Sermons, Uncategorized

The Keys of Death & Hades, Life & Heaven

WordItOut-word-cloud-3738677Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Fear not, I am the First and the Last, and the Living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18).

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

In our First Reading, an angel of the Lord opens the doors of the prison that hold all the apostles, not with the guards’ keys, but miraculously. In fact, the guards aren’t even disturbed. When the religious officials arrive, they find the jail fully secure, but completely empty. The Gospel has free course in spite of prison doors. God’s saving purposes are not frustrated by locks.

In our Gospel, the apostles are gathered behind locked doors for fear of the Jews and what they might do to them. But there is one whom the locked doors did not keep out—the resurrected Jesus. We don’t know much about Jesus’ resurrected body, but we do know He left a sealed tomb with even the grave clothes still intact and that He appeared inside a locked room without use of door or key.

But as miraculous and supernatural as these incidents are, they are not the most astounding actions or miraculous openings in our readings for today.

In our Second Reading, John tells us of one Lord’s day during the time he was on the island of Patmos. He was in the Spirit when he heard a loud voice speak to him. Turning around, he saw some amazing sights: seven golden lampstands and one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest. The hairs of His head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength.

When John saw the risen and ascended Christ in all His glory, he fell down before Him as dead. John could no more stand before the heavenly Christ than he could touch the sun. Indeed, he could no more stand before the glorified Christ than Moses could stand before God and see His face at Mt. Sinai—unless given special grace and permission. No sinful mortal can stand before the exalted Son of Man because of the corruption of sin and God’s own holiness and glory.

John’s falling down as dead is like the action of every faithful proclaimer of the Word as he falls down in repentance before the Word that comes to him. Something good for us pastors to remember: Every ministry of the Word should begin with the repentance of the minister and Christ’s forgiveness of his sin.

Jesus gave John the grace and permission to stand up before Him. Placing His right hand on John, Jesus told John, “Stop being afraid.” This Word of gracious comfort empowered Christ’s servant to stand up in His presence.

The Lord Christ identified Himself as “the First and Last.” Like “the Alpha and Omega,” “the First and the Last” also denotes the eternalness of God and Christ, an eternalness of Christ in relationship to His Bride, the Church. In using this title, Jesus assured John that, as the Eternal One, He is his Savior; therefore, John should not be afraid.

Furthermore, Jesus identified Himself as “the Living One,” a title used in the Old Testament to contrast the true God with all the idols, which are dead and thus have no existence. Jesus Christ was dead but now lives forever. Because of His death and resurrection, Jesus says, “I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Some translations say, “death and the grave,” but “death and Hades” more accurately renders the Greek. In Roman culture, Hades was commonly thought of as the realm of the dead. Having “the keys of Death and Hades” is nothing less than holding the power to release people from the realm of the dead. Christ alone, who has conquered death, has this authority.

Jesus has the keys. He has the keys of Death and Hades. In Matthew 16:19, He declared to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). This is big stuff. Jesus has the keys—the keys to heaven and death and Hades: you couldn’t escape the prison of your gracv, but Jesus unlocks the door and delivers you from your cell—and there is no power that can stop Him. Furthermore, He has unlocked the gates of heaven for you. You are delivered from death and hell to life and heaven.

Where does this take place? This is what ties it to our Gospel lesson for the day, where the risen Jesus suddenly appears to the disciples who are gathered in the locked room for fear of the Jews. Jesus hails the disciples with the typical Hebrew greeting: “Peace be with you!” But on the lips of the risen Savior, it is much more than a casual wish. He brings them the peace that the world cannot give, the peace that will sustain them through all earthly troubles.

The disciples react in their fear as if they are seeing a ghost. But Jesus’ resurrected body still bears the marks of the crucifixion, to which Jesus points to erase their last doubts. The disciples rejoice! It is the Lord Jesus, alive!

Jesus again speaks peace to them and commissions them to carry on His work: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you. And when He says this, He breathes on them, and repeats the gift of the keys to the disciples gathered in the locked room: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Where does this great unlocking of doors happen? The keys are turned with the forgiveness of sins. This is what we call the “Office of the Keys.”

“The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent” (Small Catechism).

Repentance is really a two-step process: first, recognizing the reality of our sin; and second, turning to God in faith for His mercy.

Someone who does not believe he is a sinner cannot be repentant—what’s to repent of if you are not doing something wrong? So, the first step to repentance can only happen after the Law does its accusing work. People have to hear what God’s Word says so they can recognize themselves and experience contrition over sin. The flesh, the world, and the devil spend all their time whispering, “What you are doing isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s not bad at all!” Our consciences are assaulted and dulled every day by our own sinful desires. Only the Law of God can cut us to our hearts, bring us to our knees, and show us where we are wrong (usually, that is almost everywhere). Once that message gets through and we know we are slaves to sin, the first part of repentance is accomplished.

But it is not enough just to know and believe we are sinners. If we stop there, we despair, knowing that our sin separates us from God. And trying to get out of sin by our own power will also lead us to despair, because we cannot stop sinning no matter how much we want to.

So, the second part of repentance is faith: believing God’s promise that in Christ we are forgiven and have new life, namely at turning away from sin rather than to it. In particular, it means that we turn with God’s help from the specific sins of which the Law convicted us. That turning goes beyond inward resolve and really wanting to do better. Repentance includes mortifying our flesh and physically, mentally, and spiritually laboring to leave the sins that plague us.

“Repent!” sounds like a harsh message, and it is harsh. Hearing what God’s Word has to say about our favorite vices makes us angry, ashamed, and afraid. But it also makes us see that there is only one way out: Jesus. That’s why the call to repentance is one of love. It is the call God put in the mouths of His prophets and apostles so that His people could be saved. It is the call of Jesus Himself, whose love for us was so great that He took on our flesh and lived among us. He did not come to give us the message we wanted to hear (you know, the one about how you are really pretty good, especially compared to that other person). He told us the truth that we needed to hear: we are perverse, we are lost, we are dead, we must be made new, and He is the one who makes all things new.

Repentance is not some theological abstraction. For Lutherans, repentance occurs in the very concrete practice of Confession and Absolution. Our pastors do not leave us hanging. The second part of repentance is also theirs to administer. They show us our sins from the Law, and they show us our Savior in the Gospel.

Our pastors convict us with God’s Word and then forgive our sins in Christ’s place and by His command. They may do this corporately in the Divine Service, and they particularly do it in private Confession and Absolution. There is no real comfort in going home and crying into our pillows about how sorry we are. Our pastors are there to restart our crushed hearts with Jesus’ words of ultimate love: I forgive you all your sins. Those words do not just comfort us, but they effectively change us, so that even in our daily lives we grow more into the likeness of Jesus.

You can fake an apology, but you cannot fake repentance. Repentance is not just devout-sounding moaning about what rotten sinners we are, but it is leaving the life of sin we love so much. It means the slanderer keeping her zingers to herself, the lecher cancelling his Internet, the glutton by-passing the buffet, and the impious spending Sunday morning at church instead of the lake. It is change, and it hurts. Only the Holy Spirit could accomplish this work in us, because if there is one thing sinners do not like, it is giving up sin.

Sin dies hard, so hard that it took the Son of God with it to the grave (albeit briefly). And the sin in us kills us day after day. This why the Christian life is one of repentance. Repentance is not a one-time thing, because sin is not a one-time thing. We sin daily and hourly. Everything we do is tainted by sin. So every day in a Christian’s life is also characterized by repentance. In our personal prayers; in our worship together; in our private confession and receiving Absolution; and in our thoughts, words, and deeds, we are repenting constantly. We are always seeing our sin and throwing ourselves at God’s mercy, who spared not His Son to save us. With His help, we turn away from sin again and again and again.

To all who hear, we declare God’s Law and Gospel. We speak truth that we’re born in sin, that the wages of sin is death; and we declare the Good News that Christ has died for our sins and Christ is risen. When someone says, “I like my sin, so I’m not going to repent,” we tell them what the Word says: as long as they hold onto that sin, they still have it. That sin is retained, bound to them—the gates of heaven are shut, the gates of hell wide open. And when someone repents and trusts in Christ for forgiveness, we tell them what the Word says then, too: that Jesus has taken away that sin, that they are set free for eternal life. The gates of hell are shut for them, the gates of heaven wide open.

It’s all about the forgiveness Jesus has won by His death and resurrection and gives to you. In fact, forgiveness takes His death and resurrection and gives it to you. That is also why we always return to speak of Christ and His forgiveness here, for only forgiveness locks hell and opens heaven for you—for only Christ and His forgiveness give life. Rejoice in Jesus’ forgiveness for your well-being. That’s what He told the disciples to proclaim in our Gospel lesson, and that is what prepares you for His return in glory on the Last Day.

Of this you can be sure. You will see that glory on the Last Day, and on that day you will rejoice. Your Savior holds the keys to death and Hades, eternal life and heaven. He has shut hell for you and flung wide the gates of heaven by His death and resurrection. 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.

 

 

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

What Will the Owner of the Vineyard Do?

wicked vinedressers1 (1)Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Luke 20:13-15).

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

Do you remember last week when I told you the key to understanding any of the parables is to look for the point where it departs from everyday life? Well, good luck with this one! No one behaves in the way that we would normally expect them to behave. I mean, what landowner would keep sending his servants to collect the rent when they’re being so mistreated. Couldn’t he send a couple of big guys with swords? Maybe the sheriff? Or the militia? And then he’s even so naïve as to send his beloved son! What kind of father would do that?

And the tenants. “Oh, we’re not paying any rent. Get lost! And here’s a little beating just to show that we mean business.” Then they get so crazy that somehow in their mind, they think that if they just kill the son, if they just get rid of the heir, they will somehow get the owner’s inheritance. Who could be that foolish? That rebellious? That bloodthirsty? It could never, ever happen. Or could it?

The parable itself is allegorical. It describes the history of Israel in the same way as the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. God is the Lord of the vineyard. The vineyard is Israel, especially the city of Jerusalem. The tenants are the Jewish religious establishment, namely, the Sadducees and chief priests in charge of the public temple ministry in Jerusalem and the Pharisees and scribes who govern the people’s piety outside Jerusalem.

wicked vinedressers2 (1)As Jesus relates this parable, Luke has just noted that the chief priests, scribes, and the Sanhedrin are seeking to destroy Jesus but are reluctant to do so because the people are carefully listening to Jesus’ teaching (19:47). Jesus had just entered Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd. He had wept over the city as He reflected on the destruction of Jerusalem that would be coming because of its rejection of Him as Messiah. He had driven out of the temple those who had turned God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. In the verses immediately preceding, these religious leaders challenged Jesus as to what authority He had to these things.

The first four stanzas of the parable retell the history of God’s work through the prophets for the salvation of Israel. Every time God sent a prophet to Israel, it created a “critical time,” a “right season,” because prophets speak for God. They declare His intentions to save and His judgment upon those who reject Him, setting up a time that is right for bearing fruit of the faith.

The three servants who are sent into the vineyard represent all of God’s prophetic activity during the Old Testament era, when the prophets called people to repentance and to show fruits of repentance, but when that call fell so often on deaf ears. The servants are mistreated and sent away empty-handed. In the words of Isaiah 5:7, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant planting; and He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!”

Now it’s time for God’s own beloved Son to visit the vineyard.

In the phrase, “beloved Son,” there are echoes from both the Old Testament and the ministry of Jesus. The near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s beloved son, foreshadowed Christ’s bloody sacrifice (Genesis 22:2ff). But the most significant echo is from the Gospel itself, where the Father said at Jesus’ baptism, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Jesus, the beloved Son, will not be treated any better than the prophets who went before Him.

At this point, Jesus breaks off the parable and asks: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Here we find a link to Isaiah 5:4, where God asks, “What more was there to do for My vineyard, that I have not done in it?” The answer in Isaiah is clear: the fruitless vineyard must be destroyed. Equally clear is Jesus’ answer to His own question: “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Luke 20:16).

After Pentecost, the vineyard will not be leased to new farmers but will be given to them (Luke 12:32). Those new farmers do not include the previous abusive tenants. They begin with the twelve apostles who, through their commission go out into the world to make more disciples through baptizing and teaching, thus reconstituting the Church as the new Israel.

The people’s response is fear. “Surely not!” probably refers to all three events: the killing of the Son, the killing of the farmers, and the transfer of the vineyard to others. But it must happen, for the unstoppable plan of God calls for His Son to die just outside Jerusalem.

Jesus looks at the people to communicate nonverbally that these words are for them. Jesus looks with enlightened eyes at the crowds because He know the end of the story and meaning of Scriptures. But do they?  Jesus asks them in a form of a question, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builder has rejected has become the cornerstone’?” (Luke 20:17).

Jesus gives no answer, because the events of His life in the next few days will provide the answer. The people and the religious leaders already have had the answer for a long time in the Scriptures. After the resurrection, Jesus will chide the Emmaus disciples as “foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). They should have known that according to Moses and all the prophets, it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory” (Luke 24:26).

At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Simeon predicts: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed” (2:34). Throughout Jesus’ ministry, we see this come true time after time as those one would most expect to receive Jesus reject Him instead, while those who seem least likely to believe that Jesus was bringing the kingdom receive Him in faith.

From the moment Jesus entered Jerusalem, the scribes and Pharisees were seeking an opportunity to seize Him. His teaching in the temple—particularly this parable—confirmed how dangerous Jesus was for them. But they were equally aware that many believed His teaching, and they were afraid to arrest Jesus because of how the people might react.

More importantly, these religious leaders were fully aware that Jesus told this parable against them. They even may have been aware that Jesus’ reading was in accordance with the Scriptures. Jesus spoke the parable as a warning call to repentance and faith in Him who would become the cornerstone. In their unbelief and rejection, the parable’s application to them was only Law.

wicked vinedressers3 (1)And so, how do these “tenants” in the crowd respond? They want to kill the Son that very day; and in a few days, they will.

And what does the “owner of the vineyard” do? He takes the vineyard from them and lets it out to other tenants. True to His Word, He uses the death of His beloved Son for the good of sinners. Rather than stomping the world out of existence like an annoying bug, God uses His Son’s death as the Sacrifice for the sins of the world. The Son dies on the cross for the sins of the terminally foolish and faithless tenants who kill Him. Then He rises again three days later. Why? To judge and condemn? No, judgment will eventually come; but for now, He rises to declare peace, to declare that His death was for the sins of the world, and that whoever believes in Him will be saved. The Lord uses the murder of His Son to gain redemption for the sinners who rebel against Him. Now that’s crazy!

But upon further review, maybe the parable isn’t quite so outlandish after all. That’s because it’s not about how people are supposed to treat each other. If it were, the parable is just crazy. But the parable is about how sinners treat God and how God treats sinners.

Sinners treat God terribly with disrespect and irreverence. God gives them daily bread and they fail to be thankful. God gives them things to use in service, and they hoard it for themselves and use it to boast of their accomplishments. God gives them bodies and minds to be used for honorable purposes, and they misuse and pollute them both for temporary pleasure in self-destructive ways. God gives spouses, and sinners covet those that they’re not married to. God gives family and friends and neighbors to serve, and sinners neglect them or take advantage of them for selfish gain. The Lord warns of sin so that sinners repent and don’t die, and sinners get ticked off that the Lord would try to save them from death. The Lord says, “Here I am” in His Word and Sacraments, and sinners say, “There’s really other stuff that I consider more important.”

That’s how sinners treat God.

If you examine yourself, you’ll confess that that is how you treat God, too. And if your first response is, “No, I don’t!”, it is only an echo of the scribes in the text saying, “Surely not.” Apart from the Holy Spirit, there is no one who seeks after God. This is not a pleasant truth to confess, but it is true all the same and important to confess. As long as you hold onto sins, discount them as something that God doesn’t care about, or resent God for telling you they’re wrong, then you are not forgiven. You may well be saying, “Jesus died to take away all of my sins,” but you’re also saying, “I don’t want Him to take away quite all of my sins.” If you hold onto your sins, then you are not forgiven; and on Judgment Day, you will be crushed. You will not be crushed because God wants to, but because you’ve refused the gift of grace that He has given to you time and again.

For this is how Jesus treats sinners: with patience, mercy, and grace. 2 Peter 3:9 declares: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” He patiently waits. He continues to send His Word and preachers to proclaim it. He patiently showers you with forgiveness in His Word and Sacraments to keep you in the true faith, even as He patiently gives this dying world more time so that more might hear and be saved.

You will be tempted to believe that God doesn’t care; that God doesn’t care about sin because He doesn’t punish your sin immediately; and that God doesn’t care about you, because He doesn’t punish those who sin against you immediately. But it is certainly not about neglect. It is the patience of God, who suffers long to give grace to the sinner, you and others—even when it means suffering the death of His only, beloved Son to win that grace in the first place. He does not want you to be crushed in judgment. He desires that you be built upon the Rock, Jesus Christ, for eternity. Forgiven for your sins, you are in His vineyard forever.

One of the Lord’s many prophets, Joel, declared, “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). His grace, His mercy, His patience and steadfast love are all yours for the sake of Jesus; because, for the sake of Jesus, 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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

While Still a Long Way Off

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“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

Holy Assembly: Holy God & His Holy Things

Ash WednesdayClick here to listen to this sermon.

“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. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people (Joel 2:12-15).

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

We find our identity is very much tied to our family—for better or worse. Healthy families do lots of different things together that bind them as family. Some families work together. Other families play together. But one of the things that binds together families the most is when they gather to share a meal. Hence, those family meals at Christmas, and at Easter, at Thanksgiving, and at other holidays, birthdays, and so on. When we gather together and we experience something as a group, it is far more profound than to do something or experience something by ourselves as individuals. That is why God gave family to begin with, with Adam and Eve and their children. Families are a great gift of God!

We come to problems, though, when we begin to see our family as the end itself. Like other great gifts of God, we can turn our families into idols, putting them ahead even of our relationship with God. We can so easily forget that we’re really part of a bigger family, the family of God, the people of God gathered around the holy things of God—His Word and Sacrament.

You and I are a part of the wonderful thing known as the Church, and we are family who gather around this central focus point where God gathers us and calls us. And it is this shared experience and shared journey that defines us as family.

What is a family all about? Your earthly family at home is about nurture and encouragement and love and support; but let’s be honest: it can also be a place of pain and sorrow and brokenness because of sin. Arguments and disagreements arise between spouses and between parents and children. Unresolved conflicts fester. And there is still all that history that has shapes us for better or for worse.

It is no different in this communion of saints of which you and I are a part. We come here also with a great amount of baggage, not much different than any family. What are we a part of? That is the interesting thing about family.

Looking at your own family, there are perhaps some of your siblings who kind of skirt along the outside of the family perimeter either because of some past perceived slight or sin or some present offense that keeps them at arm’s length, or they don’t really want to involve themselves. Or maybe it’s just because of the rest of the family is highly dysfunctional! Who knows?

This is where dysfunctional people gather, isn’t it? This is where dysfunctional families gather. This is where imperfect husbands come for repentance and forgiveness and imperfect wives come for repentance and forgiveness. This is where children who did not honor their parents come for repentance and forgiveness. And parents who laid such high and lofty goals and expectations come for repentance and forgiveness. This is where brothers and sisters who have not always put the best construction on things with other brothers or sisters come for repentance and forgiveness, as well.

In the Old Testament text, Joel was exhorted by God to gather all the people: the elders, the children, even nursing infants, the bridegroom and his bride. No one is to be excluded from this holy assembly, this family get-together. That’s no different than it is at your home, is it? You want everybody to be there, from grandpa and grandma to the newborn, gathered around that table to rejoice, and to sometimes talk and discuss, to give blessing and to receive blessing.

In coming here to this holy assembly, we come as people set apart from the world of which we are merely pilgrims and wanderers, and who are not, though the temptation is great, setting roots in this world. Our Lord Jesus makes that very clear in the Gospel: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He exhorts us to lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven. But is that exhortation only for you and Jesus, or is that exhortation for you as a brother to encourage someone else, as a sister to someone else, as a father or mother in the faith to someone else?

When it comes right down to it, there is only one thing we can bring with us beyond this life—that is our fellow believers, our loved ones in the family of God. And we need to repent, for we haven’t always put the best construction on the actions and words of others within this holy assembly. We have not given grace as much as we’ve expected it from others within our communion of saints here. We have not been willing to step up and encourage one another as fellow redeemed in this solemn assembly whom God has called together, whom He has marked as dust to remind us that we are all the same and that there is only one hope.

The dynamics of family life are fascinating to watch, aren’t they? Moms and dads get stuck in a rut of viewing their children still as children and not as adults, forgetting they have made great strides and accomplishments. Even though they’ve grown up and moved out, they still see them as kids. And the kids can so easily forget that their parents have gone through life and are wise, imperfect though they may be, but at least wise in experience. They’re not always ready to listen to their elders. Sisters and brothers vie for attention and for those accolades from parents, and are still seeking it even though they have their own children.

These kinds of dynamics occur within a parish family, too. In any parish family, there are those who have longstanding status in that parish family and those who are newcomers. This can prove to be a challenge. There is not always a great nurturing of newcomers by the longstanding ones. There isn’t always an appreciation by new individuals within the parish family for the traditions that the longstanding ones have established, the achievements they have sweat for, and challenges they have sacrificed to overcome.

Sometimes the congregation can be seen merely as a way station and not an investment of our heart. But in a normal and healthy family, you have to sacrifice and give of your emotion in order for it to be a healthy family. You have to do it in a church family as well. And just like you may have gotten burned in your own family, you will get burned in a church family. But that is the nucleus around which God has deemed us as His children to gather.

We are not to neglect the communion of saints to which we have been called. And yet there are those who have, and our job is to call them back to the family. We are to invite them back, bring them back, encourage them back. And those who are still licking wounds of years gone by, we are to help them bind up their wounds, receive forgiveness, and grow forward.

Satan’s desire is to splinter God’s family, not only ones in your own home and house, but in this house, too. And he wishes to splinter it by creating individuals and depressing the concept of belonging to something bigger than individual. Why do people drift away from the church? Because Satan has gotten them to thinking that they don’t need this communion of saints, or they’re too sinful, or that we’re too hypocritical. Satan is a prowling lion, and he wishes to split you off from the herd, because that makes you more vulnerable to his attacks.

You, by virtue of your baptism, have been born into a family that you didn’t choose, but you will spend eternity with. What a great a comfort! As you and I gather in this holy assembly to commune, we are confessing that we will spend eternity with them. And we are saying, “This is my family. Dysfunctional, sin-scarred though it may be, this is my family, and I declare my allegiance to my family, and I will be a good member of my family, faithful and not on the fringe.”

But this is profoundly above and beyond that analogy. That is why Joel was encouraged by God to tell the people to gather together. “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. Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, “Spare Your people, O Lord, and make not Your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.”

We repent. We reflect upon our own sin and our mortality: “From dust you came and from dust you shall return.” And we remember the promised Seed of the Woman, who would crush the serpent’s head, who would defeat sin, death, and Satan with His atoning sacrifice. That is what we do when we gather here on Ash Wednesday. That is our life every day, a life of repentance. And it’s not that one needs to repent more than the other. We all need it the same.

That is why gather in this holy assembly. Here, we all come to hear the same Word of God—the Law that shows us our sins and our need for repentance. And the Gospel, that tells us how God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Jesus lived the perfect life that you and I could not live. Jesus died to pay the penalty for the sins of the world—your sins and my sins. Jesus rose again from the grave giving us the certain hope of our own resurrection to eternal life.

This is why we gather together in this holy assembly. That is why we come to hear the same absolution from the mouth of God’s called and ordained servant. That’s why we join together in the liturgy and singing the great Lenten hymns. That’s why we all come here and kneel at the same altar to receive this same body and blood with the bread and wine, that we may feed upon the same thing that binds us as the Body of Christ…the Body of Christ! How profound that the very thing upon which we feed is the very thing we are and are knit together in.

That is laying up treasures for yourself in heaven. It’s returning to the only place where you are family, and that which binds you as family shall not be severed by death, by divorce, by abandonment, by hurt feelings, and by pains of differences that are on an earthly level and not on a spiritual plane. Here is where we return to be bound up and unified again in this family. And just as it is a very big sin within your own earthly family to miss a big family gathering and meal, and just as it is as affirming and unifying to be at that meal, so it is here.

Obviously, not everyone is here tonight. That is why, as we leave here tonight, forgiven and refreshed, we go out in faith in God and in service to our neighbor. We go to be a good family member, loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, them and encouraging them to come back to the family gathering, back to Bible study and Sunday school, back to church and the holy assembly of God.

For here, in this holy assembly, is where we lay up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. Here, we build up one another in the faith and admonition of the Lord. Here, our Lord calls us to repentance that we might confess our sins and receive His absolution. Here, our Lord promises to be with His good gifts—forgiveness salvation, and eternal life.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your brothers and sister joyfully. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father 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 Gift for the King ~ Children’s Christmas Eve Service

Click here to listen to this sermon.standard-nativity

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

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

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

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

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

Gifts for the King. What can you bring?

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

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

Gifts for the King. What can you bring?

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

Gifts for the King. What can you bring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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