons the ability to dispose of their inheritance, that is, to sell it. Yet that is exactly what this father does! He divides the property between both sons, between the younger and the older son. This is an unbelievable response, one that would be considered by his community as scandalous, even verging on insanity, but one that we, hopefully, would recognize as an expression of the father’s love and mercy, as an undeserved gift beyond compare.

This is the first of three extraordinary acts of love by the father that would have shocked the community and shown them that this was a most unusual circumstance. But the community would also note that the elder brother received his inheritance, and his consent to his father’s division of the property shows that he has failed in his role as reconciler between his younger brother and his father. Not only is the prodigal son lost to the father, but there is a suspicion that the elder son is also alienated from him, a suspicion that will be confirmed by the rest of the parable.

The process of disposing of the estate would have been difficult in a community that was completely opposed to the prodigal’s request and shocked at the father’s consent. The prodigal would have to cut a quick deal with someone unscrupulous enough to turn his property into cash. The prodigal needed his inheritance to be in liquid assets that he could take to a “far country” where no one would know him. The community would watch with disgust as he went from one prospective buyer to another, the intensity of their hatred and disgust mounting.

No one would be surprised that the prodigal wastes his money in reckless living, for this conforms with his behavior in asking for his inheritance. We are not told explicitly in the text that this reckless living included all kinds of immorality. It is only the older brother who makes that assertion, something that tells us more about his character than the specific actions of the younger brother. The older brother fails to put the best construction on his brother’s behavior but instead bears false witness against him. After all, how could he know for a fact what his younger brother was doing in the far country? He didn’t see it on Facebook.

The prodigal’s plan is similar to what many in Jesus’ day (and ours) considered repentance, that is, repentance as a human work, with an offer, from the person’s side, of conditions, terms, and reparations. Repentance was seen as something that humans could initiate outside of God’s initiative. The prodigal plans to offer this kind of repentance when he says, “make me as one of your hired servants.” But this is a face-saving plan in which he will save himself. He wants no grace but seeks to earn a place back in the community.

For the Pharisees and scribes who were hearing this parable, the prodigal’s actions would have had a ring of truth. They could not help but see that the prodigal was responding as a good Jew would respond, with a deep sense of sorrow over his sin and equally deep desire to make amends for that sin. If the story were to end here, this would be a good moralistic parable. It would conform fully to their expectation about the way in which outcasts like the tax collectors and sinners who were also listening to this parable should be restored to Israel. They must first show through their deeds that they deserve to be readmitted into the community of Israel.

The prodigal is true to form, predictable in his behavior. But the big surprise in this parable is the father and his actions. First, he grants the prodigal’s desire for his inheritance. Then, when he returns, the father accepts him fully back into his household with joy. His actions are a portrait of complete and total grace, of unconditional love. And notice how the grace of the father precedes the repentance of the prodigal. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

We get the impression that the father was anxiously waiting for his son’s return. Each day looking far down the road, hoping that this would be the day that his prodigal would return. Then when he does see him, the father runs to him, something no dignified adult male would ever do in their culture, especially for a son who has so dishonored his family and community. But the father doesn’t seem to care. He is shameless in his love and compassion. With his hug and kiss, the father expresses his complete reconciliation and acceptance of his son publicly—and he does this before the prodigal has uttered a word of confession.

The prodigal is clearly shocked at how the father receives him. He probably expects to be rejected, or at best, lectured at length about his behavior. No doubt he expects there will be an awkward time, where everyone coolly keeps their distance. But instead, he is instantly received as a son.

The prodigal makes confession as his father is embracing and kissing him. It’s the same confession that he had rehearsed, but with one significant omission. He does not ask the father to make him as one of his hired servants. The omission of this simple condition is a sign of true repentance. He leaves off this part of what he had planned to say because he is overwhelmed by his father’s grace. The prodigal sees that the point is not the lost money, but rather the broken relationship which he could not heal. Now he understands that any new relationship must be a pure gift from his father. “I am unworthy” is now the only appropriate response.

The father desires that his acceptance of his son be clearly communicated to the community and to his servants, and so he demonstrates his acceptance by visible means, dressing the prodigal as a son who has been restored. In the robe, ring, and shoes, the village would clearly see that the son has been restored to the father’s house, and so they too must receive him back the same way. The father offers them the opportunity to express their acceptance by sacrificing the fatted calf and having a feast for the entire community.

Sadly, the older brother will not join in the feast. In many ways, he has strayed as far as his younger brother even though he never left the farm. His actions show there is a break in his relationship with his father as severe as there was between his father and brother when the prodigal cashed in his inheritance and left for a faraway country. He had stayed on the farm, dutifully but not joyfully. His complaints show how he has seen himself in the father’s house: as a hired servant, not as a son; as obedient to the father’s rules, but reluctantly.

But the father is not deterred. Even in the face of mounting insults, he addresses his elder son affectionately as “son” and assures him that his place in the house as well as his inheritance are secure. This is another example of the outrageous love of the father in which there is no judgment, no criticism, no rejection, but only an outpouring of love and grace.

As the parable ends there is great joy at the restoration of the prodigal son, but unfortunately, the elder son is still a long way off. Will he repent and join the feast, or will he continue to reject the father’s grace and love and therefore reject his invitation to the feast?

More important: what about you?

I suspect that at one time or another, all of us have behaved as the prodigal and/or older sons. We have wandered far off in sin. Maybe not so dramatically; maybe even worse. Oftentimes not even leaving the city limits, sometimes simply in our own hearts and minds. We have squandered our spiritual inheritance. We have acted as if we could earn a place in God’s kingdom. We have acted as though God somehow owes us for our obedience. We have failed to see our own rebelliousness, our own pettiness, our own self-righteousness.

We must confess before God and one another that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and that we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition. We must take refuge in the infinite mercy of God, our heavenly Father, seeking His grace for the sake of Christ, and say: God be merciful to me, a sinner.

God found you and me while we were still a long way off. “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:3–7).

Unlike the older brother in the parable, our older brother, Jesus, did not look down on us, but stepped in to reconcile us to the heavenly Father. As St. Paul reminds us: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6–11, ESV).

Christ, our brother shares with us His inheritance. “In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:11–12).

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 18-21).

We are in no position to begrudge God’s grace similarly given to others, no matter how unworthy they appear to us. God calls us to a joyful celebration, not only of our own salvation, but the salvation of our brothers and sisters.

Let us celebrate each Baptism where God comes to a lost one who is still far off and makes him or her His beloved child. Let us live in our own Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. Let us join together regularly with our brothers and sisters to hear of God’s gracious love and forgiveness in the Absolution and preached Word. Let us come together in the communion and fellowship of the banquet in which Christ feeds us His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.

Welcome home, you who were once far off. 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

Holy Ground: Holy God and His Holy Things

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“Moses and the Burning Bush” by Marc Chagall

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When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

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

One of the most famous speeches in American history is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The occasion was the dedication of a cemetery where those who had been killed in the Civil War battle were buried. It was, Lincoln said, “altogether fitting and proper” that they would do this.

But, Lincoln went on, in a larger sense, those who had come to set apart that ground could not “dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” The brave men who had struggled there had already hallowed it “far beyond our poor power to add or detract.” It was those who had died for their country at Gettysburg that made holy the land on which they were standing.

It was also a death that enables us to stand on holy ground. Jesus’ death enables us to stand on the holiest ground, in the very presence of God.

What makes ground holy? Let’s go to our Old Testament lesson.

As Moses tends the sheep of his father-in-law, he notices an astonishing sight: a bush that is on fire and yet is not consumed. The Angel of the Lord calls out to him from the burning bush, “Moses, Moses!” When the eighty-year-old shepherd answers, He tells Moses to remove his sandals because the ground on which he is standing is holy ground.

“I am God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” He goes on to say. Realizing this is the Lord God Himself, Moses hides his face, because he is afraid to look. He knows that a sinful human being cannot stand in God’s holy presence and live. Moses could not bear to look up. But that’s not really surprising, is it? Think of it—the God who had spoken to the forefathers of Israel, who for hundreds of years has been silent, is now speaking to him out of this burning bush! What would you do?

God assures Moses that He has heard the cry of His people. He will rescue Israel from their slavery in Egypt, and Moses is His chosen instrument for this deliverance. God tells Moses that He will be taking them to a good and spacious land. The good land is fruitful, “flowing with milk and honey,” but unfortunately it is also filled with wicked people. The people are so wicked that God doesn’t want any of them left when the Israelites settle there. God wants them completely wiped out so their idolatry will perish with them. So that they will not contaminate His holy people. He knows that if any of them survive they will easilty ensnare the people of Israel with their idolatry.

The ground Moses is standing on isn’t nearly as spacious as the Promised Land. It isn’t a desert—sheep can graze there—but it isn’t flowing with milk and honey, either. Still, it is a special place; it is holy ground because it is where God chooses to reveal Himself to Moses.

God reveals Himself as Yahweh, “I AM WHO I AM.” It is a name that will be in use for generations to come. Years later, Jesus will apply the name to Himself, “Before Abraham was born, I AM” (John 8:58). “I AM the Good Shepherd…I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 15). “I AM the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 12:25). “I AM the Way and the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). This is the key to all holy ground. Holy ground is a place where God reveals Himself to us.

How can anyone stand on such holy ground?

Moses understands how unworthy he is. He isn’t even up to the task God has for him: “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” he asks. This is a much different Moses. He’s grown up a lot in the last forty years. He’s much humbler than the man who had wanted to take on this job of deliverer all by himself when he killed an Egyptian and tried to settle an argument between two of his people. Now he doubts his own ability to do this work.

The truth be told, Moses isn’t worthy to go to Pharaoh as God’s representative. He’s even less worthy to stand in the presence of God. Sin makes anyone unworthy to stand in God’s holy presence. God’s holiness cannot tolerate sin. In fact, anyone coming into God’s presence dressed in the rags of sin would be destroyed.

But God says, “I will be with you.” He even gives Moses a sign as a pledge. “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” It is on this very same mountain, this holy place, that Israel is to receive God’s Law as His own covenant people.

It’s ironic that God first says, “Don’t come any closer; this is holy ground.” Then He says, “I will be with you.” Why the difference? For the answer to that question we need to take a broader view.

God’s calls to his prophets and deliverers in the Old Testament (also to Gideon, Samuel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah) follow a remarkably similar pattern:

  1. God speaks.
  2. The one to whom God speaks is confused and asks for clarification.
  3. God verifies that it is indeed God.
  4. The one God is calling acknowledges his unworthiness and humbles    himself before God.
  5. The assignment is given.
  6. Objections are raised.
  7. Assurance is given, often in the form of a sign.
  8. The assignment is accepted.

It may seem in these cases that God is going through some rather cumbersome motions, but God’s way invariably brings an important effect: in each case the one who is called is able to say that he did not seek this calling himself. God called them when they were busy doing other things. Since the calling is completely God-initiated, the outcome is also dependent upon God. In considering a call, we can always trust God. Vocation is truly an expression that nothing is impossible with God.

That’s certainly true of our salvation. By nature, we are children of wrath, enemies of God. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. Spiritually blind, deaf, and rebellious. Unable to move the first step toward God, and even if we were somehow able to, we couldn’t last for a millisecond in His holiness. As we are by nature, we could no more stand on such holy ground than could Moses. We, too, are corrupted through and through by sin. We could never dare approach God on our own merits.

We acknowledged as much at the beginning of this service. I said, “Since we are gathered to hear God’s Word, call upon Him in prayer and praise, and receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the fellowship of this altar, let us first consider our unworthiness and confess before God and one another that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and that we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition. Together as His people let us take refuge in the infinite mercy of God, our heavenly Father, seeking His grace for the sake of Christ, and saying: God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

God knew that we couldn’t act first to enter His holy presence, so He sent His Son to death before us. That’s why God can be with us even after He’s warned us to stay away. He came near to us. He came as one of us. Like us in every way, except without sin. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Perfectly obedient to the will and Law of God. Suffered, died, and was buried as payment for our sins. Risen from the dead for our justification, the firstfruits of our own resurrection. He ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, where He continues to intercede on our behalf even as He has promised to be with us always in His means of grace—His Word and Sacrament.

Because of Jesus, we can draw near to God. Baptized into His triune name, we come fearlessly into His holy presence, this holy ground. Just as God spoke through the burning bush, so today, through His called and ordained servant, the Lord speaks His holy Word and absolution. God’s doesn’t say, “Don’t come any closer.” He says to us, as we sing in the Communion hymn, “Draw near and take the body of the Lord” (LSB 637:1).

As daunting as the task of going to stand before Pharaoh seemed, the more amazing call from God was for Moses to stand in His, God’s, own presence. If Moses was inadequate to the task of freeing Israel from Egypt—and he was—he was infinitely less adequate to stand in the presence of the holy God. No one wrapped in sin can. But God enabled him to do both. By promising to go with Moses, God would enable Moses to face Pharaoh. And by sending Jesus into death to remove sin, God allows Moses—and each one of us to stand in His holy presence now, and on the most hallowed ground, forever.

Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ and by His authority, I therefore forgive you 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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Take Heed Lest You Fall

54525147_10161367347230532_6852629245710041088_oClick here to listen to this sermon.

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13).

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

“You’re only three Sundays away from never going to church again.” I told my own children that many times. They thought I was exaggerating. Or I was just saying that because I’m a pastor, and it would look bad if they didn’t go to church. But I’m serious. Any one of us here may be only three Sundays away from never going to church again. And that includes you five who are being confirmed today. Statistically speaking, you are especially vulnerable.

The names of formerly active members who are no longer in attendance at worship on Sunday morning are scattered on the membership rolls of churches all around the world. Our Saviour’s is no exception. Just look around. There are “holes” in the pews, empty places that used to be filled by particular men, women, and children. Some of them are your family members and friends—all of them are your brothers and sisters in Christ! And the saddest part is that many of them don’t just drop out of a particular congregation, they fall away from the faith completely.

If you asked them, I’m sure most of them would tell you that they never intended for that to happen. They can’t even really tell you how it came to be. It was not a conscious decision. Many of them were very active members. They brought their kids to Sunday School every week, maybe even taught Sunday School or helped with VBS. They came to Bible study regularly and were pillars of the church. Then something happened and they’ve just never made it back.

But even I’m not preaching about those people this morning because I can’t preach to them! They are not here to hear me. But you are—and you and I are not immune from this very thing happening to us, too. Any one of us could be only three Sundays away from never coming here again.

Think about it. You miss one Sunday for whatever reason. Maybe you aren’t feeling well. Perhaps you just want to sleep in. Or you are gone for the weekend. It really doesn’t matter why; the effects can be just the same. If you’re like me, you’ll probably feel a bit out of sorts, like something is missing from your whole week. The next Sunday, it won’t take as much to keep you away from the worship service. And you won’t feel near as empty as you did the week before. By the third Sunday, you might not even feel much of anything at all.

And shortly after that, you might start feeling bad enough about missing that the devil or your own sinful flesh will whisper that people are going to talk if you come back. They might make you uncomfortable by asking where you’ve been. Or even worse, the other members might have just moved on fine without you. The little voice might even tell you: “Why do you want to go there? They don’t seem to care about you! Did any of them even call to see why you were missing?”

No, any one of us could be only three Sundays away from never coming here again. Think it can’t happen to you? Don’t be so sure of yourself! The old Adam is weak and vulnerable to temptation. Heed Paul’s advice from our text, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

In our text for today, St. Paul isn’t specifically addressing church attendance. I just use it as an example of one of the common temptations that we all face. But Paul is writing to the Corinthians about misplaced confidence in one’s own strength, rather than trust in Christ. Paul is well aware that such temptation could cause him to be disqualified from the blessings of Christ, even as he proclaims those blessings to others.

For the Corinthians, too, the danger of being “disqualified” is real. So Paul takes them (and us) to the Old Testament for an important spiritual lesson from the history of Israel. Although the Corinthian church consisted mainly of Gentiles, they, like we, had been grafted into the vine of Israel and were therefore entitled to think of the fathers of the Jewish people as “our forefathers” in faith.

Israel’s safe passing though the waters of the Red Sea foreshadows the waters of Baptism. At the Red Sea, all the covenant people “were baptized into Moses.” They submitted to his leadership as he guided them through the waters, and when they saw what the Lord had accomplished there, they “believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.” Accordingly, Moses was a type of Jesus Christ, the greater mediator of the new covenant, into whom we have been baptized.

Just as these Israelites received a type of Baptism, so they also received a type of the Lord’s Supper. All of them were sustained by the manna, described by the psalmist as the “grain of heaven,” the “bread of angels,” which the Lord “rained… on them to eat.” Its heavenly origin explains why it is called “spiritual food.” It was superior to ordinary bread, just as the “spiritual body” with which the believer will be clothed in the resurrection is superior to the natural body.

Likewise, all the Israelites received “the same spiritual drink,” which was water, but also corresponds to the wine of the Lord’s Supper. Both at the beginning and at the end of their wilderness wanderings, the Lord provided them with the miraculous water from the rock. Paul points to Christ as the true spiritual rock who accompanied Israel, ascribing to him the title “the Rock,” which the Old Testament ascribes to the Lord (Yahweh) as Israel’s great protector.

Five times in the first four verses, the adjective “all” is used to describe the recipients of God’s deliverance of Israel. All of the Israelites received these high privileges as God’s covenant people. All were saved in the exodus. All were sustained in the wilderness. But with the word, “nevertheless,” in verse five, Paul reminds the Corinthians that most of Israelites failed to reach the Promised Land, despite being the recipients of God’s lavish grace. Out of the more than six hundred thousand men who left Egypt, only two—Joshua and Caleb—were able to enter Canaan because they trusted in the promises of the Lord. The others paid the penalty for their disbelief and murmuring. Over forty years of wandering, their corpses were scattered all over the Sinai wilderness.

Paul’s purpose in drawing the parallel is this: just as many Israelites were disqualified because of their unfaithfulness and false worship, Christians also face the danger of being disqualified from salvation if they engage in false worship or fail to remain in repentance and faith worked by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace—the Word and Sacraments.

The church of all ages faces two equal and opposite temptations. One is the danger to which most of the Israelites and some of the Corinthians fell: the adoption of a complacent, “magical,” view that there is spiritual benefit in simply “going through the motions.” This takes the Sacraments for granted and forgets their purpose is to create and sustain faith, which apprehends God’s grace, the benefits of Christ, His love and forgiveness. Faith should then lead to godly lives and appropriate works. A Christian cannot participate in the Sacraments and then carelessly continue to live in sin. The Corinthians seemed to have the mistaken notion that having participated in the mysteries of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper they were now somehow immune to spiritual danger.

The other danger the church faces in regard to its attitude about the Sacraments is to reduce them to mere symbols. This happens when Christians consider Baptism to be merely a demonstration of our faith, rather than an action of God which confers the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. This happens with the Lord’s Supper, when Christians fail to discern Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament, which bestows the benefits earned by Christ on the cross.

The Old Testament events described in our text are intended to show us that the God who has called us into communion with His Son is the same God. He has bestowed His grace on us, as He bestowed it on Israel, but if we give in to the same sins, we will be punished just as Israel was punished.

Mindful of this, we should not be complacent or arrogant. It is only by humble faith that we continue to stand. So Paul urges, “Take heed lest [you] fall.” Paul’s concern reflects the proverb: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). Christians who pride themselves on their power and freedom in the Spirit should be careful not to fall from grace.

Now, we’ve just heard a ton of Law. There’s a danger that we might find false security in thinking we’re safe. We’ve kept the Law, at least a whole lot better than most people. We might even convince ourselves that we deserve God’s love. There’s also the danger of complacency. We might think that since God has already made us His children, we’re home free. Paul’s strong dose of Law should rid us of any such thoughts. None of us deserve God’s love. Each of us is prone to wander. Each of us can become complacent in our walk of Christian faith.

But we must be aware of another danger as well—having heard such stern Law we might fall into despair. We might be overwhelmed by the challenge of resisting temptation, throw our hands into the air and just give up. To temper this possibility, Paul adds a word of encouragement. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13-14).

The temptations we encounter are those common to humanity, trials to which all sinners are susceptible. Many of Israelites fell by the same temptations, as they spurned God’s Word and promises. But nevertheless, God remains true to His promises. God is faithful, even when we are not.

All of God’s promises are kept in His Son, Jesus Christ. They are distributed to us through His Word and Sacraments. It is no coincidence that Paul has previously stressed these means of grace, because they are the very means by which we are equipped to resist temptation. They are the means that restore us when we have given in to temptation. They are the “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” that can sustain you and provide a way out the temptations you face. That is why it is important for you to be here each Sunday. Missing church takes you away from the very means that create and sustain faith. Neglect of God’s Word and Sacraments separates you from God’s promises!

Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues you from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ keeps His promise to “be with you always,” and gives you victory over sin and hell. His body and blood strengthens you for the new life in Him.

In His holy Word, Christ who overcame all temptation and defeated sin, death, and the power of the devil with His sacrificial death and victorious resurrection continues to promise: “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who had given them to Me, is great than all; no one can snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

Christ battles for us against temptation as we pray. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray with Christ that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them. Remember: God is faithful, and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond your ability to resist temptation.

And even when you are caught in the temptation, the Lord promises to provide a means of escape. What is that means of escape? Contrition and repentance. Confession and absolution. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves; but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

So, repent and believe the Good News. Yes, you have given in to temptation. You’ve despised preaching and God’s Word and failed to hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. You have indeed sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But in Christ and for Christ’s sake, you are forgiven for 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.

 

 

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

Holy Destruction: Holy God & His Holy Things

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

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. Now therefore mend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will relent of the disaster that He has pronounced against you” (Jeremiah 26:12-13).

 

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

Last week we continued our series, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” by remembering that God has set us Christians apart as His holy nation. Now, it would be nice to believe that we are immune to every danger, protected from every threat. Too bad. It’s not so. In fact, in our text today, we discover that God’s holy things, including His holy people, may face not only danger, but total destruction.

Set apart for destruction? What’s holy about that? Well, as always, God, who sets apart for holy purposes, has a holy purpose. That’s true even of “holy destruction,” because God’s destruction of holy things is always for salvation.

It was early in the reign of Jehoiakim, around 609 or 608 B.C. At the Lord’s command, Jeremiah was to repeat a message he had first delivered during the reign of Josiah. The message contained both a threat and a promise. The threat: If the people of Judah did not repent, the Lord’s house and city would end up like Shiloh.

Shiloh was one of the original places of Israel’s worship, where the ark of the covenant had been enshrined. But when the sacred chest has been degraded into a good-luck charm, it was captured by the Philistines, and the city was destroyed. Jeremiah warns that Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem is not immune either. It will suffer the same fate if the people persist in worshiping false gods. God’s holy things—even His holy city and His holy temple—are subject to destruction when His people repeatedly ignore His Word.

But it was not all bad news. God also made a solemn promise: If the people repented, God would not carry out His judgment. The Lord again displayed His great love and patience. He offered Judah and all its people another chance.

Jeremiah told the people exactly what God had commanded, for the message was not his, but the Lord’s. Duty to his calling, fear of the Lord, and love compelled him to deliver the whole message even though he feared it would be met with unwelcoming ears, minds, and hearts.

In his last words to the Ephesian elders, the apostle Paul confesses that this is the solemn duty of a man of God: “[You know] how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house… Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:20, 26–27). The only hope for Jeremiah’s listeners lay in knowing their true situation. And Jeremiah laid it all on the line.

The response of Jeremiah’s listeners, unfortunately, was predictable. Out of their hearts they spoke and acted. The Lord had rightly evaluated their hearts. They were wholly impenitent from top to bottom, from the priests and prophets to all the people. Without hesitation they arrested Jeremiah and declared: “You must die!”

The uproar reached the palace, the court of the king himself. The chief officers hurried from the palace and assembled to hear the case against Jeremiah. The priests and prophets and others sympathetic to them leveled the charge: “He has prophesied against this city” (v 11). They accused Jeremiah not of false doctrine or of being a false prophet, but of treason—a crime against the state.

Jeremiah tried to make it clear: Their problem was not really with him, but with the Lord: he was only the Lord’s messenger. They were furious with Jeremiah because he had convicted them of their sin. In their minds, it had to be Jeremiah who is in the wrong not they, so he should be silenced.

Many an impenitent sinner has acted in the same way toward one sent to call him to account for his sin. It is as Jesus said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22). The unbelieving world conspires to silence the call to repentance any way it can, for it will not face up to its sin.

Jeremiah did not flinch in the face of opposition. He answered his accusers directly, “Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will bring innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the Lord sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears” (Jeremiah 26:14-15).

God’s holy things—even His holy city and His holy temple—are subject to destruction when His people repeatedly ignore or rebel against His Word.

In today’s Epistle, Paul speaks of the holy destruction of people, rather than places: “Many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19). In saying, “their god is their belly,” Paul means they are serving the appetites of their sinful human nature. It is shameful to do anything that contradicts God’s design for human life, but human arrogance reaches a point where it actually prides itself on such behavior and flaunts this attitude as though it were something of which to be proud.

Those who refuse to admit their guilt under the Law and therefore refuse to accept Jesus’ accursed death as the propitiation for their sins will meet destruction. Their bodies will certainly perish in time. Their souls are even now perishing under their contradiction of God’s salvation. If unchanged, they will suffer being cut off eternally from God in the lake of fire.

In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of the destruction of those who persistently resist the Lord: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken” (Luke 13:34-35).

Israel’s status as God’s holy nation would not keep her from being overthrown. Jerusalem’s status as God’s holy city would not keep it from destruction. The temple’s status as the holy house of the Lord would not keep it from being torn down. As a result of their resistance to God’s love, their house will be left desolate. God’s holy things—even His holy city and His holy temple—are subject to destruction when His people repeatedly resist His Word.

Today’s lessons are each a warning to us that even we, God’s chosen people, His holy nation, are also subject to destruction if we resist His Word. Whole church bodies can be (and have been) left desolate by the Lord if they abandon His pure doctrine and practice. Congregations can be left to their own self-destruction if they fall into squabbles and infighting.

Each individual Christian can be destroyed by giving himself or herself over to sin. Even God’s holy people will struggle constantly against sin. (In fact, only God’s holy people struggle against sin, because the unbeliever is totally given over to sin, while the believer is both new person and old.) Sins like Judah’s pride, Paul’s examples of lusts for sex, pleasure, and earthly things, and the Jews’ self-messiahship can be especially entangling. If we refuse to heed God’s warning against these sins, we can forfeit our holy status and be destroyed eternally.

But even out of the wreckage, God can rebuild wondrous things. Out of the disaster, God brings something good.

Jeremiah’s call, even when it required prophesying destruction, was always ultimately to restore: “The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. Now therefore mend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will relent of the disaster that He has pronounced against you” (Jeremiah 26:12-13).

Less than 40 years after Jesus spoke the words of our Gospel, Jerusalem was destroyed and its temple was leveled by the Romans—an act of God’s judgment upon the rebellious nation. Its people were scattered around the ancient world. Yet from Israel’s general rejection of Christ, God brought forth the New Testament holy nation, the new Israel, the Church, which includes both Jews and Gentiles.

When the visible church, the church of Rome, abandoned God’s pure doctrine and practice, God left it to its own desolate teachings, but raised up a new visible church on earth through the Reformation.

Even the “destruction” of the individual Christian, when the Church exercises discipline and removes him or her from its membership, is intended to—and indeed can—result in the soul’s salvation (1 Corinthians 5:5).

All of these “holy destructions” are able to bring blessings and restoration because of the destruction of God’s Holy One, Jesus Christ.

When Jesus cleansed the temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, His opponents asked Him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He was speaking about His body.

Jesus’ death on the cross was a painful experience. Adding to the physical pain was the fact He had done nothing wrong. He had done nothing but help people all His life. Surely of all people, Jesus deserved to be destroyed least of all. But by the scheming of wicked men He was destroyed, and, amazingly, this was according to God’s holy plan.

Out of this destruction God brought the highest good. Three days after Jesus’ death, God raised Him from the dead. Because of His resurrection, we know that any destruction God works in our lives is only to bring us also eternal resurrection. The Lord “will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:21).

Jeremiah showed his faith in the life to come as he warned his captors, “Behold, I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will bring innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the Lord sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears” (Jeremiah 26:14-15).

Jeremiah’s caution elicits no response in our text. But in the Passion-story the frenzied, fanatical crowd cries out, “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). They, of course, meant, “We’ll take the consequences for killing Jesus—gladly. And for all we care, if there are any consequences left over, our children can experience them, too.”

The Gospel, of course, lay not in the curse the Jews of Christ’s day wished upon themselves but rather in the unintended and ironic blessing their words foreshadowed. Christ’s blood was on them and on their children—not in the damning sense they meant but in the saving sense God had in mind from eternity. As St. Paul reminds us, “We have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14). The blessings (not the consequences) of Christ’s blood are on all people, including Jeremiah’s enemies in our text as well as the frenzied, fanatical mob which had something quite different in mind when it voiced the blasphemous cry, “His blood be on us, and on our children.”

Because of Jesus’ holy destruction and resurrection, we can always cling to the same faith. Our sins are forgiven. The words of absolution are certain. Our Baptism remains. We can always repent with the absolute confidence that we will be welcomed back, restored to the status of God’s holy nation. We will not be destroyed eternally.

Jesus redeemed us, lost and condemned persons, purchased and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that we may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, live and reigns to all eternity.

On the Last Day, Christ will return, not for our judgment, but He will raise us and all believers to everlasting life. He will gather all God’s children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and we will live with the Lord in His kingdom forever. This is most certainly true.

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.

Uncategorized

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem

jesus-laments-over-jerusalemClick here to listen to this sermon.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34).

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

I bet you can relate. You’ve heard it yourself. That drawn-out repeating of your name. Maybe accompanied with the sad shaking of a head. Preceded by a little sigh. “Robert, Robert” You understand instantly that you’ve probably disappointed someone.

Or maybe you’ve heard this variation. A little more drawn out, higher pitched, increasing in volume. “Robert! Robert!” Your mind is wandering, or you are otherwise distracted and someone needs to catch your attention.

We don’t see this happen very often in Scriptures, but when we do, it catches our attention, as it highlights a sense of urgency, true concern, or deep-felt emotion. Especially when it is used by God Himself.

For example, when Moses looked to see the burning bush, God called to him, “Moses! Moses!” (Exodus 3:4). Here the doubling of Moses’ name was meant to warn and to reveal. “Do not come near,” God said. “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

In 1 Samuel, we read how the boy was lying down in the temple when the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” to gain attention that He was calling him as a prophet (1 Samuel 3:10).

When she was too preoccupied with serving and had no time for hearing the Word in Bible class, Jesus admonished, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:41).

And then there was the time a son of David hung on a tree, his body pierced three times, with wounds that cut him to the heart. Below him stood soldiers who surrounded him and struck him. And when the word of his death reached his father, King David cried out, “O my son Absalom, my son, My son Absalom!” (2 Samuel 18:33).

Do you hear the hurt and pain and sorrow? This is the same sort of lament Jesus makes as He sees before Him the city of God, the abandoned temple, the prophet-killing place: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34).

Do you hear the heart of God in these words? The lament expresses His inmost desire. God wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. It hurts Him more than we can ever imagine when His children reject Him and spurn His offer of grace and love.

Jerusalem—the city that kills prophets and stones apostles—how’s that for a nice slogan, a catchphrase for a publicity campaign? That would get people coming in by the droves, wouldn’t it? Especially prophets and apostles. But here we have a prophet, an apostle, purposely headed for that very city. One might think that He can’t be much of a prophet if He doesn’t realize the danger that He’s in. Even His enemies warn Him to stay away because “Herod wants to kill you.”

But this was the Prophet, the Apostle, the One sent by God to deliver His people from sin. Not only did He know of Herod’s plans, He knew the murderous hearts of the Pharisees. Jesus headed for the city, knowing full well that suffering, pain, and death lay ahead. Yet He went resolutely and willingly to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem itself had a sort of double identity. It hadn’t always been known as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34). Ironically, it had first been called “Salem,” the city of peace. Throughout Israel’s history, it was identified as the city of God. The Lord Himself referred to it as “my city.” And because it was the place where God had put His name, it was often called “the Holy City.”

With all the honor and favor that God had shown Jerusalem over the years, it should’ve been a leader in welcoming prophets and showing them honor. Instead, “the holy city” became known as the city that kills prophets and stones apostles. Their reputation for rejecting God’s messengers was so bad, even Jesus said in our text, “It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). And so, the Lord Jesus announced, that after centuries of rejecting the Word of God and silencing His prophets, the day of grace had finally passed for Jerusalem. He would no longer visit in mercy, peace, and grace, but His advent would be one of judgment, dread, and desolation.

There comes a moment for the city that kills prophets and stones apostles… there comes a time for a congregation that casts out faithful pastors and drives away orthodox teachers… there comes an instant for an individual who lives in unrepentant sin, who continuously rejects the Word, or who absents himself from the Sacraments… there comes an hour when the time of repentance is past. That which the city, a congregation, or an individual seeks is suddenly realized.

That’s what had happened at the synagogue in Nazareth when those in attendance rose up and forced Jesus out of their midst. They sought to rid themselves of Him, and the result was that they no longer had Jesus among them.

Similarly, the people of the “holy city that kills prophets” will lead the Prophet Jesus outside the gates to a cursed place to be crucified. The City of God will remove the Son of God from their midst, and their ears, stopped by sin will not even hear Jesus’ lament on their behalf: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!”

The congregation that silences the Word by rejecting faithful pastors, or that abandons the Word by listening to false shepherds will eventually get what they seek. Though they will still gather together, though they’re religious and zealous, they’ll no longer have a faithful pastor to feed and nurture them on Word and Sacrament, but rather a false pastor who is a wolf in shepherd’s clothing.

But the really frightening thing is this—those who depart generally don’t even know that this is taking place, and they’re not even able to hear the lament: “O Congregation, Congregation! … O Pastor, Pastor!”

If that’s possible to happen to the congregation or her pastor, it certainly also can happen to a member of the congregation—the individual who, either through being careless, taking offense, expressing sinful pride, or just plain ignoring God’s Word, neglects to come to the holy place where the Lord meets His people. Such an individual will discover, if not in this life, at the Last Day, that he has not heard the Lord’s Word of forgiveness and has no place at His banquet.

Now dear friends, be assured that this is not the way Jesus desires the city, the congregation, or the individual to be. But if any one of them is impenitent, then he, she, or it will suffer the divine consequences. They will hear those words of judgment: “You would not! Behold, your house is forsaken” (Luke 13:35).

This word “forsaken” in our text is another example of a type of doubling, because the same Greek word for “desolate or forsaken” is also the word for “forgiven or released.” Both have to do with leaving or separating. With the Holy Trinity there will always be a releasing or departure of one sort or the other. There will either be the releasing forgiveness of sins, or there’ll be forsakenness, the departure of God’s merciful and gracious Presence.

Let this be a serious reflection for every Christian. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. You are in Christ and Christ is in you. Indeed, since the Father and the Son are also One, you have the Holy Trinity living within you. The only way this can be is if you have been released from your sin, and your transgressions have been removed from you “as far as the east is from the west.”

This happened when you were baptized in His name for the “releasing,” that is, for the forgiveness of your sins. You remain the temple of God as you live in your baptismal grace by confessing your sins and hearing the Absolution—the Word of forgiveness—that is announced and applied to you. Christ is graciously within you as you commune at His table and feed on His body and blood.

No, the holy Lord and your sin cannot live together. Jesus bore it once when He died upon the cross. He does not bear being with it again. Though He is patient and longsuffering, there comes a time when Jesus says, “Either your sin is removed from you or I am. If you will not let Me release you from your sin, then I will not live with you. But even now, I seek to have you with Me, even as my Bride, the Church, seeks to keep you gathered under her wings.”

Dear friends, there is no salvation apart from Christ and no eternal life outside the Church, the Body of Christ. How sad and tragic it will be for those who’ve departed from God’s presence as they seek to do their own thing. How tragic it will be for those who justify themselves because of their good works done without God. How sad it will be for those who take God’s grace for granted or who look at His atoning death as a sort of spiritual “get out of jail free card” that entitles them to go on living in unrepentant sin.

How sad it will be, for then will come to pass what Jesus foretold, “On that day, many will say to [Him], ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22-23).

This same truth concerning the individual also applies to the congregation. In Revelation, Jesus warned the church in Ephesus, as it teetered on the edge of unbelief, that they had forsaken the sacrificial love of the Lord. The consequences of their corporate failure to repent would be that Christ would no longer remain with them. Jesus said it like this: “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5).

A congregation that permits false doctrine to be taught, and as a result, false practices to take place and even be promoted, will no longer be the holy place where people may enter into God’s gracious presence. Indeed, the Lord will depart from such a place as He did centuries ago.

For Jerusalem it was too late. The day of grace had passed. And from outside the city, Jesus’ lamentation was heard: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Luke 13:34-35).

Yes, Jesus will return to Jerusalem. It will be on Palm Sunday as foretold by Zechariah. He’ll come as a king, “righteous and having salvation,” “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:8).

Yes, Jesus will return also to the Temple in Jerusalem, when He leads the children in and they sing their hosannas to the Lord. But before He leaves the temple area, He’ll overturn the tables of the moneychangers and drive out those making His holy house of prayer into “a den of robbers.” He’ll heal the blind and the lame and teach all who will listen about the kingdom of God.

And a few days later, Christ will once more wind through the streets of the city that kills the prophets. As Simon of Cyrene helps to carry His cross, the Lord will turn to those women who mourn and wail for Him, and say, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me; weep for yourselves and for your children.”

You see, even in the midst of rejection and rebellion by His chosen people, Christ is still in control. No one takes His life. He lays it down of His own accord. Incredibly, He’ll use even Jerusalem’s penchant for killing the prophets to accomplish His good purposes, to bring His salvation, and to gather His chosen people under His protection and loving care.

The Son of David will hang on a tree, His body pierced three times, with wounds that cut Him to the heart. Below Him will stand soldiers who will surround Him and pierce Him. But His Father won’t lament His death as David did for his disobedient, rebellious son, Absalom. Rather, the heavenly Father will turn His back on His obedient Son, as He bears the sins of the entire world.

The haunting, repeating words will come from Jesus’ mouth instead: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). On that cross, Christ will suffer an eternity of God’s wrath, so that you and I might never be abandoned by God. So that you and I might be released from our sins. So that you and I might have eternal life.

By God’s grace, may we all be willing to repent of our sinful ways and be gathered together into Christ’s body, the church, like chicks gathered under a hen’s wings. Released from the bondage of our sin through Baptism and faith, may we never again depart from our Savior’s love. May we all rest in Christ’s forgiveness until the Last Day when we will say again, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” May God grant this to us all. 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.

 

 

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

Holy Nation: Holy God & His Holy Things

WordItOut-word-cloud-3662959Click here to listen to this sermon.

“And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which You, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).

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

Tonight, we continue our series, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” based upon our Old Testament readings during Lent. To be “holy” means to be set apart for a unique purpose. The One who is Himself “holy, holy, holy” is set apart from us as infinitely as heaven is above the earth. Yet, surprisingly our holy God wishes to be with us, to be close to us, and to that end He has set us apart as a people for Himself.

Moses gave instructions to the Israelites for the day when they settled in the Promised Land. At a place that the Lord would choose, the people were to bring the firstfruits of the land and give it to the priests. Right up front, the Lord wanted His people to give back to Him the first and best of what He’d given them, in anticipation of further providence and blessing down the road. Although Moses described them as “some of the firstfruits,” it was to be a widely distributed sample, some of the firstfruits “of all that you produce”—not just of fruits and vegetables, but also of sheep and cattle.

The Israelites will not have acquired this land by accident, nor by their own genius or military muscle. The covenant-Lord had spoken an oath to their fathers that He would give them this land, and He would do what He promised. This new land was an inheritance, something that belonged to them as His gift. It didn’t matter to God that there were still many other nations living in the land who didn’t wish to give it up. In the Lord’s eyes, and in the eyes of Moses, the land was already Israel’s inheritance, they were His holy nation.

It may seem out of place to have this reading during Lent. Lent is a time when we think of the dangers and perils to which we are exposed on our journey to the “promised land.” This text tells what the people of God are to do after they are safely settled in the Promised Land. But it’s always good when you’re on the journey to be reminded of the blessings ahead, what it will take to get you there, and the appropriate response when you finally arrive there.

The brief recital of Israelite history in verses 5 through 10 is similar to a creed or liturgy. As the Israelites offer the firstfruits of the land, they are to remember their ancestors, who had been landless and suffered countless hardships in Egypt before the Lord finally delivered them.

The men and women and children of each new generation could adopt these verses as their own confession of faith. Even though they hadn’t yet been born when the Lord had rescued His people from Egypt, they could identify with their fathers and grandfathers who’d seen the Lord’s mighty miracles and received the gift of the land.

God set had apart Israel as a holy nation from the time of Abram. “From [that] one man, and him as good as dead,” (Hebrews 11:12) God had built His people. They came from humble beginnings among the nations. They were few in number, homeless, and oppressed. It was only by God’s grace that they survived and became strong and numerous.

“A wandering Aramean was my father” refers to the patriarch Jacob who had lived for a while in the region of Aram (or Syria). He left Canaan because he had to flee for his life from his brother Esau (Genesis 27:41-45), lived in Aram until his uncle Laban came after him (Genesis 31:17-30), and finally relocated to Egypt to escape the famine (Genesis 46:1-7). Jacob’s extended family numbered only 70 sons and grandsons when they left Canaan (Genesis 46:27), but the Lord multiplied them into a people so large and powerful that the Egyptian pharaoh enslaved them because he feared they might join Egypt’s enemies (Exodus 1:6-14).

The Egyptians mistreated them and made them suffer with hard labor. It wasn’t only physical pain, but also humiliation that made their lives miserable. In their suffering they cried out to the God of their fathers.

When they cried to God for help, He brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, and with miraculous signs and wonders. The miraculous signs and wonder included all the plagues the Lord inflicted on Egypt. Throughout the plagues, He made a distinction between His people and the Egyptians (Exodus 8:23), spearing the Israelites from the plagues of flies (Exodus 8:22), death of livestock (Exodus 9:4), hail (Exodus 9:26), and darkness (Exodus 10:23).

In the tenth and final plague, the Lord dealt differently with Israel in the most dramatic way. While He struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, “from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock” (Exodus 12:29), the Lord rescued all firstborn of Israel through the blood of the Passover lamb. “For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians,” Moses told Israel’s elders, “and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you” (Exodus 12:23).

This last plague caused such a great terror among the Egyptians that they “were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, ‘We shall all be dead’” (Exodus 12:33). The Lord carried out these miraculous signs and wonders to bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12), so the Egyptians would know that He was the Lord (Exodus 7:5), and so His name would be proclaimed in all the earth (Exodus 9:16).

The Lord would bring the people of Israel into their own land flowing with milk and honey. He would make them into His holy nation, not because of their merit or worthiness, but because of His mercy and grace. As Moses explained earlier in Deuteronomy:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set His love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that He swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6–8).

The Lord would bring His people out of the misery and oppression of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into His Promised Land, a land filled with good cities they did not build, a houses filled with things they did not work for, cisterns they did not dig, vineyards they did not plant, a land flowing with milk and honey. And the people are encouraged to believe this, even as they wander in the wilderness. And they are cautioned, that when they do receive all these things, not to forget this. In response to their deliverance, they are to bow before the Lord and bring Him the firstfruits of the land.

Ultimately, the greatest gift the land will provide is the Messiah. The prophets of the Lord are clear. The Messiah must be born in the Promised Land. Thus, we see how important this small piece of property becomes. Its true value is in the gift of Jesus, who will provide His blood and very life to endow all people with forgiveness and everlasting life for His children.

St. Peter reminds us that, like Israel, God has set apart us Christians as a holy nation as well: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Like the Israelites, we are also of unremarkable origin among the nations of the world. Paul tells the Corinthians:

“Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

This has been true throughout history. There is nothing special in us that caught God’s eye or earned His favor. He saved us solely out of His goodness and mercy without any merit worthiness on our part. He called us to be His people, His holy nation. He did it all! The Lord’s outstretched arm, signs, and wonders set us apart from the sinful world as holy.

We are set apart as holy by the forgiveness Jesus earned when He literally stretched out His arms on the cross to save us. In His resurrection, Christ gives us the greatest of His miraculous signs, proof that He is the Son of God, that His Word is true, that the Father has accepted His sacrifice for our sins, and that we, too, shall rise.

God’s mighty acts continue through His ministers and means of grace: The Gospel proclaimed and carried out is powerful beyond any earthly might. In Holy Baptism, God gives us His Holy Spirit, He delivers us from the bondage of sin, promises us an inheritance in God’s heavenly land, and declares us saints even now. The Lord sustains us in holiness as He gives us His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.

As the people of God, we do not live with amnesia about the past. The remembrance of God’s saving acts gives us our identity. Because this identity is a gift, we live lives of gratitude expressed in acts of worship and obedience. Our thankful recollections for God’s saving acts compel us to bring gifts to Him. These gifts will also be of benefit to the Church and to the needy.

In response to God’s deliverance, we bring Him gifts and worship Him. Truth be told, we give Him what was always His in the first place. We are simply stewards of His creation and gifts. The worship we bring is simply receiving His Word and speaking it back to Him. The good works that we do for our neighbors were prepared by Him beforehand.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. 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.