Sermons, Uncategorized

A Bold, Uncalculated Faith

“The Two Sons” by Eugene Burnand

Click here to listen to this sermon.

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

Sermons, Uncategorized

Seek the Lord While He May Be Found

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Baptized with the Holy Spirit for a Life of Repentance

“St. John the Baptist Preaching” by Salvator Rosa

Click this link to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1YNk9_FyRJzQrSTm1a5Y53inMiEin65eV/view?usp=sharing

[John the Baptist said:] “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

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

Our Advent journey began last week with Jesus headed into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Today we back up a few years and take a detour through the Jordan where Jesus began His public ministry in baptism, much as we begin our discipleship in Holy Baptism. The way of the Lord is a rigorous one because we always journey “in Christ.” But we know where we are going, and we know who we are. In this second week of Advent, we remind ourselves that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance.

We will soon celebrate Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but already on these first Sundays in Advent, it’s clear that our destination is not an idyllic manger scene with an adorable baby. There is a cross to be suffered. And that means Jesus’ mission is serious business, not be “tagged along” by the casual traveler or the unprepared. Thus, John suddenly appears on the scene to prepare His way. An attention-getting appearance, to say the least! One that illustrates suffering and sacrifice along a weary way. A robe of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. A diet of locusts and wild honey. A voice crying in the wilderness.

John comes to prepare God’s people for the messianic journey ahead—to teach that the journey is one of suffering and deprivation, like Israel’s time in the wilderness. There is all righteousness to be fulfilled, pictured by Isaiah as filling in the valley, leveling the hills, making the Messiah’s paths straight. Anything that stands in the way will be bulldozed by the earthmover coming through. It is time to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Crowds are going out to John from the entire region for just that purpose. They are confessing that they do need to repent. Then John’s baptism is washing away their sin, preparing them for the kingdom’s coming in the person of the Messiah. Others, though, come as hypocrites. The Pharisees and Sadducees are sure of their own righteousness because of their bloodlines and circumcision. They refuse baptism because they feel they have no sins to wash away.

John cuts through their hypocrisy in the most graphic terms. Calling them a “brood of vipers” is bad enough. For John to say that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham,” is a greater insult to the Jews, for Gentiles are considered stones, so John is saying that God can create children of Abraham out of Gentiles by means of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Unless these hypocrites repent, they will be chopped down like dead trees and cast into the fire.

John’s appearance is the signal that the Lord Himself is at hand. The coming kingdom is Christ Himself. Already now He is among the people. While John’s coming on the scene has made a huge splash, John is even less before the Messiah than the lowliest servant before the greatest master.

John baptizes with water for repentance. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When will this be? Certainly, He does, in part already, in His own baptism, in His crucifixion, and at Pentecost. But the context here, however, has the Last Day firmly in view, and refers directly to the salvation and judgment that Christ will administer when He returns in glory. On the Last Day, Jesus will pour out the Holy Spirit on those who repent and look for the coming of God’s kingdom in Him, and all such will be gathered into His barn and saved. On the other hand, those who persist in their unbelief and reject God’s reign in Jesus will receive on that day the unquenchable fire of eternal judgment.

So, are you properly prepared?

John’s simple message comes in two parts. The first concerns the kingdom, which is now at hand, not because of anything the people have done or are doing, but because God is at work. The second concerns how they should respond. They should repent. The two go together; the coming of the kingdom and the call to repent. This was true then, and it is still true today. God will judge all people. Therefore, all people everywhere must repent.

While the message remains much the same, the audience has changed. John preached before Jesus; before His baptism, before His teaching and preaching, before His death and resurrection, before His ascension. He preached to prepare his hearers for these events. In contrast, you come here after the fact. You have heard about the empty tomb and believe. You have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. You have begun a life of repentance. It would be inappropriate to call you a brood of vipers. You are neither Pharisees nor Sadducees.

And yet, you and I still need to repent. Despite our baptism, things in our life are not as they should be. The problem is not that we are unrepentant. The problem is our contrition is too small. Too often it stops short. It is a mechanical, transactional (and therefore distorted) version of repentance. I think you know what I mean. It is what happens when we feel guilty, ask for forgiveness, and then find relief in the words of absolution. This is good, as far as it goes. But too often, that is the end. We go right back to life as usual. We return to things in our lives which are not as they should be. After a while, the guilt mounts and we go back through the motions: repent, relief, repeat—but never truly repenting.

Acknowledging the confusion about repentance in their day, the Reformers spelled out true repentance in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession:

 We have attributed these two parts to repentance: contrition and faith. If anyone desires to add a third—fruit worthy of repentance, that is, a change of the entire life and character for the better—we will not oppose it… The sum of the preaching of the Gospel is this: to convict of sin; to offer for Christ’s sake the forgiveness of sins and righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life; and that as reborn people we should do good works.[i]

John is talking about repentance manifesting itself in fruit (Matthew 3:8). It begins with confessing sin (Matthew 3:6), but it does not stop with words of forgiveness. It continues with a new life of love and obedience. The Lutheran Confessions call this “total repentance.” It involves forgiven sinners showing forth their repentant hearts in the way they live.

We say that good fruit, good works in every kind of life, should follow repentance, that is, conversion or regeneration. Neither can there be true conversion or true contrition where the putting to death of the flesh and bearing good fruit do not follow. True terrors, true griefs of mind, do not allow the body to satisfy itself in sensual pleasures, and true faith is not ungrateful to God. Neither does true faith hate God’s commandments. In a word, there is no inner repentance unless it also produces the outward putting to death of the flesh. We say that this is John’s meaning when he says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).[ii]

To make it clear what they were referring to, the Reformers went on to speak of what sort of fruit repentance produces:

These good fruit are what the commandments teach: prayer, thanksgiving, the confession of the Gospel, teaching the Gospel, obeying parents and rulers, and being faithful to one’s calling. We should not kill, not hold on to hatred, but we should be forgiving and give to the needy, so far as we can according to our means. We should not commit sexual sins or adultery, but should hold in check, bridle, and chastise the flesh, not for a repayment of eternal punishment, but so as not to obey the devil or offend the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we should speak the truth. These fruit have God’s command and should be produced for the sake of God’s glory and command.[iii]

Repentance is not a one-time act. The entire life of a Christian is to be characterized by repentance. Our baptism should remind us to drown our old Adam by daily contrition and repentance.

Is it not time that we join the faithful in confessing our sins? Confessing our pride in who we are, our hypocrisy in wanting to look pious, yet living daily lives that deny our identity as children of God. Confessing that without forgiveness, we really will be cast into eternal fire. Confessing all our sins in thought, word, and deed, what we have done and what we have left undone for which we justly deserve God’s present and eternal punishment.

We confess that we are indeed poor, miserable sinners. Yet, we confess our sins with hope, because we now walk in the way of the Lord, looking for Christ to come again soon (Matthew 3:11-12). In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all our sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.

You are a child of God. When you were baptized, you were baptized into the very “baptism” Jesus underwent—the baptism of His cross. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance. That means your life is now one of walking the way of the Lord—with all the wildernesses and deprivations and hard lessons and crosses that entails. But it also means that you walk the way the Lord walked in His resurrection—to everlasting joy in the kingdom.

What might such fruit look like in your life? Let’s take something rather simple and immediate—the observance of Advent and Christmas

Imagine how Christians celebrate Christmas differently than the rest of the world. This involves much more than simply saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays.” At the very least, it involves paying more attention to the fruit of repentance than the things we place under the tree.

It will probably include generosity and mercy—helping out your neighbor in need. There are certainly many needs and many opportunities for giving this time of year. The fruit of repentance may include reconciling with those whom you  have become estranged. Confessing to them how you have wronged them and forgiving them for their offenses against you. The fruit of repentance will include making time each day for prayer and the study of God’s Word. And the fruit of repentance will certainly include making worship a priority. Christians will not plan worship attendance around family events, but family events around worship attendance. What better way to prepare for the coming of the Lord and to celebrate Christmas than to gather with your family for worship to receive God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament? It is only by that Word and Sacraments that you are motivated and equipped for genuine repentance on every day.

And so our pilgrimage to Jerusalem continues. With the people of Jerusalem who came to John in repentance and faith, we, too, come before Christ, who visits us now at the Table He has prepared to nourish us on our way. You who are clothed in Christ, receive Him again where He gives Himself for you! Already now the gifts of Christmas are given here in this Divine Service. Come confessing your sins and your faith as we prepare for Christmas by receiving the Christ Child here in bread and wine. Come to the Table, for it is time to walk in the way of the Lord. You are baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

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


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

[ii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 176). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 183). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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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.