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Return to the Lord: Return to Prayer

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Holy Gospel                                                                                                        Matthew 26:36–46

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and He said to His disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then He said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with Me.” 39 And going a little farther He fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” 40 And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And He said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with Me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, He went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, Your will be done.” 43 And again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, He went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then He came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, My betrayer is at hand.”

This sermon is adapted from a series called “Return to the Lord,” written by Eric Longman and published by Concordia Publishing House. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Practicing Repentance

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In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”

The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:9-15).

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

With his typical stinginess with words, St. Mark describes the inaugural events in Jesus’ ministry. His rapid-fire approach draws attention from the details of the individual events themselves and focuses on the movement between them: Baptism, temptation, and the proclamation of repentance.

This is the movement of our life in Christ, too. It begins with our Baptism into Christ, which is followed immediately and continuously by temptation. We are not as resilient as Jesus, so the movement in the text takes a slightly different turn for us. Before we proclaim repentance to others, we need to repent ourselves.

Thus Lent. This forty-day season is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to responding to Jesus’ call to repent. This means the movement of our text, is also the movement of our life: Baptism, temptation, and the practice of repentance.

But what does that movement look like in your life?

Likely, for all of you, Baptism has already taken place. You have already been united with Christ in His death and resurrection. You are members of His body, participants in the resurrected life of Jesus Himself. Coming out of the water, you find yourselves in another kind of wilderness where the Devil still prowls.[i]

Practicing repentance involves more than acknowledging temporary feelings of guilt. It is more than a regular participation in a transaction to clean the slate. Our worship services begin with repentance and forgiveness, but the entire life of a follower of Jesus is a life of turning from sin and returning to the Lord.

Repentance is comprised of two things: contrition (sorrow over sin) and faith (trust in the promises of Christ). Our Lutheran Confessions say, “contrition is the true terror of conscience, which feels that God is angry with sin and grieves that it has sinned. This contrition takes place when sins are condemned by God’s Word.”[ii]

Scripture vividly describes these terrors:

For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. (Psalm 38:4, 8)

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But You, O Lord—how long? (Psalm 6:2-3)

“In these terrors, conscience feels God’s wrath against sin… The conscience sees the corruption of sin and seriously grieves that it has sinned.”[iii]

As St. Paul discussed contrition, he distinguished between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.” As anyone with a few traffic tickets can testify, most of us regret being caught in some violation of the law. We dislike going to court to pay a fine, or we find ourselves embarrassed as we face the police officer. Perhaps we fear possible future consequences (e.g., high car insurance rates). This fear of punishment is one sort of “worldly sorrow,” and we, have all experienced enough of it to recognize it instantly.[iv]

Another type of worldly sorrow involves what the Scriptures sometimes call condemnation—the feeling of despair that crashes in on us when we fear that we have used up our quota of God’s grace, and therefore, that He will refuse to forgive us for a particular offense. Probably all Christians struggle with the sense of condemnation from time to time.

But there’s another form of worldly sorrow that seems even more prevalent in our day—guilt. Secular prophets like Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that once the modern Western world finally threw off the constraints of religion, feelings of guilt would disappear. But that has not proven to be the case; if anything, guilt has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element of contemporary life as God has been kicked to the curb.

The old vocabulary is still used to describe virtue and vice, but we no longer have the religious framework to guide conversation and debate. Having departed from God’s Word, we have words and instincts about what feels right and wrong, but no settled criteria to help us think, argue, and decide what is objectively true.

You would think that would lead to a culture of easygoing relativism. With no common criteria by which to judge moral action we’d all become blandly nonjudgmental: “You do you and I’ll do me, and we’ll all be cool about it.” But that’s not what’s happened. Moral conflict has only grown. In fact, it’s the people who go to church least who seem the most fervent moral crusaders. Religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerfully present as ever.[v]

Where does this guilt come from? You and I know it’s ultimately from the Law that is written on our hearts, our consciences. But without proper guidance of the Law, that guilt can get misplaced. Wilfred McClay suggests technology plays a part. It gives us a feeling of power, and power entails responsibility, and responsibility leads to guilt. You and I see a picture of a starving child in Sudan and we know inwardly that we’re not doing enough. “Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough.” [vi]

McClay describes a world in which people are still driven by a need to feel morally justified, and yet they have no clear framework or sets of rituals to guide their quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace, and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.

People seem to sense, if not fully understand, our brokenness. And that’s a good start, but if we only see it as something that has been done to us, we’re going to fail to benefit from that knowledge. Repentance will be replaced with a counterfeit named with victimhood. Yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but it’s all somebody else’s fault, those who are around me, those who came before me. The Law is a mirror that others must look into, a microscope that detects all the sins of our forefathers without acknowledging any of our own.

And so we enter into the 40 days of Lent. Forty days out in the wilderness, to be reminded that there is more to life than food, than glory, than power, as our Lord Jesus Himself showed us. But even more, to confess our sins, to say not only mea culpa (“my fault”), but mea maxima culpa (“by own grievous fault”). Unbelief is the core of all sin, but to say so is a ploy if we do it to minimize what it is we are doing, or not doing, in our lives.

For this, the Law is more than helpful.

Have we had problems with our parents? Of course, we have! But have we played a part in causing those problems? Does our own anger and rage reach to the violence of murder? Well, we know the angry one is liable to the charge. But then our own desires for pleasure and convenience, makes murder necessary as we see in the life of King David or the current abortion holocaust. Violence is justified if it furthers our own cause. We say we don’t steal, but we do demand justice, which means taking other people’s money. Gossip remains an indulgence, and still destroys other’s reputations and lives. Instead of speaking well of others and putting the best construction on their words and actions, we find our own righteousness in a cancel culture which aims to show the sins of others, so that we may feel good about ourselves. And yes, coveting. It’s in the air. Others are wealthy, and we’re not, so we want what they have.

Now is not the time to minimize the Law; it’s time to actually preach the Law in such a way that the Gospel might once more be sweet in our ears. And we must never minimize the Law in such a way as to say it is temporary, as if it is done away with, and not fulfilled, and we are left in our sin.[vii]

Worldly sorrow comes from Satan; it brings death. By way of contrast, Paul commends “godly sorrow.” This kind of sorrow for sin leads us to the next step in God’s process of repentance. Recognizing our sin and sorrowing over it, we confess it. The word for confess in Greek means literally “to speak together” or “to say the same thing.” When we confess our sins, we simply say what God says:

  • We have indeed done what His Law has forbidden.
  • Our action (thought, attitude) was wrong.
  • Our sin hurt God; it hurt us; it hurt other people.
  • We deserve God’s punishment.

When we honestly confess our sins to God in this way, we do not try to excuse ourselves. We do not try to shift the blame for our sin onto someone else’s shoulders. We do not trivialize what we have done, nor do we minimize the consequences we deserve. As the apostle John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Standing before God stripped of all self-righteousness, we hear the beautiful words of our Father’s absolution: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Absolution is, for the Christian, a glorious emancipation proclamation. The Latin word from which we derive the word absolve literally means “to set free; to release.” Absolved from our sins, we find freedom from their guilt and from the punishment we have deserved. But also—and this is critically important—we receive in God’s absolution release from the power of our sins to enslave us.

That freedom comes, not as we try hard to amend our sinful lives, but as we rely on the Holy Spirit’s power to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We realize that in our own strength, we cannot obey God. And so, we ask Him to work these things in us.

Contrition. Confession. Absolution. Yielding to God’s Spirit. We repeat this process of repentance as often as we need it. We may, at times, find ourselves mired in a sin that we confessed only minutes before. In fact, we may find ourselves repeating the steps of the cycle a dozen times within a 10-minute period. But God will not become impatient or angry with us. He simply invites and encourages us to use the medicine He has prescribed. We can take it as often as we need it; we need not worry about overdosing.

Perhaps all this seems too simple. Admittedly, it is simple, so simple that we could easily let our pride prevent from using the process our Lord has given us to enable us to live more fruitful, less frustrating lives of discipleship. It is simple. But it works. It is the only thing that works. And Jesus yearns to help us use it.

And so He equips us for such a life. He baptizes us into His death and resurrection, bringing us forgiveness, life, and salvation, teaching us through His Word, feeding us with His body and blood to strengthen us in our faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another. Then He sends us out in the world, providing us with opportunities to practice repentance in our daily vocations.

As we sit, stalled in traffic; as we push a wobbly-wheeled grocery cart up and down the aisles of the grocery store; as we coach softball or chair a congregational meeting; as we play with our grandchildren or kick our shoes off and turn on the television set—as we do all these things, our Lord gives us opportunities to practice the principles He has taught us. We never work on these on our own. Our Teacher always stands beside us, reminding us of His Word and offering His encouragement and His help.[viii]

Sometimes we will succeed; other times we will fail, even fail spectacularly. In this life, we’ll never get it perfect. That’s when we repent. We confess our sins and failures, hear and trust in Christ’s forgiveness, resolve to do better with the help of God and continue practicing repentance over and over until the day the Lord calls us home.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy! You are forgiven for all your sins.

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

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


[i] Nafzger, Peter. https://www.1517/articles/gospel-mark-19-15-lent-1-series.b

[ii]  McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 160–161). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 162). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iv] Fryar, Jane L. (1992). Go and Make Disciples: The Goal of the Christian Teacher (pp. 57-58) St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House

[v] Brock, David. The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” The New York Times, March 31, 2017, Section A, Page 23.

[vi] McClay, Wilfred M. “The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” Hedgehog Review.

[vii] Scaer, Peter. “Ash Wednesday, Sin, and Brokenness.” Facebook post, February 18, 2021.

[viii] Fryar, Jane L. (1992). Go and Make Disciples: The Goal of the Christian Teacher (pp. 59-60) St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Return to the Lord: A Call to Return

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“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster. Joel 2:12-13

This sermon is adapted from a series called “Return to the Lord,” written by Eric Longman and published by Concordia Publishing House.

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A Bold, Uncalculated Faith

“The Two Sons” by Eugene Burnand

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23When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” 24Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell Me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe Him?’ 26But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things”  (Matthew 21:23-27).

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

As the national election approaches, we see candidates calculate how they should answer questions. For example: “What is your position on BLM?” The question is simple and yet the process of answering it is complex. Opinion polls have given a demographic picture of how certain answers will affect voting. So, the candidates are careful, calculated, in how they respond. Those who oppose the movement don’t want to be seen as racist. Those who support BLM don’t want it to be thought they support riots and violence.

The phenomenon does not just play out in politics. Businesses make important decisions, based not upon established principles or code of ethics, but what is best for the bottom line. Some add lip service to the latest social justice cause because they’re afraid of current cancel culture. For most of us, this calculation happens in our daily lives as well. In a toxic on-line environment, Facebook profiles and timelines are carefully curated. We learn to keep our most controversial comments and provocative posts to ourselves to avoid conflict. In a tense social situation, conversation is carefully monitored. We self-censor: “If I say this, then they will think this or do that, so I better say this instead.”

We live in a land of calculated responses. Which might seem necessary in the everyday work-a-day world but can be dangerous to our faith. We become so concerned we might offend someone when we confess what we believe that having a true conversation about faith is rare.

Now, such calculated measures of communicating are to be expected in politics. As a matter of fact, candidates who don’t have this kind of filter disturb a lot of people—even their own campaign staff and supporters. And, if we are wise, we will also be discerning in our everyday conversations and social media interaction. But, in matters of our faith, we must not be calculating, but bold.

Which is why I love this Gospel for today. Jesus invites us to practice a faith that is bold. He invites us to trust in Him, without calculations. You see, there is a difference between believing something because it brings about a particular result in your life and believing something regardless of the results it will bring.

Let me give you an example that Jonathan Fisk uses in his book Without Flesh. Imagine you are shown a folder that presents study after study done by reputable, world-class companies. These studies demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that preaching the texts of the Bible in today’s market conditions guarantees the emptying of the pews of your congregation. One hundred percent. There is no debate. The evidence is irrefutable. Jesus’ actual words not only will not grow your church—they will shrink it.

This is hypothetical, of course. There isn’t this kind of proof. But I want you to consider it a possibility for the sake of this question: If it were shown to be true, what would you do? Would you want the Scriptures preached anyway? It means your church will soon close. Do you still want to stand firm?

Now, let’s up the ante.

What if there was another folder? In this folder, there is further clear proof that this same tactic will not only empty your pews but will also put you on your government’s watch lists. It shows that clinging to the Bible’s words will not only put your local congregation in danger, but it will also threaten your mortgage. Your spouse’s ability to receive health care.

What if I showed you proof that continuing to attend your church’s services could reasonably get you killed? Would you still go? Would you still insist that the Scriptures be preached? Clearly? Irrevocably? Isn’t it amazing that this is a question that can even give us pause as we consider it?

Jesus invites us to believe in Him, regardless of the results that will follow.

We go back to Tuesday of Holy Week. “The last full working-day of our Lord’s public ministry to Israel ha[s] arrived… It [is] the busiest day of His life. It [is] His last day in the Temple, the last day of His teaching, the last warning He [gives] the Pharisees and Sadducees, and His last call to national repentance” (Fahling, quoted by Buls). Representatives of the Sanhedrin come to Jesus with a double question. What right does He have to preach as He does, do the miracles He did, enter Jerusalem as He did, cleanse the temple as He did? Furthermore, who gave Him this authority?

It is a blasphemous question because they already know the answer. Several months earlier, Jesus had told them, but they refused to believe (John 10:22-26). Now, the Sanhedrin—these chief priests and elders—have a perfect right to check on the religious life of the people and to question a religious teacher. But, on this occasion, the question is plainly malicious, which becomes clear as they proceed. They want to trap Jesus and thus bring a charge against Him. They reject His divine commission. And they expect Him to restate it as He did often before.

To their surprise, Jesus asks them a counter-question instead. It is by no means an evasion nor is Jesus turning them off. His answer is contingent on their answer. The true answer to Jesus’ question is also the true answer to the question of the religious authorities: “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

Three years prior, the chief priests and the elders had sent a delegation to John asking about his person and his baptism. He gave them clear answers. All the people knew precisely what the mission of John was—He pointed to the Savior Who was about to fulfill all of God’s Messianic promises. His message was identical to that of Jesus. Here, in holy week, these religious leaders already know the correct answer to Jesus’ question.

But they are not concerned about truth. Rather than answer immediately, they need to calculate before they respond. Notice they do not take the time to discuss what they believe, but what the polls indicate. That is, they do not discuss whether John was sent from God or not. Instead, they discuss the merits of what happens if they say they believe one thing or another. Faith, for them, is a calculated social posture. What they truly believe doesn’t matter. What matters is what happens when they appear to believe one thing or another.

So they discuss it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” In other words, “If we say, ‘from heaven,’ we’ll have to admit we’ve been wrong. We’ll lose face with the people. If we say, ‘from men,’ the crowd will have our skin.” What is decisive for them is not the truth, but the consequences involved in the two possible answers they could give. So, they answer Jesus, “We do not know.” And He says to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

They seek to entrap Jesus with calculated questions, He entraps them in their practice of a calculated faith. Though He “wins” the exchange, Jesus cannot be happy with the result. Jesus is not just engaging in a “power play” to ward off His enemies. If they had answered His question, they would have had their answer to Who He is and what He has come to do. Jesus’ question really is a call to repentance, an eleventh-hour invitation to believe in Him as Savior.

As social disapproval of Christianity grows in our nation, we are tempted to live a calculated faith as well. We feel the need to be careful when we share what we believe. Jesus, however, shows us where those who have a calculated faith end up: Trapped. They are unable to confess because of the complicated social situation and, therefore, unable to follow the Savior who comes to lead them into His kingdom of grace.

To such people, Jesus speaks a parable, a parable about words and deeds. The one son who calculates and says the right thing (“I will go and work”) is judged. Why? Because his relationship with his father is a matter of calculation. It is about saying the right words in the right moment. But his actions do not back up his words. He is a poser, a hypocrite.

For Jesus, faith is more than having the correct calculated response. Jesus does not want us to say we believe when we do not, to say we care for the poor when we do not, to say we honor marriage when we do not, to say we speak truthfully when we do not. Jesus has come to free us from the game of calculated responses. Instead, He invites us to follow Him. To live with Him in a freely given life of faithful response.

What does that look like? Jesus offers us a glimpse. He points to the tax collectors and prostitutes who are following Him. These are people that no one would expect to be children of God. Their lives are an open testimony against the will of their heavenly Father. But, by the power of the Spirit, something happens. They hear a call to repent and they do. They hear a call to follow and they do. Jesus brings a Word into this world that awakens people to life. It frees us from the games of calculated confessions and opens for us a life of uninhibited response.

In Jesus, God has entered our sin and by His death brought about forgiveness and by His resurrection given us a new life. This new life is transparent about who we are in the kingdom of God. We are not here by our own merit. We are here by grace and grace alone. Our lives then become an open witness to the grace of God and the work of Christ.

Tax collectors and prostitutes are suddenly role models in the kingdom. Those whom no one would associate with are suddenly leading the way into the kingdom of God. Why? They have experienced the working of God, the call to repentance, and they have responded in faith. It is not calculated faith, but simply faith. Faith that is not ashamed to be honest about one’s life and to believe the good news of God that one is forgiven for Christ’s sake, not for what one has said or done but for what has been done and said for you in Christ.

Christ has died and risen for you. He forgives you your sin and claims you as His own. This is the source of your life. Boldly make this confession, regardless of what follows.

We do not follow Jesus based on a calculation of the benefits. Rather, we follow because He is Jesus, our Savior. He forgives us our sin. He gives us a new life, a free life, a transparent life, a bold life, an uncalculated authentic life in Him.

So, go and speak and live as children of God. Not calculating what will happen to you in this world if you say you believe but believing regardless of what happens to you because by believing you have life in His name. Go in peace and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

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

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.

Based on an article by David Schmitt, published on Craft of Preaching, //www.1517.org/articles/gospel-matthew-2123-27-28-32-pentecost-21-series-a

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Seek the Lord While He May Be Found

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“Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).

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

Unless the Lord shall return in your lifetime, the day will come when you will no longer be able to join with your brothers and sisters to worship here in the presence of the Lord. It could be because you decide one day, for one reason or another, that you’re not going, and you just never make it back. You might become ill or incapacitated and no longer able to make it to worship.

Though it once seemed impossible, it’s also not so hard to imagine the day may come when you cannot join with your brothers and sisters in the presence of the Lord because no one will let you worship here, perhaps because of health mandates or because what we teach here does not meet with “established community standards.”

Or it could be that you can no longer join with your brothers and sisters in Christ because this congregation is closed. Congregations, like people, have lifespans. None of them (or us, as individuals) will go on forever. And as we’re all aware: the fewer people who gather with their brothers and sisters to worship in the presence of the Lord, the harder it is for a congregation to continue.

Which brings us to the final reason why you would no longer be able to join with your brothers and sisters to worship in the presence of the Lord: you have “shuffle[d] off this mortal coil,” you’ve kicked the bucket,” you’re “pushing up daisies,” you’re dead. At this point, you can’t do anything, certainly not seek the Lord!

Now, here’s the thing: most of these scenarios you don’t have much control over or say about. You can take the best care of yourself, but you can still get ill, become incapacitated, or die. Someone could make it difficult (even impossible) for you to gather with your fellow believers in the presence of the Lord. But you can make sure that you seek the Lord while He may be found; you can be certain that you call upon Him while He is near. You see, the Lord is not hiding from you. Neither is He lost. He wants you to seek Him. He wants to be found. He actually finds you and places Himself in a place or position so you will see Him because you do not have the natural ability to turn to God. He has to, because you can’t, you won’t.

Luther has it right: “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.”[i] God can be found by humans only by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel. In the Gospel, the Lord comes near.

In face of stubborn resistance to Him and His Word, God, however, does withdraw His Gospel at times. Jesus withdrew Himself from those who openly opposed Him. His withdrawal meant a severe judgment upon them because His absence removed their opportunity to repent. On his missionary journeys, Paul would first visit the Jewish synagogues to share the Gospel, but as opposition arose, he would leave and go to the Gentiles. God urges sinners to seek Him before their rejection prompts His departure.

Through His prophet, the Lord urges sinners to turn away from their wicked ways and turn to Him. For the one who does so, the Lord pledges to have compassion on the sinner and to pardon him abundantly. The words hold out the bright jewel of forgiveness for the grimy, stained hands of every sinner to grasp. What a comfort to every sinner! God looks tenderly upon sinners and, because of Christ, forgives us!

This sounds too good to be true. It doesn’t make sense to sinful human reason. No wonder: For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

The connecting link between this and the previous verses are the words thoughts and ways. God speaks again and declares the superiority of His thoughts to those of any and every human. Like God, His thoughts are holy and righteous, just and merciful. The ways and thoughts of humans are wicked and evil by nature. Moses writes about the times of Noah: “The Lord saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Over the centuries nothing has changed. Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19).

Besides the problem of sin, human thoughts and ways are limited by time, space, and other factors. No one, in a lifespan of 70 or 80 or even 100 years should expect to be able to learn what God, who is eternal and all-knowing, knows. No one who can be in only one place at one time should expect to have the knowledge of an infinite, omnipresent God. But this text gets us deeper into the profound difference between God and humanity. Our natural perverse nature struggles against God. All thoughts that flow from us are nothinglike God’s thoughts. The deepest thinkers of the ages cannot achieve the high and lofty ways of God or understand God. Left alone and without God’s Word, no human can imagine that God would send a Savior to die for unworthy sinners. God’s grace remains a mystery to human intelligence and research. Yet God does make it known to us in His Word.

Even the way God works in the human heart lies beyond the human imagination. The Holy Spirit works the miracle of conversion through the Gospel—simple words that announce forgiveness and life through Christ. The Word is powerful. For God’s dealing with men and women, the Word is everything. Yet words appear so weak and ineffective—only sounds that travel through the air to an ear or a series of lines on a page or screen perceived by our eyes. But God’s ways are higher than ours. God’s way works through the words of the Gospel not only to convert sinners but to strengthen us and preserve our faith against the many temptations and distractions in this life. Simple words that announce God’s love for sinners have more power than all human ways and thoughts because God’s Word changes the heart and offers life and forgiveness to all believers.

God is seeking sinners, so that they would repent of their sins because God wants to forgive sinners—sinners like you and me. He wants us to seek Him and His forgiveness and to call upon Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving while He is still near to us. If God departs from us, we are in seriously deep spiritual trouble. What does this mean? It means that, if we do not seek the Lord where and while He is found, we are in danger of spending eternity in hell. We risk eternal condemnation when we do not seek Him where He is found.

Where God is found is where He has willingly bound Himself for our sake. God, who is without limits, has put Himself in a box, so to speak. God, who is infinite and omnipresent, has freely and willingly bound Himself to His Word and Sacraments. It is there and nowhere else that the Lord is to be found giving His gifts. This is sure, certain, and iron-clad guarantee, for God has promised this to us in His Word. When it comes to our souls, we need certainty.

When we look elsewhere for Him, somewhere He has not promised to be found, we have doubt, and doubt is never a good thing where our salvation is concerned. When we look somewhere else for God instead of where He has promised to be, we are telling God that we don’t think His gifts are good enough for us, that we want Him to deal with us on our terms, not His.

We’ve heard the excuse; we may have made these excuses ourselves: “You don’t have to go to church to worship God.” We may think we can worship God when we’re on the lake or when we’re out camping. If this is true, then how do you hear your sins are forgiven? Remember that St. Paul tells us that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. Out in nature, we can see the beauty of God’s creation, but we don’t hear the forgiveness of our sins. Though God, in is everywhere, He has not promised to be everywhere with His grace and mercy but points us to where He may be found—in His means of grace.

We may also think, “We can hear the Word of God when we’re watching Main Street Living or the service streamed on Facebook.” While such media may be helpful for the short-term, and I thank God that we have them available to us, they are not meant to be a long-term substitute for our being in the Lord’s house, especially if one is physically able to be here. Our Christian faith is meant to be shared in community. While God’s Word can be received in many forms, one cannot receive the body and blood of Christ virtually.

For those not able to come because of health concerns or complications of age, the Church has an obligation to go to them, as their pastors have the charge to bring them the Word and the Lord’s Supper. If you find yourself or a loved one in this situation, please give me a call so we can figure out a way to best meet your spiritual needs according to your circumstances. This important to your spiritual well-being!

In Isaiah’s day, the Lord was found where He promised to be—in the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the place that God promised to be with His people as long as they sought the Lord and listened to His Word. There, He promised to hear their prayers and forgive their sins. Sadly, they often did not seek the Lord or call on His name, and Isaiah’s call in our text was just one of many pleas the Lord made through His prophets over the years for His people to return to Him. Time and again, they refused to listen. They refused to repent. They refused to turn from their wicked ways.

Finally, God sent His Son. Jesus lived a perfect obedient life in our place. He fulfilled the Law, loving the Lord with all His heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving His neighbor as Himself. He gave Himself into death on the cross, exchanging His righteousness for your and my sin. Three days later, He rose from the dead, giving us the certain hope of eternal life. As He ascended to the right hand of the Father, He promised: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).

Where is He now? Here. With us. Always. As we gather with our brothers and sisters around His Word and Sacraments.

Jesus has promised that “where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). He is right here now as we gather in His name and Word. He speaks to us through the voice of His called and ordained servant in the Absolution. In His Supper, He feeds us with His true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.

In these means of grace, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In these means of grace, the holy, righteous Lord comes to you in mercy and compassion with pardon and peace. So, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).

Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

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

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] Luther, M. (1991). Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.