Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 6)

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.
The word “law” has a negative ring in our ears. Naturally, almost instinctively, we don’t like it. Laws limit our freedoms. Laws tell us what we cannot do, and laws tell us what we must do that we don’t want to do. As children, we heard the words of our parents as law. And, as adults, we are still bound by the laws of men, be they the laws of federal, state, and municipal government, military law, the laws of our employer, or the laws of our bridge club, even as we create and enforce laws for those subordinate to us to obey. Yes, the word “law” has a negative ring in our ears, but that is not because the law is bad, but it is because we are bad, we are sinful, and the law exposes our sinful badness to ourselves, and to others, and to God.
But, the Law of God is good and wise. The Law of God is the will of God, and it is perfect, holy, righteous, good, and eternal. The Law of God exists eternally, long before it was written by the Holy Spirit upon tablets of stone. The Law of God was in the Garden and was known and loved by our First Parents even before the first command to not eat of the fruit of the tree in its center. And, as our Lord Jesus has said in today’s Gospel, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” or, literally, “until all has come to pass.” The Law of God cannot pass away any more than God Himself can pass away, therefore it must be satisfied, it must come to pass, it must be fulfilled, it must be kept. And, that is precisely what our Lord Jesus has done for us and for all men by His perfect obedience and with His innocent suffering and death. Jesus did not remove, nullify, or abolish God’s Law, but He fulfilled it for you and for me and for all men so that, through Jesus, our relationship to God’s Law and to God Himself has been changed – it has been restored and renewed; we have been reconciled.
But, what does it mean that Jesus has fulfilled the Law? It does not mean, merely, that Jesus has obeyed the Law perfectly, although it certainly includes that, but that Jesus has fulfilled the Law means that it is completely satisfied both temporally and eternally in Jesus – but, only in Jesus. Thus, while the Law has not, will not, and cannot pass away, our relationship to it has changed, because it has been fulfilled. You see, there is a saying in the Church, “Lex semper accusat,” “the Law always accuses.” Because we are sinners, even forgiven sinners, we hear God’s Law as an accusation and threat. And, because we are sinners, we are right to hear the Law as an accusation and as a threat, for, indeed, it accuses and condemns us to death. However, that was not the Law’s original and eternal purpose, for, again, the Law is nothing more and nothing less than the good, righteous, and holy will of God. The problem is not with God’s Law, but the problem is us.
Jesus teaches that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. You see, despite the bad rap the scribes and Pharisees get for their legalism and lack of mercy and forgiveness, and justly so, they really did keep the letter of the Law better than most. Indeed, the scribes and the Pharisees were admired by all for their piety and obedience to the Law. However, what the scribes and the Pharisees failed to understand and believe was that Jesus was the promised Messiah and Christ of God who came to fulfill the Law’s demands and die in our place, thus making complete and total satisfaction for our sins against God and His Law, restoring a right relationship between God and man and between God’s Law and man. When Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said…,” He was speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, the teachers of the Law. They were the ones teaching the people the hard, inflexible, and uncompromising letter of the Law while fully missing and omitting the spirit of the Law, which is love – love for God, and love for brother – which was being fulfilled in Jesus. The Law, alone, always accuses. It cannot save, but it only condemns. But, the Law has been fulfilled – it has not passed away – but it has been fulfilled by and in Jesus Christ. That truth and fact the scribes and Pharisees did not see, understand, or believe. And, sadly, that is a truth and fact that Satan seeks to confound and obscure still today so that men either despair of their salvation or, perhaps even worse, trust in themselves and their keeping of the Law for salvation.
The Law always accuses because, even if you could keep the Law perfectly you would still be damned, for everyone who lives was conceived and born in sin, from the newly conceived infant in the womb to the most aged person who still draws breath on this earth. The Law always accuses, and it always condemns, but thanks be to God that we are not saved by our obedience under the Law, but we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ who has fulfilled the Law for us! Thus, St. Paul rightly confessed, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” However, apart from Jesus Christ there is only salvation by obedience to the Law which always accuses and condemns, and there is no hope but only eternal death and damnation apart from God.
You must come to terms with your accuser while you are going with him to court, Jesus says. Your accuser, ultimately, is not your brother whom you have wronged, but your accuser is the Law of God. You must come to terms with God’s Law before it hands you over to the Judge – and the Judge is Jesus in the fulness of His glory when He comes again on the Last Day. To come to terms with your accuser, the Law, means to confess that you are a sinner and to repent of your sins, falling upon Jesus’ mercy alone and not your feeble attempt to keep the Law. You must trust in Jesus’ perfect obedience, satisfaction, and fulfillment of the accusing Law and put no trust in your own obedience, works, or righteousness. Even the very good piety and obedience of the scribes and Pharisees according to the letter of the Law cannot save, but only accuses and condemns. Indeed, Jesus teaches that your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees; you must have the righteousness of Jesus, received freely as a gift of God’s grace. Only Jesus’ righteousness saves, for Jesus alone is the fulfillment of God’s holy, good, and righteous Law.
Thus, Jesus is your rest. Jesus is your rest from all your striving to keep the Law and failing. Jesus is the Sabbath rest of the LORD that He commanded all men to keep holy when He rested from His completed work of creation. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus spoke these words just before teaching about the Law to keep the Sabbath day holy saying, “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus is the lord of the Sabbath because He is its fulfillment. In the same way, Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s Law. It was the scribes and the Pharisees, once again, who chided Jesus and His disciples for transgressing the letter of the Sabbath law by plucking heads of grain to eat. Jesus answered them saying, “If you had known what this means, […], you would not have condemned the guiltless.” Guiltless; that is what you are before God and His righteous, good, and holy Law, through Jesus Christ who has fulfilled it for you and for all.
Indeed, the capstone of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law was His own rest in the tomb on Saturday, the Sabbath. On Good Friday, Jesus’ dying word was tetelestai, it is finished, it is fulfilled, it is complete. What was finished? What was fulfilled? What was complete? All the work of re-creation, of fulfilling the Law of God and paying the penalty for our failure to keep it. Then Jesus rested, thus fulfilling even the Law to keep the Sabbath. His saving work complete, the Law fulfilled, Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, the Eighth Day, the new day of a new creation upon which the sun will never set. It is into this Jesus that you were baptized, and it is in this Eighth Day that you have been raised anew from that watery grave to new and everlasting life that cannot die. And, today – Sunday – is that day. Everything that came before pointed to Christ and Christ has fulfilled it all. “Therefore,” St. Paul proclaims to the Colossians, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” The substance belongs to Christ. Come, eat and drink of His substance given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Through Him, and through Him alone, your righteousness does indeed exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, for Jesus Christ alone is righteous, and He is your righteousness.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Fifth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 5)

Luke 5:1-11; 1 Peter 3:8-15; 1 Kings 19:11-21

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
To be a Christian is to be a little Christin this world as His disciple, for a disciple is a student of Christ who, through the discipline of study and correction, is being shaped and molded into the image of his teacher. And, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be like your teacher and to take up the cross that the world will place upon you as a little Christ, a cross that God the Father will permit the world to place upon you, so that, in being Jesus’ disciple, you will be a witness and a martyr to Him before the world.
So, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if anyone tells you that being a Christian is easy, he is a liar. If anyone tells you that being a Christian will win you friends and popularity, he is a liar. And if anyone tells you that being a Christian will make you successful and wealthy, or even happy, he is a liar. Indeed, your Lord and teacher Jesus never told you such things as these, and He is not a liar, but He is the Truth incarnate, in your flesh. And, through your Holy Baptism and the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith, you are made to be a little Christ, and, through repentance and faith, all that is rightly His is also yours including sinlessness and holiness, righteousness, true and eternal life, and sonship with the Father. However, rightly yours also are meekness and humility, sacrificial service to your brothers and neighbors, and hatred, persecution, and suffering at the hands and words of the world.
Does this shock or surprise you? Do you think of me as a pessimistic preacher of gloom and doom for saying such things to you? I am sorry. I am sorry that so few have been honest with you before. I am sorry that you have been deceived by the world, our culture and media, and even by so-called Christian preachers and teachers to believe that, if only you try your best, God will be pleased with you, that, if only you think positively, then things will go well for you, and that, if only you had greater faith, then you would achieve health and wealth and prosperity. These are all lies! For you can see with your own two eyes, and you can hear with your own two ears that too often the wicked prosper while the humble suffer! And, because you have believed these lies, when trial, tribulation, and suffering come – and they always will – to you, or to those you love, you are tempted to blame God, you are tempted to lash out at Him in anger, or you are tempted to lose your faith altogether believing that there must not be a God, for God would not allow His children to suffer.
When Jesus calls His disciples, He calls them out of the world. They do not come to Him, they will not come to Him, and they cannot come to Him. But, He calls them, He chooses them, and He catches them like fish in a net. Jesus calls His disciples out of their comfort zones, away from their livelihoods and away even from their friends and their families. He calls them to discipleship and a new life, in the world, but not of the world. And, as fish cannot live outside of water, those Jesus calls and captures struggle as they leave behind the things they believed constituted their lives and they learn to breathe and live a new life, true life, life that never ends. When Jesus calls His disciples, He calls them to leave behind their boats and their nets, the tax collector’s booth, the weaver’s loom, the accounting books, the medical kit, etc., and follow Him. But, in following Jesus, His disciples return to their vocations and through them serve their brother and neighbor and glorify God. When Jesus called the fishermen to be His disciples, they died to themselves, they confessed their sins and their unworthiness, and Jesus absolved them and He raised them up to new life saying to them, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will catch men alive.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him. 
To be a Christian is not to be perfect, but it is to be humble and repentant and to be made perfect before God in His grace and mercy through faith in Jesus Christ. And, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is not necessarily to live in poverty and celibacy, but it is to live anew in your God-given vocations, your callings, in selfless and sacrificial service to your brother and neighbor to the glory of God. You don’t have to be anyone special to be a Christian. For, the Church is not a memorial for saints, but it is a hospital for sinners. Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners, and, you are called to find healing in Christ’s wounds. Jesus is not merely the Great Physician who heals you in your body and soul, but Jesus ishealing, Jesus islife, and in Him alone are you healed.
Jesus doesn’t ask about your faith when He calls you, He just calls you; He catches you, like a fish in a net. He makes you His disciple, and a disciple trusts in and follows Jesus. And He makes of you fishers of men, catching men alive, in the net which is the message of the cross, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He has brought you into the boat of His Church, and in your holy vocation He works with you and through you to bring others into the boat of His Church.
Though all around the Church the nets are breaking and many who hear the Word do not believe, we continue to let down the nets into the deep waters of the world and men of all ages, races, languages, nationalities, and economic strata, both notorious sinners and tellers of white lies are caught together in Christ’s net and find themselves saved in the boat of His Church to the glory of God.
And, in the Church, Christ our Servant Captain is present to raise men to new and eternal life through the washing of His Word and Spirit in Holy Baptism. And, our Great Physician is present with His healing Words and Wounds to recreate, restore, and resurrect our weary souls, feeding, nourishing, and strengthening us with His Holy Body and His Precious Blood, the very Medicine of Immortality. And, on the Last Day, when Christ our Captain calls His Church to safe harbor in Heaven, He will crown you with eternal life that will never wane, and the life that we know now but through a mirror dimly, then we shall know face to face.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Why be baptized? A response to Rev. Erin Bird of Riverwood Church

Why be baptized? A different answer.

By Rev. Jon M. Ellingworth – St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, Waverly

Pastor Erin Bird of Riverwood Church in Waverly wrote about baptism in the July 11, 2019 Waverly Democrat.

In answer to his question, “Why be baptized,” Pastor Bird rightly states, “God expects it.” Indeed, while true, that is an understatement, for our Lord not only expects that His people be baptized, He commands it (see Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38)! 

Pastor Bird also rightly stresses that “our salvation is ONLY the work of God,” referencing Ephesians 2:8-9. While that is the clear teaching of Holy Scripture, Pastor Bird incorrectly understands baptism as OUR work when it is truly the LORD’s work. Even if we were to grant that the acts of pouring water or submersing under water and of being baptized are our work, the spiritual work occurring in baptism is “ONLY the work of God” as the Scriptures make clear (see Ephesians 5:25-26; Titus 3:5-7; 1 Peter 3:21; 1 Corinthians 6:11; and numerous others).”

Truly, this is where Pastor Bird’s thinking, and Baptist baptismal doctrine in general, are simply incorrect: Baptism is NOT OUR WORK. Indeed, a close reading of the well-known baptismal text John 3:1-12 [13-21], from whence the phrase “born again” is taken, proves this clearly. In this text Jesus uses the analogies of birth and the wind to teach how the Holy Spirit performs the work of creating faith when and where it pleases Him, wholly apart from the work, will, reason, understanding, and even faith (!) of the individual. In telling Nicodemus that he must be “born again,” or “born from above,” Jesus intended for Nicodemus to consider what it means to be born in the first place. Did you choose to be born? Did you understand what it meant to be born? Did you choose your sex, race, nationality, mother, father, sisters, brothers, or anything at all concerning your birth? The answer is, of course, “No.” Being born is not a choice or a decision that you make, but in fact, you are completely passive in birth. Being born is something that happens to you. And, that is precisely Jesus’ point in saying “You must be born again.” Jesus continues the analogy, next shifting to the wind: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8).” You cannot choose to make the wind blow upon you anymore than you can choose to make it stop, but the wind blows freely wholly apart from your personal choice, will, or understanding. Again, this is precisely Jesus’ point concerning the work of the Holy Spirit and being “born again” in Holy Baptism. Baptism is NOT OUR WORK, but it is “ONLY the work of God.”

Not only does Pastor Bird consider Holy Baptism to be our work, but he believes that Jesus’ baptism was merely an example for us. Why be baptized? Pastor Bird’s answer to his own question seems to be, because “Jesus did it.” “Jesus didn’t need to be ‘saved’ since He was the sinless Son of God,” says Bird. That’s true! However, Jesus wanted to be baptized, and He submitted to be baptized even though He was sinless, even though John tried to prevent Him. Jesus wanted to be baptized, and He was baptized, because it was “proper” and “fitting” “to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:14).” It was at Jesus’ baptism that heaven was opened and the Father spoke, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove and remained with Him. The Scriptural testimony concerning the baptism of Jesus hardly makes it sound like an arbitrary or unnecessary thing that Jesus simply did as an example for us to follow. In fact, the testimony of the Apostles in the rest of the New Testament ascribes astounding gifts of God to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism: Baptism bestows the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16); Baptism rescues from death and the devil by uniting us with Jesus in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:11-12; Galatians 3:27-29; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 5:17; 1 Corinthians 12:13); Baptism gives eternal salvation (1 Peter 3:21; Titus 3:5-7). Thus, we do not get baptized merely because “Jesus did it,” but because God actually does something to us and gives to us the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation through Holy Baptism in and for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ.

Pastor Bird says that “you don’t ‘need’ to be baptized in order to be saved,” presumably because we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Well, that is true, though it sets up a false dichotomy, and a dangerous one at that. Would one who professes faith in Christ refuse to be baptized, since the Lord commands it and has attached His blessings to it? I would surely pray not! Truly, to refuse baptism would seem to be active and intentional disobedience and proof that faith is not living. The Evangelist Mark links faith and baptism inexplicably together in salvation saying, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16).” Further, Pastor Bird makes the audacious statement, “Getting baptized doesn’t make you any spiritually cleaner,” in direct contradiction to the clear teaching of Holy Scripture! (1 Peter 3:21; Titus 3:5-7; Ephesians 5:25-26).

Truly, when we consider the sad reality that Christ’s body the Church is divided into countless denominations, sects, and factions, nothing can be clearer than the variance in teachings on such fundamental doctrines as Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Justification – all of which come down to a misreading of God’s Word in Holy Scripture. Baptist denominations typically boast about their literal adherence to the Word of God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and yet they almost universally interpret and explain away the clear words of Scripture when they run contrary to human reason and wisdom. For example, Pastor Bird says that “you don’t ‘need’ baptism in order to be saved” and “baptism doesn’t make you any spiritually cleaner,” whereas Mark states, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16),” and Peter states, “Baptism […] now saves you (1 Peter 3:21) and “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 (Acts 2:38).”

It all comes down to God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures. What does the Lord say in His Word? Will you believe it and confess it, even if it runs contrary to your reason and wisdom, which are corrupted due to sin and the weakness of the flesh? Jesus said over the bread at the Last Supper, “This is My body,” and over the wine, “This is my blood.” Are these eight words unclear? No, they are so clear a little child could state what they say and mean. It is only human reason that scoffs thinking, “That is not possible! It has to mean something else.” Faith – true faith – answers, “No. Our Lord means what He says, despite my inability to understand how.” Likewise, the Scriptures say, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” and “Baptism now saves you.” Are these words unclear? No, again, they are so clear that a little child could state what they say and mean. It is only human reason that scoffs thinking, “That doesn’t make any sense! Surely one must be able to rationally understand and confess their faith in order to be saved! It can’t be that easy!” Faith answers, “No. Baptism is the work and gift of ONLY God. I am but the passive recipient of His gracious action.”

There are so many denominational choices out there today. Waverly alone has no fewer than twelve Christian congregations. What is a Christian to do? Well, perhaps ask yourself, what does this denomination or congregation teach concerning baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and other core doctrines? Do they teach what the Word of God in the Holy Scriptures actually say? Let us follow the example of the Bereans: “They received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17:11).”

The text of Rev. Bird's article follows below:

Why be baptized?
By Rev. Erin Bird – Riverwood Church, Waverly
July 11, 2019

I want to talk this week about the topic of Baptism. If you follow Jesus, but haven’t been baptized yet, here are four reasons why I think you should get “dunked”:
1. God expects it.
If you read Romans 6:1-4, you see that Paul (writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) assumes that if you follow Jesus, you’ve been baptized. He sees baptism as full identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
While there are some church denominations that say you aren’t “saved” or truly forgiven of your sins until you are baptized, I personally believe that according to Ephesians 2:8-9 our salvation is ONLY the work of God.
Baptism simply reveals outwardly the inward work God has already done and is doing in us through the gospel.
But while baptism isn’t like a magic ceremony that guarantees you heaven, it is a deeply reverent sacrament that gives evidence our life is found in Christ.
So I believe God wants us to “go public” with our relationship with Him through Jesus by being baptized.
2. Jesus did it.
The four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus highlight different stories and teachings, giving us a well-rounded view of Jesus’ life and theology. But there are only a handful of stories that all four gospel accounts share.
The most well-known is the death & resurrection of Jesus (no surprise there). But another one is His baptism!
Jesus did not need “saved” since He was the sinless Son of God.
Yet he was baptized by his cousin John to launch the public aspect of his ministry. It is after this point that Jesus recruited disciples and began to travel around the Palestinian region proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
If we are to “live like Jesus lived,” then we should also go public via baptism as well.
3. You need it.
No, you don’t “need” baptism in order to be “saved” or to prove anything to God. Getting baptized doesn’t make you any spiritually cleaner, nor does it gain you super-saint status.
But baptism does help you put a “stake” down in your spiritual journey. We are all on a spiritual journey, and as we walk this path through life, occasionally we need some markers, some “stakes”, that we put down on our path to remind us where we’ve been, where we are going, and who we belong to. Baptism is a moment when you say to yourself and others, “I follow Jesus, and will follow Him no matter what the future holds.”
Just as a married couple going through tough times need to remember their vows, we need moments where we remember that we knew the truth and knew what we believed, so we can look back at those moments when the doubts and struggle come crashing in.
Your baptism can serve as an anchor in your spiritual journey, so that no matter how the winds blow, you know your life is tied to Jesus and His gospel.
4. We need it.
Baptism is an incredibly beautiful moment in your spiritual journey. But it isn’t JUST for you.
By being baptized during our Worship Gathering, you are helping your church family worship God through your story and your decision to publicly declare your faith in Jesus.
Also, by being publicly baptized, you are letting your friends and family who are not part of your Riverwood family (nor possibly part of God’s family) know about your faith in Jesus.
Your baptism might be exactly what God uses to help someone else find Jesus and begin to follow Him. So it’s not just you and the Riverwood family that needs your act of worship by being dunked, but your spiritually disconnected friends as well.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 4)

Luke 6:36-42; Romans 8:18-23; Genesis 50:15-21
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
If there is one verse from the Bible that nearly everybody knows and regularly quotes from memory, whether they go to church or not, whether they are a Christian or not, whether they even know it is from the Bible or not, it is the second verse from our Gospel reading today where our Lord Jesus commands us to “Judge not.” In truth, it would be no exaggeration to say that “Judge not” has become the one universal law and religion that binds us together in our world and culture today. You can pretty much do anything and think anything and say anything and wear anything you want, but the one thing that is universally forbidden, that is unconditionally not to be tolerated, is to judge others.
Indeed, you will be condemned for judging when you even suggest that it is improper that a young couple should live together outside of marriage. You will be condemned for judging when you suggest that someone you care about is engaging in behavior (drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, pornography, etc.) that is threatening to their health and to their relationships with others. You will be condemned for judging when you suggest that abortion is the killing of a human being and is morally wrong. You will be condemned for judging when you suggest that homosexual acts and homosexual marriage are morally wrong, even though such things are clearly condemned by God in His Word. You will find that those who have absolutely no regard for God’s Word and Commandments suddenly become great scholars of the Holy Writ as they condemn you with Jesus’ words – completely misunderstood and stripped of their context – “Judge not.”
However, Jesus did say that, didn’t He? Yes, indeed He did! But, what do those words mean? You will undoubtedly be surprised if you too have misunderstood those words because you have taken them out of their context. As I noted earlier, Jesus’ words “Judge not” are taken from the second verse of today’s Gospel. They are not to be separated and interpreted apart from Jesus’ words that immediately precede them in the first verse, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Indeed, “Be merciful” is the command of our Lord that defines what He means in commanding “Judge not.” Mercy means overlooking or not counting one’s sins against them, but it absolutely does not mean denying that sin is sin. I typically teach that the difference between God’s grace and God’s mercy is this: Grace is when God gives us good things that we don’t deserve. Mercy is when God doesn’t give us the bad things that we do deserve. You see, we deserve only bad things for our sin, and not the good things God actually gives us by grace. You confessed precisely this just a few moments ago: “I, a poor, miserable sinner […] justly deserve Your temporal and eternal punishment.” Thanks be to God that He doesn’t give us what we deserve! Rather, He graciously gives us what we don’t deserve – forgiveness, for the sake of, and because of, Jesus. God doesn’t say that we are not sinners, or that our sin doesn’t matter; rather, God is merciful and He chooses to overlook our sins and not count them against us, because He has laid all of our sins upon Jesus and has crucified and killed Him in His wrath against our sins upon the cross. And, that is why Jesus commands us to “Judge not,” because God has judged Jesus guilty in our stead, has condemned Him and sentenced Him to death, and He has carried out the execution. And, because God has been merciful and has overlooked our sins, we too must be merciful and overlook the sins of others – even though they are still serious and damnable sins.
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven,” Jesus commands. Our Lord treats the words “judge not,” “condemn not,” and “forgive” as synonyms for “be merciful.” Indeed, they are the same in the eyes of our Lord; indeed, they are descriptive of and essential to who our LORD is and what He has revealed Himself to be as we heard in our Old Testament reading from Micah last Sunday: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression.” Can a blind man lead a blind man? Is a disciple above his teacher?These are rhetorical questions Jesus asks to which the unequivocal answer is understood to be no. Jesus’ point is that, because we have been given eyes to see that our LORD is merciful by the mercy He has shown to us, and because he has taught and revealed His mercy to us in His Son Jesus, we now can show and teach others of His mercy, that He overlooks our sins and does not count them against us for the sake of His Son Jesus. Jesus intends the same in His teaching, “Give, and it will be given to you,” for you can only give to others what you have first received yourself; and, if you have so received, you must also give, lest you forfeit what you have graciously received.
To illustrate all of the aforementioned points, Jesus asks, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Once again, many know this passage and quote it from memory while completely misunderstanding it and taking it out of its context. Jesus does not teach that you are not to “see the speck that is in your brother’s eye,” but that first you must “notice the log that is in your own eye.” That is to say that you must first acknowledge, confess, and repent of your own sins, receive forgiveness, and humble yourself before God and your brother so that you may able to seeingly lead him and teach him as you have been taught to find the same mercy and forgiveness that you have graciously received from the LORD. For there is a sinful speck in your brother’s eye that must be removed, even as there is a sinful log in your own eye that must first be removed if you are to assist your brother. The hypocrite is not the one who points out his brother’s sins, but the hypocrite is the one who points out his brother’s sins while denying his own sins. Indeed, the LORD would have you teach and guide other sinners and lead them to repentance and God’s mercy and forgiveness as you yourself have received and known them. But, to do this, you must first yourself repent and receive the LORD’s mercy. Then, but only then, you can, indeed you must (!), help others to acknowledge, confess, and repent of their sins that they, too, may receive the LORD’s mercy and forgiveness.
This truth is illustrated well in our Old Testament lesson in which Joseph forgave his brothers who had meant only evil against him. Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me.” You see, Joseph did not deny their sin; he did not falsely tell his brothers that they were not sinners, but he plainly said, “You meant evil against me.” Joseph truthfully pointed out the sinful speck in their eyes. However, Joseph also acknowledged his own sinfulness and the sinful log in his own eye, and in repentance and humility, as the recipient of God’s mercy himself, he forgave his brothers and overlooked their sins, all the evil they had done to him.
When the Lord commands you to “Judge not,” He is not commanding you to be laissez-faire with the sins of others, telling them, either actively or passively, that they are ok and no sin at all. That is precisely what the Prophet Jeremiah warned against saying, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” No, but you are duty bound by love for God and for your brother to help him to acknowledge, confess, and repent of his sins so that he may receive the LORD’s mercy and forgiveness. However, just as you are not to ignore your brother’s sin and leave him in it, neither are you to condemn him and consign him to the LORD’s judgment and hell. Being a forgiven sinner yourself, you have no righteous foundation from which to do so, but only the LORD can condemn a soul to hell. Therefore, the Lord invites you to acknowledge and confess the sinful log in your own eye this day, and every Lord’s day, that you may receive His mercy and forgiveness anew, and that you may see clearly to remove the sinful speck from your brother’s eye that he might receive the same. And, in so doing, the LORD is glorified and His kingdom is filled as you share with others the mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness you have yourself received from His gracious hand. So, now He has prepared this meal for you to fill you with His mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness that you may have an abundance to share as these overflow out of you into the lives, hearts, and minds of your brother, your neighbor for whom Jesus also died. Come, and be filled with His good measure, pressed down, shaken together, His body and blood poured out for you and into you, running over, with His promise that, with the measure you use, you will not be depleted, but it will be measured back to you in abundance.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Third Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 3)

Luke 15:1-10; 1 Peter 5:6-11; Micah 7:18-20
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The tax collectors and the sinners were all drawing near to Jesus to hear Him. At the same time, the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled and complained about Jesus because of the people he permitted to draw near to Him. It’s a classic case of the inmaking themselves to be out. For, the truth is, Jesus wanted allpeople to draw near to Him. He wanted allpeople to hear Him. We wanted to eat and drink and laugh and cry with allpeople. For, He came to redeem allpeople, allthe world, from sin and death, though not all would draw near to Him.
This is the setting for three of our Lord’s great parables: The Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son (The Prodigal Son). Jesus told these parables to the Pharisees and the scribes so that they could see that the kingdom of God was a reign of mercy and forgiveness, of seeking and of saving the lost. And, Jesus told these parables to the Pharisees and the scribes so that they might see themselves amongst the lost and, likewise, be found by their Savior who was drawing near to them.
The corruption in man’s reasoning and wisdom becomes apparent when we consider the first two of Jesus’ Parables of the Lost – the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. In both parables, the protagonist, the Christ figure, leaves behind the other sheep and the other coins in order to search the one sheep and coin that is lost. The wisdom of the world thinks this a tad over-reactive, foolish, and perhaps even irresponsible saying, “Why fret over one lost sheep when you have ninety-nine safe in the fold? How irresponsible it is to abandon the ninety-nine and put them at risk for the foolish and wayward and rebellious one. And, all this fuss over one lost coin? She still had nine. Coins get lost all the time! The world’s an imperfect place!”
Man’s fallen reason and wisdom stand in stark and unflattering contrast to our Lord’s wisdom that says, “Of those whom You gave Me I have lost not one.” Likewise, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out.” And also, “this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day.” And yet again, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.”
The idea here is that the sheep and the coins all belong to our Lord. Each and every one of them is precious to Him. It is not acceptable that He should lose even one. Our Lord Jesus is no shrewd businessman. He does not budget for a loss. He does not believe that a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. He will keep the sheep and the coins that He has, and He will seek, find, and save the sheep and the coin that have become lost.
In our fallen reason and wisdom, we want to cry out “Foolishness!” “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open county, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” Jesus asks. Our answer: “No one would do this!” “It doesn’t make sense!” “That’s utter foolishness!” Clearly, our Lord’s economics and accounting are radically different than ours – Thanks be to God! The sheep and the coins are not commodities to be bargained with, a loss of some sort being anticipated and acceptable. No! You are the Lord’s beloved sheep and His precious coins. You are His charge and His treasure. He is your God and you are His creatures. He is your Father and you are His children.
So were the Pharisees and the scribes. Our Lord Jesus did not want to lose them anymore than He wants to lose you. He searched for them, found them, and suffered and died for them to restore them to His fold just as He did for you, but they refused Him and rejected Him. They would not return with Him or follow Him because they could not see, they would not confess, that they were lost! They believed that they were the ninety-nine in the open country, not the one lost. They believed that they were the nine coins safe in the purse, not the one lost under the floorboards. They thought that they were in, and they couldn’t see that they were out. Of course, Jesus wanted them in, He made it possible for them to be inby grace through faith, but they wanted to be inon their own terms, and so they made themselves to be out. What’s worse is that they judged Jesus for taking those whom they considered to be outin.
Our Lord rejoices at finding His lost sheep, His lost coins, His lost children. All of heaven and all of heaven’s angels rejoice over every sinner who repents! But, the angels rejoice only over sinners who repent, for only sinners can repent, and all of us are sinners. The Pharisees and the scribes were sinners too, though they refused to acknowledge and confess it. They were sinners, therefore Jesus considered them to be in, but they would not confess their sin, therefore they made themselves to be out. Moreover, they judged Jesus for the company of sinners He kept – His flock, His children. They were all sinners. That’s all that they could possibly be. That’s all there was. And, Jesus was fine with that. And, Jesus is fine with that now! “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Thanks be to God! Jesus would receive and eat with the Pharisees and the scribes too, but they would not have it. Jesus came to seek the lost. Only the lost can be found. Jesus came to forgive sinners. Only sinners can be forgiven. Jesus came to raise the dead. Only the dead can be raised. Jesus came to call, not the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Only sinners can repent. And we are all sinners, every one of us, from the greatest to the least, from the Pharisee to the tax collector. According to our sinful natures, we are out. But, according to Jesus’ grace, mercy, and love, we are in. Only you can make yourself to be out.
To put an exclamation point on His teaching, Jesus then told the Pharisees and the scribes the Parable of the Lost Son (the Prodigal Son). You know that story well. A younger son asked his father for his inheritance now, while his father was still alive. This was a highly disrespectful, dishonorable, and scandalous thing to do – essentially treating his father as if he were already dead to him. Even more scandalously, however, the father gave his son what he asked. The boy then proceeded to squander his inheritance and soon found himself destitute and hungry so that he sold himself into the meanest labor feeding unclean swine and even desiring to eat the food of the pigs. The boy was lost. He had dishonored his father and wasted everything his father had given him. He had nothing. He was as good as dead. But then he thought to himself, “My father is a good, gracious, and merciful man. I will return to him and apologize and offer myself as a servant that I might work for him and pay him back and earn his good will.” And then he set off for his father’s home. However, as Jesus tells His parable, he doesn’t make it back before the boy’s father finds him. You see, the father was watching for him, looking for him all the while he was gone. Seeing him coming from afar, the father did the unthinkable – he ran to his lost son and, before the boy could make the offer of labor, he restored him fully as his son and heir.
Now, that’s the part of the parable that most Christians focus upon. However, Jesus’ parable continues with the account of the father’s older son who is resentful that his father has received, forgiven, and restored his prodigal brother. Though it cost him nothing at all, the older brother begrudges his father’s generosity and mercy towards his younger brother. Unlike the angels in heaven, he refuses to rejoice of his brother, a sinner, who has repented. He is deeply offended, scandalized, at his father’s actions – killing the fatted calf and enjoying a feast with his lowly, sinful, unclean and uncouth brother: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Who do you think the older brother represents in Jesus’ parable. You can bet that the Pharisees and the scribes knew who He was talking about.
You see, there is something very personal and intimate about table fellowship – who you eat and drink with. Those souls you commune with at table are family: Husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, etc. Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors, liars, thieves, adulterers, rude and disrespectful children, ungrateful neighbors, murderers, lepers, the outcast, the unclean, even you. You are His family. He invites you to His table to eat and drink with Him, indeed, to commune with Him so that His flesh is united with your flesh and His blood courses through your veins. You were out, but He has made you to be in. Therefore, do not look down at your neighbor, your brother, and consider him beneath you or unworthy of a place at the table. First, the table is not yours, but your Lord’s, and second, Jesus came to seek and to lay down His life to save that man or woman just as He came to seek and to save you.
Eat, drink, and be merry! Rejoice with the angels in heaven over even one sinner who repents! Each and every Divine Service, each and every Holy Eucharist, each and every Lord’s Day is a feast day of the finest of wines and the choicest of meats. This is the Day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! And yet, as good and holy and joyous as it is, this feast is but a foretaste of the feast that is to come – the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom that has no end! This is the feast of victory for our Lord, and you are invited – all are invited! You are in! Don’t make yourself to beout. Share the good news and invite your brother, your neighbor in too. Jesus is seeking them too and He has won salvation for them too. He has died that they might have the proper wedding garment, His righteousness, and join in the feast of life and salvation too.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.