Forgiveness from Christ to all who believe

Sermon for Trinity 19

Ephesians 4:22-28  +  Matthew 9:1-8

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It’s the 19th Sunday after Trinity. Because of differing patterns in numbering the Sundays after Trinity, it so happens that the last time we celebrated Trinity 19 here at Emmanuel was on an October Sunday in 2012, three days before a critical vote was taken that has had lasting effects on our congregation.

I looked back at the sermon I preached on that day, and I give thanks to God that His Word did its work: it convinced some, and it convicted others. And I continually thank God for His faithfulness, for His truth, for the clarity of His Word, and for the simplicity of His Gospel: that all men are sinners, and are justified solely by faith in Christ Jesus, who loved us and gave Himself for us, as a ransom for all.

We have yet another example of that clear teaching in today’s Gospel: of God, in the Person of Christ Jesus, forgiving sins, and proving that He has the right and the authority to do it.

When we add the story as it’s recounted in St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s Gospels, we get the whole picture of what was going on that day in the city of Capernaum. Jesus was staying in a house, and when the people of the city heard that He was there, they flocked to the house, filled it and were even crowding together around the door, so that no one else could get in.

Four men showed up, carrying a fifth man who was paralyzed and lying on a makeshift stretcher. They couldn’t get in; they couldn’t make their way through the door, through all the people. But they were determined to get to Jesus. So the four men climbed up on top of the house, pulled their paralyzed friend up, made an opening in the roof over the area where Jesus was, and then lowered their friend down to get him near Jesus. What a scene it must have been!

That took faith on the part of those five men. You don’t go through all that trouble to get close to Jesus because you don’t know Him, because you think He’s unmerciful, unkind, or unable to save. In all three Gospels, the writers are careful to note that “Jesus saw their faith.” He saw it because He was the Son of God who knows what’s in every man’s heart. He also saw it because it was evident in their behavior. He saw that they trusted in Him to be a merciful and kind Savior.

Where had such faith come from? As always, it came from the good report about Jesus that they had heard. And surely also from hearing His own preaching there that day, to the extent they were able to hear from a distance. That’s all it takes to create saving, justifying faith: to hear that Jesus is the good and merciful Savior sent from God to deliver poor sinners from sin, death and the devil.

Seeing their faith—not seeing their good works, not seeing their good character, but seeing their faith. The paralytic is the perfect symbol of the inability of sinners to help themselves, to move even a single muscle to help themselves. They can’t. They can’t do anything. Even faith is a gift worked by God’s Holy Spirit through the Gospel of Jesus as the kind and merciful Savior who gives the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation to all who look to Him for help. Seeing their faith, Jesus spoke to the man and said, Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.

Now someone actually made the argument to me recently that the paralytic didn’t believe in Jesus when he was first lowered down through the roof, that the paralytic was an unbeliever, and only became a believer after Jesus forgave him his sins, that when it says that Jesus “saw their faith,” it was only the faith of the four other men that Jesus saw, not this one, even though that’s nowhere to be found in the text.

On the contrary, when it says that He saw “their” faith, it clearly includes the paralytic, or else the paralytic wouldn’t have let these men drag him up on a roof and lower him down into a house full of people, to be healed by a man in whom he didn’t believe. Nor would Jesus have called him “son” if he weren’t already a believer, because, as it says in John 1, as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name. Nor would Jesus have pronounced forgiveness upon this man, if he were an unbeliever. This is the same Jesus who said, For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father…Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. That’s what the forgiveness of sins is, the declaration by God that you shall not come into judgment. You’re not going to hell. You shall not be condemned for your sins. I release you from them. You are not an enemy of God, but a child of God. I declare you to be righteous in God’s sight. You are justified.

How can Jesus do that? As the naysayers there grumbled within themselves, “How dare He forgive a man his sins! Only God can forgive sins!”

That’s true. So understand the full import of this sentence. Jesus is claiming to be God. He is claiming to be the One to whom all flesh must give an answer before the judgment, the One before whom every knee must bow. He is claiming to be the One who can open the doors of heaven, and also the One who can sentence sinners to hell. He is claiming to be the One who determines the fate of every human being. So listen to Him!

On what basis does God forgive sins? He hasn’t kept His reasoning a secret from us; He has revealed it clearly in His Word. God forgives sinners from this solid basis: that He has, by grace alone, transferred the due punishment for their sins to Another, to a divine-human Substitute of God the Father’s own choosing, to His Son Jesus Christ. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

To whom does God forgive sins? He hasn’t kept that a secret, either. He forgives sins to the one who, in repentance, seeks refuge in Christ, who flees to Him in faith as the Throne of Grace, where God has already punished sins, where God has promised always to be merciful. Faith lays hold of Christ and receives everything that belongs to Christ. Sinners are justified and forgiven by means of faith, as that which lays hold of Christ.

All this was too much for the Pharisees who were there that day for the forgiving of the paralytic. They didn’t believe Jesus was the Christ. They didn’t believe Jesus would be the sacrifice for sin. They didn’t believe Jesus was authorized to speak God’s word of forgiveness. So He proved it. He proved to them that He had the authority on earth to forgive sins by doing another thing that only God can do. He spoke health into the paralyzed body of the forgiven man. He spoke and it was. And everyone was amazed—not only by Jesus’ power over palsied limbs, but also by that which was proved by the outward healing of the man, that God had also placed the authority to forgive sins—to open heaven and to shut the gates of hell—on earth, in the word of Jesus.

As you know, there is nowhere on earth where you can find Jesus preaching anymore, no housetop you can open to lower a friend down to where He is. Did the authority to forgive sins ascend to heaven with Him after His resurrection? No. The risen Lord Christ, the Judge of all, left that authority here on earth, and you know the familiar passage from John 20, when Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive the sins of any, to them they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, to them they are retained.

Here’s a little explanation that was added to the Catechism soon after it was published, still included in many Lutheran catechisms: I believe in what the called ministers of Christ do among us, by His divine command—especially when they exclude public, impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation, and when they absolve those who repent of their sins and are willing to mend their ways—that it is all as valid and certain in heaven also, as if our dear Lord Christ did it Himself.

Stop and think what a treasure Christ has left on earth within His Christian Church in this ministry that was established by Christ. Called ministers preach the Gospel by Christ’s command, and all who believe are forgiven. But even more personally, called ministers baptize by Christ’s command. They baptize the one who comes to them or who is brought to them in faith, and they apply the waters of forgiveness and salvation to that person. And called ministers hear the confession of those baptized Christians who want to hear Jesus speak forgiveness to them, and they absolve them in the stead of Christ. And called ministers administer the Sacrament of the Altar to baptized Christians, too, pronouncing forgiveness upon each one who receives the body and blood of Christ. It’s all just as real as it was the day the paralytic was lowered down through the roof. Heaven is opened to penitent sinners, and the gates of hell are closed shut.

Has God already forgiven and justified all men? That was the question that divided this congregation five years ago. And the answer remains: No! But has Christ earned forgiveness and justification for all men, does He want all men to be forgiven, and does He really offer that forgiveness here in this ministry of the Word? Absolutely! Take comfort in that truth. And let us continue to make it our church’s purpose—our life’s purpose—not only to believe it, but also to confess it before the world and to proclaim it far and wide. May God both strengthen our faith and bless our confession of it! For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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The great commandment and the great teaching

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Sermon for Trinity 18

1 Corinthians 1:4-9  +  Matthew 22:34-46

Normally I like your attention focused up here at the pulpit, but I won’t mind this morning if you’re glancing down occasionally at the picture on the front of the service folder. It’s a woodcut of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s famous painting entitled Law and Gospel. Cranach was a Reformation-era Lutheran artist. And here in this woodcut you see, side by side, a depiction of the Law that condemns on the left and of the Gospel that saves on the right. Both are teachings of God’s Word, and both must be taught and believed if we are to be saved.

I thought it was especially fitting for today’s Gospel, because you have the Pharisees, on the one hand, focused entirely on the Law side, as if the Gospel side didn’t exist. Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t deny or minimize the Law side. What He does—He introduces the Gospel side and tries to turn the Pharisees’ attention toward it. They stubbornly refused. May we not be so stubborn.

It was Holy Week when the Pharisees approached Jesus to test Him. A lawyer asked Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” This is at least the second time a lawyer had asked Jesus this question (you may remember that this question prompted Jesus to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan), and His answer was the same both times: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

Love involves more than outward obedience, doesn’t it? Love runs deeper than outward actions. It goes straight to the heart. A child may do all his required chores. But if he does them grudgingly, fearfully, haphazardly, with grumbling or bitterness in his heart, he hasn’t loved his parents yet by doing those chores, has he?

So love for God as the only God, love for God’s name, love for God’s Word is to drive everything we do. It’s supposed to come before work, before family, before boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives, before one’s own children, before happiness, before comfort, before fun, before pleasure, before honor, before life itself. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart

And love for the neighbor—we’ve talked about it before, too… To love the person next to you as if you were looking in the mirror, putting yourself in your neighbor’s situation and talking to your neighbor like you would talk to yourself in that situation, serving him like you would serve yourself. Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. And not just the neighbor whom you like more than others or with whom you get along better than others, but for each and every neighbor, all the time. See yourself there, and then, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Now, what was Jesus saying here? Was He saying that these two commandments trump the Ten Commandments and every other law in the OT? Not at all. As He says, all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. All the other commandments offer the details of how God demands to be loved and how God demands that we love our neighbor. It’s no wonder that each of Luther’s explanations of the 10 Commandments begins, “We should fear and love God…”

For example, when God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the fruit of that tree in the upper left corner of Cranach’s painting, He wasn’t saying, “Just love me with all your heart! That’s the most important thing! It doesn’t really matter whether you eat from the tree or not.” How absurd! And when Moses gave the Ten Commandments, as you see depicted in the lower left part of the painting—for example, You shall not commit adultery—God wasn’t saying, “Just love your neighbor, and as long as love is the motivation, it doesn’t matter if you commit adultery or not.” Again, how absurd!

And yet that’s what the world would have you believe, that those old commandments are outdated, that we know better today, that we have made such progress that we know how to love better than God does.

No, as St. John puts it so well in his second epistle, “This is love: that we walk according to God’s commandments.”

The Pharisees were always focused on the Law, on the commandment of God, on what we’re supposed to do as human beings. But you see the problem, there in the lower left part of the painting? The Law of love—detailed in the Ten Commandments—actually condemns all men as sinners, as lawbreakers. It accuses us all. It takes its spear and drives us all into the flames of hell. If you would sit down and really think about what it would mean, each and every day, for love to drive every action, every word that comes out of your mouth, every thought and meditation of your heart—first for God and His Word, then for every person around you—you would have to acknowledge two things: God’s Law is truly good, and you are not.

So Jesus agreed with the Pharisees about the importance of the Law and about what the two great commandments are. You shall love God. You shall love your neighbor. “Love” is indeed the first and great commandment given in the entire Old Testament, and also the second. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only or even the great teaching in the Old Testament. In the second part of the Gospel, Jesus presents the great teaching.

After He answers the Pharisee’s question, He asks one of His own: What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He? The Son of David. He said to them, “How then does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying: ‘The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool” ’? If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his Son?” And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore.

See, there is no Christ in the Law side of the picture. Only God, sitting on His judgment seat, declaring the Law, and chasing all men to hell, because all men are sinners. The Law commands. The Law demands. The Law accuses. The Law condemns. Because it’s all based on your behavior.

But the Pharisees knew that God had also promised the Christ in the Old Testament. It’s just that they had shut Him out of the picture. Or maybe they had painted Him into a corner of their own picture, where He was clapping for those who keep the Law and only condemning the lawbreakers. As we’ve seen, there are none who keep the Law so as to be saved by it.

Jesus points to the Christ as the Son of David. The Pharisees agreed with Him. Yes, the Christ is the Son of David! David was the great king of Israel, the father of all the rest of the kings of Judah, the man after God’s own heart. How can David call his Son his “Lord”? They couldn’t answer, because they didn’t understand that the Christ had to be both true man and true God.

That’s what we have in Christ Jesus—true man and true God. That is the great teaching of the Bible, that God didn’t send a Savior into the world who was merely the greatest man who has ever lived. God Himself—the second Person of the holy Trinity—took on human flesh.

And the “why” is just as great. He had to be true man in order to live under the Law. He had to be true man to die under the Law. He had to be true God to keep the Law as the substitute of mankind and to suffer the Law’s condemnation as the sacrificial victim for all mankind. That’s why we sang that hymn right before the sermon, “O dearest Jesus, what law hast Thou broken that such sharp sentence should on Thee be spoken?”

The right side of the painting shows it all. There’s the Christ, on the cross, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There’s John the Baptist, pointing the poor, condemned sinner to look to Christ and be saved, to be sprinkled with His blood by faith, worked by the Holy Spirit—depicted with the dove. There’s the serpent on the pole in the background, pointing ahead to Christ from the Old Testament. There’s the risen Christ coming out of the tomb, having trampled death and the devil for us. Believe in Him and be saved!

But, you notice in the Gospel, Jesus didn’t tell the Pharisees that they were saved. He didn’t tell them it was all OK. He didn’t forgive them their sins or open the kingdom of heaven to them. Because they still didn’t believe the Gospel. There it was, staring them in the face, and they still wanted to focus only on the Law side, on the great commandment. And so they missed the great teaching, and those who continued in their impenitence remained under God’s condemnation, all the way to hell.

For all that, the Pharisees were in a better position than most of the world today.

The Pharisees, for all their unbelief, still acknowledged many basic things: That God exists. That the true God is the God of the Old Testament, who did all the things He is said to have done there. That there was a real Adam and Eve, who committed real sin by eating from the real fruit of the real tree of knowledge in the real Garden of Eden. That the Old Testament is the Word of God that cannot lie or be false. That God has the authority to make demands of His creatures. That obedience to God’s commands is necessary on the part of us creatures. That there is a real place of torture and torment called hell, where condemned sinners must go at the end of their earthly life, as well as a real place of comfort and joy called heaven, where the blessed of God will go after this earthly life.

Those are all beliefs that most of today’s world rejects. Satan has done all he can to erase those assumptions from the memory and minds of men, to replace them with fiction: with the fiction of evolution, the fiction of a god-less universe, the fiction of the natural goodness of man, with the fiction that man is in control of his own destiny. Today’s world rejects both sides of the Law/Gospel painting.

But you, dear Christians, have been given a tremendous gift: to know both the Law and the Gospel. To know the truth of who God is, of what God commands, and of what God, in His grace, has given to the world in the Person of His Son—the God-Man, the one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all. This is the faith-creating, faith-preserving Gospel. And you know what God still graciously gives in the Gospel, what He gives in Word and Sacrament to all who believe: the forgiveness of sins. Keep the portrait of both Law and Gospel firmly fixed in your minds. The one is the great commandment of God; the other is the great teaching of God. Together, it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. And God will indeed confirm you in it to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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A Sabbath rest of faith and love

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Sermon for Trinity 17

Ephesians 4:1-6  +  Luke 14:1-11

There are two parts to today’s Gospel from Luke 14, both of them summarized in the familiar themes of faith and love. The first part emphasizes that it was a Sabbath Day when the events of our Gospel unfolded, a Saturday, a day of divinely mandated rest for the people of Israel. I’m sure you remember the Third Commandment given through Moses: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work…For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it

The Sabbath commandment was a good commandment, intended by God to give His people rest. It was a commandment that looked backward as well as forward. It looked back to God’s work of creation, which He accomplished over the course of six days, resting on the seventh Here in this commandment, God expected Israel to take Him at His word, to believe in His six-day work of creation, to remember His work, and to enter His rest on a weekly basis. (And, by the way, all the evolutionists of the world—both the atheistic kind and the theistic kind—are rejected by God in His Sabbath Day commandment, because they deny the fact that God made the universe in six days.)

The Sabbath commandment also looked forward. God promised rest to His people in the coming Messiah, who would do the work of God’s holy Law for them and then rest on the Sabbath Day in the grave. As the writer to the Hebrews says in chapter 4, For we who have believed [in Christ] enter that rest.

So again, the Sabbath commandment was a good commandment, intended to get God’s people to stop their daily work routine, to rest their bodies, and especially to get their minds off all the things they had to do, to get their works-righteous minds off all their work at least one day a week in order to find rest in God, to contemplate His work, to concentrate on His Word, and as a result, to set their hearts on His promise of rest in the work of the Christ, of rest in the forgiveness of sins, of rest in the kingdom of God, which is wherever Christ is.

Ironically, for all the talk of “Sabbath rest,” the natural result of that rest—of that spiritual rest of faith in Christ—the natural consequence of that refreshment of the soul, is not idleness, is not sitting around doing nothing, is not apathy toward one’s neighbor, but endless works of love. Because the one who rests in God and His work recognizes that he no longer needs to work to save himself from his sins or to earn God’s favor. His salvation is wrapped up in Christ Jesus and His work. Instead of working to save yourself, instead of working to make God favorable to you, you’re now free to work for your neighbor, to help your neighbor in his need.

At least, that’s how it was all supposed to work.

But that’s not the resting Jesus found on the Sabbath Day He spent at the Pharisee’s house in our Gospel. The Pharisees and lawyers were resting from their jobs, resting from physical work. But they were not contemplating God’s work. They were not even interested in God’s work. They were not resting spiritually in Jesus, not resting in God and His promises. They were “watching Jesus carefully”—maybe they weren’t really resting from their jobs as lawyers, were they? They were watching Jesus, not to learn from Him, not to seek rest in Him, but to try to catch Him violating the Sabbath Day by doing some kind of work. And therefore, as a result, since they weren’t resting in Christ, they were also utterly indifferent toward their neighbor, the man there with dropsy. Where there is no faith, there is no love.

There stood their fellow Israelite, suffering from dropsy. None of them could help him. But Jesus could. He spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He was giving them the chance to plead their neighbor’s case, to speak up for the man with dropsy, to pray for him, or at least to acknowledge that God’s Law allowed him to be healed. But they remained silent. And their silence spoke volumes.

Jesus healed the man. He who gave the Sabbath command in the first place knew what its purpose was—not to deprive sinners of God’s mercy, but to focus them all the more on God’s mercy. He turns back to the Pharisees and asks the pointed question: Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day? They would all do it! And if they would do it for an animal, how much more shouldn’t they do it for a fellow human being, for a fellow Israelite! God’s Law was good! But they had changed God’s good Law into a chore, and into a hateful excuse not to do good to their neighbor, not to show love. Again, they remained silent. And their silence condemned them.

Does God command you not to do any work on the Sabbath Day? Not anymore. So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Does God command you to hold His word sacred, and gladly to hear and learn it? Yes. Does He command that you must be in church every Saturday or Sunday? No. Does He command you not to despise preaching and His word? Yes. Why? So that you can earn His favor? You could come to church seven days a week and you wouldn’t earn God’s favor by it. No, He commands it, because He wants to talk to you through the pastor whom He has given you.

He wants to talk to you about your sin and expose the lovelessness and the self-righteousness that still dwells in your heart. He wants to talk to you about your inability to do the works that earn His favor, to bring you to repentance again—yes, again and on a regular basis. He wants to talk to you about His work—His work of creation, but even more His work of redemption, the work of Christ, His works of love, like He showed again today in the Gospel, His works done in your place, His work of suffering God’s wrath and punishment on the cross for you, and His Sabbath rest in the tomb. He wants to talk to you about His work of sanctification, in which the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel, united you to Christ in Holy Baptism, where He feeds your soul with the body and blood of Christ, and where He sanctifies you by renewing you, day by day, in the righteous and loving image of Christ.

What does that righteous and loving image of Christ look like? It looks like faith and love—faith toward God and love toward your neighbor, and especially love toward your brothers and sisters in Christ. The second part of the Gospel illustrates that. The image of Christ doesn’t look like pushing your way to the front of the line, to get ahead of your neighbor. It doesn’t look like choosing a place of honor for yourself before God and man, like the Pharisees were doing at that Sabbath Day banquet. On the contrary, the image of Christ is the image of Him who chose the lowest place for Himself, who humbled Himself and made Himself obedient unto death, even the death of a cross. It means a life of lowliness and service toward your neighbor, which all begins in the heart.

What did Paul say to the Ephesians in the Epistle? I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The Christian walk that is worthy of the Christian calling involves lowliness. Gentleness. Longsuffering—that is, patience, not just with those who are easiest to get along with, but patience with the one who is the hardest to get along with. Bearing with one another in love.

Why? Because in this Christian Church, none is superior to another, none is closer to God, none is more important than another, and if you think you are any of those things, then you do not yet know Christ. Because, as Paul says, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

This is the oneness that all who believe in Christ share with one another, and in this oneness, we are all called to lower ourselves, to “humiliate” ourselves, not by denying your own worth, but by intentionally elevating the worth of your fellow Christians in your heart and by your actions, which is simply a matter of imitating what Christ has done for you. That’s what it means to choose the lowest place: to follow Christ Jesus, to sit with Him at God’s banquet, first in lowliness here, and then in glory there. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Just as Christ humbled Himself and was then exalted to the highest place, so you have followed Him down into the depths in repentance and have been exalted with Him before God by faith, so that you have the same saintly status before God as Jesus does. In the same way, as a Christian, follow Christ down to the lowest place in humility, love and service toward your fellow Christian, and trust that God will most certainly exalt you in due time. Amen.

 

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Jesus confronts the wages of sin

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Sermon for Trinity 16

Ephesians 3:13-21  +  Luke 7:11-17

We can’t step directly into the Gospel this morning, because our Gospel deals directly with sorrow, with tragedy, with death and bereavement. And forasmuch as many of you may already have a proper, Scriptural perspective on those things, many—whether here, or watching or listening to or reading this sermon today—do not. So we’re going to take moment to address suffering and death.

How can God allow people to suffer? To face tragedy and death?  How can He allow such devastation by floods and hurricanes, fires and tornadoes? Such things are famous for turning theists into atheists, because they’d rather pretend there isn’t a God at all than believe there is a God who sends or allows such things. They think God wants us all to be happy on this earth, to lead a nice life, a care-free, trouble-free life. Some think they deserve such a life. Others think a loving God would give it to them, whether they deserve it or not. Of course, they’re both dead wrong.

They forget that we live under a curse.

To the woman He said :“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.”

This is the divinely pronounced sentence for our entire existence on this earth: Pain. Toil. Trouble. Hardship. Tragedy. Loss. And finally, death. And the world today, more than ever, blames God for it.

It’s like the police officer who warns a suspect to put his hands up, or the officer will shoot. And instead of putting his hands up, the person hides his hands, or reaches behind his back. So the officer shoots. And people today want to blame the police officer, because the world today no longer has a grasp of justice, of personal responsibility, of getting what you deserve—what you’ve earned by your actions.

So it is with God. He warned Adam and Eve, Don’t eat from this tree or you will die. And they ate. And they brought death and misery into the world. And people want to blame God for it, for following through with His warning, for giving mankind what we, by our corrupt nature and by our actions, have not only deserved, but have asked for.

But they’re wrong. Every time you see a death, every time you see a tragedy, every time you see a natural disaster, you should say, “Oh, what a hateful enemy the devil is, who wanted this suffering for the world! Oh, what a wretched curse has fallen upon our race! Oh, how justly we are punished for our transgressions! Oh, how terrible are the wages of sin!” For the wages of sin, as St. Paul writes, is death.

In our Gospel, we’re confronted with one of the hardest cases of sin paying out its wages to those who have worked under its service—under its slavery. A young man dies—an apparently innocent young man, by human standards, and also a Jew, of the people of God. His father had already died, leaving the boy fatherless and his mother a widow. Now she’s a widow whose only son has died. She is bereaved. She grieves. She’s now destined to a life of loneliness, and, most likely, a life of poverty and begging, until, sooner or later, she herself must receive the wages of sin.

In none of it is God to blame. In all of it, God remains just.

At the same time, God is merciful and God is loving, and you see that mercy and love painted all over Jesus in our Gospel as He confronts the wages of sin in all its sadness. He approaches the tragic funeral procession marching out of the city of Nain. He doesn’t avoid it. He doesn’t draw back from it, or take this opportunity to explain God’s justice, because the people there—Jews who had been taught from God’s Law since birth—knew very well this wasn’t God’s fault. But knowing that death is the well-deserved wages of sin doesn’t do a thing to diminish our sadness or to wipe away our tears.

For that, it takes the word of Jesus, the word of the One who pronounced the curse in the first place.

Do not weep, He says to the widow. She had every reason to weep. Jesus Himself would weep at the grave of His friend Lazarus. But her time of weeping had come to an end. Jesus would fix things, even this seemingly hopeless situation.

He touches the coffin. The pall bearers stop. He speaks to the dead man, Young man, I say to you, get up! And just like that, death is defeated—at least, for a time. The boy’s soul was immediately reunited with his body (from heaven, we assume). Whatever ended his life, whether sickness or injury, was immediately healed. The wages that sin had paid out were thrown back in sin’s face, as it were. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Jesus then presents the boy to His mother. Not the husband; he remained dead and buried. Just the boy, and even then, a temporary restoration, because that boy would one day grow old and die again. But it was enough for the moment. It was all Jesus offered at the time in the way of miracles, to anyone. Temporary earthly relief.

There would be a few more temporary restorations to come. Two more before Jesus’ crucifixion (the widow’s son was the first resurrection Jesus performed), several more at the moment Jesus died, one a few years later through the Apostle Paul, and then that’s it, as far as we know. That’s it. No more temporary restorations. Because temporary restorations, for as amazing and as comforting as they are, don’t really solve anything. Temporary earthly relief from suffering and sadness makes life easier for a little while, but it doesn’t change anything. What we need—what all men need—is an end to the curse.

Most people don’t even think that’s possible. Most give up on it. That’s why they’ll take momentary pleasure or temporary relief and be satisfied with it. But an end to suffering? An end to sorrow? An end of death? That’s a pipe dream, they think, fantasy land.

If only they knew the God who is more fantastic than any fantasy. If only they knew the God who truly saves!

That’s why Jesus performed the miracles He did, to show people, it really can be better. That God really is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, as St. Paul wrote in today’s Epistle. And that help comes through Jesus alone.

That help comes in two stages. First, Jesus, our Brother, received the wages of sin for us. He tasted death, received the curse. An innocent man—THE innocent MAN—died. God allowed Him to die. God sent Him into the world to receive sin’s wages, so that, through faith in Him, we might receive His gift of eternal life. As it says in Galatians 3, Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”).

But Christ rose from the dead—not temporarily, but eternally. And because Jesus took our curse, our wages, upon Himself, and because He rose from the dead, stage 1 of our restoration—of our resurrection! —happens now when we hear the voice of the risen Son of God in the Gospel and believe in Him. The result is immediate forgiveness of sins—justification by faith. The curse upon our souls—God’s wrath against our sin—is gone. As Paul says, We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. The curse of condemnation and the curse of eternal death in hell are removed. Paul writes, There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. And a new life begins, as Jesus said in John 5: He who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.

Stage 2 of our restoration waits eagerly—desperately, almost—for Jesus to return. When He does, All who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth. On that day the curse that remains over our flesh will be lifted. This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?

Until then—that’s always the hard part, isn’t it? Until then, rest in the image of the loving and compassionate Lord Jesus walking up to the sorrowing widow and restoring life to her son as easily as speaking a word. Rest in the lifting of the curse upon your soul that already took place when you heard the word of Christ in the Gospel and when you were buried with Christ through Baptism into death. Rest in the lifting of the curse upon our bodies that will take place soon enough. And, as you’re able, help your neighbor to understand the reason why suffering and death still afflict us in this world: as a wake-up call to the impenitent and unbelieving, that they might obey the Gospel before the curse overtakes them forever, body and soul; and to the believer in Christ, as the final stages of birth pangs, and as the empty threats of a death that has already been defeated by our Lord Jesus Christ, a death that will soon be swallowed up in victory. Amen.

 

 

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A Christian must live on divine welfare

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Sermon for Trinity 15

Galatians 5:25-6:10  +  Matthew 6:24-34

Where is your next meal going to come from? That’s probably a question you haven’t had to deal with in quite some time, right? Maybe at some point in your life. But which of you has no food in the fridge, or in the pantry? Which of you has no money in the bank or in the stock market or under the mattress? Which of you is living paycheck to paycheck? Or, if you are, is it to fund basic things like food, clothing and shelter, or is to fund a lifestyle you’ve gotten used to, or future plans—not evening knowing for certain that there will be a future?

And that’s really where we’re at, I think. I have all that I need for today. But what about tomorrow’s meals? And by “tomorrow” I mean, the rest of my life and the life of my children and the life of my children’s children. Do you worry about such things? If so, ask yourself, why?

There are two competing ideas among the people of the world with regard to where my next meal is going to come from. There’s an entitlement, welfare mentality that says, my meals for tomorrow are going to come from you. You’re going to make sure that I’m well-fed, sheltered, clothed, have decent health care, and maybe much more than that. You and everyone around you are going to see to it, by force of law. So hand over your money so that I can eat. I’m entitled to it for one reason: I’m a human being. I exist, therefore I should be fed and taken care of by my fellow human beings.

Call that socialism. Call it communism. Call it extortion. Or just call it by its Biblical name: coveting, and then, stealing. Breaking the Ninth Commandment, and then the Seventh. Setting your heart on your neighbor’s wealth and giving it a guise of godliness, an outward appearance of lawfulness. But it’s godless. It’s wicked. It’s a damnable sin to set your heart on your neighbor’s wealth and to claim it as your own. (And notice, I’m not saying that receiving welfare is a sin. The sin is setting your heart on your neighbor’s wealth, as if it ought to be yours.)

Now, before you shout Amen! to that, there’s also the opposite idea people have about where my next meal is going to come from. It’s going to come…from me! No one’s going to help me, except for me. It all depends on me. Me and my ingenuity. Me and my hard work. Me and my plans and my decisions and my bright ideas.

But that’s godless, too, isn’t it? (And notice, I’m not saying that working hard is godless. Not at all! But trusting in your hard work to provide for your tomorrow—that’s idolatry.

Take both mentalities—the welfare mentality and the hard work mentality—and see that, in the end, they’re the same. Where is my tomorrow’s meal going to come from? It’s going to come from money, from mammon, from wealth, whether it’s your hard-earned income or whether it’s mine. If I’m going to eat, money will have to provide. And both mentalities end with the same result, don’t they? Worry. What if I can’t get you to feed me and provide health care for me? Or, what if I can’t provide for myself, in spite of all my hard work? Well, try harder, right? Throw a tantrum and get the politicians on my side to force you to do it. Or search and search and search until I find a job for myself that will provide for me, and then hope that it lasts, that it doesn’t disappoint me tomorrow.

But what does Jesus say to that godless way of life? No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and mammon—wealth. If you live to get money, you can’t serve God. And if you live to serve God, you can’t serve wealth.

But I need money to live! I need food! I need clothes! (And I want so much more than that, too!)

God knows that. He isn’t ignorant of your needs, nor is He unconcerned about you. Quite the opposite. And that’s the point of our Gospel. You don’t need money to live. You need God to live—the One who created you and all things, who gave you your eyes, ears, and all your members, your reason and all your senses. He’s still the one who preserves them by richly and daily providing clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and yard, land, cattle, and all that you have—with all that you need to sustain your body and life.

More importantly, God is the One who has redeemed you, not with gold or silver, not with mammon, but with the holy, precious blood of His Son and with His innocent suffering and death. More than that, God is the One who, by His Holy Spirit, has adopted you by calling you by the Gospel, enlightening you with His gifts, sanctifying you in the covenant-waters of Holy Baptism where He washed away all your sins, made you His child, and committed Himself to your temporal and eternal welfare. See! You don’t need to serve money in order to live. What you need to live…is divine welfare.

Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? The answer is, yes you are. You’re more valuable than any animal. Each of you is worth more than all the animal-life on earth put together, because God made man in His own image, and though that image has been damaged in all of us beyond repair, God chose to redeem us, to bring us to faith in His Son, to justify us by faith, and to recreate His image in all of His believing children—the New Man who is being daily renewed by His Holy Spirit, who dwells in you as His own holy temple. So, yes, you’re more valuable than the birds. And if they are the recipients of divine welfare, you most certainly will be. So don’t worry about tomorrow’s meals.

Why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? See, you’re more valuable than grass! More valuable than flowers. If God adds beauty to the things that only last for a day or for a moment—without any work or worry on their part—won’t He find a way to cover up your body, since He redeemed your body, and washed your body in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and has filled it with His Holy Spirit and has promised to raise it from the dead to live with Him forever? So don’t worry about clothing.

Food and clothing are representative of all the needs of the body—daily bread, as Jesus calls it in the Lord’s Prayer, which includes everything that pertains to the needs and sustenance of the body, such as food, drink, clothes, shoes, house, yard, land, cattle, money, property, a godly spouse, godly children, godly servants, godly and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, trustworthy neighbors, and the like.

As Jesus says, your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. You see, divine welfare is already a given. So instead of spending your time and your energy running after tomorrow’s meals, instead of worrying about tomorrow, Jesus directs the children of God to His kingdom and His righteousness. What does that mean?

It means, let God’s kingdom’s fill your thoughts and drive your efforts. Not that you work your way into God’s kingdom. But the things that brought you into God’s kingdom in the first place—hearing the Word of God as it is preached and receiving His Sacraments—are also the things that keep you there. Seek those things first, before worrying about your job or about tomorrow’s needs.

And the righteousness of God—that becomes yours by faith in Christ Jesus, so that you stand righteous before God all the time. But it also refers to leading holy lives here on earth. Seek first to keep God’s commandments, to do God’s will, and don’t let worry for tomorrow’s meals get in the way of that. Seeking God’s righteousness may even mean you lose your job, or even more than that. Learn to say, “That’s OK.” The money you earn doesn’t provide for you. God’s provides for you. Christians are to live on divine welfare.

If that hurts your pride, then repent of your pride and recognize that you are not worthy of any of the good things you have. They are all gifts of grace.

On the other hand, some people, would try to abuse that divine welfare system, thinking, “I’m on divine welfare! That means I don’t have to work!” But that’s also wrong. God says, through the apostle Paul, “If a man will not work, let him not eat.” Working is part of seeking God’s righteousness, one of the things God has given us to do. You see, you’re not working hard for food. You’re working hard for God. You’re working because God has called you to work, whether at a job that makes money or whether it’s working as a father, mother, etc. You’re working, not to have food for yourself, but to serve God. And He will likely use your hard work as a means of providing for you, so that you not only have enough for yourself and your family, but also have money with which to help others, and maybe, according to His grace, enough left over to have some nice things for yourself, too. But even if you work hard your whole life, a Christian must always remain on divine welfare, because if not, you’re back to serving mammon. And no one can serve two masters.

Take the warning Jesus offers today in the Gospel not to depend on yourself or on other men for tomorrow’s meals. Take the warning not to distrust the God who has made Himself your Father by uniting you to the Lord Christ. And most of all, take the comfort Jesus offers here, to know God as a good and caring Father who would never think of abandoning you in any time of need. He hasn’t yet, and He never will. He will see to your well-being. He will see to your welfare. Trust in Him, not in your wealth. With wealth comes worry. But under God’s divine welfare plan, there’s never a need to worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow, like today, is in your Father’s hands, and He cares for you. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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