Friday, December 15, 2023

God Decides and Women in God's Kingdom: Some Thoughts on Luke 15

As we continue to read the Gospel according to Saint Luke, one chapter a day from December 1 to 24, we come today to Luke 15, linked below.
In the three parables Jesus tells in this chapter--the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son--we see the precise roles played by God and by human beings in salvation from sin and death. Ready? Here they are: GOD DOES EVERYTHING; WE DO NOTHING.
Human beings are the passive recipients of God's "amazing grace," His charity, for sinners who deserve nothing but condemnation and death.
With loving perseverance, God seeks us out in the same way that the shepherd desperately sought his lost sheep, the woman searched for her lost coin, and the father ran down the road to grab hold of his son before the son had a chance to speak a word of repentance.
In each parable, there is a figure who stands for God--the shepherd, the woman, the father--and there is a figure that stands for us--the sheep, the coin, the son.
Neither the sheep, coin, nor son "decided" to be found. Even the son in Luke 15:11-24 only decides to go back to his father hoping only that his father would hire him as a mere servant, having no idea that his father would run down the road, seeking to embrace him in what one theologian called "a bearhug of grace."
God has done everything necessary for our salvation. Christ has already died, taking the condemnation for sin you and I deserve. It is God Who decided to save us from sin and death and to make available a share in Jesus' defeat of these human enemies. This is what Saint Paul is talking about when he writes in Romans: "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)
Christ has established "means of grace," highways by which He delivers His salvation to us: His Gospel Word, whether read or heard in Scripture, preached, shared, or taught, and His Gospel Word given us in physical sacraments, water connected with the Word in Holy Baptism and bread and wine connected with the Word in Holy Communion.
Christ has already worked salvation for you. Like the lost, or prodigal, son, it is yours as God embraces you with His Word, Baptism, and Communion.
THE ONLY DECISION WE CAN MAKE regarding our salvation is the one apparently made by the older son in Luke 15:25-32. He refused to go to the party to which his father freely invited him, a party certainly representing the heavenly feast Jesus has prepared for all people.
Instead, the older son insisted that entry into the party needed to be earned and deserved by good behavior, righteous deeds.
By his self-righteous decision, he kept himself away from his father's blessings, just as we do when we think God owes us a place in eternity because we think we're such wonderful people.
But we are saved by God's grace given in Christ and the faith in Christ that God's Word creates within us.
As Paul wrote to the first-century church at Ephesus: "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." (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Luke 15:11-24 is a wonderful picture of God's grace for you and through it, God gives us permission, to believe and live in the assurance of His forgiveness and love and in the certainty of His promises of life with God that never ends!
Another point: One Living Water member commented here and in person about how much she appreciated the role of women in Luke's gospel.
The role of women in God's salvation story is seen a lot in Luke!
For example, the story of Jesus' birth is told by Luke through the prism of Mary's experience and faith. (Matthew, on the other hand, tells about Christmas through the eyes of Joseph.)
Throughout Luke's gospel, we see pairings of women and men either in Jesus' ministry or in His parables.
At the very beginning, for example, Zechariah, the priest who would become father to John the Baptizer, is chastened for his unbelief while Mary is extolled for her belief.
When Jesus is dedicated at the temple as an infant, two people approach the Holy Family to declare that Jesus is the long-promised Messiah. One is Simeon, an aged man. The other is Anna, an elderly woman.
Here in Luke 15, the two parables Jesus tells before that of the lost (or the prodigal) son, have as their central characters, first, a male shepherd and second, an elderly woman.
Luke is often called "the women's gospel" because of these frequent pairings of women and men. Luke, of course, was a protege of Saint Paul and in his telling of the events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, well reflects the teaching of his mentor, who wrote to the Christians at Galatia: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Here's a link to the English Standard Version rendering of Luke 15.


Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Gospel of John, December 10, 2023

This is video of the adult Sunday School class from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio for Sunday, December 10, 2023. For some reason, the audio is funky. I apologize for that.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Beginning

[Here's the message from this past Sunday's worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You'll also find live-stream video of both worship services. (I personally feel that the sermon at the second service went better than the one at the first.)]

Mark 1:1-8

Last Sunday, as we began the season of Advent, we talked about the End. Today, we talk about the Beginning.

Mark opens the gospel lesson for today by saying, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah [or, the Christ, God’s Anointed One], the Son of God…” (Mark 1:1)

In these few words, Mark does several things.

First, he gives you the title of the book that the Holy Spirit has inspired him to write. I’m convinced that if Mark were here with us right now, he would be horrified to learn that we refer to his book as “the Gospel of Mark.” Mark is not the Gospel. He’s not the good news. Mark presents the good news of Jesus, even if it’s helpful to refer to the Gospel of Mark to distinguish it from the other three books that tell us about Jesus. But truly, this book is about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

From Mark’s perspective, his whole narration of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is “The Beginning of the good news [or Gospel] about Jesus the Christ…” Even at the end of Mark’s book, the Gospel, the saving good news that Jesus, the Son of God, second Person of the Trinity, has died to take God’s wrath for sin and sinners onto Himself, then rose from the dead to tear open eternity with God for all who repent and believe, is just the beginning of what Jesus’ Gospel will do.

This Gospel will keep going, bringing new beginnings to all who believe, until Jesus returns.

But in his opening verse–”The beginning of the good news about Jesus”--Mark also tells you that Jesus didn’t just spring out of nowhere unexpectedly. Jesus was promised long ago.

The beginning of the gospel goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, God said that One would come Who, on behalf of us all, would crush evil underfoot to give us life. (Genesis 3:15)

And we see that promise repeatedly in the Old Testament. Job lived about the same time as Abraham, two-thousand years before the birth of Jesus, and kept trusting in God when he suffered unbearable horrors. He confessed his faith in God to his fickle friends and said, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God…” (Job 19:25-27)

The Gospel began then, when God, His heart broken over the refusal of the first humans to keep trusting in Him, wanting to be gods themselves, issued His promises–His good news or gospel promises–of restoration, forgiveness, and life through patriarchs, preachers, prophets, and ordinary believers.

We hear this promise to us again in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. God, through Isaiah, who lived 700 years before Jesus’ birth, delivers promises of the Savior to come, saying of Him, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart…” (Isaiah 40:11)

Back in today’s gospel lesson, Mark quotes two Old Testament passages to describe the beginning of the unveiling of the Gospel about Jesus, the anointed King of kings, Who is also God the Son. He cites God’s promise from Malachi: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…” (Malachi 3:1) Then, from Isaiah: “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

So, not only do the prophets foretell the coming of the Messiah, but they also foretell the coming of the forerunner who would prepare for the revelation of the Messiah, the Savior.

And here we come to the crux of what Mark is telling us today. The Gospel of new life with God that never ends begins to come to the whole world, Gentiles as well as Jews, when this strange man who dresses like the Old Testament prophet Elijah–who wears “clothing made of camel’s hair…[and eats] locusts and wild honey” not the kind of person you’d likely invite to the Christmas party–the Gospel begins to come to us when John the Baptizer starts his ministry.

Mark says that John “appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…” (Mark 1:4)

Now, if you think I’ve duped you with a bunch of talk about good news and God’s love for you only to start talking about repentance and are thinking of checking out of whatever else I have to say, you may misunderstand what repentance is. So, hear me out, please.

Repentance does entail sorrow for our sin. But if you think it’s all about wearing a solemn face, putting on sackcloth and ashes, or crying tears for sins you enjoyed and will only regret if you have to, you need to know that repentance is more than grief over wrongdoing.

As a boy, I started taking trumpet lessons. My cousin Gary, who was about fifteen years older than me, had been a talented trumpet player, gave me his trumpet. I did well practicing. At first. But one weekend, I left the trumpet at school and when Mr. Barnard, the band director, asked me if I’d practiced on Saturday or Sunday, I lied, telling him I had. He then produced my trumpet. It happened that day that Gary was at our house and came to the school with my mom to pick me up. Mr. Barnard went with me to the car to tell my mom about my failure to practice and about my lie.

I was filled with sorrow, not so much because I got caught, but because I hadn’t wanted to disappoint my cousin. Repentance begins with sorrow over disappointing the One Who gave you life and, through His death and resurrection, gave you new life.

But the repentance to which God calls us through prophets like John the Baptist and through His Word today doesn’t end in sorrow. Mark tells us today that John’s preaching brought throngs of people into the wilderness to hear his call to repent. Then Mark tells us, “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” (Mark 1:5) They confessed their sins.

Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism that “confession consists of two parts. One is that we confess our sins and the other is that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor as from God Himself, in no way doubting, but firmly believing that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.”

I was called to a hospital ER one night when a man who had been attending the church I served was found by a friend, just as he was about to take his own life. For all kinds of reasons, he was riddled by guilt, fear, and self-loathing. When he saw me, he begged me to go away at first. He couldn’t believe that God could love or forgive him. But over time, this man who had heard the gospel many times, and would, like us all, need to hear it in the word spoken, and read and need to receive it in Holy Communion would begin to believe that the gospel was for him too. He could accept that he too was a child of God for whom Jesus shed his blood and rose to open up life with God, both now and in eternity, to him.

John the Baptizer didn’t come into the world to lay an eternal guilt trip on us, friends. The Old Testament Hebrew word for repent is shuv, meaning turn around. The New Testament Greek word for repent is metanoia, meaning to have one’s mind changed.

John the Baptist came to bring the Word from God that will first bring us to sorrow for sin and then turn us around, change our minds, enabling us to see that God is not our enemy, but our best Friend.

God hates our sin and all that it does to us. Sin brings death, bloodshed, contention, hatred, selfishness, greed: all the things the bedevil and kill us. We need God’s forgiveness for sin, given to us freely in Christ. But when, through His Word and the Sacraments, the God we know in Jesus works repentance in us, He turns us from sorrow to the joys of life, freedom, reconciliation, and a hope beyond the grave that spills its blessings and wonders on each day we live in this world.

God’s Gospel promise is for you today: “Return to me...and I will return to you…” (Zechariah 1:3)

So Jesus says: “The kingdom of God has come near [in Jesus Himself]. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

Repentance isn’t something you and I have to do to please an angry God. It is a gift from God, given in His Word. Through His Word, He repents you, turning you away from separation from God and others. Repentance prepares you to receive another gift from God, the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life with God. As God turns us to Jesus Christ, we know, as God’s Word promises, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1)

In Jesus Christ, your sin condition, the condition that causes you to think of yourself over God and others, and all the sins you’ve ever committed because of that condition, are totally and forever forgiven, forgotten, destroyed, done away with.

As we live in daily repentance and faith, the old self dies and the new self rises to live with God “in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

And that, friends, for all of us, is “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,” a gracious, loving beginning that will never end for anyone who daily takes shelter in Jesus, our only King, our only God, and our only Savior. Amen