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Rock That Says My Name

my_tombstoneI like to listen to music from a variety of genres, favoring songs that have thoughtful lyrics reflecting a true picture of the human condition with all of its joy and sorrows, challenges and triumphs, its scars and freckles, beauty marks and warts.

Some songs grow on you over time; others connect with you immediately. My current favorite, “Rock That Says My Name,” falls into the latter category. The first time I heard it, I loved it. The more I hear it, the more its message resonates with me. “Rock That Says My Name” was released January 18, 2019 by The Steel Woods, a relatively new band whose music balances heavy blues-rock with Southern poetry, adding a bit of plainspoken outlaw country to the mix. (If you wish to listen to it, you will find a link to the official YouTube version of the song here. Click on “more” to read the lyrics.)

“Rock That Says My Name” is a story told from the point of view of a man who works at a cemetery. A jack-of-all-trades, he keeps the grounds, digs the graves, carves and polishes the gravestones, serves as pall bearer, helps with the burial, and when called upon, is willing to put on a suit and tie so he can join in the mourning. Though it’s not exactly the most glamorous job, it is necessary work, and the man finds great satisfaction and contentment in his job that he’s been doing for fifty years.

What gives this man such satisfaction? I would suggest two things: faith and vocation. This comes out especially in the chorus:

Well I ain’t afraid to die ‘cause I know where I’ll go.
There I’ll live forever on the streets made of gold.
‘Til then I’ll keep on working, you won’t hear me complain
And every day I’ll tip my hat to the rock that says my name.

The man knows his ultimate destination—in heaven to be with the Lord for eternity. This frees him to serve his neighbor as he carries out his calling in life. It enables him to do his work in a way that respects and affirms the dignity of human life even as he daily walks amid death and all its accessories.

As he faithfully follows his vocation, the man recognizes that the day will soon come when it will be his own grave that is dug, his own gravestone that is carved. He and his wife have picked out their own plots right by the cemetery gate, where the sun shines every day. He’s carved his name on the stone. All that’s left is for someone else to add the date of his death next to the date of birth, throw the dirt on top of him, sow some grass seeds and let it grow.

In the meanwhile, the man carries on with his vocation, working each day without complaint. And just so he remembers all this, he says “every day I’ll tip my hat to the rock that says my name.”

I’m reminded of Psalm 90, which I often use when I conduct funerals. After talking about the eternal nature of God and the mortal nature of God’s fallen human creatures, Moses prays:

Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom… Satisfy us in the morning with Your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as You have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil… Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (v. 12-17, emphasis added).

Moses’ closing prayer contains two main elements. The first is a plea for understanding and wisdom. As we daily observe death all around us, we are warned to make the most of this time of grace that God has given us, since death is inevitable. We are warned against being like the rich fool who accumulated treasure on earth but forgot about the needs of his soul (Luke 12:13-21). Since we have only one life and that one life is short, we should use it to gain the wisdom that comes from God. That wisdom is the message of the Gospel, through which we gain forgiveness of sins and salvation.

The second part of Moses’ prayer is a plea for mercy. We do not deserve to have our lives prolonged, but we pray that God will give us the time and the wisdom to serve Him faithfully on this earth. Such labor brings joy to all the days of our lives, even to life under the burdens of sin. Only the labor that we do for the Gospel can produce fruits that will endure into eternity. We pray that God will establish and bless our labors for the Gospel so that they will bear fruit for us, for our children, and for others, now and forever.

“Rock That Says My Name” ends with the voice of a Southern preacher reading a fitting portion of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 19-20:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,
Where moth and rust doth corrupt
And where thieves break through and steal,
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
Where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt
And where thieves do not break through nor steal.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

As beloved children of God, heirs of His kingdom, we have something that lasts long beyond anything that this fleeting world has to offer. We realize how few are the days that we actually have in this present world, and how our only real security and refuge is found in God, through His Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. We are also reminded that just as the treasures of this earth are only temporary, so are our sorrows and troubles. They will all be forgotten when we come to the eternal joy and glory of being in God’s eternal presence. This proper perspective frees us to live in service our neighbor, living out our vocations joyously without fear or regret, no matter to where or to what God may call us.

By God’s grace, may He make you and I learn to number our days that we may gain hearts of wisdom. May He make us glad for as many days as He has afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. May the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us! May God grant this to us all.

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A Gift for the King ~ Children’s Christmas Eve Service

Click here to listen to this sermon.standard-nativity

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

In the popular song, the little drummer boy tags along with the Magi to see Baby Jesus. Arriving at His house in Bethlehem, the Magi fall down in worship, offering Him fine gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. But the little drummer boy is sad because he has no gift to bring that’s fit to give the King.

So here we are this evening—in His house, bringing gifts for the King. So, what sorts of gifts have you brought Him? Did you, perhaps, dress up in your nicest clothes to honor Him? Dressing up for God’s house is a good and worthy practice, to be sure—a way of remembering whose presence you are entering. But I’m sure the shepherds were just as welcome when they arrived to meet Baby Jesus in their everyday work clothes.

How about offerings? Offerings are gifts, too. Offerings of money—that’s what we usually think of, but of course, there are other things. Time is a good gift. Money and time, elements of our very lives, gifts for our dear Lord. Our speaking and singing in the service, too—these are gifts we give to our Lord Jesus.

Most certainly, all these things are good things to do, good gifts for the King. But stop and think about these gifts. The truth is, what we can give the Lord is nothing that isn’t already His. “The cattle on a thousand are Mine,” He says. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine, and all its fullness.” No matter what we give, all we’re doing is “re-gifting” back to the original Giver.

Gifts for the King. What can you bring?

Well, Jesus says, “as you did it to one of the least of these you did it to Me.” That’s something we can do, right? We can give money to charities to help the poor. And we can offer these gifts of mercy as our gifts to Jesus. Surely, He’ll be more pleased with these sorts of everyday “righteousness” sorts of gifts, right?

But if you are doing these things for Jesus, save your energy. Does He need any of this? No! And for that matter, are your righteous acts really all that shiny and special? That’s not to say you shouldn’t do these things. To love your neighbor as yourself and to show mercy for the one who has need—all these things are good and worthwhile, commanded and commended by God. Just remember, Jesus doesn’t need these things; it’s your neighbor who needs them.

Gifts for the King. What can you bring?

By now, it’s obvious that you and I, like the little drummer boy, “have no gift to bring that’s fit to give the King.” Nothing we can offer is anything but stained and corrupted by our own sin, through and through. And the one who tries to offer this King even the smallest act of “righteousness” as though it were righteous in itself, well, that would be like coming before the emperor and flinging garbage and filth on his feet and expecting him to be impressed by such a fine gift.

Gifts for the King. What can you bring?

How about your heart? To be sure, that is the gift you most ought to give to Him. But even here, “I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give the King.” You and I have a bad heart condition. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick,” says Jeremiah (17:9). Jesus goes into greater detail, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). Merry Christmas, Jesus! Here’s my heart! Some gift, huh?

Nevertheless, that is the gift you must give to Him. Not because it is good, but quite the opposite, because your heart, is bad, filthy with sin to the core.

Still, the very best gift to give to Jesus is your sin. For one thing, it’s the only thing you can give to Him that is truly yours, which was never His gift to you in the first place. And beyond that, this is most definitely “the gift that keeps on giving”—all your sin and sinfulness; all your thoughts, words, and deeds; all your not doing the good that you would do, doing the evil that you’d like not to do.

And along with all that sin and selfishness, and hurt and harm and hate against your neighbor (and his against you, too, for that matter), comes all those effects of sin—like sorrow and decay and pain and misery and failure and then… death. And then, Death again, forever. To be sure, in giving Jesus your sin, you’re not giving Him some prize, but you’re not giving Him some small trifle, either!

But this is precisely the gift that He came to receive from us—or better put, to take from us. Most certainly, Christmas is all about exchanging gifts—the Great Exchange. The gift you must give to Jesus is your sin, selfishness, and all that goes with it—even your death and hell which would separate you from God forever. And in joyful exchange for such a gift, Jesus gives you His righteousness, His perfect love, His eternal life, and His own status of beloved Son of the Father.

But how? How can you bring such a gift for the King? Can you find a box that you can put your sin and death into and gift wrap it? And where do you mail it to? How and where and when do you give Jesus your Christmas gift of sin?

One of the “Christmas specials” I like is a production of Lutheran Hour Ministries called “Red Boots for Christmas.” In the story, an angel comes to Hans the shoemaker, to tell him that he will receive a gift from God that Christmas. Hans, a grumpy guy, is shocked, and then considers what he ought to give God in return. As he wonders, he asks Gretchen, a poor, old lady who lives off the kindling and sticks she can gather, what she would give God for a Christmas gift. She replies, “I would give Him what I give Him every day: My sins for His pardon, my weakness for His strength, and my sorrow for His joy.”

In Baptism, you already gave your gift of sin to Jesus, and received the gift of His righteousness. Daily, through contrition and repentance, you give Jesus your own proper gift—sin, and, in return, receive His gift to you—forgiveness for all your sins. In this Great Exchange, you give Christ all that belongs to you, and come away with everything that belongs to the King.

So. Go ahead and give all those other gifts, according to the wisdom and love that God has given you—sing and dress up and give offerings and pray at church, and work hard to love those neighbors God has given you. But never stop giving Jesus the gift He came to receive from you—your sin, and never stop knowing that He has given you the greatest gift in exchange—His forgiveness, salvation, and life.

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 homily is adapted from a sermon by Rev. David R. Mueller.

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It’s Hard to Bow Down with a Full Belly

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“The Healing of the Ten Lepers” by James I Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Then one of [the lepers], when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:15-18).

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

It’s hard to bow down with a full belly. Pregnant women coming to the communion rail know this. Middle-aged men trying to pick up a scrap of paper from the floor know this. And on days like tomorrow (today), with Thanksgiving dinners, there will be a lot more people who experience this firsthand.

But that’s just from the physical aspect. I would submit to you that it’s hard to bow down spiritually with a full belly, too. What I mean is that it is easier to turn to the Lord in hard times. It’s easier to keep God and His Word as a priority  when you’re facing trials and struggles. But it’s so easy to forget the Lord and His many blessings when you are comfortable, when times are good.

Martin Luther said: “The greater God’s gifts and works, the less they are regarded.” A hungry man is more thankful for his morsel than a rich man for his overflowing table. A lonely woman in a nursing home will appreciate a visit more than a popular woman with a party thrown in her honor. A Russian who finally gets his own copy of Scripture after seventy-five years of state-imposed atheism is more thankful for his little book than we are for all the Christian books and Bible translations that overflow our shelves. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that if the constellations appeared only once in a thousand years, imagine what an exciting event it would be. But because they’re out every night, we barely give them a look.

One of the evidences of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives is a gradual reversal of this twisted pattern. God wants to make us people who exhibit a thankfulness on proper proportion to the gifts and blessings we’ve received. He wants us to become a people who realize that nothing we have comes from our feeble efforts, but solely from the merciful and gracious hand of God. We must learn that the only way to come before God is empty-handed as beggars.

But that’s not easy to do, is it? It’s hard to bow down with a full belly.

What would it take to get you to beg? What would it take for you to swallow your pride and ask for help from a total stranger, a passing acquaintance, even a close friend or family member? I submit that it takes at least two things to make such a bold request. First, it takes a sense of desperation, at the very least the recognition of a great need that you are unable to fulfill yourself. And second, it takes confidence that the one whom you are asking is able to fulfill that need.

And so, we turn to the ten lepers in our Gospel. They are desperate. They’re all out of options. They’re dying from a terrible contagious disease. They can’t go to work. They can’t stay home. They can’t hug their wives and kids. The Law is clear: They are unclean. They are required to stay away from everyone else except other lepers. If anyone who doesn’t have leprosy happens to wander their way, these loneliest of men are required to shout out a warning to stay away.

When Jesus comes along, the beggars shout from a distance. Not “stay away,” but “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Somehow, they’ve heard. Though they’ve been ostracized and isolated, they’ve still gotten the news of Jesus and His miraculous healing. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” This is a prayer of faith—or at least the beginning of faith. The lepers know Jesus through the wonderful stories that have been told about Him. The Word of Christ has worked faith in their hearts. Their plea for mercy is an expression of this faith. They realize that they cannot buy or barter for the blessing Jesus brings, but can only beg for it.

And Jesus, seeing them, and fully away of their miserable plight simply tells them to show themselves to the priests. It was commanded in the Law of Moses that those who supposed themselves to be cured of leprosy must present themselves to one of the priests on duty at the temple, in order that their healing might be confirmed. If it was determined they had been cured of their sickness, then they were required to bring a sacrifice. The sacrifices in the temple included the shedding of blood, looking forward to the cleansing atonement of the Messiah, who, at that very moment just happens to be on His way to Jerusalem to offer His blood as the final, once-for-all sacrifice. Jesus wants the priests to confirm that the miracle has taken place. It will confirm that Jesus is who He says He is: the merciful one who cleanses the entire sins of humanity.

As the ten obediently head to the temple, all of them are cleansed.

Can you imagine the joy that all of them felt that moment? They, who were outcasts, who had no hope, who had no future to look forward to, now had received their lives back! They could go home to friends and family. They could kiss their wives again. Play with their kids. They were cleansed!

One of them comes back—a Samaritan! The man praises God, bows down at Jesus’ feet, and worships. He has nothing to give Jesus in return for healing except his thanks. And while we usually highlight the ingratitude of the other nine at this point, this one only highlights the Lord’s mercy more. As a Samaritan, this man would not be able to enter the temple in Jerusalem. As Jesus notes, he is a “foreigner,” a term used by Jews with reference to Gentiles. In fact, this term appeared within an inscription posted on the barrier wall of the Jerusalem temple. It said: “No foreigner should enter…. Whoever does is himself responsible for the death that will follow.” It is most ironic, therefore, that this “foreigner” draws near to the living temple of God, Jesus Christ. There, his worship is received by God Himself, now incarnate.

The man returns because he has faith. Jesus says so: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” That’s what faith does. It keeps running back to Jesus for more, because it never gets too full to bow down. Faith runs back with thanksgiving, because faith gladly says, “I had nothing to give, but Jesus was merciful to me anyway! I still have nothing to give, but Jesus will be merciful to me again!” Faith always runs back to Jesus for more. It never gets too full.

This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the other nine: Not so much that they don’t give thanks, but that they don’t come back to Jesus who has so much more to give them. They’ve got what they want most—they have their lives, health, families, and home back again. But they don’t have what they need most—forgiveness, faith, life, and salvation. They run to the temple—the dwelling place of God. They go to see the priests, not realizing that there in their very midst was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrificial system—Jesus, the great High Priest, whose very body is the Temple of the Lord’s Presence come to earth.

Then Jesus asks, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus’ question tends to emphasize the ingratitude of those who did not return to give thanks, a big part of the reason that this text is the appointed Gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day. But there’s more here than just a reminder to use your good manners.

Why didn’t the nine return to give thanks? I would submit to you: Because it’s hard to bow down with a full belly. It’s hard to beg if you think you no longer have a great need. It’s hard to bow down unless you recognize the superiority of the one before who you bow. Having had their immediate needs fulfilled, the former lepers head to the priests, and then once declared “clean,” probably back to home. There is no more need to beg and bow down. They have received their lives back and they are ready to get on with living. Kiss their wives, play with their kids. To do all the good things they had been missing. Except for the most important!

The nine get what they want, but they miss what they really need. The cares and riches and pleasures of life choke out their seedling faith, long before there is any fruit to bear. The temporal gifts they have received seem so much more important than the Giver. And they ending up missing the greater eternal gifts He has to offer. It happens far too often. It can easily happen to you and me.

In a recent post, Pastor Hans Fiene wrote: “The greatest threat facing the church in America is not liberalism or Islamic terrorism or Hollywood or public schools. It’s the utter indifference and apathy of Christians who consistently prioritize money, sports, family, etc. over hearing the Word and belonging to their fellow Christians. The Gospel will remain on earth until Jesus returns, but it might not remain in your neighborhood, folks. Get back to God’s house. Wait too long and it might not be there.” Indifference leads to unbelief. Apathy leads to apostasy.

Faith, on the other hand, keeps running back to Jesus. Faith keeps running back with thanks, and faith keeps running back for more. Faith’s belly never gets too full to bow down. By faith, the Samaritan who had been a leper knows that it’s not just that he was at the mercy of God; He remains at the mercy of God. And by faith, he knows there’s no better place to be.

The way of faith, then, is ever returning, glorifying God for what He has given. And you will find that He always has more to give. Which leads to even more thanksgiving. The Lord wants this to be an endless cycle and the very joy of your life. What He wants, finally, is to give you nothing less than Himself, and He is, as Dr. Luther puts it so unforgettably, “an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good.” And so today—and every day—you gush forth constant thanksgiving for all the gifts of your Lord to you.

Thanksgiving is worship. Worship is continual repentance and faith—begging for cleansing and salvation, receiving by faith God’s good gifts in His Word and Sacrament. Offering Him thanksgiving and worship for all He has done for you. In this life, you never move beyond that. There is no greater purpose, no greater service that you can render unto the Lord. Not that God needs your thanksgiving. He doesn’t benefit from your thanking Him. You do! The more you thank God the Father through His dear Son, Jesus Christ, the more you recognize how generously and bountifully He deals with you, and the more you are motivated to share His love and mercy with others.

Chances are you are leaving here today and you’re going to fill your bellies—maybe too full to bend over, but hopefully never too full to bow down. Enjoy your time with family and friends and feast; they’re part of God’s good gifts, too. But never forget the greater gifts! Come before your Lord often to receive His mercy in Word and Sacrament. Live in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. Hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Receive the very body and blood of your Savior Jesus Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.

And then depart in peace and joy. “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.” You are forgiven of all your sins.

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

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

 

 

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Receiving the Kingdom of God Like a Child

10261_1521254229736Click here to listen to this sermon.“Let the children come to Me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:14-15).

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

Dear friends in Christ, in the last few weeks, you have heard what a place of honor Jesus affords to little children. You have heard that one who receives a little one in Jesus’ name receives Jesus. You have also heard the warning against leading a little one astray, both through false teaching and failure to teach. And our Lord takes it one step further in our text this morning/evening. Jesus declares in that little ones can believe in Him, and are, in fact, models of faith.

People are bringing their children to Jesus. They have heard of Jesus’ miracles, and may have witnessed some of them personally. They desire the spiritual blessing associated with Jesus laying His hands upon them, to receive His benediction. And these are not just little ones who can already tell you that Jesus loves them. St. Luke’s account of this story indicates specifically that the people were bringing infants—their newborn babies—to receive Jesus’ blessing.

And when the disciples, for some unknown reason, rebuke the people, Jesus grows indignant against them and says, “Let the children come to Me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

The kingdom of God belongs to little children, including infants. Put this knowledge together with other teachings of the New Testament, such as “whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved,” and “by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves—it is the gift of God; not by works, lest any man should boast,” and you get a powerful proclamation of God’s kingdom that goes against the conventional wisdom of man.

The conventional wisdom of man goes according to the Law that is written on his heart. From that, man concludes that salvation is contingent upon one’s works and deeds in this life. “If you want to go to heaven,” the sinful heart says, “you do these certain things. You jump through all the hoops. You decide to follow Jesus. You get yourself baptized. You do good works to get a reward.”

But while Jesus does speak of the necessity of good works and bearing good fruit, nowhere does He ascribe one’s salvation to one’s own works. His blessing of the infants here in Mark 10 is undeniable proof of this. What works are infants performing toward their salvation? What good deeds are they doing in order to gain God’s favor? None, absolutely none! Why, these little ones could not even come into Jesus arms, if someone else did not bring them!

And lest anyone here respond with the notion that little children are exempt from God’s Law and they are not responsible for sin until reaching an age of discretion or accountability, the Scriptures clearly declare otherwise. St. Paul writes to the Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). King David laments in the 51st Psalm “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” And St. Paul also says without question that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). So, while an infant may appear innocent and pure to us, the child still has the original sin that infects us all. And this original sin is a terminal illness, as is evidenced by the tragic fact that even babies can die.

Knowing, therefore, that little children need the forgiveness of sins and the blessings of God’s grace, we understand the gravity of Jesus’ command not to hinder the children. But we also learn an important lesson about our own Christian lives as those who have grown up and confessed our faith. If a little child receives the forgiveness of sins and the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit—that is, receives saving faith and the promise of eternal life—it is fitting and right for us to recognize how God works to save all of His people.

If a little child is promised heaven through God’s work in the washing of the water and the Word, it doesn’t speak well for our man-made opinions regarding faith and good works. For we brought nothing into this world, and we will take nothing with us. But our sinful nature seeks to glory in our own works and behavior, as if it were scoring points with God and earning a seat at the eternal feast in heaven. Our sinful heart says to us, “I’m a good person, or at least better than many. I give to my church. I love my children. I do my best to love my neighbor, and when I sin, it’s not really a big deal because it’s nothing really bad or serious. I’m a good Christian, and that is why God will save me.”

But dear friends, if God looked at your own works and deeds, as you do in this instance, and considered you righteous because of them, then Christ Jesus died in vain. Repent of all of the self-righteousness that continually creeps into your heart from your Old Adam. For although your Old Adam has been drowned in your Baptism, he’s still a good swimmer. The depravity of the human race manifests itself not just in the awful things people do to one another—in their sins against another, but, even more so, in the hardness of our hearts toward God Himself, in our unwillingness to receive everything from His grace.

The sinful heart does not want to believe that the work of salvation is complete already, and that all are in need of it. This is the sin the disciples committed when they hindered the children from being brought to Jesus. And the children had to be brought into God’s kingdom. They could not bring themselves.

In the same way, you must be brought into the kingdom of God—you cannot bring yourself. You cannot trust in your works to bring you there because your works in and of themselves are nothing but filthy rags. They might look good to you and your fellow man, but they earn nothing with God. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”

The faith of a little child is faith that trusts in Jesus. It is the purest and strongest of all. If you ask a little one who believes in Jesus why they get to go to heaven, they’ll tell you it’s because Jesus died on the cross to take away their sins. That’s as good an answer as you can give. “To such belongs the kingdom of God.”

But the child will grow up, and as an adult becomes dissatisfied with the Sunday School answer, and looks for a more “educated” answer to the question. And eventually the concept of being a good person sneaks in. Even one who answers with “I am going to heaven because I believe in Jesus” already has taken the merit of Christ and replaced it with his own believing. He’s turned the gift of faith into his own work. And Jesus warns against this when He says: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”

Children receive the kingdom of God because God gives them faith in their Savior Jesus and He regenerates them in their Baptism. Adults receive God’s kingdom only when they despair of their own works and righteousness, and they possess a childlike faith.

A little child does not add to the Word of the Lord and supplement God’s work with his own. A little child does not tell others that he is going to heaven because he’s a good kid. A little child receives God’s blessing and the promise of eternal life before he can even speak, because God attaches this powerful promise to His chosen means of Baptism. It is God’s work, not the child’s.

Dear baptized, the promise of the forgiveness of sin and eternal life is yours as well, only because of God’s continued work in your earthly pilgrimage. For you have been justified by the faith which God Himself has given you, and which He feeds and sustains. He has declared you righteous in His sight, and draws you continually to His house. Here, He strengthens you and equips you to continually drown your Old Adam through repentance of sin, and trust in Christ Jesus to forgive you. Here, He comes to you with His mercy and grace.

When the people were bringing their children to Jesus, they didn’t just want Him to speak a blessing. They wanted their little ones to receive Jesus’ touch. For He was no mere priest of the temple or eccentric preacher. He was God in the flesh, who Himself had become a little child. Listen to how the Epistle to the Hebrews explains it in this morning’s reading:

“At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to Him. But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why He is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, ‘I will tell of Your name to My brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.’ And again, ‘I will put My trust in Him.’ And again, ‘Behold, I and the children God has given Me’” (Hebrews 2:8-13).

The Savior had to become like His people in every respect, and indeed He was even tempted as we are, yet without sin. The eternal Son of God became flesh to suffer and die in order to atone for the sins of the whole world. Thus, He, too, had to be an infant. The one, for whom and by whom all things exist, was made for a little while lower than the angels, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for every one. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the virgin’s womb and was born a child so that He might redeem all children from sin and the power of death. His whole life—from conception to death—was lived out in perfect obedience and holiness so that it might be credited to us by faith.

Christ death and resurrection conquered the devil, hell, and all their power, opening the gates of heaven to all who would believe in Him. This includes little children, and, in fact, places them at the front of the line. Theirs is a simple, trusting faith that receives God’s grace and doesn’t try to replace it with something else. Theirs is a faith that is in the Incarnate Lord Jesus, who promised to be with His people unto the end of the age.

Therefore, do not hinder the little children. Bring them to the Lord Jesus and encourage others to do the same. Teach your children about their Savior, and instruct them in the Christian faith, that they may examine themselves to be admitted to their Lord’s altar, when the same Jesus who touched the children to bless them now touches the lips and mouths of the faithful with His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

Furthermore, approach the altar of your Lord this day in repentance and childlike faith, despairing of your own works of righteousness, and trusting in the love and mercy of Christ alone, trusting that you, His servant, may truly depart in peace, “For to such belongs the kingdom of God”—children and those of all ages who hear and believe these marvelous words: “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.

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Little Ones Who Believe in Jesus

10249_1521253692125Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

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

There are certain things that you observe around you that let you know you’re in an election season. Campaign signs, mailers, televised debates, and endless commercials. And whether it’s a candidate or a proposition or school bond issue, one way they attempt to influence the voter is by making an appeal on behalf of the children. Candidates are pictured with children around them. Initiatives are promoted through children smiling and waving, perhaps even speaking words of their own scripted endorsement so that you, too, will support it. Either the person or the idea is presented as good because it is good for the children. And what kind of monster doesn’t want to do what is good for the children?

While some of this material is a shameless emotional appeal to mothers and fathers who want the best for their own children, such campaigning is also based on a premise that cannot be denied. Children are our future. The children of today are the grownups of tomorrow. And it is the same for the Church on earth.

Our Lord stresses heavily the upbringing of children, for the Church itself is always but one generation away from extinction. God does not mass-produce Christians. He makes them individually through the Holy Spirit creating faith in their hearts by means of His Word and Sacrament. This faith must be fed and sustained, just as the body must be continually nourished with food and water. And like the body, faith also can fall victim to disease, but not to the flu or a cold. Faith suffers the illness of being scandalized. A literal translation of Jesus’ words is “whoever scandalizes one of these little ones who believe in Me.”

To scandalize someone is to cause them to stumble—to shake the faith that they have in something or someone. We may have come to know the word scandal in our culture to be nothing more than juicy gossip that gives newspapers their cover story day after day—usually about a famous person’s private life. But in the biblical sense, the concept of a scandal is much more sinister. Jesus doesn’t leave any room for His people to be flippant about their behavior toward others, the little ones in particular.

Our text this morning follows the events of the reading from last Sunday, in which Jesus took up a child in His arms and declared that whoever receives such a little one in His name receives Him. This child is still in their midst today when Jesus warns against causing such a little one to sin.

Throughout the New Testament, little children are held up as the example of faith to the church. Jesus said explicitly that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. Why is this? We know from Scripture that children are not sinless. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The wages of sin is death, and we know that children, too, are subject to death. We know that they are conceived and born in sin, and that, like adults, they would be eternally lost without God’s saving grace. So what makes little children the examples of faith? Why is childlike faith revered above all?

We begin to understand the danger of scandalizing a little one when we come to realize the nature of a child’s faith. The faith of a little child is a faith that has been given through her baptism and is fed through hearing about her Savior Jesus. It is a faith that has not yet been subjected to the temptations of the world. A child is sinful by nature, but she doesn’t yet receive reinforcement of sinful behavior from others. She also has not yet been subjected to schoolteachers and college professors who will ridicule her because of her faith in Jesus.

A little child receives God’s Word, Christ Jesus, and trusts in Him without being attacked on all sides. A little child isn’t afraid of talking about her Savior because of what others will think! Hers is a complete faith and trust in her Redeemer Jesus. She may not be able to articulate it. A little child may not yet be able to understand the full meaning of all the words of the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed, but the faith of her heart is not contingent on the ability of her mind to process it.

This is another important aspect to remember, that faith is of the heart and not of the mind. Faith is not a mental exercise or a deliberate action of the will. Faith is not a decision that is entered upon and then never subject to second thoughts. Faith is God’s instrument for receiving His salvation by grace. It is God’s work, and it is His gift to us. And the faith of a little child is one that has been received and has not yet been polluted by the world. It is focused on Jesus and is not divided between Him and other things. The little child believes and has not yet been taught to doubt. Thus, the faith of a little child is the strongest and purest of all.

Woe, therefore, to anyone who would damage the faith of these little ones! Jesus isn’t being dramatic when He speaks of a millstone being hung around one’s neck, mob-style, and being thrown into the sea. It truly would be better for such a scandalous person to have that happen, because at least in the bottom of the sea one would not be able to scandalize any more children.

At this point, your thoughts might be focusing on a couple of more obvious scandals to children that receive such prominence in our day—child abusers and child predators. But as heinous as such crimes against children these may be, we need not go so far as physical abuse to truly scandalize a little one and cause them to sin. We need only consider what is needed to sustain a child’s faith and realize our own failings in our responsibility as Christians to nurture that faith.

At the end of our text, Jesus speaks of the saltiness of salt, and tells you to have salt in yourselves and be a peace with one another. Now, our Lord is not speaking of the level of sodium in one’s diet. Rather, He speaks about salt as it has always been used by man —as a preservative and seasoning. All our conduct as Christians is to be seasoned with salt. Our lives are not to be lived according to our sinful nature, but seasoned with God’s gifts of grace, which strengthen us against the temptation to sin and also enable us to give a faithful Christian witness to everyone. Your conduct, therefore, in every situation, must speak well of your Lord, and this includes your conduct toward His little ones.

Children don’t need any help being sinners, but woe to him who provides such help. This includes not just teaching one’s children sinful behavior by means of bad example, but also failing to bring up one’s children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Jesus does warn against outward sin against little children, but He speaks here more broadly against anything that damages a child’s faith. And there are plenty of ways that remain rampant among Christians.

Parents who bring their child to the waters of Holy Baptism promise to teach their children the ways of the Lord, and when they fail to do so, they not only break their promise, but they also cause their little one who believes in Jesus to stumble, because they starve their faith. A parent who doesn’t properly nourish their child with food, clothing, and shelter is charged by the state with neglect and child endangerment. A parent who doesn’t nourish a child’s faith neglects and endangers the child’s soul. It would be better if a millstone dragged such a teacher to the bottom of the sea, where they could not harm others.

The Christian congregation in general also has the responsibility to its young people to provide an example to them. Christians are to show love for the children of their parish and rejoice that they are there on the Lord’s Day to hear of Jesus and know that He died to forgive them of all their sins. Christian adults should be ready and willing to tell the little ones about Jesus in Sunday School. Pastors have the honor and privilege of assisting parents in the instruction of their children by meeting with the children during the week, to help them to examine themselves for worthy and prepared reception of their Lord’s body and blood in the Sacrament.

All Christians have the duty before God to nurture and encourage the Christians of tomorrow. We all have the responsibility to let our light shine before men and provide an example to those who are most impressionable. This applies not just to little ones, but even to adults who are still “little ones” in the faith. No one should conduct oneself in such a way that others are surprised to learn that one is a Christian. Your Christian faith should be known to others by the fruits you bear. Just as a good tree bears good fruit, so also does a true faith show itself through good works and example.

Your children are watching you, and so is the world. The world is waiting for you to slip up and provide them with the dirt of scandal. The world rejoices when the Christian causes the little ones to sin, for it confirms itself in its own rejection of Christ Jesus and basks in your failures.

Don’t give the world what it desires in finding excuse to reject the Gospel! As James said in our Epistle reading, resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Be humble, and speak evil of no one. Be imitators of Christ, who returned no evil for evil, who endured the cursings and revilings of the world, but who did not apologize for the truth and went to the cross for it.

Christ Jesus went to the cross for you. He went to the cross and died to atone for all of your weaknesses and all of your failings. He took all of your poor behavioral examples, all of your indifference, all of your lacking, and nailed it to that cross. He hung a great millstone around all the things you do as a sinner to cause His little ones to sin, and has cast them into the deep.

Your Lord Jesus has blessed you, His people of this particular time and place, with the gift of His Word that makes you wise unto salvation. And He has entrusted it to you for the instruction of the little ones. He gives to you His Word and faith to keep and preserve you, to equip you in your responsibility to future generations. And He invites you to receive from Him the strength to remain in that faith that trusts in the crucified and risen Lord.

This same faith He provides to the little ones that they would believe in Him unto life everlasting. His promises are as much to them as to you who have confessed your God-given faith. Therefore go, and in service to Him, render God-pleasing service to His little ones. Encourage them in the faith, teach them in the way they should go, so that when they are old, they do not depart from it.

Our Lord bless and keep you strong and steadfast in His Word, and sustain you according to His faithful promise, that you would be an example to the little ones who will carry the faith to the end. Go in the peace of the Lord and serve Him and with joy. You are forgiven 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

Faith v Works: A False Dichotomy

Faith v WorksClick here to listen to this sermon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

Just Jesus?

jesus-unrolls-the-book-in-the-synagogue-1894(1).jpg!LargeClick here to listen to this sermon.

“[Jesus] went away from there and came to His hometown, and His disciples followed Him. And on the Sabbath He began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard Him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to Him? How are such mighty works done by His hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him” (Mark 6:1–3).

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

As usual, St. Mark gets right to business. He tells us that right after healing the woman of a 12-year hemorrhage and raising a little girl from the dead in Capernaum, Jesus returns “to His hometown” (Nazareth) with His disciples.

It is not a social call, a chance to renew old acquaintances and catch up with the homefolks. Jesus returns as a rabbi, a teacher of Scripture. And so, that Sabbath He can be found teaching in the synagogue. The worshipers all know Him well. He comes to share the Gospel with them. But the question is: Are they ready to receive the Gospel from Him? Or perhaps better stated: “Are they ready to receive Him as the one who embodies the Gospel in His person and ministry?”

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus preached. He focuses, rather, on the reaction of the townspeople. “Many who heard Him were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to Him? How are such mighty works done by His hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?’”

Translation: It’s just Jesus, nobody special. We watched Him grow up. He might be doing some special things, but He’s nobody special. Certainly not any better than we are. Who is He to be speaking to us this way?

But there’s even more than merely “the hometown boy makes good” jealousy or the “familiarity breeds contempt” thing going on here. St. Luke tells us they drove Him out of town… so they could throw Him down the cliff. St. Mark tells us why: “They took offense at Him.”

“They took offense at Him.” These words are a warning to all Christians, including (perhaps especially) the one who is preaching to you. The warning is this: Preaching should not be done to entertain you. Preaching is not meant as a pep talk or even for teaching you how to be a better person. Preaching has but one purpose, and that one purpose is to focus your eyes and ears and heart on Christ Jesus and Him alone. Just Jesus… that’s ultimately who you should hear and see when God’s Word is proclaimed to you.

Now, in order for God to give you a good picture of your Lord Jesus Christ, He must first show you a bad picture of yourself—that is, a true, accurate, though unflattering picture of you and your sin. In order for you to benefit from the forgiveness that Jesus earned for you through His death on the cross, God must first proclaim His holy Law to diagnose and warn you about your continual need for forgiveness because sin and death live within you. The people of Jesus’ hometown took offense because they did not want to hear such things.

That is where things fell apart at Nazareth. Jesus “came to His hometown… and on the Sabbath He began to teach in the synagogue.” Everything was fine up until then. Then, Jesus starts preaching about Jesus. Just Jesus. And “they took offense at Him.” They were scandalized because of Jesus and the Gospel.

You and I both should take a clear warning from this. May God guard us against such unbelief and self-centered scandal! May we allow our Lord Jesus Christ to say what He must say about us—our sin, so that we might focus on Him—our Savior. So that we might repent of our sinful ways and continue to receive the gifts of salvation and life that come only from Him—just Jesus.

The second warning of today’s Gospel is this: a personal relationship with Jesus will do you very little good. I know, that sounds shocking given today’s religious environment. All the time you hear Christians saying, “You must have a personal relationship with Jesus” if you are to be saved. But a personal relationship with Jesus, in and of itself, will not save you.

Let me explain. I think the text makes it clear that most everyone in Nazareth assumed they had a personal relationship with Jesus. They’d seen Him grow up. They knew His family. They even knew Him as an adult when He plied His trade as “the carpenter.” Yet they took offense at Him.

This is another serious warning, not only for us but also for many of our loved ones and neighbors who find it unimportant to come to worship! Our text does not emphasize knowing who Jesus is or even having a personal relationship with Him. It does emphasize that we hear the words of Jesus and believe. A simple claim to know Jesus or a claim to have personal relationship with Jesus might place you in danger of the fires of Hell. Even the demons knew Jesus. And so, it seems, did everyone in Nazareth. Yet “[Jesus] marveled at their unbelief.”

No, salvation is not based upon a personal relationship with Jesus, but rather faith given by the Holy Spirit through the Word. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned,” Jesus promises in Mark 16:16. Believe in what or whom? In Jesus. Just Jesus. Christ alone, and Him crucified.

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? The foolishness of unbelief, the disregard for things we consider common. There stands the eternal Son of God, present with His people and speaking His powerful Word, and to them He’s just Jesus—no one special. How could they do such a thing? After all, they’d heard of His marvelous teachings and miraculous powers. You would think that they would receive Him as Savior with open arms and listen to Him and believe.

But then again, the Old Adam makes belief very hard, and we must take care or we will fall into the same trap. And if we have so fallen, then it is time for us to repent. You see, the Lord is here, too. Not just “spiritually present” as so many churches teach. The Lord is as really present here as He was in that synagogue in His hometown. There, He cloaked His godhood in flesh and blood. Now He hides both His divine and human natures to visit you in His means of grace.

You’ve heard of this miracle and mystery many-a-Sunday before this one. By means of Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion, the holy Lord Jesus Christ is wholly present here with you. Furthermore, He is present for your good. He speaks His Word of grace and life to you. He forgives your sins for an awesome purpose. He desires that you have eternal life with Him in heaven. That is why He died on the cross. That is why He comes to you in His means of grace. And that is why He is present here. The Son of God is here. To save you.

Now the question I lay before you is this: What kind of welcome will He receive? All over, as people got up for church this morning, Old Adam got up with them. Among the discouragements that Old Adam whispered were these: “It’s going to be really hot in there.” “The sermon is going to take a long time.” And we’ll be singing the same old hymns and liturgy again.” “It’s the same stuff that we do every week, nothing special.”

The Old Adam whispers all these things to us—maybe not this Sunday, but then some Sunday soon. He does so for a reason. Old Adam doesn’t want you to rejoice that Jesus is here. Because, you see, Jesus is here. He is present in these things. In Holy Baptism, He placed His name upon you and wrote your name in the Book of Life. As you hear His Word proclaimed and sing His Word in the liturgy, He is working through that Word to give you grace. As you receive His Supper, He shares His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.

Miraculous things are going on here—miracles far greater than healed hemorrhages and stilled storms, even greater than little girls brought back to life—because these miracles give you life forever—eternal life in the presence of God. And yet, when the Old Adam prevails, you approach these things with a sense of apathy and boredom, unhappy with the same old Jesus. Perhaps, even offended?

To illustrate the sadness of this sin, consider this. You know that the car needs gasoline to get you places, and it’s the same routine each time. Pull up to the pump and stop the motor. Slide the debit card and pump the gas. Put the nozzle and the cap back in their places. Understanding the necessity of fuel, are you ever tempted to look for an alternative source of power for your car?

Now, you need forgiveness repeatedly because daily you sin much. The Lord gathers you here to give you forgiveness and eternal life, and He has prescribed His Word and Sacraments to get the job done. Yet it is so tempting to approach this ongoing feast of forgiveness with the idea that it’s just Jesus, nothing special. If this is true, it’s because your sinful nature is hard at work. Your Old Adam doesn’t care if you trust in gasoline to get around. It doesn’t destroy him and give you eternal life. But forgiveness does, and so the Old Adam works hard to make it seem like just forgiveness, nothing special. Could it be that you are tempted to take our Lord’s presence for granted because you don’t see the need for forgiveness? Because you don’t see how terribly sinful you are before God?

So I ask you: Did you come here today excited to be visited by the Son of God Himself? Do you make your way here with at least as much enthusiasm as you would to meet an old, dear friend? Do you come enthusiastically into the Lord’s presence—as eagerly as you ought? The answer is no. Burdened by sin, none of us can honestly say “yes” in this life. Why? Is it that the Lord has changed and is no longer as holy, glorious, or merciful? No. He remains the same. The trouble is with us, plagued by sin, that prevents us from rejoicing as we ought.

If you do not appreciate our Lord’s visit, it is not that the Gospel has changed; rather, it may be that you have failed to hear the Law that shows you how much you need forgiveness. Burdened for one reason or another, and denying how sinful you are, it is easy to come to church and say, “It’s just Jesus, nothing special.” This is proof you are sick with sin, and this is confirmed by God’s Word. But if you realize you are sick with sin, then take comfort. Remember, it was the sick in the Gospel lesson who were healed. It was those who didn’t trust in themselves, but confessed their weakness and trusted in Jesus who were healed.

So, here is the Good News. No matter what frame of mind was yours as you came here this morning, the Lord is here—as faithful as always. He gathers you here to forgive your sins, to strengthen and preserve you in the one true faith unto life everlasting. He removes your guilt from you, for He has died for your sins.

How powerful is His grace? Consider someone who drags himself in with little eagerness to meet the Lord, and who departs with no more emotional or physical energy than when he arrived. Nevertheless, he hears the Word and receives the Lord’s Supper. And as he goes, he can say, “Even though my body denies it with every step, the Lord came to visit me today. And although I feel no different, He has removed my sin and strengthened my faith. He will preserve me in that faith until the day He raises me from the dead. Then, fully released from the bonds of sin and death I will be properly joyful at His presence with me.”

Take heart, dear friends. The Lord is here to forgive your sins. Today, He visits you by His Word and Sacrament; and though your Old Adam may say He’s just Jesus and no one special, your faith rejoices to receive Him and to hear Him speak this Good News through His called and ordained servant: 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.