Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Proper 21 of Series C (Luke 16:19-31)

“If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, is the Bible enough? I mean, is it really sufficient for our lives, and most importantly for our salvation? If you look around at the religious landscape in our world, the answer comes back as ‘no.’ The Mormons and Muslims pay lip service to the Bible, but while they see it as an important book, everything has to be interpreted through the lens of the Book of Mormon or the Koran. The Roman Catholic Church for centuries has held up two authorities as equal to the Word of God- Tradition and the authority of the Church, meaning that only they can tell us what Scripture really means. For the past couple centuries many secular scholars, and even Christian theologians, have claimed that the Bible cannot be interpreted properly apart from science and human reason, eliminating miracles and other parts of the Bible that are simply unbelievable. Finally, many Christians in our world today hold up the winds of culture as the highest authority, and therefore we should only listen to the Bible when it agrees with what our world is saying. All of these groups have in common the belief that sure, the Bible is a good book, but it is definitely not sufficient for our faith and life.

The rich man Jesus tells us about in our text for today certainly didn’t find the word of God sufficient to govern his life. “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” He placed his own pleasure over the Word of God, because clearly he had a lot of wealth for the specific purpose of spending it. He didn’t just feast on special occasions, because each and every day was a day to celebrate himself! He wasted his possessions, all the gifts that he had been given by God, on his own wants. His life was his own, and he was going to live it up! This didn’t change when a man in need was placed outside his door. “And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.” Lazarus’ friends placed him there so that he could be fed from the overflowing bounty of the rich man’s table, but none was forthcoming. Even though the Word of God has some pretty clear things to say about providing for the needy, the rich man followed just one law- my wealth is only for me!

In striking contrast with the luxury of his life, Jesus describes the death of the rich man very simply: “The rich man also died and was buried.” And that quickly the rich man learned that when you live only for yourself, you are left alone in eternity. All of his wealth, all of his luxury, all of his feasting no longer mattered at all. He now dwelt in hell, separated from God, in torment from the flames, searching for even the touch of a drop of water, but finding no comfort. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot avert our eyes from this picture of hell that Jesus gives us in text! We would rather not think of this place of torment, but here Jesus describes in living color the consequences that this man who lived only for himself faced. Even father Abraham cannot bring him comfort, and says: “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” The chasm between God and man created by the fall into sin still exists for the rich man.

Therefore, the rich man cannot receive any mercy. His time to repent and turn to God’s Word is past, and so now his concern turns to those who shared in his selfish lifestyle. “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house- for I have five brothers- so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” Abraham points out the obvious: just like the rich man, these five brothers have the Bible as well, and it clearly shows the way of salvation. “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’” But these five brothers had lived much like the rich man; they gained wealth only for themselves, and cared little for the poor and needy placed right outside their door. Therefore, the rich man, as he dwells in torment, declares that Bible is clearly not enough to convince these guys.

“And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’” The rich man believes that the Bible is not enough for salvation, it is not enough to convince someone to repent. There needs to be miracles, great miracles of God; only an extraordinary event will convince those living only for themselves to turn to God. Surely if someone rose from the dead, all would believe, right? St. Paul declares in 1 Corinthians chapter fifteen: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Jesus Christ, the very one who tells this parable, rose from the dead Himself, testifying to the entire world His great victory over death. He did exactly what the rich man asked, except that He did not send Lazarus, but Himself, risen from the dead to call all people to Himself. And yet, as Abraham predicted, this greatest of God’s great miracles still did not convince them. The five brothers, and those like them, refused to be convinced by Christ’s resurrection, and throughout the centuries many, many people have refused to be convinced by the testimony of that resurrection in God’s Word. They reject the apostles; they reject the Word they brought; they reject Jesus Himself, and therefore they earn for themselves the same sentence as the rich man.

But yet there are those who are convinced by the Word of God. Lazarus spends his life covered with sores, longing to eat just the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table, but no one gave him anything. No one invited him to the table, no one even gave him the scraps. But at his death, everything was reversed. In stark contrast to the fact that the rich man simply “died and was buried,” Jesus says, “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” The old translation is even more descriptive; it says that the poor man was carried to ‘Abraham’s bosom,’ a place of comfort, a place of security, but more than that, a place at the feast. For in biblical times, being in someone’s bosom meant that you occupied the place of honor at the feast, leaning against the host at a great banquet. This poor man, who could not even get a crumb from the table of the rich man during his life, spends eternity at the feast of heaven, the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom.

He is joined by all others who have been convinced by the Word of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His Holy Spirit works through that Word and proclamation of Christ’s victory to create faith within sinful and rebellious hearts, as He has done for you and for me. Throughout the book of Acts, the apostles are bringing that message to people, the message of the death and resurrection of Christ. They are convincing people that Jesus died for them, and the Holy Spirit is working through their testimony to create faith in the hearts of sinful people. They provide the witness that the rich man wanted Lazarus to give his brothers, the witness to the great works of our God on the behalf of humankind. The apostles still testify to you and me through the Holy Scriptures, creating and sustaining faith within us, faith which convinces us that Jesus is the Messiah, our Savior.

For Jesus Christ is the one who rose from the dead for your salvation. He marched triumphant from the open grave so that you will never have to face the horrors and torment that the rich man experienced in hell. Jesus faced death in your place, but more than that, He faced every bit of the punishment that the rich man experienced in hell- He faced hell itself, everything from the fiery wrath of God over sin to the abandonment of the Father. For on that cross, Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, experienced the great chasm that Abraham spoke about, the divide between God and man because of our sin. Jesus Christ faced it so that He could conquer it. He paid the price that we owed with His very own blood, and in that great giving of Himself for us He eliminated that tragic division between us and our creator. Abraham said in our text: “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” That was the reality of the broken relationship between God and you, between God and me, between God and all people. No more! Christ’s victory over sin, death, and Satan through His death and resurrection has bridged that chasm, it has brought that separation to an end. Through His shed blood on your behalf, the relationship is restored, and now heaven is yours!

If Jesus gave us a painfully vivid picture of hell, He also gives us a beautifully vibrant picture of heaven. Brothers and sisters in Christ, do not avert your eyes from this picture of heaven, for it is your destination. Through the blood of Christ shed for you, you too will dwell in Abraham’s bosom, at his side in the feast that will have no end. There you will be comforted, there you will be fed, there you will rejoice over the salvation brought by your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is what God’s Word proclaims to you, the story of salvation in Jesus Christ, and through that message God brings you to the feast.

Dear friends in Christ, when Abraham essentially asked the rich man, “Is the Bible enough?” the rich man replied, “No, Father Abraham.” I asked the same question of you today, and listed out many religious groups that say as well, “No, Father Abraham.” Now, I ask again, “Is the Bible enough?” Your joyous answer this day and every day is a resounding yes! The Bible is enough because it proclaims to you Jesus, the One who died and rose again for your sin, the One who died and rose again to bridge the chasm between you and God. The Bible does not only show the way to salvation, it actually delivers salvation, because through it the Holy Spirit convinces us that Jesus is our Savior by working faith in our hearts. Thanks be to God that He has given us all we need in our Word, and has delivered that Word to us once again this day! In the name of the one who truly rose from the dead according to the Scriptures, Amen.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Proper 20 of Series C (Luke 16:1-15)

“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, we are managers. Everything that we have belongs to God, and we simply manage it. Our Creator has given us all that we need for this body and life, as Luther describes in the Small Catechism: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all that I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.” Now, a manager is someone who has been entrusted with the care of someone else’s property. God has given us all those gifts that Dr. Luther listed out, and He entrusts those gifts to us for our management. We are to watch over those gifts and use them wisely, for Jesus says in our text for today: “And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?”

This whole approach is in drastic contrast with how the world teaches us to use our possessions. In the eyes of our world, our possessions are our own, to be used to benefit ourselves. We worked hard to earn them, right? They belong to us, and no one else. We don’t want to be stewards, simply managing someone else’s property, but instead we want to be in charge, taking care of what is our own. Our possessions and money are only for ourselves, not for anyone else. And that is where God takes issue with us. His prophet Amos cried out against those in his day: “Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end.” These people cheated the poor and needy, they concerned themselves only with how to make more money. They kept all that they had for themselves, and built a great idol out of their possessions. This is the very definition of being dishonest with what God has given us. For this reason, in our text, Jesus actually calls money ‘unrighteous wealth.’ We are used to money being described in the Bible as neutral, neither good nor bad. But Jesus teaches us that money corrupts, and therefore its default setting is unrighteousness. We see this every day, even in our own lives.

But Jesus also teaches us in our text that ‘unrighteous wealth’ does have a use. Even if its default setting is corruption and idolatry, it can be used for the good. To illustrate this, Jesus tells the most difficult parable we have recorded for us in the Gospels, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. People have puzzled over this story for centuries, and there is no surprise why. Jesus here seems to praise a guy who ‘cooks the books,’ who cheats his master in order to secure a more comfortable living when he is fired! What is going on here? I think that if we literally applied this parable to our daily lives, we probably would come back here next week either fired or with the IRS after us, or both. There has to be something more here, and I think that the solution is found in Jesus’ conclusion to the parable in verse nine: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Jesus’ point is not for us to imitate the manager’s dishonesty, but his use of money to gain friends. Those friends are there for him when he has nothing else left. Listen to what Jesus says in verse eight: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Jesus is saying to us, “Look at how those around you in this world wisely use their money for friends; Christians should be just as wise, but for a much better cause.”

For Jesus calls on us to manage that which the Father has given us for the good of our neighbor. We are to gain friends with our gifts, but not the kind of friends the world expects. When a person in our world gains friends because of money, it is because he has impressed them with his wealth and importance. Jesus has something to say about that to the Pharisees at the end of our text: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” Christians are instead to gain friends by using our blessings to support the spread of the Gospel. These friends will then be ‘friends in Christ,’ those who became Christians at least in some small part through our faithful management of what God has given us. Whether it is through the support of a missionary, the sending of a Bible, or volunteering our time here at church, we are using the gifts that God has provided us to gain friends, fellow believers in Christ. Listen again to what Jesus says: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Our earthly possessions and money will pass away with our mortal bodies, but the friends we gain in Christ, many of whom we will not meet on this earth, will greet us in heaven. That is the essence of being faithful in what God has given us, and as Jesus says, “If you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?”

This faithful stewardship is impossible on our own, for our sinful human nature does not want to admit that we are only managers of what God has given us. Jesus gives us a drastically different perspective toward money and possessions in our text. We can only have this perspective and viewpoint toward our material possessions through God-given wisdom. Only He can create in us the eyes of faith that sees the gifts that God has given us as means for supporting the spread of the Gospel. Only those made the children of the light through baptism can have the wisdom to understand that any wealth on this earth fades away. Only heavenly wisdom realizes that money and possessions are in and of themselves ‘unrighteous wealth,’ and therefore can easily corrupt us. As Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

God-given wisdom only flows from the greater gift that has been given to you, the heavenly treasure that Jesus hints at in our text for today. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?” Jesus calls the things of this world the ‘very little,’ and the heavenly treasure the ‘much.’ God has given us great gifts in this world, all those wonderful and necessary things that Martin Luther listed in the Small Catechism, but His greatest gift was that of His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. God could and does provide all of those other gifts, but without Jesus, all of them would be ultimately useless. Jesus came to give us the greater gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. He came to deliver the true riches, the heavenly riches, the eternal inheritance that we needed, but did not deserve.

We did not earn this treasure through anything of our own; even using our wealth to gain friends for Christ does not earn it. Instead, Christ earned it for us through His suffering and death in our place. There He took all of our sins, including our sins of misusing our possessions and money, and nailed them to the cross, wiping them out and bringing forgiveness to all of us. That is His greatest gift, the gift of the forgiveness of sins, which restored you to your heavenly Father, the One who gives all good gifts. His blood, shed upon the cross, secured for you a treasure that will never fade. All else on this earth will pass away, but because Jesus died for you, you will never die eternally. Your sins are forgiven by the blood of Jesus, and His victory over death three days later is your victory, it is the guarantee that you will live forever in heaven, that your enemies have been defeated by the work of Jesus Christ.

God gave His greatest gift to you, and through Him you now have something that you truly do own, your heavenly inheritance. Listen again to verse twelve of our text: “And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?” Because of Christ’s great love for us, He suffered and died to forgive us for every time that we have not been faithful in managing what belongs to God. And in forgiving our sin, Jesus gives to us something that truly is our own. Everything we have in this life is not ours, but belongs to God. On the other hand, our eternal inheritance is our own, it belongs to us and will be ours into all eternity. Jesus gives it to us as a gift, as something we possess forever. We are only managers of earthly things, but we are owners of salvation through Jesus Christ. You possess it through faith, you have the seal and guarantee that it is yours through your Baptism, where Jesus gave that gift to you. God proclaims to you each and every day that you are a possessor of a heavenly inheritance, one that is more than anything in this life, one that will never fade away, one that is yours through the blood of Christ.

Therefore, when our Lord takes you home to Himself one day, you will be welcomed into the eternal dwellings by all your friends, your fellow believers in Christ throughout the centuries. Most of them you will not know, but not to worry, because we will all have something in common- we have all been redeemed by the blood of Jesus. Some will even say to you, “The Lord worked through the gifts He gave you to bring me to faith.” We look forward to that great day when we will see all of our friends in Christ gathered before the throne of God, as we receive the inheritance that we possess now and into all eternity. In the Name of the One who died to give us that great inheritance, Amen.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Proper 19 of Series C (Luke 15:1-10)

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran pastor, and in fact he trained for the ministry himself. However, he soon turned against his faith, his baptism, and God Himself, becoming one of the most bitter atheists the world has ever known. He considered Christianity a blot on the history of humanity. Nietzsche declared God dead, and then dedicated his career to writing the obituary. But despite his incredibly hard heart, this man was a tortured soul, groping in the dark for an unknown God. Before he became insane, Nietzsche cried out to Christians: “You must sing me a better song so that I learn to believe in your Redeemer: Why are His disciples so joyless in their salvation?” This hardened atheist who died over a hundred years ago looked at Christians, at people like you and me, and what does he criticize? A lack of joy.

Where would this lack of joy come from? Certainly not from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus exuded joy, for He had come to welcome sinners with joy. His joy was in spending time with those who were outcast, who had fallen in almost any way possible. Listen to how our text begins: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him.” Jesus preached a message of repentance, of forgiveness, of welcome for those mired in their sin, and the people responded. He pulled up a chair with prostitutes, with cheats and crooks, with the lame and crippled, all who felt the effect of their sin. He did not excuse or endorse their sin, He forgave it, and welcomed them to His table.

For Jesus had come to seek out and find the lost. Those people had become lost from God because of their sin, and so they needed someone to come and rescue them. Jesus is the shepherd that He speaks about in our text. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” Jesus came to search for wandering sheep, those who were lost in the midst of the wilderness. He has come to seek out the lost in every corner of this world, but then also in the house, for Jesus also pictures Himself as the woman who finds a lost coin. “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?” There are many who are lost in the wilderness of this sinful world, but there are also more than a few who are lost in the house, in Christ’s Church. He seeks out all those who are lost despite their occupation of a pew or a slot on the membership list.

It is no mistake that the word used for ‘lost’ in our text is the same word used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe death and destruction. Those who were lost were condemned to death for their sin, but Jesus Christ came to seek them out, to find them and bring them to safety. And this task gives Jesus great and overwhelming joy. “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” Jesus rejoices with every lost sheep that is brought back into a relationship with His heavenly Father, and He invites all people to join Him at His home for a banquet of rejoicing.

But there is a group who refuses to rejoice or join the banquet. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” They have no joy in the reception of sinners by Jesus. In fact, they look down upon sinners, and can’t believe that Jesus is wasting His time with them. You know how it is. Someone comes into Church that you know has led a sinful life, and immediately they receive stares from everyone. “You don’t belong here with all of us good people,” is what our eyes say. There is no joy at a sinner being brought to the Lord, instead there is a sense of outrage. “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Never mind that the Pharisees and scribes were meant to shepherd the people, that they were to care for God’s beloved flock and bring in the wandering sheep. No matter that we as Christians are to be the instruments of Christ as He seeks out those who have wandered. No, it seems much easier to stand stubbornly outside the feast and shake our heads, wondering why Jesus would bother with such awful people. This is what Nietzsche saw when he said, “Why are His disciples so joyless in their salvation?”

For the ninety-nine other sheep do not realize that they are lost themselves, they are content to stay in the wilderness, outside the feast. Jesus describes the ninety-nine sheep as those who have ‘no need of repentance.’ There is more than a little irony in Jesus’ words. There is not a single person on the face of this earth, then or now, that has no need of repentance. All are sinful, all need to repent of their sin. But the ninety-nine are those who think they don’t need repentance. They don’t see that they are lost, they don’t see the wilderness for what it is, a place of danger, a place of death, and so they stay there, comfortably grazing away. They are self-righteous, convinced that they are all right with God, or that there is no God to be right with in the first place. They scoff at those who Jesus has to go find: “It’s a good thing I’m not like them!” And so what happens to these sheep? Jesus cannot bring home sheep who stubbornly refuse to admit that they are lost, and so they remain in the wilderness, lost and wandering but under the delusion that they are doing great. That is, until the last day comes, and they see clearly that they are outside the feast and will spend eternity in the wilderness.

In our Old Testament lesson for today, God promises to seize the reigns from those shepherds of Israel and take charge of the flock Himself. “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Jesus Christ has come as the fulfillment of that promise. He seeks out all the lost, you and me, bringing us out of the wilderness and into the banquet feast. All who despair of their sin, who know that they need deliverance from their corruption, are sought out by Jesus, and He brings them to His Father with great joy. He even seeks out those who obstinately refuse to see that they are in the wilderness, using the Law to show them their need for a Savior. We all were those wandering sheep, unable even to realize that we were lost. But Jesus came as the shepherd promised by Ezekiel, who came to seek out wandering and stubborn sheep, those lost in their trespasses and sins. And He did this by paying the price.

In Matthew chapter thirteen Jesus says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Jesus searches us out and then sold all that He had to pay the price for us. He gave up His very own life into death as the payment for lost and wandering sheep, submitting to the cross on our behalf. He sold all He had to buy us back from sin and death, He paid the price we owed for our sin. His innocent life, His precious blood was the price to redeem us, and He paid it in full, submitting to the torture and humiliation of sinful people and the wrath of God itself in our place. Having paid this price, having submitted to death on our behalf, Jesus seeks us out through the work of the Holy Spirit in both Word and Sacrament. His Word proclaimed from this pulpit or in your private conversations during the week seeks out wandering sheep, and Jesus works through that Word to find the lost and bring them to the Father. In Holy Baptism, Christ brings wandering sheep home, claiming you as His own through the water joined with the Word. Therefore, rejoice, for you are found! Christ has claimed you as His own, He has sought you out when you were lost and brought you home to Himself!

After finding her coin, the woman in Jesus’ parable said, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” She invites her friends and neighbors to join her at a victory feast. Jesus gives us the explanation: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Every sinner that Christ brings to the Father is cause for celebration, for rejoicing, for a feast. That is what heaven is, the victory feast of all who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. There will be rejoicing there that we cannot even imagine, joy expressed by the angel choirs, joy from those who Christ sought out and brought to the Father, joy over the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death through His death and resurrection. Heaven is the banquet of joy, and you and I will be a part of it, seated with all the redeemed at the feast that lasts into all eternity. In fact, even on this earth we are a part of that joyous banquet, each and every time we come to the Lord’s Table. Here we eat with Christ, we partake of the Lord’s Body and Blood with fellow sinners, those who have also been found by the Lord who seeks out and finds the lost.

We find joy in the redemption of Christ, in His shed blood, in His seeking and finding of you and me, and we have great joy every time that Christ finds another sinner in the wilderness and brings him or her to the feast. Even though we live in a difficult and sinful world, our joy is not based on anything in this world, but on Christ and what He has done for us. Someday He will bring us to our heavenly home like the shepherd did in our text. “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” On that day He will present you to His Father with great joy, and you will join in that joy for all eternity. We rejoice in the Lord for His great redemption! In His Name, Amen.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Proper 18 of Series C (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

“Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the thirtieth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. Dear friends in Christ: Deuteronomy is a very unique book. It is the capstone and culmination of the Torah, the five books of Moses, and in many ways it is Moses’ last will and testament, his final instructions to Israel before he dies and they enter the Promised Land. And the words we heard read this morning come from the end of that last will and testament, and are therefore vitally important. Listen again to what Moses says, to the people he led and then also to you and me: “Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” Just before our text, Moses had something to say about these final words. “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” Really, Moses? You are really telling us that this ‘choose life’ is an easy command? I think that you’ve been spending too much time with your head literally in the clouds.

Choosing life is not so simple of a thing when we live in the midst of a culture of death. Look around you in our world today, and you will see that human life has less and less value. And we see this from the very beginning of life: We live in a country that slaughters her children! Our culture has been killing the next generation for forty years, to the toll of over fifty million. Some of you, like me, are those who have grown up in the ‘abortion age,’ who are painfully aware that many of our peers are not here, but were snuffed out in the safest place for a human being to dwell. God created a mother’s womb to protect a young human life, to bring him or her forth into the world safely. But in the United States of America, a mother’s womb is a place of death, where thousands are killed each and every day. We live in a culture of death, we live in a country with blood on its hands, that has actually legalized the killing of the most vulnerable among us.

Not only do we kill our children, but we even use them in experiments, those not yet born sacrificed for those whose only advantage is that they are outside the womb. It is the tyranny of the born over against the unborn. And if our culture can kill its children, then those who are at the end of life are threatened as well. For if we cannot protect our children from death by abortion on demand, then there is little hope for anyone else that has seemingly little use. It makes sense, doesn’t it, to our culture of death. If children can be killed because they aren’t fully developed, then those who have lost some of their abilities toward the end of their lives are expendable as well. This is already happening in our world today, and it will continue to happen. Choose life, Moses? Really? We live in the midst of death, surrounded by it, we live in a culture obsessed with it.

Not only that, Moses, but our world itself is dying, and it has been dying since Adam and Eve plunged it into sin and corruption. Ever since they followed the temptation of Satan and disobeyed the command of God, this world has been dying, and we humans with it. Death reigns in our world, for the wages of sin is death, and we are all sinful. The teachers of evolution will try to tell us that death is natural, even necessary for natural selection, but deep down we know that this isn’t true. We know that death is an invasion, an unwanted visitor, but yet it is here, and it corrupts everything. In our text, Moses calls the natural, dying world to testify against us. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.” It is well that they should witness against us, for with our sin, we corrupted this world and condemned it to death.

We have all fallen away, we have all followed after false gods, the gods of money, of possessions, of reputation, of ourselves. God declares His judgment on such sin: “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.” Temptation draws us away, it tears us from the God who created us. As our text teaches, our sin has only one penalty- death. Choose, life, Moses? Really? We are sinful and corrupted, we are in open rebellion against God. You have said to us: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” We cannot choose life and good, all we can choose is death and evil, for we are not just dying people, we are dead people, dead in our trespasses and sins. Can a dead man choose life, Moses?

“No,” Moses says, “A dead man cannot choose life. But the culture of death is not the only power at work in our world.” Listen again to what Moses says in the final verse of our text: “He is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” God counters the culture of death that surrounds us with His culture of life. He chose us from the foundation of the world, by His divine foreknowledge He knew that we would be surrounded by death, and so He determined to bring us life in the midst of death. Just as He swore to bring Israel into the Promised Land, so He swore to bring life to us. The prophet Micah testified to this promise: “He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” This is a divine oath, the promise of God that would not be broken because of His great love for you and me. God acts first. He chose us first, when we couldn’t choose Him, He loved us first when we couldn’t show any love to Him.

Jesus Christ came as the fulfillment of God’s great promise, the promise made on oath by the God of life to His dying world. Jesus came to have compassion on you and me, to show to us the great love that God had for those whom He created. Jesus came to tread our iniquities underfoot, indeed as the prophet says, He came to cast them into the depth of the sea. He came to pay for our sin by submitting to the culture of death on our behalf. He did not only dwell with us in the midst of death, but He took on death itself. He gave Himself up to death in order to conquer death, to make all things new, to reverse the corruption of this sinful and dying world. Death thought that it had won the ultimate victory, but on Easter Sunday the stone rolled away and Jesus walked out victorious over death. With the opening of the tomb, St. Paul can now cry out: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Death has no victory, death has no sting, for death has been defeated by life. Life comes into the midst of death in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He brings life to you, to me, to all who were under the penalty of death for our sin. He even forgives any of us who have participated in the culture of death in any way. All from the most heinous abortionist to the woman hiding the pain of a past abortion find life and forgiveness in the resurrection victory of Jesus Christ.

God always acts first. He chose us, He loved us, He swore to bring us salvation. Through His Son Jesus Christ, He made good on those promises. And now He sends His promised Holy Spirit to us, who works faith in our hearts, faith which chooses life. Here we have the answer to the words of Moses. It is only through the work of the Holy Spirit that we are made alive, that we are enabled to love God and follow in his way. Dead people cannot choose life, only those made alive by Christ’s life-giving Word. Moses said in our text, “Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him, for He is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” This is not a command but a statement of covenantal identity. As those who have been made alive through the waters of Holy Baptism, we will choose life by hearing the One who gives life and clinging to His promises. We hold fast to Him because He is our life, we listen to His Word because that Word gives us life. In verse sixteen of our text, Moses calls this “walking in His ways.”

But this way, the way of those made alive in Christ is not an easy path, for we still dwell in the midst of a culture of death. This is the way of the cross, the path that Jesus Himself trod, and in our Gospel lesson He tells us what to expect. He doesn’t want any believer to be na├»ve about the life of any who are joined with Him, made alive through the waters of Baptism. “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” We will face opposition from the world because we oppose the culture of death, because we confess Jesus as the life of the world. The way of the cross is counter-cultural, it goes against what our own sinful minds want and what others tell us to do and be. The way of the cross can be a lonely road.

But Christ remains our life in the midst of death. He brings life to us, He breathes into our nostrils the very breath of life each and every time that we read or hear His life-giving Word or receive His holy and precious Body and Blood as we do again on this day. At the end of our text Moses speaks of “holding fast” to God. This word is the vocabulary of marriage, it describes the marriage relationship of Christ with His Church, you and me. We hold fast to Jesus because He had joined Himself with us. He has washed you clean, He has claimed you as His own, He has made you alive, and so death no longer has a hold on you. Death is our enemy, but it is a defeated enemy, and now can simply and only be the gateway to life eternal. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!