Monday, September 22, 2014

Proper 20 of Series A (Matthew 20:1-16)

“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: the Church is a vineyard, and we are the workers. We are called by the Master to work in His vineyard, to tend it and care for it through our various vocations. Some of you, like me, were called early in the morning; you have been laboring in this vineyard your entire life. Christ saw you, conceived and born in sin, and through the power of His Word and using the people around you as His instruments, you were called to work in the vineyard.

When you were baptized, the Lord promised your wage: eternal life, won by His death and resurrection for you. “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” That denarius is already yours; promised to you by the Master. You have been reconciled with the vineyard owner, you are brought back to your God through the shed blood of Christ. You labor not to earn the denarius of eternal life; you labor because it has been given to you. And boy, have you labored. You have kept the faith, you have served the Church, from that first hour; you never fell away, you are one of the dependable ones, who has lived an upright life, who has stayed true to Scripture. You have held every office, worked every soup supper, and taught every Sunday School class. In fact, you have labored so long and so hard in the vineyard that you are starting to believe that you are earning that denarius, that your dedication to this particular corner of Christ’s vineyard is getting you in good with your master, maybe even earning a little extra.

Others of you were called at the third hour. You weren’t baptized as infants, but somehow, you and your family, or maybe just you, were called by the Master in childhood. “And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’” Perhaps you came from a broken home, where childhood was a struggle and there was little love. Or maybe you came from a ‘good’ family who simply didn’t believe, who wanted nothing to do with the Church. But the Lord worked through friends, He worked through family, faithful grandparents or aunts and uncles, to call you to faith, to bring you to Church, to take you to the font, where you received your wage, won by Christ your Lord. He gives you “whatever is right;” whatever is righteous, His righteousness, won upon the cross and placed upon you as a beautiful robe in your baptism. And then you go to work, laboring long and hard in that vineyard through the heat of the day.

Others of you were called at the sixth hour. You lived in darkness for years, even decades. Maybe you had been baptized as an infant, and had walked out of the vineyard, maybe you were never there in the first place. Perhaps you fell into sexual immorality, addiction, or greed. There was no place for Christ as you wallowed in your sin. There was a pastor who once said to me: “You young guys, you life-long Christians, you have no idea what darkness is.” He’s right. Those who work from the first hour may suffer and struggle, but they do not know the darkness of total unbelief. You do; you’ve lived in the dark night where there is no hope, you lived a life asking for hell, but Christ called you, He washed you, He sanctified you. He gives you “whatever is right,” His righteousness, and it covers each and every stain. He shone His great light in the midst of your darkness and chased the shadows away. Your past makes you rough around the edges, it makes you different from your fellow workers, the ‘good church people’ who have been here from the first hour, but you still labor beside them, faithfully tending the vineyard.

Others of you were called at the ninth hour. Things were getting late, but Christ is long-suffering, He is patient. Maybe it was the influence of children or grandchildren, maybe it was a parent’s dying wish, but Christ worked through others to call you to His vineyard. You were away for decades, but Christ is persistent, He is stubborn, and He never gave up on you. It took Him so long to convince you of your sin, and to show you that His blood atones for every stain. You were hardened by life, but Christ broke through your tough shell and brought you to faith. Now you labor beside those whom you may have known your entire life, but never in the Church, never in the vineyard. 

Some are called at the eleventh hour. These are the death-bed conversions, those who have lived outside the vineyard their entire lives and are called at the very end. “And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” They have been idle all the day, refusing to work in the vineyard for an entire lifetime. They have been working for their own damnation their entire lives, but here, at the end, confronted with the enemy that no man can defeat, the Master’s call gets through. Death has stripped away all that caused them to refuse this call before, and now they are finally baptized, brought into the vineyard. It doesn’t seem like a dying person can do much labor, but Jesus puts them to work, that perhaps even in death they may cause a part of the vineyard to flourish.

As I’ve labored in this corner of Christ’s vineyard these past years, I have known people called at every hour; I have baptized infants, children, adults, and a dying man. I know for a fact that here in this sanctuary today we have those called to labor early in the morning, in the third hour, the sixth hour, and the ninth hour. You know who you are. Your stories are not the same; you each have taken unique journeys to get here today. Your path is not identical, but the destination is. “And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.” The reward is equal, because it was given before any labor was done. The reward is equal, because it is given as a gift. The reward is the fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection, it is life eternal in the vineyard of the new heavens and the new earth. This is your reward, promised to you in your baptism and given to you when you die. Because of Christ, your death isn’t defeat, it is when you are given an eternal treasure. That same treasure is given to all, whether they were hired at the first hour, the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour, or even the eleventh hour.

“Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” In our sin, we are always in competition, we are always comparing ourselves to others. And when we have labored long in the vineyard, especially when we are those who have worked from the first hour, we deceive ourselves into thinking we are earning something by our labor. If Christ pays the death-bed convert one denarius, surely I’ll get two! And so, tragically, we look down on our fellow laborers, we think that they are less than we are, and when we hear that they will receive the same wage, we grumble against our Master.

But our Master immediately rebukes this complaint. “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I chose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” Repent! It is the Master’s vineyard, not ours; He is the one who planted it, and He is the one who calls workers to tend it, in His good time and according to His good purposes. And He is the one who gives out the wage; He has earned that right, because He won the reward by His agony on the cross and His victory over death. And because it is His vineyard to tend, His reward to give, He chooses to give to all who believe the same reward: eternal life. 

No normal vineyard master would do this, but Christ is certainly not normal, as we hear from Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” It is Christ’s grace to give, and He gives it in abundance, to the life-long Christian, to the wandering and rebellious sinner, even to the one who was idle all the day. We are all the same because we are all sinners; none of us deserve His grace, whether we are called in the first hour or the last. But yet His grace is given in abundance to you, no matter the hour you were called, no matter what life you lived, because He died for you and He rose for you, and He has called you, every one of you, making you His own in the blessed waters of baptism.

Christ calls at His time, not ours, and no matter the hour you are called in, you are called to serve your neighbor. Your labor in the vineyard isn’t for your own good, to earn the reward, but for the good of others. Paul understood this; in our Epistle lesson, He says that to die and receive his reward would be much better for him, but to live on is for the good of his neighbor. “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” If our reward was all that mattered, God would simply take our life immediately after we were baptized. But we remain, some for only a few hours, some the entire day, for the good of our neighbor, just as others remained for your good, to extend Christ’s call to you, a call that brought you to the vineyard, where the reward is yours. No matter what hour your were called, no matter what your past is, on the Last Day, Christ will pay your wages, and you will receive your denarius, your entrance into a life that never ends with all the saints, called at every hour, but all with the same promise, all with the same reward, bought with the blood of Christ. In the Name of Jesus, the Master of the vineyard who earned your reward with His own blood, Amen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Proper 19 of Series A (Matthew 18:21-35)

“Out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” 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: ten thousand talents. That is what the servant owed his King. Ten thousand talents. No normal king would ever let such a staggering debt accumulate. Ten thousand talents. A day laborer in ancient Israel would have to work approximately sixty million days to pay off that debt. Ten thousand talents. With a high wage, he could maybe take care of it in a thousand years. Ten thousand talents. This is your debt, your debt to God; Jesus isn’t exaggerating as He tells this parable, if anything, He is making it seem smaller than it actually is. Ten thousand talents. The debt that you owe God is obscenely huge, enormously large, greater than you can even comprehend. The servant heard the penalty: “Since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.” Even with such drastic measures, the king would only see a miniscule fraction of the debt paid back. And you? Even if God tosses you in hell for eternity, the debt will never be paid. In your sin, you owe your Creator more than you can even comprehend.

And we foolishly think we can pay it off! The servant is confronted with his staggering, ridiculous debt, and he tries to negotiate with his King. “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’” He has been confronted with a debt that would take a day laborer sixty million days to pay, and all he asks for is patience? ‘Just give me some time—just a hundred and sixty thousand years; or just a thousand, if I get a really good job!’ He honestly thinks he can pay it off! This is the height of delusion, of foolishness, but yet, we do the same with God, don’t we? We do not understand the enormity of our debt; we think that it is something we can pay. Our natural inclination to work ourselves into heaven deceives us into thinking that a person can actually do it. Isn’t that what we are doing when we put faith in our works, when we base our confidence on the statement ‘I’ve lived a good life’? We think we can take care of it ourselves, that we can bargain with God, that He’ll somehow overlook our debt if we show up at church, if we raise good kids, if we serve on the city council or the fire department. We are fools; we just don’t get it, we do not grasp how great our debt is to God. ‘Just give me some time, God—I’ll pay it off!’

But we can’t. This debt we owe can never be paid off. Even an eternity in hell isn’t enough. The debt cannot go unpaid; it must be accounted for. Someone must pay; and you are on the hook. The creditor is calling, it is time to pay up, and if you can’t, then the debtors’ prison is open for eternity. If we truly understood the depth of our sin, if we comprehended that we owe a debt to the Creator of the universe that we could never pay, we would quit our foolish bargaining and simply cry out to God for mercy, as we did in the Introit this morning: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” We would run to the altar of God, beat our breasts and with tears beg for mercy. But instead, we go through life never thinking of our debt, or, if we do realize what we owe God, we foolishly say, ‘I’ll take care of it—don’t worry, God, I’ll pay you back!’

Fortunately, the King doesn’t put up with our foolishness. “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” The servant foolishly asked for some time; the King gives far more than that. Moved by pity, the entire debt is cancelled, forgiven, eliminated. The servant is now free! We try to negotiate, we try to work our way into heaven, we foolishly think we can do something ourselves to pay the debt we owe to our God, but our eternal King wants nothing to do with it. He understands the enormity of our debt, even if we are fools and fail to grasp it ourselves. He looks upon us with pity, with compassion, with love.

His pity and compassion led Him to do something about our debt. The debt needed to be paid; God would not be a God of justice if He simply let us off the hook. No, the debt needed to be paid, but no ordinary human could ever pay the price. The only price that would suffice was His Son, Jesus Christ, true God from eternity. Only as true God could Jesus offer the sufficient price; only as true man could that price be offered in our place. In compassion, in pity, God sent His Son into this world to pay our debt, once and for all. The debt was enormous; the cost would be incredible. Christ would stand in our place even unto death, even facing the very wrath and abandonment of God upon that cross. We can scarcely comprehend our debt; it boggles the mind to consider Christ’s payment of it. On that cross, He not only suffered for your ten-thousand talent debt, He suffered for the debt of every human who had ever lived or ever will live. That is how precious His blood is! That is how much every drop is worth! He suffered an eternity of hell during those hours on the cross.

Your debt is now paid; Christ proved it when He walked out of the tomb, victorious over your jailers. With His resurrection, God turns to you and says, ‘You are forgiven.’ “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” Your debt is gone; it has been paid for, eliminated, wiped off the books forever. God saw your sin, He saw your debt, and He did not act in wrath, He acted in pity, in compassion. Now, for the sake of Christ, He forgives that debt. He considers the accounts closed, the matter done. There is nothing you need to do, no additional price needs to be paid. You are forgiven! God’s grace is more enormous that your sin, more overwhelming than your debt! You are reconciled with God; your debt has been paid, now and forever.

But the King isn’t the only one to whom debts are owed. The servants also owe each other. “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’” A hundred denarii. The debts we owe each other are not insignificant; we are capable of sinning greatly against our fellow servants. A hundred denarii. That is about four months wages, around ten to fifteen thousand dollars today. A hundred denarii. Some of you are owed large debts; you know how much sin can hurt. A hundred denarii. This debt looks like a lot to our human eyes, but only if we have failed to grasp the enormity of our debt.

A hundred denarii isn’t pocket change, but it looks like pop machine money when set next to a debt of ten thousand talents. The servant failed to understand the enormity of his debt; now he fails to understand the enormity of the King’s forgiveness. He who has been forgiven so much, who has had an incredible, unpayable debt eliminated, refuses to forgive another. He foolishly holds against his neighbor a debt that for him been taken care of by the King’s pity and grace. He has been forgiven much; he refuses to forgive even a little. We all have others who owe us debts; some are quite large, of the one hundred denarii variety, but most are much smaller. However, every debt that is owed to us is miniscule, insignificant, when compared with the debt that has already been forgiven.

The King has little tolerance for those who have been forgiven yet refuse to forgive others. “Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.” The King will not tolerate His grace being drug through the mud and treated as worthless. He understands the enormity of the debt that has been forgiven; He understands fully the price that was necessary to show His compassion. He cannot abide you or me despising the gift won by His Son’s precious blood, and so His wrath falls again on those who refuse to forgive.

We refuse to forgive because we do not grasp the enormity of God’s forgiveness for the sake of Christ; we don’t understand the greatness of our debt, so we don’t understand the greatness of His forgiveness. The most important step in forgiving others is receiving that forgiveness in all of its abundance. The King’s forgiveness comes first. If we do not come to this place and receive forgiveness, it is going to be very difficult to give forgiveness to others. We cannot give out what has not been first given to us. We view the debts of others in light of the infinitely greater debt that we have already been forgiven. Then, we remember that forgiveness is not a one-time thing. Peter asked, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Forgiveness is a process, and like many things in this life, it takes time and it takes repetition. God, fortunately, doesn’t forgive us only once, but He forgives each and every week in the Divine Service, and each and every day in your baptismal life of repentance.

That’s a good thing, because we continue to accumulate debt, sinning against God and our neighbors, especially by withholding forgiveness. So we stand before Him as a debtor, each and every day, in the posture of humble repentance, and we lay before Him our every sin, even the sin of failing to forgive. And He responds with grace. “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” You are forgiven of your debt, and you are sent out into this world to extend that forgiveness to others, knowing that when you do this imperfectly, God’s grace is always greater than your sin. In this place you come before the King, and He forgives your debt, down to the last penny. In the Name of Jesus, who in compassion paid our debt, Amen.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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

“Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 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: Who is the greatest? It seems to me that whenever a group of humans assemble in community, this question is asked. Who is the greatest? We have a natural, sinful inclination to establish the pecking order, to figure out who is on top and who is on the bottom. We jockey for position, seeking to find our place among the others around us. This happens in families, it happens in locker rooms, it happens in communities, and it certainly happens in the Church. We think that some congregations are more important than others, or that some pastors are greater than the rest. Within a congregation, there is always a pecking order, the people that you better not make mad, because they are the ones who pull the strings around here, their opinion really counts. The people on top know they are on top, and the people on the bottom, well, they know it, too. Competition is our default setting from birth, so it is little surprise that the disciples came to Jesus (as they seemed to do quite often), asking, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They knew the answer, of course: they were! If the twelve chosen disciples weren’t the greatest, who else could be?

Jesus has an answer to that question: “And calling to Him a child, He put him in the midst of them and said, ‘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.’” Christ calls on us to turn, to repent, to give up on seeking influence and exaltation over others. Quit jockeying for position, stop looking down on those who are on the bottom; turn, repent, and become like children. What is it about children that we are called upon to imitate? Jesus isn’t saying that children are holier, more pure, or more righteous than adults. He is pointing to one characteristic that all children, especially little children, share: humility. Children are humble by nature because they are completely dependent upon others for all that they have. 

Go down to the zoo in Omaha and take a walk around. You will not find any of God’s creatures who are born more dependent for as long as the human babies which are carried by their mothers or pushed in strollers. Many animals can stand within minutes; some are completely independent immediately after their birth. But the human child cannot care for itself for years. That is the posture that Christ calls you to have. You are to turn from seeking after power and influence and instead become as the little children, humble and dependent solely upon God for everything you have. This is simply reflecting reality; you truly are poor and humble, with nothing to offer God but your sin. You stand condemned to death—eternal death—under the Law. Any attempt to exalt yourself over others is pathetic, almost comical; you are just playacting, pretending to be something you are not. You are poor and humble, whether you know it or not: turn and believe it!

Christ came to save precisely that kind of people; those who could not save themselves, the poor, the downtrodden, the humble. He came to save everyone, for everyone is as helpless as a child, but those who jockey for position, who seek power, who ask, ‘Who is the greatest?’ want nothing to do with His salvation. It is those who are humbled by their sins, who realize they can do nothing to save themselves, that Christ delights to find and bring into His fold. “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? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.”

To seek and to save the lost sheep would cost Jesus; it would cost Him everything. In order to save the lowly, the poor, the downtrodden, the humble, Christ would humble Himself, giving up his glory for the mantle of a wandering rabbi. But that was not all, as Saint Paul tells us: “And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Christ’s humility led to death, death in the most humiliating way possible. The cross was His destination, and He walked that path in obedience. He made Himself the lowest of all to redeem all the lowly, to redeem you and me. He gave up all He had so that He could give it to you; in the great exchange, He took your sin and gave you His righteousness, all that was His is yours, and He took all that was yours and nailed it to the tree. He saved those who had no ability to save themselves, we humans who think we are great, who think we are better than others, but are all alike condemned to death. He came, He died, for the humble.

So the Church He has established is to do the same. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” The Church welcomes the downtrodden; it is a place for the humble, the poor, the meek. In the Church we find refuge from the competition that fills this world, as we confess together that we are all “poor, miserable, sinners” each and every week. In the Church, status is not considered; we are all alike sinners in need of a Savior. No congregation is greater than another, for all have the same promise: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” No pastor is greater than another, for each has the same calling to forgive and retain sins. The ministry of Word and Sacrament goes on no matter who stands in this pulpit. You are not greater than the one sitting next to you, but instead, no matter what office or position you hold in the Church, you are all together sinners redeemed by Christ.

The Church has a responsibility toward the downtrodden of this world; she is called upon to welcome them, to call them into her fellowship to join with the rest of the downtrodden already within her fold. Jesus says, “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” The Church calls to the downtrodden, the ‘little ones,’ with both Law and Gospel. Christians speak the Law to warn the little ones, acting as a watchman like Ezekiel, calling them away from sin that leads to death. But this is only done so that the Gospel can sound forth, trumpeting the forgiveness of sins, proclaiming the only message that can save those who cannot save themselves. The Church is always oriented toward this goal: calling sinners to humble repentance so that they can be forgiven.

Who is the greatest? Not the most powerful ruler, not the most successful doctor, not the most eloquent pastor, not the biggest congregation, not the richest member. Instead, Jesus says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who see their sin, their weakness, their utter inability to save themselves, and cry out to Christ for aid. They realize that they are utterly dependent upon God for everything, especially for eternal salvation. Christ humbled Himself like a child—less than a child—for such people, to redeem the humble, not only to set us a pattern to follow, but to actually deliver us from our seeking after greatness. His humility stood in the place of all of our sin.

Therefore, we follow the pattern that Christ set out for us. Although He humbled Himself below all men, humility wasn’t the end of the story, as Saint Paul reminds us: “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Humility is not the end of our story, either. We have glory up ahead, for Christ is eager to take you from this valley of sorrow to the green pastures and quiet waters of eternity. Because He died in your place, all that is His is now yours. Because He rose, you too will rise. Because He is exalted, you too will be exalted. Today, you dwell in humility; on the Last Day, risen from dead, you will dwell in eternal glory. Life eternal is yours even now, for your Savior humbled Himself for you, submitting to death, even death upon a cross. He is the Savior who seeks and saves the lost, even you, even me. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Proper 17 of Series A (Matthew 16:21-28)

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” 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 sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: Do you renounce the devil? Do you renounce all his works? Do you renounce all his ways? We know the right answer; we heard it last week at St. John’s: Yes, I renounce him. But do you really? Those questions were answered at your baptismal day, whether by your sponsors or you yourself. On that day, through Baptism, you did renounce Satan, refusing his kingdom as you were brought into Christ’s. But the same questions are posed to you each and every day. Do you renounce the devil? Do you renounce all his works? Do you renounce all his ways? Peter made the good confession, as you did on your baptismal day. He told Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But then he heard what this confession would mean. “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” When faced with the cold, hard reality of the cross, Peter no longer renounced the devil, he became Satan’s spokesman. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

Jesus’ response is swift and devastating. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Peter set his mind on the things of men, on power, on glory, on victory, and he refused the things of God. He became Satan’s mouthpiece by refusing to accept the cross; he did not renounce the devil, he did not renounce his works, he did not renounce his ways. He thought the thoughts of men, and the thoughts of sinful men are Satan’s thoughts. He teaches us to think only of ourselves, to think of our own power, our own honor, our own glory. Satan whispers in your ear: ‘save your life.’ Do everything you can to preserve your own life in this world. That is why Peter recoiled from the cross. Not only would this destroy Jesus himself, but Peter quite rightly understood that if the Master hung on a tree, so would His followers.

Self-preservation is key to the thoughts of men; live for yourself, seek only your own interests. Certainly don’t go walking into a situation where your life is going to be demanded of you, especially if you happen to be the Son of God. Your life in this world means everything; death, martyrdom is to be avoided above all else. The thoughts of men mean seeking your own good, especially over against others. Service to your neighbor is only helpful if it gets you something, whether your name in the paper or a favor owed. Instead, seek authority over those around you, even in the Church. The thoughts of men are devastating in a company of believers, as everyone treasures in their heart the dark, satanic thought: “put me in charge, and I’ll set things right.” Power plays, naked ambition, and greed; these are the thoughts of men.

At all costs avoid the cross. Peter made the good confession, he renounced the devil, all his works, and all his ways when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But when the cross came into view, he gave it all up. He thought the thoughts of men. And the thoughts of men having nothing to do with the cross. The thoughts of men are to avoid suffering at all costs, the thoughts of men are to preserve one’s own life. Man thinks that suffering is to be rejected out of hand, that we are to do anything to escape. Whether we call it ‘death with dignity’ or apostasy, the thoughts of men will flee from the cross whenever it appears. When persecution arises, Satan whispers, ‘Save your life.’ When you face the scorn of others, Satan whispers, ‘Take revenge.’ When it is the burden of the elderly, Satan whispers, ‘End it,’ when it is an unplanned pregnancy, he says the same. The thoughts of men are to flee the cross.

Stand between Christ and His cross, Satan says, bar His way. The Jesus of the cross is to be shielded from view, hidden safely away. The glorious Jesus, shining on the Mountain of Transfiguration, the wise Jesus, uttering the Beatitudes, the compassionate Jesus, healing the sick—that is the Jesus created by the thoughts of men. That is the Jesus that Satan wants. Anything but a Jesus upon a cross. Make Jesus conform to your thoughts and ways, make Him seek salvation some other way, some glorious, triumphant way. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Cling to this Jesus as if death will separate you from Him forever, as if you cannot stand to have Him in any way other than the way you want Him. These are the thoughts of men: life preserved, suffering avoided, the cross denied.

The only antidote to the thoughts of men, the thoughts given to men by the father of lies, is the thoughts of God. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Do not deny the cross; deny yourself and take up the cross. Follow Jesus to Golgotha. There Jesus, who could’ve saved His life, who could’ve sought His own good, who could’ve defeated those who persecuted Him in a moment, denied Himself even unto death. In the Garden He prayed, “Not my will but thy will be done.” Do you renounce the devil, Jesus? Do you renounce his works, do you renounce his ways? He looked Satan in the eye, He saw the cross before Him, and He said, “Yes, I renounce them; get behind me, Satan!” He took up His cross and followed the Father’s will into death for you and me. He thought the thoughts of God for those who think the thoughts of men; even Peter’s rebuke was nailed with Him to that cross.

Give up on yourself; there is nothing in you but sin and death, the bitter fruits of the thoughts of men. Deny yourself in repentance, for Christ has come to deny Himself for you. Your pride, your seeking authority over others, your unbelief in the face of persecution, your rejection of the cross is nailed to the cross. You are forgiven! Christ denied Himself, He renounced the devil for you and for me. The cross could not be avoided; the One who is obedient to the Father is obedient to Him in all things, He is obedient to the divine ‘must’ of salvation. It was necessity that drove Him to the cross, to give up His life into death. Man thinks that death is the ultimate evil; on the cross Jesus declares that the only death worth fearing is death without faith in Him. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

A life given up for Christ is never really lost. That life belongs to Jesus, and it is a life that will never end, for Christ is risen from the dead never to die again for all eternity. Jesus asks, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” The answers are obvious: it cannot profit a man to forfeit his soul; no matter how much ‘stuff’ he accumulates in this world, none of it will give him eternal life. No man can give the ransom for His own soul; thanks be to God that Christ offered Himself as the required price, that He was not satisfied to leave us in the throes of sin and death but acted to redeem and deliver us. He denied Himself so that when we lay down our lives in self-denial as living sacrifices, we have not lost at all, but have won the victory.

You need not live in fear of death and suffering, for death and suffering have already been conquered. Christ is risen, and we will rise, too. God responded to Jeremiah’s complaint with these words: “I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the Lord.” Jeremiah suffered under the cross; He suffered for the sake of the Word that he was called upon to proclaim. When he cried out for relief, God did not promise him that persecution would cease; instead, the Lord promised that He would be with him; though the enemy would attack him, though they inflict suffering and perhaps even take his life, they would not overcome him. The enemy can rage against you all it wants; it can take everything you have in this life, even your life itself, but they do not have victory; you do, through your crucified and risen Lord.

Do you renounce the devil? Do you renounce all his works? Do you renounce all his ways? No. You fall into the devil’s traps each and every day. You seek the path of glory and refuse the cross, for you and for Christ. Repent and believe, for there is one who stood in your place; who renounced the devil, who renounced all his works, who renounced all his ways for you. He renounced the devil when Satan spoke through Peter, and went to cross, winning for you an eternal treasure, an inheritance that will never end. “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then He will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Some of the disciples gathered around Jesus that day would see Christ coming in His Kingdom, they would see Him triumph over Satan through His death and resurrection. He renounced the devil even unto death, refusing to save His own life but denying it for you and for me. On that day, He won a reward for you, for all those who followed Him on the path of the cross. He gives an eternal inheritance not to the one who has done enough, but to the one who has believed. There are only two paths when confronted with Christ; the easy path of unbelief that saves your life in this world but leads to eternal death, and the hard, painful way of the cross that loses your life in this world but ends in the halls of heaven. You are walking the way of the cross, the way of self-denial, the way of losing your life for Christ’s sake. It is not an easy path, but the destination Christ guarantees you isn’t worth comparing to the sufferings of this present age. Christ has renounced the devil for you, and you will dwell with Him, forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.