Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Festival of the Reformation (observed)


John 8:31-36/Matthew 11:12-19; Romans 3:19-28; Revelation 14:6-7

Our text for the Festival of the Reformation include the propers you have just heard and this verse from the alternate Gospel lesson, St. Matthew chapter 11: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The purpose of the Law of the LORD is to shut your mouth, to silence you. It does that quite effectively, don’tcha think? Well, truth be told, often you do not see it that way. In fact, your response to the uncompromising Law of the LORD is to, well, compromise it. You attempt to lower the bar of the Law, so to speak, to make it more do-able. You actually convince yourself that you can do the Law on your own, if only you understand in the right way. You see, the way it reads, the way the LORD gave the Law to you, simply terrifies you. You think to yourself, “Surely the command ‘Do not murder’ means only that I am not to physically kill someone in anger or rage. Surely it doesn’t mean things like terminating an inconvenient pregnancy, or assisting an elderly or suffering person out of their misery, or being angry, mean, spiteful, and unforgiving towards another person.” Same goes with the command “Do not commit adultery.” You think to yourself, “Surely this command does not prohibit looking without touching, viewing pictures and videos in magazines, on the internet, or on television. After all, who have I harmed if I haven’t touched?” In these ways you attempt to lower the bar of the LORD’s Law and make it more do-able. But, the Law of the LORD cannot be lowered; it cannot be bent, or revoked. The Law does not apply only at one time or another, but it is unchanging and it is uncompromising. The Law does not pass away.
The Law must be fulfilled. And, you cannot fulfill it. Therefore, if you will attempt to live by the Law, then the Law will crush you. No, you cannot fulfill the Law, therefore, I say to you, let it crush you. Let that weight fall upon you and break you into pieces. For, then, the Lord Jesus can raise you up. Jesus will raise you up from your failing to keep the Law. Jesus will raise you up from sin and death. Jesus will raise you up when you trust in Him, because He has fulfilled the Law of the LORD perfectly for you, and He has suffered and died for you, and He is raised from death victorious for you. The bar of the Law has never been lowered. It can never be lowered. But, better than that, the Law of the LORD has been fulfilled for you. Now your Lord Jesus invites you to share in the freedom and life that flows from the fulfilled Law of the LORD – His freedom and life which He graciously pours out for you, received by you in faith and trust without cost, without works, and without merit.
That is the Gospel, and that is what we are celebrating today on this Festival of the Reformation. We are not celebrating an historical event, a socio-political uprising with religious overtones, or the bravery of a medieval priest-monk-professor. And, we are certainly not celebrating the fracturing of Christ’s body, the Church. But, we are celebrating the restoration of the free proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that had become obscured, distorted, and compromised by men attempting to lower the bar of Law and justify themselves by their obedience, works, merit, and cooperation with God. This is the violence of which our Lord speaks, violence committed by men against the kingdom of heaven.
Men try to take the kingdom by force, that is, by works and by merit. But the kingdom does not come that way. The kingdom comes by grace alone. It cannot be taken by force, by works or by merit. But, now it has been manifested, revealed, uncovered, which means, it was there all along, but men couldn’t see it because their eyes were blinded by sin, their ears were stopped, and their hearts were hard. Some received the Law of the LORD in joy, deceiving themselves that they were righteous and kept it faithfully. Some received the Law of the LORD like a funeral dirge, yet they did not mourn and weep for their lost condition, but they hardened their hearts in pride against a God who set the bar so exceedingly high. They refused to fear the LORD and receive His Law as He gave it, for the purpose He gave it. It was to crush them and turn them to the LORD’s grace and mercy in repentance.
That was precisely the message that John the Baptist came preaching and teaching: “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” Our Lord Jesus preached the same message, and so did the Apostles after him. That same message is preached to you still today: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” This is the Gospel, even the eternal Gospel proclaimed by the angel of Revelation “to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” “Fear God and give Him glory,” the angel cried, “because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” What hour was that? It was the hour of Jesus’ death upon the cross, the hour in which the Law of the LORD was fulfilled for you, the hour in which Jesus spoke “It is finished,” and it really, truly, completely, and forever was.
This is the Gospel, the eternal Gospel. This is what had become obscured, distorted, and compromised in Luther’s day. The Gospel was so obscured, distorted, and compromised that Luther himself was enslaved to the Law and could find no escape, no comfort, and no peace. For that is what happens to those who believe that they must fulfill the Law of the LORD in order to make peace with God, they are either pumped up with pride, convincing themselves that they are doing just fine, or they find themselves drowning in a pit of despair believing that, no matter how hard they try to keep the Law they still fall short and can never find peace with God. Again, the Law was not given that you might do it and justify yourself by it, but the Law of the LORD was given to shut your mouth, to silence you. God has given the Law that the whole world may be held accountable to Him. The Law serves only to reveal your sins to you; no man is justified by works of the Law. Therefore, be still, shut up, stop striving, and know that the LORD is God. God has manifested His righteousness, the righteousness that makes you righteous, apart from the Law – “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
In Luther’s day it was believed that faith in Christ was not enough. Guess what, people still believe that today! The Roman Church sold indulgences, and still sells them today – pieces of paper that you can buy with money that forgive sins now and after death in purgatory (another unbiblical doctrine). Yet, no better are contemporary so-called Evangelical churches that preach to you the Gospel out of one side of their mouth and then shackle you under the Law again from the other. Their grace-talk is followed immediately by works-talk. They say contradictory things like, “Jesus saves you by grace alone, all you have to do is this, that, and the other thing. And once you’re saved, Jesus expects you to change, to be better, to make your salvation sure or maybe you weren’t really truly Christian in the first place after all.” Hogwash! “Salvation unto us has come by God’s free grace and favor; good works cannot avert our doom, they help and save us never. Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone, who did for all the world atone; He is our one Redeemer.”
While Luther and the Reformers affected many reforms within the Church, it all started with works and indulgences, attempts to do the Law of the LORD or to lower the bar of the Law to make it more do-able. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. Each of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses dealt with the single topic indulgences, the idea that man’s work, merit, or money could pay for sins for oneself or for others. In nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door, Luther did what was customary in his late-medieval college town in order to engage in a theological discourse and debate over this central aspect of our Christian faith and doctrine. However, due to the work of reformers like Wycliffe and Hus, who had preceded Luther, and the advent of the Guttenberg printing press, Luther’s theses were translated into the common tongue and were copied and spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Now, one could say that it was merely chance, or one could believe that the LORD had raised up Luther at the right time and the right place to manifest, reveal, and uncover the Gospel once again that those walking in the darkness of sin and death, held captive by legalistic teaching and preaching and false doctrine, could hear the pure, unadulterated, eternal Gospel proclaimed once again and find comfort and peace in the truth that “the righteous shall live by faith (alone).” We are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone whom God has put forward as a propitiation by His blood, passing over our former sins.
“The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther claims that it was this passage, Romans 1:17, that cast the scales from his eyes and released the shackles from his soul, freeing him to live, not in a continual and losing battle to acquire righteousness by works, but in the righteousness bestowed upon Him by God through faith in the propitiation that God Himself has put forward, Jesus Christ. Indeed, Luther was so struck and convicted by this Gospel proclamation that he added the Latin word sola, meaning alone: “The righteous shall live by faith (alone).” From this we derive the classic Lutheran solas: sola gratia, sola fide, and sola Christus – grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone. And, there is yet a fourth, and appropriate, sola: sola scriptura – scripture alone is the sole source, norm, and rule of our faith, confession, and doctrine. And also a fifth: Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone be the glory.
The purpose of the Law of the LORD is to shut your mouth, to silence you. What bliss, peace, and comfort there is in silence! Close your mouth, and have your ears opened. Listen to the Word of your LORD and God, and the Word made flesh Jesus Christ. Receive Him and trust in Him alone in all the ways He comes to you: Word and water, body and blood, for the forgiveness of your sins, salvation, and eternal life. You cannot take the kingdom by force, therefore, stop trying. But, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Grace alone. Grace upon grace. The righteous shall live by faith.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB-A)

Matthew 22:15-22; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Isaiah 45:1-7

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” You were created in the image of God. You were created to be an icon of God, a symbol, a window, through which God can be seen and known, a mirror reflecting His image to His glory. God’s image is not a form or an appearance, but it is a habitus, that is, a way of being. To be God’s image is to reveal, to reflect, and to share certain of His qualities and attributes: Rational thought, the capacity to give and to bring forth life, the capacity to love selflessly and sacrificially. Truly, the very act of God’s creating was an act of love, selflessness, and sacrifice. For, in creation, God gave of Himself, not because of who you are, but because of who He is. Therefore, you are an extension of His love, and your purpose, your meaning is to love and glorify Him by loving and serving others to the glory of His Name.
Of course, your First Parent’s sin and rebellion plunged creation and themselves, and you their descendants, into sin, corruption, and death. Humanity lost the image of God in which it was created – the image of life and love and selflessness and sacrifice – and it assumed the image of death – the image of selfishness and greed and pride, of being turned in upon oneself. However, Jesus Christ, who is the express image of God and the fullness of the Godhead as a man, has restored you to the image of God from which you fell – His image. Through baptism and faith you have been recreated in the image of God once again, for you have been grafted into the True Vine Jesus Christ, and the life you live is His life lived in and through you, and the fruit you bear is His fruit borne in you for the life of the world.
So, whose image is on the coin? Whose image is on the dollar? Not the image of God, but the image of a man created by God in the image of God. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus in His own words. That was always their tactic, and that was the tactic of their father, the devil: “Did God really say?” “You will not surely die.” “Cast yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning You, […] lest you dash your foot against a stone’.” O, the devil is a willy one, quite clever, He knows the Scriptures exceedingly well. So did the Pharisees, but they did not call upon God’s Word in faith, pray, praise and give thanks, but they, like the devil, lied and deceived, twisted, and distorted God’s Word in order to deceive you, to trick you, and to trap you. Great sophists indeed are the enemies of our God and His Word. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Your LORD commands you in the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” which means, honor all in authority over you as you honor the LORD Himself. The Pharisees gave no honor to Caesar, and neither did they give any honor to God. They treated His Word and His Commandments with contempt, as a tool to gain power for themselves, power taken from the people they were called to serve and to care for. If it was Caesar’s image that was on the coin they were commanded to pay as tax, how much more than a denarius must they give, even their whole lives, bodies, and souls made in the image of God, to the LORD? In order to restore your fallen image, your LORD God gave His express image, His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, into death, paying your “tax” in full, setting you free from the penalty of your sinful rebellion: temporal and eternal death and punishment in hell. Your LORD is not concerned with coins or dollars bearing the image of a man, but He is very much concerned with how you manage and steward the gifts He has given you charge over and where you place your fear, your love, and your trust.
By all means, pay your taxes, pay your mortgage, buy your bread, pay your student loans, put your kids through school, but render these things, not to Caesar, but to God in whose image both you and Caesar are made. Even more so, render yourself unto God by reflecting His image in your lives, words, and deeds in service to others, to your neighbor, to the glory of His holy Name. You see, the tax issue, the stewardship issue, is really an image issue. The question is not whether you should pay or not pay, give or not give, but the question is, “Who are you?” and “What does that mean?” What is your identity? I say to you, look to the cross, look to the crucifix. Whose image is on the cross? That is the image of your God made man Jesus Christ, in whose image you have been made and re-made. Therefore, render unto Jesus what belongs to Jesus. What belongs to Jesus? Who belongs to Jesus? Everything and everyone that has been made, everything and everyone that exists belongs to Jesus, for He has redeemed the world and everyone in it in His holy, innocent shed blood. That is a fact. That is the Truth. Therefore, you may think of stewardship not so much as giving of what you have but as realizing, confessing, and living who you are. You are Jesus; that is, you are a member of His body, a branch grafted into His vine. Once you were no one and nothing, a lifeless branch, but the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, sanctified and keeps you in the true faith; He has grafted you into the True Vine Jesus so that the life you live is His life lived in and through you, and the fruit you bear is His fruit borne in you. You are the image of Jesus in this world of sin, and darkness, and death, and Jesus is the image of God, in whose image you were created, re-created, and now live. This is your identity. Jesus is your identity. You are one with Jesus and a coheir with Him in His kingdom reigning over heaven and earth. Do not forget who you are in Jesus. Do not debase yourself by conforming to the image of a mere creature, but humble yourself that your true, renewed, and restored image, the image of Jesus, might shine forth in and from you as a brilliant and beckoning light.
Worldly kings and kingdoms are good and are necessary. In obedience to the Fourth Commandment, and in fear, love, and trust in God our LORD and Creator, we must honor and obey our leaders though they be sinful, even pagan, cruel, and evil men and women, for the LORD has given them authority to reward the good and to punish the evil and to provide for you and your worldly and fleshly needs. So the LORD used the Persian King Cyrus to deliver His people. One hundred fifty years before his birth, the LORD named Cyrus through His Prophet Isaiah, promising that through him He would deliver His people out of captivity in Babylon. Though Cyrus was a pagan, the LORD anointed and equipped him that all people might know “from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides [Him],” saying, “I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.”
However, Jesus is the true Caesar over all nations “from the rising of the sun and from the west.” And, King Jesus rules all things for your eternal good. As the Psalmist sings, “The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand,” and “The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore,” which is to say, God has your back. He who formed the light and created darkness, sustains and keeps all things for you that you might glorify Him by bearing and reflecting His image. He commands “His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” that you “may so pass through things temporal that [you] lose not the things eternal.”
Caesar is temporal. Wealth and possessions, family and friends, health and life, these things are temporal. And yet, they are the LORD’s good gifts to you. Use them; use them for yourself and for your family – they are given for that purpose, but use them also in service to others to the glory of the LORD’s holy Name. But, do not fear, love, or trust in them, for they are but temporal and fleeting, they are but creatures of the Creator. Do not make them into idols, for there is one LORD and no other, and He has made and given all things, but look to the image of Christ, and Him crucified, for He is the express image of the invisible God, in whose image you were made, and to which image you have been restored in Him. The image of God in Christ Jesus, the image in which you were created and to which you have been restored, is the image of love, and humility, and selflessness, and sacrifice. Render unto Jesus what belongs to Jesus. You belong to Jesus, for He has purchased and redeemed you from sin, death, and the devil with His holy, innocent shed blood. Honor Him and reflect and bear His image by loving and serving others with His fruits and gifts to the glory of His holy Name. This is what it means to be His disciple. And, this is what it looks like to bear His image.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB-A)

Matthew 22:1-14; Philippians 4:4-13; Isaiah 25:6-9

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
To say that Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Feast is perplexing might seem to be an understatement. Our Lord seemingly turns upside down our expectations and our understanding of the meaning of some fundamental terms concerning our Christian faith – invited, worthy, called, and chosen. To be invited is not necessarily to be worthy. To be called is not necessarily to be chosen. What then do these words mean? Jesus would have you see that your invitation to His wedding feast in heaven is not on account of your worth, your value, your merit, your decision, your choice, or anything in you at all. That you are invited is the gracious gift of the King, God the Father, and not an indication of your worthiness to be invited.
No, your worthiness is bound up in your host, your King and LORD, alone. Will you receive your host’s gracious invitation in Spirit-created and given faith and trust and bear forth its fruit of fear, love, and trust – that is, obedience, – or will you reject it in sinful, rebellious unbelief, demonstrating that your fear, love, and trust are in other things that you have set before your LORD, the stuff of His creation which you worship as false gods and idols? Similarly, Jesus would have you see that, simply because you are called is not the same thing as your being chosen. And, herein lies the mystery of predestination and election –  “Many are called, but few are chosen.” What does this mean? The LORD’s Gospel call goes out to all, to the Jew first, and then to the Gentile. Therefore, many, even all, are called. As in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, the Sower scatters His Word/Seed everywhere, upon all kinds of soil/hearts, without discrimination. However, just as the seed only takes root, grows, and bears fruit in the good soil, so only those are chosen “who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” And so, it is the fruit that you bear – fear, love, and trust in the LORD, along with obedience – that makes you worthy and chosen and elect.
In Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Feast, the King, His Father, sent His servants to call His invited guests to the feast, but those who were invited refused to come. The King, being good and kind, patient, and longsuffering, sent even more servants proclaiming that everything was prepared, that there was nothing they had to do but come and enjoy the feast, and still they refused to come, and some even treated the King’s servants shamefully and murdered them! Those invited who refused the King’s gracious invitation and murdered His servants were the religious leadership of the Jews, the Pharisees, Sadducees, lawyers, and scribes. They were invited by their gracious King, but they refused the invitation and rejected Him. The King was angry and He destroyed the cities of those murderers. Those invited were called, but they were found not worthy. They did not fear, love, and trust in the LORD, and they did not bear the fruit of faith. They murdered the LORD’s servants who were sent to them with His gracious invitation, the Gospel, and, ultimately, they murdered the King’s Son, Jesus. It is no coincidence that this parable follows directly after the Parable of the Tenants in which the tenants of the Master’s Vineyard murdered His servants and, finally, His Son. Both of these parables occurred in the days following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus had the religious leadership of the Jews squarely in mind.
Still, the King sent out His servants yet a third time, this time “to the main roads,” to call and to invite “all whom they found, both bad and good.” You see, there it is, as clear as day – your invitation is not based upon your merit, your worth, your works, your faith, or anything else inside you, but your invitation is by the grace of your King and LORD alone. And so, the King’s hall was filled with the bad and the good regardless of anything attributed to themselves, just like this church today! For, only the sick can be healed. Only sinners can be forgiven. Only the dead can be raised. If you are a guest of the King, it is because of His gracious invitation. And, do not think saying, “Well, I still had to accept the invitation and come,” that you have contributed something. That’s sophistic nonsense. Before your accepting and coming was the LORD’s gracious invitation. Truly, you remain invited even if you reject His invitation. This is the LORD’s doing, alone, and it is glorious in our sight. Do not succumb to the devil’s temptation to reduce the LORD’s grace from a truly free and unconditional gift to a mere prod in the right direction. You are either saved by grace alone or you are not saved at all. You are either invited or you are not. But, all have been invited in Christ Jesus, therefore all are without excuse.
However, “when the King came in to look at the guests, He saw there a man who had no wedding garment.” Now, this was an impossible thing, for the host, the King, provided even the appropriate wedding garment for each invited guest. The only way that this one guest did not have a wedding garment was that he refused to wear it. He didn’t sneak in. He was one of those bad or good who were invited. However, now that he was in, he must have refused to wear the provided wedding garment. Now, much ink (or bytes) has been spilled attempting to explain what the wedding garment represents. However, the wedding garment is not what is essential here, for this unclothed man was already in, he was already a guest just like all the others, he was invited. So, the wedding garment cannot be baptism as many are want to claim, and neither can it be faith, for the unclothed man was already an invited and present guest. No, the wedding garment must be something else. What we must focus upon, however, is not what the wedding garment was, but how it came to be that this invited and present guest, who was most certainly provided a wedding garment, came to be found not wearing one. Again, he must have refused to wear it. If that is the case, then you can well see the disrespect and the irreverence this man showed toward his King. His refusal to wear the provided wedding garment was a display, even a confession, of his lack of fear, love, and trust in the LORD. Now, if the King were merely an earthly monarch, we might consider his reaction to be overly harsh and extreme. However, this King is the LORD God who alone is righteous and holy. He had provided everything for the feast and had graciously invited and clothed all present. To refuse His grace now and disrespect and dishonor Him so would be the height of rebellion and treason meriting the fullness of His wrath against the man’s sinful rebellion and unbelief. This is a parable of judgment, just like the Parables of the Tenants in the Vineyard and of the Wheat and the Tares. The King had the man bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. On the Day of Judgment, the tares, like the unclothed man at the wedding feast, and all who refuse the LORD’s gracious invitation in Jesus Christ, will be bound and thrown into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Once again, it must be stressed that it was the Jewish religious leadership whom Jesus had squarely in mind in this parable, though it has application for all of us. The LORD had sent them numerous servants bearing His gracious invitation through the prophets of old up to John the Baptist who pointed squarely at Jesus in their presence proclaiming, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” and they rejected them and murdered them, and, finally, they murdered God’s only-begotten Son. They were invited. They were in. But, their refusal to believe, in fact, their rejection of Jesus in spite of who they believed and knew Him to be, damned them to hell. They were invited, but they were not worthy. They were called, but they were not chosen. And, even worse, they were false shepherds, even wolves in sheep’s clothing, and they failed to tell their flock that the LORD’s invitation was for them as well. Therefore, because of their refusal and rejection of the King and His Son, the invitation went out to others, even to all, to the bad and the good, and the wedding feast was filled with guests.
The wedding feast is for your Bridegroom Jesus and for you, His Bride, the Church. God the Father is the King and host of the feast and He has graciously invited all the world in His Son. Many are called, indeed, all are called, but few are chosen. To be chosen, to be elect, is not only to be invited, but it is to hear the Word and “hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” The fruit you bear is obedience and good works. They are not the cause of your invitation, but they are consequence and confirmation of it. Thus, your Lord Jesus proclaims that He is the Vine and you are the branches saying, “remain in Me and I will remain in you, and you will bear much fruit.” Fruit bearing is not an option. Producing the fruit of obedience and good works is the living proof of your being chosen and elected. Therefore, St. James declares, “Faith without works is dead.” This is NOT works righteousness. Your righteousness is in Jesus and is the sole reason you have been invited. But, faith in Jesus is living, not dead, bearing the fruit of fear, love, and trust in the LORD, that is obedience, and love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness for your neighbor without discrimination or exception.
Therefore, if you are concerned that you are not one of the chosen (the elect), know that the chosen are chosen through the call of the Gospel. Worldliness, hostility to the Word, and distractedness from the Word plague all Christians because of our sinful flesh. If this cuts you to the heart, this foretaste of the Great Wedding Feast to come is precisely for the purpose of binding up your hearts and comforting your troubled consciences. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” You are invited, but only the life of the Vine Jesus flowing through you and bearing fruit makes you worthy. You are called, but only fear, love, and trust in the LORD above all else makes you chosen in Christ Jesus. Behold, the feast is prepared. Everything is ready. Come and eat. Come and drink. The life of Jesus the Vine is poured out for you to forgive your sins anew, to strengthen your faith, to equip you for good works, and to send you forth bearing good and much fruit in service of your neighbor to the glory of the LORD. Jesus’ blood and righteousness are your glorious dress, even your wedding garment. You are invited and worthy, you are called and chosen, that the world may see it. Go forth in peace.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB-A)

Matthew 21:33-46; Philippians 3:4b-14; Isaiah 5:1-7

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
As we approach the 500th commemoration of the Reformation at the end of this month, I am reminded of these words of our Lord Jesus which are often read on the Festival of the Reformation: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Now, this ought to sound outright absurd to you, the idea that anyone could take the kingdom of heaven by force. As confessional Lutherans, you know fully well that you must receive the kingdom through Spirit-created faith, and that there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn, to merit, or to take it by your own reason, strength, or even violence. And yet, you have Jesus’ words, and you of the flesh know how truly difficult it is simply to receive the kingdom of heaven as a true, perfect, and holy gift of God’s grace apart from any goodness or worthiness in you. Truly, all human attempts to earn, merit, and take God’s kingdom, are wrong-minded, wrong-hearted, and wrong-spirited acts of violence upon our LORD and His kingdom.
And yet, we are a violent people, are we not? Only consider the recent massacre in Las Vegas, not to mention the daily infanticide we commit under the guise of healthcare and personal rights. We are violent, and we are fruitful in violence, producing works of bloodshed and unrighteousness in our lives, words, and deeds. We bear violent fruit, wild grapes laced with the venom and poison of sin and death, as we refuse to show love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness to others, thinking ourselves righteous and justified as we attempt to take the kingdom of heaven by force and violence. Repent, lest the kingdom of heaven be taken away from you, and the Cornerstone of the LORD, Jesus Christ, fall upon you and crush you when He comes again in glory as judge over heaven and earth.
For, once again, you hear that the kingdom of heaven is like a Master of a house who planted a vineyard, protected it with a fence and a watchtower, dug a winepress in it, and then leased it out to tenants who were to care for it and tend it that He might receive the harvest of its fruit from them in due season. The Master of the Vineyard is God the Father, the Vineyard is Israel, and the vines are His people, His children whom He has called to Himself. The LORD established His vineyard in the fertile soil of His grace, cleared it of the stones of their sin, and planted within it the choicest of vines, that is, the people of His calling and His choosing. Moreover, He protected His people with His providential care and set over them the Watchtower of the Priesthood to nurture and to prune them with the teaching of His Word, that His people would be fruitful in faith, love, and obedience overflowing in love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness for others to the glory of His holy Name. But, when the time for harvest came, the LORD found that His vineyard did not produce such sweet fruit, but rather violent works that were sour, wild, and fit only for the fire and destruction. Moreover, the tenants to whom He leased His vineyard to care for, protect, and prune, that it should be fruitful, beat and killed His servants, His prophets, whom He sent to gather the harvest. Yet, the LORD is patient and longsuffering; He sent even more servants, and the tenants killed them as well.
Now, who of you would be so patient and longsuffering? Who of you would not immediately retaliate in wrath and violence and destruction? Indeed, our LORD did what was unthinkable to us; He sent His own Son. And, upon seeing His Son and Heir Jesus, the tenants, that is, the religious leaders of Israel, the scribes, Pharisees, elders, and chief priests, rallied the people, and they appealed to the Romans, to murder Him. In Jesus’ parable, they thought, that by murdering the Master’s Son, they would inherit the Master’s vineyard kingdom for themselves. Just think about what that means: The religious leaders of Israel knew fully well who Jesus was, that He was the Son of God and the promised Messiah, and as Caiaphas unwittingly prophesied, they concluded that “It [was] better that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish.” Truly, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, as the violent seek to take it by force.
But, you cannot take the kingdom by violence and force. Indeed, violence and force are as antithetical to the kingdom of heaven as are your attempts to earn and merit your way into heaven. There is only one way to enter the kingdom and to remain a citizen thereof, and that is to receive the kingdom of heaven as a gift of God’s grace, to receive His Son Jesus, and to bear His fruits in your lives, words, and deeds in service of others to the glory of His holy Name. Moreover, do not think that your lifelong membership in some human institution that calls itself the church makes you a citizen of God’s kingdom. And, do not think that your service on a board or a committee, your tithing, or your visiting the sick and the shut-in makes you a citizen of God’s kingdom. Truly, if your fear, love, and trust are in such things, things which are the fruits of the True Vine Jesus, then your fear, love, and trust are in the wrong things, for your fear, love, and trust must be in God, and in His Son Jesus, alone. The religious leaders of Israel misplaced their fear, love, and trust in their works, in their descent from Abraham, in their own self-righteousness. You must identify and repent of these same tendencies in your own hearts and lives as well.
For, in His death and resurrection, Jesus, the True Chosen One of the Father, His Choicest and True Vine, even His only-begotten Son, has redeemed the vineyard of the True Israel. By the hands of evil men, the Father planted the Vine of His Son into the earth in death, and, in His resurrection, He has made Him to be a fruitful Vine. Though you were not originally His branches, you have been grafted into the True Vine through Holy Baptism and Spirit-created faith that His life should flow through you and that you might bear His fruits in your lives, words, and deeds to the glory of His holy Name. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this is the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Among the good grapes of the True Vine Jesus was the apostle Paul. Once a zealous persecutor of the Church, he “suffered the loss of all things” in order to “gain Christ and be found in Him,” to “know Him and the power of His resurrection.” Paul vigorously admonished the people to put not their trust in their flesh, in their ancestry and lineage, in their works, zeal, righteousness, or in anything other than Christ alone. Indeed, Paul excelled in all of these things compared to most, but nevertheless he counted them “as loss for the sake of Christ” that he may have “a righteousness [not] of his own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Moreover, Paul did not consider this an accomplished goal, but a work in progress, as he became more like Christ, sharing in His sufferings and death that he might share also in His resurrection from the dead. Here St. Paul expounds upon the mystery of Sanctification, that God has declared you to be holy in His Son, and you are indeed holy, even as He now makes you to be holy as His life is lived in and through you and you bear His fruits.
Agricultural imagery abounds throughout the Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testaments: The Vine and the Branches; The Wheat and the Tares; The Sower and the Seeds; The Cursed Fig Tree; Even Jesus’ death and resurrection are compared to a grain of wheat that is buried in the earth, dies, and bears fruit a hundredfold; etc. In the Gospels, Jesus uses agricultural imagery repeatedly to show that true and living faith is fruitful in good works of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, which are truly borne of fear, love, trust, and obedience to God, created and sustained by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament. Now the Church has been made the vineyard and Jesus Christ the choice vine. You are His branches, grafted in where unfruitful others have been cut off. Pastors have been called and have been given authority to watch over you and to see that Christ’s Word and Sacraments are preached, taught, and administered faithfully so that His branches may be fruitful in words and deeds of love, mercy, grace, compassion, and forgiveness to the glory of His holy Name. The harvest time is coming on a day and hour you cannot know. Therefore rejoice in the day that the LORD has made – this day, in which He is present in grace to forgive your sins, to renew and strengthen your faith, to equip you for service in His Vineyard Kingdom, and to send you bearing His fruit in your lives, words, and deeds in service of others to the glory of His Name. This is the day that the LORD has made; He has not promised you a tomorrow. Bear His fruits today and share them with others. Everyday is the harvest in which you glorify His Name.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.