Sunday, August 31, 2014
Luke 18:9-14; 1 Corinthians 15:1-10; Genesis 4:1-15
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It wasn’t the sacrifice that was the problem. They both returned to The LORD a portion of what He had first given them, just like you do. Cain offered a portion of his harvest, and Abel offered the firstborn of his flock. It was meet, right, and salutary to do, just as it is meet, right, and salutary for you to return to the LORD a portion of what He has given to you in thanksgiving and praise. Your offering, your sacrifice, is a confession of your faith – what you believe about The LORD and about the things, even your life, your faith, that He has given you. Anything you might return to Him is already His. However, in returning it you are confessing this truth. You are confessing your faith in the LORD, that He is the LORD and that you are not, that the things you offer to Him are truly His and not yours, that you trust in Him with all your heart, soul, and mind that He will provide for you what you need, that He lovingly provides you with all that you need for your body and life out of Fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in yourself. And so, it’s not that the LORD prefers animal sacrifice to a grain offering. No, It’s not that at all. In truth, I don’t believe that the LORD cares that much about what you offer and sacrifice. But He cares immensely about why you offer and sacrifice.
The preacher to the Hebrews explains it this way: “By faith Abel offered The LORD a greater sacrifice than Cain, and through his faith he was commended as righteous, because The LORD commended him for his offerings.” You see, it was not what Abel offered, but rather why, that The LORD commended. The LORD commended Abel’s faith. Then, as a result, the LORD also commended Abel’s offering, His sacrifice. Indeed, this is precisely how the LORD would receive Abram and his faith hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years later. The LORD credited Abram’s faith to him as righteousness. It wasn’t righteousness, of course, on it’s own, Abram’s sin-corrupted and weak faith, but rather, the LORD chose to view it that way – the LORD chose to view Abram’s faith as righteousness.
We see this scenario played out, a little differently, in the sacrifices of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. In that situation, both Elijah and the prophets of Baal offered the exact same sacrifice, a bull. As the story goes, the LORD accepted Elijah’s sacrifice even though three times – in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – he had poured four jars of water on the wood of the pyre. “Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” All the while, the prophets of Baal limped around the altar they had made and cut themselves and raved on, “but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.” Of course, the prophets of Baal did not believe that they were sacrificing to the God of Elijah, but to the demon god Baal. Here the LORD demonstrated by His prophet Elijah that there is no other God but the LORD. We construct gods – false gods and idols – out of things that the LORD has made – wood, stone, iron, etc. – and too often, we make ourselves out to be god. Then our sacrifices and offerings are like Cain’s and the prophets of Baal – the work of our hands, our actions, our wisdom. There is no faith in the LORD, so there is no one to accept the sacrifice, to answer, or to justify. Just as the fool has himself for a lawyer, so does the idolater have himself for a god. If your god is yourself, then no one can hear you, speak to you, or help you but yourself. Good luck with that.
However, there’s a whole lot more to what the LORD desires from you in sacrifice and offering. The LORD desires from you love – true love – that is selfless and sacrificial love, like the love with which He loves you, the love that the LORD says is the fulfilling of the Law, the love Jesus teaches there is nothing greater than. We pick up on this in the latter portion of the story about Cain and Abel. After Cain had murdered his brother out of jealously and rage, the LORD asked him, “Where is Abel your brother?” Cain infamously answered, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Indeed, Cain was his brother’s keeper. And so are you your brother’s, your neighbor’s keeper. Not only did Cain not help and befriend his brother in every bodily need, but Cain hurt and harmed his brother in his body – Cain murdered his brother. So, too, do you murder your brother and your neighbor when you have no care for him at all. Your Lord Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, “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.” Jesus interprets the Fifth commandment much more broadly than did the Pharisees and the scribes, much more broadly than did Cain, having the Law of the LORD written upon his heart, who asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “But, Pastor, this has nothing to do with making sacrifices and offerings to the LORD,” you say? Jesus follows up His teaching about the Fifth Commandment saying, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
What might your brother here in church have against you? What might your neighbor in the world have against you? What might your brother or sister, son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother have against you? Who have you hurt or harmed in their bodies, by thought, word, or deed? Who have you not helped and befriended when you had the opportunity, by thought, word, or deed? How often have you felt in your heart, thought in your mind, or spoke with your mouth, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Why does the Lord say to leave your gift at the altar and first be reconciled to your brother? Because, anger, hate, and lack of concern for your brother, which is apathy, are the very opposite of love. These things corrupt your offering. They pollute your sacrifice. And they are symptomatic of a deeper problem – idolatry, self-love, making yourself to be god. These are the characteristics of Cain, not Abram. These are the characteristics exemplified in the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable.
St. Luke prefaces this parable of our Lord by saying, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Right away we see the two-fold problem, the cause and the effect, of lovelessness and idolatry: “They trusted in themselves that they were righteous” and so as a result “they treated others with contempt.” The Pharisee clearly trusted in himself that he was righteous: He set himself apart from other worshippers. He thanked God that he was not like other men, even naming a list of notorious sinners, but especially the lowly tax collector kneeling behind him. He named his works before the LORD – fasting, tithing, etc. It was in these things, his works, that he placed his fear, love, and trust – not the LORD. He took credit for these things. What he gave was from himself, his own offering, his own sacrifice. He did not love the LORD, but he loved himself. He did not love the LORD, so he could not possibly love his brother, his neighbor, “extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, or even the lowly tax collector.” This is the fruit of original sin – idolatry; the same sin committed by Cain and his and our parents.
The tax collector, or the publican for you King James devotees, is the picture of humility. He stands far off. He does not look up, but beats his breast in repentance and grief over his sins. He boasts of no works, no goodness, no righteousness, but he throws himself upon the mercy of the LORD. Jesus says that “this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” This is because justification is gift of the LORD’s grace which you receive by faith, not by works and merit. The tax collector had faith – even if it was weak faith, sin-tainted and corrupted faith – and the LORD credited the man’s faith to him as righteousness. It wasn’t righteousness, of course, on it’s own, but rather, the LORD chose to view it that way – the LORD chose to view the tax collector’s faith as righteousness.
Hear these Words of the LORD: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” Thus, even St. Paul confesses, “I worked harder than any of [the Apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Let your daily prayer continually be what you prayed in today’s Collect: “Pour down upon us the abundance of Your mercy, forgiving those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things that we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Christ, our lord.”
Come, now, and receive “those good things that we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Christ, our Lord” – the forgiveness of your sins, the strengthening of your faith, and the keeping and protecting of your life today, through death into eternal life. Come and receive the sacrifice that the LORD has made for you, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. Come, eat His body and drink His blood and live. “For, God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, August 24, 2014
John 1:43-51; 2 Corinthians 4:7-10; Proverbs 3:1-8
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. But, that wasn’t because he didn’t think that they would believe, rather, it was because he believed very strongly that they would believe and repent. He knew that the Word of God had that kind of power, to create everything out of nothing, to bring light out of darkness, life out of death, faith out of unbelief. No, he believed very strongly that the people of Nineveh would believe the Word of God. They would repent. They would be saved. And, Jonah thought to himself, “That just isn’t right.”
Nineveh was the capital and the greatest city of ancient Assyria. The Ninevites were wicked and cruel. They were powerful enemies of God and of God’s people Israel. If any city and people deserved God’s wrath and judgment, so thought Jonah, it was the Ninevites. But, God had commanded His prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh and to preach repentance to them that they might repent and be saved from destruction. Jonah didn’t want to go, not because he believed it wouldn’t work, but because he believed that it would. The Ninevites did believe. They did repent. And, God did spare them. In fact, Nineveh and its surrounding territories became the cradle of Christianity. Some of the oldest Christian communions and church buildings remain in Nineveh, which today is called by the name of Mosul in the northern part of the country that today is known as Iraq.
While Christians have always been a minority in Iraq, until recent decades they have been a significant minority. Today the country is 97% Muslim with Christians making up less than 3% of the population. Over the past two months, the jihadist Islamic State and the Levant, commonly referred to as ISIS and ISIL, seized control of a major portion of northern Iraq and began carrying out a systematic purge of Iraq’s Christian population, particularly from the city of Mosul, ancient Nineveh. It is estimated that 25,000 Christians were given the ultimatum to convert to Islam, flee, or die. For those Christians who did not comply with the decree by July 19, ISIS warned that, “there is nothing to give them but the sword.” Indeed, graphic photos and videos of Christian executions by rifle, hanging, beheading, and even crucifixion have been filling the walls of social media websites, the pages of many news publications, and the television screens of some national news media. Surely, we have all been tempted to think and feel like Jonah and have no pity or mercy for these modern Ninevites who are persecuting God’s people. Likely we have even hoped and prayed that God would pour down His wrath upon them and extinguish them from the face of the earth. In times like these, however, we must remember, recall, and repeat the words of our LORD: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the LORD,” “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” and “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, persecution is a real and even necessary evil, and I say to you that it is good for Christ’s Church. Let me explain. Persecution is real. It’s ALWAYS real, ALWAYS happening in some way, to someone, somewhere. In our comfortable lives and homes, we too easily become complacent and unaware of persecution in the world, in our own nation, in our own towns. The truth is, however, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is often met with hostility and even violence. Our Lord Jesus and His disciples experienced this firsthand and He promises you that the world will hate you because of Him and will consider it good to persecute you. When horrific persecution like what is happening in Iraq finally wakes us up, opens our eyes, and gets our attention, thanks be to God! That’s a good thing! ISIS means this persecution for evil, but God means it for good.
It is good that you are paying attention. It is good that you are more aware that this fallen world is not your friend, it is not your home. This world’s wisdom is foolishness. This world’s values are not aligned with God’s Word and will. This world’s treasure is fleeting and corrupt, it will not last, it is even now passing away. Yet, there is a treasure that does not fade away, that moth and rust cannot destroy, that thieves cannot break in and steal – the Word of the LORD. Our LORD, His Word, is the one thing that doesn’t change, that endures forever, that will never pass away. It is the only thing that truly matters – “Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife; let all these be gone, they still have nothing won, the kingdom ours remaineth.” Persecution clears the air, clears the mind, clears the soul so that we can see, once again, that we are not gods, but that the God who created us, who loves us, sustains us still; we exist by the breath of His mouth; our life is His ongoing creative Word.
Blessed with the Wisdom of the LORD, Solomon gives us this Proverb: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” This is GOOD advice. This is advice for life. For, what does “your own understanding” think when you face persecution? That you suffer because God is punishing you? That you suffer because God does not love you? That you suffer because God is not able to help you or because He doesn’t exist at all? This was the counsel Job’s so-called friends gave him when God permitted Satan to persecute and afflict him, taking from him everything of worldly value. All Job was left with was God and His Word, and that was enough. When Job questioned why God permitted this suffering to come upon Him, God’s reply was, “That my righteousness might be revealed.” God’s righteousness is His Word, and His Word made flesh Jesus Christ. Men are counted righteous when they believe and trust in God’s Word, Jesus. Persecution and suffering helps us by stripping away all other things that get between us and God, idols, so that all that is left is God’s Word and our faith in that Word. God is not the author of evil and suffering and persecution, but He uses them for the good of those who love Him, who trust in Him. God alone is the LORD of life and death. Do not fear those who can only harm the body, but fear the one, the LORD, who has authority over body and soul temporally and eternally.
God’s Word, and His Word made flesh Jesus, is our treasure. St. Paul writes that “we have this treasure in jars of clay,” our fragile, weak, and perishing flesh, “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” When persecution comes, to Christians on the other side of the globe or to your own home or body, remember that you carry within your own body the death of Jesus, but you also carry the life of Jesus which will be manifested in the resurrection of your body on the day of Your Lord’s return.
When the Lord called St. Bartholomew, whom St. John calls Nathanael, Bartholomew marveled that Jesus knew who he was and all about him though they had never met. This demonstration of our Lord’s omniscience was enough to evoke Bartholomew’s confession, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” But, Jesus redirected Bartholomew’s faith and attention to God’s Word and promise saying, “You will see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This allusion to the patriarch Jacob at Bethel also occurred at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. And, in His atoning death upon the cross, Jesus opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers, and on Pentecost He poured out His Spirit upon His Church. Thus, the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection and sealed in the Spirit, cried out as was dying, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
St. Bartholomew is said to have taken the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Armenia, a country just north of Iraq. In fact, a great majority of the Christians in Iraq are Armenians whose ancestors likely first heard the Word of God from St. Bartholomew. Like Stephen, Bartholomew was martyred. Tradition says that he was flayed alive, meaning that his skin was sliced off of him by knife while he was still alive. Clearly, this kind of brutality is commensurate with the cruel horrors inflicted upon Iraq’s Christians today. But, Jesus’ words to Bartholomew, confirmed by St. Stephen, are true for all His Christian people upon their death, “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending.” Dear Christian, your Lord means for you to understand Him as the ladder, “the way, the truth, and the life” by whom alone you must come unto the Father.
Jesus is the ladder between heaven and earth, between God and man. Jesus is also the gate and the only way to heaven. He is the Word of God made flesh, the treasure we keep in the jars of clay which are our bodies. Let us never fear the breaking of the jar, the loss of our bodies and lives, but only the loss of the treasure, our Lord and His Word. Still, this weak flesh does indeed suffer temptation and waver in faith. Therefore, the best thing that we can do for our brothers and sisters in Christ suffering persecution in Iraq and in other hostile parts of the world is pray for them.
Pray for their safety and protection and for an end to persecution, to be sure, but also pray that the Spirit would strengthen their faith to maintain their confession, even unto death. Pray that they will love the LORD and His Word more than their jars of clay lives. Pray that they will find comfort, peace, and faith to persevere in the unchanging and immovable Word of God, the Word who became flesh and suffered and died for all and was raised again to imperishable and eternal life that can never be taken away. And, pray also for their persecutors, for their enemies. Pray that they may be moved by the Spirit of God through His holy Word and through the faithful confession of those they persecute and destroy to relent from their evil. Pray that the Lord would work through the faithful as He did through Jonah long ago to turn the modern Ninevites to repentance that they too may know forgiveness, life, and salvation through the Lord of life Jesus Christ.
Now, come and receive your Lord’s body and blood for the strengthening of your faith, for forgiveness, life, and salvation. His precious body and His holy blood will preserve, keep, strengthen, and protect you unto life everlasting.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Luke 16:1-13; 1 Corinthians 10:6-13; 2 Samuel 22:26-34
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Why do you have what you have? What do you do with what you’ve got? Why does the master in the parable commend the dishonest manager? These are but a few of the questions that are raised in today’s lessons from Holy Scripture. But, let us begin by acknowledging that this Parable of the Dishonest Manager (also known as the Parable of the Unjust Steward) is historically one of the most difficult and challenging of our Lord’s parables to interpret and to understand. And, as with most parables, there is more than one approach that we might take in understanding it.
Fundamentally, the parable concerns how you manage the goods that are entrusted to you by God while you live your life in this world. For, your Lord is not unlike a rich man, and you are not unlike His managers. And, Satan, the accuser, is not unlike one who has brought charges against you that you have been wasting your Master’s possessions. The Master is coming soon to require an account of your management. What will He find? What will you say? Will He not be justified in condemning you? What will you do? Shrewdly, use the Master’s possessions, over which you are given management, for the good of yourself and for the good of others; not just the money and the material goods, but use the Master’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness, charity, and peace. Give to all, generously, not sparingly, that when the Master comes to require an account of your management, you will have many friends who think well of you and who will glorify the Master believing that your giving is the fruit of His generosity. “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
For, is this not what the sons of this world do? Do they not give generously to others so that they themselves might profit in the future? How shrewdly they act with the things that they love! They spend money to make money. They use their wealth to make friends. They do favors to gain favors; quid pro quo.
But, not so the sons of light! You were conceived and born into this world, this life, with the guilt of sin. You were brought into this world, this life, with nothing of your own so that all is a gift: your life and breath, your food, clothing, home and family, the Father’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness. Why do you have what you have? It is the gift of God your Father’s grace. What do you do with what you’ve got? Do you use it for your own good and for the good of others to the glory of God, or do you horde His gifts and selfishly, sinfully, keep them hidden and of no use to others? “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”
We are confounded that the Master commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness in our Lord’s parable. It is not the manager’s dishonesty that is commended, however, but the wisdom, zeal, and shrewdness he devoted to his earthly future. How much more wisdom, zeal, and shrewdness should you, sons of light, devote to your heavenly and eternal future?
Another way of looking at this parable is to see that the dishonest manager is actually our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, it may seem difficult to see Jesus as being dishonest, it may even seem blasphemous, but is this not the way the world viewed Jesus – as a dishonest criminal, a thief to be condemned to death? Jesus “dishonestly” squandered His Master’s, His Father’s, grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness by showering it upon us poor, sinful, debtors. We, who shoulder an impossible debt to our Master, God, have had our debts, cut, not in half, or reduced by a percentage, but completely erased by our Master’s “dishonest” Manager, His only Son Jesus, our Lord. Jesus believed and knew perfectly well that His Father was gracious and merciful and that He would honor the forgiveness He dishonestly dispensed because of His sacrificial death upon the cross for all sin-debts and debtors.
Does it make you uncomfortable to think of Jesus in this way, as a dishonest manager of His Father’s grace and mercy – as a criminal and a thief? Is that discomfort not the point of Jesus’ parable? The debtors would never have dared to approach the Master to bargain and settle their account, but they gratefully welcomed the dishonest manager, and they did not think Him dishonest, but only doling out the amazing grace and mercy of their Master. They were thankful to the manager and counted him as a friend and they glorified the Master for His grace and mercy shown to them.
If the Master Himself were to have approached His debtors, they would have rightfully fled in terror; but, the Manager they did not fear or flee and they were willing to bargain and deal with him to reduce their debt to the Master. Indeed, Jesus, the man from backwater Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, regularly ate and drank, touched, and had fellowship with sinners and the unclean. They did not fear Him, but approached Him and appealed to Him for mercy; and He showed them mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness. It was the Pharisees who continually cried out, “Not for such as these!”
You sons of light are shrewd and cunning managers of wealth and goods, well practiced in the art of self-preservation. But how do you manage the spiritual gifts you have, grace, mercy, love, charity, and forgiveness. Your Master and Father, God, would have you manage the spiritual gifts with the same shrewdness, cunning, wisdom, and zeal with which you manage your wealth, even more so. For, your life in this world will end, and then you will know the true worth of those things that you value now. But, the spiritual gifts, given you sons of light, bear fruit unto eternity.
“Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth,” Jesus teaches, “so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” The dishonest manager was shrewd in using oil and wheat to provide for his earthly welfare. So also do these earthly elements aid us when pressed into heavenly use in the anointing of baptism and the wheat of the Lord’s Supper. Those who have the Sacraments will have an eternal home when their earthly home fails.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.