Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (A)

February 19, 2017
Text: Matt. 5:38-48

            “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45; ESV).  It’s a tall order.  Yet this is what God expects of His people.  This is what God expects of you.  And to love your enemy means not only to pray for him, but to take his abuse, to turn the other cheek, give him the very shirt of your back, go the extra mile, and give him whatever he needs, freely, without expecting anything in return.  God expects nothing less than perfection, and if that perfection depended on you, you’d be toast.  All have sinned.  All fall far short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).  Thank God, as is the case throughout the Sermon on the Mount, this is not first a description of you, but of Jesus.  Jesus turns His cheek to the fists and spittle of the soldiers.  Jesus is stripped of His robe and His seamless woven tunic over which His executioners cast lots.  Jesus carries the burden of the tree to Golgotha, the Place of a Skull, and is mounted to that tree for the sins of the world.  He gives His all, everything He has, everything He is, in sacrifice for sinners.  Jesus loves His enemies even unto death.  And as it all happens, as the nails pierce His flesh and the bystanders mock and the soldiers hurl abuse, as ultimate injustice is served, Jesus prays for His enemies, for the soldiers, for the crowd, for you: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  Our Holy Gospel this morning is not first a description of you, it is a description of Jesus for you.  He does what God commands, and His doing is done for you.  He does it, and does it perfectly, and you get all the credit, poured out upon you in Baptism, received in Word and Supper by faith.  You don’t do it.  You do the opposite.  And He takes all of your doing and not doing and makes atonement for it on the altar of the cross. 
            Love your enemies.  Pray for them.  Serve them.  Give yourself into death for them.  This is not the way it works in this world.  This world’s economy is built on tit for tat, I scratch your back and you scratch mine, and you get what’s coming to you.  This is how it works among the pagans, as Jesus points out.  You love those who love you.  You greet those who are useful to you.  You shun those who are not.  You look the other way as they pass by.  And that’s just the strangers.  The enemies you actively despise.  That is why you find it so hard to let go of the trespasses committed against you.  Old Adam keeps a thorough record of wrongs.  Repent. 
            Things are different in the economy of God’s Kingdom.  Who does God love?  Tax collectors and prostitutes.  Sinners.  Even pastors.  You.  God loves you.  He loves world.  So He gave His only-begotten Son into death.  That is how He loves you.  Jesus is God incarnate, God in the flesh, the only-begotten Son of the Father.  Why are the Pharisees always so upset with Him?  Because He hangs out with sinners and eats with them.  He has mercy.  He does not despise the lowly.  He heals the sick and casts out demons.  He touches the unclean and takes their uncleanness away.  He gives His all, His very self, for those who can give nothing in return, for those who hate Him and despise Him, reject Him and kill Him.  Because that is how it works in God’s economy.  That is who God is.  He is mercy.  He is forgiveness.  He is life for the dead.  He is life for you.
            And if that is true (and it is), and if you are baptized into Christ and therefore a son of God, an heir with Christ according to the promise, what does that mean about how you treat your enemy?  Our Holy Gospel, thank God, is first about Christ.  He is the only One who can do what is here commanded.  But now as you are in Christ, it is also about you.  These are the things God wants you to do as sons of our Father in heaven.  He really does want you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  St. Matthew records our text for a Church under tremendous persecution.  Jesus meant it when He said it, and He meant it when His Spirit gave Matthew to write it.  And He means it now.  “Yes, those guys who are out to get you because you believe in Me.  Those guys who want to arrest you and burn your house down and throw you to the wild beasts, or behead you, or crucify you, or burn you alive.  Those guys.  The Romans.  ISIS.  Love them.  Pray for them.  Turn your cheek to them, give them the shirt off your back, go the extra mile for them, even if that mile is to carry your cross to Golgotha.”  Jesus does not call us to kick back in this life, eat, drink, and be merry until we continue the good life in the sky.  There is a time and place for all of those joys, of course.  But our Lord, the crucified One, bids us take up our cross and follow Him.  He bids you come and die.  It hurts.  There’s a cost to it. 
            Our sister, Barronelle Stutzman, knows that cost intimately.  She’s lost everything for refusing to arrange flowers for a gay wedding, for a couple, I might add, whom she knows and loves and has served faithfully for over a decade.  Just this week the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that she violated anti-discrimination laws, that the State could compel her to provide services against her conscience, and that the couple can sue her to recoup legal expenses of over a million dollars.  It makes you angry that this sort of thing can happen here in America, and right across the state border from us, no less.  But you know, throughout this ordeal and in all the years leading up to it, as one of the gay men in this case himself testified under oath, Barronelle has shown nothing but love and compassion to those who are seeking her ruin.  She’s lost everything, her livelihood, her reputation, and now she’ll likely be sued for every last penny.  Yet she loves.  She loves those who are doing this to her.  And she prays for them.  And she forgives them, even as she suffers the abuse.  How can she do it?  Why does she do it?  She knows what you know.  She knows that is precisely what Jesus does for her, and for you.  She knows that all of this has been put to death with her Savior on the cross.  She knows He is risen and lives and reigns, and she will rise and live and reign with Him.  So she loves and she prays and she suffers, now, for a little while.  She takes up her cross and follows Jesus.  Be like Barronelle.  Be like your Christian brothers and sisters throughout the centuries who have loved their captors and prayed for them even as they were led to slaughter.  And rejoice!  They can kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul.  Jesus will raise you, soul and body, to eternal life.  You are a son of God!  What can the world do to you?  It can’t touch you.  Not really.  Not in any lasting way.  So when your Father gives you to suffer affliction, when He lays a cross upon you, greet it as did St. Andrew: “Hail, precious cross, you who were dedicated by the body of Christ; may He receive me through you, who redeemed me through you.”  Indeed, he said, “If I feared the punishment of the cross, I would never have preached the mystery of the cross.”[1]
            Now, if it’s true of those who want to strip you of your possessions and kill you, that you should love them and pray for them, what does it mean for those who have simply trespassed against you in some way?  Forgive.  Love.  Pray.  Suffer.  So you were wronged!  So you were hurt!  So you lost out!  Have mercy.  Let it go.  Free your neighbor from his guilt.  Understand, Christ has freed you from your sin and selfishness for this very thing.  He has given you to be His priest, to extend the freedom of forgiveness.  He freed you.  You free your neighbor.  He loves you.  You love your neighbor.  That is how the gifts of God work.  God pours out His gifts upon you abundantly and unfailingly, and those gifts flow through you and toward your neighbor.  The more you give those gifts away, the more they fill you.  Your cup is always full to the brim and overflowing.  God is faithful.  He will not withdraw His fountain of blessing.  There will always be enough.  He will always provide for you and keep you in His love. 
            And now there is an unfortunate translation issue in the last verse of our Holy Gospel.  The ESV reads, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).  But a better translation would be, “You therefore will be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  It’s not an imperative, it’s a future.  It’s not a condition.  It’s a promise.  You will be…  All God’s promises have their fulfillment in Christ.  Christ is the Father’s perfect Son.  And in Christ, you are perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  And the word “perfect” there is so much more than just morally flawless.  It means complete.  It means whole.  It means you’ve reached the goal, you’re full to the brim, you’ve reached full stature.  The word actually comes from the same root as a very important word uttered by Jesus on the cross.  There it is not translated as “perfect,” but as “finished.”  “It is finished,” Jesus said, “and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).  This is no accident.  Your perfection is in the sin-atoning death of Jesus, even as your life is in His resurrection.  You don’t love your enemies and pray for them in order to be perfect.  You love your enemies and pray for them because you are perfect in the death and resurrection of Christ.  You are complete, whole, fulfilled, spotless in the death and resurrection of Christ.  That’s the promise.  That’s how God sees you in Christ.  It’s how you’ll see yourself when that Day comes.  And maybe, God grant it, that’s how you’ll see your enemy on that Day, because your love and prayers brought him to Christ.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              

[1] Treasury of Daily Prayer (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008) p. 968.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (A)

February 12, 2017
Text: Matt. 5:21-37

            You have heard… But I say to you…”  We sinners are very good at hearing God’s Law differently than He speaks it.  The Pharisees and the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day heard the Law as something that could be kept, with great effort to be sure, but it was possible for those of superior character and religiosity… you know, like they were.  But for them the Law was strictly an outward matter, as we heard last week.  They were only concerned with outward behavior.  They were not concerned with the disposition of the heart.  The Pharisees were also very good at changing God’s Law.  Jesus illustrates this point with regard to the 4th Commandment: “Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and ‘whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’  But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God) – then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:10-13; ESV).  So you see there is a difference between what the Pharisees heard and what God actually said.  The Word of God is changed as a matter of interpretation.  If giving money to provide for older parents is good, giving it to God is even better, or so the thinking goes.  So we’ve improved upon God’s Commandment.  And while it is easy for us to sit here in the pew and condemn the Pharisees, the truth of the matter is that we do the same thing.  God said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), but who are we to judge the actions of two (or nowadays, more) consenting adults, be they men and women, or men and men, or women and women?  Who are we to judge the way another treats his or her own body?  Who are we to judge a husband and wife for whom the flame of love has died if they tear asunder what God has joined together?  It is more loving to live and let live, to be, not just tolerant, but affirming.  After all, God is love (1 John 8).  Which He is, but of course, what that really means is that in love God has given us His Commandments for our good.  But we interpret our way out of them.  We rationalize or emotionalize God’s Commandments in such a way that any and all outward behavior is excused and even justified.  And so there are two ways that we hear God’s Law wrong.  There is the way of the Pharisees, legalism, which is concerned only with outward behavior and cares not about the disposition of the heart.  Or there is the way which is much more prevalent in our culture, moral relativism, the way that says anything goes in terms of outward behavior, because all that matters is warm fuzzies in the heart, all that matters is that you are fulfilled, happy, and true to yourself.  At the end of the day, both approaches are the same.  Pharisees and libertines, legalists and moral relativists, both attempt to manage the Law in such a way as to declare themselves righteous.  Both seek self-justification, either by moralism, or by lawlessness.
            But that’s not Christianity.  That is why Jesus ups the ante in our Holy Gospel.  You have heard the Law preached in many and various ways, but Jesus preaches it in all its unyielding truth.  Jesus gives it to you straight.  The Ten Commandments leave no breathing room.  God expects you not to murder.  There are no exceptions here for unwanted pregnancies, vigilante justice, or excruciating terminal illnesses.  But even if you have kept this Commandment outwardly, you haven’t yet kept it.  For when you have been filled with unrighteous anger toward your neighbor, when you have insulted him or called him names, when you’ve refused to forgive his trespasses against you, you have broken the 5th Commandment.  St. John writes that “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).  If you do not love your brother as yourself, you have murdered him in your heart.  If you can help your brother in physical need but don’t, if you embitter your neighbor’s life by your words and actions, if you injure your neighbor physically or emotionally, you have murdered him.  No one walks away free from this Commandment.  And the Sixth Commandment is the same.  God expects you not to commit adultery.  To be sure, this means that you shall not physically cheat on your spouse.  He also expects husbands and wives to remain faithful to their marriage vows until death parts them, and so He forbids divorce, with only very narrow exceptions to that rule.  But here God also expects sexual purity in thought, word, desire, and deed.  This prohibits all forms of unchastity, fornication, sex before marriage, living together outside of marriage, prostitution, pornography, homosexuality.  It should go without saying, and yet it cannot go without saying: Christians do not engage in such behaviors.  If you do, repent.  Confess and be absolved.  Let’s talk, you and I, about how to make the situation right.  But even if you have not offended against this Commandment outwardly, you still aren’t free.  For Jesus says that even to look at another person with lust is to commit adultery with him or her in your heart (v. 28).  And we’re all nailed to the wall.  We’ve all broken this Commandment, too.  Jesus also gives instruction on the 8th Commandment, that a Christian’s yes ought to be yes, and your no, no.  There are times when you must take an oath before God, such as in court or when you get married, whenever your neighbor’s welfare demands it, but this should only be in very serious circumstances.  A Christian’s words should always be truthful even without an oath.  How many empty promises do we make?  Sure, I’ll do this or that.  Sure, I’ll be there at this time.  And we have no intention of following through, or we lose that intention somewhere along the way.  And so you see, once again we’re all nailed.  We’ve all sinned.  Repent.
            But dealing with this sin is going to take a whole lot more than a simple outward reformation of life.  For your outward behavior is symptomatic of the condition of your heart.  Jesus is interested in your heart.  That’s where the disease is.  Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, etc. (Matt. 15:19).  Defeating sin is not as simple as gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand.  Amputate all your limbs and appendages and you’ll still be a sinner.  Because what you really need is a new heart.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10).  What you really need is a heart transplant, a bona fide death and resurrection.  And that is what you get with Jesus, His death and His resurrection for you, and your death and resurrection in His.  A great exchange takes place for you in Christ.  Jesus takes your murderous, unforgiving, adulterous, dishonest, and unfaithful heart into Himself.  And He gives you His sacrificial life, His faithfulness, His truthfulness, His love, so that these are credited to your account.  He takes all your sins to the cross to be crucified and die with Him.  And now they can never count against you.   He gives all of His sinless body parts to redeem all of your sinful body parts.  He gives His eye, His hand, His whole Body into death and hell for you, that you might have life and heaven.  He who knew no sin became sin for you, that you might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).

            And though you have been unfaithful, your Bridegroom, Jesus, does not divorce you.  He gives Himself up for you to make you holy, cleansing you by the washing of water and the Word, to present you to Himself in splendor, as a Bride adorned for her Husband, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27).  The risen Lord Jesus bestows His righteousness and His resurrection life upon His Bride, the Church, you.  And so in spite of what you have heard from the world, from society, from the culture, even from false Christian teachers, you listen only to the voice of your Beloved Savior.  You do not try to justify yourself.  You do not try to earn your righteousness by your outward keeping of the Law.  You do not excuse your sinful behavior, or seek Jesus’ tolerance and acceptance of your sin.  Instead, you confess it.  You confess the hidden wickedness of your heart to the One who alone can make you clean and new.  You confess it into His tomb where it is buried forever, forgiven, never to be resurrected.  You say “Amen” to your Lord’s killing and condemning Law, because you know that He slays you only to raise you to new life, that you may say “Amen” to His life-giving Gospel.  You have heard many and various things from many and various voices in the world.  But you also know the one and only voice of truth, the voice of Jesus Christ.  Let all that is not of Him be put to silence.  For He is your God.  His Word is your life.  His Word bespeaks you righteous.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (A)

February 5, 2017
Text: Matt. 5:13-20

            For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20; ESV).  Well, on the face of it, it seems like we might as well just give up and resign ourselves to eternal condemnation.  The Scribes and the Pharisees, these were the guys who knew every jot and tittle, every iota and dot of the Law, and meticulously kept every detail.  So how on earth is my righteousness, your righteousness, to be greater than theirs?  After all, you and I know our sins.  And Jesus knows them even better than we do.  There are times when we may regard our neighbor with pharisaical pride.  In fact, we love to do this.  We love to revel in another person’s sins and faults and weaknesses.  We love to gossip about them.  We smirk with delight in the knowledge that we are better than they are.  And then the unforgiving mirror of God’s Law shows us the hideous truth of our condition.  Our gossip betrays us.  We are not better than our neighbor.  We are not holier.  For every finger we point at another, ten thousand fingers of the Law are pointing back.  Righteousness exceeding that of the Scribes and Pharisees?  Hardly.  We are not righteous at all.  We are, as we confess, by nature sinful and unclean, constantly sinning against God and our neighbor in thought, word, and deed. 
            Jesus knows that, and thanks be to God our righteousness is not determined by our conduct or our disposition or our piety.  Our righteousness is in no way determined by our keeping of the Law.  Christ Jesus is our righteousness.  And it is in that way, and that way only, that our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.  The Scribes and the Pharisees put on a pretty good show.  They were really good at outwardly keeping the Law.  Humanly speaking, these were the upstanding citizens, good Christian folk, morally blameless, advocates of traditional values.  They talked a good talk.  They walked a good walk.  All of which is fine and good.  But it does not count as righteousness before God.  For as St. James reminds us, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10).  There is no breathing room when it comes to God’s Law.  No matter how bright and shiny your life may be, the fact remains that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), all, including Scribes and Pharisees and good Christian folk.  Because as good as you may be at keeping the Law outwardly, you know the thoughts in your mind and the desires in your heart.  You know that you are not pure.  You know that you are full of rebellion against God, selfishness, greed, lust, pride.  So you are a sinner.  And a sinner is, by definition, not righteous.  So here is the dirty little secret about the Scribes and Pharisees: They have bright and shiny, religious lives, but they are not righteous.  Because they do not have Christ.  They are sinners.  And instead of receiving God’s salvation for their sins, they reject Him, and by their own efforts work to make themselves righteous.
            You are a sinner, to be sure.  Your life is not even as bright and shiny as the Scribes and Pharisees.  And yet, your righteousness exceeds theirs.  Because your righteousness has nothing to do with who you are in and of yourself, or anything that you have done or left undone.  Your righteousness is Jesus Christ.  You are in Christ.  You are baptized.  His righteousness counts for you.  His blood washes away all your sin.  And so, while the Scribes and Pharisees find themselves shut outside the doors where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, you are entering into the kingdom of heaven, into the joy of your Master.
            And this is great Good News to us who are beset by vexing sins, whose consciences are troubled, fightings and fears within and without, whose hearts are weighed down with grief and hopelessness, broken lives, broken relationships, a broken faith.  Whatever you are going through right now, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve been, all of that is baptized in the blood of Jesus Christ, your crucified Lord.  All your sins are forgiven.  And Christ is your righteousness.  That is what St. Paul means when he says you’re justified.  Justified simply means righteous.  Righteous on account of Christ.  Justified on account of Christ.  Here’s what he says: “But  now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For 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” (Rom. 3:21-25).  How are you made righteous before God?  Christ died for your sins and God raised Him from the dead.  And now on His account God bespeaks you righteous, declares you righteousness, pronounces you righteous.  It’s a courtroom decree.  And Christ’s righteousness is given to you as God’s free gift.  It is received by faith.  Believe it and it is yours.  It’s as simple as that.  There’s nothing to add.  There’s nothing said here about your works.  There’s nothing said here about your worthiness or whether you deserve it, because you don’t.  It’s pure grace.  It’s pure gift.  For you.  In Christ alone.  And in this way your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, who, in reality, are not righteous at all.
            But aren’t Christians supposed to do good things?  Shouldn’t we do good works?  Shouldn’t we be upstanding citizens, good Christian folk, moral, advocates of traditional values and the like?  Shouldn’t we serve our neighbor, love our neighbor, provide for our neighbor’s needs?  Shouldn’t we flee from sin and godlessness?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Absolutely.  But that doesn’t make you righteous.  And thank God for that, because in your fallen flesh you will fail.  Your fallen flesh still needs to be crucified daily in repentance.  But you should do these things, not in order to be righteous, but because you are righteous in Christ.  So He sends you out to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  What does salt do?  It preserves and it seasons.  Back in the days before refrigeration, how did you keep the meat from spoiling?  Salt!  And my wife doesn’t always believe me, but even when something tastes great, sometimes the experience can be enhanced all the more with just a little bit of salt.  Christians are salt.  God preserves the world on account of Christians who pray and love and serve in it, and on account of people who are not yet Christians but will be as they hear God’s Word and receive Baptism.  And God seasons the world with His Christians, with your faithful confession, with your works done in Jesus’ Name, with your various vocations to which God has called you to be His hands in the world.  He sends you to be light in this dark world, to shine the light of Christ in the darkness and expel it.  You do this as you speak of Christ, as you speak God’s Word, which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105).  And by example as you live according to God’s Word in the world, confessing your sins, and hearing and living by the Absolution of the Lord that you receive freely here in His Church.
            It is an amazing thing what Jesus once said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31).  Or, as He said of the tax collector over against the Pharisee: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:14).  How can Jesus say such things?  It is not that Jesus has suddenly become tolerant of sin and affirming of materialistic lifestyles or sexual transgressions.  He has not come to relax the Law, much less abolish it.  In fact, as He says, not one iota or dot will pass away from the Law until it is accomplished.  Jesus does not abolish the Law.  He fulfills it.  He accomplishes it.  By His righteous life in our stead.  By His death on the cross for our forgiveness.  And He is risen and gives new life to us who were dead in our trespasses and sins, new life now in Baptism so that we can be His salt and His light in the world, life hidden under this weak flesh, but real life, a life that will be made manifest on the Last Day in the resurrection of the dead.

            It is no secret that you are a sinner.  If you try to keep it a secret, you are a Pharisee and not a Christian.  Christians confess their sins.  Christians confess that they are sinners.  Because you know that your righteousness does not consist in a polished outward life that, like a whitewashed tomb, hides the stench of deadly sins inside.  Your life is Christ.  Your righteousness is Christ.  Your everything is Christ.  And so in Christ, your righteousness not only exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees… In Christ, when your Father in heaven looks at you, He sees only the perfection of His Son.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.