Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, Part 49

The God Who Shows Up

OK, folks, my faith in Christ doesn’t depend on my feelings or thoughts, but solely on what Christ has done for us sinners through His death and resurrection.

Jesus has conquered sin and its power to damn and kill us by taking our humanity and our sin into His sinless body and has opened eternity with God to all who live with repentant faith In Him.

That’s true whether I’m feeling it at any given moment…or not.

But sometimes, Jesus Christ gives me goosebumps.

I’ve just been reading the Old Testament book of Joshua which recounts events that took place about 1400 years before Christ Jesus, God the Son, was born at Bethlehem.

The leader of God’s ancient people, Joshua, whose Hebrew name, Yeshua, was the same as Yeshua, Jesus, is preparing for battle, when he’s met by someone.

The Bible says: “When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’ And the commander of the Lord's army said to Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.” (Joshua 5:13-15)

The text makes it obvious Who the commander of the Lord’s army is in two ways.

First, Joshua falls down and worships the Commander. As a believer in God, Joshua would only have worshiped God Himself. Joshua knows that He Is in the presence of God, though mysteriously God as a man.

Second, the Commander gives Joshua the same directive that God gave to Moses when Moses encountered God in a bush that burned but was not consumed. There, God—Yahweh, or I AM—told Moses to remove his sandals because, with God present there, the ground Moses was standing on was holy. Throughout the Old Testament, the “pre-incarnate Christ,” God the Son before He was born at Bethlehem, makes appearances to God’s people. These appearances demonstrate that the one God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—never leaves or forsakes us, is involved with His creation, and cares for us.

The God we all now can know in Jesus Christ is the God Who shows up!

Even when the cosmos thrashes under the raging of sin, death, and the devil, the Lord fights for us. Ultimately, Jesus came into our world to save us from ourselves, bringing us peace with God, the forgiveness of our sins, and eternity with Him.

In Jesus, all your sins are forgiven. All who daily turn from sin and trust in Him can believe this promise.

Jesus tells us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Whether that gives you goosebumps or not, you can believe it’s true and, In the believing, know that you are reconciled forever with the God Who always shows up for the cosmos (and you) He created and still loves.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Good News: God Isn't Fair!

[Below, you can find live stream video of both of yesterday's worship services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Also below is the prepared text of the message shared during the services. God bless your week with faith in Christ and the certainty of Christ's presence with you now and of the eternal life with God He has secured for you through His death and resurrection.]

Matthew 20:1-16
In one of his sermons on today’s gospel lesson, Matthew 20:1-1-16, Martin Luther said, “This [lesson] is intricate, and very difficult for the young and the simple…”

But it’s not just the young in faith or the simple in thought who find the parable that Jesus tells us today difficult. In fact, I doubt that Jesus ever said anything more offensive to good church-going folks than what He says to us today.

Let’s set the scene.

Just before this parable in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a rich man confident of his place in the kingdom of God that, because he relies on his wealth and his good works for salvation, he must sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Him. The rich man walks away sad, knowing that he will be damned in eternity because of his unwillingness to let go of his favorite god. money, and his favorite sin, covetousness.

The disciples think, like many people falsely think today, that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. They ask Jesus if a rich person can’t enter God’s kingdom, who can? Jesus tells them that anything is possible with God; anyone who turns from their idols and sins and turns instead to Him for forgiveness and new life can have life with God.

Then Jesus tells them that in the kingdom of God, unlike the kingdoms of this world, “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30)

Maybe in response to the troubled looks He sees around Him, Jesus then tells today’s parable. You know it well.

At the beginning of the workday, about 6:00 in the morning, a landowner goes out, presumably to the town square, and agrees to pay a group of men a denarius, the going rate for a day on the job, to work in his vineyard. This is the only time in the parable when Jesus mentions the landowner making any agreement on the rate of pay.

There’s apparently a lot of work to do because, Jesus says, the man goes out at 9:00 AM, at noon, at 3:00 PM, and, finally, at 5:00 PM, the final hour of the work day, promising only that he will pay “whatever is right,” (Matthew 20:4) literally, whatever is just, correct, or righteous, to the late-hires.

At 6:00 PM, when the workday is over, the owner has the foreman call the last men hired, the ones who have worked an hour or less, to receive their pay. They’re given a denarius.

The anticipation undoubtedly must be rising among the first-hired. If the latecomers are getting a denarius from the pleased landowner, how much more might they be able to expect?

But anticipation turns to anger as all the workers hired at different times of the day are given the exact same pay, a single denarius.

“These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ [the first-hires in Jesus’ story say], “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” (Matthew 20:12) But the landowner says: “Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:13-15)

At my first parish, a man approached me after worship when I preached on this text and told me, “I’ve always hated that parable.” “It isn’t fair,” he went on, “Is Jesus saying that someone who’s led a sinful life and shows up at church in their old age, all repentant and confessing faith in Jesus, is going to get the same reward as me? I’ve always believed. I’ve always given offerings. I’ve always helped when the church needed help.”

I was a young pastor and a bit afraid of offending this man I loved. But I silently prayed, then told him, “Yes, that’s exactly what Jesus is saying. In His Kingdom, all believers are equal.”

You see, friends, the old sinner who repents and trusts that Jesus died and rose for them is equal to all of you in the kingdom of God, no matter how long you’ve believed or how many good things you’ve done.

So, is the newly baptized baby.

So is the believer who has never been able to put much in the offering plate.

So is the believer who’s disabled.

The reason for this is simple: The God we know in Jesus Christ is NOT fair. Instead, He is righteous. In His kingdom, God doesn’t do the fair thing; He does the right thing, the good thing, the loving thing, the compassionate thing.

He gives the reward of eternal life not on the bases of what we do or how long we’ve been doing it, but on the bases of the grace He bears for all who, by the power of the Gospel Word about the crucified and risen Jesus, daily turn from sin and death and instead, turn in trust to Jesus for forgiveness and new and everlasting life.

Jesus tells us this parable in order to show us the difference between life in “the kingdoms” of this world–be it, the organizational structure of a congregation, a place of work, or a government–and life in His kingdom.

As long as we live in this world, there will be inequalities. It doesn’t matter whether as a people, we adopt the motto, “All people are created equal.” The simple fact of the matter is that in this fallen world, there are and will always be inequalities.”

Some people will be wealthier than others, some more powerful than others, some smarter than others, and some, even, more spiritually gifted than others.

But, as Luther points out, “...in the kingdom of Christ it is otherwise; there is no distinction there among believers; they are all alike, whether they be kings, princes, governors, masters or servants. All have the same Baptism, Gospel, Faith, Sacrament, the same Christ and God. They all attend divine worship in perfect equality; the servant, the mechanic and the peasant hear the same Word as the mightiest lord. The Baptism [by which] I was baptized belongs to every other child, whether rich or poor. Magdalene and the [thief] on the cross have the same faith which St. Peter and St. Paul had; yea, the [same] faith which you or I have, if we are Christians. All sinners, if converted, have the same God and Christ whom John the Baptist had. There is no difference here, though one may by far excel the other in his station in life, in his calling, or in his talents.”

If you and I are intent on nudging our ways past others in the kingdom of God, we will be disappointed. God does not bless and life with God does not come, to those with sharp elbows and unrepentant hearts, only to those who are like the repentant tax collector in another of Jesus’ parables. Jesus says the repentant man “stood a distance” from the altar of the temple out of trembling fear of God’s goodness and holiness, and “beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner..” (Luke 18:13)

There is good news, friends! God has had mercy on us sinners.

“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

And whoever and whatever sinner who heeds His invitation to life in His eternal vineyard–all who repent and believe in Him–will, on the last day, after Jesus has returned to the earth and raised the dead, receive the same reward: life with God that never ends!

And, in the meantime, just like Saint Paul, writing to the Philippian Christians, from a prison cell, his crime being his faith in Jesus and his proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and new and everlasting for all who repent and believe in Jesus, we know that God is with us even now.

It’s hard to understand God.

Hard to understand why He loves us, why He hasn’t given up on us, why He forgives us no matter how many times we come back to Him in repentant faith.

But thank God that He is Who He is.

God is not fair; He’s only right and righteous and good.

Because the God you know in Jesus is good, you can also live each day knowing that “it is by [His] 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.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

No one can boast, no matter how hard or how long God allows us to work in His vineyard on this earth.

But all who turn to Jesus can rejoice, for the grace He gives us freely in Jesus.

No matter our circumstances in this life.

No matter our position.

Friends, each day, you can claim the inheritance of your baptism and trust Jesus to be with you now AND to give you your eternal reward.


Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Law and Gospel About Forgiveness

[Below you'll find live stream video of today's worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, as well as the text of the message for the day. Have a blessed week!]

Today’s Gospel lesson unfolds before us like a play in three scenes.

The first scene takes place in a real life encounter: Peter asks Jesus a question about forgiveness and Jesus’ brief reply.

The second scene is the beginning of one of Jesus’ most famous parables; in this scene, Jesus shows us where forgiveness comes from.

The third scene shows us how forgiveness is often abused and the consequences for those who abuse it.

In the last verse of our lesson is an epilogue in which Jesus lays down the implacable Law of God that damns sinners to eternal punishment.

With that in the background, let’s consider our lesson.

On the heels of Jesus explaining the process by which those who sin against us can be restored to fellowship with Christ and the Church, Peter asks Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)

I’m not sure that Peter is really asking Jesus anything here. I think that instead of actually seeking insight or information from Jesus, Peter is playing “star pupil”: “Look how liberally I’m willing to forgive those who have hurt me: up to seven times!”

But Jesus punctures Peter’s pomposity: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Jesus’ words can also be translated, “seventy times seven times” and “seventy times seventy times.” However the words are rendered, the meaning is the same: “God commands that we forgive others. Period. Without condition. Without counting.”

Those who harm us or harm others may have to deal with the earthly consequences of their actions. This is why God has established governments. But we are to forgive everyone, always.

Now, this law of God–the commandment that we forgive others–is like all the rest of God’s Law: It gives a baseline requirement for anyone who wants life with God and, at the same time, it shows us that if we think we can be saved from sin and death on the basis of our perfect obedience of God’s Law, we are in trouble! We are incapable of obeying God’s Law in our own power. Who has ever heard of anyone who has walked on this earth other than Jesus who always forgave, all the time, no exceptions?

I am born into sin and that makes it impossible for me to resolve to love God or love my neighbor. I can’t resolve to perfectly obey any of God’s commands.

But if I’m incapable of forgiving as I’m required to forgive in order to have life with God, then the question arises: What’s to become of me? God commands righteousness and I’m not righteous. I can’t make myself righteous. What’s to become of me?

The second scene of our gospel lesson for today finds Jesus start the telling of a familiar parable. It’s about the interaction between a king and a man who owes his king, according to the Greek in which the New Testament was originally written, “ten thousand talents.” A talent is worth about twenty years’ worth of wages. You can do the math.

Because the man is unable to pay off the debt, the king orders that the man and his family be sold into slaves until the debt is repaid. But when the man falls at the feet of the king and begs for mercy, the king, with no hope of ever being repaid, forgives the debt–he writes it off–and releases the man and his family.

Friends, in this part of the parable, Jesus tells us what is to become of us who are incapable of forgiving as God commands us to forgive, who are incapable of obeying the Ten Commandments.

Jesus Christ takes the debt we owe for our sins and in Him, we are forgiven!

Peter would later write that Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)

In other words, Jesus, true God and true, sinless man, perfectly obeys all the Law of God we can’t begin to obey, then covers us in His righteous obedience.

In Jesus, our debt for sin–the sin for which we should be clapped into the prison of hell for all eternity–is forgiven.

God the Father hears Jesus’ prayer from the cross for us: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

All who take refuge in Jesus by daily turning from sin and following Him, throwing themselves at Jesus’ feet the way the man in His parable threw himself at the feet of the king, are forgiven and so, freed from sin, death, and condemnation…and thereby have an eternal, bottomless supply of grace by which they can in turn forgive others, any time, any place.

This is why Jesus teaches us to pray, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Martin Luther’s explanation of this fifth petition in The Small Catechism is worth remembering: “We pray in this petition that our heavenly Father would not hold our sins against us and deny our prayers because of them. We know we have not earned, nor do we deserve, those things for which we pray. But we ask that he would grant us all things through grace, even though we sin every day and deserve nothing but punishment. And so we, too, will heartily forgive, and gladly do good to those who sin against us.”

At the end of scene two of our gospel lesson for today, the man in Jesus’ parable walks away with his debts forgiven, freed to live with the same kind of forgiving grace he’d been given for anyone who may be indebted to him. It’s the same freedom Jesus gives to you when you hear words of absolution: “For Jesus’ sake, all your sins are forgiven!”

In scene three, the forgiven man walks away from the king who has forgiven him, like we walk away forgiven and made clean by Jesus at the end of worship on Sunday mornings. But you know, saints are also sinners. And we sinners tend to have long memories of the sins committed against us and short memories of our own need for forgiveness.

The forgiven man spots someone who owes him the equivalent of one-hundred days’ wages, a fraction of the huge debt he was just forgiven. He clutches the other man by the throat. “Pay me back!” he demands. When his debtor begs for mercy, just as he has begged a few moments before, the forgiven man will not forgive the debt. Then he has his debtor thrown into prison.

The king gets wind of this and calls the man to appear before him. He tells the man: “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ [Then Jesus says] In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” (Matthew 18:32-34)

By the standards of the Law, you and I deserve to die, everlastingly separated from God.

But Jesus has canceled our debt to God.

He saves us by grace, that is, by God’s charitable love for us.

All who repent and believe in Him are justified, made right with God, by that grace.

When we receive the gospel Word–in Jesus Christ, all your sins are forgiven, all your debts to God are gone–we are debt-free.

And when we are no longer indebted for our sin, while we will surely live in this world in mutually accountable relationships with husbands, wives, children, parents, and fellow members of Christ’s Church, we don’t have to keep score, we don’t have to hold grudges, and we don’t have to play God. We can trust God to sort things out in His way and live unencumbered by guilt or shame.

There are times when, even after we’ve forgiven others, we must not forget. It would be foolish, for example, for someone who has been in an abusive relationship to go back to live with their abuser after they’ve forgiven, that is, let go of their desire to make the abuser pay.

In what I call the epilogue to today’s lesson, Jesus says, “This–[eternal imprisonment and torture for our sin]–is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)

Clearly, Jesus means it when He tells us to forgive others. Failure to forgive is eternally fatal.

But what do we do when we can’t forgive? 

It happens to me. When that happens, I remember that Christ died for all my sins, including the sin of not forgiving others. So, I take refuge in Jesus.

This is what I think we can do. We can turn to Jesus and pray, “Help me to forgive that person as You forgive me, Lord. When I can’t feel forgiving, forgive them through me. You know I want to do Your will. You know also that I’m a sinner. Forgive them through me.” I have prayed that kind of prayer many times and as I turn to Jesus honestly, I find that he lifts the burden of my unforgiving attitude from me.

Jesus didn’t die for perfect people. Jesus died for imperfect people. And if you earnestly desire to do the will of God and follow Jesus, God will in no way pour contempt or condemnation on you. And He will make you an instrument of His forgiveness, even when you’re not “feelin’ it.”

The Greek New Testament word for forgive is aphiemi. It literally means release.

When I forgive you or you forgive me, we release each other from the debt we owe for our wrong. We also release ourselves from the strain on us when we pretend that we’re God.

It’s because God forgives us that we can forgive others. So, I tell you once more this morning: “Dear friends in Christ, in the name of Jesus, I forgive you all your sins. You are released by your Savior.”

Now, you can share that word of forgiveness and release with others. Amen