Sermons, Uncategorized

Justification: The Article upon Which the Church Stands or Falls

Click here to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Uj004X2sUFiX3wGqo57neyLaWuUCv7BS/view?usp=sharing

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25a).

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

Martin Luther is generally remembered on this Reformation Day for the posting of the 95 Theses, statements for debate on repentance and the sale of indulgences. But a more complete statement of faith prepared by Luther is the Smalcald Articles. It was Luther’s hope that this document would be used for discussion at a general council of the Church or, should he die before such a council was held, that it would be regarded as his “last will and testament.”

The Smalcald Articles clearly establish the differences between Romanism and Lutheranism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Article I. It reads:

The first and chief article is this:

1 Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24–25).

2 He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6).

3 All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25).

4 This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. As St. Paul says:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)

That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:26]

5 Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31].

For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us.[i]

Article I is short, to the point, and like Luther himself, pulls no theological punches. Notice how many of the passages cited come from our Epistle, Romans 3:19-28. It is easy to see why this pericope was chosen for Reformation Day.

The key teaching of Lutheranism, “The article upon which the church stands or falls,” is justification—particularly, justification by grace through faith in the work of Christ. “Justification” has to do with being or being made or being declared “just,” or “righteous,” or “right.” Scripture teaches that we are justified by Christ, who took our sin into Himself and atoned for it on the cross and who imputes (or credits) to us His righteousness. When we are united to Christ—which happens by Baptism, in Holy Communion, and when we receive His Word—we are justified, freely, apart from any works of our own. To believe, trust, and depend on the fact that Christ saves us is to be justified by faith.

Now, it might seem that justification is another theological term whose meaning has been lost in today’s secular climate. Christianity is about the forgiveness of sins. But many people today do not think they have need to be made right with God. “Sin” is thought to be an outmoded concept.

And yet people today still search for “justification” for themselves and what they do. They still crave approval, and they want to consider themselves to be good and right. And when they fail to measure up even to their own standards or that of their peers—let alone God’s standards—they tend to construct explanations and  excuses that would exonerate them. It turns out that justification is the article on which we all stand or fall. It’s just a matter of where we look for our justification.

We can look for justification in our political or ideological beliefs: “I am good despite my personal failures, because my cause is just.” Post-modernism can be a way to justify ourselves: “The truth I reject is nothing more than a construction, so I am blameless in rebelling against it.” We can seek justification through atheism: “God does not exist, so no one can condemn me.” Or we can simply seek to justify ourselves by comparison: “Nobody’s perfect, but at least I’m better than so-and-so.” These are all attempts at self-justification. They are endless mental exercises by which we can consider ourselves to be good.

But something is missing in these attempts: a correct understanding of sin and personal culpability for that sin. Many believe there is no such thing as objective morality to sin against. They assume morality is purely subjective, varying from one culture or one person to another. No one has the right to “impose” his personal morality on anyone else. And yet, those who reject the very possibility of moral truth, are constantly making moral judgments of others: demanding social justice, human rights, and ethical approaches to the environment.

We tend to frame conflicts with others as arguments over moral transgressions—“You’re selfish!” “You don’t really love me!” “That’s not fair!”—with both parties accusing each other and defending themselves. Our transgressions still leave us with guilt, which can torment us for the rest of our lives. And yet we still tend to insist that “I am a good person.” If someone else considers us “bad” or “wrong,” we defend ourselves—with excuses and arguments maintaining that our vices are not bad but good, even something to be celebrated. In truth, we do not need to be righteous in order to be self-righteous.

Far from being an outdated theological concept, justification is a preoccupation, if not an obsession, for people today. We always feel the need to show that we are right. At work, online, in our casual conversations, in our relationships with others, we are always seeking approval, scoring points, making excuses, and defending ourselves. At the same time, we are also always accusing and judging others. Often, such criticism is not dispassionate moral analysis, but attempting to cover our own flaws by highlighting the far greater flaws of others. Underlying the need to be justified is our yearning for affirmation, for thinking that our existence matters, for our need to think that our life is worthwhile.

Not only do we judge and justify ourselves and one another; we also judge and justify God. “How can God allow evil and suffering in the world?” both believers and non-believers ask. “He must not be good.” Against that accusation, believers can form arguments to justify God, as if He needs our help to explain His motives and actions. Non-believers, ironically, justify the intellectual concept of a righteous God by concluding that such a being does not actually exist.

But the problems of evil and suffering do not go away even when God’s existence is rejected. No longer is the question “Why does God allow evil and suffering?” but “Why does existence allow evil and suffering?” If God cannot be justified due to the evil and suffering in the world, existence itself cannot be justified for the same reasons. If existence cannot be justified, life is meaningless, absurd, pointless, and (in a tragic number of cases) not worth living.

But what if, instead of having to justify ourselves, God Himself gives us the approval, affirmation, and assurance that our existence matters, that despite our many, obvious shortcomings, our lives have His approval? He does! We do! The incessant desire to justify ourselves is put to rest when we are justified by Christ.

How does Christ justify us? By dying.

The Second Person of the Trinity assumed a human nature. Instead of living in earthly glory as we might expect and as He was certainly entitled to, He chose to be born in poverty and to live a life of homelessness. But He did good works—by healing the sick, raising the dead, reconciling people who had been at each other’s throats—and His teaching blessed the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the persecuted, and so on. Jesus’ goodness was evident to all, even to His enemies, who hated Him for it. He accomplished what other human beings throughout history have always tried to do but failed: He was justified by His good works.  

Nevertheless, Jesus did not escape accusations, judgments, and condemnation. He was, in fact, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. While others have supposedly died an innocent death, Jesus is the only person to have truly died an innocent death. At His execution, though, He fully exerted His divine power by doing something that defies our capacity to understand or to imagine: He took the evils of the world—that is to say, the sins of the entire human race—into Himself. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). St. Paul put it even more strongly: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When on the cross Christ “bore our sins in His body,” He also took the punishment that we deserve. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The “wonderful exchange” also means that Christ’s righteousness—along with access to the Father, freedom from guilt, and eternal life—become ours. God the Father now counts our sins as belonging to Christ. He also counts Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us. Thus, when we face the judgment of God the Father, He will consider all of Christ’s good works—His healings, His acts of love, His obedience to the Father, His perfect fulfillment of the Law—to be ours. This is what it means to be justified by Christ.

This is unbelievable, one might think. It would be tremendous if it were true, but how could it be? How could God become a human being? How could anyone—even God—bear another person’s sins, let alone the sins of the entire world? It staggers the mind. It is beyond understanding. Interestingly, Luther agrees. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him,” he writes in the Small Catechism. Essentially, Luther admits, “I believe that I cannot… believe.”

Notice how Luther anticipates—and repudiates—the mindset of both the modernist and the postmodernist. “I believe that I cannot by own reason… believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord.” So much for the “Age of Reason.” So much for modernism. Human reason is not how we receive Christ Jesus and His gifts. “I believe that I cannot by my own… strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord.” So much for the will to power. So much for postmodernism. Exerting our own power or effort is not how we receive Christ Jesus and His gifts.

So how do we? Luther goes on to explain: “But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Faith, this belief and trust in Christ, is a gift from outside ourselves. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, creates our faith. Rather than human reason or power, faith is how we receive Christ Jesus. God does this by calling me through the Gospel, His means of grace—Word and water, body and blood—which creates, sustains and grows faith.

For Lutherans, the doctrine of justification is the “chief article” on which the Church stands or falls. Every other key teaching—the Sacraments, Scripture, worship, vocation, the two kingdoms, prayer, the Christian life—has as its keystone our justification by Christ.

And it is also the chief article on which individuals stand or fall. Restless hearts and anxious minds find peace in justification. Frenetic lives of self-justification have rest in the salvation of Jesus Christ. The incessant need to prove our own worthiness and our failure to ever do so are nailed to the cross, buried in the tomb, and put to death forever. What Good News!

 We confess: “[We] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25a). That is to say, by God’s grace, for Jesus’ sake, you are righteous and holy; 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.


[i] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 262–263). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.
Sermons, Uncategorized

While Still a Long Way Off

the-return-of-the-prodigal-son-illustration-for-the-life-of-christ(1).jpg!Large
“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by James Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

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

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

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

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

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

And so he heads back home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More important: what about you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome home, you who were once far off. You are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

 

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

Sermons, Uncategorized

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

20181027_124646
One of the quilts made for Pipestone County Hospice.

Click here to listen to this sermon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermons, Uncategorized

(Re)Created to Serve and Give

Click here to listen to this sermon.WordItOut-word-cloud-3164899

But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also (2 Corinthians 8:7).

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

I often marvel at the spiritual insights of children. One week during chapel services I was teaching the preschool children about David the shepherd boy as part of a series of lessons on loving our neighbor. I showed the kids two pictures: one of David as a young boy watching over his family’s sheep, and another of David as the grown-up king of the nation of Israel. And then I asked them, “Which one of David’s jobs was more important—shepherd or king?”

Most of them replied predictably: “King!” But one of them stole my thunder. “It depends upon whether or not you’re one of the sheep,” Patrick said. And he was exactly right. Both jobs are important for those who are under their care and influence. For the sheep, the shepherd is going to have much more direct impact. He serves them. They depend upon him for food and water and protection. The king might be able to help provide those things for the people of the nation, but he won’t be too concerned about a few sheep.

Both positions of shepherd and king are God-given vocations—callings or stations in life. God gives the shepherd the privilege and responsibility of caring for the sheep in his flock. God gives the king the responsibility to care for the people in his nation. God gives you each of your various vocations.

God created humans to work and to serve. If you look back at life before sin, you’ll find work and service there. When God created Adam and Eve, it wasn’t for them to lounge around. As He worked to serve them, they were to work by caring for creation and by serving one another.

This is important: before there was sin in the world, there was work and service. To be sure, it was easier back then, as work wouldn’t be bothered by thorns and thistles, crabby customers, unreasonable supervisors, and the like; but even today, God has created you to work and serve in the place He puts you. This is true of everyone, regardless of whether they are a believer or not. Regardless of if they recognize their vocation is a calling from God or not.

This means a king has no higher calling than a shepherd. If either one neglects to do his duty, those under his care are going to suffer. A doctor has no higher calling than the woman who cleans and disinfects the operating room. If either one does not take her work seriously patients may get sick and die.

For Christians, this gives a completely different understanding of our daily life and a greater appreciation for all vocations. If you’re a Christian, whatever you do according to God’s will is holy, your vocation is holy and given by God for the purpose of serving your neighbor. Work should not be considered a “four-letter word,” but a gift of God.

Now, if work and service are gifts from God, you can bet the devil is going to do his best to ruin those gifts and your perception of them. Look at the popular notion of work today: a job is something you have to do Monday through Friday, so that you can get the days off to do what you really want to do.

But if you’re working for the weekend, you’re not going to see your job as a holy vocation, but rather as a hassle, or boring and unfulfilling. Aren’t you? Instead of rejoicing in the quality of work, you’re more likely to settle for “good enough.” Right? But what would happen if the weekend was a time that refreshed and prepared you to return to that holy vocation you wanted to do? That’s how it is, once you’re set free from the sins of sloth and selfishness. It’s another good reason to repent when you find yourself resenting the prospect of going to work. Remember: God created you to work and serve whatever stage of your life.

We’ll add one more: God created you to give. Giving is part of serving. As God gives us to do to serve others, so He also gives us to give to serve others. Where the Lord gives us abundance, He also gives us the opportunity to support church and charity, to help our neighbor, to assist a relative in need.

Now, if we’re tempted to deny that work is a gift from God, it’s going to be that much easier to deny that giving is a gift from God. It’s all too easy to see giving as an ugly test that comes with salvation, as in, “I have to give so that I can prove I’m not guilty of being greedy or to show I am truly thankful.” But both of those are attempts to motivate with the Law; and Law can cannot properly motivate or empower. It only kills and condemns.

God created you to give, which is why the devil will do his best to prevent you from giving to others. Beware, too, because greed acts much like sloth. The less you give, the less you want to give; the more you keep, and the more you’ll focus on keeping. And rather than seeing the proper solution is giving more, you’ll be inclined to believe that happiness will be found in gathering more for yourself.

The Macedonians were not like this at all. They were afflicted and poor, yet they continued to experience an “abundance of joy,” which “overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” This generous giving was an act of God’s grace in Christ.

The generosity of the Macedonians was exhibited in three ways. First, they gave not just as much as they could, but even more than that. Like the widow with her mite, they had given in a way some might consider reckless or imprudent.

Second, no one had pressured them into giving. They had decided “of their own free will” to be so overwhelmingly generous in their offering. They had, in fact, “begged earnestly for the favor of taking part” in “this act of grace.”

And third: “They gave themselves first to the Lord…” The Macedonians gave something more important than money with their offerings—they gave themselves back to the Lord who had given Himself into death for them.

Paul ties everything connected with giving to the grace that God has given to His people. God’s grace centers on His gift of Jesus Christ and His redemptive work on our behalf. That grace moves us to be gracious—to freely, gladly give everything, including our material goods, back to the Lord. The offerings of a Christian, then, are part of our worship, our response to God’s grace.

Notice how evangelically Paul encourages the giving of the Corinthians! He doesn’t bargain with them or exploit their guilt or try to squeeze dead works out of their old Adam. He addresses the new man who loves to do God’s will and welcomes opportunities to express the gratitude of a reborn heart, as a fruit of faith. That is why Paul is careful to say, “I am not commanding you.” He does not want this offering to be given reluctantly or grudgingly, but freely and generously.

As always, Paul points to Jesus, the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” in fact. Paul uses the same terms, “rich” and “poor,” he had been using in talking about the offering of the Macedonians. “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor so that you by His poverty might become rich.”

It is not difficult to see that the Jesus who Paul holds up as a perfect model of sacrificial giving is much more than just a model. He is first a Savior. Through His humbling Himself all the way to death, the Corinthians are spiritually rich beyond compare. Their sins are forgiven. They are enjoying brand new lives as part of God’s family. An eternity of joy awaits them.

They know all of that, but like you and me, they need to be reminded of it daily. If their eyes turn from the Christ, every area of their Christian lives, including their stewardship practices, will soon degenerate into dead works instead of being good works. To be “acts of grace” their offerings must be gifts driven by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Christ who became poor to make us rich is the foundation on which all Christian stewardship rests. He is our Savior. He is our motivator. He is our example. And in that order.

Saved by His grace, we are then motivated to follow Christ’s example. Knowing the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we learn to be sacrificial and generous in our giving. And in the process, we are surprised to discover joy. One of the mysteries of God’s grace is that joy grows out of unselfish, sacrificial giving. The suggestion is not “Give until it hurts” but “Give until it feels good.” Only those who get beyond giving only what they won’t miss will find that joy.

How much should you give? God doesn’t give us percentages or amounts. Giving is to be an act of grace. As you see needs arise—be it disaster relief after a hurricane, a family that is struggling with economic hardship, or your weekly offering, you’re created to help and to serve as you are able.

Given all this, what would keep you from giving? What would prevent you from doing what God has created you to do?

It might be fear, fear that if you give you may end up not having enough for yourself. If that is the case, remember to be sensible in what you give and what you keep, but also be careful that fear is not the master who dictates what you do, because fear is a terrible idol to have.

It might be selfishness. You have plans for some luxuries in life, and you’d rather spend your money on those. While luxuries are not intrinsically sinful, take care that selfishness is not defeating your God-given desire to give and to serve.

It might be a restless feeling that you need more than you have because you are not satisfied. But contentment springs not from having much, but from doing what God has given you to do with what He has given you.

So God has created you to work and to serve and to give. But with all those temptations out there and that sinful nature within, you’ll never work and serve and give as you ought. As you do your best to do these things, you will likely avoid much of the restless desperation that haunts those who live only for themselves, but your best efforts are still hardly enough to earn eternal life.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, abound all the more in this act of grace—“the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You do not rejoice today simply in your own working and serving and giving. Those would never be enough to gain you favor with God. No, you rejoice today because of the Lord’s working and serving and giving. You rejoice today, because the Lord who created you to work and serve and give, redeemed you and is now at work recreating you in His own image through His means of grace. In Holy Baptism Jesus gives you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In Holy Communion, Christ gives you His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen you in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another.

So you rejoice this day. God created you to work and to serve and to give: therefore, your labors each day are what He has given you to do. Where sin sought to destroy those gifts and even rob you of life, Christ died to redeem you, to set you free from sin. Therefore, you are set free to work and to serve and to give. Therefore, your labors each day are holy, because they are sanctified by God.

But even more, you rejoice in this: while sin still taints your work and your service and your giving, this does not harm your salvation—because your salvation doesn’t depend on your work and your service and your giving. This is an act of grace. Salvation is yours on account of Jesus Christ, because He has worked and served and given and lived and died for you.

Therefore, in whatever you do, you rejoice this day to be God’s holy people, recreated to serve and give freely. 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.

Uncategorized

“Paul, Apostle of Christ” – A non-review and hearty endorsement

Pastor’s Ponderings

Dear Christian friends,

Easter Monday, Aimee and I went to see Paul, Apostle of Christ. The setting is Mamertine Prison in Rome, where Paul has been held because he is deemed a threat to the Roman Empire. Emperor Nero has sentenced Paul, along with a number of other Christians to death. Luke has come to visit Paul to minister to him and to record the last of Paul’s story, so that the Church might be encouraged in their persecution. While it is a fictional account, the storyline and characters stay close to the biblical and historical accounts.

Paul & LukeWhile I’m not going to give a full-blown move review, I will say that it is one of the most powerful movies I’ve seen. I don’t say this lightly. I’ve generally been disappointed with the quality of most Christian films.” I find many of them—even some of the more popular ones—to be weak in their plot and dialogue and acting. But I do give them credit that at least they are trying to offer something reflects the Christian worldview.

I have often lamented that I wished more talented Christians would take up the vocation of writers, director, actors, and producers of our various entertainment media. These arts have such an influence on our culture that we should not shy away from them, but pursue them with excellence. I think that goal has been achieved in this film, and I look forward to seeing more. I would highly encourage people to see this film while it is still available in the theaters. Motion picture studios will produce the kind of movies people come to see. The best way to ensure more of this kind of movie is to support it with our entertainment dollars.

Some have talked about using this movie as an evangelism tool, but it seems to me to be better suited to encouraging those of us who are already Christians. God’s grace is so amazing; His ways are so much higher than our ways; I can understand why some jaded reviewers or those unfamiliar with Christianity might find parts of the plot implausible. How can a man’s life be so changed that he goes from being one of the Church’s fiercest persecutors to being its foremost missionary and leading apostle? Only those who have already felt the grace and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ, will be able to relate to it, especially its concluding scenes.

I left the theater that afternoon feeling I had experienced the joy of grace and forgiveness in Christ through Paul’s eyes. I was left in awe of the depiction of the faith of Paul and other Christians who faced impending torture and death with courage and boldness. I think I now have a much better understanding of this man, who called himself “the chief of sinners,” “the least of the apostles,” who found strength in his own weakness, joy in his trials, and God’s grace to be sufficient in his suffering.

It also challenged me to consider how we Christians can be light and love in a world that is filled with much darkness and hate. How can we witness to world who does not understand us, who rejects what we believe, and scoff at whom we believe? The same way the early Christians did. They loved. They loved their Lord. They loved their brothers and sisters in Christ. They loved their neighbors. They loved even their enemies. And the people were drawn to Christ and His Church because of their love, saying, “See how they love one another!”

I would like you to consider how we might reflect the light and love of Christ in our own community. How can we grow in our understanding and application of God’s Word so that we might develop and maintain healthy relationship within and between our congregations? What can we do to intentionally reach out to our neighbors with the Gospel? How can we show mercy and love to those in need? What needs might we be equipped to address? How can we open the doors of our congregations to the community?

In the next few month, I hope we will begin to discuss such questions and begin to develop a strategy for addressing them. My prayer is that the day will come when people in the Pipestone, Jasper, and Trosky areas speak of us, they might say, “See how they love one another,” and they will be drawn to the love of God in Christ Jesus.

God’s richest blessings in Christ!

Pastor Moeller

P.S. If you’re interest in checking out a trailer of Paul, Apostle to Christ, here is a link to one of its trailers: https://youtu.be/7DFGmw5oe0E.