Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lent Midweek 3 (Isaiah 53:4-6)

The following is adapted from a sermon series by Rev. Rolf Preus.

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to His own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this day is that portion of Isaiah’s suffering servant song that I just read, Isaiah chapter fifty-three, verses four through six. Dear friends in Christ: when sheep wander into the wilderness, they turn away from life to death, they stray from protection and safety into danger and terror. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We have wandered, we have strayed, we have turned away from the God who gives life to wander in sin and death. All mankind fell in Adam’s fall, all like sheep have gone astray since the first man and woman entered into the wilderness, and we are lost, condemned to die in the desert.

How can wandering sheep return? How can we turn back to God after we have turned away from Him? Surely, we need forgiveness, but our sin seems to be a wall between us and our God. How can God forgive sin? How can God forgive me, a sinner? How can I know that when I have sinned against God that I can receive any mercy from Him, any grace, any forgiveness? How can I know that He will be a loving Father for me, forgiving all my many sins against Him? Human reason cannot conceive of an answer, we cannot know this on our own. God Himself must teach us, and He does in our text. How can God be gracious to me, a sinner? Two words: vicarious atonement.

These two words hardly seem to clear up the confusion. Perhaps you’ve never heard them before, or only in passing, a far-off memory of a bible class or confirmation lesson. But these words are life, they are your salvation. They reveal to you the suffering Servant whose suffering brings us forgiveness, peace and health. Every spiritual blessing God has to give He gives on account of the suffering of His Servant. The suffering of the Servant has opened to us the doors of Paradise, it has taken away our sin, reconciled us to God, and brought us eternal life. That is what the words ‘vicarious atonement’ teach us. His death is vicarious. That means the Servant did what He did, He suffered what He suffered, as our substitute. He took our place, He stood in as our representative. What was done to Him was supposed to have been done to us. His death is atonement. That means that the Servant did what He did to bring us back into fellowship with God, establishing true peace between Creator and creature by paying everything that we owed. Vicarious atonement. Those words describe the very center of our faith, and they reveal God’s love to us.

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” At first glance, it appears that the Servant suffered on His own account, for something He had done. But nothing could be further from the truth. They were our griefs. They were our sorrows. He didn’t just sympathize with our sorrows, our sins. He carried them, He bore them in His own body. While the Servant walked this earth, He healed many of the corruptions of sin. But every act of mercy, every declaration of forgiveness, every restoration of disease had a cost. The illnesses He cured He bore. The griefs He removed He suffered. The sins He forgave He died for. He paid the ultimate price for every gift He gives to His people, not only suffering, not only death, but the very wrath of God Himself.

“Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” Understand these words well: Stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. God did it, God put His Servant to death. We all know the political machinations that went on during Good Friday, the power games and the terrible miscarriage of justice that let Barabbas go free and an innocent man hang upon the cross. But do not be deceived. God did it. He used corrupt religious leaders and cowardly politicians to carry out His will, but He did it. When we see men abuse Jesus, we must remember that they are only instruments: He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God Himself. God punished His Servant. This is the most amazing kind of love, beyond anything the world has ever seen. It certainly doesn’t look like love. The Father strikes, smites, and afflicts His dear Son, the one whom He loved from all eternity. But make no mistake: this is love.

“But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.” This is love, love for you and me. When God punished Jesus, He punished the sins of all sinners of all times and place. Does God punish or does He forgive? On the cross, He does both at the same time. The Servant was wounded, the Servant was pierced, the Servant was punished, the Servant was crucified. For what? For our transgressions. God loves us, He forgives us, by punishing Jesus. “Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” He was punished instead of us. God makes peace with us by punishing Jesus in our place. Vicarious atonement. That is love. “With His wounds we are healed.” The Servant was whipped, the Servant was scourged, the Servant bore a crown of thorns for us. All health was taken away from Him to give us healing. He takes our place and by taking our place He gives us what is His takes what is ours. In Jesus God is both gracious and just. He both forgives and punishes. God doesn’t forgive without paying the price for forgiveness. The reason we can know for certain that God forgives our sins is because He laid those sins on Jesus.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to His own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” This is love. Vicarious atonement. For Christ’s sake all our sins are forgiven. How do we know? “He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities.” We know because He bore our sins to the cross and paid the price for them there. His piercing pierced the dragon; His crushing crushed the head of the serpent, our ancient foe, because He was pierced and crushed in our place, removing the devil’s power over us. Vicarious atonement. This beautiful doctrine teaches us about our God, it gives us confidence that we can always run to God in repentance when we sin and find Him a loving, forgiving, and gracious Father who will never turn us away. We know our sins are forgiven because we know Christ. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

It is only through the vicarious atonement that we are forgiven. Our sins aren’t forgiven because we believe they are forgiven, because we have faith. Our sins are forgiven because Jesus Christ, true God and true man, suffered and died for them. Jesus and Jesus alone takes away our sins by suffering and dying for them. But faith is still necessary, because faith receives this gift, it clings to the forgiveness that has been won. There is no one for whom Jesus did not die, and God forgives all those for whom Jesus died. God forgives the entire world. But the entire world is not saved. Forgiveness is not received except though faith. Only those who trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins receive from God the forgiveness of their sins. Apart from Christ, our sins are not forgiven; apart from faith in Him, we cannot receive that forgiveness. That is how wandering sheep return to their Master: the forgiveness of sins, purchased by Jesus, received by faith. Vicarious atonement. When we know Christ and Him crucified we know that God sees us at our very worst and forgives us all our sins, sets us at peace with Himself, and rescues us from death and hell. Like foolish sheep we wandered away. But by God’s grace we have returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. He sought out wandering sheep, and He paid the price for them, giving to you and to me green pastures and quiet waters, forever. In the Name of the Servant, Jesus Christ, Amen.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Reminiscere (Matthew 15:21-28)

Neither Saint Matthew nor Saint Mark tell us how the Canaanite woman came to faith. There is no conversion story, no account of how she, who lived miles up the coast from the homeland of God’s people, heard of the one born King of the Jews. There is no digression by either evangelist, telling us how someone could believe who lived in the region of Tyre and Sydon, a place so wicked that the prophets and Jesus Himself repeatedly decree its ultimate destruction. We’re not told how a Canaanite woman, part of a people that Israel was to destroy centuries before, came to have faith in Israel’s Messiah. It’s often this way. There are many who come to Jesus who already believe in Him, who believe without seeing, who cry out to Him believing He can save. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Faith cries out to God. Faith sees its object, its Lord walking this earth, and it cannot help but cry. For faith sees not only its Lord, faith sees its need. This is what believers do when they experience affliction: they cry out to the One who can heal, the One who can save, the object of their faith, the One who has promised to help. Faith cries as only faith can: “Have mercy on me.” Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy. This is the right cry, the right prayer, directed at the right man, the only One who could help. She recognizes her God walking past her in the flesh, somehow, by some miracle, in her darkest, most desperate hour miles from His home, seemingly there simply to bring her daughter healing.

But her God doesn’t listen. “He did not answer her a word.” Silence. God ignores her cries. God doesn’t heal. God doesn’t save. She isn’t crying out to a false God, she isn’t offering a blasphemous prayer. In faith, she is crying out to the only true God, incarnate for her salvation. She is offering the prayer that Jesus has heard so many times, the prayer that seems to tug on His heartstrings, that causes Him to spring into action, the prayer that halts Him in His path. But not for her. Faith cries out, and God doesn’t listen. He doesn’t pause, He doesn’t stop, He doesn’t acknowledge her at all. Her God ignores her. He who has healed so many, who has given such great promises, is silent. The ministers of the church, the clergy, join their voices to hers, entreating her God to listen, to heal, to save. “And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’” But their prayers are no better than hers in moving God to action. She could’ve gone to Facebook, sent out a mass e-mail, called the church office to be put in the bulletin or on the prayer chain, but it would’ve made no difference. The volume of prayers makes doesn’t matter when God remains silent.

Faith cries out to the right person with the right prayer; faith cries out in humility, in sorrow, with tears, but God does not answer. It seems that unbelievers are quickly freed from their troubles; their time of trial is short and insignificant. They pray to the wrong gods, they pray in the wrong way, if they pray at all, and they seem to be blessed, while the children of God, who in their suffering take refuge in the true God only sink deeper and deeper into distress. There is no relief, there is no answer. They just continue to suffer. The fire gets hotter, the trials get tougher, the suffering gets worse.

Faith gets no reward for its cry, not even an acknowledgement. God, who is seemingly never at a loss for words, has no words or action for us, only silence. “And Jacob was left alone.” The sufferer feels alone, abandoned by God, abandoned by men, left to his own devices. And we can’t handle it. Like Jacob splitting his camp and sending people back and forth across the river, we try to fix the situation ourselves. We fill the silence with our own words, our own works. We put our trust in ourselves, or in other people, depending on human resources alone to fix our suffering. We are impatient, unwilling to wait for God’s answer. I want to be delivered right now, and if God won’t do it, I’ll quip praying, I’ll look somewhere else. But that is not the path of faith. Faith is persistent. Faith is not deterred. The silence of God is anguishing, but it does not stop the voice of faith. “She came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”

Faith doesn’t quit crying out to God; faith doesn’t give up the fight. Martin Luther teaches us, “Even if [God] hides himself in a room in the house and does not want access to be given to anyone, do not draw back but follow. If he does not want to listen, knock at the door of the room; raise a shout!” Faith is persistent, faith is stubborn, faith refuses to be cast aside. Faith knows that there is no other place to go, that no one else can help if God Himself is silent. Faith enters the arena with God, faith takes Him on, faith wrestles with the God who has promised to be gracious. The woman doesn’t leave, though Jesus has given her every reason to; she doesn’t give up. But as Jacob wrestled with God all night, she is in it for the long haul. She will wrestle with her God, she will take Him on, and she will struggle with Him until the sun rises.

But this Jesus is no ordinary man, just as Jacob was wrestling with no normal combatant. “When the man saw that He did not prevail against Jacob, He touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with Him.” When you wrestle with God, expect to be put in your place, expect to be reminded of who you are. “He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” You deserve nothing from me; no grace, no mercy, no salvation. I came for the people of Israel, you have no reason to claim anything from me. Then He gives His most devastating blow, more terrible, more painful than Jacob’s hip being put out of socket. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” You are a Gentile dog. You have no right to ask anything of me, for you deserve nothing of what I have to give. You are a sinner, you are not part of my chosen people, you stand condemned.

So it is that God appears as our enemy. He not only ignores us, with devastating silence, but often He actually seems to be opposing us. The more we pray, the worse it gets. Job complained that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, the Psalmist threw up his hands and said, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” Loving, gentle Jesus, full of mercy and compassion for so many others, has nothing for us but His wrath; the wrestling match has left us defeated. Our hip is out of joint, we are crushed and crippled, filled with excruciating pain. God has given us every excuse to give up, to run the other way, to follow the advice of Job’s wife, echoed by many others in our lives, perhaps the voice in our own head: “Curse God and die.”

But faith does not let God go. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She doesn’t argue, she doesn’t dispute His accusation, the voice of God’s harsh Law. She agrees. She owns her sin, she owns her identity, she agrees that she deserves nothing from her God, that there is nothing Jesus has to give that she has earned. Faith knows that it has done nothing to deserve anything from God but His wrath. “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” She agrees with this truth, clearly revealed by God’s Law. But then she declares her trust in a truth that is greater than the truth of the Law. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Yes, Lord, I am a dog. I deserve nothing from you but death and hell. But you came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost, and here I cling to your mercy, your grace. The crumbs are enough, they are sufficient, for they are everything. The crumbs from your table are a food that lasts to eternity, and you have them in such abundance that even those who wait under the table are filled with eternal life.

She doesn’t say this based on any merit of her own, any worthiness that she possesses. She clings not to herself, but to His promises. She knows she is not worthy, she hears the Law and she agrees with it, but she clings to a truth that is greater than the Law’s demands and threats: this Jesus has come to fulfill the Law’s demands and destroy its threats. She clings to the mercy of a God who promised a Savior from sin and death, who through this Messiah He will give the forgiveness of sins, along with every good gift. Like Jacob of old, on the basis of His promises, not her merit, she refuses to let her God go, she wrestles Him to the ground, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

This is the faith which conquers God. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” The Canaanite woman understood her identity as a fallen, sinful creature, and she knew His identity as the One who came into this world to save sinners. When God is silent, when He appears as our enemy, faith doesn’t give in or give up, but it clings to the promises God has given despite everything that it sees to the contrary. Martin Luther teaches us, “If [God] should cast me into the depths of hell and place me in the midst of devils, I would still believe that I would be saved because I have been baptized, I have been absolved, I have received the pledge of my salvation, the body and blood of the Lord in the Supper. Therefore I want to see and hear nothing else, but I shall live and die in this faith, whether God or an angel or the devil says the contrary.”

You do not look to your sufferings, your afflictions, your tribulations, or your sins to know what God thinks of you. You look to the cross where Jesus bled and died to win your salvation, and you look to your baptism, to the Lord’s Supper, to Absolution, where Jesus delivered that salvation directly to you. With those gifts, those pledges of God’s grace, you can then be persistent in prayer, but also patient, constantly crying out to God but waiting patiently for Him to answer, clinging to the ‘Yes,’ even when all you seem to hear is ‘No.’ And whether He answers your prayer in this life or in the next, He will deliver you from evil, He will give you every good gift. He will remember His promises, for He remembers your sins no more; He remembers you not according to your iniquity but according to His mercy. Today, we live on the crumbs, but a day is coming when we will feast at the table with all of God’s children, forever and ever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:16-21)

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Ash Wednesday is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, are you giving up something for Lent? We modern Christians don’t fast much. We don’t skip meals in preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper, we don’t withdraw from the pleasures of the flesh to focus on prayer, self-denial isn’t really a part of our piety. But we do often give something up for Lent; this practice, which both Christians and non- Christians participate in, oddly enough, is the last vestige of fasting left in our world. What will it be for you this year? Chocolate? Caffeine? Facebook? Steak? It’s usually something that won’t put much of a dent in our lifestyle, that we can give up with a little pain, but not too much, something we can mention in passing to our friends. There will be articles again this year, by Christians and non-Christians alike, touting the benefits of this Lenten ‘fast;’ no more Facebook? More time for jogging! No more sweets? You might lose a few pounds! Lent can help you become a healthier, happier you!

When teaching us about the Lord’s Supper, Martin Luther instructs us to confess, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.” He is simply echoing Jesus, “And when you fast…” Jesus assumes that His followers will fast, He assumes that this spiritual discipline will be part of their lives, not just in Lent, but in every part of the Church Year. And because His disciples will fast, they need some instructions. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” Hypocrites fast so that others can see them; hypocrites fast so that their friends, their neighbors, their fellow church members will be impressed. Hypocrites fast to earn the praises of men, and they will get what they asked for. “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.”

Our reward will be given in full from our fellow men; they will be impressed, but not our Father in heaven. “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” This seems like strange advice on a day when two pastors and a vicar lined up before the service to disfigure faces. We did not do this to make you all hypocrites, but we applied ashes to the outside of your body to point you to inward repentance; ashes stain your forehead for this one day as a reminder to you of sin’s penalty and sin’s destruction. If you are wearing the ashes tonight because you wanted to show everyone else how pious you are, if you are planning to wear them with pride back to work or to the store or when you go out to eat, go to the bathroom and wash them off. Repent. “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” God thunders forth through Joel.

Quit playing around with the outward show, quit simply giving up things that have little real effect on the comfort of this life. What should you give up this Lent? How about your sin? Give up your sin this Lent. Repent. That is the Lenten discipline to which all Christians are called: repentance. Lent isn’t about self-improvement, it’s about death, dying to your sins in repentance. Turn from your sins, refuse their hold on you. Rend your hearts in sorrow over your sins and cry out to God for mercy, for He is merciful. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” He will reward you not because you are so good at being repentant, He will reward you because of Jesus. In Joel we are told, “Then the Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” He had pity on His people, He had pity on you, and sent you Jesus to take that sin and endure its penalty, leaving it nailed to the cross.

Lent is for sinners, sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Those who do not think they have the disease see little need for the cure. Maybe you are one of those who steadfastly and publicly refuses to give up anything for Lent. Perhaps you cover it with a veneer of piety, pointing out how ridiculous the whole ‘giving something up for Lent’ fad has become in our culture, and you are right. But it goes much deeper than that. Luther said, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training,” which you interpret as ‘Fasting and bodily preparation are probably detrimental to your faith and are to be avoided at all costs.’ Jesus said, “When you fast…” which you interpret as ‘If you fast, and you probably won’t, fast this way…’ Why should you fast, why should you give up any of the pleasures that this life can offer, any of the things that you have earned? I’m a Christian, I go to Church, that should be plenty. The things I have, they are mine, to use as I please. Who has the right to tell me to give any of them up, even for a little while?

Jesus has that right as your Savior and Lord, and He calls on you to loose yourself from the bondage of your things. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” If you refused the ashes tonight because you wanted to show everyone how pious you are, if you did not come forward because you didn’t want to sully your head with a reminder of death, repent. No one is required to take the ashes, but if you refused them because you want nothing to do with giving up any of the pleasures of the flesh, repent. Give up your sins this Lent. Give up all that has a hold on your heart, that pulls you away from your Lord. Do not pile up your treasure on this earth, give it up, lay it aside, refuse to let anything of this world have its clutches upon you.

For you have a greater treasure. “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Your treasures, your things, whether they are the praises of men or the pleasures of life or the things that you enjoy, will all fade, they will all be corrupted, they will not last. Not one thing that you own or enjoy will last beyond the grave. But what Christ has given to you lasts, it endures. It will not fade, because it is attached to Jesus, and He lives, never to die again. Nothing, and no one can destroy that treasure, for it belongs to you even now, and you will receive it in full on the Last Day. That is what Lent is all about: taking our eyes off the fading and fragile treasures of this world and fixing our eyes upon the treasure that lasts, the treasure that endures, the treasure held in heaven for us by the One who died and rose again to win it for us.

Are you giving up something for Lent? “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training,” training for a body consumed by sin. Fasting is discipline, discipline for the flesh, part of killing the Old Adam within you; fasting is always in service of repentance. Fasting from food or any other pleasure is not to help you lose a few pounds or to give you time to read a book, but to provide opportunity and focus for prayer, to lead you to repent of all the sin that entangles you. This Lent, die to yourself, examine your idols and in repentance cry out for God to break them. Lay aside all that holds you in the chains of sin, all that distracts you from receiving Christ’s precious Word. Repent and believe. Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but they are worthless without faith. Luther teaches us to confess: “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”

Repent, and hear the Gospel. “The Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” He was jealous for His land, His chosen Zion, and He had pity on you, you who are bowed low with sin, you who are subject to death. He had pity and sent His Son, His only Son, whom He loved, to die in your place to win you treasure in heaven, treasure that no moth or rust will corrupt, and no thief will ever break in and steal. That is what Lent is all about. The ashes on your head, a reminder of death, are in the shape of a cross, a reminder of who actually died that death. Jesus, for you. That is Ash Wednesday. That is Lent. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Friday, February 24, 2017

St. Matthias (Acts 1:15-26)

“And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this commemoration of Saint Matthias comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Dear friends in Christ: as we at Good Shepherd have had the opportunity to commemorate the saints of old during our Wednesday night services, you have certainly heard this phrase before: ‘We don’t know much about so and so…” For every Peter, James, and John, we have a Simon the Zealot, for every Matthew or Thomas we have a James the son of Alpheus. And for every Paul, we have a Matthias. Saint Paul is the addition to the apostles, one untimely born, and the book of Acts is as filled with his deeds as the New Testament is filled with his writings. Saint Matthias filled the number of the disciples, giving the New Testament Church the number of the Old Testament Church—twelve—and then is never mentioned again. All we have is a name—one name, mind you, not three, like the other guy, “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus.” Some of the disciples were probably thinking, ‘A guy with three names? We know that Jesus liked to give us nicknames, but that’s a little much. Let’s just keep it simple.’ And God gave them Matthias. Just Matthias.

Even in our text today, we learn more about Judas than we do about Matthias. In fact, that’s who Peter and the apostles spend most of their time talking about. “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” Judas was placed into the very same office that Peter held, the same office that John and Matthew occupied, the same office for which James the son of Zebedee lost his head. Judas was a disciple, he was an apostle. Jesus wasn’t tricking Judas when He called him, He wasn’t secretly calling Judas to the office of ‘betrayer’ when He summoned him to leave his other vocations to follow the incarnate Son of God. Judas held the unique office of the Twelve, he had his share in their ministry; in Matthew chapter ten, he too was given authority over unclean spirits and the power to heal disease, then he was sent out with the others to the villages ahead of Jesus, to prepare the way for Him. Judas presumably even performed a miracle or two in Jesus’ name; he was an apostle, and even as Satan was working on his heart, he fulfilled the tasks of his office in the stead and by the command of Jesus.

But he vacated his office; he turned aside from the office to which Jesus had called him and went, as the Eleven said, “to his own place.” Jesus had called Judas to follow him, Jesus had taught Judas for three years, Jesus had given him authority over demons and disease, and Jesus sent Judas out on vicarage, preparation for the time when Judas was to go forth into all the world with the message of his Lord’s death and resurrection. But Judas turned aside. Instead of bringing the Gospel to the world, he spoke of Jesus to those who wished to kill him, instead of driving out Satan, he invited him in; he did lead others to Jesus, but only so that they could arrest Him and put Him to death. And when he had done his wicked deed, Judas went “to his own place,” he could find no grace, no forgiveness in the temple, and so he dealt with his sin himself, at the end of a rope.

Now his office must be filled. “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it;’ and ‘Let another take his office.’” It’s surprising, when you think about it, that the office that Judas held was not dissolved by his shameful betrayal of that office and His Lord. We wouldn’t have been surprised if the apostles had left his place open, if they had become the Eleven from now on, if they would’ve decided that Judas had so corrupted and poisoned his office that no one could now take it. We place much more of a focus on the man, whether wicked or boring on the one hand, or charismatic and friendly on the other. But that is not the way the office that Christ has established works. Whether it is occupied by Saint John or wicked Judas, the office of apostle and pastor does not depend upon the man. It doesn’t even depend upon his faith. The betrayer of Jesus held this office because Jesus put him there, and Judas cannot corrupt the office, no matter what he does, just as no occupant can make it efficacious. It is Christ’s office, His gift, created by His mandate and institution, and as He lives, never to die again, so His office will endure until He comes again.

And the Church has the mandate from Christ to fill this office. It’s surprising that Jesus didn’t fill the office of Judas before His ascension into heaven. Instead, He leaves it to the Church, assembled together. Before, Christ Himself directly called men into the office; from this point forward, the Church will be His instrument, and we will follow the pattern set forth by the apostles in Acts chapter one. The first act of the apostles is a call meeting! Peter begins by declaring the qualifications: “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when He was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to His resurrection.” The entire Church hears the qualifications set forth from Scripture, and then using her God-given wisdom puts forth qualified men. “And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias.” With the choices before them, the Church prays. “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship.” After prayer, the choice is made. “And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.”

Through the Church, Christ fills His office, as He will for century after century, even until this very day. We still follow this pattern, and we should, with a few differences. Matthias was called to the unique, once-in-history office of apostle, as one of the Twelve. Therefore, the qualifications were a bit different: pastors today are not required to have witnessed the resurrected Lord. And the means of choosing is different: the Church never cast lots again; instead with prayer the Church used its God-given wisdom to choose between qualified candidates. But what is most important remains the same. Matthias, like every pastor since, is called by Jesus through His instrument, His bride, the Church. Matthias is, like Judas, given his share in the ministry of the apostles.

It is not the man, but the office. Who is Matthias? All we have is a name, and that’s just fine, because through Matthias and his companions, his fellow office-holders, we know all about Jesus. It doesn’t ultimately matter whether you have Judas or Matthias, Peter or Matthew, James or John, even Preus or Poppe, Meyer or Maronde, as long as the office is being fulfilled. What matters is whether the Word is rightly taught, and the sacraments rightly administered. Flee false teaching, but do not think that the power of the Word, or the efficacy of the sacraments, depends upon men. Faithful pastors are interchangeable, and the Word they preach, the sacraments they administer, do not depend upon them—thanks be to God! They depend upon Jesus, who gives these gifts to His Church. They depend upon the One who was handed over by the betrayal of Judas, the One who suffered and died at the hands of sinful men, the same One who rose again from the dead victorious over all of your enemies. The forgiveness proclaimed from this pulpit, the forgiveness splashed upon you at this font, the forgiveness placed into your mouth at this altar depends not upon the man who gives it. Pastors simply distribute the good gifts of God. The goodness of the gift doesn’t come from the pastor but from Christ, the giver of every good gift. They are His gifts, and it is His office; His office to fill, and His office to work through, to the ends of the earth. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Septuagesima (Matthew 20:1-16)

“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, you are a Christian, you have faith, because you have been called by Jesus. He came to you in the marketplace of this world, and He hired you to labor in His vineyard. He called you through the preaching of His Word, He hired you in the precious waters of Holy Baptism, He made you a laborer in His vineyard, and then put you to work. Some of you were called at the very beginning, promised your denarius when you were only an infant. Some of you were called at the third hour, when you were a child, as a grandparent or friend brought you to God’s house and His Word. Some of you were called at the sixth or the ninth hour, as young adults or in middle age, perhaps through the prodding of a spouse or child. And some of you were hired at the eleventh hour, toward the end of your time on this earth, having spent a lifetime idle in the marketplace; perhaps you were one of those called to work in the first hour of your life, but then left the vineyard for years, even decades, before you were hired again, with the gentle rebuke of our Lord, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” You joined those hired at the first, third, sixth, or ninth hours, fully aware of how you squandered your life chasing after the things of this world.

All of you are called to work, to labor in the vineyard, producing the fruit of love toward God and love toward your neighbor. Your work is not easy, for life as a Christian is not easy, you bear the burden of the day and its heat: the burden of dying to yourself in repentance every single day, the heat of persecution. You face the hatred of the world, you face the resistance of your own sinful nature, that Old Adam who needs to be drowned day after day. With great struggles, you seek to keep yourself from the fleeting pleasures that this world offers, and when you fall, you go to your knees in repentance. Your labor has been hard, and for some of you, it has been long. So long, and so hard, in fact, that you who were hired first, even those hired at the third or sixth hours, have begun to forget just how things work in the kingdom of God.

You have begun to forget that the Master hired you, that He promised you a denarius when the day was over, that He made you a laborer and promised you the wage before you had worked for one second in the vineyard. You take your eyes off the Master, and begin to look at yourself, you begin to examine your fellow workers. You have worked so long and so hard that you have begun to think that the Master owes you for your work. No longer are your eyes fixed on the Master, trusting His promise, the denarius that is coming, but they are fixed on yourself, as you evaluate what you deserve to receive from Jesus, and on your fellow workers, as you evaluate whether they deserve the same wage. You are no longer thinking of the denarius as grace, but as justice, Jesus giving you what He owes you, His repayment for all your work.

You who have been hired later perhaps have a different perspective. You too have let your eyes stray from your Master, you also are looking at yourself, and at your fellow laborers. You are all too aware of the life you led before, the time you wasted idle in the marketplace, chasing after the pleasures of the flesh, perhaps knowing the kind of labor that went on in the vineyard and wanting nothing to do with it. You are painfully aware of how you have stumbled and fallen since He hired you, seemingly every day. You look at your fellow laborers, your fellow Christians, and to you they all seem to be much more deserving of a denarius than you. If you could read their minds, if you knew that those who have labored all day feel entitled to their denarius, you would probably agree. You don’t feel entitled at all, you feel completely undeserving, and you have a sneaking suspicion that when the day’s end comes, the Master won’t have anything for you at all. You’ve come too late, you were idle too long; the Master will have nothing left to give.

So there is fear and there is confidence among the workers as the Master makes ready to pay the wages. “And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’” The last will be first, and the first last. As the decisive moment comes, eyes are finally all fixed on the Master. “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.” A denarius! You cannot believe what you hold in your hand—a denarius! The denarius of heaven, the denarius of eternal life, given to you called so late, you who were idle so long, you who have such sin in your past, you who have stumbled so often. A denarius for you, and you go your way rejoicing.

There is certainly some rejoicing among you who stand farther back in line, a smattering of applause. Your Master certainly is generous, as you who have served Him the longest know best. And now your expectations are through the roof. Yes, you’re glad that the Master has something left over for those who were idle for so long, but you are the ones who have put in all the work. “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.” A denarius? You cannot believe what you hold in your hand—a denarius? The same denarius given to those who were idle, those who despised the Master’s call for so long, those who have so much sinful baggage that they might as well drive around in a U-Haul? A denarius? “And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house.”

Your cause is just, your argument is sound. Every other worker on this planet would agree with you. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” What was the point of laboring so hard, what was the benefit of working so long? You have made him, you have made her, equal to me? Don’t you know what they’ve done, don’t you know what they’ve done to me? Mission work around the world is just fine, and we feel very good about sending our dollars overseas, but when it comes to extending the call of the Gospel to those we know, or think we know, we are less enthusiastic. We know what they’re like, and we know they don’t deserve any grace, at least not as much grace as we deserve. Does the town drunk deserve a denarius? How about a drug addict? A sex offender? A murderer or a thief? But we don’t even have to be so extreme. What about the ones who have lived much of their lives not caring what God says? What about those you see on the street that you would rather not see in your church? What about those who have sinned against you, perhaps quite terribly? Do they deserve a denarius? That is really the question: do those hired at the eleventh hour, those who hear the call of the Gospel after having lived a life of sin, or having sinned against me, or having stood idle in the marketplace, deserve the denarius at the end of the day?

Not in comparison with me. You know how I’ve worked, Lord, you know how I’ve toiled, you know the sacrifices I’ve made, the pleasures I’ve foregone to labor in your vineyard. I’ve been an elder, I’ve been on altar guild, I’ve been here every week, I’ve volunteered at every event. I’ve…yes, there’s the problem. We’ve taken our eyes off of the Master, and we’ve been looking at ourselves, we’ve been looking at our fellow laborers. If we had fixed our eyes on our Master, it wouldn’t have mattered what anyone else received. The Master chides us, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I chose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” It was evil in our eyes that our Master was good, so good in fact that He gave to every laborer the same wage; He treated every repentant sinner the same. Do you feel entitled to a denarius? Do you look down upon your fellow laborers, do your eyes stray from the Master to them? Repent. Repent and rejoice that the Master has grace for every sinner, hired at every hour, even you.

That is what grace is; a gift, not earned in any way. The laborers do not work to earn their denarius, they are given a denarius because they have been called, they were hired, it was promised to them the moment they were called to the vineyard. Not the way you would run a business, but the kingdom of heaven rarely gives a good pattern for making money. Jesus isn’t in the business of justice, He is all about grace. Justice would mean no calling, no hiring, and no wages—for anyone. Jesus doesn’t owe you, or anyone, anything. But in grace He loves you and welcomes you into His kingdom, His vineyard, by having justice done upon Him. Those hired first complain, “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Jesus could’ve replied, “No, I have made you and them equal to me, who actually has borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” We are sorely mistaken if we think it was our labor that earned the denarius; it was the labor of Jesus, His bloody, tortuous, deadly labor on our behalf that earned the denarius for each one of us. Justice for us was death and hell, but Jesus suffered both in our place. Justice was exacted from Him, grace is given to us.

Grace by its very nature, by its very definition, is a gift undeserved, unearned. The Lord rewards those who don’t deserve it, and every laborer in His vineyard doesn’t deserve it. Yet, He still gives, He gives abundantly, He gives in overflowing measure, He gives to you. The last will be first and the first last, and we rejoice, for we were all last, and we all, together as members of the body of Christ, in every age, in every generation, called at any hour of the day, will be first. We will all receive what Christ has promised us: the denarius of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Our Master is good, He is gracious, He gives us what we do not deserve—thanks be to God! In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany/Sanctity of Life Sunday (Romans 13:8-10)

“The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Sanctity of Life Sunday is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ, the Law is fulfilled by love, the love of Jesus for you. In love, Jesus came to keep every Law, every command, every statute perfectly, then He died the death deserved by those who didn’t. In love, Jesus fulfilled every one of the Law’s demands, and endured every one of the Law’s punishments. Christ shows love to His friends, His companions, those who love Him and follow Him, the members of the body of Christ. Christ shows love to the other, the ones who are different, shunned by the world; His compassion is especially poured out on the poor and downtrodden. Christ shows love to His neighbors, whoever they are, in the Church or still outside, all those in need. That is how He defines the term ‘neighbor’ for us in the parable of the Good Samaritan: the neighbor is the one in need. The disciples and Peter, the thief on the cross, a world trapped in the bondage of sin, you and me: we were all in need, and Christ showed love to us, He helped us, He saved us; His life was laid down in love to fulfill the Law for us.

We were bleeding and dying in the ditch, cast there by our own sin and rebellion, and Jesus did not pass us by. He laid down His life for His friends, but more than just His friends, His enemies as well, indeed every person who ever has lived or ever will live. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.” He did no wrong, but He loved, He forgave, He saved. His love fulfilled the Law, perfectly and completely, and now the Law has no more penalty to execute upon us, it has no more threats to make against us. The Christian is now set free to love one another as God has commanded us. The Law is fulfilled in love born of faith; the Law is fulfilled when believers, when Christians, love others. We love because Christ first loved us. Our love flows from His love, our love mirrors His love. We love as we have been loved, seeking to do no wrong to the neighbor, but freely giving of ourselves for the good of others. We love by laying down our own desires, by placing others in front of ourselves, by not seeking our own needs but the needs of others.

We love because every command God has given is fulfilled by love. We love because it is our obligation as Christians; yes, Lutherans, you heard me right, or, rather, you heard Paul right. He says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.” The Lutheran Confessions say that Scripture uses such expressions “to indicate what we are bound to do because of God’s ordinance, commandment, and will.” Not to earn righteousness, not to become a Christian, but because we are Christians. Love for the neighbor is the Christian life, toward all people.

We first love our fellow Christians; indeed, Christ has placed us into congregations because our fellow Christians need our love. Love begins within the body of Christ. But our love doesn’t end inside these walls, simply with those who are in our church directory, or even with the wider body of Christ in this city or around the world. Paul says, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.” We owe love to the other, to the one who is different, the poor and the downtrodden, the ones who cannot speak for themselves. We love those who are threatened, who are oppressed, who are subject to abuse and exploitation, the unlovable, the ones we would not love on our own. We love the children in the womb, helpless, without a voice, threatened by a culture of death that sees them as expendable, as less than human, as an inconvenience and a ‘choice.’ We love the girls being trafficked, without a home, trapped in a terrible situation, exploited by those who hold abusive power over them. We love the elderly and dying, often without a voice, viewed as a burden to those who should love them. We love the disabled and the infirm, who are different than us, often profoundly different, who are ignored, or exposed to ridicule and abuse. We love each and every person regardless of age, development, or any other factor that makes them different than us, because they are made in the image of God, because they are loved by God, because Christ died for them as He died for us.

If we learn anything from the book of Jonah, it is that we do not get to pick and choose who to show love to. Christians love all people, those in the body of Christ first of all, then all those in the world around us. We love those who have made mistakes, who are desperately searching for a word of hope. In a 2015 study, 65% of women facing a crisis pregnancy thought that church members were more likely to gossip about their situation than offer help. These women expected the church only to condemn, they expected members to simply talk behind their back, they expected no understanding. They expected the church to reject them because they are sinful, because they have committed that sin. And because they expect no help, no love, they so often listen to what the world offers, and what the world offers is death. The Sixth Commandment unconfessed, unforgiven, then leads to the Fifth Commandment unconfessed, unforgiven. The same women who feared to tell the church when they faced a crisis pregnancy now fear to tell the church about their abortion. 52% of Christian women who have had an abortion attend worship once a month or more, and more than half of them say that no one at their church knows about their abortion. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Paul tells us. We love sinners; we love them enough to preach the Law which drives to repentance, and we love them enough to bring them Jesus, who forgives their sins.

But we do not stop with words, as Saint James exhorts us: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” We love them in tangible ways, we love them so that the voices of death are left with nothing to say. We shower these women with love, not to ignore or excuse sin, but to forgive it, and then to help broken sinners deal with the consequences of sin. We do this with every other sin, every other sinner; that is what why the Church exists, and it is no different for sins of the Sixth and Fifth Commandments. In that same 2015 study, 54% of women who have had an abortion said that they would not recommend that anyone discuss their crisis pregnancy with a local congregation. Certainly many avoid the church because they are not repentant in the least and don’t want to hear the Law, but for many more, they stay away because they expect no love from Christians. Dear friends, the Christian church, this congregation, should be the first place that women can go when they have fallen into sin, when they face a crisis pregnancy, or after they have had an abortion. We have what they need: first and foremost, the free and abundant grace of God in the forgiveness of sins, and then a community of believers who will love and support them and their child. We love our neighbor, and as Jesus teaches us, the neighbor is the one who is in need. The unborn child is in need of our protection, his mother is in need of our love.

We love them because Christ loves them, because Christ loves us. Every command is summed up by love, it is only fulfilled by love; keeping a commandment out of fear of punishment or to earn brownie points before God is actually sinful. Only good works done in faith are good; the commandments are only kept by love born of faith. We do not love others for our own good; that is spiritual abuse, using my neighbor as a means for me to earn something before God or men. We do not love the unlovable so that others will be impressed, so that we will exalted in the eyes of others. We do not love our neighbor so that we can get into heaven or have a better place in heaven. We love them because Christ loves them, because Christ loves us.

The new man delights to love one another in the body of Christ, the new man delights to love the other who is different, indeed the new man delights to love any neighbor who is in need. But you do not only have the new man dwelling within you. The old man has love for no one but yourself. There are times when you have lived according to the flesh, when you have failed to love your neighbor, the unborn children of America, a child in your womb, or any other person. There are times when you have failed to show love to desperate sinners, but have callously let the woman in crisis remain in crisis, you have looked down upon one hungering for a word of grace. Repent, and hear the Gospel. If you have committed a sin, any sin, but especially the sins of the Sixth and Fifth Commandments, come to the waters of life, come to the forgiveness pouring from the riven side of Jesus, come to this place. Do not come clinging to your sin, seeking affirmation, but come in repentance, despairing of your sin. Come and hear the words which heal, the words which bring you the very love of Christ Himself: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” Come and hear these words as often as they are proclaimed; call on your pastor to proclaim them to you one on one; the sin of abortion, as devastating as it is, is not unforgivable, and neither is any other sin. Christ’s love has fulfilled the Law for you; Christ in love has taken your judgment upon Himself, Christ loves you, and His love is eternal. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Second Sunday after the Epiphany/Mission Festival (Romans 12:6-16)

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the twelfth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ: Jesus is the One with the gift of prophecy, as He proclaimed to us the will of God, especially God’s salvation through His Son. Jesus is the One with the gift of service, as He came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. Jesus is the One with the gift of teaching, as He taught all who would listen about the nature of the kingdom of God that was breaking into this sinful world like light in a dark place. Jesus is the One with the gift of exhortation, as He encourages us to repent, to turn away from our sins, and believe in the redemption that He has brought. Jesus is the One with the gift of contribution, as He gave all that He had, laying aside His glory to take humble flesh and then laying aside His life to die in your place. Jesus is the One with the gift of ruling, as He is the head of His body, the Church, and He leads and guides her to green pastures and streams of living water, where He will wipe away tears from all faces. Jesus is the One with the gift of showing mercy, divine mercy, overflowing mercy, not giving us what we deserve, but taking that judgment, that punishment upon Himself.

Jesus is the One who possesses every spiritual gift; they are His, and they are His perfectly, in full and complete measure. And He who possesses every spiritual gift then delights to give them away, to you and to me. Spiritual gifts are just that—gifts!—they belong to Jesus, but He entrusts them to our care, we are stewards of them, not owners. He gives them to each person individually, for us to use for the good of others, as Saint Paul says, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” Spiritual gifts are given on an individual basis, to each person as Jesus, the possessor of every spiritual gift, sees fit. Different gifts are given to different people, and the same gift is not given in the same way to any two Christians. Jesus gives them in exactly the way that they are needed, not for our own good, but for the good of the body of Christ and the good of a world trapped in the darkness of sin.

Spiritual gifts are not given for the purposes of pride, to puff out chests and inflate egos, to lead us to look down upon those who we don’t think are quite as gifted as we are. Paul warns against such arrogance later in our text. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” I’m just old enough to remember the fervor, really the nonsense, that once accompanied the subject of spiritual gifts. It was once quite trendy, and a quick Google search will tell you that in many places it still is today, for churches to give out ‘spiritual gift inventories’ to help you to identify your gifts, and then give you opportunities to exercise them in various roles within the congregation. This was a Christian version of a personality or career test: find your gift, and we’ll slot you in the right job.

Spiritual gifts then become a mystery, something that I can’t find out until I take this test; often the language of ‘discovery’ is used, as if Jesus makes us search around for how He has blessed us. Spiritual gifts, instead of being received as a gift, are then a source of pride, as we identify for ourselves (using someone’s test) what gifts we have and then call on others to recognize them. Spiritual gifts are then simply a synonym for personality strengths, that I must be allowed to exercise in the way I think they should be used. Most devastating, spiritual gifts are then set up against and above the vocations that God has called us to, they are used as excuses to leave vocations God has given or to seek vocations that He has not. Scripture forbids a woman to serve as a pastor, but many sought that office after a spiritual gift inventory claimed to identify the gift of preaching.

Such a perspective on spiritual gifts is completely contrary to how Paul would have us use the gifts Jesus has given. Spiritual gifts are not given for the self, they are not given for our own good. They are not given to benefit our own life, to exalt ourselves in the eyes of others, or as leverage for church offices. Spiritual gifts don’t belong to us, they are not our possession; Jesus possesses them all, and He gives them how and where He wills, all for the good of the body, His Body, the Church, and for the extension of the kingdom of God throughout the world. The question then is not, ‘what spiritual gift do I have?’ but instead, ‘where has God placed me and what has He called on me to do in that vocation?’ The spiritual gifts that Paul lists here are all general and generic, and that’s the point: the focus isn’t on the gift, the focus is on using whatever God has given you, in whatever vocation He has placed you, in genuine love for your neighbor, as Saint Paul teaches: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

Jesus gives spiritual gifts to individuals for the good of the body of Christ, in each and every place, to show love to our brothers and sisters in our congregation and around the world. He gives gifts to you and to me, spiritual gifts, and also material gifts, to supply what others lack, what is needed in the body of Christ. He uses us in our vocation, He uses us according to the gifts He has given to us, as we, hearing the exhortation of Paul, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” What we have, what gifts have been given to us, we use to supply what is lacking among others, trusting that God will use others to then supply what we lack. This happens in a congregation, as the body of Christ comes together to educate our young, maintain a building, and spread the Gospel, not only the direct preaching of the Word from this pulpit, but those who support this proclamation in numerous ways, and who take it into their vocations during the week. The Christian congregation is an assembly of saints with different gifts, each using them for the good of the body, each one supplying what the other lacks; each member is vital, each is blessed individually for the good of the whole. We see this on a much larger scale when we look at a church body or at the body of Christ spread throughout the world; individuals, congregations, and church bodies in love supply what others lack, using all gifts for the good of the body and the extension of the kingdom of God.

Lutheran Theological Seminary in Pretoria, South Africa has students, men who wish to become pastors and spread the Gospel in their native land, who hunger and thirst for Lutheran theology, but what don’t they have? They don’t have enough teachers, they don’t have enough materials, and they don’t have enough money. What do we have? We have men who can teach, we have the books, and we have been blessed to live in a prosperous land; we can supply what they need. That is what mission work is all about: we supply what others lack, but we are not left unchanged, as they supply what we lack, exhorting us to be faithful to God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions, and refreshing us with their zeal to know and learn more about the truths of the faith.

This exchange of love in the body of Christ is a source of joy, because we are not looking to our own pride, but to the good of others. Saint Paul encourages us, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” The Church is a body, and we do not exalt ourselves over other members of that body, we do not look down on them in pride for any deficiency they may have, but with joy we fervently seek their good, for we all are loved by a God who seeks our good—it is His love, first shown to us, that we then show to others.

Jesus is the One whose love is genuine, never false, never fake, never a show, but always sincere, always honest, always true. Jesus is the One who abhorred what is evil, refusing to give in to Satan’s temptations, refusing to abandon the road of the cross, and instead chose the good: what was good for us, His death, in our place, on a Friday we still call ‘Good.’ Jesus is the One who loves us with brotherly affection, for we have been made His brothers and sisters, brought into His family, by our baptism into His Name. Jesus is the One who shows honor to all, especially the lowly, especially the downtrodden, especially those whom the world has forgotten. Jesus is the One whose zeal is never slothful, but is fervent in His service of you and me with His gifts, pouring out His love and forgiveness in manifest ways. Jesus is the One who rejoiced in the hope of His Father’s vindication, was patient in the tribulations inflicted upon Him for your sake, who constantly cried out to His Father in prayer, and was heard. Jesus is the One who contributes all He has for the needs of the saints, and He shows hospitality to us, calling on us to take shelter under His wings. Jesus is the One who blessed those who persecuted Him, asking God to forgive them as they nailed Him to the tree. Jesus is the One who rejoices with you who rejoice, as you celebrate that gifts and blessings that flow into your life, provision from a generous God, and Jesus is the One who weeps with you who weep, as you face the struggles and challenges of living in a still-fallen world. Jesus is the One who is never haughty, who is not embarrassed to associate with sinners; in fact, He never associates with anyone else. He associates with sinners in order to forgive them. He associates with you, He forgives you, because He loves you; He has every gift in full measure, He has fulfilled every exhortation on your behalf. His love is genuine, and it will never fail, it is His greatest gift. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.