Sermons, Uncategorized

The God Who Takes Sin Seriously

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

As one hears the Old Testament reading, you can clearly see a God who takes sin seriously. So seriously that it is a matter of life or death, good or evil, blessing or curse. Through His servant, Moses, the Lord God issues a warning and a promise to the people with whom He had chosen and established a covenant relationship based upon His grace:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess” (Deuteronomy 30:15-18).

What’s more, such blessing or curse, life or death, good or evil are not just for this life, but have eternal consequences.

Yes, the Lord who spoke through Moses is the God who takes sin seriously!

“But that’s the Old Testament!” some will say. “Everything has changed. We’re more enlightened now. Let each of us find the way to love and happiness that’s best for us. Don’t you dare impose your morality on me!”

And so, the proclamation of the Law has been largely silenced in society. Just to our north in Canada, a pastor can be found guilty of hate speech for saying that the Bible condemns homosexuality. More and more, it is becoming illegal simply to repeat what the Bible says.

But that shouldn’t be so surprising. Unbelief always attacks the Law of God. But the devil’s target ultimately is not the Law. It’s the Gospel. See, if the Law isn’t preached, it’s so much easier for people to deny that they’re sinful. If they don’t know they’re sinful, then they see no need for the Gospel.

But there’s also another danger that’s infected much of Christendom. Extensive studies of “Christians” in America show that what they really believe in is what has been labeled “moralistic therapeutic deism.” “Deism” means they believe that God exists, but that He’s pretty distant most of the time. “Therapeutic” means that they believe that you only need to involve God in your life when you’re in trouble, when you need help and healing. And “moralistic?” That means that Christianity is about being moral, being nice. It’s all about how you live.

That means that a stunning number of “Christians” believe that they can keep God’s Law well enough to please God. This can only mean that God has softened up over time, that He’s not quite so serious about sin or enforcing His Law anymore. After all, some will say, He used to strike people down on the spot for sin or call for people to be stoned to death for immorality. But that’s not the case anymore, so clearly God has changed how His Law is to be used. But God takes sin seriously. He hasn’t relaxed His Law, softened it up or dumbed it down. His Law is not something that you can keep. That’s the point! Its primary purpose is to show you your sin and how much you need Christ and His forgiveness.

We are not the first generation to say that God has softened up over time. It was happening at the time of Jesus, too. The Pharisees claimed to have a high regard for the Law. But, since they taught that people were saved by doing good, the rabbis tended to interpret God’s laws in ways that made them keepable.

When Jesus preached the Sermon of the Mount, He wasn’t changing God’s Law by either making it harder or dumbing it down. He was teaching the disciples what God had intended all along. This is the Law He still intends for you today. So, it doesn’t matter what “you’ve heard said” by others; what matters is what Jesus says to you. He is the God who takes sin seriously.

Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Anger, insult, and murder. A sin of thought, a sin of word, and a sin of deed. You can see how this progression often plays itself out in real life. Most homicides occur among people who know one another, are often related, or even romantically involved with each other. They are not premeditated, but crimes of passion: someone gets angry, so someone insults, and someone gets murdered.   

Now, in this world, anger, insult, and murder are three different things that merit very different punishments. Anger might punish you with a loss of friends if you can’t control it. An insult might get you a civil suit or libel—or a huge following on Twitter. Murder, on the other hand, invites serious prison time, even the death penalty. So, they’re different sins with different temporal consequences. But to God all three sins are the same. They all bring judgment, even the hell of fire. All three have the same sinful root. If you commit any of these sins, you’re not loving your neighbor. You’re wishing or inflicting harm on him instead.

All three sins also put you at odds with God. No matter what your neighbor is like, God loves him or her so much that He has given His Son to die on the cross in order to redeem them. You cannot hate your neighbor and still love the Lord. Anger is a fire that seeks to destroy your faith. Repent of it. When it flares up, repent of it again. If you’ve got something against a brother, go and be reconciled. If they’ve got something against you, go and be reconciled. But do not ever believe that you are justified to remain angry at someone for whom Christ has died.

The Lord is the God who takes sin seriously.

Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Lust and adultery. There’s obviously a progression there too, often by way of pornography. There are varying degrees of consequences too. Lustful thoughts are among the most common of sins, while adultery destroys marriages, lives, and the future of children. Yet in a sense, they’re all the same to Jesus. All of them lead to hell. And lust and adultery share the same sinful root. God is the Creator of each person. He gives to each beauty and body as He sees fit, as well as the ability to help bring life into the world—what power and privilege! He also places great worth on each individual. With regard to a person’s body and procreative powers, God declares to each, “You are of such high worth that, before another can be intimate with you, he or she must promise before God and man to be faithful to you for the rest of your life.” That’s what those marriage vows are about.

Lust devalues others. By lust you determine that someone is an object to be used, not a neighbor to be served. It doesn’t matter if that “neighbor” is willingly devaluing herself and inviting the sin. Who are you to confirm her in her sin? She is also one for whom Christ died: who are you to encourage her to impenitence?

Flee lust. It is destructive enough in its consequences for this life. Far worse, it will destroy your faith. You cannot rob others of the worth God gives them—even just in your own mind—and at the same time embrace the worth that God gives you in Christ.

This is a difficult sin to flee from, because it often doesn’t feel like disdain or harm. And you always carry your sinful heart and lustful eyes with you. Perhaps this is why Jesus goes on to say, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

We have a God who takes sin seriously.

On a related note, Jesus goes on: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

This is a difficult one to speak of because it’s such a sensitive and painful subject, especially for those who have suffered it. It’s very likely that there is not one person here whose family has not experienced the effects of divorce.

We should note that Jesus is especially warning against a casual approach to divorce. In His day, as in ours, the common presumption in society was that divorce is not that big of a deal, and the important thing was just to carry it out in the right way. Against this, the Lord’s authoritative voice thunders! Divorce is sin! Divorce shatters a union that God intends to be permanent. Planning one, especially scheming to bring one about, is going to do serious damage to faith.

Should marriage be in your future, choose carefully. If you are married now, work hard in service to the other. Where sin threatens marriage, repent and pray. If you’re ready to give up, don’t. God hates divorce. Speak to your pastor. He can help you apply God’s Word to your situation. And if you have undergone divorce, please know that you are not forsaken. It’s a tangled web to sort out and it will almost certainly include grief and repentance. But God is faithful.

Finally, in our text, Jesus says, “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

 Aside from those oaths that He permits (like marriage vows and court testimony), Jesus warns against taking oaths. To swear an oath by God is to bind Him to your promise, and you don’t have His permission to do so. To swear by heaven or earth is to use His creation as collateral, and you don’t have His permission to do that, either. If you break your oath, you communicate to others that misusing God’s name itself is no big deal. But to take God’s name in vain is to break the Second Commandment and invite God’s condemnation. That God doesn’t strike you down doesn’t mean He’s softened up. Rather, it means He is patient and merciful, so that you might repent before the Day of Judgment.

Anger, murder, lust, adultery, divorce, oaths: some we would call “big sins,” others we would call “little sins.” All have consequences in this life, and that is a blessing because those consequences are meant to warn you of the greater consequence of hell if you hold onto these sins and do not repent. Ultimately, that’s what makes them all the same. That’s what Jesus says.

He is the God who takes sin seriously.

We have a God who takes sin so seriously that He sent His only-begotten Son to die on the cross in payment for our sins and to bring us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. We have a God who takes sin so seriously, He took on human flesh and bore our sin, lived a holy, righteous life resisting all temptation and willingly gave Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.

Where you and I deserve God’s righteous anger for our sins, God took out that wrath on His Son on the cross instead. Jesus has suffered the judgment, the condemnation and the hell of fire in our place. He endured the mocking and scorn and false accusations of His enemies. Though you are guilty of anger and insults, hell is not for you because Christ forgives you. Even if you are, literally, a murderer, Jesus has laid down His life so that you might have life forever.

Where you have reduced and demeaned others by your sins of lust, you have also demonstrated your poverty of sin. But Christ has died for you, too. The holy Son of God has given you worth—you’re worth the price of His own innocent, precious blood. Rather than live for Himself and His own gratification, Christ offered His hands and feet to nails and His back to the scourge in order to atone for your sin. He’s suffered for you in His body already. He gives grace freely. For your adulterous thoughts, you are forgiven.

When you have undergone divorce, it probably still chews at you because you know your sin, your part, and you’ve got to live with yourself. Confess your sin, for you hear this Gospel that Christ has died to lay down His life for His bride, the Church, of which you are a part: and though you or others prove faithless, He is always faithful with forgiveness for you.

Likewise, there is forgiveness for you where you have misused God’s name and broken your word. Though you demonstrate your failure and faithlessness, the Lord remains faithful. He has made good use of His name to baptize you and continues to speak His Absolution to you in His name. He gives you His Word that He forgives you for all of your sins, and the Lord always keeps His Word.

Dear friends, as Jesus demonstrates in our Gospel, the consequences of sin are devastating—but they need not be for you. Christ chose to be cursed on the cross in your place that you may be blessed. Christ chose to give Himself into death that you might have life, eternal life. Christ chose to take on your evil and overcome it so that you might receive good. In Him, your sins are all the same—gone, remembered no more! For 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

Sent to Preserve a Remnant for Life

“Having become the favorite the Pharaoh, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to request food supplies for their country suffering from famine. He makes himself known to them and pardons them (Genesis XLV, 1-8)” by Marc Chagall

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So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8).

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

A band of brothers have been keeping a shameful secret. Now, as the saying goes, “the chickens are coming home to roost.”

These brothers, the sons of Jacob, haven’t seen their younger brother, Joseph, in over twenty years. He was barely old enough to shave when they, fueled by jealousy and hatred, had sold him to slave-traders, then covered up their crime by faking his death. For all they know, Joseph is nothing but dust in the Egyptian wind by now, driven to an early death by the rigors of servitude.

But dead or alive, Joseph is a daily living reality in the consciences of his brothers. More than two decades after they’d tossed him into a pit, his cries for mercy are still echoing in the depths of their souls. More than two decades after they’d sat around that pit and ate a meal together, they can still taste the bitter memory of their heartless deed. More than two decades after their despicable deed, they still remember handing their father Joseph’s bloody robe and letting the old man think his favorite son had met his demise at the hand of some feral beast. Now, their shared secret stalks them night and day.

So pervasive is its influence upon them that when they experience trouble, they trace its ultimate source to the betrayal of their brother. When they kneel before the second-in-command of all Egypt and he accuses them of being spies and demands they bring their youngest brother down to Egypt as proof of their honesty, they lament to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us” (Genesis 42:21). In their minds, that dirty little secret from over two decades earlier is coming back to haunt them.

Once again, out of necessity because of the continuing famine, the ten plus their baby brother Benjamin find themselves kneeling in the presence of this powerful man, and he is making life difficult for them. Judah, evidently learning something from his past sins, refuses to leave Benjamin behind, because he knows that returning without him would likely be the last nail in his old father’s coffin. Instead, he begs to take Benjamin’s place himself.

The tender scene that is about to unfold in that room is much too private to be shared with outsiders. The man therefore dismisses everybody but the brothers. Then he breaks down and weeps aloud. The strangeness, sternness, and sharpness are gone from his voice now, as he speaks to the brothers in Hebrew, no longer through an interpreter. “I am Joseph!” he says. “Is my father alive?”

Imagine the shock and terror, when they hear him say, “I am Joseph!” Sin is the great destroyer, the great tension maker. Until the brothers have been assured that the barrier between them and him is gone, they will have no peace of mind.

“Come near to me, please,” Joseph urges. We can easily imagine how the brothers have kept their distance. Joseph now shows them not only with words but with actions that he feels no bitterness toward them, that he has only feelings of love toward them. There is no sadness, no anger in his heart; there should be none in theirs, now that God has given them back to one another.

Through the eyes of faith, Joseph has been able to recognize what God has been working to achieve. Using such unlikely building materials as the hateful and misguided actions of the brothers two decades earlier, God has constructed a plan to save many lives, including the lives of the important family still living in famine-plagued Canaan. “God sent me to preserve life,” Joseph tells them. “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth.” Here is the key to the entire narrative. The brothers had sold Joseph to Egypt out of hatred and spite. God overruled their evil intent, using their action to preserve a remnant, a precious handful of His people, through a crisis that now threatened them with annihilation.

There is no time to waste. For five more years, the famine in Canaan is only going to grow more severe. Joseph’s main concern is for his aged father, who has already mourned the loss of his son for twenty years, and who, no doubt, is waiting anxiously for the brothers’ return. “Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. You shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children.’”

The words keep pouring from Joseph’s lips, because he can see his brothers are having difficulty believing their long-lost brother is not only still alive but is their friend. He is not a powerful man who will take revenge long overdue, but a loving brother who wants only to reconcile. Joseph speaks directly to them in their own language, they hear him with their own ears and see him with their own eyes.

Then Joseph lets his arms do the talking. He embraces each of his brothers warmly, until finally the brothers find their voices and speak to him. Tears flow freely, and built-up tensions flow out of them. Up until this time, the brothers have remained silent. Most likely fear and shock have taken their tongue. Or perhaps, they were wondering who is going to tell Dad, and how they might spin it so it did not lay blame at their feet. Finally, the brothers begin to speak to him.

Perhaps you know how those brothers felt. Tucked away in the deep recesses of your being is that dirty little secret that you’ve been carrying around for years. At times you forget it’s there. Then a certain person’s name will come up, or you’ll see something that triggers the memory. Then you’ll feel your secret reach out with two long-nailed fingers and pinch your soul, just to remind you it’s still there.

On other days, your secret seems to have bonded with the beat of your heart, so that like Poe’s villain in the Tell-Tale Heart, the raging pulse of your secret seems obvious to everyone around you. Moreover, it can form a film around your eyes, so that everything is filtered and interpreted through it. When something bad happens, you assume it’s due to your secret. You tell others it’s bad karma or bad luck, but you suspect it’s not. It’s the ghost of your secret, coming back to haunt you, to demand resolution and restitution.

Here’s something for you to ponder. In fact, I suspect you already know this, but let me say it out loud to confirm it: the secret about secrets is that they don’t exist. There is no such thing in all the world as a secret. You see, a secret is no longer a secret when two people know it. And even if you have been so careful as to hide it from the public, from your closest friends, even from your spouse, there is One who knows. He searches the hearts and minds of humanity. He brings out of the darkness what we have hidden: He places our secret sins in the light of His presence (Psalm 90:8). God knows your secret, and because you know that He knows, you ought to just go ahead and admit the fact that you have no secrets.

What you do have is something that humanity has always struggled with ever since the fall: a guilty conscience.

Maybe you can relate more readily with Joseph. You’ve felt firsthand the betrayal of someone close to you. Maybe you’ve even asked the question, “Why did this terrible thing happen to me?” Theologians calls this the problem of evil. How can a good, loving, all-powerful God let horrible things happen?

I’m going to be honest and say right now that there is no truly satisfactory answer to that question this side of heaven. We go on as Christians, not because we fully understand God and His ways, but because we see His true heart in Jesus our Savior. In spite of evil, we know God is good—because we see Jesus. We know He loves us—because Jesus died and rose for us. We continue to walk, even through darkness, because of Jesus. There is no other answer.

But there is another question, a perhaps more pertinent question, and that question might be phrased this way: “What can God do with this evil? What new, good thing can God create using this terrible thing?”

By faith, Joseph came to the conclusion God is able to bring good out of evil. Yes, he had suffered. He’d been falsely accused and thrown into prison. Because long ago, Joseph’s brothers had sold him as a slave into Egypt, he was now in a position to offer help others in a big way. That doesn’t make what Joseph’s brothers did to him any less evil. Kidnapping is kidnapping; selling your brother as a slave will never be on the list of good, moral examples to imitate. But God used that great evil to bring about salvation for many people.

A guilty conscience, the brokenness of abuse and the bitterness of betrayal. Both can lead to fractured relationships and trust issues. Both can lead you away from God. Fortunately, the remedy for both maladies is found in the same place—the cross and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is for those plagued with guilty consciences and those who have suffered abuse at the hands of others.

The Gospel in this story is the clear example it provides of the providence of God. Our God oversees all things—even evil things contrary to His will—to ensure that they serve His will and saving purposes. Three times in this text Joseph makes this point: “God sent me before you to preserve life” (v 5); “God sent me before you to preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors” (v 7); and “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (v 8).

The theology is obvious: God is in control—so much so, that He can even use evil to accomplish His purposes. And what is God’s purpose in this case? “To preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” In using terms like remnant and survivors, Joseph is employing words that elsewhere in the Old Testament are freighted with theological significance. It may well be that in the deliverance of his brothers and his father, Joseph perceives that far more is at stake than the physical survival of twelve human beings and their children. What survives is God’s plan of redemption through a remnant of His chosen people.

The remnant motif begins early in Genesis with Noah and his family and carries through all of Scripture. Despite the threats of their enemies, the failings of their own sinful flesh, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob preserves a remnant of His people to complete His promise of the Messiah. Joseph is called upon to play an integral role in the preservation of this remnant, which includes his brothers and their children. From these few people eventually comes the whole nation of Israel—and from Israel, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Joseph is a type of Christ, one who foreshadows the person and work of our Savior in his own person and work. There are a number of parallels between the two. Both are sent to Egypt against their will: Joseph’s brothers being responsible for his exile there, Herod being responsible for Jesus’ flight there. Joseph is sold into slavery and Christ is delivered to the executioners, Joseph for twenty pieces of silver (Genesis 37:28) and Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15), yet in both cases good comes out of evil: the deliverance of Joseph’s family in the first instance, the salvation of the world in the second.

As Joseph forgives his brothers, so Christ cries out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And both Joseph and Christ, though rejected by their brothers, become the head of the corner of their respective spheres, but still are not ashamed to call their brothers brethren (Hebrews 2:11).

Joseph’s brothers deserved death, but what they received was forgiveness and life—and the life of others. Though their motives and actions were indeed evil, God used it for good. For the saving of the lives of many people, but even more important, the salvation of the world unto eternal life.

God can bring good out of our own evils as well. We may not see how He can do this right now; we may never see it in this world. And that’s hard. But in the end, it’s okay—because we know God’s true heart toward us as we see it in the life, death, and resurrection of our dear Lord Jesus. There on the cross, we see the greatest injustice, the greatest evil done toward the only one whom is truly good, and God turns it into the greatest good ever—the salvation of the world.

Your inheritance as a child of Adam is sin and death, but in Christ you are made alive through His resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:21–22). As you have died with Him in Holy Baptism, so are you raised with Him to newness of life. Instead of serving your desires and harming your neighbors, you live as “sons of the Most High.” You are “merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35–36). You deal with others as you would have them deal with you (Luke 6:37–38).

As Christ loved you when you were at enmity with Him, as He blessed and prayed for those who abused Him, and as He did good to those who hated Him and hurt Him, so also you “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27–29, 35). For God sent His Son to bear the cross and suffer death, not to condemn the guilty, but “to preserve life.” So does He provide a place for you within His Church, where He is near and deals kindly with “you and your children and your children’s children” (Gen. 45:5–10), giving you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, 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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

A Gift for the King ~ Children’s Christmas Eve Service

Click here to listen to this sermon.standard-nativity

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

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

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

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

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

Gifts for the King. What can you bring?

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

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

Gifts for the King. What can you bring?

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

Gifts for the King. What can you bring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sermons, Uncategorized

Pretty as a Picture; Ugly as Sin

Dorian Gray

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And [Jesus] said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23).

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

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a thought provoking tale that plays on the difference between what is on the inside of a man versus what is seen on the outside.

An artist named Basil Hallward meets a young man named Dorian Gray. Impressed by Gray’s beautiful physical appearance, Hallward paints a picture of him. A friend of Basil’s named Lord Henry Wotton promotes a worldview that beauty and sensual desire are the most important things in life. Falling under the influence of this philosophy, Dorian wrestles with the harsh reality that his beauty will one day fade and thinks aloud that if only the picture could age instead of himself, he would sell his soul. A Faustian bit of magic grants this request, with the caveat that the picture will not only age instead of Gray, but also take on the changes in appearance for all the evil acts the man commits.

Dorian Gray therefore goes through year after year of life looking perfect and beautiful on the outside, while his picture becomes hideous and disfigured, the embodiment of all the evil within him. He remains “pretty as a picture” while the picture becomes “ugly as sin.” Only in the end, as a distraught Dorian stabs the picture trying to cover the evidence of his own depravity, does he become the picture, dying with a knife through his own sin-filled heart, and leaving behind his own twisted corpse, a final hideous representation of his own sins.

The connection to the text is clear: the evil that is on the inside of each of us doesn’t show itself at first, but is eventually revealed in our actions and attitudes. Even when we can keep it hidden, in the end, judgment brings to light all the evil we would try to hide.

In our Gospel Reading last week, Jesus faced the criticism of the Pharisees and the scribes because He and His disciples did “not walk according to the tradition of the elders” but ate “with defiled hands.” Jesus took them to task for “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men,” and “rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish [their] tradition.”

But Jesus does not simply refute and criticize the Pharisees, this week He also teaches the people the correct understanding of God’s will and human nature. Jesus turns the pharisaical conception of impurity upside down. What defiles a person is not what goes into a person—what they eat or drink—but the darkness that lurks within their hearts. You can’t whitewash a tomb and rid it of the corruption of death it contains inside. A pretty façade won’t fix a building that is structurally unsound.

We are a “beauty is skin deep” culture that too often judges value by appearance. But even worse is how we judge sin. Our nature is to focus on external sin rather than on internal sin—the outward actions rather the source.

We are much like the Pharisees in focusing on external sins of others rather than recognizing and repenting of the sins that come from within ourselves. We see a married man hold hands in public with a woman twenty-five years younger, not his wife, and assume the worst, but we don’t see what’s going on in our hearts when we flip the remote back to the channel we shouldn’t see. We see a woman flaunting her furs and jewelry, but we don’t see the envy and greed that surge through our heart. We see the story in the paper about the latest mass shooting, but we don’t see how being angry with someone at church is murder too.

What is inside of us is killing us. We are also those people who may look okay on the outside but are actually dying on the inside.

The old radio show The Shadow always began by asking, “Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Well, someone knows even better than the Shadow. Jesus pointed out the evil that lurks in our hearts that we may be able to hide from others. It’s not what goes into us but what is inside of us that is killing us. We are sinners, by nature, wicked and rotten to the core.

God looks into the heart, not to outward behavior. And like a spiritual MRI, Jesus diagnoses the source of our problem—the condition of our heart: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Now, if I’m not mistaken, Jesus just told you that all of these things come from your heart, and that they defile you. And I also did not hear the word “if”—if these things proceed from your heart they will defile you. No, our Lord tells us that in fact all of these things proceed from all of our hearts.

Beginning with sexual immorality, twelve kinds of evil thoughts and actions are combined in a dreadful litany of vices. The first six are in the plural form and describe behaviors; the last six are in the singular and have more to do with attitudes. These twelve vices, all of which come from within, leave no doubt to the wretched impurity of the fallen human heart. These things rage first within the heart and them come out in actions and attitudes.

Dear Christians, it is essential to our eternal welfare that we understand the seriousness of our situation. Sin, the transgression—the breaking—of God’s Law, is not limited to outward sinful acts—the evil things that we’ve done, the good things we’ve failed to do. You are fooling yourself if you think you’re doing all right simply because you haven’t killed anyone yet, never had a marital affair, committed grand theft, or perjured yourself in a court of law. All of us have sinned against God through anger, lust, covetousness, failure to help another, the list goes on and on. Jesus looks into the hearts of man and sees that nothing proceeds but sin and iniquity. This has been the case for all men since the birth of Cain and Abel.

Now, the world around us likes to put in its own two cents about the goodness or badness, if you will, of mankind. One popular notion is that man is basically good, and that it’s the evil found in society that corrupts him. If we just fix society, then people will be free to live out their basically good lives. Another idea that is popular among Christians is that man is born neutral—that young children are neither good nor sinful, and their upbringing will determine what kind of people they are to become.

Scripture, however, says something else entirely. It tells us that the desires of man’s heart are only evil continually, that through one man sin came into the world, and on account of sin, death. Scripture further declares that we are conceived and born in sin. So much for being basically good!

So, can’t we do something about it? Knowing that we have original sin, doesn’t that just mean that we need to try harder?

Well again, what does Scripture say? It says that we are born dead in our trespasses and sins, following the course of the world, living in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and mind, and were by nature children of wrath. The last time I checked, dead people can’t do much for themselves. And even if we could, it’s pretty clear that we would not want to. And even if we wanted to, Scripture also tells us that the wages of sin is death, and that one who breaks the minutest detail of law is guilty of breaking it all. So much for evening the score and making up for our own sin and guilt!

Jesus points to the condition of our hearts because He wants us to recognize our fallen nature—that we’re not sinful because we sin, but rather we sin because we’re sinful. It all begins in the heart, which is sinful and is deserving of everlasting death even before one is born and breathes air for the first time. Jesus teaches that people are not defiled by food or things entering the body from the outside, but rather by their own evil inclinations and sinful behaviors.

This teaching exposes the uselessness of our own excuse-making and self-justification. It dismisses our claims that other people and things are to blame for our shortcomings and failures. It demonstrates the futility of simply trying harder to not sin and do the right thing.

However, Jesus does not merely condemn; He also sets free. It takes something completely outside of you to wash you clean on the inside. God looked into His heart, not yours, to devise a plan for our salvation. It wasn’t anything inside you that paid for your sins—no good, pure thoughts of the heart, no outward action that would please the strictest Pharisee. It was the God of heaven, infinitely above us, completely outside of us, who came to earth and paid the price for sin: His life on the cross. Look away from yourselves; look to Jesus up there on the cross; His pure, undefiled, sinless heart broken, pierced through for our sinful ones.

And then the Holy Spirit—from outside—comes into our sinful hearts and brings the cleansing of Jesus’ death. He comes to you in the water of Baptism, which washes away your sins in a miraculous way. He speaks to you, not in a whisper from within (our sinful hearts could play all kinds of tricks with that!), but in God’s external Word—of preaching, of absolution, when you read and study the Bible—and He declares you pure, holy, and forgiven. And while nothing outside a person and coming into him can defile you, taking into yourself Jesus’ very body and blood in the Lord’s Supper does purify you. It brings forgiveness so real to you that you can taste it.

Through the means of grace—God’s Word and Sacraments—God creates faith in your hearts. And a heart of faith is a clean heart, purified of that sin within, and it receives eternal life. In Christ, you are washed clean of the sin lurking on the inside. Your heart is no longer ugly as sin, but pretty as a picture—the loving heart of Christ. Indeed, 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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Cleansed by the Thrice Holy God and Sent to Serve

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“Isaiah under Divine Inspiration” by Marc Chagall

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:1-6).

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

It sounds like a scene that could only come from a feverish dream or the computer-generated imagery (CGI) of the latest Marvel superhero motion picture. The King sits on a throne, high and lifted up, the train of His robe filling the temple. Above Him are strange, supernatural creatures, each having six wings, two covering his face, two his feet, and with two flying. As they cry out, the foundations shake down to the bedrock, and the whole house is filled with smoke.

But it’s not a feverish dream, or CGI special effects, it is an historical event. It is the year 740 BC, the year that King Uzziah died. The prophet Isaiah has a vision of the Lord sitting on His throne in the inner sanctum of the temple. But it’s hard to tell if the prophet is seeing the throne room of heaven or the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem.

But there’s a good reason for this confusion: The Holy of Holies is the Lord’s home on earth. When the temple was first completed and dedicated, the Lord appeared in a cloud of glory and descended into the Holy of Holies to dwell with His people. In a very real way, in Isaiah’s time, the Holy of Holies is where heaven and earth come together, for the one true God is enthroned in both places.

The six-winged creatures flying above the throne are seraphim, attendants to the Lord Most High. Little is known about them. This is the only place where these spiritual beings are mentioned by name in Scripture. They seem to be nobles among the angels of God and superior in rank. But what is more important than speculation about their special position among the angels, is the action of these heavenly beings. With their wings, they hide their faces and cover their feet. They are not worthy to be in the presence of the Lord, and their actions reveal their great reverence for Him and their great humility in His presence.

Imagine that! These powerful and holy creatures consider themselves unworthy to stand with uncovered feet and faces in the presence of God—so great is His holiness! Isaiah sees them flying, hovering about the throne and calling out to one another in praise of the Lord. The chief occupation of these heavenly beings is praise. Here, they offer an antiphonal hymn as they call to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The truest worship of God is pure and simple praise and confession. The sound of this angelic hymn shakes the doorposts and thresholds of the heavenly temple.

The One seated on the throne is the Thrice Holy: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He alone is worthy to be praised. He is set apart, perfect in every respect, and exalted above all things—including the angels of heaven. But God’s holiness also means that He is separate and opposite from all sin. He hates sin and must destroy sin like an antiseptic must attack bacteria. He would cease to be holy if He did not oppose sin and all its consequences.

Realizing he stands in the presence of the Thrice Holy, Isaiah is terror stricken. “Woe is me!” he cries out, “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” As he looks upon the Lord in His holiness and glory, Isaiah’s own sin become clearer. The brighter the light, the more apparent are blemishes, stains, and scars; the nearer to God’s glory, the more evident is man’s wretchedness and sinfulness. The contrast is unmistakable, and Isaiah knows there is nothing he can do to make it any different. He is a dead man, a damned man.

But the Thrice Holy Lord can do something. He sends a seraph, who takes a burning coal from the altar. The seraph touches the coal to Isaiah’s lips and says, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” The Lord makes Isaiah holy through the hand and voice of His ministering spirit. Now, Isaiah can be in the presence of God and live. Now, Isaiah can speak God’s holy Word: for the Lord has opened his lips, and Isaiah’s mouth will show forth His praise. All because the holiness of God exposed the sinfulness of Isaiah, leading him to repent, and to receive God’s grace and forgiveness.

One of the problems that the Church encounters today is simply this: people have far too high opinion of themselves. As long as this is true, they will see little need for Jesus and His perfect atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.

Some of this is natural—at least according to the sinful nature. Blinded by sin, people cannot know how terribly unholy and apart from God they are. Furthermore, tempted by the devil to believe that they can be like God, people will find a way to justify the sins they commit.

You see it in society. Our culture has made a god out of self-esteem: it teaches that the key to success is feeling good about yourself. This is a problem in education, where a prevalent philosophy seems to be that it is better to pass a child who doesn’t know math, because we don’t want him to feel bad about himself.

It is a huge problem in matters of morality, where many seem to buy into the idea that, “I’m basically a good person; so whatever I do must be basically good, too. If you object to something I do, it’s not that I’m wrong or immoral. The problem is that you’re intolerant.”

This presents a great danger in therapy, too: for rather than help a troubled person overcome a sinful behavior, a therapist might instead help the person feel good about the sin.

But enough of the obvious examples in the world. If all we do is point out the troubles of other people, guess what will happen—we’ll end up feeling like we’re better than them and good about ourselves!

The harsh reality is that you have too high opinion of yourself. So do I. It’s that old sinful nature at work, tempting us to believe that we’re not that bad, that we’re actually decent people. Now, by the grace of God, you and I are willing to confess with Scripture that we’re poor miserable sinners; but are we willing to confess how truly sinful we are? Do we realize how sinful we are? We’re not just less than we should be; left to ourselves, we’re utterly sinful and unholy, completely undeserving of God’s grace and mercy. Unfit to come into God’s holy presence for even a moment.

Please don’t misunderstand: the point of this sermon is not that you should run away from God. Rather, it is that you and I are in constant need of repentance for failing to acknowledge how sinful we are, how undeserving of grace and mercy we are. See, if we think we’re reasonably good people, we’ll also believe that we’re only partially sinful. If we think we’re somewhat righteous on our own, we won’t look to the Lord to credit us with all His righteousness.

The truth from God’s Law, sounds brutal to protesting sinful ears. We don’t deserve God’s presence and mercy. We’re far too sinful, and there’s nothing you or I can do about it. But the Thrice Holy Lord can do something about it, and He has.

The Father sent His Holy One, Jesus, to live a perfect, sinless, and holy life for you. God’s sinless Son, became the sacrifice to pay the price for your sins and gain your salvation. Now when God sees you, He sees you clothed in the righteousness of Christ. You are now holy in His sight (Colossians 1:22).

Jesus became the sinner who was forsaken on the cross and cast from the Father’s presence so that you might dwell with Him forever. Before the Thrice Holy made the world, He chose you in Christ Jesus to be His child (Ephesians 1:4). Just as Isaiah was cleansed when the coal from the altar touched his lips, so the Father has cleansed you in the waters of your Baptism, uniting you to Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14). In Christ, He made you new creations who love Him, trust in Him, and have His power to live holy lives. You are now His saints, His “holy ones.”

As you strive to live as the saints God created you to be, you are not alone. The Thrice Holy—God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is with you always. The Holy Spirit given to you in Baptism works to conform you to the image of Christ. Through daily contrition and repentance, you put to death the old Adam that your new man would arise to live in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever. At the altar, the place where heaven and earth meet, Christ feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.

The Lord no longer holds your sins against you. Instead, He forgives you. He makes you righteous. He welcomes you into His presence, now and forevermore. Then, He sends you out into the world to share this Good News with your family, friends, and neighbors.

There is no greater hope or comfort than this—but only for repentant sinners. Those who think too highly of themselves will find little comfort in the news of forgiveness now; and they will find no comfort in themselves on Judgment Day. But this is not for you: by the grace of God, you confess your sinfulness. You know it doesn’t damage you to tell the truth about your sin, but instead frees you from the slavery that would have you try to make yourself righteous. And as you grow in faith, you’re not surprised that you feel more sinful—for as you grow in faith, your recognition of sin will grow, too; but so will the joy and comfort of the forgiveness that the Lord gives you.

Dear friends, the Lord has better for you than you feeling good about yourself for a while. Confess your sins and your sinfulness beyond what you can comprehend; and rejoice to hear the words of the Thrice Holy Lord:

“Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

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.