Friday, August 11, 2017

Eighth Sunday after Trinity (Romans 8:12-17)

“You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” 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 evening is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ, we are debtors. We owe someone something. You can’t avoid it; you stand in someone’s debt, the question is, who will that be? “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” What do we owe our sinful flesh? What did it ever do for us? It held us in bondage, separated us from God and other people, and promised us great things while delivering only death. We don’t owe the flesh anything. We are not in its debt any longer; it used to have a claim on us, because we were chained to it, living in its bondage, but no more. We have been saved. Jesus, the stronger man, came, and robbed the strong man’s house. Whatever we owed to our sinful flesh He paid, dying our death in our place. He killed our sinful flesh when He dunked us under the baptismal waters. If we are debtors to anyone, we are debtors to Him. Not that we owe Him anything to pay for our release—the price has been paid—instead, having been released, we live under Him as His debtors in grateful love.

However, the flesh keeps knocking, it keeps calling for our allegiance, it keeps asking for its bills to be paid. The flesh wants us to believe that we are still in bondage, it wants to keep us in slavery. In fact, Saint Paul calls our sinful flesh the ‘spirit of slavery.’ “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Like an unwelcome houseguest that you just can’t get to leave, the spirit of slavery hangs around even after you have been released from his bondage. The spirit of slavery calls for our obedience, it wants us to think that we are still in chains. Even though we have been set free, even though the chains have been removed by the work of Christ, the spirit of slavery wants us to return to our cells and put the chains back on. And the remarkable thing is, we actually do it. Day after day, we, who have been set free from sin, put ourselves back into its bondage. We willingly, openly, put the chains back on and settle into our cold, hard, cells. We believe this lie, this ridiculous lie, that slavery is freedom.

This is the message trumpeted forth in every corner of our world: slavery is freedom. The world claims that living in sin is actually freedom, that doing what your sinful flesh wants is freeing. This is most often spoken of with regard to sexual sins—free love, sexual liberation, ‘I’m free to do what I want with my body’—but the same lie is told about every sin. The spirit of slavery claims that it’s the ‘Christians’ who are actually repressive, that the Bible wants to put you in chains. This even finds its way into the Church, where the freedom of the Gospel is used to excuse or cover for living in the bondage of sin. It doesn’t make any sense, but people believe it, and you, who have been set free, fall for it all the time. Repent! “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Sin enslaves, as any addict can tell you, it grabs onto you and controls your life. Indulging in sin is putting the chains around your ankles and making sure they’re nice and tight. The end of these things is death; that is all that the flesh can give you, and Paul is quite clear that the freedom of the Gospel is not the freedom to do whatever you want, to live however you want. The freedom of the Gospel is exactly that, freedom from sin and its bondage.

For we have been given another spirit, not the spirit of slavery, to return to our chains, but the Spirit of adoption. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Our status has changed dramatically. We were born into slavery, chained to sin by virtue of our birth as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We had no choice, that was our identity. Our natural birth was one of slavery; the chains placed upon us even in the womb. But then we were adopted. The Spirit of adoption came to us in our chains and set the prisoners free, for the price of our release had been paid upon a cross two thousand years ago. Jesus came to be our brother; He came and saw us in our chains, and even though He was without sin, He submitted Himself to our slavery and paid its ultimate price—death. Then He broke the bars of death with His resurrection, and set us free. But we were not freed from prison to run around on our own. We were given a new status; no longer slave, but adopted child. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” We are sons of God, given a watery birth in place of our natural birth, made children by adoption instead of slaves by nature, destined for life instead of death.

Why return to the slavery of your birth? “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The life of the free is a daily putting to death of the spirit of slavery. That spirit entices us with its chains, its assertion that you can only be free by living in sin’s bonds, but the Spirit helps us resist its call by reminding us of our identity: our baptism into Christ, where the Spirit of adoption made us God’s children. Martin Luther teaches us to confess in the Small Catechism: “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” The spirit of slavery is put to death only by repentance, when we see our sin and turn away from it, drowning the Old Adam in a return to the font. The Christian life is one of daily, continual repentance, as we see our sin better and better and drown the Old Adam again and again.

This isn’t easy. The spirit of slavery, the Old Adam, is a tenacious swimmer, and his enticing words lead us astray again and again. We are tempted to despair of our identity as God’s children, especially when the Law confronts us and calls us out for not living as Christians should live. But we are not left alone. “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” There are three spirits in our text: the spirit of slavery that wants to bind us, the Spirit of adoption that sets us free, and our spirit, which needs reassurance as the struggle goes on within us between slavery and freedom, peace and fear, old man and new. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just make us God’s children through our baptism into Christ, He is daily active and working within us, killing the spirit of slavery and reassuring us of our status before God as we struggle and suffer in the battle against sin, death, and the power of the devil.

“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” We will suffer death to our flesh, the daily drowning we are called to, we will suffer the opposition of a world that doesn’t understand why we refuse its bondage, and we will suffer the ravages of sin in a creation that is still fallen. But the Spirit reassures us, bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and that we have an inheritance with Jesus. You are God’s beloved child, you belong to Him, that is your status right now, but you are also an heir, for you have an inheritance that is still to come, waiting for you on the Last Day. For as Jesus suffered and then entered into His glory, so your suffering, too, will only be temporary, and not worth comparing to the glory that is to come. You are children of God, adopted through the work of the Spirit, and an eternity of freedom awaits you, your inheritance won by your brother, your Lord Jesus Christ. In His Name, Amen.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Eighth Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 7:15-23)

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, Jesus doesn’t have many good things to say about false prophets. In fact, He gets downright upset when He starts discussing them. His greatest fire and brimstone is reserved for those who teach falsely, who lead others astray. Elsewhere, He talks about millstone necklaces; here, He sounds much like John the Baptist. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” False prophets are doomed, they are condemned, their fate is destruction. No matter how much they protest, the Last Day will not be a pleasant experience for those who teach falsely. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” I never knew you. There are no more terrifying words that one could hear on the Day that Christ returns. I never knew you. Though they did signs and wonders, though they claimed to speak for Jesus, their destination is hell.

And they are taking as many as they can with them. False prophets are condemned so harshly because they do not keep their opinions to themselves. The false teachings that leave them condemned they spread to others, a poison that robs the true faith from the hearts of others. Make no mistake, dear friends, false teaching, false doctrine, false theology, condemns, it robs true faith and leads you straight to hell. During the World Wars, posters carried the handy phrase, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ We should have posters up all over this church, saying ‘False doctrine brings hell.’ Why? Because a wrong Jesus cannot save you, no matter how wise He sounds or how nice He is. In the same way, a wrong path of salvation can bring you only condemnation, no matter how appealing and easy the wide road may look. False doctrine is a poison; maybe a little won’t kill you, depending on what kind it is, but it sure isn’t healthy, and as the doses get stronger and you take them more frequently, you are killing off true faith so that you will hear with the false prophets: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

Are you interested in avoiding that fate? Does having the door to heaven shut in your face on Judgment Day sound like something that you would rather not have happen to you? If you’re here this morning than you probably think that avoiding hell is a goal that all people should have, right? If not going to hell sounds like a good thing to you, then Jesus has one word for you: Beware. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

Beware, dear friends, beware of false prophets. Keep your eyes open for them, be watchful and alert. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, because false prophets don’t typically put ‘leading people to hell’ on their resume, or print ‘false teacher’ on their business card. In fact, if there is one thing that Jesus stresses about them in our text, it is that false teachers are always in disguise. He calls them ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing,’ and then says that not only do they prophesy, cast out demons, and do mighty works, but these are all done ‘in my Name.’ You see, false teachers will often claim the name ‘Christian.’ These are the most dangerous; we are pretty good at spotting false prophets when they come from outside the visible Christian Church, like Muslim imams or Hindu priests, but things get much more difficult when false prophets call themselves Christian. And in fact, it is very difficult to find any false prophet who has something bad to say about Jesus.

Appearances are deceiving. Not only may false prophets bear the name ‘Christian,’ but they will probably do a lot of good works. Sure, there are many who are sleazy and outwardly wicked; those are much easier to spot. It’s the ones who are outwardly good, who make great neighbors, who serve in the community, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, who are actually the most dangerous. While we praise any good deed done by believer or non-believer, the good deeds of a false prophet can cause us to let our guard down and open our ears to their teaching. Miracles can do the same thing. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that miracles are restricted to those who are true disciples of Jesus. In fact, Jesus explicitly promises in Matthew twenty-four that false prophets will do many signs and wonders “so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”

How can you “beware of false prophets?” If they are so well-disguised, how can you mark and avoid someone who will poison the faith given to you by the Holy Spirit? Jesus has a very simple answer: “You will recognize them by their fruits.” Now, we may be tempted to think that ‘fruit’ here is the same as ‘fruit’ elsewhere in the Scriptures, referring to good works. But we already said that what makes many false prophets so dangerous is that they do have good works and even miracles. So the fruit of false prophets must be something else, indeed, the very thing that makes them a false prophet in the first place: their teaching. You can only know false prophets by examining their teachings. There a false prophet cannot hide. You see, a bad tree cannot produce good fruit, you don’t gather grapes from thornbushes. They can try to obscure their teaching with flowery, pious-sounding words, they can make the task more difficult for you, but ultimately, as Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits.”

How can you recognize bad fruit? Only by knowing good fruit, knowing the truth. False prophets can only be avoided if you know the truth of God’s Word, if you know the Scriptures. Every minute spent reading your Bible, every Sunday morning or Wednesday evening spent in this place receiving Christ’s gifts in the Divine Service or learning His Word in Bible Class, is arming you to recognize the fruit of false teachers. Bankers are not taught to recognize counterfeit bills by looking at a bunch of fake money, they are instead taught every aspect of the real thing. That is what we do here; we give you the real thing, so that if you encounter false prophets, on your television, in a book or magazine, on your front porch, or in this pulpit, you can recognize the fruit, mark and avoid them.

Appearances will get you nowhere. The truth is often clothed in rags, while falsehood wears a $3,000 suit and drives a Jaguar. The most ardent atheist can do as many outwardly good deeds as the most sincere Christian. You judge your teachers by their fruit, knowing that “every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” You judge your teachers on the basis of God’s Word, which means you must know God’s Word. That is your task, for the sake of your own soul and the souls of others around you; to listen to any who proport to be teachers and judge their fruit, their teachings. That includes me, Pastor Poppe, and any who stand in this pulpit. Any pastor that is afraid to be judged on the basis of God’s Word, who instead throws around his weight as a teacher of the Church, is afraid that his teaching won’t stand up to the scrutiny of the Word of God. Call him to repentance, for false teaching brings death and hell; true teaching brings life.

The true Jesus does save you; the true Jesus bled for you, He died for you, He rose for you. The true Jesus took all the sin of the world upon Himself, your sin and mine, and died to pay its penalty. The true Jesus has placed His Name upon you in Holy Baptism, He has made you His own dear child and delivered to you all the gifts of His Kingdom. The true Jesus has placed into your mouth His Body and Blood, feeding you with His grace unto life everlasting. The true Jesus is true God in the flesh forever, seated at the right hand of the Father, for you. The true teaching of the Church isn’t just right; it’s good, it’s beautiful, and it’s for you. The true path of salvation isn’t just the right way, it’s the only way, and it’s the best way, because it’s all about grace alone by faith alone, without any merit or worthiness on your part. If you have indulged your itching ears with the slick lies of false prophets, if you have mixed a little poison in the waters of life that you receive from Christ, if you have by neglect of God’s Word left yourself open to the assaults of false teachers, repent; repent and return to the true faith. This is the truth: you are forgiven for the sake of Christ’s shed blood, poured out on Calvary’s cross and applied to you at font, pulpit, and altar. The truth that you in weakness have neglected is the very truth that forgives you for that weakness, the very truth that saves you for eternity. You are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, a child of God forever.

On that great and terrible Day, you too will cry out ‘Lord, Lord,’ but this will not be the insincere cry of those who claimed the Name and refused the teaching; instead ‘Lord, Lord’ is the cry of faith. “Abba, Father,” you cry out, all you who have been adopted as sons, who have been made children of God through Christ, and the door will not be shut against you. No, it will be opened to you forever, for Jesus does know you, He died for you, He rose for you, He made you His own. Your lawless deeds are forgiven; He died for them all. That is the truth, the truth that has set you free, the truth that is not only right, but so much better than anything the false prophets offer. They bring death, Jesus has life, life for you. This is the truth we hear, this is the truth that we study, this is the truth that we read in the pages of the Scriptures. This is the truth that we cling to, because this is the truth that saves, and you who abide in that truth by the work of the Holy Spirit will live forever, world without end. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Seventh Sunday after Trinity (Genesis 2:7-17)

“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” 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 evening is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the book of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ, the Lord God planted a garden in the land of Eden, in the east. It was the sixth day. He had already created light, sky and land, plants, the moon, sun, and stars, and a multitude of animals to fill the sea, sky, and land. Now He does some gardening. The world is paradise, perfect and good, but it is not yet ‘very good.’ The garden in the land of Eden is to be the center of that perfection, the perfect sanctuary in a perfect world, and in the midst of that garden, in the holy of holies, He will plant two trees.

That sanctuary, indeed even the holy of holies, the inner chamber, is to be the dwelling place of His final creation, the creation that alone can make all things complete, ‘very good.’ Before this final creature is set in place, the world isn’t imperfect, but it isn’t finished. This creature will be the crown of His creation, and it will be entrusted with the care of all else as God’s own steward and representative. Therefore the Creator, who made all else with the power of His Word, does this final act of creation in a completely unique way. “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” God gives life, that is His gift to the crown and ruler of His creation. He takes the dust of the ground, forms it into man, and gives us the breath of life. We all go back to a pile of dust and a blast from God’s nostrils. Before God formed us, we were simply dirt on the ground. Before God breathed His breath into us, we may have looked like man, but there was no life in us. Apart from God, there is no life. Life is His gift, pure and simple.

But God isn’t only concerned with giving life. His abundance doesn’t stop with the breath of life. Man is put in this perfect world’s inner sanctuary and told that all things are his. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden.” What kinds of trees were in that garden? “And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” We even had access to the holy of holies, where the tree of life grew. Surely every tree provided good food, but the tree of life provided exactly what the title implies: life, full and complete, providing in continual abundance the gift God first gave into our nostrils. But another tree stood in the holy of holies, the one thing in all of creation that God withheld from us. “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” This tree was our place of worship, where Adam preached his sermons, pointing to the tree and proclaiming the one command that God had given. This was our church, where we worshipped God by not partaking of what God had not given to us.

But Satan snuck in, and twisted God’s words, with his, “Did God really say?” and his “You will be like God.” He led us to fix our eyes on the one thing God had not given rather than on all the abundance that He had given. He tempted us to be dissatisfied, and then fed that fire until it roared. That is how Satan works. God gives a gift, and Satan immediately starts tempting, pointing us to what God has not given. God gives us a spouse, and we lust after those whom God has not given. God gives us a home and food on the table, and we covet what our neighbor has. Maybe God doesn’t give certain gifts to us, maybe He hasn’t given a spouse or children, or a high-paying job, but even though He has given us Himself and a tremendous array of gifts, Satan tempts us to focus on those things God hasn’t given, to covet and to take. It’s been this way from the very beginning. God formed us from the dust of the ground, breathed into our nostrils the very breath of life, and if that weren’t enough, He put us in a perfect garden and gave us the wondrous fruit of every tree save one, including the magnificent tree of life. And we fell for Satan’s trick, fixing our eyes on the one thing in all creation that God had withheld.

We grasped after what God had not given, and so we lost all that He had given. “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” God said, and on that terrible day, death entered the world, we began to die. All that God had given in such abundance was taken away. We were driven away from the garden, cast out of the holy of holies; that place which we were to guard was now guarded against us, and when the Flood came, the garden in the land of Eden was no more. But the curse didn’t end there. We were formed from the dust, and now we are destined to return to dust. We were given the very breath of life, and now are destined to give up that breath. The great gifts of creation are now to be reversed; one day you will return to the state of Adam on the morning of that sixth day of creation. First, you will give up your breath, and then you will turn to dust. The life that God gave to you as His gift will be forcibly taken from you.

You desired and you took what God had not given, and so you receive what God never intended: death. But God in His mercy and grace doesn’t stop giving. You are barred from the tree of life in the midst of the garden, but God gives another tree of life. This tree isn’t beautiful, ripe fruit don’t hang from it, it isn’t a delight to the eyes. Instead, it’s an instrument of torture, ugly to the extreme, unseemly and offensive. In place of fruit, there hangs upon this tree of life a man, beaten and bloodied, pouring out his life upon it. It doesn’t look like a tree of life, only a place of death. But when the death that is died upon that tree is the death of the sinless Son of God in your place, then the cross of Jesus is truly the tree of life. When the death that is died upon that tree forgives your every sin, then the cross of Jesus is more beautiful than any tree. For on that tree, God withholds from His Son the breath of life in your place, and Jesus pays your penalty for you.

Jesus dies to make His cross the new tree of life, the new source of life for those sinners who are destined to give up the gifts God first gave to us in the garden. Yes, you will give up the breath of life one day, but because Christ breathed His last having preached His final sermon, “It is finished,” because you have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit as Jesus breathed into your ears His Word, that breath will one day return. Yes, your body will return to the dust from whence it came, but because Jesus laid down His life into the dust of death for you, bearing your sin and enduring your penalty, you will be raised from that dust to live before Him forever. Yes, you were excluded from the holy of holies, cast out of the inner sanctuary, but Christ has gone into the most holy place by means of His blood to open a way for you.

Yes, you were cast from the garden in the land of Eden, but there is another garden to which Christ has won you entry, a garden in which you will dwell forever. Saint John saw in the New Jerusalem “on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” The tree of life that is the cross of Jesus has won you access to this tree of life that will never be destroyed, that you will never be barred from. The entire new heavens and the new earth will be the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies, and you will have access forever, for you are the redeemed, the saved, those for whom Christ died. Life was God’s gift in the beginning, and life is God’s gift at the end, life through Jesus, and as Adam was created from dust, so you will be raised from the dust, to live before Christ forever, to eat from the tree of life without end. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.