Sunday, July 31, 2016
Luke 19:41-48; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Jeremiah 8:4-12
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I would venture to guess that most of you know little of the structure of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and that most of you are not particularly interested in knowing. I do not fault you for that. After all, as one parishioner has been want to say on occasion, “We’re a long ways away from St. Louis.” This is most certainly true. However, the structure and offices of the LCMS actually have some relevance and bearing considering today’s Gospel Lesson. The LCMS is divided into thirty-five Districts, our own being The Atlantic District, each of which has an elected President, or, if you like, a Bishop. Each District, in turn, is divided into Circuits. The Atlantic District has ten Circuits, each of which has its own elected officer, a pastor, called the Circuit Visitor. Whereas the District President is charged with ecclesial (that is, churchly) oversight of the Pastors and the Congregations in the District, the Circuit Visitor represents the District President in ecclesial oversight of the Pastors and Congregations in the Circuit, the local cluster of congregations. As the name suggests, the job of the Circuit Visitor is to visit the Pastors and the Congregations of the Circuit, in the stead of the District President, to see how they are doing, to encourage them in their ministry, to guide them towards faithful practice, to suggest correction if necessary, and to pray for them. Presently, I serve as Circuit Visitor for Atlantic District Circuit Three which includes eight congregations: St. Luke’s – Putnam Valley, Redeemer – Peekskill, Christ the King – Pawling, All Saints – Lagrangeville, Our Savior – Fishkill, St. Timothy – Hyde Park, St. Mark’s – Hudson, and Resurrection – Cairo. However, in my fourteen years at Christ the King, I/we have never been “visited” by our Circuit Visitor. In fact, the District President has only visited this congregation twice in that time, and that was at my personal invitation. Happily, I can report that our current District President has visited me once since taking office last September. And, I have to confess that my own “visitation” of the Pastors and Congregations of our Circuit has amounted to the monthly Winkels (Circuit Meetings) that we hold, rotating congregations from month to month. However, while I do see the Pastors of the Circuit regularly, and while I do visit the congregations, I cannot say that I am truly fulfilling the fullness of the intention and purpose and spirit of the Circuit Visitor, for, although the LCMS does have a structure of hierarchical oversight, the foundation of our structure is congregational – which means that each congregation is independent in its governance, but subscribes to a common confession of faith – making the ecclesial offices of District President and Circuit Visitor merely advisory and lacking real authority.
Now, what has any of this to do with today’s Gospel Lesson? Well, last Sunday I asked you the questions, “What will you do throughout this time of your life in which you have been given management over the Lord’s blessings and goods? And, what will you be found doing when He returns at a time and an hour you cannot know?” Our Lord Jesus Christ is somewhat like a Circuit Visitor or a District President – A Bishop – who could call upon you at any time to “see how you’re doing.” And, Jesus is not one without authority, but He has been given all authority over heaven and earth and all things. Jesus has authority to demand an account of your management at any time. As I said last week, however, this should not cause you to fear or to despair, for the “things you should be found doing” when He comes in visitation amount to receiving and sharing what He has done for you and what He continues to give to you.
In today’s Gospel Jesus lamented that Jerusalem “did not know the time of their visitation.” The Greek word translated here as visitation is episkopēs, which has the same root form as bishop or overseer, and from it comes our word pastor. Jesus visited Jerusalem as the Great Bishop, Overseer, and Pastor of His Church. But, what did He find when made His visitation? How were His managers and stewards doing in their management of His goods and gifts? Jesus knew what He would find even before He entered the city. Therefore He wept over Jerusalem, and He wept over the fate that He foresaw for them saying “The days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” What Jesus prophesied that day happened roughly thirty-three years later when the soon-to-be Emperor Titus sacked Jerusalem, killed thousands, and destroyed the temple and the city. The destruction of the temple effectively ended the sacrificial system and the priesthood, and all remaining Jews were scattered. That was the Day of Judgment for Israel which so many of the end times prophecies of the Scriptures pointed to. Jesus’ prophecy concerning the judgment of Jerusalem had been fulfilled.
The occasion of Jesus’ visitation upon Jerusalem happened on the very same day as His Triumphal Entry into the Holy City, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday. The crowds received Him with great joy and pomp believing Him to be the Messiah King who would free them from Roman oppression and make Israel great once again. But, they had the wrong idea about King Jesus, about what kind of a King He was and would be. Jesus processed, not to Herod’s or Pilate’s palace and throne, but to the temple, to His Father’s House. And, what did He find there when He entered? He found moneychangers and vendors of sacrificial animals, pigeons and doves. The moneychangers exchanged the currency of pilgrims that had traveled from all over the Middle East so that they could pay the temple tax. The tax itself was an unholy thing, but the moneychangers added insult to injury by overcharging and extorting the pilgrims for their services. They took advantage of the poorest and the weakest in order to make a profit, and this in the LORD’s House. Similarly, the vendors of sacrificial animals overcharged, extorted, and took advantage of the pilgrims and worshippers, holding the law over their heads in order to force them into paying their inflated prices by either guilt or fear. As I quoted Jesus’s words last Sunday, so I do once again today, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”
What did Bishop Jesus find when He visited His people? How did He find them managing His goods and His gifts? He found them managing them poorly. He found them greedily hoarding them and withholding them from those who needed them most. He found that they had made the things of His creation into their idols and gods. Jesus was furious with righteous indignation. He made a whip of chords and thrashed the tables of the moneychangers and vendors and overturned them, sending their coins and their animals flying through the temple court. And He shouted, quoting the Prophet Isaiah, “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”
Now, it has been popular over the decades past to think that what Jesus was upset with was the fact that worldly transactions were going on in the temple court, the church. Because of that, many churches have forbidden bake sales and tag sales and have declared 50/50 raffles and auctions a thing of the devil. But, they are missing the point. Jesus’ righteous anger was not about the buying and selling per se, but it was about the people’s lack of mercy. Jesus was angry, not that they were buying and selling, but that the people were robbing each other. Just as in last week’s Gospel, the Lord commands you to make use of unrighteous wealth to win friends, that is, use the worldly stuff the Lord has given you management over to help other people and thereby glorify God. However, that was not what Jesus found His people doing. And, were Jesus to visit us today, what would He find us doing? Would He find us using the worldly things He has given us management over to the benefit of others and to the glory of God? Or, would He find us greedily hoarding them, covetously desiring them, and putting our fear, love, and trust in them above and before God, which is idolatry and false worship?
God had visited His people in Jesus Christ, but the people rejected Him. They did not fear, love, and trust in Him above all things, and they did not recognize Him when He came because they had long ago forsaken the Word of the Lord and followed instead the teachings of men. The truth of the matter is this: God comes near to and visits His people still. Jesus comes near to you and visits you in the preaching of the Gospel. How do you receive Him? The Third Commandment is, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” Luther explains this commandment saying, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Rejection of preaching is not only a violation of the Third Commandment, it is a rejection of our Lord’s Visitation at that time. Today, just as in Jesus’ time, people “will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” As in Jeremiah’s time, people have turned away in perpetual backsliding. And, because they despise the Word of the Lord and will not hear it, they mismanage their Lord’s possessions and make them to be their idols and gods. They know not the Word of the Lord, but they believe in a false word that contains not the Spirit. They preach tolerance and love and peace that are rooted, not in Christ, but in human conceptions of fairness and equality. They continually say “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace with God, for they have rejected Him and His Word and Commandments. What man declares peace is an abomination before the Lord. But, a day is coming when the Lord will visit His people, not in mercy, calling them to repentance, but in judgment. On that day “the wise men shall be put to shame; they shall be dismayed and taken; behold, they have rejected the Word of the LORD, so what wisdom is in them?”
“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!” When Jesus visited Jerusalem, it was not in judgment, but in mercy. That is why He wept over the city and the fate that would befall His people there because of their rejection of Him. It was the religious leadership of the Jews who taught them in the ways of the Law but failed repeatedly to proclaim to them the Gospel. It was the religious leadership who were given management of the Lord’s gifts, but who squandered them and idolized them and taught the people to do the same. Elsewhere Jesus had pity on the people because they were like “sheep without a shepherd.” Soon they would arrest Him and try Him and condemn Him and execute Him outside the walls of the City of God’s Peace, “for it is not permissible for a prophet to die outside Jerusalem.”
Still, the people, the hoi polloi, were hanging on His every Word. And, so must you hang on to, cling to, and keep sacred the Holy Word of God and gladly hear and learn it. For, your Lord is making His visitation upon you right now in this Divine Service. How do you receive Him? In faith, to your great and abundant blessing, or do you reject Him in unbelief and self-righteousness? Your body is the temple of the Lord in which His Holy Spirit has established His home. May the temple of your body be cleansed by Jesus’ Word, received in humble faith, and may your soul and faith together be strengthened in His pure Word of Law and Gospel, and may you be equipped to manage and to share His gifts, both material and spiritual, with others to the glory of His Name in your life, words, and deeds. In receiving Him today, and every Lord’s Day, in His visitation of grace and mercy, you are well prepared for His visitation in judgment on the Last Day, should it come today, or tomorrow, or in a thousand years.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
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.
“Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke these words to His disciples but a little before today’s Gospel text. The point is this: What will you do throughout this time of your life in which you have been given management over His blessings and goods? And, what will you be found doing when He returns at a time and an hour you cannot know? Do these questions unsettle and distress you? If so, repent of your pride and idolatry, for you have clearly forgotten that all you have, even your life, your reason, and your strength, are not yours, but they are the Lord’s, over which you have been given management, stewardship, throughout the days of your life. In truth, you have often made these gifts and creations of the Lord to be your idols and gods, and you have lusted and coveted for them, and have greedily clung to them, placing your fear, love, and trust in them before the LORD who has given them all to you.
No, Jesus’ Gospel should not unsettle and distress you, but it should bring you great comfort, contentment and peace. For, Jesus is the “faithful and wise manager” whom His Father, the Master, has “set over His household.” Jesus has done all things necessary and well that you may cease from your striving to acquire and to preserve and to protect what you have, both material and spiritual. Jesus has set you free from slavery under His Father’s Law to live in the freedom of the Gospel, freely showing mercy and freely giving of what you have freely received, to all, without distinction, without loss or resentment or sorrow. For, the one who humbles himself and is merciful will be exalted, and the one who loses his life in this world will keep it in eternity.
The Parable of the Unjust Steward, if it is indeed a parable at all, is one of the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings that we have. Let’s face it, it is challenging to understand Jesus’ meaning in commending a man who squandered his master’s wealth and then dishonestly reduced his debtor’s bills in order to win their favor and save his own skin. What could this possibly mean? Well, here is a case when the titles we have given pericopes (stories) in the Scriptures often do us a disservice. Truly, this parable is much less about honesty than it is about showing mercy. Indeed, one of the most important details in this pericope is that, when He learned that his manager had wasted his possessions, the master did not cast His manager into prison, but he merely terminated him from his position. Thus, this parable is very much like the account of our First Parent’s sin in the Garden when the LORD gave Adam an opportunity to confess his sin and be forgiven. The LORD did not destroy Adam and Eve, but He banished them from the Garden and from access to the Tree of Life. This was an act of mercy on the part of the LORD then, and an act of mercy on the part of the master now.
As in the Parable of the Prodigal Son – another misnamed parable – both of the main figures in the story do unexpected things. The prodigal son shockingly treats his father shamefully, but his father, even more shockingly, forgives him and restores him. In today’s parable, the dishonest manager shockingly cuts deals with his master’s debtors, and the master, even more shockingly, commends him. What is going on here? Well, first, we must consider the actions of the dishonest manager. This man had been caught red-handed squandering his master’s possessions. In fact, the very same word, squandered, was used also in regard to the prodigal son. He knew that he had no way to rectify his situation with his master and that he deserved imprisonment or worse. He was soon to be out on the street and penniless, a pariah among his peers. Holding no faith or trust in his own works and aware of his own weakness and inability, he confessed that he was not strong enough to dig and that he was too proud to beg. Like the prodigal son, he had hit rock bottom. But, that’s when he came up with an idea – an idea based, not upon his own works and merit, but upon his master’s goodness and mercy.
The manager went to each of his master’s debtors and told them to sit down and quickly write a fraction of the debt they owed. He had them do this quickly so that they would not think that he was the one granting them the reduction, but his master. The manager was counting on two things: By showing mercy to his master’s debtors, he was hoping that they in turn might show mercy to him when he was penniless and unemployed. And, he was counting on the goodness and mercy of his master, that, because his debtors would think well of him, he would honor the reduced debts. What he was not counting on, however, was that his master would commend him for his shrewdness.
But, why did the master commend his dishonest manager? Jesus explains saying, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you in to the eternal dwellings.” The manager is not being praised for his dishonest and illegal activities. Rather, he serves as an example of how one may use unrighteous wealth to make friends for oneself. We are all managers, stewards, of unrighteous wealth – the material, monetary, and even spiritual “stuff” of this life and world. None of it belongs to us, but it is all the Lord’s and we are but managers and stewards of the Lord’s goods.
We are the manager in this parable [as we are the prodigal son in that parable]. We have been entrusted with the Lord’s possessions to manage, to steward, on His behalf. But, we have squandered and wasted them. We have managed them poorly. We have put our fear, love, and trust in them before our LORD who created them and us, and have made them into false gods and idols. We have greedily sought to acquire them and have fiercely clung to them. We have covetously desired those things that belong to others and secretly wished that we would have them and that they would not. It is not that we have been dishonest with our management, but we have been utterly merciless, and that is by far the greater sin.
The Prophet Samuel confesses, “With the merciful You [O LORD] show yourself merciful, with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you deal purely, and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down.” The LORD desires mercy from you before obedience and sacrifice. The LORD desires that you show mercy to others as He has been merciful with you, for mercy is faith, hope, and love in action, and love is the fulfilling of the Law. When you show mercy, you show love for the LORD and for your neighbor. Mercy is also faith, hope, and trust because the merciful love not their lives or the things of this world more than they love the LORD and their neighbor, and they are free so to do because their hope and trust are not in men or in possessions, but in the LORD alone.
However, while we are the manager in this parable [and the prodigal son in that parable], there is someone who is the manager and the son with us, and before us, and in our stead, and that is God’s Son and Steward Jesus Christ. Jesus became these men for us and redeemed them, and redeemed us. As God’s Manager and Steward, Jesus didn’t merely reduce the debt we owed to our God and Master, but He paid it off in full in His own holy, innocent, shed blood. Therefore, our God and Master has commended Him and has given Him all authority in heaven and on earth and the Name that is above every name. And, as God’s Prodigal Son, Jesus took all of our sins upon Himself and placed Himself into the mercy of His Father who has restored Him, and us in Him, to full and complete Sonship and has blessed us with an eternal inheritance. “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?” That one is Jesus.
We are called as managers, stewards, to use what has been given to us to help and to support our neighbors in need. By aiding them with our financial and spiritual resources, we make friends of them. But rather than being received into their houses, as the manager had hoped, we will be received into the eternal dwelling of our heavenly Father on the day when unrighteous wealth fails, that is, death. What will you do throughout this time of your life in which you have been given management over His blessings and goods? And, what will you be found doing when He returns at a time and an hour you cannot know? Show yourself merciful as you have received mercy from the Lord. Keep yourself blameless and pure in the absolution of Jesus’ blood. Humble yourselves. Die to yourselves and to the passions of your flesh. Live in the freedom of the Lord’s mercy and grace and permit these to flow through you and from you to your neighbor. This is what it means to be a manager and a steward of the Lord’s possessions. This is what it means to be a Christian.
And, do this quickly. Do it now! Do not procrastinate as men are want to do. For, a day is coming when you will be called to account for your management of the Lord’s possessions. But, do not be afraid! You are not asked to give of anything that you have not freely received, only not to fear, love, and trust in it so that it becomes your idol, your god, and you become enslaved. That is to say, be as shrewd in your use of unrighteous wealth in the service of others as you are tempted to be in service to yourself. In this way you serve your true Master, your Lord and your God.
Yet, you cannot serve your neighbor, and consequently your Master, Lord, and God, unless you are first served by Him. Therefore, also be as shrewd in obtaining the heavenly things of forgiveness, faith, and the Spirit as you are in obtaining material wealth, for the heavenly things are certain and do not fade away, while the things of this world are perishing day by day. And, behold, your Master’s Steward and Manager Jesus is here now to forgive your debts anew, to strengthen your faith, and to equip you for service in His kingdom to the glory of His Father. Jesus summons you and proclaims to you that your debt is paid in full. To God alone be the glory.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, July 10, 2016
Mark 8:1-9; Romans 6:19-23; Genesis 2:7-17
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The crowd had been following Jesus for three days. However, it wasn’t until the third day that anyone expressed concern that they just might be hungry, and that wasn’t someone from the crowd, but it was Jesus Himself. Now, why is that? It is because the crowd was being fed all along with the Bread of Life, the Word of God, proclaimed to them by the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. You’ll remember that Satan once tempted Jesus to assuage His forty-day hunger by turning stones into bread. Then, Jesus answered Satan saying, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” For three days Jesus had been feeding them the Bread of Life – the very Word that proceeds from the mouth of God – identifying the lies they had been following, calling them to repent of their sinful dissatisfaction, forgiving them of their sins, and thus delivering them from the lies to the truth that gives real satisfaction and everlasting life in the kingdom of Heaven.
For, the trouble with us sinful people is that we always want to eat what isn’t good for us, what doesn’t bring nutrition, health, and life, but only malnutrition, illness, and death. It’s about what we take into our bodies and into our souls, what we feed on, what we trust in, and what we derive life from. That is why the LORD uses the analogy of bread to describe the importance and centrality of His Word for our life. Bread is a staple, a fundamental source of nourishment, energy, strength, and life. Like our First Parents before us, we flee from the wholesome food of the Bread of Life, God’s Word, and instead we fill our ears and our souls with junk food, with garbage, lies, and deceit. Truly, St. Paul’s prophetic words have been fulfilled today even as they were in His own time, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
Yet, the crowd following and listening to Jesus those three days hadn’t expressed that they were hungry – which is quite amazing if you think about it! Still, Jesus had compassion on them. That word compassion in the Greek is a wonderful word splachnizomai. It literally means a churning of the bowels. Splachnizomai is a gut-wrenching feeling of empathy for the suffering of another. That is what Jesus felt for the people that had followed Him three days listening to His Word and teaching. That is what it means that Jesus had “compassion on the crowd.” Jesus knew their need even before they did. He knew that they needed physical nourishment just as much as spiritual nourishment. Thus, Jesus also taught them, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
Thus, what is revealed in today’s Gospel is not only the necessity and the priority of the Word of God, the Bread of Life, for true life with God, but we also see Jesus’ humanity and union with us, the meaning of His Incarnation. We see God’s love and compassion for us, how He knows us so intimately, as only a Creator can truly know His creatures whom He has made and formed and knitted together in our mother’s wombs, whose days He knows before ever one came to pass. This is what it truly means to have compassion: to suffer with, to suffer alongside of. For, inasmuch as the crowd had been listening for three days, so too, had Jesus been teaching and preaching for three days. He was in the same boat as them, so to speak. He was hungry too. He felt compassion – He felt what they were feeling – and so He was moved to act. However, knowing their need, personally, Jesus also knew their weakness personally. And, later, in His own time of need, Jesus would say to His disciples in Gethsemane who were heavy with sleep, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The disciples demonstrated the weakness of their flesh in their answer to Jesus, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” No doubt if they were in the village or city they would have been assured at the presence of bakers and fishmongers, but, seeing nothing but barrenness and desolation, their assurance was gone and their hope lost. Therefore, Jesus gently taught them to trust not in the flesh, or in material things, what their eyes saw, and what their human reason and wisdom expected, but to trust in the Word of God. Jesus asked them how many loaves they had. It was not because He did not Himself know, but it was to bring into the light the meagerness and the insufficiency, the hopelessness of their own provisions. For, until we are able to confess our sinfulness and our inability to restore ourselves, we are unable to receive the benefit of the Gospel, the Good News, that we have been forgiven and restored to a right relationship with our God and Creator through faith in Jesus Christ who has redeemed us and has set us free. Then Jesus directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. It would not be by their works, by their reason, by their strength, or even by their faith that their bellies would be filled, but it would be by the Word of God, now pressing their meager offerings into life-giving and life-sustaining service.
Jesus caused the disciples and the crowd to become aware of their hunger and their insufficiency. When you feed your bellies with junk food and garbage, you have the sensation of being full and satisfied, while your bodies are literally starving to death for nutrition. Our ears and our brains and, consequently, our souls are so filled with the junk food and garbage of the world’s wisdom, values, cares, and anxieties that we, too, would be spiritually starving to death were it not for our frequent eating, hearing, and receiving of the Bread of Life, the Word of God. When they became aware of the meagerness of their provisions, their first reaction was that of unbelief, hopelessness, and despair. But, the Lord took their meager provisions, seven loaves and a few small fish, and with them fed them all until they were satisfied, and then collected seven baskets full of leftovers. When the LORD fills your cup, it overflows in abundance. Only consider these words of promise that He gives you: “Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.” “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Whenever the LORD gives, He gives in abundance. His mercy and His generosity are far greater than our actual needs, as is His love far greater than our sins.
The LORD’s miracles of feeding His people are plenteous throughout the Holy Scriptures. From the very beginning, in the Garden, the LORD provided food for nourishment of the body to which He attached His Word that nourished the soul. The Passover meal was a sign of His providence as He led His people out of slavery and bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. He provided manna, quail, and water to sustain His people forty years in the wilderness. In the sacrifices of the tabernacle and the temple, the LORD attached His Word of promise to bread and meat, oil and wine, to show His favor and blessing upon His people. The LORD sustained Elijah, the widow, and her son throughout the drought and famine, the jar of flour not being spent nor the jug of oil empty. Jesus had already fed over five thousand with bread and fish before performing this miracle again in the feeding of the four thousand, indicating that He may have done this several more times throughout His ministry. And, the night on which He was betrayed, He pressed meager bread and wine into divine and holy service in the Last Supper, promising through His Word, that those who ate and drank received Himself in holy communion for the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of faith, and life that cannot die. Our Lord Jesus Christ continues to press our meager provisions of bread and wine into divine and holy use in the Sacrament of the Altar where we eat His flesh and drink His blood in His promise that, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Like Martha, we too easily become distracted by worldly and fleshly cares and anxieties. We see violence, warfare, and bloodshed in the world and we are fearful. We are tempted to think that we are alone and must solve these problems on our own or suffer in isolation. Likewise, we similarly despair at our meager provisions to support our congregation and the ministry in this place. We see empty seats and less and less money in the plate, and we know that people are not beating down our doors to come in. And so, we are tempted to believe that we must do something, we must fix things, or slowly decline until we have to close our doors. “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asks. Yes! Confess the meagerness of your provisions, your inability to dig yourself out of your self-made sin-hole, your grave, your death, and look to Jesus, the Bread of Life who provides you daily bread, all that you need for your body and your life. He takes up our meager provisions and He presses them into service to feed and to nourish, to strengthen and to protect, and then to send you out into the world, to your neighbor, through your vocations, to share the Bread of Life you yourself have received in superabundance.
Come, taste of the bounty of Eden restored in this Feast of the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ. His flesh is true food, and His blood is true drink. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, July 3, 2016
Matthew 5:17-26; Romans 6:1-11; Exodus 20:1-17
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Law and Gospel. If you’ve been a Lutheran Christian for a long time, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Law and Gospel and how it is very important to properly distinguish between the two. In fact, Lutherans pretty much wrote the book on the topic – well, at least one particular Lutheran, C. F. W. Walther, “The Proper Distinction Between the Law and the Gospel,” which is required reading in our seminaries before the student sits down to write his first sermon. Martin Luther himself famously stated, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” Luther never claimed to have perfected this art himself, but there is a Doctor of Theology who has, and at whose feet we all must sit, and listen, and learn – Jesus Christ.
For, that is precisely what Jesus was doing in today’s Gospel lesson – distinguishing between Law and Gospel. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” You see, you must not conclude that the Law is bad and that the Gospel is good, or that the Law is old and the Gospel is new, or that the Gospel supersedes and replaces the Law – No! Both the Law and the Gospel alike are the Holy Divine Word of God. And yet, they are distinct and they have distinct purposes and uses.
The Law is the perfect, holy, righteous, and just will of God. The Law is the unflinching, unbending measure of all that we think, say, and do. However, because God’s Law is perfect, holy, righteous, and just, and because it is unflinching and unbending, St. Paul rightly confesses that, in it’s light, “there is no one who is righteous, not even one,” and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” You see, the Law was not given to us that we might be justified and righteous before God by doing it and keeping it, but the Law was given as “our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” The bottom line concerning God’s Law is that it cannot save us. We cannot be justified by obeying it, by doing the works it commands and by avoiding those works it forbids. It was not given for that purpose, but it was given to set God’s holiness, goodness, and righteousness before us and to turn us in repentance at the realization that we do not keep it, and cannot keep it, perfectly as it requires and demands. “The Law is but a mirror bright to bring the inbred sin to light that lurks within our nature.” Or, as I regularly teach our catechumens in Confirmation, “The Law always S.O.S. – Shows Our Sins.”
In contrast, the Gospel is the pure, unconditional, free proclamation of God’s grace to sinful mankind in and through and because of the faithful obedience and works of God’s Son Jesus Christ and His suffering and death upon the cross for the sins of the world. The Gospel makes no demands upon us as to what we must or must not do, but it proclaims to us always what God has done for us all in Jesus Christ. “Yet as the Law must be fulfilled or we must die despairing, Christ came and has God’s anger stilled, our human nature sharing. He has for us the Law obeyed and thus the Father’s vengeance stayed which over us impended.” Or, as I regularly teach our catechumens in Confirmation, “The Gospel always S.O.S. – Shows Our Savior.”
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day plainly failed to distinguish Law and Gospel. They taught the Law, but incorrectly, and they failed to proclaim the Gospel at all. For example, the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder.” The Pharisees taught that, so long as you have not physically killed someone, you have kept the Law. Similarly, they taught concerning the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” that, so long as you have not had physical sexual intercourse with a man or a woman to whom you are not married, that you have kept the Law. Thus, the Pharisees prided themselves that they kept the Law of God so exceedingly well. They considered themselves righteous because of their obedience and their good works according to the Law. However, while they taught the people the same, they harmed them in two different ways: First, they taught the people to trust in their obedience and works according to the Law just as themselves. Second, they offered no mercy, no grace, no Gospel to those who, being more honest with themselves, realized that they did not keep the Law of God very well. That is to say, the Pharisees directed people to find comfort and peace in their obedience and works instead of in God’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness. This is why Jesus once rebuked the Pharisees and called them “whitewashed tombs,” for they appeared clean and holy and righteous on the outside, but on the inside they were filled with “dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”
The Pharisees lowered the bar on God’s Law and made His commandments more do-able so that they could justify themselves. However, Jesus called them out on this and pointed out that, not only do they not keep the letter of the Law, but, worse, they knew not the spirit of the Law – love. Already in Deuteronomy had the spirit of the Law been revealed to God’s people, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” and in Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Fifth Commandment is not merely a prohibition against physical murder, but it is a command to love your neighbor, even your enemy, as you love yourself, to “help and befriend him in every bodily need.” Likewise, the Sixth Commandment is not merely a prohibition against adultery, but it is a command to love your neighbor, to love all people, with honor, dignity, and respect for their bodies and to treat your own body with honor, dignity, and respect. However, what the Pharisees taught was the lowest, physical obedience to the Law – obedience in which they took comfort, believing they were justified and righteous – while they neither taught, nor practiced, the spirit of the Law, which is love. They were the epitome of Isaiah’s prophecy, of whom Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”
Today, men still honor Jesus with their lips while their hearts are far from Him, and even the best of us must take care to resist the temptation to relax God’s Law to appear righteous in the eyes of men or to win their favor. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. The Law has not, will not, and cannot pass away, but it remains forever, for it is the perfect, holy, divine will of God. However, our race and our culture are so mired in sin that God’s clear and holy Law sounds out of step with modern wisdom and values, even discriminatory, bigoted, and hateful. In the Church, we are tempted to relax or to bend or to explain away the uncomfortable rigidity, universality, and unchanging nature of God’s Law concerning numerous moral, social, and intellectual issues such as evolution, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, war, and countless others, effectively answering Satan’s question, “Did God really say?” with a tremulous, “No, He didn’t.” Truly we must still hearken to Jesus’ words, “Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
God’s Law has not, will not, and cannot pass away. But, it has been fulfilled; therefore, our relationship to God’s Law has changed, for we have been changed. Since the Law cannot pass away, Jesus willingly, out of love and obedience to His Father, did what was necessary to fulfill it and to set us free from its curse. That has changed our relationship to God’s Law. No longer do we see it as a terrible taskmaster to be obeyed grudgingly out of fear of punishment, out of coercion in order to justify ourselves, but we see it as it truly is – holy, righteous, good, perfect, and true. Our hearts, which had been far from God, are once again near to Him and we see His Law as it is and always has been instead of through sin-corrupted reason and wisdom. Since the Holy Spirit called you out of darkness and death into light and life through the Gospel marked by the sign of Holy Baptism, not only do you not physically hurt or harm your neighbor, but you desire to help him and befriend him in his bodily needs. Not only do you not desire to take what belongs to your neighbor, but you desire to help him keep, preserve, and protect what he has. Not only do you not lie about, slander, or denigrate your neighbor, but you seek to speak well of him and always put the best construction on his words and deeds. The Law has become for you, no longer a loathsome and fearsome rule, but a holy guide for the life of a Christian. The Church calls this the Third Use of the Law. The Third Use of the Law recognizes and confesses that the Law of God has not, will not, and cannot pass away, but it has been fulfilled; therefore, our relationship to God’s Law has changed.
“What shall we say then?” St. Paul asks rhetorically. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” St. Paul goes on to explain that we, who are baptized into Christ Jesus, have died to sin, have died to our old sinful ways, have died to fear, loathing, and hatred of God and His Law and our neighbor, and have been raised in Christ to walk in newness of life. We have been changed, already now! “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” Dear Christian, you were a slave under the Law, but now you are free. You were a slave, but now you are a son, and if a son, an heir. So you must consider yourself every day of your life. When you are tempted to view God’s Law the way a slave does, you must remember that you have died with Christ and have been raised with Him, that you are a son and an heir with Him of God the Father. Never permit yourself to be placed under the Law again as a slave, for if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed. Live in His life and liberty – true liberty, true freedom – and freely love all, no matter what, as you have been freely loved, forgiven, restored, and adopted as sons of God.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.