Sunday, October 25, 2020

Reformation Day (Observed)

Reformation Day (Observed)

October 25, 2020

Text: John 8:31-36

            If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32; ESV).

            1520 was a banner year for the Reformation.  Dr. Luther was really becoming a Lutheran, growing in his understanding of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from works, and diving deeper into the theology of this blessed Gospel.  Abiding in the Lord’s Word (Scripture alone!), the Truth was, indeed, setting Luther free, and millions of us along with him. 

            We’ll be celebrating the 500th anniversaries of significant Reformation events the rest of our lives, and this year is no exception.  To highlight just a few from the year 1520, there was the papal bull excommunicating Luther in June, the burning of Luther’s books, and Luther’s own bonfire party in October, where he added the bull to a pile of Roman canon law and set it ablaze.  And there were a number of noteworthy writings, including Luther’s Treatise on Good Works, in which he unpacks the Ten Commandments in light of justification by faith alone.  Here he shows us that a good work in God’s sight cannot be something we choose or make up for ourselves, or even a human tradition instituted by the Church, but a work commanded by God in Scripture, flowing from faith, and done out of love for God and our neighbor.  So also, there were three treatises that really brought Luther’s theology into focus and made a great impact on the Christian world for the preaching of the pure Gospel: An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian.[1]  And it is upon these I’d like to concentrate most of our time.

            In the Open Letter, Luther pleads with the newly elected emperor Charles V and the German princes and nobles to deliver Germany from papal tyranny.  The pope, Luther said, had surrounded himself by three walls: First, he claims the temporal authority has no jurisdiction over him; that instead he has jurisdiction over the temporal authority.  Second, the pope refuses to be corrected on the basis of Scripture because, he claims, the right to interpret Scripture belongs to him alone.  Third, the pope refuses to submit to a free Christian council, claiming, contrary to history, that no one can call such a council but the pope himself.  Luther attacks these walls at their theological foundations and calls upon the nobles, as baptized Christians placed by God into an office of authority, to defend the Christians of their realm against such abuses.  Luther wants a council to rein in the pope, discuss Roman abuses, and come to God-pleasing resolutions on the basis of Holy Scripture. 

            In The Babylonian Captivity, Luther addresses Rome’s sacramental system.  As you may remember, Rome enumerates seven Sacraments (and the Eastern Orthodox enumerate them similarly).  Lutherans, contrary to popular belief, do not so much enumerate the Sacraments.  We do all seven things in one way or another.  But if we stick to the strict definition of the word “Sacrament” as that which God Himself institutes in Holy Scripture, where the Word of God is combined with a visible element, bestowing forgiveness of sins, some of those seven things will not be included.  For example, Luther doesn’t include Confirmation as a Sacrament.  There is no command from God in Holy Scripture to do Confirmation.  Catechesis, yes, but Confirmation, no.  And there is no visible element, nor does the confirmand receive forgiveness by undergoing the rite.  Marriage is instituted by God, but one does not receive forgiveness from God in the rite of Holy Matrimony.  Same with Ordination, which Rome abuses with the celibacy of priests and the idea that an indelible character is stamped upon the recipient of Ordination.  Our Confessions are not opposed to calling Ordination a Sacrament, if by that we understand the application of the Ministry of the Word, which forgives the sins of the people (Apol. XIII [VII]:7-13).  But rejected is the Roman idea that the priest attains a greater grace and a higher spiritual character than the laity.  Extreme Unction, or the anointing of the sick and dying by a priest, is not a Sacrament commanded by God, though St. James does commend pastoral visitation of the sick with prayer and anointing with oil (James 5:14).  We call it Commendation of the Dying, and it may include Sacraments, but it is not itself a Sacrament. 

            So that leaves us with three.  Luther writes: “To begin with, I must deny that there are seven sacraments, and for the present maintain that there are but three: baptism, penance, and the bread” (132; italics original).  Luther begins with the Lord’s Supper and maintains it must be freed from three abuses: 1. Withholding the cup from the laity… After all, Jesus gave both kinds to His Church and bids us, “Drink of it, all of you.”  2. Transubstantiation, which uses Aristotelian philosophical terms to explain the mystery of how this bread can be our Lord’s true Body, and the wine our Lord’s true Blood, and denies what the Scriptures plainly say about the bread and wine also remaining.  And 3. The Sacrifice of the Mass, whereby our Lord is supposedly offered to God anew with each celebration as an unbloody sacrifice, as though His once for all sacrifice on the cross was insufficient, and as though the Lord’s Supper were our good work for God to earn His forgiveness, rather than God’s good work for us to grant us forgiveness.

            Luther thanks God that Baptism has been preserved in the Church through the centuries, but warns against the dangerous idea that Baptism only cleanses us from the sins committed before we are baptized, as though we have to look for a second plank in penance and vows and pilgrimages when we make shipwreck of our faith by sinning after Baptism.  But Baptism, as God’s work in us, forgives not only original sin, but all actual sins committed before and since.  Faith clings to Baptism, not because it is a good work we do for God, but again, a work God does in us, by which He washes away our sins and actually grants us faith in Jesus Christ.  Notice how in each of these Sacraments, the Roman idea that the Sacraments forgive ex opere operato, by the outward performance of the work, is denied.  The Sacraments grant forgiveness of sins because of God’s Promise, and faith receives the benefits of that Promise in the Sacrament. 

            Finally, there is Penance, or what we Lutherans call Confession and Absolution.  Some Lutherans are surprised that Luther calls this a Sacrament.  Of course, the name Penance is misleading, because never is the Absolution pronounced by the pastor to be connected to performance of works of satisfaction.  No, the whole point of the thing is that God has given an Office, the Office of the Holy Ministry, whereby those who are penitent, those who mourn over their sins, may confess their sins to God and (here is the key point!) hear the human voice of their pastor deliver the verdict of God Himself: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”  No conditions.  No requirements to be met before the Absolution goes into effect.  All your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake.  That’s it.  Luther complains that Rome had reduced the Sacrament to three parts: Contrition (sorrow over sin), confession, and satisfaction.  Notice what is missing?  The heart and center of the whole thing, that which makes it a Sacrament: The Absolution!  The Absolution is the main thing.  That is the delivery of the Gospel.  That is the delivery of the saving death and resurrection of Christ into the ears of the penitent. 

            So now the Gospel Truth delivered to Christians in the preaching of the Word and the holy Sacraments, we come to the third Treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, and this one I highly encourage you to just go read.  Find it online.  It’s short.  It’s free.  It is sometimes called the Treatise on Christian Liberty.  And here is the summary of the whole thing: Christ is the Bridegroom.  You, dear Church of God, are the Bride.  All that is Christ's is now yours by the wedding ring of faith, which is to say, His righteousness, His holiness, His life, His salvation… His Kingdom!  And all that is yours is His, which is to say, your sin, your death, your condemnation.  On the cross, He puts all that is yours to death in His flesh.  And now He is risen, and you live with Him forever in His Kingdom.  And this means you are free.  You don’t have to do any works for this to be your blessed reality.  It is all yours.  By grace alone.  Through faith alone.  In Christ alone. 

            Why, then, do good works?  Because your neighbor needs them.  That is the only reason.  This is summed up in the wonderful little paradox Luther gives us at the beginning of the Treatise: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (277).  Insofar as it concerns your salvation, you are completely free.  All sin has been forgiven.  The Law can no longer threaten you or accuse you.  You don’t have to do anything to be saved.  But because you are saved, and you are the Bride of Christ, you love and serve your neighbor.  You become, Luther says, a little Christ to him.  You provide for his needs.  You sacrifice yourself for his good.  Not because you have to.  But because that is who you are in Christ.

            In each of these writings, Luther gives us the Truth as it is in Christ, and as it hadn’t been expressed clearly in many years.  He gives us what the Scriptures say.  He gives us the unadulterated Gospel.  He gives us Christ.  And so it is as Christ says in our Holy Gospel: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  For this reason, we give thanks to God this day for Dr. Luther, and for the Reformation of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

[1] Martin Luther, Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960). 

Monday, October 19, 2020

St. Luke, Evangelist

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Here is the sermon I preached later in the day at Trinity, Grangeville:

The Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist

Trinity Lutheran Church, Grangeville, Idaho

October 18, 2020

Text: Luke 10:1-9

            The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2; ESV).  Our Lord gives us this admonition to pray for the sending of preachers even as He answers the prayer in the sending of the seventy-two.  They are to go ahead of Him, two by two (like animals sent out from the ark to populate the earth), into every town and place where He Himself was about to go.  They are to go out as lambs in the midst of wolves, as Christians in the midst of hostile unbelievers, as preachers in the midst of a bloodthirsty, unbelieving world, hell-bent on killing them for the preaching.  And they are to trust.  No moneybag or knapsack or sandals covering their beautiful Gospel-carrying feet.  This is not an indication that you don’t have to pay the pastor.  It is rather an indication to the preacher that he is not to be concerned about money or provisions.  He is to live by faith, trusting in the Lord, and relying on the generosity of those who, by God’s grace alone, by the work of the Holy Spirit, hear and believe the preaching.  Keep that in mind, dear calling congregation of God.  When you receive a pastor, as we pray you will very soon, it is your duty before God and your glorious privilege to generously supply his needs and those of his family.  And it doesn’t work like it does in other jobs.  You don’t pay him for services rendered.  You pay him so that he can render service.  It is totally upside down by any worldly standard, as so many things are in the Kingdom of God. 

            The preacher is to enter the house… your house,

 your Church… and say, “Peace be to this house!” (v. 5).  That is, he is to announce the Gospel of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  And if there is a son of peace there… if the people receive the preacher and his preaching… that peace will rest in that place.  And if they do not, that peace will return to the preacher and the place will lose that preaching.  This is the warning for us all in these times when the Gospel is so despised.  God doesn’t have to rain the preaching down on us forever.  Luther said the Gospel is like a passing rain shower.  It pours down abundantly to the flourishing of faith and the salvation of many souls.  But when it is taken for granted or received ungratefully, it will move on to other places, as we are seeing in Europe’s empty churches, and now in our own beloved America. 

            But that is to be no concern of the preacher.  He is to preach.  Whether the people receive the preaching, or reject it and so persecute the preacher, that is for God to worry about.  The preacher is to preach, and he is to remain in the house, eating and drinking what is set before him, receiving his wages, not looking for a better deal or a more comfortable situation.  He is to remain until Jesus sends him somewhere else.  And he is to open his mouth and proclaim: “The Kingdom of God has come near to you” (v. 9), the Kingdom has arrived in the Person of the King, in the flesh of Jesus Christ.  For you see, even as the workers go out into the harvest field and the Gospel is preached, Jesus comes in the preaching.  Where the preacher goes, Jesus goes.  Where the Gospel is, Jesus is.  This isn’t just a historical, back-then-and-there reality.  It is now.  Here.  Today.  In this very moment.  In this very place.  As the Gospel is preached to you, Jesus is with you in the flesh, doing His saving work.  The proof of it is in your ears as He forgives your sins and delivers the Gospel preaching.  And it is on the altar from which you will receive His healing touch, His true Body, His true Blood, given and shed for you, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. 

            Well, all of that is a long preamble to what may be said very simply: Today is the Feast Day of St. Luke the Evangelist, who recorded the words of our Holy Gospel this morning.  St. Luke was not one of the seventy-two sent out that day, but he was an answer to the prayer our Lord puts on our lips to send out workers into His harvest.  St. Luke was a preacher.  Born in Antioch in Syria, he joined the Apostle for much of his missionary activity.  St. Luke is the writer of the Gospel that bears his name, as well as the Acts of the Apostles.  He wrote the Gospel to serve as a catechism for the Gentiles, and so we see how his work as an Evangelist (that is, a Gospel writer) complements the preaching of Paul, who was the Apostle to the Gentiles.  A careful historian, Luke looked into the facts our Lord’s life and ministry.  He interviewed the eye-witnesses, the Apostles, the major players.  And undoubtedly St. Mary, for it is from Luke that we get the most intimate details of the beloved Christmas story, the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin, the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth when St. John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb at the presence of the embryonic Lord Jesus, the manger, the shepherds, all heaven singing the Gloria in Excelsis.  And St. Mary pondering these things and treasuring them in her heart.  How could Luke have known what Mary treasured in her heart unless she had told him?

            Luke was St. Paul’s faithful assistant to the end.  Shipwrecked with him on the island of Malta (Acts 27-28), accompanying the Apostle in his captivity to Rome, Luke alone stood with Paul in his trials as everyone else deserted him (2 Tim. 4:10-11).  And it is from St. Paul that we learn one of our favorite details about Luke: Paul greets the Colossians on behalf of “Luke the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14).  Does this mean Luke was an ancient medical doctor?  Quite possibly.  It certainly would explain Luke’s fascination, even above that of the other Gospel writers, with Jesus’ healing miracles, and our Lord’s continued work of healing through His Apostles in the book of Acts.  We can see how this would be particularly valuable in his work with St. Paul, Luke perhaps caring for the Apostle and tending his wounds after the beatings and lashings and stonings and imprisonments, and whatever the affliction that affected the Apostle’s eyes (Cf. Gal. 4:13-15).

            But above all, St. Luke is a physician of souls.  Which is to say, a pastor.  And here we learn what we should look for and expect from a pastor.  He is to be our Seelsorger, our curate, our confessor who applies the medicine of God’s Word to us in our sin and wretchedness, the surgical wounds of God’s Law, the healing balm of God’s Gospel.  Remember, the preachers in our text weren’t just to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom in every town.  They were to heal the sick (Luke 10:9)…  There Luke goes again with the healing!  Now, it is true, as I mentioned, that in the Apostolic Church, while the Apostles were still alive and active in their missionary journeys, they, and some of the Christians they appointed, were given the gift of extraordinary miraculous healings.  By and large, that gift is no longer manifest in the Church.  And that should not disturb us.  God never promised to give the same gifts in the same measure to His Church in every time and place.  Healings, as well as the other extraordinary gifts, like tongues-speaking and prophesy, were given to the infant Church to confirm the preaching and show Jesus’ continued presence with His Church in that preaching.  Now the Church is well-established, and more importantly, we have a gift the infant Church did not have: The New Testament Scriptures, or, as St. Peter calls them, “the prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19).  So while miraculous healings can still happen, it is unlikely, and unreasonable for you to expect, that your pastor will make the lame to walk or cure your cancer here in the Service. 

            Though I will say, we enlightened moderns are rather blind to the miracle that takes place every time we recover from a sickness.  So it happens through medicines and doctors.  You know what St. Luke the Physician would say about the medicines and technology we have available to us today?  “Wow!  Miraculous!  Praise be to Christ, who continues to heal the sick!”  But we think it is all a result of our great intelligence and ingenuity.  Christ have mercy on us.

            And also, by the way, dear Christian, never discount what happens, and what is hidden from your eyes, at the healing command of Jesus in the preaching of His Word, and the healing touch of His Body and Blood at the Supper.  Now, I’m not advocating some sort of superstitious use of the Lord’s Supper, as though we won’t get sick if we take Communion, or even that we won’t get sick here at  Church.  What I’m advocating is that you believe what  you’ve learned from the Holy Scriptures about the nature of this gift and what it is you receive… our Lord’s true Body and Blood!  Luther says in his Large Catechism that the Lord’s Supper “will cure you and give you life both in soul and body.”[1]  That is a marvelous phrase we so often miss.  After all, it is the same Body with which Jesus cured lepers, made the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, and the blind to see, the same Body that was crucified for your sins and is risen from the dead, that you now eat under the bread; the same Blood that was shed on the cross for your forgiveness which now courses through the veins of the risen and ascended Lord, that you now drink under the wine.  How many times have you recovered because of that healing touch?  How many sicknesses did you not get because Jesus gave Himself to you in the Sacrament?  These days we are told we should run away from the Church and the altar in a time of pandemic.  Now, certainly, we should take wise precautions, and some people should take more than others.  But Jesus is just the medicine we need, and this is precisely where we need to be.  Jesus is the Great Physician of body and soul.

            The pastor, as physician of souls, is to administer Him.  In preaching and in Sacrament.  And oh, how we need Him!  St. Ambrose said, “Because I always sin, I always need the medicine.”  Why do you need a pastor?  Why are you calling one?  Because you need someone like St. Luke to go with you on the journey, whose job is to tend your wounds, cleanse you from the infection of your sins, bind you up in your brokenness, help your eyes to see, and administer the medicine that gives you life.  Not with his own gifts.  But with Jesus.  By applying the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Means of Grace, the Word and the Sacraments.  It is our Lord’s answer to your prayer: “Oh, Lord of the Harvest, send out workers to Your harvest field.  Send us a faithful pastor, a physician for our souls.”  That is what He will do.  Because He loves you.  And through the hands and mouth of whatever imperfect and sinful man he sends you… and he will be a sinner, by the way, and he will sin against you, and you will have to bear with him in patience and forgive him his trespasses against you, even as you care for him and his family and provide for their needs… nevertheless, through his hands and mouth, Jesus Himself will tend you.  He will heal you.  Which is to say, He will forgive your sins and raise you from the dead.  It is as sure as the Gospel you’ve heard this morning, and the Body and Blood you’re about to receive.  The Kingdom of God has arrived.  Jesus is here.  Peace be to this house!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              



[1] LC V:68 (McCain, p. 438).

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23A)

October 11, 2020

Text: Matt. 22:1-14

            This morning the Father invites you to the Wedding Feast of His Son, to the Holy Marriage of Christ and His spotless Bride, the Church.  It is a magnificent occasion, the event of an eternal lifetime.  Even Americans can’t pass up a royal wedding.  When a prince and a princess get married, we’re glued to our television screens and we buy all the magazines.  Because it is almost like a real-life fairy tale.  Cinderella or Snow White, with flesh and blood, castles and cathedrals, pomp and circumstance, and, we hope, a happily ever after. 

            For the same reason, we love all weddings.  I was amazed how many people wanted to come to our wedding all those years ago.  Of course, with a bride like mine, who could blame them?  But so also, there was the sublime liturgy, the grand procession, the ceremony and timeless traditions, in a Church decked out for the occasion.  And, of course, the feasting and champagne, the music and dancing, the laughter and love, all to mark a new beginning of unlimited possibilities.  That is the thing about a wedding.  No matter how the reality of the thing turns out, we’re hardwired to think of it as a happily ever after.  We even use words like “forever” to describe what has begun.  Now, that is hyperbole.  It is an exaggeration, and we know it is, because we hear the sobering words “Till death do us part” in the exchange of vows, and we know death will rend asunder what God has joined together in holy matrimony.  But don’t be so quick to dismiss the sentiment.  There is something to this idea.  We understand, almost instinctually, that the marriage of husband and wife, and in particular a Christian husband and wife, reflects something, even if dimly, that is eternal and incomparably sublime.  This mystery is profound,” says St. Paul, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32; ESV). 

            So the invitation goes out.  The royal heralds announce it in every pulpit, to you and to all, the invitation from God Himself, the great King: “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready.  Come to the wedding feast” (Matt. 22:4).  But the reaction is incredible.  So many would rather not attend.  So many refuse to come.  Now, it’s not like this is just any wedding.  It is a royal affair, only infinitely, exponentially greater.  The King pulls out all the stops for the sake of His guests.  But those invited pay no attention to the heralds.  One goes off to his farm, another to his business.  Some treat the servants shamefully, and then kill them, persecuting the preachers and the Church.  In the original context of the parable, this refers to the Jews, who rejected the Christ, refused entrance to the Kingdom, and put the Apostles and other disciples to death.  But the story repeats itself today.  All is ready!  The Feast is prepared!  Come to Church!  Come into the Kingdom!  Come into the joy of your heavenly Father at the nuptials of His Son!  But the people would rather not.  Better things to do.  Has this been you, beloved?  Repent.  So many outright refuse.  The Wedding Feast disgusts them.  Even to the point of treating the heralds shamefully and shedding their blood.  This is the great warning to all who reject the invitation to God’s gracious and lavish Feast!  If you will not have His grace, you will have His anger.  He will send in His troops and destroy those murderers and burn their city.  So it happened, quite literally, to Jerusalem in AD 70 at the hands of the Romans.  So it will happen on an even grander scale on the Day of Judgment which is to come. 

            But the Lord has a Feast and He will fill it with guests.  Go to the highways and byways and herald the news.  Invite as many as you can find and bring them into My Feast.  Let the preaching go out to every corner, gathering all whom you find, bad and good, so that the wedding hall may be full of guests.  The Gospel is not just for Jews, it is also for Gentiles.  It is not just for respectable Christians, it is for those lost in their sins.  Preach it, and so snatch them out of the world, away from their sins.  Save them from the devil’s cold grasp and the yawning jaws of hell.  Snatch them out of death, and into life.  That is what happens as the Gospel is preached and the Holy Spirit bestows faith where and when He pleases in those who hear.  That is what happens when the naked, bludgeoned, and bloody sinners are stripped of their tattered and filthy rags and given the wedding garment of Christ’s righteousness in Holy Baptism. 

            Yes, the guests are provided with the festive garment.  You don’t have clothing splendid enough to attend this wedding, this Church, not even your Sunday best.  Your good works are not good in comparison with what God demands.  Your own righteousness is damnable sin in comparison with the righteousness with which God wants you covered.  So the King Himself provides the garment for you when you come into the wedding.  It is Christ’s own righteousness.  In fact, it is Christ Himself.  For nothing but the most splendid and spotless robe will do. 

            This explains the problem of the man attending the wedding without the proper garment.  It’s not like the servants pulled him in off the street in his rags, and so there he was in tatters through no fault of his own.  On these occasions, kings gave their guests splendid garments to wear.  The robe was given him at the door.  But what did he do?  He preferred his own rags to what was given him.  He preferred his own works, his own righteousness, his own fig leaves to the righteousness of Christ with which God had clothed him.  Such a one cannot partake in the joy of the wedding.  He will be bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Whatever you do, beloved, do not seek to enter the Feast by your own merit or worthiness.  Do not amble up to the altar as if you have a right to it because of who you are and what you’ve done.  Do not approach the day of your death, or the Day of Judgment, as though you know you’ll be in heaven because you’re a good and decent human being.  That is to don your own filthy rags in place of your baptismal robe.  The robe is given you by grace, for Christ’s sake, because God is good, and He loves you.  Do not cast it aside.  Live in it.  Always.  Only.

            But do come!  The King wants you at His Feast.  Yes, you!  In fact, do you want to know a great surprise?  You aren’t just any guest.  You are the Bride!  You are Holy Church, and this is all for you.  You want to hear a little more from St. Paul about the robe you’ve been given?  It is that washed white in the blood of the Bridegroom.  Our Lord gave Himself up for you, dear Bride of Christ, gave Himself into the accursed death of the cross, shed His blood, sacrificed Himself, in order to sanctify you; that is, make you holy, cleanse you from your sins and your filth and your shame by the washing of water with the Word (that is your Baptism into Christ!), and present you to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27).  Can you imagine it?  You, spotless, without sin, resplendent, shining with the brilliance of His own holiness and righteousness.  But it’s not just your imagination.  It is the reality now hidden from your eyes, but known before God.  On Judgment Day, that is what will be revealed. 

            And here is the Feast.  This is really just a foretaste, but make no mistake, it is the real thing, hidden under bread and wine.  All of heaven is in attendance, angels and archangels and the whole company.  And here the Bridegroom receives you as His own.  He feeds you and nurtures you, covers you and provides for your every need.  He gives Himself to you, and all that is His, to be one with you forever.  For what God has joined together, no one dare separate. 

            Christian husbands and wives are given to be a reflection of this, living icons and sermons to the world.  One man, one woman, living together in love and fidelity for life.  Oh, we don’t always do it very well.  Okay, we almost never do it very well, and certainly never perfectly.  But Christ redeems it and the Spirit works through it anyway.  As Christian wives submit to their husbands, which is to say, receive their husband’s protection and provision and self-sacrifice, they are the living picture of the Holy Church submitting to Christ and receiving all of His good.  And as Christian husbands give themselves up for their wives, even into death if necessary, sacrificing their own wants and comforts for the sake of their beloved, covering her faults, protecting her, providing for her, leading and guiding her, they are the living picture of Christ loving the Church and giving Himself up for her.  Christian parents reflect how this marriage between Christ and His Church gives birth to children who are fed and nurtured in Christian faith and life.  They do this as they bring their children to the Divine Service and Sunday School and Catechism Class, and teach their children the faith at home, raising them in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  By the way, couples who have lost children or cannot have children of their own do this, even in their deep, personal sorrow, when they support parents and care for the children of the Church, children in their extended families, God-children, and other children in their communities.  And Christian singles are not left out of this either.  They are the very icon of the Church waiting upon Christ in faith for companionship and fulfillment and every good, trusting He will either provide them a spouse now in this life, or strengthen them in patience for the Day when our Lord will infinitely repay their loneliness with His manifest presence in the life to come.  This is all so important in our culture that despises marriage, desecrates life and children, and glories in unfettered sexual promiscuity and perversion.  We repent of our participation in any of that.  And we display in our Christian lives and relationships a better vision, a substantial and eternally fulfilling option: Relationships rooted in Christ and His self-giving love for His Church.

            That is to say, there really is a happily ever after.  Christian marriage in this fallen world is but a dim reflection, but here the Lord invites us to the fulness of the real thing.  Christ is the Bridegroom.  You, dear Church, are the Bride.  Spotless robes.  Clothed by Him.  Sins forgiven.  Joyful and free.  The Table is set.  All is now ready.  A Feast of rich Food and well-aged Wine.  Music and dancing.  Laughter and love.  A splendid liturgy and unbreakable vows.  Forever is no exaggeration.  This union is eternal.  The Bride is coming down out of heaven from God.  The Bridegroom comes and our lamps are lit with the oil of faith and expectation.  The bells ring out and the heralds proclaim.  The princess awakens at true love’s kiss.  Bone of His bones, and flesh of His flesh.  Death shall never again part us.  For Christ is risen.  And covered with Him, in His embrace, we all live happily ever after.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                       

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22A)

October 4, 2020

Text: Matt. 21:33-46

            The issue is, you either receive the preaching of God’s Word in faith, and so receive the preacher of that word; or you reject the Word in unbelief, stopping up your ears, abusing the preacher, even to the point of killing him.  That may seem like an extreme assertion to you, sitting as you are, in Moscow, Idaho, in the United States of America, in 2020.  But if it does, you are blissfully ignorant of history and the socio-political climate of much of the world today.  In other words, this isn’t just a there and then kind of parable.  It is relevant precisely today, and even in this place, here and now.  The world… as in the unbelieving mass of humanity… follows in its father, Adam’s, footsteps, rejecting God by refusing the preaching and denying God’s Word.  This explains the world’s hatred for the Church.  This is why, even in our relatively free society, the Church’s voice is unwelcome in in the public discourse.  This is why wherever tyrannies exist on earth, the Church must either capitulate by denying the Gospel and endorsing the tyranny, or Christians die.  Or both, which is usually the case.  And preachers, in particular, are vulnerable, because they always have this nasty habit of preaching the very Word the world wants to extinguish.  Just ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  But you’ll have to wait to ask until you meet him in the world to come, because he loved not his life even unto death, thus by his martyrdom conquering by the blood of the Lamb and the Word of his testimony (Rev. 12:11).  Incidentally, this is something for which we must always be ready, this possibility of martyrdom, even here in America.  Because as societies collapse (and we are all nervous of that very possibility in these trying times), the vacuum is inevitably filled by tyranny, by the strongest tyrant.

            The struggle between faith’s reception and unbelief’s rejection of the Word is evident from the very beginning.  This is THE cosmic issue, at the heart and center of the war between God and the spiritual powers of darkness.  In our Lord’s parable this morning, we get the whole scope of the Bible.  It is a pattern that repeats itself over and over again.  God plants a Garden, a Vineyard.  It is the Garden of Eden.  It is the Land of Canaan.  It is Mt. Zion, Jerusalem, and the holy Temple.  It is Paradise, the place provided by God for fellowship with Him, where God can be present with His people, and give them to enjoy the Vineyard’s fruit.

            But again and again, there is rebellion against God and rejection of His Word.  Adam and Eve listen to the serpent’s preaching, and they take and eat of the forbidden fruit.  The Children of Israel adopt the idolatrous practices of the pagans, joining their holy bodies to cultic prostitutes and sacrificing their children to demons of wood and stone.  The Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day were, perhaps, more nuanced, but they were too clever by half.  In the case of the Pharisees and scribes, a grand show of meticulous effort to keep every detail of the Law outwardly exposed them as hypocrites who worship the idol of self-righteousness.  On the other hand, the Chief Priests, which is to say, the Sadducees, reveled in the beauty of the Temple liturgy, the priesthood, and the sacrifices.  But it was all show.  They denied the substance.  They did not believe in angels or miracles or heaven.  They were not looking for Messiah to deliver forgiveness of sins.  And in particular, they denied the resurrection of the dead.  Their god was money and power, to be held at all costs, even if it meant an uneasy endorsement of Roman control over the Holy Land and the Holy City.

            In each case, God sent His preacher.  God Himself preached to Adam and Eve, but they found the serpent’s sermon more relevant and inspiring.  And so they lost their home in Eden.  In all the years Israel occupied the Promised Land, they rebelled and denied and went (as God says) whoring after other gods.  God sent prophet after prophet, looking for the fruit of repentance and faith.  Some they beat.  Some they stoned.  Most were killed in an effort to extinguish the preaching.  Still, God sent more.  Prophet after prophet.  Even into the exile.  The Northern Kingdom taken captive to Assyria.  Judah to Babylon.  Time and again, when they were cast out of the Vineyard and oppressed by unbelieving tyranny, God’s people cried to Him, and God heard and delivered and restored.  Ezra and Nehemiah brought the exiles back and rebuilt the Garden… they rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple.  More prophets: Haggai.  Zechariah.  But there was an end to it.  There was the famine of God’s Word proclaimed by Amos and other faithful prophets (Amos 8:11).  400 years of no prophecy from Malachi to John the Baptist.  And when John arrived on the scene to prepare the way of the Lord, we know how the tenants received him.  They didn’t!  They rejected his preaching and relieved John of his head. 

            Now, this is where we might expect God to simply annihilate His people.  They have it coming, after all.  But that is not what He does.  What does He do?  Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son’” (Matt. 21:37; ESV).  And we all know what will happen.  It’s like a horror movie where you’re screaming at the people on screen: “Don’t open that door!  Don’t go down those stairs!”  Even if we didn’t know the Gospel, we know the pattern, and we know where this must lead.  They will not respect Him.  They will kill Him.  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance’” (v. 38).  And that is what they did.  They took Him and threw Him out of the Vineyard.  They led Him outside the City, to Golgotha, the Place of a Skull.  And they killed Him.  They put Him to a miserable death, the accursed death of the cross.  How could God let this happen?  Surely He saw this coming!  It only stands to reason that those who rejected the Master’s messengers would reject His Son; that those who reject the Word and murder the preachers, will murder the Word Himself as He comes to them in the flesh.

             What do you think the Master will do to those tenants?  What does God do to those who reject and murder His Son?  It is as the Chief Priests and elders themselves admit: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (v. 41).  This is what will happen to everyone who rejects God’s Word.  Jerusalem as the City of God has come to an end.  The Romans saw to that in AD 70.  The Jewish leaders who rejected their Messiah, the Christ of God, have been cast out.  They rule no longer.  They are dead and buried and must bear their rejection of Jesus forever in hell.  That is the fate of those who reject the Christ and His preaching to the bitter end.

            But thanks be to God, not everyone rejects.  Some are given ears to hear.  Some are given faith to believe, and so receive the Lord Jesus and His salvation.  The Vineyard has been given to others, those Jews who believe in Him and cling to His Word, as well as, of all people, Gentiles who are baptized into Christ and believe His preaching (and that probably includes most of you).  These now constitute the new Israel of God.  And as for the Jerusalem Temple?  Not one stone is left on another.  For the true Temple, the true Sacrifice, the true Dwelling Place of God with man, is that which they tore down, but which Jesus rebuilt in three days: The Temple of His flesh.  And see, now, how the Stone that the builders rejected has become the Cornerstone?  Is it not marvelous in your eyes?  Christ, who was crucified, is risen from the dead!  And now, once again, the preaching goes out.  The preachers are sent to herald the Good News.  And by that preaching, the hearts of sinners are turned from their sins to the living God, and to Jesus Christ, His Son.  They are joined to Him as living stones, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ Jesus (1 Peter 2:5).  

            So this morning God once again sends His preacher to you to herald the Good News: Your sins are forgiven in the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Repent, O sinner, and believe this Gospel.  Come back from your exile, East of Eden, and enter the Garden where you belong.  Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13).  That is the prophetic preaching!  Be free of the tyranny of sin and death.  Be free of the serpent’s oppressive chains.  Give up your sins.  Don’t believe the devil’s lies.  Stop living for your flesh and for the things of this world.  Live as forgiven and redeemed children of God.  These are the fruits of repentance and faith the Lord gives you to bear.  Give your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, for you know that losing your life, you will find it.  Bear one another’s burdens.  Forgive each other, as Christ has forgiven you.  Love and serve, even if it means the death of you.  For your life is hidden with Christ in God.  It is life abundant.  It is life forever in resurrection glory, in your very body.  Healed.  Restored.  Made holy.  Made whole.

            You have been given to believe this preaching.  And so this morning, the Heir Himself comes to you, the very Son of God.  He was crucified for your sins, but behold, He lives.  He welcomes you to the Vineyard, and He will not cast you out.  For He gives you not only to be His tenants.  He gives you to be the sons and daughters of God.  The inheritance is yours, the Kingdom of our Father.  Milk and honey, vines and fig trees.  Like Adam in Paradise, work and tend it, patiently waiting, each day by faith.  Believe and pray.  The fruits will come.  The enemies will be cast out.  Soon the Garden will be restored.  The gates unbarred, all wrongs made right.  The Lord Himself walking with you in the cool of the day.  The pattern will come to its conclusion, and all will be fulfilled.  For here you are, in the Vineyard, by grace.  And Christ is all in all.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.