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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The glory that awaits beyond the cross

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Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord

2 Peter 1:16-21  +  Matthew 17:1-9

We have a very special miracle before us today in the Transfiguration, the climax of the Epiphanies of our Lord. All of Jesus’ miracles pointed to His divinity. You see Him calm the wind and the waves, and you have to conclude, this man is God. You see Him drive out demons, and you have to conclude, this man is God. You see Him change water into wine, heal sickness and blindness and deafness and paralysis and leprosy and you have to conclude, this man is God. In all those miracles, the evidence of Jesus’ true identity was there, but in all those miracles, Jesus still looked like Jesus. He still looked like any other man.

Not today. Not at the Transfiguration. For that brief moment on top of the mountain, Jesus looked like no other man. He looked like God. He allowed His disciples to see the visible manifestation of His divine glory, and to hear the Father’s voice, giving His seal of approval to His Son, to the work He had done and to the work He was about to do.

Why now? Why at this point in His ministry, some six months before His crucifixion? Because of what happened six days earlier.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the transfiguration, and they all begin by connecting it with what happened about a week earlier. Jesus had asked His disciples who the people said He was: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, some other prophet, some other mere human being. But you, Jesus asked, who do you say that I am? That’s when Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” And Jesus praised His answer and praised His Father for revealing that hidden truth to His disciples. He promised to build His Church, and the gates of hades will not overcome it. Then He proceeded to explain to His disciples that He must suffer and die and rise again from the dead. That made no sense. The Son of the living God should not have to suffer and die. Peter tried to tell Jesus He was wrong, to which Jesus replied, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Then followed even more confusing teachings, that they and all who would consider themselves disciples of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, would have to suffer, too, would have to deny themselves, take up their own crosses, and follow Jesus. Finally, He told them, after all is done, the Son of Man will come in His Father’s glory to reward each one according to his works.

That’s a lot to take in, a lot of seemingly contradictory things all said at once. The all-powerful Son of God is powerless to stop His own death? The beloved followers of Jesus must suffer and turn their backs on their earthly life in order to gain a heavenly one? We have to go through our whole life on earth in humility, in shame, in self-denial, and then face death before we get to join Jesus in glory? Is that what you’re telling us, Jesus? They needed to see what was awaiting them at the end of the road, that the hard life of suffering and self-denial to which they were being called for the sake of Jesus would be worth it in the end.

So up the mountain they go, just Peter, James, John and Jesus. Matthew tells us that Jesus was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. Here, for a moment, the curtain is pulled back—the curtain that veiled Jesus’ divine glory during His entire life on earth. Remember, Jesus had told His disciples six days earlier that one day He would come in His Father’s glory to reward them according to their works. Here is glimpse of that glory that awaits at the end of the age. For a moment, three disciples—only three! —get to see it with their own eyes.

And then Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Two Old Testament prophets who were great prophets in their own right, but also mere shadows, pointing to the great Prophet Himself. Each of them had performed great miracles. Each of them had been mostly alone in leading God’s people, a great burden of loneliness placed on them both. They had both been, at times, rejected by God’s people. At the end of his service, Moses had died without entering the promised land. At the end of his service, Elijah was taken up alive into heaven. You can see Jesus prefigured in them both.

But now they are talking with Jesus in the glory of the mountain. They suffered for the sake of Christ, too, and were now living in glory. They had been weak and confused at times and almost willing to throw in the towel. But they had persevered, and now they understood what it had all been about.

Peter thinks they should all stay here together on the mountain. Let’s put up shelters!, he suggested. He still didn’t understand. The glory of the mountain wasn’t supposed to last, yet. Neither Jesus nor His disciples had finished their earthly mission, as Moses and Elijah had. They had not yet completed the days of their suffering in humility and shame. This vision on the mountain was to assure them of what awaited. It was to show them that it would all be worth it in the end. As St. Paul once wrote to the Romans, I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

God the Father interrupted Peter. While Peter was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” All of Jesus’ talk about suffering and dying and rising again, all His admonitions to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus, all the promises about glory and rewards at the end…All of it was confirmed by God the Father Himself. This was the way. Jesus Himself is the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him.

Hear Him! Those words thundered down from heaven. And what important words they are! You can’t see Jesus’ glory yet, but you can hear what Jesus says. Believe what He says, about the cross and about the resurrection. It’s hearing the words of Jesus that will sustain you through this earthly life into the next life. Which words? The ones you pick and choose? The ones you like? The ones your reason can grasp? Well, obviously, all of them. Hear everything Jesus says. Honestly, there aren’t even many “Christian” churches around these days where they are willing to hear Jesus in everything.

But as for you, hear Him! His words will never pass away. His words about His own suffering and death—you know the purpose behind it all. It was to bear the sins of the world and to receive the punishment for them, so that all sinners might be saved through faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. His words about His own resurrection—you know that it’s true, as all those eyewitnesses testified. His words about your self-denial, your cross, losing your earthly life in order to gain life—He says it all for your good. Because the path of the Christian cannot be different than the path of the Christ. As Jesus said elsewhere, A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household! Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.

Do not fear them. Do not be afraid. That’s what Jesus told His disciples after the vision of the transfiguration was over. That’s what He tells you, too, as you go down the mountain, as you face a world that is still hostile and rabid against Christ and against anyone who speaks His truth in the world. Now is not the time to experience the glory of being God’s children, to experience peace and safety and comfort and to be loved by the people of this world. Now is the time to hear Him, to hear Jesus. Now is the time to receive His Sacrament and the strength it provides. Now is the time to be bold in living lives of service, lives of love, lives in which we are not afraid to speak the truth of Christ, no matter what cross it may bring. All this is done in great humility and weakness. But the Gospel assures us that Jesus Christ is still God, that the glory is real, and that it surely awaits all those who remain faithful till the end. Amen.




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Faith that defies gravity

Sermon for the week of Epiphany 4

Romans 4:16-25  +  Matthew 14:22-33

Another storm on the Sea of Galilee, another miracle—two of them, actually—and, once again, the appearance of fear, doubt, and panic. The main point is similar to the main point in the Gospel from this past Sunday. But there is a little twist in this account that’s well worth considering.

It had been a very long day, including the feeding of the 5,000. When night fell, Jesus sent His disciples across the sea, while He stayed behind by Himself for a while to pray.

They spent the whole night rowing, but the boat was “tossed by the waves because the wind was contrary.” It was the fourth watch, almost morning, but they hadn’t gotten very far. Then, in the moonlight, they looked back over the waters and saw what they thought must have been a ghost, because it was walking on top of the water, and people just don’t do that kind of thing. It was Jesus. He called out to them, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter wanted to make sure he wasn’t just hearing things or seeing things. Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” “Come,” Jesus said. So Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. It’s one thing for the All-powerful Son of God to defy gravity, but it’s another thing when a simple human being does it. And notice where the power was. Peter didn’t just get it in his head that he could walk on water, too. He didn’t just believe he could do it. He very wisely waited for Jesus’ command, for Jesus’ word telling him he could come out and walk on the water. Once he had it, he had something to put his faith in.

That’s an important lesson about faith. Real faith is always based on a specific command or promise of God. If God hasn’t said it, you have no right to believe it. But if God has said it, you can bet your life on it, even if it defies all logic, even if it defies the laws of gravity.

So Peter was doing well for a while. His faith was focused on Jesus’ power and Jesus’ word to him, empowering him to walk on the water. But when Peter saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid and began to sink.  Peter focused on the wind, and faith took backseat to his logic. “How can I possibly stay on my feet? How am I able to walk on water, anyway? Hey, what I’m doing is impossible. That wind! Those waves! I can’t do this; I can’t walk on water. Oh, man. Now I’m sinking. It’s getting worse. See, I knew it, I can’t walk on water! I’m going to drown!”

Peter took his eyes off Jesus. He looked away, with his heart, focusing on the problem, on the crisis of wind and waves, allowing his heart to be pried off of Jesus’ word. That’s the definition of doubt: to stop trusting in what Jesus says, and to start thinking that maybe Jesus won’t do what He said He would do. That’s a formula for disaster.

As we learned on Sunday, the real danger in any danger is not the danger itself. It’s that the danger will scare us away from trusting in Jesus’ word and promise.

Crises are bound to come into every believer’s life. There’s a right way and a wrong way to handle a crisis. Peter showed us here – the wrong way: Take your eyes off Jesus. Look at the problem, focus on the problem, see the wind and the waves as bigger than Jesus, more powerful than Jesus, more real than Jesus’ word. Isn’t that just what we tend to do in a crisis? Forget everything else! Deal with the problem! Obsess over the problem! Try to figure it out, find a solution! Dwell on the problem! When I figure it out, when the wind dies down, then, then I’ll listen to God’s Word again. What foolishness! Just the opposite of what the real solution is!

Peter’s panic didn’t completely drive him to despair. He didn’t sit there, sinking down into the water, thinking, “Oh, I let Jesus down. He’ll never help me now. I’m just going to sink down and drown, I guess.” No. What did he do? Even then, as he sank deeper and deeper into the dark waters, with all of his doubt still intact, Peter looked back to Jesus to save him. “Lord, save me!” he cried out. He doubted Jesus’ word and was suffering for it, but Peter didn’t lose sight of Jesus as his Savior.

And Jesus did save him, in more ways than one. Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him. He didn’t let Peter drown. He didn’t make him splash around in the water for a while, gasping for air until he had learned his lesson. Immediately, he saved his sinking saint.

And then he refocused Peter’s faith. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”  “Don’t you know by now, Peter, that if I say something, it will always be the truth? That if I promise something, it will always come to pass? Don’t you know that My Word is more reliable than your own senses and more powerful than anything in all creation? Why did you doubt?”

Peter didn’t answer, but we know what the answer is, because we, too, are sinful human beings, easily fooled into believing that our problems are more real than Jesus. Like Peter, we’re sinful, weak human beings who know how easy it is to let the noise of problems and crises drown out the Word of God. What specific promise of Jesus gets obscured in your heart at times when the wind howls and the waves crash? That He really is working all things together for your good? That He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear? That He will provide for all your bodily needs? That He will be there on the other side of death to receive you into His heavenly kingdom?

Jesus had all of His disciples, and you and me, in mind on that night out on the water of Galilee. As soon as He and Peter climbed into the boat, the wind died down. That wind had been there for a reason: to teach us how easily our faith can lose its focus on Jesus and start to sink, so that we know what to do when we do start to sink, and so that, just maybe, we won’t allow the wind to distract us in the future.

When the walls are closing in around you…When it gets harder and harder to breathe…When you’re sinking into despair or depression or a pit of hopelessness…When you’re surrounded by evil…When, on your deathbed, the devil tries one last time to accuse your conscience… You remember this miracle of the sinking saint! You remember to focus on Jesus and His Word which pries your faith off of the wind and the waves and refocuses it on Him! And if you have doubted and have already begun the sinking process, don’t wallow in self-pity or let the guilt of your doubt pull you down into the dark waters. Even as you’re sinking, you do as Peter did and look up to Jesus! “Lord, save me!” Remember the body and blood of your Savior, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins and given to you in His Sacrament to give you miraculous power over sin, and fear and doubt. Amen.

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The real danger of any danger

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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Romans 13:8-10  +  Matthew 8:23-27

The Holy Spirit puts special emphasis on the story you heard today in the Gospel, when Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this event. It was important. It was another great Epiphany of the Lord Jesus: Jesus has authority over the wind and the waves.

Does that strike you? I wonder. We’ve known Jesus through the Holy Scriptures for so long, we’ve come to expect it of Him, that He can speak a word to the roaring winds, and they listen. That He can talk to the waves of the sea, and they immediately obey. That’s awesome power—power His disciples had seen before, but still not quite on this scale. They had seen six jars of water changed into wine. They had seen people with illnesses made whole. They had seen demons forced to obey the authority of the Son of God (as we heard this morning in the Sunday School lesson). They had seen another kind of miracle at sea, the first miraculous catch of fish. Amazing, all of it. But there is something special about being able to stare up at the raging sky and tell it to shush, something about staring at the raw forces of nature and being able to tell them to behave. Not with magic or with a spell. But by the divine power that brought the earth into existence with a word, that set the sun and the moon and the planets in their places in the solar system, and that brought out the stars by name throughout all the galaxies of the universe. That’s power.

That’s who Jesus is. So, does it make any sense to be afraid of a storm, knowing that Jesus is the ruler of the wind and the waves, and knowing that Jesus is the one who initiated this voyage across the sea, as all three Gospels record? It was Jesus who got into the boat. It was Jesus who said, “Let’s cross over to the other side” of the lake.

Ah, but the disciples didn’t know yet, at the beginning of the voyage, that Jesus could actually calm the wind and the sea! Maybe not. But they should have. They had seen all those other miracles. They had heard all His preaching. He had already promised to give them everlasting life, and to make them His apostles to go out into the world and “catch men.” They had already confessed Him (privately) to be the Christ. They had left their livelihoods behind in order to follow Him. They had already put their faith in Him and were resting their eternal souls on Him as the Savior sent from God. Does it make any sense to think that a storm out at sea might just be able to undo all that Jesus had promised and all that He had already done? Could a storm stand in His way? Or could He simply allow them to perish at sea, after promising to make them workers in His kingdom?

No, their fear makes no sense. Fear never makes sense for the Christian.

Oh, it makes perfect sense for the non-Christian. If you don’t know who the true God is, if you’re living in rebellion against your Creator, if you’ve recreated a god in your own image who has no basis in reality, if you’re still wallowing in the filth of your sins, unclean, unclaimed, unwashed in the baptismal blood of Christ…then you must be afraid of literally everything. And if you’re not, you should be. Because our God is a consuming fire, as the writer to the Hebrews says. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

But the one who has heard and believed the Gospel that God loved the world so that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life, the one who has received Christ’s baptism, who confesses Him as Lord, who knows Him to be the great King who rules over the vast galaxies of the universe and also over the tiniest atoms that make up our bodies—why should a Christian ever panic? Why should we ever be afraid? If God is for us, as St. Paul writes, who can be against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, he says, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.

But our Gospel today shows us the flaw that still plagues God’s children, the senseless fear of little children who normally trust their parents, but who, in a moment of crisis, in a moment of danger, suddenly stop trusting them. I would guess that all parents have seen it. We’ve seen it. In a moment of crisis, even Christians are sorely tempted to revert back to our default, spiritual fetal position, if you will—in which we believe that there is no God who can help, no God who can save. I’m on my own. I’m all by myself. Either I figure it all out myself, or all hope is lost. If God is there, He must not care. Or He must be sleeping.

And that’s just where we find Jesus during the storm at sea, while His disciples were panicking and terrified. He was asleep in the back of the boat.

How could He sleep through all that? Well, for one thing, He was actually tired! He had spent the day there by the sea, healing the people, teaching the people. It was exhausting. But more importantly, His own perfect trust in His Father’s providence allowed Him to sleep, because while He, the Son of God, had become a man and now needed sleep in this state of humiliation, God the Father is always awake. As the Psalm says, I will lift up my eyes to the hills—From whence comes my help? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. Or again, I will lie down in peace, and sleep. For You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. And again, The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Jesus was not only the divine Author, but also the perfect human pray-er of those Psalms. He shows us what perfect faith, perfect trust looks like.

And then the Holy Spirit shows us what imperfect faith looks like in the disciples. “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” It seems like they said it as a last resort, after all their efforts against the storm had failed to keep the boat safe. It should have been their first resort, and not with the fear of, “We are perishing!” But with the trust of the Psalmist, As for me, I will call upon God, and the LORD shall save me.

That wasn’t the faith the disciples demonstrated. But Jesus got up, spoke one word to the wind and another to the waves. And all was still. And for as important and as impressive as it was for the disciples to learn the almighty power of Jesus, the more important lesson was about to follow as Jesus spoke to them: “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?”

Why are you fearful? You shouldn’t be. But sometimes you are and all the time the devil wants to take advantage of the danger to drive you away from faith. You see, the real danger of any danger is not the danger itself. The real danger is that the danger will scare you out of trusting in the Lord Christ to help.

As today’s Gospel shows us, nothing is out of Christ’s control. Even now He rules over all things, though the time has not yet come for Him to make all things right. There are still lots of perils and dangers in this world, but there is no good reason for the Christian to fear. Christ has made you His friends and companions. He’ll help you face the danger. He’ll help you bear up under the burden. He may remove it entirely. Or, if not—because He has never promised in His Word to spare you from all grief in this sin-filled world—He’ll give you the wisdom and the courage and the strength you need in the hour of trial. He’ll forgive you your sins. He’ll be your loving God and Father, your truest Friend and Companion.

Remember what Jesus did that day on the Sea of Galilee with those fearful disciples of little faith. He saved them. He patiently taught them and slowly built up their faith, so that, eventually, they learned not to be so afraid.

Now, maybe next time you’re in danger, you won’t be quite as afraid. Now, maybe next time, you’ll remember not to panic, not to forget about God, not to turn to Him as a last resort, but to go to Him first, not in fear and terror, but in childlike trust. Amen.

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