Wednesday, November 24, 2021
Tuesday, November 23, 2021
Sunday, November 21, 2021
These words are really a smackdown of Pilate and the religious authorities who wanted the Roman governor to execute Jesus.
But what does it mean for you and me to be “of the truth”? Three things, I think.
To be “of the truth” also means being willing to have a King like Jesus we can’t control. When I was in college and was planning on going to the same parties my friends were going to, I always insisted on being the one to drive to them. That way, I was in control of when I left or stayed at the party and others would have to follow my lead. And while I may have been an extreme control freak, we all like to be in control, don’t we?
To be “of the truth” also means understanding that the kings of this world, no matter how powerful, die, and therefore, can’t be the repository of our hope. “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation," Psalm 146:3-4 tells us. "When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”
Jesus, you’ll remember, once told a parable of a farmer who scattered seed in his field. There were four different kinds of soil on which the seed fell. It was only the seeds that landed in fertile soil that took root and flourished. Jesus later explained that this good soil was like people who are open to the Word of God about Jesus--the Word that gives us God the Son, perfect and sinless, Who bears our sin within His body on a cross so that when He dies, kills the power of sin and death over all who believe in Him.
Fine, some may say, “I’m willing to believe, but it seems no matter how hard I try, I can’t believe.” Or, “I can’t believe enough.”
The apostle Paul says that faith in Christ comes by hearing--by receiving--that Good News Word about Jesus. To be receptive to Christ being our King is as simple as being open to Him when He comes to you in the Bible as you read or hear it, in Holy Baptism when Christ makes you His own, and in Holy Communion when He gives you His body and blood and forgiveness.
People of Saint Peter Lutheran Church, people “of the truth,” I pray precisely that kind of harvest of faith in each of you, a harvest of life with God now and in eternity, a life open to Jesus, the Truth, the King on whom you can build your life today and the King, Who by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, God has freed you to be with God forever and ever. Amen
Sunday, November 14, 2021
In my younger years, when I read Matthew 5:1-12, today’s Gospel lesson, I completely misunderstood it. With each “Blessed...” that Jesus speaks, I thought He was saying things like, “You’ll be blessed if you’re a peacemaker” and “You’ll be blessed if you hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It seemed to me that in every line, Jesus was laying down the Law, giving me marching orders as a Christian. “If you want to be blessed,” I thought Jesus was telling me, “you’ll do these things, act in these ways, think like this.” I was wrong!
There are movements in the Church that continue to read these words of Jesus in this way. Some churches tell people that they will be saved and that they will be blessed if they ask Jesus into their hearts, if they decide to follow Jesus, if they decide to get baptized as a sign of their decision for Christ. Proponents of the “prosperity gospel” say people will be blessed, by which they mean people will have money, if they obey not only God’s laws, but others they throw in from their own misreading of the Bible. Some churches tell people they’ll be blessed with good health if they only believe enough.
But legalistic, performative religion that keeps telling us to be good or be better is not Christian faith! Romans 10:4 reminds us that, “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” That means that Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, the new Adam, the first-born of the new human race, has perfectly fulfilled the demands of God’s Law, the Law you and I are incapable of keeping. Jesus offered His perfectly sinless, righteous life on the cross in payment for our sin so that when He rose from the dead, affirmed and approved by God the Father, He could give His righteousness to all who, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word and in the Sacraments, confess that, “Jesus is Lord!” (1 Corinthians 12:3)
Jesus’ words in today’s lesson are not the words of a self-help guru telling us how to be blessed. They’re not new laws meant to make you get busy at becoming a better person or a better Christian.
Although we often call the words Jesus speaks here, “The Beatitudes,” there are many beatitudes strewn throughout the Old and New Testaments. A beatitude, quite simply, describes elements of living in God’s blessedness. A more useful synonym for the word blessed Jesus uses today, might be, one Lutheran pastor has suggested, saved. For example, “Saved are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This helps drive home the fact that in the Beatitudes, Jesus isn’t giving us prescriptions for salvation or “the good life,” but descriptions of what life is like for people who trust in Him. “When you are saved by grace through faith in Me,” Jesus is telling us, “this is what life in the Kingdom of Heaven is like, even in this fallen world!”
Let’s consider today just two of the Beatitudes Jesus gives today and see how He describes the lives of those saved by His grace and not through their efforts to be good or better people. “Blessed,” Jesus says, as we’ve already mentioned, “are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? It means that when I look at myself, particularly in light of the perfect righteousness of God revealed in Jesus, I take no confidence in my righteousness. I see that I am a sinner in need of a Savior. To be “poor in spirit” is to be honest with God and myself. I’m open to the righteousness of God that we receive only as we daily repent and trust in Jesus and His righteousness. “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved,” we’re told in 2 Corinthians 10:18, “but the one whom the Lord commends.” It’s only the spiritually weak and impoverished who are filled with the strength and righteousness of Jesus. There is great freedom in this, friends! When we rely on Jesus’ righteousness and not our own, we don’t have to pretend to be anything but who we are: grateful children of God!
Think now of the final of Jesus’ beatitudes for us today: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10) We’re fortunate to live in a country in which there is no official infringement on our freedom of religion. We can gather freely for worship and Bible studies. We can pray over our meals in restaurants. We can tell others about Jesus. We can serve our neighbors in Jesus’ name.
But there are subtle forms of persecution. Believers are often shunned or pigeonholed by others because we believe in Jesus. We’re the objects of uninformed stereotyping. A few weeks ago, our daughter was talking with a woman who told her what a terrible person her father must be, “Don’t you know that all pastors are thieves?”
In describing life in His kingdom, Jesus says that Christians are to expect persecution of all kinds. He’s saying, “If you’re following Me, this is going to happen. If you’re persecuted for following Me, it means you’re on the right track. It means you’re drawing life from the right Lord and Savior.”
Christians should expect persecution. The apostle Peter told the churches in first-century Asia Minor, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) Persecution of different kinds is a byproduct of being saved by Jesus Christ from sin, death, and darkness.
I was telling a member of Living Water the other night, some of what Ann and I experienced when we fought for the authority of God’s Word, the Bible, in a previous parish. A former pastor organized opposition. Area pastors, not even members of the congregation, came to meetings and impugned the integrity of members who were standing on God’s Word and told me, obliquely, that I was being arrogant. One night, a doped-up, drunk man plowed into both of our vehicles, totaling them both. While we waited for the police to show, the driver toted a pistol to my porch. In the midst of it all, I had a heart attack that should have killed me. If you follow Jesus, you will be persecuted by the devil and the world and sometimes, even the Church. But you will also be blessed, living in the presence of Jesus, assured that nothing can separate you from His love!
This must not lead us to self-righteousness or to closing ourselves off to the world though. Think of Jesus and how His life was blessed just as He describes blessedness in today’s lesson. He was poor in spirit; He completely depended on God the Father, never speaking a Word beyond what the Father gave Him to speak. (John 12:49) He was meek. “I am gentle and humble in heart,” He says in Matthew 11:29. Jesus hungered and thirsted only to do the will of the Father, even when He faced the brutality of the cross. He was merciful, praying God’s forgiveness for those who drove nails into His hands and feet and mocked Him. Jesus was pure in heart, keeping His eyes fixed on God through cross and empty tomb. Jesus is the peacemaker, who is the bridge between God and the fallen human race. He is the “one mediator between God and mankind…” (1 Timothy 2:5) Jesus was persecuted, enduring the rejection of Jews and Gentiles alike, so that He could win life with God for us all.
The point? Just this: The blessed life is the life saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And, as we turn to Him each day in repentance and faith, when we receive the Word of God that convicts us of our sin and convinces us of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ, when we trust that He makes us His child in Holy Baptism, and when we trust that He comes to us, body and blood, in, with, and under the bread and the wine, we are living in His kingdom. No matter what happens to us in this world, as we turn to Jesus, we are blessed--we are saved. Jesus’ life fills the lives of those who believe in Him and we are blessed. That’s what Jesus teaches us in the Beatitudes. Amen
[Below you'll find, first, the video of today's 11:00 AM worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. It's the modern service. We have a traditional service at 8:45 on Sunday mornings. Beneath the video is the text of the message for the day.]
But Jesus is unimpressed. That’s because Jesus knows not only that the temple is going to be destroyed in 70 AD, He also knows that He and His death on the cross are about to make the temple and the sacrifices that took place there, forever obsolete. After Jesus offers His body and blood on the cross, no sacrifice of animals or grains will ever again be needed. Instead, people will only be “made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10) So, Jesus hits the disciples with what they see as an alarming prophecy. “Do you see all these great buildings?” Jesus asks the disciple. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2) Jesus’ words stunned the disciples. So much so that later, four of them--Peter, John, James, and Andrew, the first four to be called by Jesus--approach Jesus with a question. “Tell us,” they say to Jesus, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” (Mark 13:4)
You’ve heard me say before that if we give Jesus an inch, He’ll take a mile. We may come to God the Father with prayer in Jesus’ name with nothing more than a bundle of confusion and half-baked, half-sinful desires. But because we come to God in Jesus’ name, the Holy Spirit will turn our jumbles into prayers for God’s Kingdom to come and for God’s will be done in the lives of the people for whom and in the circumstances about which we pray. “We do not know what we ought to pray for,” the apostle Paul says, “but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26) This is true of the disciples’ and others’ encounter with Jesus in today’s gospel lesson. The disciples thought they needed to know how to live if the temple, the place where sacrifices were made, disappeared. Instead, Jesus knows that what we all need to know is how to live because, at His cross, He became the perfect, definitive sacrifice for our sin, and how we who trust in Jesus are to live until that day when we see Jesus face to face. Bishop Dan Selbo says that Jesus here tells us how to live today in light of tomorrow. And he said that there are five ways Jesus tells us to live in our lesson. I think he’s right.
First, Jesus tells us that we’re to be confident of His return. Jesus says elsewhere in Mark’s gospel that one day, “people will see the Son of Man [Jesus] coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” (Mark 13:26-27) Because we know that Jesus will return, we who trust in Him as our God and Savior can live confidently. Jesus has done everything necessary to destroy the power of sin and death over our lives. The future of the cosmos and our personal destinies are in His hands. And there’s nothing we can do or must do to be right with Him. We simply bring our sins and our trust to Him and He covers us in His victory over sin and death. We can look to Jesus’ return confident that by His Word and Sacraments and the faith in Christ they have created in us, we belong to God forever!
Second, Jesus says that we’re to be careful not to be led away from Christ. “Watch out that no one deceives you,” Jesus tells us. “Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.” (Mark 14:6) We’re to be wary of anyone or anything that leads us away from Jesus. If a legalistic Christian tells you that you have to observe certain days or eat certain foods to gain the freedom from sin and death Jesus has already earned for you at the cross, don’t listen to them! If what are called “antinomian” Christians tell you that it doesn’t matter what you do--that you can even sin unrepentantly--close your ears to their nonsense. If family members, spouses, friends, political leaders, celebrities, hobbies, fads, or obsessions are pulling you away from Christ, you need to be careful and turn back to Jesus. Jesus is the only One worthy to be followed. Be careful about who you listen to.
Third, Jesus says we’re to be cautious. There are religious kooks and crooks who will tell us they’ve figured out when Jesus is coming back. But Jesus says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” (Mark 13:7-8) “The sinful world is gonna be the sinful world,” Jesus is saying. The best way to ensure that we don’t become desperate or stupid in the face of false messages is to live in daily fellowship with the God we know in Jesus. Read God’s Word. Pray. Fellowship with and in accountability to Christ’s Church. Stand under Christ’s grace and authority alone. I have been astounded in recent years to see how much hope that people who call themselves Christians put in political leaders and political parties, left and right. But Psalm 146 tells us: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.” (Psalm 146:3-5) Be cautious about signing on to causes or philosophies or candidates.
Fourth, Jesus says to construct our lives on things that last. The God we know in Jesus is the only sure foundation, not any human works. The apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9: “...it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” A life that lasts, a life that endures through the chaos of this world and perseveres into eternity with God, is built on the God we know in Jesus Christ alone! Psalm 127:1 reminds us, “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.”
Fifth, Jesus tells us to commit each day to following Him. He warns Christians that, “Everyone will hate you because of me.” But then He promises, “the one who stands firm to the end [in following Him] will be saved.” (Mark 13:13) And since the One making this promise has died for us and risen from the dead, we can trust that promise. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) During Advent, which starts on November 28, we’re asking all of our members to read a chapter a day of the Gospel of Luke in whatever English translation helps you best to hear God’s Word for you. Through His Word, God will help you to follow Jesus each day.
The world can throw all sorts of things at us. Jesus tells us to live today in light of the eternal tomorrow He gives to all who believe in Him: confident of His return; careful of not being led away from Jesus; cautious in discerning the words of those claiming to speak for Jesus; constructing our lives on Jesus alone; and committing each day to following Jesus. Jesus has told us, as you know well, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Jesus is where grace, life, and truth are, no matter what’s going on in the world. When you build your life on Jesus even when the world is falling apart, when you endure in following Him, you will always be safe in God’s hands. Amen
Saturday, November 06, 2021
There’s a legend told about a man who stood trial for murder. The case was decided by the judge, without a jury. It didn’t take long for the prosecution to present its case. And the evidence of the man’s guilt was so overwhelming that the defense had no case. After the defense rested, the judge considered the verdict.
Back in the courtroom, the judge commanded the defendant to rise as he pronounced his judgment. “There isn’t a shred of evidence that casts doubt on my finding,” the judge said. “You are guilty as charged. You deserve death for your crime. That is the sentence I impose.” The defendant hung his head in shame. Then, the judge stunned the courtroom by declaring, “But I will take your punishment and will be executed in your place. You are free to go.”
It’s funny the reactions people have voiced when I’ve told this legend over the years. Some see the analogy I’m trying to draw and say, “But I’m no murderer!” Others complain that the defendant got off scot-free and should have been made to do something for his freedom. Still, others have told me that the judge in the story was a chump. But I tell you, friends, that this legend really tells us in parabolic form what this Reformation Sunday is all about, what our faith as Biblical, Lutheran Christians is about.
We see this reflected in our second lesson for this morning, Romans 3:19-28. Romans, you know, is a letter written by the apostle Paul to the Christians in the city of Rome in about 55 AD. Our lesson is at the cusp between the beginning of the letter in which Paul talks about the fallenness of the human race and the second part in which he talks about how God addresses and overcomes that fallenness.
This passage, a German pastor of the nineteenth century said, could be divided into three parts, each with an important message for us. The first part is contained in its opening verses: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law, we become conscious of our sin.” (Romans 3:19-20)
The moral law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is forever reflective of God’s good and perfect will for the human race. God wills that we should worship only Him because only God can give us life. God wills that we should honor our parents, not steal, not commit adultery, not engage in sexual intimacy outside of marriage, not lie, not covet. He wills that we should love God completely and love others as much as and in the same ways as we love ourselves. But, if you’re honest, you will have noticed something as I briefly reviewed God’s moral law just now: that never in your life, never on a single day of your life, have you ever perfectly obeyed God’s will for your life. Neither have I. In this section of our second lesson for today, we see that this is what the moral law proves: We are sinners, incapable of doing what God expects of us. That is, we are incapable of being righteous. Think of it. Righteousness is the basic requirement for entry into God’s kingdom and none of us is and none of us is capable of making ourselves righteous. We are all at least as guilty as the murderer in our legend.
Martin Luther, the young German monk and priest born in 1546, wanted desperately to be righteous, to have a life with God. But he saw his sin, his unrighteousness, too clearly. Until he became a student of Scripture, he thought that he was eternally damned. But he began to see that he could be free of sin and death when he considered verses like those that come next in our second lesson. Paul writes: “...But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished…” (Romans 3:21-25)
If the opening verses tell us about what the Law proves about you and me, these verses tell us what Jesus Christ gives to us! Think of it: The righteous judge of the universe sheds His blood for us, to cover us with His righteousness. Jesus offers Himself up to death and damnation for sin in our place! Like the judge in our legend, Jesus takes our rightful punishment. But Jesus doesn’t force His righteousness on us. The convicted murderer might have defiantly told the judge in our lesson: “I will not accept my need for your righteousness. I will stand on my own two feet. I will prove that your verdict is wrong or that I had the right to take that other man’s life.” People effectively say similar things to God all the time. They insist that they’re not that bad and that their lives are good enough not to need Jesus’ righteousness. I even heard this from so-called Christians. “I think I’m a pretty good guy,” they say with what they think is modesty. No, friends, the Law says none of us is that good and that we need, desperately need, Jesus’ righteousness.
This brings us to the third part of our lesson: “he [Jesus] did it [that is, died for us on the cross] to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies [That is, Jesus on the cross shows us both that our sin deserves death, that’s just, and that God shoulders our guilt for us, He justifies...] those who have faith in Jesus. Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Romans 3:26-28)
This last section, folks, tells us, “This is what faith receives.” When the gift of faith in Jesus Christ comes to us through the Word of God in the Bible and in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, we believe that despite our unrighteousness and sin, Jesus Christ died and rose for us. We receive the good news, the gospel, that, not because of our good works, which will always fall short of righteousness or moral perfection, but because of what God the righteous Judge has done for me in the crucified and risen Jesus, we are forgiven. We are new. We belong to Jesus Christ for all eternity! When Martin Luther was assailed by doubts about His salvation, he cried out, “But I am baptized!” In other words, God has acted. I have been crucified and raised with Christ. God has spoken and neither the devil, nor the world, nor my sinful self can separate me from the Savior Jesus to Whom I turn in faith! This is the truth that faith in Christ receives, that we are justified, made right with God, by our faith in Jesus Christ alone. “For God so loved the world [God so loved you] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Jesus sets the captives free, all those in bondage to sin and death. To all who receive Him with faith, Jesus gives the freedom to live with God now and forever. This was the truth, Luther said, that opened the gates of heaven for him. As we turn in faith to Jesus each day, may those gates open wider and wider for us as well. Amen