Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The New Testament Book of James, Part 6

[This is the sixth and final installment of our Facebook Live Bible study of the New Testament book of James. It's also the last of these studies I will do as pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. I'm retiring on December 31. I do intend to do more online studies, maybe a podcast or two, in retirement. We'll see what God has in mind. Watch for announcements.]

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Forgiven and Free

[Below you'll find videos from both worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio and the message prepared for the services on November 19, 2023.]

Matthew 25:14-30

As we delve into the meaning of the parable Jesus tells us this morning,I want to use something C.S. Lewis writes in his classic, Mere Christianity as a kind of prism through which to view it.

There are,” Lewis says, “only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy [that is, life with God and His people in the kingdom of heaven…No soul that seriously and constantly desires that] will ever miss it.”

This is a word of reassurance that Christians often seem to need. More than once, I’ve had people ask me, “How can I be sure I will be with Jesus in eternity?” I can tell them with confidence, “The fact that you want Jesus indicates to me that you will be with Jesus in eternity. If you didn’t believe in Him, you wouldn’t even be interested in the question.”

Today, in Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells us about the two kinds of people identified by Lewis: Those who cherish and thrive in the gracious will of the giving God of the universe and those who take death and condemnation because they think of God as a hard deity who is loathe to give us anything.

The parable is familiar to you. A master, representing God, about to go on a journey, calls in three servants. The word used by Jesus for these three men is δούλους, literally meaning slaves. This gives us a good understanding of their low standing in the world.

Our translation makes a hash of what happens next in the parable, talking about bags of gold. In fact, what Jesus does say is that, based on the individual slaves’ abilities, the master gives πέντε τάλαντα (five talents) to the first slave; δύο τάλαντα (two talents) to the second; and ἕν (or, one talent) to the third.

These numbers would have caused Jesus’ original hearers’ eyes to pop out. Remember that a common day laborer earned one denarius for a twelve-hour workday. A talent was the equivalent of 600,000 denarii. Whether the master gave you five or two talents or just one talent, he would be giving you, not just a servant but a slave, an enormous amount of money, Warren Buffett-kind of money. Can you imagine?

After disbursing the funds, Jesus says, the master “went on his journey…” (Matthew 25:19)

After a long time, the master returns, just as the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus, God the Son, will one day return to this world.

You remember what happens next. The man to whom the master had given five talents says, “Master, entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’” And the master responds, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” Similarly, the slave given two talents reports that he has made an additional two talents with the master’s gift. The master tells him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:19-23)

Then comes the third slave. “‘Master,’ he says, ‘I knew that you are a hard man [well, he didn’t know that; that was simply what he thought of his master], harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed [notice the accusations hurled by this third man against his master, calling the master lazy and unfair]. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’”(Matthew 25:24-25)

The master takes in the third slave’s whininess and accusations and tells the slave, in effect, that if he had such a low opinion of him, the master, thinking that he harvested where He hadn’t planted seeds and reaped where he’d done no work, the slave should have done more than just give back his talent! He then orders the talent to be taken from the man and to be sent into darkness, where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth, here clearly symbolic of someone being sent to hell and eternal separation from God.

Now, I ask you to listen very carefully to what I’m going to say in the rest of the message.

In the past, I would have said–and even preached, that what Jesus is saying was, “Get busy. Use the blessings of God in ways that please God.”

Friends, this is not what Jesus is telling you today!

If you could earn a place in the Kingdom of heaven or if you could earn a better place in heaven, Jesus would not have needed to suffer and die for you.

As it is, no work you and I might do, no amount of goodness we might display, could ever compensate for our sinfulness and unrighteousness.

Only Jesus taking our sins at the cross and taking the punishment you and I deserve could ever pay the debt we owe to God for our sin.

It is only by God’s charity or grace that sinners are justified or made worthy for eternity with God and that gift does not come to us because we’ve kept busy or properly used God’s blessings: We are truly justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

It is Jesus’ goodness and not ours that saves us.

The goodness of Jesus sets us free to live new lives.

So what is Jesus telling you today?

First of all, the talents the master gives his slaves are what we call absolution, God’s forgiveness of all our sins.

There is nothing the three slaves did to earn, merit, or deserve the massive sums of money he conferred on them. Nor is there anything we can do or need to do to gain God’s absolution, forgiveness.

God’s Word tells us, “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:8)

Before you even knew you needed God’s forgiveness or that you were born dead in your sin and could only be made alive by Christ acting for you, Jesus went to the cross to save you. This is His extravagant gift to you!

The second thing Jesus is telling us is this: Jesus died to save all people from sin, death, and the eternal anguish of hell. But not all people will enter the Kingdom of heaven.

It all hinges on Who you think God is: an inflexible lawgiver or, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you believe that God is a dispenser of undeserved grace,  whether you think of God’s forgiveness as a gift or as something you must earn.

The first two slaves in Jesus’ parable understood they were the beneficiaries of undeserved grace. They didn’t see the new life their master had given them in these vast fortunes as a test or a trap. They saw the talents for what they were: treasures of grace, a chance to live without fear of failure. The master commends them both for being “good and faithful”--that is, believing, servants. They trusted that their master and his gifts to them were good. (And let’s be clear that even had the first two slaves lost every penny given to them by the master, he still would have commended them for faithfully using his gift of grace.)

Friends, when you were baptized into the Triune name of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–you received the gifts of all the forgiveness, life, peace, and hope that an eternal God can bestow on you.

You can live your life to the full and know that whether you fall or rise, fail or succeed, live or die, you have life in the eternal kingdom of heaven that cannot be taken from you.

As you do that, God will work in your life to make it useful to you, your neighbor, and God.

That’s God’s gift to you.

It’s the same gift He gave to Mary Magdalene (once filled with seven demons), the woman at the well (who had lived in one adulterous relationship after another), the apostle Paul (who had breathed murderous threats against believers in Jesus), and Thomas, the unbeliever.

If the God we know in Jesus Christ can give absolution and freedom from death or fear of failure to them, He can give these blessings to you too!

The third slave viewed what his master gave him as an obligation he had to preserve by playing it safe. When people view forgiveness as something they must earn by playing at religion, turning the God revealed in Jesus into a grim taskmaster, Jesus will tell them, as the master effectively tells the third slave, “If that’s how you see Me and that’s how contemptuous of Me and My gifts you are, wanting to turn my gifts of grace into religious brownie points you earn, I will take My grace away and you will spend eternity learning to your regret that My love cannot be earned.”

Friends, Jesus died and rose for you.

He has set you free from the condemnation of sin and the sentence of death.

To those who receive the gift of faith in Him, He says: “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath [the very thing the third slave feared] but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9)

Today, Jesus once more gives you all the treasures of His grace–in His Word and in His body and blood–and makes you part of His everlasting kingdom.

Now, friends, live in the freedom of His forgiveness and love.

Live the life Jesus has set you free to live! Amen

The Gospel of John, November 19, 2023

[This is video of the November 19 adult Sunday School class of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

The New Testament Book of James, Part 5