More than one demon to cast out

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Sermon for Reminiscere – Lent 2

1 Thessalonians 4:1-7  +  Matthew 15:21-28

Last week we watched Jesus do battle against the devil, armed only with the Word of God and faith in His heavenly Father. Today in the Gospel we see Him casting out another demon. Actually, more than one. The demon who was demonizing the Canaanite woman’s daughter was the easy one to cast out. It’s the other demons with whom Jesus takes more time.

When the demons used to take possession of a person’s body, it was easy to see the devil attacking the human race. It’s when he attacks more subtly that he poses a bigger threat. Like when he tempts us to pride, to a sense of entitlement before God and man; when he tempts us to think the worst about God, to ignore His Word, to doubt His care and grace. Those demons do their work in secret, without anyone even knowing they’re there. They were around at the time of Jesus, and they’re around still today. In the Holy Spirit’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, He fights for us against those very demons.

Let’s review the story. Jesus left the land of the Jews, to go to the northern regions of Tyre and Sidon. Gentile territory. Why? We’re not told. Except, for the events recorded in our Gospel. We learn now, after the fact, that Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman was the enduring reason for His visit.

His reputation preceded Him. St. Mark tells us that He went to a house and tried to keep His presence quiet, but word got out. See how powerful the simple word about Christ is! A foreign woman, who had nothing to do with Israel, heard that this Jesus was the Lord, the Son of David. Who was David to her, a Gentile? No one. But she must have also heard that the Son of David, the promised Messiah of the Jews, had come to save both Jews and Gentiles from the power of the devil, which was absolutely true.

So she sought Him out. She found Him. Her daughter was suffering greatly from a demon. She cried out for help.

And Jesus didn’t respond. At all. It doesn’t say He ignored her or pretended she wasn’t there. He may have been looking right at her. But He said nothing as she kept crying out for help. How strange!

She kept pleading for her daughter. And Jesus’ disciples couldn’t take it anymore. She kept calling after them, and Jesus kept not responding. The woman’s constant cries and the Christ’s apparent unwillingness to help her were all making the situation very awkward. Better to just send her away than to let this crying continue unanswered, right Jesus? Send her away!

But He didn’t send her away. That would have been the end of it. But He didn’t. Instead, He said, I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This woman and her daughter were Gentiles—like you and I—not members by birth of the house of Israel. There used to be something very special about being an Israelite. Up until the time of Christ’s death on the cross, Israel was the chosen people of God. They had the Word of God. Theirs were the promises and the sonship and the eternal inheritance of God’s kingdom.

But the Old Testament spoke of the Christ as being the light of the Gentiles, too, who would bring them into the house of the New Testament Israel—the Israel, not of bloodlines, but of faith in Christ. And here, it was Jesus who left Israel to go visit the land where the Canaanite woman lived.

Now, if there were any sinful pride in this woman, she would have gotten angry at Jesus’ reply and walked away. If she had had any sense of entitlement before God, she would have given Jesus an earful. How dare You make a distinction between Jew and Gentile! How dare You not give me a handout! But, no. That is the common reaction among people today, but not of this dear woman. Hers was the opposite. Instead of running away, instead of getting angry, she fell at Jesus’ feet. She “worshiped” Him, as the NKJV puts it. “Lord, help me!”

She sees indications that Jesus may not be willing to help her, but she also sees that He hasn’t sent her away. He hasn’t told her “no.” And the word that she has heard about Christ is still sustaining her faith in Christ, that He will be gracious to her and have mercy on her.

Why, because she deserves it? Jesus’ next words would address that demon. It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs. Presumably, the children of Israel were the children of the house, while the Gentiles were the little dogs at the table, begging for food. (Another ethnic reference. How dare He!) And yet, what had Christ experienced so far in His ministry? The children—the Jews—had largely rejected their Christ. If He applied the Law to them and pointed out their sins, they got angry. If He said anything they didn’t like, the “children” walked away. But here He is, with this supposed “little dog,” the Gentile woman, and she is not getting angry. She is not walking away. She is not puffed up with pride in herself or with some idea that she deserves His help. In fact, she accepts His words, and in so doing, demonstrates more faith in Christ than anyone in Israel had.

Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. She is perfectly content to be seen as a little dog at the Lord’s table. As the Psalmist once said, For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.  For the LORD God is a sun and shield; The LORD will give grace and glory; No good thing will He withhold From those who walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, Blessed is the man who trusts in You!

See, the Psalmist never said, “Blessed is the man who trusts in You—as long as He was born to the house of Israel, because if not, then cursed is the man who trusts in You, O Lord!” No. Just, “Blessed is the man who trusts in You!” And this woman did trust in the Lord God of Israel, in Jesus the Son of David. And she was, indeed, blessed.

Now that the time of testing is over, now that the demons of pride and doubt and despair have all been vanquished, Jesus has nothing but praise and divine help for the Canaanite woman and her daughter. O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire. And the demon that afflicted her daughter was forced to leave her at that very moment. Easily. He said it would be gone, and it was gone, powerless against the will of the Son of God.

What does Jesus praise in the foreign woman? He praises her unshakable faith, which was able to extinguish all the flaming darts of the devil. As St. John wrote, Whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. In fact, the Gentile woman’s faith stood out in stark contrast to Israel’s unbelief, and while it looked for a moment like Jesus was praising the Jews and disparaging the Gentiles, the opposite was really true; her faith was a shining example that put all the unbelieving Jews to shame.

That faith showed itself in her persistence. Would you have given up? Would you have let Jesus’ silence deter you? If it seems like God is ignoring you, the devil tempts you to jump to a conclusion: He doesn’t care. And from there, the devil tempts you further: Give up on Him.

Her faith showed itself in her humility. Would you have been put off by Jesus’ “racism” (what a silly word) or His ethnic references? Would you accept being referred to as a little dog by the Son of God, or would your pride have taken over and caused you to curse the Son of God?

Her faith also showed itself in her love for her daughter. Would you stick with Jesus, no matter what, for the sake of your child? Even if it seems for a moment like Jesus isn’t going to help? The woman teaches us to pray to Jesus for our children, not casually, not half-heartedly, but earnestly and unceasingly. The devil wants to have them, too. But faith in Christ expresses itself in the unrelenting prayers of a parent that Christ would not let the devil have his way with our children, and Jesus’ interaction with the woman show us that He is eager to hear such prayers, offered up in faith.

The demons are still out there. The temptations to pride, to doubt, to self-importance, to second-guessing the will of God—they’re all around us. But Christ fights for us in the Gospel, to keep us trusting in Him for deliverance from sin, death, and the power of the devil. May your faith in Christ be strengthened today through the Gospel and through the Sacrament, so that you remain persistent in prayer, humble before God and man, and devoted to one another in love. Amen.

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No little temptations

Sermon for Invocavit – Lent 1

2 Corinthians 6:1-10 + Matthew 4:1-11

There is a lot of evil in the world. Raping and killing, adultery and theft, rage, violence, and injustice. It’s easy, at least for us Christians, to see Satan behind all those things, as the terrible instigator of evil in the world.

But that’s not where we find Satan in the Gospel, is it? We see the devil hard at work trying to get the Son of God to sin, but his temptations seem like nothing so terrible, certainly nothing that would cause great harm to the world. Just some seemingly minor sins directed against…God. Is that so terrible, compared to all the rest of the evil and wickedness we see in the world? Turning stones into bread? Taking a ride—literally—on angels’ wings? Bowing down for a moment before the devil, with no one else even watching? For that matter, go all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Was taking a bite out of a piece of fruit really worthy of death?

But therein lies the deception, the lie propagated from the mouth of the liar since the beginning: That, as long as Satan isn’t tempting you to do the big and terrible things that cause even unbelievers to cringe, it’s no big deal to be tempted. It’s no big deal to fall into sin.

The truth is, those “little sins” committed against God, in secret, are behind all the rest. What’s more, to consider those sins against God, that don’t hurt anyone else, to be “little,” is just more evidence of the utter depravity of our race, and the utter corruption of our flesh, as if a sin against God were a small thing, while a sin against another human being—that’s the really big deal. Do you think of God as being so small? So insignificant? So harmless? The devil wants you to, because, if he succeeds at that, he’s already won.

See how the devil attacked the Son of God in the Gospel, not with the “big” temptations to do “big” sins, but with three little temptations to commit three “little” sins that would have sealed your eternal condemnation in hell, if Jesus had stumbled even a little.

First, remember the context of these temptations. It’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has just been baptized by John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit has just descended on Him, like a dove, and He has just heard those astonishing words spoken from heaven, This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Then we’re told that Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

The devil was the one who tried to get Jesus to sin. But God was the one who arranged for the temptations to happen, not unlike the case of Old Testament Job. Jesus had truly humbled Himself when He became man. In that state of humiliation, He set aside the use of His divine knowledge and power. He relied on His Father’s Spirit-inspired Word, and was “led by the Spirit” out into the wilderness, to be tempted for 40 days, even as the people of Israel were tempted in the wilderness for 40 years.

The first temptation had to do with hunger. Jesus had fasted for 40 days. He ate nothing and drank nothing. His survival itself was miraculous, but it does say at the end that He was hungry. Now, maybe you recall that the great prophet and mediator of the first covenant, Moses, also fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, on top of Mt. Sinai. It says that he ate no bread and drank no water for those 40 days. And do you know how much hunger he suffered because of it? None, as far as we know. It appears that the Lord kept His servant Moses from suffering the bitter pangs of hunger.

But here is Jesus, the very Son of God, His “beloved Son,” for whom the Father does not provide any bread and whom the Father does allow to suffer hunger in the wilderness.

The devil tried to capitalize on Jesus’ physical weakness and suffering. If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread. Such a small thing. It wouldn’t have hurt anyone, right? But what’s behind that temptation? The devil wants Jesus to be unhappy with His Father and with what His Father has provided. He wants Jesus to feel miffed that His Father was making Him suffer, to grumble and complain about this unfair treatment, and then, to step out of His state of humiliation for a moment and to pit His own divine power as the Son of God against the divine will of His Father.

Instead, Jesus threw a passage of Scripture back at the devil, It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ Jesus already knew the lesson that Israel never learned. That whatever God speaks—that is right. Whatever God does—that is the definition of goodness and love.

No, Jesus says, I will not complain or grumble against My Father. I won’t call Him evil. I won’t even think it. And I certainly won’t step out of this state of humiliation to provide a meal for Myself, in rebellion against My Father. If I don’t suffer as the rest of men suffer, then I am not tempted as the rest of men are tempted. And if I’m not tempted like them, then I can’t stand against temptation for them or help them when they’re tempted. No, to do this little thing would have big consequences.

The second temptation recorded in Matthew’s Gospel has the devil taking Jesus up to a ledge high up on the temple in Jerusalem. If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, “In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

So the devil knows the Scriptures! He knows how to cite them, how to use them against people. Remember that when you hear preachers out there in other churches using the Bible and you’re tempted to think, there must not be much difference between their church and ours. They have the Bible! Yes, they have it. It was there in the devil’s foul mouth, too. Having the Word of God and teaching it correctly, in context and in harmony with the rest of the Word of God, are two different things.

Here the devil used the Word of God out of context, to try to convince Jesus, first, that He should forget the sinfulness in putting your life in danger for no good reason, and second, that it would all be fine if He jumped off the ledge, because He had the Lord’s promise to send His angels to catch Him. God will take care of you, no matter what you do.

The devil probably won’t tempt you to “jump off a ledge, it’ll be fine.” He may tempt you in similar ways: Don’t worry about studying too hard in school or working too hard at your job. God will see that you succeed at whatever you do. Go ahead and eat to the point of gluttony and obesity; God will take care of you. Go see the movie with the explicit sex scenes, watch that dirty video, do the drugs, drink too much; it’ll be OK. Stay home from church; move to a place where the Word and Sacrament are not taught purely; God will provide for you. Didn’t Jesus promise that He won’t let anyone snatch you from His Father’s hand?

But Jesus knew better. It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’ Jesus didn’t fall for the little lie that it’s OK to sin, God will take care of you anyway. Neither should you!

The third temptation had the devil showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”

I don’t think the devil would have much success if he stood before us and asked us to bow down to him, in return for riches and power and glory. So he doesn’t. What does he say? You can have a better life, if you just set aside God’s commandments once in a while. You can have a prosperous, fun, happy, comfortable earthly life if you just don’t worry so much about what God says. You can have that person for a spouse, if you just don’t worry about the differences in your beliefs. You can have the praise of your teachers, if you just keep nodding your head when they tell you the earth is millions of years old. You can have a big church, if you just compromise a little on doctrine. You can have the support of your community, if you just go along with the culture in its sick praise for the mental and spiritual disorder of transgenderism, if you just concede that gay marriage is fine, sex scenes in movies and TV are fine, abortion is fine.

The devil offers much. But even if he could give you earthly happiness, which he usually doesn’t, the devil would happily take your soul to hell at the end of the day. And then you would realize how not worth it it was to bow down to him for a moment of earthly gain, in whatever way you bowed down to him.

Jesus was offered far more than you could ever be offered, for just a moment on His knees before the devil. But, of course, He knew better. Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’

Jesus defeated the devil. He defeated Him with perfect faith in His Father, with perfect devotion to His Father’s will, with perfect love for His Father’s Word. Where every other man in history has fallen, Jesus is the Man—the Second Adam—who stood firm against the devil. And He did it in mankind’s place, to earn our salvation. Now we have a Champion, a Hero, the perfect Man to whom we imperfect men can flee at all times for refuge, to hide ourselves in His righteousness.

That’s what we get when we’re baptized. We get credited with the perfect record of Christ against all the devil’s temptations, instead of having to answer for all the times we’ve allowed ourselves to be led astray. And every absolution and preaching of the Gospel and every believing reception of the Holy Sacrament is a reapplication of Christ’s holy victory over the devil.

Now, having been brought into Christ through Holy Baptism, we are not only covered with His victory over the devil, but we are also initiated into the ongoing fight against temptation, both the “little” ones and the “big” ones, knowing that none are really little.

Trust in Christ, both for forgiveness and for the strength to resist temptation. It is your calling as a Christian, as one who is to follow in the footsteps of Christ, who resisted temptation for your salvation. Use and rely on the Word of God, as Jesus did. And as He promises through His apostle: God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. Amen.

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The Holy Spirit reveals the love of Christ

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Sermon for Quinquagesima

1 Corinthians 13:1-13  +  Luke 18:31-43

You heard in the Epistle what true love is, what true love looks like, what true love does. That is the love God calls on His people to demonstrate toward one another.

But not before He Himself demonstrated it.

This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.

That was the path Jesus chose for Himself, to lay down His life. Now, as St. Paul reminds the Roman Christians, Christ laid down His life even for those who were still His enemies—like Paul himself was when he was still Saul the self-righteous Pharisee, and like the Roman Christians were at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, before they ever knew who Jesus was. God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

But there is a special love that Christ has for those whom He has made His friends, His disciples. It’s similar to a soldier who goes off to war and is prepared to give his life for his country. He gives his life for all Americans, to keep us safe, to preserve our freedom. But you can bet he has in mind especially his own friends, his own family, his own loved ones. So did Jesus. He chose His disciples to be His friends, and now He has chosen us, too. He has revealed to us, in His Word, the very same things He revealed to His twelve apostles. I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.

That’s the hard part about the first part of today’s Gospel. Jesus pulled His twelve best friends on earth aside and revealed to them that He was about to do the most important work, the most loving thing anyone could ever do for anyone: He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.”

Jesus reminds His disciples that all the prophets had prophesied, not only the coming of Jesus, but most of all the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Psalm 22, for example, Isaiah 53, Psalm 16…These and many other passages in the Scriptures portrayed in vivid detail the suffering and death of the Christ, as well as His resurrection from the dead. The entire Jewish religion had been about Jesus. And now Jesus informs His disciples that He was about to bring it all to fulfillment, on purpose, for them. Passover was coming. It was almost Holy Week.

Jesus told His friends what He was about to do for them, what He was about to willingly suffer for them. But what does it say in the Gospel? But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken. It was hidden from them. Why was it hidden? The prophets had foretold it about the Christ. They had confessed Jesus to be the Christ. But still, they didn’t put it together. Even the clearest words of Scripture are beyond the grasp of our fallen human reason. Only the Spirit of God can enlighten our understanding, and He does it in His good time.

In this case, it was necessary for Jesus’ friends to be kept in the dark, because it was necessary for Jesus to suffer entirely alone, without the aid or comfort or even the understanding of His friends. The Scriptures had predicted that, too. My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague, and my relatives stand afar off…LORD, why do You cast off my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me?…Loved one and friend You have put far from me, and my acquaintances into darkness.

And then, a bit of irony, because the next words of our Gospel bring us face to face with a man who had literally sat in darkness for a long time, the blind beggar. Mark tells us that his name was Bartimaeus. Matthew tells that there were actually two blind men there, but apparently Bartimaeus was the one whose words and actions stood out. He didn’t have the benefit of eyesight—or of riches, fame or fortune. But the Holy Spirit, working through the word Bartimaeus had already heard about this Jesus of Nazareth, had granted him better vision than anyone else in the crowd that was thronging around Jesus, marching in procession to Jerusalem for the Passover and for whatever other spectacular things Jesus would do there.

He heard the commotion, asked what it was about. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David.” That was a confession on the beggar’s part that Jesus was not just a great Rabbi. That was a confession that Jesus was the promised Christ, the Savior of Israel who would sit on David’s throne and rule over God’s people forever, according to the Old Testament prophecies. “Have mercy on me.” That was a confession, too, a confession of his faith in this Christ as the One who is merciful to those in need, and who has the power to help in every need. He was a beautiful example of faith and of the power of the Holy Spirit to create faith in the most unlikely places and people.

Indeed, the beggar saw Jesus better than the crowds that went with him, because when they heard this blind man calling after Jesus for mercy, they warned him that he should be quiet. We’re having a joyful procession here, can’t you see that? You’re ruining it with your beggarly cries for mercy. Don’t you know Jesus has better things to do than to help blind beggars right now? He’s going to Jerusalem to…well, we don’t know exactly what He’s going to do there, but, it’s gonna be big, and we’re going with Him, and you should sit there quietly and be happy for us.

What a strange attitude for a crowd that was hanging around with Jesus. And yet, there are very many who call themselves Christians to this day who still don’t grasp who Jesus is or why He came. They are Christians because of whatever benefit they think they get out of being Christians, whether it makes them feel good about themselves, or whether they latch on to some social justice theme they falsely find in the Bible, or whether they really like certain kinds of church music or church architecture or church activities. They loosely follow Jesus, but they don’t really know Him at all.

But faith knows Him. The Holy Spirit, through the Word, opens blind eyes and reveals Jesus to be the only One who can help poor beggars, poor sinners like us. Faith knows Him to be loving and merciful—the most loving, the most faithful, the most merciful Mediator between God and Man, whose ears are not irritated by a beggar’s cries for mercy, but, on the contrary, who loves to hear and answer our prayers.

Bartimaeus knew that. So he wasn’t deterred by the shushing of the crowds. He cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

This is the Jesus who went to Jerusalem, not thirsty for His own glory or too busy to help sinners, but the One who loves sinners, who saves them by faith alone in Him alone. This is the Jesus to whom you have been united in Holy Baptism, whom you have followed thus far, and who calls you to keep following. You still need His mercy every day, because you still haven’t earned God’s favor or a place in a heaven, and you never will. You’ll always have to depend solely on the mercy and love of Jesus and on His suffering and death as that which makes you acceptable to God through faith.

And where there is faith, there will also be love. The pattern of love has been set by Jesus and outlined for us again in today’s Epistle—for us whom Jesus has called His friends. As we approach the Lenten season, which begins this Wednesday, let us determine to live as friends of Jesus, to use Word and Sacrament faithfully, and to ask the Holy Spirit earnestly to enlighten us more and more to the love of Christ for us, and to renew us more and more in love for one another. Amen.

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Many will hear the Word in vain. Don’t be one of them!

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Sermon for Sexagesima

2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9  +  Luke 8:4-15

The parable of the sower. One of my favorites. It’s such a vivid picture of what happens when the word of God is preached, how it falls on different kinds of soil and how it fares in each case.

There is some sadness in it, as Jesus tells us ahead of time that many or even most of those who hear His Word will either never believe, or will eventually fall away—not because the Word of God was ineffective, not because God didn’t want them to believe, but because, unlike the good soil, they don’t hear the Word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.

From the perspective of the sower, it’s very helpful to know that, and this applies to preachers, but also, to some extent, to parents and to all Christians who scatter the word of the Gospel in their vocations. You see people mocking the truth of God’s Word when they hear it. Or, you see Christians drifting away from the faith, slowly or quickly abandoning the Lutheran faith (that is, the true Christian faith) they once confessed. Drifting away, shriveling up—not cursing Christ or rejecting Him completely, but His truth loses its importance to them as other things become more important. And so often we wonder, why won’t they believe? Or, how could they drift away like that? And you feel responsible. You feel like you weren’t persuasive enough, didn’t teach clearly enough, weren’t zealous enough for their salvation. But the word of Jesus calls you back and reminds you, many will not believe. Many will not remain in the faith. And the problem is not with the seed or how it is sown. It’s not one’s persuasiveness that causes the seed to take root, nor is it the zeal of the preacher that affects the soil. The problem is not with the sower or with the seed, but with the soil on which it falls. When a person hears the word and either never believes it or later falls away—as long as the Word was, indeed, preached—the blame lies 100% with the one who falls away.

The same thing happened, of course, when Jesus Himself was the preacher, because, instead of using His divine omnipotence to force the seed down people’s throats and compel them to be and to remain Christians, He chose instead to use the divine power of His Holy Spirit, who works on the human heart, not omnipotently and irresistibly, but through the humble, resistible preaching of the Word. As we confess in the Augsburg Confession, Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.

That’s comforting. It means that the sower doesn’t “target” certain kinds of soil, certain kinds of people. Instead, he scatters the seed broadly, almost recklessly. And he simply leaves all the results up to the Spirit of God, whose word is always powerful, always effective, always sincere, always true. And when he sees people completely ignoring God’s Word, or when he sees believers drifting away, their faith being dried up by the heat or choked by the thorns, then he doesn’t despair; Jesus told him it would be this way. And he also knows that some of the seed will find good soil out there. There will most surely be a harvest.

On the other hand, from the perspective of the hearer, the parable of the sower is sobering. Again, the good soil represents those who hear the Word with noble and good hearts, who keep it and bear fruit with patience. All the other soils represent…other situations, those who do not hear with noble and good hearts and who do not keep the word or bear fruit with patience.

The path, where the seed fell and the birds came and plucked it up and the feet of men trampled it, stands for those who hear the word, but never believe. They either never become Christians, or, what’s even worse, they become Christians in name only; they don’t believe for themselves. They may show up for church and recite parts of the liturgy. They may memorize words in a catechism. But they don’t listen to the word, they don’t take it to heart. They make up their own doctrine, their own versions of Jesus. They go out and act like they were never Christians in the first place, because there is no true faith in their hearts.

The rocky soil, where the seed sprang up at first but then the plant shriveled up in the heat of the day, are those who hear the word with joy, but have no root, so they fall away in time of temptation or persecution. These are not openly wicked people. They’re people who give in to temptation and don’t repent. They’re confessing Christians, until the persecution gets too hot, until making the good confession of the whole truth of God’s word means sacrificing more than they’re willing to sacrifice. Those whose faith is superficial, not very deep, will fall to those temptations and persecutions. They’ll choose this life over the life of Christ. And, tragically, they will lose both.

The thorny soil, where the seed grew, but then was choked by thorns, are those who drift away from the faith when the cares, riches, and pleasures of life entice them. Again, these are not openly wicked people. They are Christians—Christians who allow themselves to become distracted from Christ, to become bored with the word and Sacraments. Their Christian faith, their Lutheran faith (again, it’s the same thing) is choked by a friend, by a colleague, by a teacher, by a fiancé or spouse, by a parent or a child; choked by work, by sleep, by money, by sex, or by drugs.

All of that is sobering, to say the least, because you all know how hard your own heart can be at times, so that the word goes in one ear and out the other. You all know what it is to be tempted and to give in to it. As for persecutions, we’re living through some very difficult times in the Christian Church, in many ways more difficult than ever before, especially for those who cling to the Lutheran faith as the true Christian faith, without compromise and without concession. We’re small. We feel isolated. We’re lonely. We’re forced to make many sacrifices to belong to this church, and still, most people, even within the Christian world, call us foolish, hateful, and mean. And then there are the cares, riches, and pleasure of this life, which fill our day-to-day activities and surround us on all sides, at all times. School, work, relationships, health concerns, bank accounts, entertainment…How does the good seed of God’s word stand a chance in this world?

But then Jesus adds one last part to this parable, and it is inspiring. There is the good soil, where the seed fell and grew and produced an abundant crop, those who hear the Word with noble and good hearts, who keep it and bear fruit with patience.

Oh, pray that God would plant His Word in you, that He would make you good soil, that He would bless the Word that has been preached, and not just once, but every time you hear it. As for you Christians, to whom the Holy Spirit has already given new birth through the baptismal washing of rebirth and regeneration, and in whom the Holy Spirit has created a New Man: keep the word! Retain it; hold onto it! Pray! And practice bearing its fruits: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Do you see the danger that threatens each one of you? The only remedy is the Word, and you are not fatalistically bound to hear it in vain. If you hear the Word with a less than noble heart, if you hear the Word preached and fail to meditate on it and believe it and cling to it, it’s no one’s fault but your own. Instead, will you go home today and read it? Will you get back to reading it and studying it regularly? Will you make it your highest priority to be in church on Sundays, if at all possible, to hear the Word and to receive the Sacrament? Will you take the comfort and the strength it provides into the week with you, to bear the cross, to deny yourselves, to battle against sin and to serve your neighbor with sacrificial love? Then you will be the good soil, and the Holy Spirit will not abandon you or let any harm come to the plant He has planted. Take this parable of Jesus and use it for the comforting, sobering, inspiring purpose for which He intended it. Many will hear the word in vain. Don’t you be one of them! Amen.



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Ending the day still with faith in God’s grace

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Sermon for Septuagesima

1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5  +  Matthew 20:1-16

As the saying goes, well begun is half done. It’s important to make a good beginning in whatever you do, with a solid plan for the whole project so that you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, to put things in order right from the start and to begin moving in the right direction. By the time you put in all that effort to beginning something well, you’ve already put in half the work. You’re already half done.

But you’re still not done. Imagine a runner—some people actually enjoy that sort of thing—a runner who puts in all the effort to train for a race. He registers for the race. He maps it out. He eats well. He sleeps wells. And he starts running the race well. Then, part-way into the race, he sees something he doesn’t like along the course. And so…he drops out. Well begun is half done. But it’s meaningless if you fail to finish.

The Israelites began well long ago when they came out of Egypt. They celebrated the Passover. They crossed the Red Sea with Moses. As Paul wrote in today’s Epistle, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. They had the promised land of Canaan as their goal.

But those very Israelites who began so well failed to finish. Faith quickly turned into unbelief. Trust in the promises of God turned into trust in what their eyes could see. Trust in the goodness of God turned into giving in to the cravings of their own bellies. Trust in the works of God turned into trust in their own designs, their own devices, their own strength, their own worthiness. As Paul says, with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

And so Paul issued a warning to the Corinthian Christians. You began well enough—you heard the Gospel. You repented. You believed. You were baptized. And you have been gathering around the Word and Sacrament for some time now. But it’s all for nothing if you turn away from grace before the end, if you stop running the race, if you allow your faith to be torn away from God and placed somewhere else, like in how well you think you’ve done so far.

So, too, in the Gospel. Those who began the day working in the vineyard began well, on good terms with the landowner. They worked long and hard, right up until the end of the day, even—the full twelve hours. But they still didn’t finish well. The problem wasn’t with their work. The problem was that they quit. They didn’t quit working. But they quit appreciating the grace of the landowner. They grew to despise his generosity, focusing instead on their own hard work in the vineyard, and on how unfair it was that others who didn’t work as hard should be tied with them in wages. It ended for those workers with a, “Take what is yours and go your way,” from the owner.

Let’s take a closer look at the parable and learn a lesson from Jesus.

The owner of the vineyard goes out at the crack of dawn, 6 AM, to hire workers for the day. He finds some, and they make a contract. They agree on the wages—one denarius for twelve hours of work, and the workers go to work in the vineyard. Fine. Other workers are hired as the day goes on—at 9 AM, at noon, at 3 PM, and even at 5 PM, one hour before quitting time. For all those workers, no certain wages were specified. The owner simply promised them, whatever is right you will receive.

At the end of the day, the owner brings those who were hired last to the front of the line, to receive their wages first. He treats them with great generosity, giving them each one denarius for only one hour of work.

The ones who worked twelve hours start to get greedy. They imagine that the contract that they agreed on that same morning must have been changed without their knowing it. If the one-hour workers were receiving one denarius, then their deal with the landowner can’t possibly still be valid. They worked more. They should receive more. That’s what they thought. But, of course, each of them also received one denarius. Not equal pay for equal work, but the same pay, no matter how much work was done.

Was that fair? They didn’t think so. They grumbled against the landowner. But he puts them in their place. Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?

All of this is, first and foremost, a story Jesus was telling about the Jews, who, as a nation, started out trusting in God, knowing they deserved nothing from Him, believing in His goodness and mercy. But then John the Baptist came, and then Jesus came. And the Jews saw people around them who hadn’t worked very hard at keeping the Law of Moses. Some were thieves. Some were prostitutes. Some were even Gentiles. They saw these people being brought to repentance by the preaching of John and of Jesus. They saw these people being welcomed into the kingdom of God, no matter how long they had worked, no matter what they had done. They saw sinners being told by Jesus, “Take heart. Your sins are forgiven.” Just like that, without putting in any of the work they had put in, receiving the same prize of God’s favor and eternal life.

The Jews should have rejoiced in the mercy of God. They should have loved their fellow man and been glad to be fellow recipients of the generosity of God. Instead, they became jealous, not unlike the “good son” in the story of the prodigal son, who stayed in his father’s house and worked hard while his reprobate brother left to live in luxury and decadence, until he repented and came back home. You remember that story? The “good son” became angry when he saw his prodigal brother welcomed back home by their father.

What’s the real problem here? What’s going on? Are business owners being encouraged to reward workers who work less? Hardly! If anything, Jesus teaches the divine principle that the owner of the business has the right to make whatever contract he wants with his own employees, to do what he wants with his own money!

But the parable isn’t addressing business. It’s addressing the kingdom of God, where no one deserves God’s grace or a place in His kingdom. But, in His goodness and generosity, He brings people into His family by faith in Christ Jesus and gives everyone the same favor, the same forgiveness, the same salvation, the same eternal life. That’s the deal He makes in Holy Baptism with the baptized: to save them for free, apart from their works, through faith alone in His Son. Repent and believe in Him! And then, yes, work. Show love to your neighbor. Keep the commandments, not to earn God’s favor, but because you have God’s favor.

But what often happens? People begin well, recognizing their own sins, trusting in God’s promise of free salvation, thankful for God’s grace in Christ Jesus. They continue for a while in faith, producing its fruits, denying themselves and giving up earthly things for the kingdom of God, running the race so as to win the prize, as St. Paul wrote, and all is well.

Until eventually, their sins no longer seem so bad in their own eyes, while the sins of others are easy to identify. They focus on what good people they have become, and grow indignant when they see “bad people” being brought to repentance and faith later in life. They somehow think that God now owes them more, because they’ve done more, they’ve earned more. And as soon as they view God in that way, they have broken from Christ. They have fallen from grace.

Why? Because salvation is either by grace or it’s by works. And faith is either placed solely in God’s grace for the sake of Christ, or it’s placed elsewhere. No matter how long you’ve lived in faith, no matter how much of your life you’ve spent running the race, serving the Lord and your neighbor in love, none of that matters at the end of the day, if, at the end of the day, you turn away from faith in Christ to rely on your own works, to want God to deal with you based on what you have earned, instead of what Christ has earned for you.

All of you here have made a good beginning in your faith. Some began sooner than others. Some have run the race more intentionally, in a more disciplined way than others. All of that is now irrelevant. What matters is how you continue the race from this point on: in daily contrition and repentance. With faith in God’s goodness for the sake of Christ crucified. Hearing God’s Word. Feeding on God’s Sacraments. With love. With prayer. With zeal for Christ’s kingdom. But always with God’s grace in view, so that, at the end of the day, you’re ready to stand before God to receive, not the wages you think you’ve earned, but the gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.



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