Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent 3 of Series B (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

“John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands One whom you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’” 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 third Sunday in Advent comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the opening chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: in our world today, finger-pointing is generally discouraged. Right now, Samantha enjoys pointing at anything that catches her attention. Her finger is extended toward puppies, other children, or a toy that is just out of reach. She loves to point, and at her age, it is one of her primary methods of communication. But there will come a time when we will have to teach her that pointing isn’t always appropriate. People don’t like being pointed at, and in our society today, it is consider quite rude, especially when you point at a complete stranger. Pointing is even used to intimidate and bully. Now, as she grows up, Samantha may find herself in situations where pointing is actually required. If she becomes an NFL quarterback, she will need to point out a blitz, to prepare her linemen and receivers for a quick throw. If she serves on a sailing ship, then she may be placed high on the mast, and it could be her job to point to the horizon and declare, ‘Land, ho!’ And as a Christian, she will need to do a lot of pointing, following the example of John the Baptist.

John was a pointer; you can imagine his kindergarten teacher saying just about every day, “For the last time, John, it isn’t polite to point!” But John didn’t listen very well; he loved to point. Not at himself, no, never at himself. He always pointed away from himself. When the Jews sent priests and Levites to ask him “Who are you,” John didn’t answer with who he was, but instead with who he wasn’t. “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” When it comes to talking about himself, John would much rather declare who he is not rather than who he is. He is not the Christ, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet, he is not the Light. John does nothing for his own exaltation or advancement. He is not in the desert baptizing because of his own status or to serve his own glory. In fact, all John does is lower himself; he declares that he is not even worthy to be the lowest servant of the One who is to come. “Among you stands one who you do not know, even He who comes after me, whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” His preaching, his teaching, his baptism has nothing to do with himself. He points away from himself to another.

It’s a little frustrating to interview someone who doesn’t want to talk about himself, and so the priests and Levites get a little impatient. “So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’” If they haven’t figured it out yet, John’s task isn’t to talk about himself, but about another. “He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said.” John is the voice. A voice has no worth in itself, but instead its only task is to speak. John’s mission is to speak of another, the coming One, the Lord whose way must be prepared. The Evangelist puts it best. “He came as a witness, to bear witness about the Light, that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but came to bear witness about the Light.” John has come as the first witness in the great court case that is beginning in our text. Jesus, this carpenter’s son from a no-name town, born under suspicious circumstances, is on trial. Throughout His life, Jesus will testify to His identity, that He is God come in the flesh to save. John is His first witness. He has come baptizing to declare that God has begun the work of salvation, and Jesus is the one who will accomplish it. He points only to Jesus.

Who do you point to? Do you point to Jesus, or to yourself? Christians are called upon to be finger-pointers, to draw attention to Jesus, but most often we draw attention to ourselves. Selfishness is rampart in our society, in fact it’s embedded into our mindset as Americans, and you and I are no different. If someone wrote a newspaper article about you, would Jesus even get mentioned? Our fingers are most often squarely pointed at ourselves, not at Christ. We do this by our sin; every time that we sin against our neighbor, we are taking the focus away from Christ and putting the spotlight on ourselves. We do this by our inaction; we are often too busy focusing on ourselves to confess Christ before the world. We do this by pointing to our own accomplishments, all that we have achieved, with no reference to the God who created and redeemed us; in selfish pride we exalt ourselves. John never exalted himself; instead, he spent most of his time lowering himself so that Christ would increase. Are you willing to decrease so that Christ may increase? John was willing to be nothing, to make himself lower than a servant, in order that Jesus may be exalted. This is risky, this is uncomfortable; those who lower themselves so that Christ will have all the glory pay a price, as John found out. Your pride will have to be sacrificed; all of your thoughts and deeds will have to serve Christ, not the other way around. Like John, you must decrease so that Christ may increase.

But that is not the end of the story. John spent all of his time lowering himself, bowing low in humility before the coming One. Jesus did exactly the opposite; He spent all of His time exalting John. In the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Christ declares, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus exalts John to the first place among the apostles and prophets, all those who pointed to the coming Messiah. John isn’t optional to the story of Jesus, he is essential, because he revealed Jesus to Israel as the coming One, the One who would fulfill all of the promises God had given through the prophets of old. When John tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized, our Lord declared, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” John was essential to the plan of salvation, he was needed to fulfill all righteousness, for John baptized Jesus into the baptism of sinners, revealing Him as the sin-bearer, the beloved Son of the Father who would take the sin of the world away. Jesus exalts John not because John was so accomplished, or so talented, or had so much wealth. Jesus exalts John because of his humble witness. Jesus exalts John because John didn’t exalt himself.

That is the great irony of the Gospel. We don’t have to waste our time exalting ourselves; that’s Jesus’ job! And it’s a task that He loves to do. Jesus exalts the humble. That is what He has come to do. The Law humbles you, showing you where you have rebelled against your loving Creator. Today, the Law has shone a light on your life and pointed out your selfishness, your exaltation of yourself instead of Jesus. You have been brought low by the Law, but take heart. Christ exalts the humble, those who have nothing to give Him but their sin. He came to raise up sinners, to surrender everything for them. He began this task when John baptized Him with the waters of repentance. Jesus stood in the Jordan and submitted to the baptism of John as the sinless One in the place of sinners. Jesus came to humble Himself, to give up everything, even His own life, for the sake of sinners. But in His humiliation He was exalted. He was lifted up, exalted upon the bloody throne of the cross. Good Friday was the enthronement of our King. He wore not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns. He did not establish His kingdom on terror or power, but on humility and service. John didn’t consider himself worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal; Jesus made Himself lower than any man in history upon the cross. There He showed His love for lowly sinners, for you and me. Jesus suffered all, even hell itself, for those whom He loved. Jesus humbled Himself so that you would be exalted.

God accepted His sacrifice on your behalf, raising Him from the dead and then placing Jesus at His right hand. Think about it: the same flesh and blood that you and I bear is now enthroned at the right hand of the living God. This is a pledge, a guarantee, that you will one day be enthroned there as well. He lifts up sinners, exalting them to the throne of God. Because Jesus died, your sin is forgiven. Because Jesus lives, you too will live. Because Jesus is enthroned at the right hand of His Father, so you will be too. No one in this world can exalt you beyond what Jesus has done. There is no need for you to exalt yourself, no need to seek honor and glory from others, for Christ Himself has raised you to the place of eternal glory. Your exaltation is found solely and only in Christ, the one who died for you, rose again for you, and is enthroned in glory for you.

Jesus, like John, is a pointer. He points to you and me and says, “These are my beloved people.” When the Law brings you low, rightfully pointing out your sinful pride so that you tremble before God’s wrath, Jesus points to you this morning and said, “You are forgiven; I will exalt you only because of my shed blood on your behalf.” He points to you when the fear of death confronts you, declaring, “You will live forever because I live. Death has no power over you.” When you suffer disease and infirmity, Jesus points to you and says, “You will one day have a body that will never fail again.” Whenever Satan accuses you, Jesus points to you and says to the evil one, “This is my child, claimed by the waters of Holy Baptism, fed by my Body and Blood. I will not abandon my child.” The Gospel is all about finger-pointing. We point to Jesus and He points to us, declaring who we are and what has been given to us by His shed blood. It may still be rude to finger-point in elementary school, but in the Church it is the way of the Gospel. The Church continues to point sinners to Jesus, as it has since the days of John the Baptist; Christ isn’t generic with His gifts, but He applies them directly to each and every one of you, this day and every day. In the Name of the Light, the One greater than John who humbled Himself for the salvation of all people, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Advent 2 of Series B (Isaiah 40:1-11)

“Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” 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 second Sunday in Advent comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ: voices, voices everywhere! Voices telling you to do this, don’t do that; voices telling you how to think, how to vote, how to shop. The media explosion we have experienced in the past decades has meant that you now hear literally thousands of voices. This time of year, they are telling you which products are trendy and popular, what will look good underneath your tree. Though each voice is different, they all have the same message: buying stuff is what Christmas is all about! As the election season continues to heat up, those voices are promoting candidates, they are debating issues, trying to convince the unconvinced, they are trying to convince you. These voices use any means necessary to speak, and they cry out too loudly to be ignored. It’s nearly impossible to tune out all of these voices, and it’s difficult to avoid being influenced by them or buying into their sweet-sounding message.

Through all of the noise, through the clutter, through the multitude of voices clamoring for your attention, we hear another voice in our text for today: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” I would guess that the vast majority of voices that you hear in this world are saying nothing about comfort. They say much about power and victory and happiness, but precious little about comfort. That is what makes God’s voice different from all the rest; He declares that He will comfort His people, He will bring them the consolation that they need, that they cannot receive from any other voice in this world. This consolation, this comfort, can only come from the promise of deliverance.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” This voice declares comfort, for salvation is coming to us. Our rebellion had plunged us into never-ending war with God Himself, a conflict that we could never win. Sin leads to death, and death could only lead to eternal punishment. But then God speaks comfort. He will deliver His people. Our warfare will end, because our iniquity will be pardoned. The Hebrew word for ‘pardon’ means to receive a sacrifice favorably. Our warfare will end because God will receive favorably the sacrifice for our iniquity. In fact, God Himself will provide that sacrifice, for no offering of bulls or goats could ever fully atone for our sin. Our warfare is about to end, because God will act for our salvation; our iniquity will be pardoned, we will receive a multitude of blessings in place of our sin. Comfort, comfort my people!

Our God is the God who comes. “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” The Lord is coming to accomplish this salvation, to end our warfare, to pardon our iniquity, to give to us double in the place of our sins. He is coming to accomplish a new exodus; to bring His people out from the bondage of sin as He brought them out of Egypt with a mighty, outstretched arm. He is coming, and so the way must be prepared. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice is crying in the wilderness: the glory of the Lord is coming for your salvation- make ready the way of the Lord!

John the Baptist is that voice. He came into the desert to prepare the way for Jesus, for in Him the glory of the Lord is revealed, clothed in our human flesh. John came to level the hills, to raise up the valleys, to clear away the obstacles for the coming Christ. He did this by preaching repentance. Repentance is the only way to be prepared for the coming of God in the flesh, repentance is the only way to clear away the obstacles, to make the paths straight for Christ to come and accomplish salvation. John calls upon you to examine yourself, to look deeply at your life, to see the sin that hides in every nook and cranny. Such an examination will bring only one conclusion: you are fully and completely corrupted by sin. As Isaiah wrote last week, even your righteous deeds are filthy rags. If you don’t find any sin, then you are deceiving yourself, but moreover, you are calling God a liar, for He has declared that all humanity is sinful. Now you have two choices: you can ignore that sin which dwells within you, taking your chances with a holy God, or you can repent, crying out to God for deliverance, for pardon, for forgiveness.

And John stands in the river Jordan, pointing his finger toward the only One who can do something about your sin, indeed the One who has come to end your warfare, pardon your iniquity, and give you eternal comfort, Jesus Christ: “After me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus has come as the glory of the Lord revealed on this earth; He has come to end our warfare by offering Himself as the sacrifice for our iniquity. God receives favorably the sacrifice of His Son, the perfect and sinless one in the place of sinners, giving us an abundance of forgiveness in the place of our sins, and comfort: comfort in this life in the midst of our afflictions, and comfort for eternity in the new heavens and the new earth.

It is that message that we hear from the voice of John, and it is the message that the Church is now given to proclaim. “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” John prepared to Christ’s first coming by calling the people to repentance; the Church now has the task to prepare for Christ’s second coming. You and I are now called upon to cry out. Martin Luther was fond of calling the church a ‘mouth-house.’ He meant that the Church is the place where proclamation happens, where people speak the things God has given them to speak. This first of all happens through the public preaching of God’s Word from this pulpit, the declaration of forgiveness from this chancel, the Words of Institution and the Baptismal formula from this altar and from this font. But that is not the only place we are called on to speak, and pastors are not the only ones who should be speaking. Every Christian is called upon to speak; the Church is a ‘mouth-house’ because the Word is spoken here to you and then you go into the world to speak it to those around you. “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not!”

The voice says, ‘Cry!’ and we ask with Isaiah, ‘What shall we cry?’ “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” We call on this world to repent. We speak boldly of sin, calling on our friends, our family, our neighbors to turn from the ways of the world. We declare the fleeting nature of humanity, that all of our stuff, all of our material possessions, even our own lives, will fade away and be no more. We proclaim the reality of death, that enemy that no one can defeat; we call on all people to look beyond their lives in this world to the things of eternity.

And then we even more boldly proclaim the One who came to defeat both sin and death. “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” Like John, we point to Jesus and we say, “Behold your God!” We point to Jesus as He comes among us in His Word and Sacraments, forgiving sin and defeating death. We point to Jesus as the coming Lord, the One who will return to bring us an eternity without sin, who will come to bring comfort forever. We speak tenderly to those around us, crying to them that their warfare is now over, because their iniquity has been pardoned by the suffering and death of the sinless Son of God. The same glorious message that has been proclaimed to us, that we still need to hear each and every day, we proclaim to those around us. We point to the altar, to the pulpit, to the font, to the Holy Scriptures, and we declare, “Behold your God!”

Our voice may not seem like much in the midst of the thousands of other voices crying out in our world today. It seems like such an overwhelming task to compete with those powerful, enticing voices. Each voice promises something; each has something to offer, some powerful incentive to lure people in. They have all the advantages, and it seems like everyone is listening. But lift up your voice, fear not, because you are called on to speak the Word of the living God. There are voices, voices everywhere, but only the voice of the Lord saves! “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.” Jesus is coming, and His reward is with Him. That reward is you and me, His flock that He won through His shed blood. He will tend you as a loving shepherd, He will gather you up in His arms. He will give you comfort, for your iniquity is pardoned, your transgressions are covered, and you will receive the abundance of heaven in place of your sins. Comfort, comfort my people, for Jesus Christ is coming, and He comes to save you! In His Name, Amen.

Advent 1 of Series B (Isaiah 64:1-9)

“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence- as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil- to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Come down, O Lord! Come and save us, come and deliver us from our enemies! Come with your mighty power, the same majesty and glory that you have had from eternity reveal on this earth! Come down and visit us in salvation, as you did for your people of old. You conquered the Egyptians, you fought for your people, so that all Israel and all Egypt- from Pharaoh on the throne to the servant girl in his house- would know that you truly are the God of the universe. Isaiah wrote about you: “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Come in the midst of our affliction, save us in your love and pity! Carry us as you carried them, and bring us out from the bondage of our enemies. We suffer in this world, we are persecuted by those who hate us and you, we are the victims of so much evil. Come down and strike terror into the hearts of our enemies! May they quake at your presence, may the very earth itself be moved! Come in your majesty, your power, your glory, crushing sinners with your righteous judgment!

But wait just a minute, Lord. Now that we think about it, maybe it’s better if you don’t come. We want you to make our enemies tremble, to shake the very creation, but the truth is we are the ones trembling. If you come down in power and glory for the destruction of sinners, we too will be destroyed. For we are all completely and totally sinful. We can complain about all those people outside these walls while pretending that we are righteous, but it’s a lie. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” We are all unclean, covered with the filth of sin; we inherited this corruption from our parents, and we wallow in the filth each and every day. Lord, we are destined for death, we are destined to be carried away like a leaf, and leaves get burned. We are trembling at your Law, for it condemns us, it doesn’t give us any place to hide. Even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment; every deed we do, good or not, is tainted with sin. If I serve my neighbor, I’m looking for recognition, I want something out of it. My service in the church is to make people respect me, when I volunteer I want my picture in the paper. Or I resent having to help others; I serve, but only grudgingly. I can’t even pray without comparing myself to others, trying to appear more ‘spiritual’ than my neighbor. My good works truly are filthy rags!

“Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” The worst thing, Lord, is that I sin knowing your wrath over sin. You are angry with my sins, and yet I continue to commit them! It isn’t that your Word isn’t clear, it isn’t that pastors don’t preach your expectations clearly enough, it is just that I can’t stop sinning, and I sin in such arrogance, such boldness that it is disgusting! I sin knowing full well the penalty for sin; sometimes I even plan my sin, ignoring my conscience, which is always trying to point me back to your Word. I treat your graciousness as a license for sin; I sin while thinking, ‘I’ll just ask for forgiveness later.’ And I am hardly alone. “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” No one calls on your name, Lord; we are all completely and totally sinners, through and through. None of us are clean or righteous, no, not one, and so you have hidden your face from us, you have left us to endure the consequences for our sins, in this life and in eternity.

Turn your face to us once again; be not hidden from us! Rend the heavens and come down, not to bring us glory, but to deliver us from the bondage of sin. We have taskmasters of our own making, and we cannot deliver ourselves. We need you, we need your salvation! We tremble at your law, we melt in our iniquities, and there is nothing that we can do about it. Even our righteous deeds are as filthy rags. “But now O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.” We are not blaming you for our sin, O Lord; we are in this mess by our fault, by our own fault, by our own most grievous fault. But we are your creation, and like the clay pot, we need to be remade. You gave us life, you formed us from the dust of the ground; come, O Lord, and help your creation. Bring us the salvation that we so desperately need; intercede on behalf of your creatures! “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!”

You have come; we waited for you and you came. But you did not come in a way that we expected. “When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” We didn’t expect you to come in this way, but Lord, your ways are not our ways. Thanks be to God! You came to us in human flesh, bearing the same body that we have. You passed through every stage of life that we did, from conception to birth. You rent the heavens and came down, not in power, glory, or majesty, but in humility. You rent the heavens and came down, to be carried in the womb of a virgin, to be born in a stable and laid in manger. You came in humility, you came as our servant, you came to bring us salvation. You have shown to us incredible love and grace, beyond anything we could ever have imagined, and we deserve none of it. What other God would even come to us, taking on our flesh to deliver it, not to mention coming as a humble baby, as our servant? “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who waited for you.” We waited for your coming since the day we fell into sin, and now you have rent the heavens and come down. You have shaken the earth, from the terrified shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem to Herod in His palace- nothing will ever be the same.

You have come; we waited for you and you came. You rent the heavens and came down, entering into Jerusalem as a triumphant king. All of Jerusalem was shaken as you entered her ancient gates. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem. Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation.” You entered that city in victory, acclaimed by all the people. For you were the long awaited King, many even believed you were the Messiah. You came to save us, you came in answer to our prayers, our earnest pleas for deliverance from the bondage of sin. But you did not come in a way that we expected. We did not expect that you would rend the heavens and come down only to hang dead upon a cross. “When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” The very creation itself quaked at your death, for it realized the significance of what occurred that dark Friday. The sinless Son of God died in the place of His sinful people, those whom He so dearly loved. Only by giving up yourself into death on our behalf could you save us, and so you willingly went there to suffer death and hell with the weight of the world’s sin on your shoulders. There you won salvation, there you answered our cries. We prayed that you would rend the heavens and come down and you answered, not with power or glory, but with humility and service, all for us and for our salvation. Then the earth would tremble again three days later, for you would rise triumphant over sin and death. You have conquered our enemies, you have defeated our foes, you have delivered us from bondage!

You have come; we waited for you and you came. But you did not come in a way that we would expect. You rent the heavens and came down, hidden under water, words, simple bread and wine. You won salvation by dying in our place on Calvary’s cross; you sealed that victory by walking from the empty tomb on Easter morning. But we, your people, do not have to go to Jerusalem to find forgiveness. You who ascended into heaven still come to us bearing those gifts. You have come to us this very day. You rent the heavens and came down to Thain, making him your own child, giving to him all that you won with your shed blood. You will rend the heavens and come down to us with your Body and Blood in just a few moments, bringing the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. You come to us in your Word, bearing forgiveness, teaching us and strengthening our faith. You come to us in ways that seem foolish to our world, ways that seem powerless and insignificant. Who could imagine a God who would save with a baby born in a barn, a man hanging dead on a cross, some water in a bowl, a book, a wafer, or a small glass of wine? “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no one has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for Him.”

Come Lord Jesus, come back to us! “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence!” We wait eagerly for your return, for when you return, our eternal inheritance will be fully revealed. You will rend the heavens and come down, this time in power and majesty and glory. All creation will be shaken as it never has been before, for it will be remade, cleansed and purified from all sin, evil, and corruption. Come Lord Jesus, come back and accomplish all that you promised! Help us to wait in patience, to see you as you come in Word and in Sacrament, but always to eagerly cry out for your return. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Proper 29 of Series A (Matthew 25:31-46)

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’” 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 last Sunday of the Church Year comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, who is your neighbor? When we talk about our lives in this world as Christians, this is the most important question to answer. Just who is it that I am to serve? Who is my neighbor? In our text for today, Jesus gives us the answer. Our neighbor is the one in need. The hungry one is our neighbor, the thirsty one too. The stranger is our neighbor, along with the one who has no clothing. The sick ones are our neighbors, and yes, even those in prison are our neighbors. You don’t have to know someone for them to be your neighbor, you simply have to know that they have a need. And using the resources that God has blessed you with, both your material goods and your talents, as we talked about last week, you seek to fulfill that need.

That’s what sheep do. The sheep do sheep-like things. For actual sheep, that includes eating, sleeping, and making wool. Christ’s sheep, on the other hand, serve their neighbors in each and every need. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” The sheep see the needs of their neighbors, and they seek to fulfill them. They live lives directed outside of themselves, placing the needs of others ahead of their own. This is simply what sheep do. Christ’s sheep don’t do these things to become sheep, but instead they serve their neighbor because they are sheep. A sheep doesn’t produce wool in order to become a sheep, but it produces wool because it is a sheep.

It comes naturally, for Christ Himself has made them sheep through the work of His messengers, whom He describes as the “least of these my brothers” in our text for today. The one who receives the least of Christ’s brothers has the promise that they receive Christ Himself. The sheep received the messengers of Christ with great joy because they received the message they brought. Through the work of Christ’s messengers, broken sinners carrying the message of the Gospel to all nations, Jesus made sheep from goats. And these new sheep do the things that sheep do: they serve their neighbor. It comes naturally- or does it? Often the sheep look more like goats, for though they are made sheep, they never fully leave the goats behind.
And goats do goat-like things. For barnyard goats, that includes sleeping, making milk, and trying to eat literally anything. The goats of this world live only for themselves. “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” The goats live focused on their own lives, their own wants and needs. They see the needs of their neighbors and they ignore them. They self-justify, saying, “I shouldn’t poke my nose in their business,” “I have enough problems of my own,” “Someone should take care of them,” or even “The church should do something.” Yes, the goats hide behind the church, passing the buck to a committee or a pastor. The goats may even live lives that seem outwardly good and moral; they don’t commit huge public sins, but instead they omit to do what needs to be done. They see their neighbor’s need and ignore it. The goats live only for themselves, with hearts opened neither to their neighbor nor to the God who created them. They rejected the messengers of Christ, refusing to welcome these strangers or provide for their needs. They rejected the messengers for they rejected the message, the beautiful Gospel that turns goats into sheep.

You and I, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, were conceived and born as goats, and have been made sheep through the power of the Gospel. Serving our neighbor should then come naturally to sheep, but it doesn’t. We instead serve ourselves, omitting the care and concern that should be directed toward those around us. You can look like a perfect sheep in the eyes of the world because you don’t commit public sins, but you are more like a goat than anything else when you neglect to care for the needs of your neighbor. People see what we do much more clearly than what we don’t do, and so we can look like sheep while living like goats. For whenever you see a need and refuse to use the gifts and abilities that God has given you to supply that need, you are living like the goat you are by nature, not the sheep you have been made by Christ.

Jesus has strong words to say against goats in our text for today: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” On this last day of the Church Year, we cannot forget that goats go to hell. This is not because they are worse sinners than the sheep, but because they rejected the salvation offered to them. They refused the messengers of Christ along with the message they bore, and so they go to the eternal fires prepared for the devil and his angels. These fires were not prepared for the goats; the goats don’t belong there, but through rebellion the goats go there, to be separated from the sheep and from God forever. They are shocked to find out that in refusing to receive Christ’s messengers, in living only for themselves, they were refusing to serve the King of the universe, the only One who can provide deliverance from hell. The King declares to them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

This is a terrifying image, given to drive the goats away from their inward focus toward Christ and toward their neighbors. But this picture of eternal judgment should also make us uncomfortable, for we were born goats, and although we have been made sheep, we return to our goat-like ways again and again. The message of our text is clear: goats go to hell. Where can we turn to escape the wrath of a holy God? We turn to the one who made us sheep in the first place- Christ Himself. Repent! Turn away from your goat-like ways! Cling to the One who redeemed you, who died to pay for your selfishness! Jesus Christ died for goats, Jesus Christ died because goats go to hell, Jesus Christ died to make goats His beloved sheep. Plenty of people in our world today, even some Christians, try to deny the reality of hell. How could a loving God have such a place of torment? Hell seems too terrible to actually exist. Yes, hell is terrible, yes hell is terrifying; that’s why Jesus did something about it. He didn’t waste His time trying to deny the existence of hell; instead He conquered it, robbed it of its power. Jesus knew hell is real because He endured it on the cross, for you and for me. No one needs to go there anymore, for Christ has defeated the power of hell. He bore your sin to the cross and there eliminated it, removing the eternal penalty that you owed to God. Hell has no more power over you- there is no need to fear it. Christ defeated hell itself by enduring it for you, and now none that belong to Him will face the punishment described in our text. He makes goats into sheep, transforming them through Baptism so they may live before Him forever.

Therefore you do not serve your neighbor to earn heaven and avoid hell; Christ has done that for you- He has earned heaven by enduring hell. You come into the inheritance prepared for you only because of Jesus, only because of His death and resurrection applied to you. You serve your neighbor not to become a sheep, but because you are a sheep. On that last day, you will then stand in shock with the rest of the sheep when the King reveals to you how you have served Him by serving your neighbor. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” You will be shocked because you haven’t been keeping track: sheep don’t catalogue their good works! They don’t need them to earn heaven, and so sheep simply do what sheep do. A farmer’s sheep cannot help but produce wool; you and I, Christ’s sheep, cannot help but serve our neighbor. We don’t need our good works, and neither does God: our neighbor does!

For you have been made a sheep by the powerful work of Jesus Christ, not by anything you have done. On the Last Day, you will hear the beautiful proclamation of the King: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” You are blessed for the Father has loved you in Christ; He has made you His own adopted child in the waters of Holy Baptism. You are blessed for you have a kingdom which has been delivered to you by your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He has had your salvation in mind since the foundation of the world. You have been blessed since before time began, for God always knew that He would save you through Christ. On that final day, you will receive your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you in the new heavens and the new earth. You will rise from your grave with a renewed body, perfect and whole forever, to dwell with Christ for eternity. You have an inheritance that is beyond anything you can imagine. There you will know rest as you have never experienced it on this earth; there love will be perfect and whole, there your heart will be fully open to God and to one another, there joy will be an eternal reality. As one pastor puts it, going to heaven is like switching your television from black and white to color- everything will be more vivid in the kingdom prepared for you. And so we yearn for this inheritance, we long for Christ to return so that He may deliver to His beloved sheep what He won for them. On this Last Sunday of the Church Year, we turn to the second to last verse of the Bible: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Proper 28 of Series A (Matthew 25:14-30)

“For to everyone who has more will be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” 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 comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, perhaps the most important detail of our parable for today was a detail that you missed. In fact, I would guess that most of the people who first heard this parable missed that detail as well. In this parable, Jesus is clearly the master. And what does Jesus say about this master? “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.” The most important lesson of this parable is the declaration that Jesus is departing, going on a journey. He will soon leave His disciples and the crowds, His followers and His enemies, behind. Many thought that He was going to establish an earthly kingdom, that He was going to reign from Jerusalem forever. But His kingdom is not of this world, and so He must depart, He must go on that journey. This message is distressing, but the parable of the talents has another important lesson to teach: Christ will not leave His people without giving them great gifts.

In fact, that is why He departs; without going on a journey, He cannot give to His people the gifts they need. His road leads to a hill outside Jerusalem; in the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, He will be betrayed into the hands of sinful men. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by whom this world was created, will be handed over to the powers of this world, religious and secular, the Sanhedrin and Pontus Pilate. He will depart, He will go on a journey, for He will die, hanging upon a Roman cross. There, in the moment of His departure, He will win for you and for me every good gift. For He died bearing your sin, your guilt, your shame. He died to pay the penalty you owe, to take the punishment you deserve upon Himself. Jesus died for you! And on the third day He returned from His journey through death and the grave when He walked out of the tomb, triumphant over death forever. Jesus died to pay for your sin; He rose to give you life!

On that first Easter, the disciples once again thought that Jesus was ready to set up shop and stay, to rule this earth forever. But He had another departure yet to come. The parable of the talents first of all points to Calvary’s cross, and then forty days beyond Easter to a mountain in Galilee. There Jesus ascended, going on His journey; He would no longer be visibly present to His Church until the day of His return. That’s the message of the parable of the talents: Jesus departed so that He could return. He departed on Good Friday to return on Easter Sunday; He departed on Ascension Day to return on the Last Day. Even though you cannot see Him, you have the promise that He truly will truly be with you as you wait, to the very end of the age, sustained by His gifts given to you through the Church: forgiveness, life, and salvation in the Word and the Holy Sacraments.

Those are the most important gifts, the gifts that will sustain His people as they eagerly await His return. These are the foundational gifts, won by His own blood. These gifts make you a Christian, part of His body, they give to you the guarantee that when He returns, He will take you to be with Himself forever. These gifts sustain you as you wait, giving you strength to face the days of anticipation. But those are not the only gifts that He has given you. “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. They he went away.” He has given to each and every one of you unique abilities and gifts. He doesn’t give each person the same gifts, or even the same amount of gifts; our God is anything but boring. These gifts come in endless variety: the ability to speak well, a caring heart, skill at business, a strong work ethic. The list can go on and on; when you stop to think about it, God has blessed you with a multitude of gifts. But these gifts are not your own; they do not belong to you any more than the talents belonged to the servants. They were entrusted to take care of the talents, to watch over them, but most of all, they were to use them. The talents were not given to the servants to make them rich. They were given so that they could put them to work for their master. The gifts God has given to you are not to be used simply for your own good. Faithful servants use their gifts to spread the Gospel.

Jesus tells us, “He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.” The faithful servants put the money to work, using them to gain more talents for master’s bank account. We do the same, only we deal with people. The gifts and abilities that Christ has given you aren’t to be used to simply make you wealthy or bring you power. Instead, they are to be used to gain your friends, your family, your neighbors for the kingdom of God. He has given to you the faith, fed you with His Word and Sacraments, and has even given to you unique abilities to take that same Gospel to others. He uses your gifts to bring the Gospel to people that a pastor or missionary may not have the opportunity to reach, you are His tools to bring people into contact with Christ. He uses your abilities to provide opportunities to speak of Jesus, in every situation you find yourself in. What a privilege, what an opportunity, what a responsibility!

The Master receives faithful servants with joy. “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” The numbers don’t matter; it doesn’t matter how many people you serve, how many times you share the Gospel, or how many believe. Remember, it was never about you in the first place. The talents belong to Jesus and so He does the work through you. You come into the joy of your Master only because of grace, for you have remained faithful to the one who redeemed you by His blood. The servants don’t keep track, for they are saved by grace alone, not by their works.

This is a great picture of the Church: the community of believers, washed in the very blood of the Lamb, fed on the forgiveness of Christ every week, going out into this world looking for opportunities to speak about the salvation that is found in no other Name that Jesus Christ. But you and I know that we often fall far short of that glorious picture. In fact, you and I all too often imitate the third servant in our text. “But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.” He was selfish; he kept his master’s gifts all to himself. How often do you simply use the gifts that God has given to you for your own good, and not for the spread of the Gospel? How often do you bury the gifts of salvation in the ground, making sure that no one can tell if you are a Christian? Do you hold onto the Gospel selfishly, thinking that others don’t deserve it? Or do you through fear keep it hidden away? The faithful servants are wisely prepared for Christ’s return; they are using the gifts given to them for the work of the kingdom. The third servant is complacent; he doesn’t believe that the master will return.

But he’s wrong; the master does return, as Christ Himself promises that He will return. It’s no good pretending that Jesus won’t come back; instead, you are called upon to be ready, to watch and wait! The first two servants are brought into the joy of the master not because of anything they have done, but because they didn’t despise the gifts given to them. The third servant, however, has buried the gifts given to him through laziness and rebellion, and now something quite different than joy awaits him. “Take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those who despise the gifts of God will find themselves separated from Him forever.

If we are honest with ourselves, that is what we all deserve, each and every one of us. We have all despised the gifts of Christ, we have shown that we consider them of little worth by burying them or simply using them for our own benefit. Our focus has been inward toward our own comfort and sinful desires rather than outward at those who desperately need to hear of redemption from sin and from death. Today we confess together, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And the Master is merciful. He loves you and wants to forgive you again and again, even when you despise those very gifts. He hears your confession, and He forgives. The same gifts we so often hide away from the sight of others are given over and over again in abundance to forgive such selfishness. Jesus Christ died and rose again for all of our sins, even the sin of laziness and rejection of His gifts. His grace overflows to us, as Jesus Himself says: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance.” Having received such lavish grace, you go out with joy into this world and use the gifts He has given you for the work of His kingdom, relying on His forgiveness for every missed opportunity, every failure to confess the Gospel, every instance of selfishness. Then, on the Last Day, when God settles accounts with you, He will not look to you and see how much your talents earned, nor how often you buried them, but all He will see is Christ’s righteousness covering you, and He will declare with a smile: “Enter into the joy of your master.” Amen.

Monday, November 7, 2011

All Saints' Day Observed (Matthew 5:1-13)

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 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 All Saints’ Sunday comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, the saints of God are in this world an oppressed bunch. They are harried by sin, threatened by death, and persecuted by all those who belong to the dominion of Satan. To the world, the saints of God are a miserable, pathetic little band. They are poor in spirit, they mourn, they are meek, they hunger and thirst. Following God hasn’t seemed to earn them anything. The world looks in scorn upon the Church, disgusted that they are merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. Those qualities only mean that it is much easier to trample on the saints, and the world does this all the time. But yet, Jesus Christ points to this wretched group, hated and despised by the world, and declares them ‘blessed.’ They are called ‘blessed’ despite every evidence to the contrary, despite the clear opinion of the world. They are blessed because of Jesus.

The poor in spirit are blessed. They have nothing to give to God, not their good works, not their pure lives, not silver or gold, not power or influence. Before God all the saints are equal, from the man dying in an African refugee camp to the president of the United States. They are all beggars, and come to God empty-handed, with no right to expect anything. And God Himself stepped into their midst and took for Himself the form of a beggar. Jesus laid aside His glory and submitted to the shame of the cross. He is Himself the poor of spirit, who won for His afflicted people the greatest treasure imaginable, the kingdom of heaven. He gives that gift into the beggars’ open, empty hands. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is the kingdom of heaven.”

Those who mourn are blessed. The saints mourn over the sin and death that surrounds them. They live in a dying world, a world that is fallen, a world that gives them tragedy and hardship as a constant diet. They mourn for those whom they have lost, they mourn for the suffering that occurs every day in this corrupted world, but they also mourn for themselves. The saints see the sin that fills them, the death that one day will take them, and they mourn. They mourned on Good Friday as Christ hung upon that cross. But Easter morning dawned on an empty tomb- Christ has risen, triumphant over sin and death! “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Christ has destroyed the power of death, and the saints of God will now live, even though they die, in a new creation where death is no more. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

The meek are blessed. The saints humble themselves before this world. They do not seek their own advantage, they do not exalt themselves, but instead they place the needs of others above their own. This is a recipe for persecution, for hatred and scorn. The world doubts their motives, for it cannot conceive of anyone who is not self-centered. The world takes advantage of the saints, scornfully calling them ‘meek,’ as they walk all over them. Jesus Christ humbled Himself before this world, He became meek; like a lamb led to the slaughter, so He did not open His mouth. And the world saw it as weakness, striking Him on the cheek, calling on Him to come down from that cross. But He remained humble and meek, and won for His saints an inheritance that will last forever. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Those hungering and thirsting for righteousness are blessed. The saints are not victims, for they are filled with the same sin that afflicts all of mankind, the same lack of righteousness that dooms all men to hell. But while the world seeks to satisfy that hunger and thirst in a multitude of other ways, the saints cry out to God in their affliction. They desperately hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, for without it, eternal punishment is the only destination. And God feeds them, He fills them with the very righteousness of His Son. Jesus gives His righteousness to hungry and thirsty people to eat and drink at this very table. The feast of His Body and Blood satisfies spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst, pointing forward to where hunger and thirst will be no more. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

The merciful are blessed. The saints show mercy to those around them, those who have a variety of different needs. They bind up wounds: physical, emotional, and spiritual. They do this not to earn God’s favor, but because God Himself has shown them mercy. It is in God’s nature to show mercy, as Jesus demonstrated throughout His time on this earth. He bound up the brokenhearted, He healed the sick, He drove from people the corruption of this sinful world. And on the cross, Christ showed mercy to all people, those who were under the threat of eternal death, those who had earned no mercy. He now shows mercy to all the sainst by forgiving sin, by delivering from death. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

The pure in heart are blessed. No one can approach God unless they are pure. The elaborate system of washings and sacrifices found throughout the Old Testament were all meant to make the priests and indeed the entire nation pure so that they could interact with God. A sinful person cannot see God and live, for the hot fire of His wrath burns against sin. Unless the saints are made pure, they cannot see God, they are doomed to spend eternity separated from Him. But Christ has washed them in the blessed waters of Holy Baptism. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The saints have been made clean and pure by the water joined to the Word, able to stand before the throne of God forever. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The peacemakers are blessed. The saints were at war with God, divided from Him in their rebellion and sin. But Jesus Christ is the peacemaker. Through the blood of His cross, Jesus reconciled God and man, He removed the dividing wall of hostility between Creator and creation. This is the peace that characterizes life in the new heavens and the new earth: peace between God and man, peace that will last forever. Because of this reconciliation, the saints are truly called the Sons of God. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” The saints, having been reconciled with God through Christ’s death and resurrection, then extend that peace to others. They speak the Gospel to their neighbors, calling on people to be at peace with God through Christ. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are blessed. In some countries, the saints are actively persecuted, hunted down to be thrown into jail or killed for following Christ. In other places the saints are mocked, subtly persecuted in schools or in the media, scorned for following Jesus of Nazareth. But nothing that this sinful world throws at the saints can remove the eternal treasure that they possess for the sake of Christ. They are simply following His pattern as He promised them they would; the pattern which He set in winning that eternal treasure through His own suffering. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

You, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, are blessed, for you are the saints of God; all the blessings that Jesus has proclaimed in our text belong to you. You will struggle in this world, as the saints did before you, you will mourn, you will suffer persecution, but you are blessed! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you, and you will be comforted, you will inherit the earth, you will be satisfied, you will receive mercy, you will see God, for you are truly a child of God. Christ’s death and resurrection applied to you in your baptism has made you a saint, and now all of those gifts are your present and future possession. He won them for you, He gives them into your empty hands. You are poor in spirit, but the kingdom of heaven belongs to you, as it does to all the saints.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil falsely against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Rejoice and be glad, dear saints of God, for you have an eternal reward. Despite whatever happens to you in this world, your treasure is eternal, it is everlasting, it is a gift won by the shed blood of your Lord Jesus Christ. The saints who have gone before you now enjoy what will one day be your own, for you are a part of that eternal company, those who still walk on this earth and those who worship in heaven, in every place and in every age, all the saints purchased with the blood of Christ. In the Name of the One who was poor in spirit, who won peace between us and our God, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Reformation Day Observed (Revelation 14:6-7)

“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” 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 Reformation Day comes from the First Lesson just read from the book of Revelation. [Knock, knock, knock] His hammer drove the nails into the thick church door. He was excited, a bit nervous, but most of all he was angry. [Knock, knock, knock] That anger drove the nails in deep. This young monk was upset at what the church had taught him, but what made him even more irate was what the church had taught to the people he preached to and cared for, the good Christian people of Wittenberg. [Knock, knock, knock] Those nails tacked to the door what young Martin Luther called his ’95 Theses,’ ninety-five points of disputation. He was calling on people to debate him, to start a conversation, but what started was the Reformation. Luther could never have predicted that what he began on October 31st, 1517 would consume his entire life; in fact, his hammer would echo throughout history, resulting in a church split into literally hundreds of denominations. His message would divide, for it was the message of the pure Gospel: You are justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.

Martin Luther’s message focused on that vitally important word ‘justification.’ Today, many people, including even more than a few Lutherans, have said that this complicated word has no meaning to modern people. I disagree; in fact, I think we know all about justification, because we attempt to do it all the time. You are by nature a justifier. To justify means to make things right, and you try to justify your actions each and every day. When a confirmation student forgets his memory work, what does he say first? Does he apologize, or does he justify? Does he say, “I’m sorry, I sinned and didn’t do what I was supposed to,” or does he say, “I was too busy this week, and I had too much other homework, and I forgot the sheet, and your expectations are too high,” and on and on. When you sin against someone, what is your first response? Do you ask for forgiveness, or do you justify? “If you would’ve done what I asked, I wouldn’t have lost my temper.” “If I wasn’t late, I wouldn’t have been speeding.” “If my classmate had covered up his paper, I wouldn’t have cheated.” You would much rather justify yourself than ask for forgiveness; you want to make things right yourself, without any help from anyone else. We even justify our inactions: “I would’ve stopped for that accident, but there were other people there already.” “I would’ve shared my faith, but it just wasn’t the right time.” “I would’ve helped my neighbor, but he’s never helped me.” Pastors are not immune: “I should’ve told that person about their sin, but I don’t want to make them mad.” You were conceived and born a self-justifier; that is what you’re good at, that is where you turn first.

Luther knew all about this; perhaps more than any other theologian in the Church’s history, Luther understood the depth of human sinfulness, because he knew the depth of his own sinfulness. He knew that we try to justify our actions before others, but even more importantly we even try to justify ourselves before God. He had traveled that road himself, he had spent his life trying to reach God with his own actions. That was what made him so upset as he hammered on the Wittenberg church door; the church of his day didn’t discourage self-justification, instead, it made self-justification the chosen path of salvation. People were directed toward their own efforts to justify themselves; they were supposed to reconcile themselves to God through an elaborate system of good works, they were supposed to climb their way up to God. Our world, and unfortunately even the church, has these same ladders today. The ladder of the mind declares that our own understanding and reason can reach God. The ladder of the emotions proclaims that if I feel God more and more in my life, then I am coming close to reaching Him. The ladder of good works declares that I can climb up to God through my own obedience to His Law, that I can justify myself before my Creator by doing what He wants. Luther had walked that road, he knew its end. He knew that no ladder could reach God, because he had tried them all, and had found only despair. He was an exemplary monk; he worked harder than his brothers, he followed every rule to the letter, but still he was painfully conscious of his own sin. All he saw was an angry, all-powerful God, who demanded that humans justify themselves, then delighted at condemning them when they failed.

“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” This eternal gospel had gone forth throughout the world as the apostles boldly preached it, but the church had forgotten it, instead burying that sweet message under a pile of attempts at self-justification. Luther was to be God’s instrument to proclaim that message once again. The eternal gospel rang forth into his own ears as he studied the Scriptures, especially the third chapter of Romans: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, do you hear the sweet message of the Gospel in that verse? You do not have to justify yourself; you are justified by faith ‘apart from works of the Law!’ You are freed from any attempts to make yourself right with God, for Jesus has done it all for you! Believe that message, cling to His redemption in faith, and you are justified! No works are required, no ladders, no self-justification; God has justified you through faith on account of Christ. “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” Jesus Christ is the atonement sacrifice, the Lamb who was slain for you, for me, for all people. He hung upon that cross bearing your sin, He was raised to justify you, to make you righteous in the sight of God. You are set free from your sin, you are set free from any attempts to justify yourself, but instead you confess your sin and receive the blessed forgiveness Christ won. You do not have to make things right with God, for Christ Himself has reconciled you to your Creator with His suffering, death, and resurrection!

That is the message, the eternal gospel that the angel proclaims in our text: “Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” This is a call to the entire world to repent and believe the Gospel. God is glorified when people cling to His Son, He is glorified in His Son’s death, in His Son’s resurrection for the sins of all people. God is not given glory in your self-justification, but in your faith. God is not given glory in your own righteousness, but in Christ’s righteousness given to you. And having being forgiven, having been justified by the very blood of Jesus Christ, we can now truly worship God as our Creator. That is the chief end of Christ’s death and resurrection, His redemption and justification of lost sinners: to reconcile us with His Father, the one who created us and has loved us from all eternity. Only through Christ’s salvation do you worship the Father as the one who gave you life, who knit you together in your mother’s womb and has given you every good gift since. You have all things because of Christ: freedom from self-justification, redemption from you sin, and the sure and certain promise of eternal life, founded upon His resurrection from the dead. That is the message Luther was called upon to proclaim, the ‘eternal gospel’ that rang forth in our text.

Some Lutheran theologians through the centuries have therefore made the claim that the angel in our text for today is Luther himself. It is unlikely that this text is a direct prophecy of Martin Luther, but what we can say is that he was another in a long line of saints who were appointed by God to proclaim the ‘eternal gospel’ to every nation and tribe and language and people. In fact, we can say even more: God used a German monk as His instrument to uncover once again the free message of God’s grace from all that had obscured it. Today, we do not celebrate a man, or even a church; Luther himself would be disgusted to see us place our focus on him alone. No, instead today we rejoice in the Gospel, we rejoice that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Today we rejoice that the Lord in His grace used Martin Luther to proclaim it freely again. But Reformation Day is not simply about God’s gifts through one man, for God placed around Martin Luther a talented cast of theologians, faithful lay people, and a loving and devoted wife, all of whom were blessed with the gifts needed to carry this message before the entire world. Indeed, they had the opportunity to fulfill the words of our Introit for today: “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, O Lord, and shall not be put to shame.” The Lord Himself gave them boldness, the same boldness that drove Luther to the church door on October 31st, 1517.

[Knock, knock, knock] That young monk had no idea where the journey he began with a sheet of paper, a hammer, and some nails, would end. He didn’t know that five hundred years later congregations would bear his name, not because they worship Martin Luther, but because they revel in the Gospel that he proclaimed. What he did know was that God loved him for the sake of Jesus Christ, that He had justified him through faith, simply on account of His grace. Because Luther understood the depth of our inability to come to God, he understood all the better the enormity of God’s grace, that when we were unable to come up to Him, God came down to us for our salvation. In the Name of the One whose righteousness we bear, whose blood justifies us before God, Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord, Amen.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Proper 25 of Series A (Matthew 22:34-46)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… 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 morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, not very long ago, the media was buzzing about a woman named Casey Anthony. This mother was implicated by the authorities in the disappearance and death of her young child, but was acquitted and released. People hotly debated her guilt or innocence throughout the trial and since, but people on both sides agreed that, according to what the media reported, she was a poor mother. It seemed apparent to many that her daughter was an inconvenience, that Casey Anthony was going to continue to live for herself whether she was a mother or not. There was great anger and rage directed toward her, for many believed she had murdered her child in great selfishness, simply to remove something that kept her from living how she wanted.

This anger is quite ironic, for Casey Anthony, if she truly was the poor mother we have been told she was, simply lived the way that our culture today tells us how to live. Millions of children have been killed in the womb through abortion in the past thirty years, the vast majority because a child will be an inconvenience, will prevent a mother or father from reaching their goals, or will change too much in their lives. The parents who spare their children are still told by our world that children shouldn’t change things, they shouldn’t affect your career or social life. But the relationship between parents and children is simply the symptom of a much more fundamental issue. Our world declares that you should live for yourself, placing your own needs above that of everyone else. That message affects every one of us in a variety of areas, at any stage of life. Look out for number one; don’t worry about or trust anyone else. Love yourself! That’s the key, isn’t it? Love, in our world today, is first directed inside.

Jesus gives us a radically different picture of love in our text for today. True love is not directed inside ourselves, but instead outside, toward our God and then toward our neighbors. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In a certain sense, it’s easy to love God. It’s easy to love Him when you are sitting here on Sunday morning. It’s easy to love Him when things are going well, when everything in your life seems to be lining up just the way you want it. Sure, you may not think of it much, but if someone asked you, you would say, ‘Oh, yes, I love God.” What Jesus commands here is much more than simply a kind of half-hearted love when life is rosy. Instead, He calls on us to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind. We are to love God with our intellect, our emotions, our desires, and intentions. We are to love God in thought and in deed, privately within ourselves and publically in this world. In short, we are to love God completely, with everything that we are and have. We are to love nothing more than God; no other ‘gods’ may claim His throne, even if those idols are the good gifts that He has given us. He is to be over all in our lives. Moreover, we are to love Him at all times, even and especially when we face suffering in this life. We are to love and trust God even when we can’t understand what it happening to us, when we can’t see how He will bring good into a bad situation. Love places our lives into the hands of God, in good times or in bad, in suffering or in health.

This love for God finds concrete, practical expression in our love for those around us. Jesus declared, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And who is our neighbor? Your neighbor is not simply the person who occupies the house next to yours, but instead all those whom God has placed around you. Those nearest to you are your family: your spouse, your children, your parents are all your neighbors. But God has also placed neighbors before you in every other area of your life. At work, at school, and in your interactions in the community, God places neighbors in front of you, those who need your assistance. If you see a car accident and stop to help, you become a neighbor to someone you will never meet again. Your neighbors are even those whom you don’t like, even your enemies, to whom you may show love simply by praying for and forgiving them. Your love is directed outside of yourself to those around you, those who have a variety of needs. And God has gifted you in unique ways to fulfill those needs. He has given you those gifts not to serve yourself, but to serve others.

The greatest need of your neighbors is for the Gospel, and God places many into your life who need to hear it. Saint Paul tells us about this in our epistle lesson: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, for you had become very dear to us.” Our world declares, ‘Love yourself above all else.’ Jesus instead commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We place our neighbors above ourselves, seeking to direct our love outward into their lives, providing for their needs as we are able. We do not have to go searching for neighbors, but God places them directly in front of us, and we show them love by providing for their needs.

With two brief commands, Jesus has encapsulated the entire Ten Commandments, indeed Jesus Himself says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” These two commands are impossible for fallen, sinful people to even begin to obey. You cannot love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; you cannot love your neighbor as yourself. Instead, your love is always turned inward. This is the condition of all people since the Fall into sin; this is why there is such suffering, war, and brokenness in our world. There is only one exception, only one man who was not curved in on Himself. Jesus Christ loved God with all of His heart, His soul, and His mind. Jesus did everything in obedience to God; His entire life was placed into the loving hands of His Father. Jesus trusted in God when times were good, when He was popular and acclaimed by man, but He especially trusted His Father when suffering came. As He hung dying upon the cross, He cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He trusted in the words of Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’” He trusted that He would be vindicated, that His Father’s love wouldn’t fail. Like a sheep led to the slaughter, He did not defend Himself against the accusations and the cruel blows of His enemies. His love was not turned in on Himself, but toward His Father, who willed that He go to suffering and to death.
His love was also turned toward you. On the cross, Jesus loved God with all of His heart and soul and mind, and on the cross, He loved His neighbor as Himself. He stretched His arms wide to embrace the entire world, every person that has ever lived, even you and me, as His neighbors, and He showed love to His neighbors by dying in our place. He loved even His enemies from that cross, crying out as they drove in the nails, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” He placed you above Himself as His neighbor, giving up everything to provide for your greatest needs. You needed salvation from sin, you needed deliverance from death, and His suffering and death won both for you. He suffered all to show you love; His love is directed outside of Himself, and that love has power, for it led to His suffering and death in your place, for your salvation.

You cannot love God with all your heart, soul, and mind unless you know God, and you cannot know God unless you know Jesus. Knowing Jesus means knowing what He has done for you, how He suffered and died in His great love for you. Knowing Jesus means knowing who He is, the Son of David and the Son of God. The Pharisees failed on both counts. Their focus was on the Law, on the dos and don’ts, because they thought they could attain their own salvation. Their love of God and their love of neighbor was not true love, for they still loved only themselves. Their obedience to God and their care for their neighbor was only a means to an end, a means for them to work their way to heaven. Jesus instead teaches in our text that the focus is on Him and the salvation He brings. If you don’t know Jesus, no amount of ‘love’ is going to deliver you from death and hell. We only know Jesus through faith, the faith worked in us through the Holy Spirit, using the tools of the Word and the Sacraments. These means of grace not only proclaim the love that the Son showed toward you, but they apply that salvation to you, giving you the gifts that He won in love on the cross. You are delivered from sin and death through the love of the Son! That is where your confidence lies, in the One who loved you so much He would suffer the very punishment of hell for you.

Our love for God and love for neighbor is then not an obligation but a privilege, overflowing from the love that God first showed us. We love God because He has given us everything, especially eternal life with Him in the new heavens and the new earth. We love our neighbors because God loved them in Christ, giving up His Son for their salvation. Only the work of the Holy Spirit can turn us from an inward focus to a focus on loving God and loving our neighbor. This doesn’t happen overnight, and indeed it will only perfectly happen when we stand before the throne of the Lord forever. Our love toward God and neighbor will still falter and sometimes even fail. At those times, the Holy Spirit brings to us the forgiveness of Christ, the forgiveness that covers even a failure to love, the same forgiveness that Christ won on the cross. That forgiveness sustains our love and forgives even our lack of love, for it is the love of Christ shown to us. In the Name of Christ, who suffered all to show love toward you, His beloved neighbor, Amen.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Proper 22 of Series A (Isaiah 5:1-7)

“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant planting; and He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” 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 fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ, a gardener had a sweet corn patch. He cleared the land, he removed the tree roots, the sticks, stone, and debris. He sweetened the ground with manure, he tested constantly to make sure the PH balance was just right. He placed into that black earth the best sweet corn seeds that money could buy, seeds that consistently produced results of both quality and quantity. Then he went to work defending that sweet-corn patch. He put up a fence to keep out the raccoons, rabbits, and deer, exerting every effort to keep His crop safe.

As his corn grew, big and beautiful, the gardener began to prepare for the harvest. So confident was he of a wonderful harvest, that the gardener purchased a shed to store the corn, he built a stand to sell it on Highway 39. The weather was perfect that summer; the right amount of rain and plenty of sun. The bugs didn’t attack his plants, and they grew and grew, developing large ears of ripe corn. The gardener waited patiently for his sweet corn patch to mature, and at exactly the right time, he began to pick. As was tradition, the first ear of corn was for the gardener, and that evening he sunk his teeth into its rich kernels…and promptly spit them out. This corn was the worst he had ever tasted, worse than going down the road and biting into an ear of field corn! This patch of sweet corn, which had held such promise, for which he had done everything that could’ve been expected, had betrayed him. He looked for a bountiful harvest, and instead received corn that was quite literally worthless. So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, what would you do with such a sweet corn patch? Would you continue to care for it? Or would you tear down the fence, and let the raccoons have those worthless ears? Do you owe that rebellious sweet corn patch anything, any grace, any protection?

In answering that question, you point the finger at yourself. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant planting; and He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” You are the rebellious sweet corn patch, you are the disobedient vineyard that the Lord planted. What more could God have done for you that He left undone? He prepared the soil, giving to you a creation that provides for all of your needs. Then He placed you into that creation, He formed your first parents from the dust of the earth, and He formed you in the womb of your mother. But God didn’t create you only to abandon you. Food, shelter, clothing, and even the very air you breathe are daily gifts from Him. Luther teaches us: “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.”

God created this earth and all that is in it; He created us, humanity, the pinnacle of all that He made, and then He waited. In eager expectation, with great patience He waited for us to produce a bountiful harvest. But such a harvest didn’t come. “He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” The vines looked good, but they were counterfeit, worthless imposters, filled with wild, sour, literally ‘stinky’ grapes. His people had rebelled against Him. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” He looked for you to produce a bountiful harvest of good works, love and service toward Him and toward your neighbors, but all He received was sin and rebellion. He looked for selflessness but found selfishness. He looked for honor but found disrespect. He looked for worship but found apathy. He looked for sexual purity but found lust. He looked for honesty but found lies. He looked for stewardship but found greed. He looked for love of your neighbor but found hatred. He looked for obedience but found rebellion. He looked for holiness but found sin. God planted mankind in this beautiful creation; He gave you life and provided for all of your needs, but the only thanks He has received is worthless fruit. “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”

What will God do with His rebellious vineyard? God poses the question to us: What would you do with a vineyard that produces only wild, sour grapes? What would you do with a sweet corn patch that produces a crop that no one wants to eat? “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” Sin ravaged the vineyard, the vines were trampled, beaten down by the evil of this world. Briers and thorns grew up, a constant and harsh reminder that this pleasant planting of the Lord was corrupted and fallen. Now death entered the vineyard of the Lord and ruled over it as a tyrant. It terrorized the vines, for it was one power that could not be defeated. No one could escape it, it held all in a prison of fear. Death was all that God’s rebellious vineyard deserved, and not just death in this world, but eternal death.

God didn’t find the fruit He expected from His vineyard, and so it was left open to the ravages of sin and death, just penalties from its rebellion. But God didn’t completely abandon His vineyard. Instead, He sent one messenger after another to call the vineyard to repentance, to summon it back to the one who had planted it. Jesus says in our Gospel lesson: “When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. The tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.” God persistently sent one servant after another to call on His vineyard to produce the fruit He expected in the first place, but the vineyard refused again and again. God’s messengers were abused, even killed. But God wouldn’t give up; He was willing to go to the very limits to restore His vineyard to Himself. “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, true God in human flesh, to call the vineyard to repentance, but His end was exactly like the servants who came before: “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” Jesus Christ, the vineyard Master’s Son, was cast from that vineyard and killed; He was crucified outside of the city, dying the death of the servants who preceded Him, dying the death of a criminal.

The vineyard rejected the Master’s Son as they had rejected the Master. But it was at this moment, when the rebellion of the vineyard was at its very worst, that the vineyard itself was redeemed. In being cast outside and killed, the Son, Jesus Christ, renewed and restored the vineyard to its Master. The blood of Jesus bought back the vineyard by paying the price of sin it owed. The death of Jesus delivered the vineyard from the tyranny of death, for He died in the place of the vineyard. In the very act of being rejected, Jesus erased the consequences of the vineyard’s rebellion, He returned that vineyard to its rightful owner, cleansed from its sin and iniquity. In our Gospel lesson Jesus declares: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Jesus is the rejected stone, rejected by the ones He came to save. But this rejected stone is now the cornerstone of a new vineyard, the Church. Through His resurrection, Jesus is now the foundation of God’s renewed and restored vineyard, a vineyard that produces fruit in abundance only through Him. You were a member of God’s rebellious vineyard; now, through the waters of Holy Baptism, you are a member of the new vineyard, the vineyard founded on the rejected cornerstone.

God provided in abundance for His vineyard at its creation; how much more will He provide for His renewed and restored vineyard? In our text, Isaiah sings the song of a vineyard in rebellion against God; but in chapter twenty-seven of his prophecy, Isaiah sings of the vineyard redeemed and restored by Christ: “In that day, ‘A pleasant vineyard, sing of it! I, the Lord, am its keeper; every moment I water it. Lest anyone punish it, I keep it night and day; I have no wrath. Would that I had thorns and briers to battle! I would march against them, I would burn them up together… In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.” This vineyard is fed by Christ’s Body, it is watered by His Blood. This vineyard is nourished by a constant and overflowing supply of forgiveness so that it does produce good fruit, not to earn God’s favor, but because it has been made God’s own through the waters of Holy Baptism. And this vineyard will endure, with Jesus as its foundation and cornerstone, singing His praises and rejoicing in His salvation for all eternity in the new heavens and the new earth. In the Name of the vineyard Master’s Son, the one who was cast from the vineyard and killed to restore the vineyard to its Creator, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Proper 19 of Series A (Matthew 18:1-20)

“So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” 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 comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, Jesus loves His little ones. Now, when we think of ‘little ones,’ our mind turns to children, the little ones that inhabit playgrounds and elementary schools. And that’s what Jesus has in mind as well. In response to the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He brings out a little child and says, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” We are not to exalt ourselves, but instead we are to have the humility of a child. When we do so, we are also called the little ones of Jesus; all His humble believers are His ‘little ones,’ the Father’s beloved children through the waters of Holy Baptism. Jesus loves us all as His little children, and He is ready to do anything to protect and deliver us.

He has to be ready, because His little ones are in danger. “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” The little ones of Jesus are assailed by temptations to sin, they are threatened by those who would lead them astray. This happens in our world each and every day. The pressure for the little ones to fall from the faith and into open sin is often unbearable. Our world preaches lust, it proclaims selfishness and self-centeredness as its gospel. But as dangerous as the causes to sin are out there in the world, Jesus isn’t talking about the world in our text for today. He is talking about the fellowship of believers: Matthew chapter eighteen is all about the Church. He is talking to you and me when He says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Jesus is talking about those who are part of His Church and yet are leading His little ones into sin.

For when we live in open sin, we cause Christ’s little ones to wander. In fact, when we live in open sin, we are wandering ourselves. Lost sheep influence other lost sheep, and soon the whole flock is lost and wandering. They follow the voices of other shepherds, listening to what the world tells them. Lost sheep are in church directories; lost sheep are in church pews. They are wandering from the faith because someone influenced them into sin, and sin separates sheep from their shepherd. And the tragedy is that such wandering can only lead to eternal death. Jesus tells us that it is necessary that such things happen, necessary not because God wants it to be so, but necessary because we live in a corrupted and sinful world, and the Church is composed of sinful and corrupted people.

It may be necessary that these things happen, but it doesn’t mean that Jesus has to like it. The Good Shepherd doesn’t sit on His hands and watch as His sheep wander. Jesus asked, “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” No shepherd has ever had a flock that wanders as much as Christ’s, but He does not grow weary. Instead, He continues day after day to seek out His lost sheep. He loves His little ones, even though they wander, even though they lead others into sin. He loves His little ones because He paid the ultimate price for them, He sacrificed everything to restore these wandering sheep. Jesus declares in John chapter ten: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The Good Shepherd gave up His own life on the altar of the cross, shedding His blood for His little ones, His sheep who love to wander. His flock couldn’t return to Him, and so He came to us, taking on our flesh and blood and going to the cross. He sought out His lost sheep at the cost of His own life. The Good Shepherd will not abandon His little ones, even though they are harassed by temptations, even if they wander each and every day.

He does not abandon them, for those things that entice His little ones to wander are conquered enemies, triumphed over by the power of the cross and empty tomb. Jesus declared, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around His neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Jesus took on that punishment, He bore all sin upon His shoulders, He had that millstone fastened around His neck, and He was drowned in the depth of the sea. He faced the very punishment of hell itself to rob it of its power. Now sin is defeated, emptied of its ability to condemn. Satan is crushed, no longer able to accuse God’s saints. Death has no ultimate victory; Christ has conquered it through the cross and empty tomb. He holds in His hands victory over our enemies, and His delight is in finding the lost and bringing them back to Himself. “And if he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” Only the One who has conquered sin, Satan, and death can deliver us from them, and Christ has great joy in finding us and bringing us to the Father, as He declares: “So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”

That statement defines Christ’s work in this world; Jesus doesn’t want any of His little ones to perish. He wants them protected from temptation, and He wants them restored when they wander. He is persistent, constantly seeking them out and returning them to His fold, because Jesus loves His little ones. And today He uses the Church, you and me, as His instruments to seek out the wandering and bring them back to Him. The Church is to have the same zeal and joy in bringing the wandering back as Christ Himself does. God’s will is to be our own: “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” How do we restore wandering sheep? How do we protect Christ’s little ones from being led into sin?

Thankfully, Jesus tells us. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” That’s it; we simply call our brother or sister to repentance privately, and if they listen, we forgive them and we have gained back a wandering sheep. It sounds so simple, and yet it is so hard to put into practice, and I would guess that most of us fail to do this day after day (I know that I do). Instead of going to our brother or sister privately to tell them their sin and call them to repentance, we either trap our anger and resentment deep inside or else we talk to everyone but the person who sinned against us. If we do that, we have made no effort to gain back our brother, but have instead made the situation worse. Jesus doesn’t want any of His sheep to be lost, and so He teaches us here to focus on restoration. Even if we must bring two or three along with us or must tell it to the Church, the goal is always to gain back the brother or sister who has wandered. The tool that Christ has given us to use in this effort is repentance and forgiveness. Only forgiveness can restore the wandering sheep, only forgiveness can heal a broken relationship.

But if the person is stubbornly unrepentant, then the Church is to have the same zeal as our Lord Jesus in protecting the little ones. If someone is openly leading others into sin, they must be removed from the community. “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” This verse isn’t talking about our body parts, its talking about the body of Christ, the Church. If the hand is causing Christ’s little ones to wander into sin, it must be cut off. But that isn’t the goal. Matthew chapter eighteen isn’t intended give us a procedure to kick someone out of the church; instead, it is a process of restoration. We are to have the same zeal for the wandering sheep as Christ; we are to expend every effort to call our wandering brother or sister back to the flock. But if they refuse to be restored, then we must protect Christ’s little ones, and the cause of offense must be removed. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” We are to treat them as an unbeliever. But Christ doesn’t give up on unbelievers, and neither do we. What do we do with unbelievers? We call them to repentance and faith; we preach the Gospel to them.

Matthew chapter eighteen teaches us how to show love to our neighbor, the same love Paul calls on us to show in our Epistle lesson. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” It is not love to leave a person in their sin. Even excommunication is not as harsh as eternal punishment in hell. We want to call a person to repentance so that we can forgive them, so that they can be restored to the community. We want to gain our brother or sister, to call them back to their Good Shepherd. The most unloving thing we can do is leave them in their sin. Christ didn’t leave you in your sin, but instead, while you were still a sinner, He died for you. He took sin seriously enough to suffer for you, to remove the threat and punishment of hell, to give to you the promise of an eternity with Him. He calls you to repentance and then restores you through the power of His forgiveness. He forgives you even for your lack of forgiveness, His grace covers you even when you do not have the same zeal for the wandering sheep as He does. For you too were a wandering sheep, but He found you, He restored you, He brought you back to His house with joy. In the name of our Good Shepherd, who constantly seeks out and restores His lost sheep, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.