Sermons, Uncategorized

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.

 

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

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.

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

“Fear Not!” : A Sermon for the Funeral of Pat Beyers

20180629_091902Click here to listen to this sermon.

But now thus says the Lord, He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3a).

Cheri, Scott, Brendon, Cyndi, and other members of Pat’s family, her friends, and Our Saviour’s congregation:

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

When I speak at a funeral service, there are often younger people, and maybe some not so young, who are trying to find the place for religion in their lives. They’re asking themselves, “Does this mean anything to me? Is this just something my parents cared about?”

But then, at some point, everybody faces something he or she can’t handle, something that scares us. Maybe it’s the biggest stress we’ve yet faced in this life, maybe it’s an unexpected diagnosis of a dangerous disease, or maybe it’s the eventual realization that we have to face the end of this life. And suddenly we wish there could be some place to turn—or Someone to turn to—outside ourselves.

Then maybe those who’ve gone before can teach us something after all—like how they dealt with those fears themselves. Turning to their example we see that as they learned and grew, their faith became absolutely foundational.

Pat, I think, is one of those people from whom we can learn. We can learn from Pat because she knew where her Christian faith fit into all this. She knew she could face fears because her Redeemer promised to deliver her from them all. In Pat, God illustrated His assurance that we need not fear.

Our text begins, “But now thus says the Lord.” This is important. There are many philosophies, ideas, and different ways to live life out there in the world. There are many ways to handle fear. You can be crippled by it. You can try to act as if no problem exists. You can try to face it on your own strength. Or you can turn to the Lord. As Christians, we want to know what the Lord says, so when we hear, “But now thus says the Lord,” we listen, we turn to the Lord.

Isaiah continues, “He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel” That’s how Hebrew poetry works: say something, and then say it over again with a little twist for emphasis. In this passage, God says: “I have created you,” but then adds, “I have formed you.” That’s a closer relationship. “I didn’t just bring about some great cosmic force that ultimately produced you,” God is saying. “No, I ‘formed’ you. Like a potter with a piece of clay, I have lovingly and skillfully molded you and shaped you to be who you are. From the time of your conception, while you were yet in the womb, I have been actively involved in your life.”

Then come two great words that are the theme of our text: “Fear not.” Literally, “Stop being afraid.” The same thing the angel said to the shepherds at Christ’s birth and to the women on Easter morning. Fear not. That’s what God tells us through Isaiah; and then He tells us why: “For I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine.”

Life is full of fears. Pat went through most of them. Growing up—that’s terrifying for everybody, isn’t it? We each struggle to find our own identity. We wonder what our life will be like, where we’ll work, if we’ll ever get married and have a family. When we do tie the knot, there’s the fear and tough business of making it work, facing the fears and worries every couple experiences: finding jobs, making a home, planning for the future. And when it doesn’t work out as we expect, there are the worries of what to do now, how to carry on and begin anew.

With children in the equation, there’s a whole host of new fears! There’s worry about paying the bills, keeping the kids fed and healthy, about the friends they hang around with, and the choices they’ll make as they establish their own way in the world. In addition to juggling family responsibilities and a job at the Pipestone County Star, Pat somehow still found time for also serving her church and being actively involved in the Pipestone community.

After her children were grown, Pat entered a new phase of her life. It had to be scary as Pat moved away from Pipestone and began a career in economic development in Northfield, MN. But she was up to the challenge and advanced as new opportunities arose in Manchester, Iowa and Granite Falls, Minnesota. Then she returned to Pipestone in retirement—a move Pat called “the best thing she ever did.” And God opened the doors to new adventures and challenges.

Finally, in life, Pat, like each of us, had to deal with her own shortcomings, her own insecurities, her own sinfulness, her health issues, and ultimately, her own mortality. And that can make any of us afraid, too.

No doubt, there were times when Pat was scared. But she heard the Lord say, “Fear not. I not only made you, but I was born that I would experience everything that you can experience. I understand. Don’t be afraid. I redeemed you on the cross when I took all your sins upon Myself. I want you to look at that cross and know that every bit of punishment due you ended right there. I redeemed you, and in the resurrection of Jesus you know that even the last enemy—death—has been defeated in Me. Fear not.”

As the Lord said to Israel through the prophet Isaiah, He also said to Pat: “I have summoned you by name.” That happened many years ago when the pastor put water on Pat’s head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. At that moment, God said, “Pat, you are My child. You are Mine. I called you by My name. No one shall ever pluck you from My hand.”

And to make sure Pat stayed in His flock, the Lord fed her regularly in the worship service with His life-giving Word and His own true body and blood for the forgiveness of her sins and the strengthening of her faith.

Our text from Isaiah goes on: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” The first word there is interesting. Maybe we think God should say “if.” If you pass through the waters.” If hard times come.

But the text does not say “if”; it says “when.” We have somehow taken it for granted that there ought to be a way to get through life without difficulties—some medical breakthrough, some fitness program, some perfect planning will help us avoid trials and troubles. But the Bible says, “No. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” In this fallen world we can expect, we must expect difficulties, troubles, and trials to come. Because of sin, such things are inevitable.

Even so, the Lord promises, “The rivers… shall not overwhelm you.” Oh yes, they will bother you; they will try you; they may make you want to give up. But fear not. I will be with you. When you walk through fire, the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

Pat believed these verses. When asked if this were her true confession, she affirmed again and again to the time of her death: “Of course. Of course, God made me. Of course, God redeemed me. Of course, by the power of the Holy Spirit He will watch over me no matter what happens. Of course, He will raise my body on the Last Day that I may have eternal life with Him and all of His people.”

It probably won’t surprise those of you who know her best, but when I visited with Pat a few weeks before her latest stay at the hospital, she wasn’t interested in talking about herself and her weakening condition for very long. She preferred to talk about how much God had truly blessed her. She wanted to talk about her life, her children, her grandchildren, her hobbies and interests.

You know why? Because she believed God’s promises. She wasn’t afraid of her final moments because she knew her final destination was to be with the Lord.

Yes, there’s sadness today, certainly, and there is going to be more sadness I’m sure. You can’t lose someone you love and not feel a sense of emptiness and loneliness. But I pray that in the days to come, you will also feel a sense of peace.

Think of a rainbow. Rainbows don’t appear on clear days. Rainbows come on rainy, drizzly days. You come here today with the storms of your grief. You come here with the grayness of your thoughts. You come here with a sense of emptiness and sadness—but God gives you a rainbow.

Part of that rainbow is God’s work in Pat. Pat’s life lets us see one band of color in God’s whole beautiful promise also to us. In Christ Jesus, who redeemed you by His death on the cross, in your Baptism, by which God called you by name, you have the whole spectrum of His whole bright, many-colored promises. This is why the Lord, your God, the Holy One, your Savior, the One who created you and formed you, says to you today: “Fear not!”

By God’s grace, may you, like Pat and other saints who have gone on before us, find comfort and peace in Him and His Word. May God continue to work in you through His powerful Word to drive away all worries and fears with His forgiveness and love.

I close this message with the Irish blessing Pat wished you to hear:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand. 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

If You’re So Smart…

illustration-to-book-of-job-2.jpg!Large
“Illustration to Book of Job” by William Blake

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

“If you’re so smart, then tell me this…” Ever heard those words? They’re usually words children speak when they’re playing the game of one-upmanship. One child brags how far ahead he is of the rest because he’s been there, done that. Someone else doesn’t like the insinuation and says, “Oh, yeah. Well, if you’re so smart, then how did you get a C on that last science test? If you’re so smart, why did you have to stay in for recess yesterday? If you’re so smart…”

Our Old Testament Reading contains God’s words to Job at the end of the lengthy discussion between Job and his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, plus a fourth by the name of Elihu. After letting the human counselors and counselee vent for thirty-five chapters, God finally speaks out of the storm.

His silence throughout the long days of Job’s illness no doubt parallels the silence of God during some of our tough times. Sometimes it appears God is silent, or maybe sleeping, like Jesus was in our Gospel Reading. But God does care. He is not asleep. God is not silent. But neither does He owe us an answer.

As Job forgets, and as we may well be reminded this morning too, God is so much bigger and smarter than you or me. We can trust Him even when life seems out of control, even when things just don’t make sense to our human reasoning.

Lots of people think they know better than God, and they need to hear these words from Job. The atheist who claims not to believe in God. The skeptic who questions whether God cares what goes on in the world. The secularist who’s far too practical to depend upon God. And the materialist who says if he can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. These and many others think they know better than God. To use the words of the text, they speak “words without knowledge.” They “darken counsel.”

But let’s face it: they’re probably not going to hear these words. But we do. We need to! The truth be told: we play that game all the time as well. It’s just that we don’t express it quite so crudely. We don’t say, “I know everything.” We say, “I know Scripture says it’s wrong, but in my case…” Or we cry out in despair, “God, why have You let this happen to us? Don’t You care?”

And then God says, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” Could it be that most of us have at times thought we knew better than God? Perhaps when we wanted an illness healed, a war stopped, or even a voters meeting decision to go our way? Or we wonder, “Why does it seem that everything in my life has to be so hard? Look at so-and-so! They’ve got it so easy!”

Let’s learn from Job this morning. His is not a formal institution of higher education. His is the school of hard knocks.

Remember, Satan has challenged God about Job. “He only serves You because You’re making life easy for him,” Satan charges. “You let me afflict him, and he’ll curse You to Your face.” And so Job suffers greatly. In just a short time, he loses his twelve children. He loses his great possessions and wealth. And then he even loses his health.

Job’s wife isn’t exactly encouraging or supportive. As Job sits among the ashes and scrapes at his festering sores with a broken piece of pottery, she asks, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!”

Job’s friends have nothing comforting to say to Job, either. Their greatest help is when they just sit with him for an entire week before speaking. When they begin to speak, though, they accuse Job of great and secret sins that are the cause of his suffering. In their faulty theology, every person’s suffering is in direct proportion to the measure of his guilt in God’s eyes.

In reply, Job protests his innocence. But to whom do you appeal when your friends don’t believe you, and God appears to be giving you the silent treatment?

As much as Job suffers physically and psychologically, what pains him the most is God’s apparent alienation from him. Several times in this book, Job requests that God speak to him: “Oh, that I had one to hear me!… Let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put His indictment in writing” (31:35).

Job has been saying, “I know my situation better than you do, God. I know I’m innocent. I know I don’t deserve the rough lot I’ve had. If I could just talk with You about this, man to God, we could surely resolve this problem.”

About this time God’s silence ends. Out of the storm, God demands: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?”

Pretty good questions, aren’t they? Some of them we still can’t answer, even now. Just like people today, Job asks, “Where is God when these bad things happen to me? How can a loving God allow suffering, pain, and death? Even if He doesn’t fix my problem, can’t He at least let me see why it’s happening?”

And God answers Job’s questions with His own, beginning with: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” In other words, “If you’re so smart, if you know better than I do, then you tell Me.”

God first uses the image of the construction of a major building, where He is the architect, surveyor, and engineer. He talks about laying the foundations of the earth and stretching the measuring line across it. In effect, God says, “Believe it or not, Job, I knew what I was doing when I created the earth. It didn’t just happen. I put a lot of planning into it. No matter how hard you try, you couldn’t begin to cram My creative wisdom into the narrow confines of your limited imagination.”

Then God uses the image of a midwife. “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb? Who else was present at the birth of the seas, when I wrapped them in the swaddling clothes of clouds and darkness?”

God the builder, God the midwife: both images tell us that God knows what He’s doing. He understands the master plan. He knows how things operate—whether He’s building a home, delivering a baby, or allowing Job to suffer. Each of those images is designed to create confidence in the God who is speaking and to remind His listeners of our smallness in comparison to God.

In the verses that follow our text, God gives rapid sketches of some 20 creations. God’s words testify to a sense of beauty and order in the world, whether it’s in the spiritual realm, cosmic elements, meteorological phenomena, animals, or birds. Job is to conclude that if God cares for the many creatures He has created, He will care for His human beings far more wisely and compassionately. If God is in control of the clouds, the storm, and the rain, as our Gospel reminds when Jesus stills the storm, then God is in control of what happens in our lives as well.

Well, that’s what God says. Now, for what He doesn’t say. Does it strike you as odd that God doesn’t answer Job’s questions? He doesn’t debate with Job or Job’s friends. He doesn’t even refer to Job’s suffering. Instead, God raises Job’s sight from his own troubles to the marvelous order that undergirds the whole world. He patiently instructs a man who needs to see the larger picture.

Job is brought to contentment without ever knowing all the facts of his case—that Satan had brought up the matter and that God had allowed the suffering. Job must operate “by faith, not by sight.” He must love God for God alone. God invites Job to love Him for no reason other than that God is worthy of love.

God invites us all to have a humble perspective that is willing to learn and listen. He says, in short, that it’s more important to know Him than to have all the answers. Which is a good thing—because none of us do. But that’s okay! We don’t have to have all the answers because God does—even when things seem their worst, even when everything seems out of control as it did that dark day two thousand years ago when it appears Satan had won, when the disciples have no clue why Jesus was abandoned by the heavenly Father to die on a cross.

Jesus’ disciples don’t have the answer, but God does. Christ bears our sins on the cross that we might not have to die for our own sins. We know that now through the preaching of the Gospel. And unlike Job, with Christ’s resurrection, we come to understand God’s reasons for the greatest, most unjust suffering that ever happened. Jesus willingly gave up His life for the salvation of the world—yours and mine, the disciples’, and yes, Job’s.

Well, how does the Book of Job end? What’s the result of Job’s meeting with God? In the final chapter Job says, “Now I’m satisfied; I’ve seen You with my own eyes.” With his newly opened eyes of faith and spiritual understanding, Job learns that everything is right between himself and God. And knowing that, Job becomes content not knowing all the answers to his questions. He learns to rest in the power and grace of God. He learns to trust that even in suffering and unanswered questions, God is graciously working all things for “the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Today, you also meet with God. He is present in His Word to instruct, comfort, rebuke, correct, and train us in righteousness. He is present in the assembly, wherever two or three gather together in Jesus’ name. He is present in the Sacrament you will share in a few minutes. He invites you to learn with Job that you need not have all the answers as long as you have God. You need not know why certain things happen as long as you know that He loves you in His Son, Jesus Christ. That’s the larger picture. That’s the teaching you can always trust.

You are right with God. He is not silent. He is not asleep. He loves you. He promises to work all things for your good. No matter what may happen in this life, He will bring you to the joy of eternal life with Him. In the meanwhile, He speaks to you peace and absolution. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

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