Sermons, Uncategorized

Depart in Peace: Sermon for the Funeral of Melvin Brockberg

Click this link to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1skddtLleyX_RGiVZIy_9UZiNFyhtwEce/view?usp=sharing

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

Now that he now longer is here on this earth, we have only our memories of him. We close our eyes and can almost picture him, can’t we? No flashy, fancy clothes, no big, expensive car, no excesses of luxury, no political aspirations. He was an ordinary man, devout in his faith, humble in his attitude. You didn’t read about him in the newspapers all the time, but his name was written in the Book of Life. He knew of his salvation—that it was not something he could bring about. Like each of us, he had broken God’s commandments. He had failed to do the good he should do and had often done what he shouldn’t. But, by God’s grace, he had heard the good news of the Savior and believed it. He did not look to himself for his own righteousness or eternal salvation. Rather, the Lord was his hope; the Lord God was, and is, his future, his eternity.

We know for certain that he was a righteous man, though we also know that his righteousness was not from himself. Rather, when he was brought into the Church through the Word of God, then the Lord’s righteousness was given to him as a gift. Forgiveness of all sins, eternal life, salvation from death, and deliverance from the Evil One are all part of the blessings that God had declared to him. He became an heir of heaven and all the riches of the Lord God Almighty.

As he faced an uncertain death, he might well have agreed with the Apostle Paul as he thought about continuing to live in this world of disappointment and suffering, or to simply die. Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain… Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:21-23).

How many times had he thought of the 23rd Psalm? How often did he recall and rely on the part where the writer speaks, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me?” How often had he awakened in the night thinking of his life and thinking of the Promise of God, which had been given to him?

We don’t know, do we? For those thoughts of his are like yours and mine—very personal, known only by oneself and by the Lord. What we do know is that the Lord was with him during his travels through all of the valleys, at his bedside when he had bad dreams, with him when he received news that was less than comforting, and keeping him close even at the moment of his death.

Dear family and friends of our departed brother in Christ, Melvin: the only thing that is able to keep us going in tough times is the promise of God given to us in His Son. That promise was given to that man I’ve been speaking of, the man from the Bible named Simeon, the man who is now with the Lord in heaven. And it sustained him during his entire life. It is his story in Luke 2:25-32 that provides our text for today under the theme: “Depart in Peace.”

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now You are letting your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.’”

In a special revelation given by the Holy Spirit, Simeon had been given the promise of God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. That special day came for Simeon when Mary and Joseph entered the temple with the Christ Child. Simeon was given the wonderful privilege of actually holding Jesus. What the universe could not contain was held in the arms of one man. Simeon embraced his Savior, his Salvation, his Redeemer, his Lord. He held eternity in his hands.

Dear people, is a baby able to be that and to do that? Well, this was not just any baby being held. This was the Baby—the Son of God, begotten of the Father from eternity and the Son of Man, born of the Virgin Mary. The Seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. This little One would grow up to tell you that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life … that no one is able to come to the Father except by Him … that He came to lay down His life for you.

This Baby held in Simeon’s arms, would grow up for the specific purpose of taking his place and ours upon the cross. No, He did not look forward to His own death. Unlike you and Melvin and me, Jesus knew exactly how He was going to die. Jesus knew He would experience hell itself. Why, He even prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Jesus lived a perfect, holy and righteous life in our place. He died our death and atoned for our sins. He suffered hell so that we might not have to. He rose up from His grave as He defeated death. The tomb could not hold Him; nor will it hold those who fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. He promised to be with us, always, even to the end of the age, as He ascended into heaven to His rightful place as the King of kings and Lord of lords.

From there, in Paradise, He awaited Simeon. He awaited Melvin. He awaits you and me. The Lord looked down from above and knew that Simeon would not see death until his eyes had seen the Lord’s Christ. Having stood in the Temple and seen Him, Simeon could depart in peace. And, no doubt, one day Simeon did depart in peace, according to the Word and will of the Lord.

Simeon reminds me of Melvin. Here was a quiet, unassuming man, so inconspicuous that few but the closest to him really knew that much about him. If you look in his scrapbook, you can see that he made the newspaper a few times in his life: when he got married to Dorothy, when he moved a big dairy barn to his farm, and when he sold a cow that had an image of Mickey Mouse on its side to Disney World. Melvin was a private man. As far as I can tell not many folks even knew he was going on the Midwest Honor Flight last week. But we do know this most important thing about Melvin: As with Simeon, the Lord looked down on Melvin and knew he would not die until he had seen the Lord.

And Melvin did see Him. Through the Word of God at his Baptism, Melvin saw the crucified and risen Christ. Having received the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, Melvin could’ve departed in peace as a tiny baby. But that was not the Lord’s will. Through the Word of God, Melvin peered into the manger and saw the Good News of great joy—the Savior of the world. He saw the sinless Son of God hanging on the cross for his sins. Having seen the Lord, Melvin could have departed in peace after his confirmation day, or when he served in the United States Army during the Korean War, or the day he married Dorothy, or during one of his bouts of pneumonia, or any time in between. But that was not the Lord’s will. None of those times were the right time for Melvin.

When would it be? Not one of us knew until last Thursday. Of course, God from on high knew when it would be all along. And He knew that Thursday was the day for Melvin to depart in peace and spend eternity in Paradise. God, in His great mercy and love, permitted Melvin to die suddenly, without lingering illness or incapacitation such a short time after some of us had joined in worship in the chapel service at Falls Landing and he told us how he so looked forward to the Midwest Honor Flight.

For Melvin, there is now, no pain, no sorrow, no suffering. No more earthly hurts, conflicts, or grudges, no more struggle with sin, no more guilt over past mistakes. He has departed in peace according to the Word of God. The promise had been given and Melvin believed and trusted in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Last Thursday all things were ready in heaven and on earth for Melvin to depart in peace.

From there in Paradise, Jesus awaits for the Last Day, when He will raise the bodies of all the dead. He’ll take all believers with Him to the new heaven and new earth, where they’ll live forever in glorious, resurrected bodies, with clean hearts and sinless souls. This promise is good whether you believe it or not. The heavenly riches are there whether you believe it or not. Jesus died for you whether you believe it or not.

For those who do believe in Jesus, trust Him, and follow Him, well, you may depart in peace because your eyes have seen Him. Oh, it’s not that Christians look forward to dying. Christians do not especially want to die any more than anyone else. I know I don’t. But a very wise Christian woman said something like this: “It is not the dying that bothers me, it is the struggle to keep on living that is so hard.” So from God’s point of view, the view that both Simeon and Melvin now have, any day is a good day to die. The Christian may, indeed, depart in peace.

Sadly, for those who never knew Jesus, or who no longer believe in Him, or who’ve wandered away from Him, there really is no good day to die. Because on that day Jesus will say to them, “Depart…. depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Whoever believes in [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the Name of the God’s one and only Son.

Isaiah the prophet gives good counsel to each of us: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call on Him while He is near.” The Apostle Paul encourages the same: “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

According to God’s Word, Melvin believed and was baptized. No, like each of us he was not perfect, he was not without sin. But by the grace of God, Melvin was declared righteous and having salvation for Jesus’ sake. With the Word, Melvin lived his life of faith in the Church. Through the Word of God, Melvin received Christ at Holy Communion. He received the very body of Jesus born of Mary—the very blood of Jesus shed on the cross. And for perhaps a thousand times after the Lord’s Supper, along with the entire congregation and all the company of heaven, Melvin sang Simeon’s song: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy Word. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.”

How about you? Will you depart in peace like Simeon or Melvin? You can, you know! Those of you who seek the Lord, who have heard and believe the good news of our Savior Jesus Christ can depart from this sanctuary in peace, knowing you have been declared righteous, knowing that those sins and offenses you’ve suffered at the hands of others have been redeemed in the blood of the Lamb, knowing you have salvation and eternal life because are forgiven of all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

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

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Question Jesus Never Answers

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“[Jesus] went on His way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to Him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’” (Luke 13:22-23).

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

This week’s Gospel reading begins with a question. Luke does not tell us who asked it. But it’s a good question. “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

The questioner in the text was probably asking about the people of Israel. There seems to have been debate about which behaviors among God’s people would result in loss of salvation, and it is possible the questioner had this debate in mind. This would also make sense within the context in Luke’s Gospel. He has been highlighting the increasing opposition between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, which will reach its climax when Jesus finally finishes His journey to Jerusalem.

“Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

Some of the rabbis of the day taught that all Israelites would have a share in the kingdom to come. After all, they are the chosen people of God. Descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Others taught that, yes, Israel is God’s chosen people, and He saves all of those who observe the civil, ceremonial, and moral aspects of the Law. The Pharisees emphasized their traditions, some 600 plus rules that “helped” you keep the Torah, the Law given through Moses. Jesus answers the question in quite a different way. As He often does, Jesus replies with a parable.

Several of the parables of Jesus compare salvation to a great feast, or banquet, given by a king. That is also the picture He uses here. Entrance into the banquet hall is by a door. The first thing Jesus says about that door is that it is narrow. A narrow door prevents great crowds of people from entering all at once. Entrance into the banquet is gained by going through the door one at a time.

That narrow door is a symbol for Jesus Himself. One enters the banquet hall by way of Jesus. Jesus urges His hearers to “strive to enter through the narrow door.” A Greek word is used in the original text which suggests a contest or struggle to enter. The struggle is not against other people but rather against our own sinful flesh and the temptations of the devil.

Jesus has something else to say about that door. The time will come when the Master of the house is going to close that door. There will be some who come knocking on the locked door demanding entry. But just knowing the Master of the house will not cause Him to open. Jesus is obviously picturing Himself as the Master since the people speak of His teaching in their streets. Just as the time will come when the unfruitful tree will be cut down (Luke 13:9), so also the time will come in each individual’s life and in the history of the world when the entrance to salvation will be closed. The message is plain: don’t delay but strive to enter now.

Finally, we have a description of the people sitting at the banquet tables. As is to be expected, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets are there. But then comes a surprise: many of Jesus’ contemporaries will find themselves on the outside looking in. Weeping and gnashing of teeth will express their disappointment and shock. They will see that other people from all over the world will be sitting in their places at the banquet of salvation. Those who first had the opportunity to respond to Christ’s preaching will find themselves left out; those at the very ends of the earth who hear the Gospel message last will find themselves honored with choice seating at the heavenly banquet.

But theoretical questions framed in the third person “put off repentance and do not lead to faith.”[i] Jesus will not let a questioner examine others without first examining himself. So Jesus makes it personal. He responds with direct warnings in the second person: “[You] strive to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). “When … you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’” (Luke 13:25). “Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’” (Luke 13:26). “When you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out” (Luke 13:28-29). These warnings seem to say, “O questioner, don’t worry about the others at this point. The more pressing question is will you be saved?”   

“Strive to enter through the narrow door,” Jesus urges. “For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). The command to “strive” does not mean “that moral effort is necessary in order to enter the kingdom,”[ii] nor does it mean entrance is gained by exercising “human responsibility.”[iii] Rather, the struggle through which one enters is repentance, which is a work of God in the human heart. The struggle is produced when the Word of God—such as the teaching of Jesus here—calls one to repent and trust in Christ, but sinful human nature wars against God’s Word. The struggle is resolved as the old Adam is put to death by the Law and the person of faith is raised to new life with Christ by the power of the Gospel.

Entrance through the narrow door is gained not en masse by nationality or religious affiliation, but rather, individually, one sinner-at-a-time, by those who repent and see in Jesus the Lord of the eternal heavenly banquet.

But the question still stands. How many will be saved?

Jesus doesn’t answer it directly. Instead, He focuses attention on the Master. The people who are excluded, who are “evil,” literally “unrighteous” (not declared righteous by faith), are not known by the Master (Luke 13:27). Twice the Master says He does not know where they come from, even though they ate together and listened to Him teach (Luke 13:26).

The baptism of John and the preaching of the kingdom by Jesus had provided them with a narrow but opened door. Because they refused to repent and recognize Jesus as the Master of the banquet, they now stand on the outside. He denies that He knows them, even as they have failed to confess Him. He will not open to them, for the time of patient forbearance, of preaching and catechesis, when they were invited to know (believe in) Jesus, is finally over.

Jesus does not really answer the question that He is asked. Rather, He is saying to all who will listen, “Just be sure that you are going to be saved.”

The closest Jesus comes to answering the question is verse 29. He does not say how many will be saved, but that those who are saved will come from every direction—east and west, north and south. This reminds us that no single group has a monopoly on access to the Master. Through (and sometimes despite) us, God is reaching out to all nations. There can be no circling the wagons with the Gospel.

The Lord makes this clear in our Old Testament lesson: “The time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see My glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard My fame or seen My glory. And they shall declare My glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord … to My holy mountain Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:18-20). Those nations mentioned to symbolize the worldwide gathering of the redeemed were on the outer perimeter of ancient Israel: Tarshish (modern Spain) to the west; Pul and Lud to the south (Egypt and Ethiopia); and Tubal and Javan to the north (Greece and Turkey).

Through Isaiah, God directs us to see what He would do with the believers that survive the coming judgment of Jerusalem. God will send some of the remnant of believers to be His missionaries. They will go out into the four corners of the world and bring scattered Jews to faith in the Messiah. They will convert Gentiles from all nations and gather them into the Church as well. Through their work, the Holy Spirit will gather believers into the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church will not be confined only to Jews, but all believers will be related by their faith in Jesus. Regardless of their nationalities and origins, they will be brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.   

“Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

It is an important question to be sure. All Christians ask it at one time or another. You ask it as you wonder about neighbors who are barely connected to a church. You ask it as you pray yourself to sleep worrying about your child or grandchild who has drifted from the faith. You ask it as you notice members of the congregation who seem to have fallen off the face of the earth. A majority of Americans continue to identify as “Christian” in surveys. But when you consider how many have a meaningful connection to a Christian congregation, “few” seems a more accurate answer than “many.”

But still, Jesus doesn’t give an answer. Instead, He turns attention to the Master. To be saved, to be welcomed to the feast, is to be known by the Master. Jesus does not explicitly identify the Master in this text, but His behavior immediately prior to and following this text makes it clear that He is the Master (see His healing on the Sabbath in 13:10-17 and 14:1-6). In His resurrection from the dead, He definitely shows Himself to be the Master over all things.

The question we should be asking, therefore, is not how many will be saved. But rather, does the Master know me? In business they say it’s all about whom you know. With respect to salvation, it’s all about Who knows you.

Your Master knows you. This is a gracious knowing, to be sure. The Master created you. He sees you. Despite your unrighteousness apart from Him, He still loves you. He forgives you. He lives a perfect obedient righteous life in your place. He dies on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins. He rises from the dead to give you eternal life. He sits at God’s right-hand interceding for you and reigning over all things for your salvation. He sends you His Holy Spirit to give you new birth.

God has made you His own child through the water and Word of Holy Baptism. He declares you righteous, opens the door to you, and welcomes you to His table—both here and now in the Sacrament, where He gives you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. And on the Last Day, He will return to raise all the dead and bring you and all His children to live with Him for eternity and join Him in the eternal marriage feast of the Lamb. To be known and loved by the Master is a wonderful thing.

I bet for most of you one of the first Sunday School songs you learned began with the words, “Jesus loves me, this I know…” It’s a good reminder of Jesus’ love for each of His little ones, including you and me. But today I’m going to suggest a little twist on this old favorite: “Jesus knows me, this I love.”

And what about those who are not present? The neighbors and children and delinquent members who are far off? The promise in verses 29-30 offers hope: Many people will come from the four corners of the earth and recline at table in the kingdom. The last shall be first. Many who think they will be saved will not; but many whom we might not think will be there, will be there, saved by God’s rich and amazing grace.

This also offers motivation for you and me to continue praying and continue reaching out to others with the Master’s promise. “Jesus knows you,” we can assure them. “Come on in while the narrow door to salvation is still open!” And then, together, we graciously welcome them in the Master’s name.

For only in that name, do we find forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

So go in the peace of the Lord and serve His people with joy. The narrow door is open to you. 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] M. Franzmann, Concordia Self-Study Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia, 1979) NT, 72.

[ii] I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 565.

[iii] J. Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, World Biblical Commentary. (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 734.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Faith v Works: A False Dichotomy

Faith v WorksClick here to listen to this sermon.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

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

As the delegates drove onto the campus where the district convention would take place, an unlikely figure appeared. The woman was obviously out of place. She was not dressed properly for her surroundings, nor were her advances asking for help welcomed. Throughout the week, she moved among the delegates, who rarely even acknowledged her presence. Occasionally, someone might talk to her, but only long enough to get her to move on. More than one person asked: “What is she doing here?” Or, “Why doesn’t security escort her off campus?”

As they gathered for a final day, the delegates’ thoughts were focused on finishing up and going home. Suddenly, there was a commotion near the back door of the auditorium. It was the bag lady insisting that she be allowed to talk to whoever was running the convention. The district president motioned to her to come up to the podium. They looked at each other, smiled, and he turned to the microphone to speak. He introduced the bag lady to the delegates. She was a member of one of their congregations. Stepping to the podium, she addressed the delegates, telling them how she had been treated during the week. Some had helped her a little. Others were at least polite to her. Most just ignored her.

The convention ended differently than most. When the “bag lady” finished speaking, the district president led the delegates in a time of confession and absolution. And they left the convention with a better understanding of the connection between faith and works.

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

With those words, we are thrown into an age-old debate of “faith vs. works.” But faith vs. works is a false dichotomy, a logical fallacy in which something is falsely claimed to be an “either/or” situation, when in fact there is at least one additional option. Faith and works are not mutually exclusive. In fact, when it comes to our relationship to God, you can’t have one without the other.

That’s not to say that we are saved by faith and works—something one of my Roman Catholic friends tried to argue when I posted a meme that said, “You are saved by works; but not your own,” and had a picture of Christ on the cross. He admitted that nowhere does Scripture directly say we are saved by faith and works, but asserted that this can be determined by deduction from passages like our text.

I asked: Why would God leave something so important to understanding our salvation to deduction, which has the potential of faulty human reasoning? Wouldn’t He make it clear in Scripture how we are saved?

He has! And He has made clear the relationship between faith and works. In Ephesians 2:8-10, we read: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Do you see the relationship between faith and works? Lutheran theologian, Urbanus Rhegius, a contemporary of Martin Luther writes:

Scripture everywhere exalts and praises good works and never says anything bad about them. Accordingly, whenever it is said, “Faith alone makes godly,” good works are not being rejected, but instead it amounts to saying: Only the grace of God in Christ makes us godly and blessed, our worthiness does nothing to this end. For no creature in heaven or on earth can perform such a great, magnificent thing as to merit the removal of sin, to justify and save, to abolish sin and death. Our only mediator Jesus Christ alone can and ought to do that… Therefore, whenever we extol faith, we are not scorning works; rather we are extolling the genuine source from which all good works spring. It is impossible to do good works without faith.

He goes on to say: We insist that a line must be drawn between faith and good works and the purpose of each be kept distinct. Faith makes us righteous before God. Good works give an external testimony of this inward righteousness to our neighbors…

Faith, without good works is no faith. Works without faith are not good works. Therefore, these two, believing and good works, must go together as long as we live. Those who do not improve their lives and do good works should know they are not Christians.[i]

So, we’ve got this, right? It’s all about order. Works do not count for our salvation. We are saved only through faith in the righteousness of Christ, a righteousness carried out in His suffering, death, and resurrection and given to us by the grace of God in our Baptisms. We have the doctrine right. But then it’s the actions that follow (or do not follow) that seem so inconsistent.

There are two sinful outcomes of a Christian’s life when we dismiss works because they can’t save. We either then do whatever we want because God’s grace is there to pick us up; or we do nothing because it counts for nothing.

The former is a kind of “cheap grace.” I’m reminded of our former UPS man. Although he was always in a hurry, he still found time for brief theological discussions. One day we were discussing the differences between his Lutheran church body’s teaching and ours on same-sex marriage. Noting the disparity, he smiled and said: “Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter—we’re all saved by grace, right?” As if grace were some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for sin.

I would think that most of us are more likely to fall into the latter temptation—to think that since we are already saved only by grace through faith, there’s nothing more we can or must do. It’s important for us to understand that what we do or don’t do does matter. Moreover, those actions are connected to our faith—not in order to be saved, but because we are saved.

Notice how James begins his letter. “My brothers.” James is not writing to those who are outside the faith. He’s writing to those who are of the faith, brothers made so by God’s grace through the gift of faith. James confronts a problem in the Church—the disconnect between the faith we profess and how we live out our faith. For example: Two men enter the assembly, the gathering of believers in the presence of God. One is dressed well, the other not. The one dressed well is distinguished among the brothers. The other is given a lower place. James writes: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (2:8-10).

So what we do really does matter! And what we do not do? But how? It can seem as though all of James’ words, including those about faith being dead without works, all add up to this: “Do better!” Is that it? Do better? Do better so people can see you’re a Christian? Do better so God knows you’re serious about Him?

If that’s all James is saying, then why don’t we simply do better? Why don’t we just do everything God says? After all, God said to do it; just do it! But we don’t. In fact, we can’t. If James is saying nothing more than “Do better!” he’s actually doing exactly what he condemns in verse 15-16 of our text: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

On our own, we can’t “do better” just because James says so any more than the poor person can be warmed and filled by our words alone. That’s because our sinful nature always has its own agenda. Our sinful nature always looks out for itself, not for our neighbor in need. So the age-old debate of faith vs. works is set before us: Either James’ words are empty encouragement for us as we live our lives in perpetual disappointment to God, or there’s more.

Indeed, there is more! In verse 7, James makes what seems to be just a passing comment in the middle of his encouragement to do good. He refers to the “name by which you were called.” However, it’s not just a passing comment; it’s filled with the answer to the problem here. It suggests there was action of the one who called us, for we can’t call ourselves. It’s God, of course, who’s called us. He’s called us into a relationship with Him that’s lived out in relationship to one another. It really is all about order. It all begins with God’s action toward us and continues as we live out His action toward us in our actions toward others.

Both faith and works come from God. And that is Good News!

The content of our faith is Jesus Christ and His work of salvation on our behalf. He lived the perfect life we cannot live. He died to pay the price we cannot pay. He rose to defeat death, so that His righteousness might become ours. Our faith is in a work, but not our own. Our faith is in a work accomplished on a cross and emanating from an empty tomb. Our life begins, continues, and ends with Him and in Him, which is why what we do and what we don’t do really matters.

The life we live is the life God has worked for us in Christ. He is the content of our faith and the content of our living. Therefore, He is the content of our works. Any other understanding of the relationship between faith and works creates an either/or proposition—either faith or works. Rather, Christ in us and Christ through us creates a both/and proposition—both faith and works; first faith, then works, and never one without the other.

Now, what about when I fail? In the either/or proposition, our failure means one of two things. Our failure means either we have no faith or our failure doesn’t matter. We know our failures can’t simply be overlooked—God is holy and just and cannot tolerate sin. So in the either/or proposition, we’re sent back within ourselves to do better. We’re left to find our own inner strength. And one cannot find spiritual strength in the weakness of our own sinful flesh.

Our faith, though, isn’t in ourselves; it’s in Christ and in His work. This is where the both/and proposition of faith and works finds a firm hold on our lives. Because if everything begins with Christ, then He is where we go when we fail. When we fail to live as we should, we’re sent back to Christ. We’re sent back to His Word and reassurance of God’s grace given in Baptism as we hear His Word of forgiveness. We’re sent back to feed on Him in His Supper in order to receive from Him strengthening of our faith and love for our neighbor. We’re sent back to the One, who has graciously called us to Himself and has given us His name.

His grace is your salvation, and His grace is your strength to live, to live lives that look like what you are—children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ.

“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” But you are not dead. You are alive in Christ. Go and live and work in His name. You are forgiven for all your sins.

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

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

 

[i] Urbanus Rhegius (Preaching the Reformation: The Homiletical Handbook of Urbanus Rhegius [Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2003], 5).

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Mystery of the Will of God

MysteryClick here to listen to this sermon.

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1:7–9).

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

“Listen, I tell you a mystery”—so Paul writes the Corinthians concerning the resurrection of the body. Today, in our text from his letter to the Ephesians, Paul also tells us a mystery, a mystery made known to us by God. This is not a different mystery, but the same one, for it has its substance and its solution in Christ Jesus.

From Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie, the characters and authors of mysteries are part of our culture. Even those who usually write in other genres often try their hand at mystery writing, learning the difficulty of keeping the reader interested, but not thoroughly lost, taking them through twists of plot, secret passages, locked rooms, red herrings, mistaken identities, and other tricks of the trade.

The greatest selling book of all times is actually a mystery. Of course, I mean the Bible. The Bible tells the story with all the wicked twists and turns provided by Satan and sinful humanity. Meanwhile, God’s countermoves exceed even those of the evil one. And because of the Holy Spirit, we already know how the mystery of God’s will toward us comes out.

Ordinarily, when we know the solution, we’re done with the “whodunit.” But not this one. Even knowing how it all ends, we marvel at the way in which the love of God is revealed. Because of the Holy Spirit, we see our salvation plainly, and we are astonished at the blindness of those still perishing in their sins. This is the mystery that captivates us even when we know how it comes out.

When Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, He includes a petition asking that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray this often. But Luke omits this petition, perhaps because his Gentile readers would not have understood what Matthew’s Jewish readers already knew about God’s will.

Most of the ancient world didn’t know how to make sense out of life’s complexities. God’s will was a mystery to them. Some thought everything that happened in the world was due to luck, purely a matter of random chance. Others believed it was already predetermined and set down by fate. Neither understanding was totally right. Neither chance nor fate accounts for the ebb and flow of events in our lives, much less in the world at large.

The same confusion can happen to us when we read the Bible. On the one hand, it looks like people are saved because they accept Jesus as their Savior or they don’t. On the other hand, it sometimes sounds like salvation is predetermined and nothing we do can change it, like in our text. Phrases like “He chose us…before the foundation of the world,” “He predestined us,” and “according to the purpose of His will,” muddy up the water.

What’s the solution to this mystery of God’s will? The answer—and it should not surprise us—is found at the cross.

You see, it’s a frightening thing to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven if He wants to punish us for our sins. It’s not that we don’t deserve His wrath. We do! But we don’t want to have it actually happen to us. And we wouldn’t dare to pray this petition, “Thy will be done,” if God was capricious, mean, or uncaring. We’d be doomed.

The Good News, is that God’s will is for our salvation from the law’s justice. It is God’s will that people be saved through faith in Jesus. And, in spite of our sin and the world’s evil and Satan’s opposition, God saves sinners! He did this by becoming a human being, living a perfect life, and dying for our sins.

We have faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior because God gave it to us, not because we chose Him (Ephesians 2:8–9). On our own, we could’ve never solved this great mystery. For “[God’s] greatness no one can fathom.” As Jesus, told His disciples, this mystery is kept hidden from unbelievers (Mark 4:11), and we cannot solve it on our own for these reasons:

First, we blew our “in” with the One who knew the solution. Ever since the Fall, we’re all born as sinners divorced from God and in disharmony with our fellow human beings. We all think only of ourselves, our own wants, and own perceived needs. And that makes it a mystery as to how God would ever love us.

Second, by nature, we purposely close our eyes and our minds to God and turn away from godly deeds. As Jesus pointed out to the scribes and Pharisees, we’re all blind men, following blind guides.

Third, we could never buy off the only One who knew the secret. The secret to the mystery is not for sale. As Paul asked the Roman Christians, “Who has given a gift to [God] that He should repay him?” (Romans 11:35).

But Jesus has revealed the mystery to those who believe in Him. As our text says, “making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1:9). Through faith in Jesus, the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you and me (Mark 4:11).

“How can this be?” you might ask. “How can Jesus reveal the mystery of God’s will when we could not find the answer ourselves?” The answer—like the solutions to many mysteries—is quite simple once it has been revealed. Jesus is the One we were created to be!

Jesus was and is in perfect harmony with God. Jesus told His opponents, “I do nothing on My own authority, but speak just as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me. He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing Him” (John 8:28-29).

Throughout His entire life, Jesus kept His eyes on His Father and did only His will—even when that meant sacrificing Himself for those who deserved only punishment. Jesus knew perfectly His Father’s mind, for He and the Father are one, and what He did revealed the mystery of the Father’s will toward us.

On the cross, Jesus purchased salvation, “not with gold or silver,” but with a price much higher, “with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent sufferings and death.” That’s how this mystery came out, and it’s a happy ending for us!

Now, even knowing the solution, we want to revisit this mystery over and over again. As we ponder the wonderful gift of the Gospel in our hearts, we remember Christ’s work of salvation and what that means for our lives.

We remember that Christ restores the harmony of creation that was lost in the fall. He makes everything new (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We remember that Christ restores spiritual sight to understand that God’s will toward us is love and forgiveness (John 9). He opens our eyes to recognize our sin and need for a Savior. He opens our eyes to see that He is that Savior.

We remember that Christ bends our will to His Father’s will. By the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament, Jesus reveals His Father’s will and continues to bind us together in love and unity (John 17:20-26).

And we remember that Christ gave us salvation and this knowledge of the mind of God as a free gift. We have been saved, not by our own works, but by His grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9)

This is the one mystery we can tell others without having to first issue a spoiler alert.

Now understanding the incomprehensible, the mystery that God’s will is our salvation, we Christians will seek to participate in and spread our newfound harmony with God. We are enabled to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. We can love our neighbor as ourselves and build him up for good.

Now understanding the incomprehensible, the mystery that God’s will is our salvation, we Christians wish to focus on the source of our salvation. As the writer of Hebrews urges, we are able to look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:2) as we run the race of faith that has been set before us.

Now understanding the incomprehensible, the mystery that God’s will is our salvation, we Christians desire to receive Christ’s blessings of Word and Sacrament. We thankfully remember our baptism. We hunger and thirst for His true body and blood. We long to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We want to be about the works of God, demonstrating His work in us (Ephesians 2:10).

Now understanding the incomprehensible, the mystery that God’s will is our salvation, we Christians participate in the gift, even as God continually blesses us with it (Philippians 2:12-13). We freely and fully share this gift with others as we tell them the Good News of Jesus Christ.

“Aha!” exclaims the mystery reader. “Now I see!” when the solution is revealed. And so do we! Not perfectly, for we still view God “through a glass darkly.” But we can follow the plot of our salvation from eternity’s forever back into Eden, where God cursed the serpent and promised the Savior. We can follow the golden thread throughout the Old Testament, where God’s desire to save His people—even when rebellious and unworthy—pushes the narrative forward. Foreshadowing freedom from sin, death, and the devil, the Lord rescues His people from bondage in Egypt, brings them through the waters of the Red Sea, and takes them to the Promised Land. Preparing us for the keeping of the promised Savior, God continually keeps His other promises in the time and manner He desires.

Now we’ve gone through it again. Still a great story! Especially as we see ourselves in it! This mystery isn’t about someone else; this is our story. Christ dies for you and me that we might live. Christ lives for you and me that we might die to sin. Christ takes away our sin and gives us His perfect righteousness and obedience. Christ removes our worries and gives us peace. Christ becomes a lowly human being that the lowliest of us might receive the inheritance given only to the firstborn Son. Christ’s Father abandons Him so we will never be forsaken. “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1:7–9).

The mystery is solved! In Christ, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, in Him—for the sake of His person and work—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.

 

 

Uncategorized

Glory of Christ Hidden in the Humble

palm-sunday.jpg!HD
“Palm Sunday” by Octavio Ocampo

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

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

“Behold, your king is coming to you!” Were you to hear such a glorious announcement, what would you look for?

Or to make it a little easier to imagine: Let’s suppose the president of the United States is coming to town. You pack up your family and drive to the route on which you suppose that he would travel to his speaking engagement. Your family sets up their chairs at the side of the road and you wait. Others gather, many holding welcome signs and American flags.

Time slowly passes and the excitement builds. Your son notices that the traffic has begun to thin out on the road. Police officers have started to direct traffic at intersections. A helicopter flies overhead, and you wonder if that is a sign that the president is on his way.

Ten minutes later, the road is eerily empty. Occasionally a police car zooms by with its lights flashing. The president must be on his way. He will be here soon, but not yet. The highway is empty again for a while.

Suddenly, you see two police cars in the distance coming toward you. They drive by and a swoosh of air hits you in the face. Then, far off, you make out some vehicles. The excitement builds and you think you can see…

Well, what do you think you would see? After all, this the president of the United States, and he is coming to town. You know what to expect. You have seen motorcades on television. The power, the honor, and the glory of such a prestigious office is manifested in the limousines, SUVs, law enforcement vehicles.

On this glorious day of the majestic entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, God Himself enters into His glory. The very Creator of all that is, the omnipotent power of the universe, the One who was, is, and always will be, begins His triumphal trek to His most glorious and honorable day on earth. How does He enter? Like the president of the United States? Like the conquering king of a Middle Eastern dynasty? Like an A-list celebrity on the night of the Academy Awards? No.

In our scenario with your family at the side of the road, would you expect to see the president and his motorcade drive by in a rusted-out mini-van? An old Ford Tempo? Perhaps a wood-paneled station wagon? Of course not! But how did God enter into the glory that you and I see and believe? He entered on a donkey! The prophet Zechariah announces: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).

This is our Savior? Why would God ride in on a donkey? Why would He do such a thing? Because this is exactly how He said He would come. God would do such a thing for the very purpose of His coming—salvation. The salvation of His people, the salvation of the world. The Righteous One would become the Unrighteous One. The Blessed One would be cursed. The Sinless One would bear our sin. The holy must become unholy to save us from our sins. The glory of God comes in Christ’s humility and servitude. He humbles Himself to take our sin and suffer the consequences of the eternal wrath of God as His own punishment.

But unbelievers and the world in which we live look for a triumphal entry. They look for limousines and well-armed motorcades. Or given the day and age of that first Palm Sunday—war horses and iron chariots, escorted by soldiers and accompanied by personal attendants. The world wrongly assumes a majestic and glorious entrance that reflects the honor and power befitting the Creator of the universe like any other powerful ruler.

The unbeliever, though, sees with his eyes and not through faith. The sinner looks and lusts for the excitement and honor found in the power of an earthly king. That is true of our Old Adam as well. We sinners want to win! We seek a popular Jesus that attracts more and more people or an eye-candy Jesus who makes us feel happy and important. But alas, this thinking is an entry not into Christ’s glory, but rather an entrance into hell. It is a road to the tomb with no chance of a resurrection into the presence of the Christ. Our sin—and our sinful nature!—is ever before us.

Yes, even we believers, who confess the suffering and death of our Lord for our sins, we, too, yearn for a Jesus of glory who would be popular and successful. We sinfully seek a kingdom builder of wealth and power and numbers so that we might have bigger churches for the sake of recognition or influence or just the simple hope of survival for a few more years. A Jesus who will make our church great again. A Jesus who will make our own lives great again. A Jesus who will return us to the glory days.

However, Jesus, the Lowly One, calls us not to glory, but to lowliness and repentance, to have the same humble mind as Jesus, who emptied Himself of His glory, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Following in our Savior’s footsteps, we carry our own crosses and bear one another’s burdens. Our new man rejoices in the glory of the lowly and humble. The believer rejoices in the poor, the sick, and the needy. The believer rejoices where only faith can see the glory of God: in suffering and death.

We poor sinners need the glory of the God who died. We need a God who suffered. We need the glory of the cross. That is the irony of the Gospel. It is a scandal to sinful thinkers. That is the hidden truth that eyes cannot see, but only faith can believe and confess. The glory of God that saves us is, ultimately, the death of God!

The glory of God that saves us is in the scandal of His conception, the humility of His birth and His life, and His suffering and endurance of the wrath of God—all of this in our place. Our sin did this to Him. Your sins, your hidden sins, your silly sins, your big sins, in fact, your entire sinful life was given to Christ. He endured what we could not. It is really insulting—shameful, even!—that God Himself gave up the holiness, power, and glory in exchange for our sinful, lowly, and suffering existence. However, there is where we see the glory of God. There is where we see the extent of His love and grace.

Well, then, how do we see the glory of God in our lives? We do not—that is, we do not see His glory. Rather faith confesses and sees the glory of God where He has told us He hides it. Our eyes do not see the glory; our faith does.

“How does that work?” you ask.

God’s Word teaches us where to see His glory. In the lowliness of this sinful world, God hides His glory. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was humble and lowly—swaddling clothes and a manger for a bed. His entry into Jerusalem was humble and lowly—riding on a donkey. His death was humble and lowly—crucifixion, the cursed death reserved for slaves and the most dangerous criminals. That is how Jesus accomplished the work of salvation—His glory hidden in humility and lowliness. In the same way, Christ’s glorious and triumphant entry into your life hides in the reality of your humble, everyday life.

God has called you according to your vocation to do what you do. He calls you to be a mother or father, a son or daughter. God calls you to be a teacher or a student, an employer or employee or retiree, a neighbor or friend. He calls you in so many ways, and you do what He has given you to do—love and care for your neighbor, that person who is in need of your love—for there is the glory of God.

“But, Pastor, it doesn’t look like the glory of God. It looks like, well, normal daily life. At best, it is mundane and routine, but it is often more draining—emotionally, mentally, and physically—sometimes, it’s more overwhelming, or just plain scary than it is glorious.”

That’s it! Now, you’re getting it! The glory of God is generally found in the in trials and troubles, in humility and servitude through your daily call. It’s not flashy or popular. It’s not big and powerful. It rarely makes the nightly news or social media. It is most often found in the normal grind of daily life. However, it is still the glory of God.

Getting the children up and ready for school reveals the glory of God. Loving your wife and caring for her needs is the glory of God. Washing clothes and changing diapers is the glory of God. Going to work and bringing home money to support your family is the glory of God. Giving your neighbor a ride to church or the grocery store is the glory of God. Praying with your neighbor who has just gotten a bad report from the doctor is the glory of God. Reading a book to your grandchildren or great-grandchildren is the glory of God. Picking up your room without making a fuss when your mother tells you is the glory of God.

How can this be? Because our Lord makes your work holy by His grace and His call for you to be His own in your Baptism. He gives you the faith that receives the holiness Jesus earned on the cross. Therefore, you are holy through faith in Christ. All the works done for your neighbor are holy and done to God’s glory.

The glory of God is seen through the eyes of faith trusting in God’s Word. As Christians, we confess our Lord and His glory in our normal, sometimes painful and hurtful life. Christians also understand that God and His glory come into our lives in the least of these Christ’s brothers—in the poor and the sick, in the lonely and in the hurting, even—and especially—in death.

Our Lord’s death on the cross is His greatest glory. There in all humility He served our most desperate need, the payment of our sins. On the triumphant day of entrance into Jerusalem, our Lord Jesus sat on a donkey in humility. In that triumphant entry, He entered the way of the cross. That entrance took Him to His most glorious moment: His death on the cross.

Through the glory of the cross, our Lord gives to us and teaches us to see His glory in the hidden reality of our faith. When we turn to our lives and see them in faith, we see the glory of God in our suffering, in our humility, and in our servitude. He calls us to love Him and others. But once again, our love for God is hidden in our love of our neighbor. When we love our neighbor, we love God.

So the love of God and His mercy come to you hidden in the waters of your Baptism and in the eating and drinking of bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood. These bring the glory of the kingdom of God to you for your salvation. Like the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, they are lowly, humble, and simple means. But there is exactly where He brings us to the triumphal entry into His kingdom, in everlasting joy and blessed righteousness. Through these humble means the Lord strengthens you in faith toward Him and fervent love toward one another. By them you have forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. Indeed, through these means and for the sake of the glorious death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, 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.

 

This sermon is an adaptation of a sermon by Ronald R. Feurhahn, published in Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 16, Part 2, Series B, Concordia Publishing House, 2005.