Sunday, October 31, 2021

Reformation Day

Reformation Day

October 31, 2021

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).  The Word of God, that was the motivating force behind all that Luther did and taught as a doctor and pastor of the Church.  He had discovered the freeing Word of the Gospel: All our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, because of His sin-atoning work, and our works contribute nothing to that.  Justification, righteousness before God, is a gift given freely by God, by grace alone.  And it is received by faith alone, apart from works.  So the great solas of the Reformation: Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone.  And the Word of Christ in which we abide, Scripture alone.  Luther was even moved by this freeing Word of the Gospel to change his name for a time.  It was fashionable among intellectuals in the 16th Century to take on Greek names, and Luther, according to this custom, began to sign his name, “Martinus Eleutheros,” which is “Martin the Free”!  Because if you abide in the Word of Christ, the truth will set you free!  Gospel: Free from sin, free from death, free from the condemnation of the Law, free from the devil, free from hell.  Free in Christ who alone has redeemed you. 

            But then, it didn’t seem like the Word had brought him freedom when, on April 17, 1521, 500 years ago, Luther first appeared before the Imperial Diet of Worms to which he’d been summoned to answer for the charge of heresy.  Sure, the Emperor had granted him supposed “safe conduct,” but Luther knew how this worked.  If the charge stuck, Luther would be a condemned man.  And safe conduct or no, if an accident should happen, if the crowds became a bloodthirsty mob suddenly devoted to orthodoxy, or if some vigilantes should overtake Luther in the woods on his way back to Wittenberg, well… who could blame the Emperor for the actions of others?  Certainly Dr. Luther was well-aware of the history of John Huss 106 years earlier, who had also been granted safe conduct to the Council of Constance, and was nonetheless burned at the stake there for teaching things very similar to those of Luther.

            At the very least, though, Luther thought he was being given an opportunity here to explain himself and his teachings before the Emperor and nobles and representatives of the Church.  But when he entered the hall, there between him and the enthroned Emperor was a table stacked with his writings.  The moderator asked him two questions, to which he was to respond with a simple “yes” or “no.”  “Are these your books?  Will you recant them?”  No discussion.  No argument.  Recant and live.  Refuse to recant, and, well… you have a safe conduct.  But let’s not forget what happened to Huss.

            Luther was surprised.  In spite of all he knew, he had come in good faith, to discuss, to debate, to repent wherever he was proven wrong by Scripture, but to maintain his confession wherever he was proven right by Scripture.  But that wasn’t on the Imperial agenda.  What now?  He need time.  To think.  To pray.  To receive Christian counsel from friends.  To meditate on God’s Word.  The Emperor gave him a day.  But be warned.  The same two questions will be asked tomorrow. 

            Can you imagine the struggle that night?  Where are You, Lord?  Is this the freedom You promised?  Why don’t You rise up and smite Your enemies and grant victory to Your Word?  Or… Is it possible?  Have I been wrong all this time?  Am I incapable of understanding the Word You have spoken?  Why am I, alone, standing before the greatest powers on earth, in Church and State, contending for the truth of Gospel?  Maybe, in spite of all my work and advanced learning, I don’t know the truth after all.  And maybe, tomorrow, I’ll be anything but free.  This is the true meaning of the phrase, “dark night of the soul.” 

            But God does not forsake His children in their hour of despair.  Remember the activities in which Luther was engaged that night.  Prayer.  Christian counsel from brothers in Christ.  And most importantly, the Word… The Word of Jesus Christ.  And by that Word, God pours out His Spirit, who opens mouths to faithful confession of Christ and His Word, even unto death.

            So it was with renewed resolve the next day that Luther came before the Emperor and the Diet.  The same two questions.  “Are these your books?”  “Yes.”  “Will you recant?”  Not so fast.  The books aren’t all of the same kind.  Some are devotional, dealing with faith and life such that even Luther’s enemies must agree with them.  Surely he cannot retract these.  Then there are books which expose the abuses and corruption of the papacy.  To recant these would be to participate in abuse and wickedness.  Finally, there are some writings full of invective against Luther’s papal enemies.  These were too harsh, he admits.  He repents of his bitter and vengeful words.  But he does not retract the writings.  Because, again, to do so would be to leave the papal abuses and corruption unchallenged.  We learn something very important here.  Even in the most righteous cause, we should always examine ourselves, our actions, our words, and in godly humility, repent wherever we are wrong… even as we maintain our confession of the truth.  We must ever be repenting of our own sins if we are to help our neighbor see and repent of his.

            But again, the questions call for a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and the Christian must let his “yes” be yes, and his “no,” no (James 5:12).  Dr. Luther makes his answer: “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience… Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen.”[1]

            When we make such a confession, we must be ready to endure the consequences, whatever they may be.  That is, we must be ready to suffer.  We should obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).  We should not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.  We should rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10:28).  We must remember that whoever denies Jesus before men, Jesus will also deny before His Father in heaven.  But whoever confesses Him before men, Jesus will also confess before His Father in heaven (Matt. 10:32-33).  Blessed are you when others revile you, and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account.  Rejoice and be glad, for so they persecuted the prophets and apostles and Christian martyrs before you (Matt. 5:11-12).  They loved not their lives even unto death (Rev. 12:11).  And so you.  They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Jesus’ Name (Acts 5:41).  And so you.  Luther knew all of this.  The truth sets you free… from sin and death and hell and Satan.  But it does not set you free from suffering.  Not until the end.  The Promise is not that you won’t suffer, but that God will not forsake you in suffering, and He will bring you through it to Himself.  Huss died in the fire.  The Apostles, the Prophets, the faithful martyrs, all suffered greatly for the truth of God’s Word, and most died horrific deaths.  Luther lived, but no one in Worms that day thought it likely.  As it happened, he was condemned as a heretic.  And on his way back to Wittenberg, wouldn’t you know it, a band of vigilantes did fall upon him in the woods.  They threw a sack over his head and led him away captive on horseback.  Thank God, they were actually secret agents of Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise, who took him into hiding at the Wartburg Castle.  Disguised as Junker Jörg, Kight George, Luther was safe.  Lonely and depressed, to be sure.  Still suffering.  But you know what God gave Luther to accomplish during this exile in what Luther called his Patmos?  The translation of the New Testament into German, the beginning of Luther’s German Bible.  And a lot of other writing, of course.  But it is safe to say that Luther’s translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular, the language of the people, paved the way for your own access to Scripture in English.  Godly suffering is never without fruit.  Our Lord’s suffering brought us eternal salvation.  Luther’s gave us the Scriptures in our own tongue, as well as this great theological heritage we call Lutheranism.  God has done this for us.  In spite of the suffering.  Through the suffering.  All His gift.  Grace.  Alone. 

            There are times we are called upon to suffer for the truth of the Gospel.  This call comes from God our heavenly Father, who lovingly lays the holy cross upon us.  You know how it is now.  Perhaps a dear friend, or a beloved family member, takes offense at Christ and His Word, and they take it out on you.  We know that the earthly powers take offense and oppose Christ and His Gospel.  They want to be lord in your conscience, but there is no room for them there, where Christ alone reigns.  What will happen when they pass laws that contradict the truth you know from God’s Word, that make illegal the things you believe, teach, and confess?  When it is difficult to find or keep a job, because employers note, as they examine your social media, that you belong to a Bible believing Church, and that you may actually (gasp!) believe the Bible yourself?!  What will happen when the arrests begin, the reeducation camps, and yes, the executions?  Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and… spouse?  It won’t be easy.  Freedom doesn’t mean easy.  There will be pain.  But above all, there will be Jesus… Who has never forsaken us!  And Who never will!  There will be all the benefits of His cross and death for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  There will be His resurrection life!  There will be His Word, His Sacraments, consolation from Christian brothers and sisters, His Church gathered around His gifts.  And there will be His Promise that He will take your suffering on account of His Name and His Gospel, and turn it into good for you, and for His people, in His way, according to His plan.  And in the End, you know… He will wipe away your tears. 

            So here you stand in your confession of Christ, right where Luther stood.  In truth, you can do no other.  Because it is only standing here, in the truth, abiding in God’s Word, that you have true freedom.  Because this truth gives you Jesus, God’s own Son, your only Savior from sin, death, and condemnation.  And if this Son sets you free, you are free, indeed (John 8:36).  And He has.  So don’t move an inch from His Word.  God is helping you.  Amen.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

[1] History of the Christian Church, vol. VII, ch. 3, sec. 55, quoted in

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25B)

October 24, 2021

Text: Mark 10:46-52

            “We are all beggars.  This is true.”  The thoroughfare was packed that day, as Jesus was leaving Jericho, our new and greater Joshua marching forth to knock down the walls of the enemy fortress by his impending death and resurrection in Jerusalem.  The crowds wanted to catch sight of Him, hear His words, maybe even see a miracle, perhaps even benefit from a miracle.  In all the hubbub, you’d hardly have noticed him, seated over there on the side of the road, cloak spread over his lap to receive whatever pittance a passer-by may toss his way.  Blind.  Begging.  Bartimaeus.  That is, “Son of Timaeus,” Son of… Honor?  But there is nothing honorable about him.  That is why he belongs over there, off to the side, where we can ignore him, especially when more important things are going on.  Like this messianic procession.  So when he pipes in with his begging, even audaciously addressing his plea to the Grand Marshall of the parade, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47; ESV), we give him a stern rebuke.  “Quiet!  Be silent!  Jesus has more important things to worry about than giving alms to the likes of you.”

            Blind.  Begging.  Bartimaeus.  But we must ask, who is really blind in this instance?  And who is it, who really sees?  The crowds see a Wonder Worker, who may have a political future, on His way to Jerusalem to do big things.  They do not see the least of these consigned to the margins whom God has entrusted to their care.  And they cannot see in themselves what the blind man sees about himself.  That we are all beggars, this is true.  The blind man sees that if he is to live, he can only live by mercy, by what is given to him.  And he sees something else.  By his ears, he sees that his Help is on the way.  He has heard of this Jesus, that He is just the One who has mercy on the poor, the blind, the beggar… that He heals, restores, forgives, and raises the dead.  He has heard the Word of this One.  He has heard the preaching.  And now he sees that Jesus alone can help him.  So he prays… he cries out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!  And the blind hoards tell him to hush.  But faith will not be silenced.  It cries out all the more, “Kyrie eleison!”  Son of David,” my Messiah, my King, have mercy on me!” (v. 48).

            And Jesus hears him, blind, begging, Bartimaeus, as He always hears our prayers for mercy.  And Jesus, whose eyes are ever on the righteous, those justified by faith, and whose ears are ever open to their prayer (1 Peter 3:12), stops.  And He speaks.  Call him” (v. 49).  Now suddenly the crowd is on board.  This should teach us something about the opinions of crowds.  The majority sentiment can change on a dime, with the simple shifting of the wind, so that one moment everybody believes one thing, the next moment they believe the opposite thing, never acknowledging the contradiction.  So maybe we shouldn’t ever just follow the crowd.  It’s nearly always a case of the blind leading the blind.  In any event, this crowd has changed its tune.  Take heart.  Get up” (Mark 10:49), or better, “Be courage-ed!  Arise!  Why?  He is calling you.

            When Jesus calls, it puts the courage into us.  And it does even more than that.  It takes blind, begging, dead sons of… honor? … and bids them arise!  His speaking raises us up to life!  Which is to say, it imparts mercy.

            Now, already, the miracle has happened.  Just see what takes place.  The man throws off his cloak… you know, the one laid across his lap, collecting the coins, the alms, now overturned like the money-changing tables in the Temple.  Because the Greater Almsgiver has arrived to give greater mercy, mercy money can’t buy, mercy that cannot be collected in a dusty old garment, but can only be received by faith.  Faith that lives because Jesus speaks.  Faith that springs up at the call of Jesus and comes to Him.  Jesus has brought Barimaeus to faith! 

            And then: “What do you want me to do for you?” (v. 51).  It is an invitation to ask for great things.  This is, after all, Jericho, where the walls fell down at the blast of a ram’s horn.  This is the Lord who did it.  This is where a prostitute, Rahab, became a daughter of honor, as she and her whole family were saved, and brought into the Family of God, the Children of Israel.  So, go ahead, ask.  Not just for coins.  For the real need.  Rabbi, let me recover my sight” (v. 51).  “Okay, but not just restored eyeballs.  True sight that sees in Me your only Savior from sin and death and the resulting brokenness.”  Go your way; your faith has made you well” (v. 52).  Yes.  Good.  Fine translation.  And true.  He really has been made well.  The eyes of Bartimaeus can now perceive images, and undoubtedly his sight is 20/20.  But the word translated here as “made well,” or “healed,” is σῴζω, and that is, “saved.”  So which does Jesus mean?  Your faith has made you well?  Or, your faith has saved you?  Yes.  The answer is yes.  Now, by a long shot, the lesser miracle is the seeing eyeballs, as wonderful as that may be.  This is but a sign of the greater sight bestowed, which is faith in Jesus Christ, and the greater healing, which is eternal life and salvation.  Jesus called Bartimaeus, raised him up from pitiful begging, raised him up to life and to sight.  And now Bartimaeus sees so that he can keep his eyes fixed on Jesus and follow him on the way.

            The way.  There is more to that phrase than meets the eye.  In the Scriptures, “the way,” is often a technical term for catechesis in the holy Christian faith.  Bartimaeus had been sitting, not just “by the roadside,” as our ESV translates it, but “by the way.”  It was “by the way” that he heard Jesus passing by, and sitting there “by the way,” he cried out for mercy.  Jesus stopped on His Way to Jerusalem to die on the cross for the sins of the world.  By virtue of His going that Way, Jesus pours out mercy, healing, and life on the man, and bids him go his Way, which is the Way of Faith that saves him.  And immediately, he follows Jesus on His Way.  The first Christians were called The Way (Acts 9:2).  Those for whom Jesus is the Teacher, the Rabbi (Mark 10:51), know the Way Jesus goes.  I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). 

            So here you sit, “by the way,” where Jesus is processing with all His gifts of mercy.  Do you see of yourself what the crowds do not see?  What the crowds cannot see?  We are all beggars.  This is true.  Sinners!  Blind.  Begging.  But… Here is Jesus.  This is His Way.  And His Way is the Way of mercy, the Way of the cross, the Way of forgiveness of sins, healing, wholeness, and life.  Whatever the crowds are saying, you know to keep crying: Kyrie eleison.  “Lord, have mercy.”  It is your greatest need.  And He stops.  He hears.  His eyes are upon you, and His ears are open to your prayer.  Jesus calls you.  He calls you by His Word.  He calls you in the waters of Holy Baptism.  He calls you by God’s own Name and makes you one with Himself so that you are now a true Bartimaeus, a Son of Honor!  Sins forgiven.  Righteous.  Justified.  And raised from destitution and death to Jesus’ resurrection life.  You cast aside your earthly cloak, your dusty robes, your worthless pennies, your old sinful nature, as you spring up to follow Him.  On the Way.  The Way of the cross, to be sure.  Death to sin.  Death to self.  But in this very thing, the Way of Life.  The Way that is Jesus.

            Now you see.  Your eyes are opened.  Toward Christ.  Faith.  And, it must be said, toward your neighbor in whom Christ dwells.  Love.  Jesus opens your eyes toward the least of these, those consigned to the margins.  The blind.  The beggars.  Those in need of Christ’s mercy.  Those whom the crowds would silence.  The Bible names them all over the place.  The poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger.  We must certainly include among them the unborn.  We should remember what Jesus says of those who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison.  That insofar as we feed them and give them to drink, insofar as we welcome, clothe, and visit them, we do so unto Christ (Matt. 25).  That is to recognize that our fellow human beings are, in fact, themselves Bartimaeus-es, Sons of Honor, because that is what Jesus says of them.  They are bearers of God’s Image, redeemed by the blood of Christ.  Let not your eyes be closed to them, nor your ears to their cries.  God’s ears and eyes are assuredly open.  And as you follow on Jesus’ Way, He sends you, enlivened with His life, encouraged with His courage, to help, to bring His healing, peace, and life.  After all, you, too, are a beggar on the Way.  It is, as the old cliché goes, simply a matter of one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.  They need more than your pennies.  Oh, many certainly do need your material help, even as Bartimaeus desired the healing of his eyeballs.  So do that where you can.  Give generously.  Feed.  Clothe.  Shelter.  Etc.  But it is more than that.  They need you to speak.  To them: “Take heart.  Get up; he is calling you.”  “Jesus wants you.  You are precious in His sight.  He loves you.  He died for you.  He lives for you.”  And for them, to Jesus, to cry out with them, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy”… on us all!  And He does.  He hears.  And He answers.  Go your way.  Your faith has saved you. 

            “We are all beggars.  This is true.”  Do you know those words, and where they come from?  They were scrawled on a piece of paper found in Martin Luther’s possession on the night he died.  They are his last words.  And they are exactly right.  We are all blind, begging, Bartimaeus.  That is, all that we have, we receive from God freely, by grace.  If we are to live, it must be by His mercy.  And if we are to rise and follow Him, it must be by His call.  To know that about yourself, and to know that about Jesus, is to see what is true.  When you see just what Jesus has done for you, everything else becomes quite clear.  So, beloved, be courage-ed.  Arise!  Jesus is calling you.  Follow Him on the Way.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24B)

October 17, 2021

Text: Mark 10:23-31

            Money is not the source of your life.  That is the lie Satan tells you.  And you’re pretty easy to convince.  You may grasp intellectually that this cannot be true.  But you too often act as though it is.  You look to money, riches, to provide for you, protect you, help you in times of trouble, give you joy, and enable you to live a full and fulfilled life.  But do you see the position to which you’ve elevated money?  You’ve made it an idol.  You’ve made it your god.  Again, let’s call it by its true name, Mammon.  And it works exactly as Satan intends it.  It shuts out from you the true Source of your life, the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the true riches He delights to pour out upon you: Eternal life with Him in His Kingdom, the forgiveness of sins, the wiping away of guilt and shame and pain and tears, the resurrection of the body, and true and eternal wholeness, peace, and joy.  Money can’t buy that!  And that is precisely the point Jesus was making to the rich young man when He told him to “go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21; ESV).  And that is precisely the point He is making to His disciples in our text, and to us as He preaches this Gospel this morning: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (v. 23).  Mammon, makes a very poor God.  And if you fashion it as your god, it will rob you of the one, true God. 

            The disciples are amazed at this.  Not because they think money makes a wonderful deity.  But because the Jews believed that, at least among the chosen people of God, material wealth was a sign of God’s favor, a reward for a life well-lived according to the Law.  Poverty was a punishment for sin.  And so, if anybody can be assured a place in the Kingdom of God, surely this rich young man, who has kept the Commandments from his youth, as attested by God’s giving him such vast wealth and possessions, will be counted among them.  And if he can’t make it, well then… “who can be saved?” (v. 26). 

            And before you wag your head at this silly notion of the disciples that the rich are better off before God than the poor, stop and think a minute.  Isn’t it true that we tend to think the same way?  I look around the room and I see people, none of whom I would consider “rich” by today’s standards (maybe I just don’t know), but nonetheless more materially comfortable and secure than the rich young man, or even kings in the ancient world.  And we all say of it, “I am blessed by God,” and we are, that is right.  We should recognize that all that we have comes from God, and give thanks to Him for it.  But then we look at someone in poverty (which, again, is a relative term… There is a vast difference between a poor person in America today, and a poor person in the ancient world, or even this very moment in many other places), and what do we say, or at least think?  They are poor because of their own sin.  Drugs.  Alcohol.  Unwilling to work.  Scamming the system.  Unwed pregnancy.  Which may be true!  As so much of the wisdom in Proverbs teaches, bad choices do lead to bad outcomes, and good choices do lead to good outcomes.  Not always, but generally speaking.  Then again, our assumption may not be true.  Perhaps the person is poor because of sickness, or tragedy, or because someone else has cheated them.  We are forever breaking the 8th Commandment with regard to the poor, assuming the worst, assuming we know the cause of the poverty.  And notice that we actually start to think about this as, God has blessed me because I’ve lived well according to the Law, and He hasn’t blessed them, because they haven’t.  Be careful.  God may soon disabuse us of this thinking by leveling us all in economic collapse, or catastrophic war, or disaster.  And it is quite possible that you may be thrust into abject poverty precisely for your righteous actions.  Remember, the world hates Christ and His Christians.  And it will punish you for being faithful.  The cost of following Jesus may just be the loss of earthly goods.  So repent of such thinking.

            Truth be told, as a matter of the First Commandment, Mammon is an idol of the rich and the poor and everyone in between.  Think about it.  Wherever you fall on the spectrum of wealth, isn’t it true that you actually think most of your problems and inconveniences could be solved with just a little more money?  Just a bit.  Just enough.  I’m not being greedy, here.  But it’s never enough!  The poor man thinks money will solve his every difficulty.  The rich man always needs just a little bit more to be secure.  And every last lovin’ one of us who fall somewhere in between believe we’d be better off if we had just a little more.  And when we get a little more, thanks be to God, but we need just a little more.

            This is a certain indication that Mammon has become your idol.  To expose this, Jesus changes, mid-course in our Gospel, how He speaks about the difficulty of entering the Kingdom of God.  First He says it will be difficult for the rich.  Then He simply says it will be difficult, period.  Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!” (v. 24).  Because Mammon is an idol to all.  For those with wealth, easier for a camel, proverbially the largest animal in Hebrew thought, to go through the eye of a needle, proverbially the smallest opening in Hebrew thought.  For those without wealth, or who think they are without wealth?  Not any easier.  And the disciples get it.  Not just difficultImpossible!  Yes, absolutely impossible to be saved.  Now we’ve really arrived at the point.  Salvation is impossible! … With man.  Even the richest.  Even the greatest.  Even every last lovin’ one of us.  Impossible for us by our own merits or resources to enter the Kingdom of God.

            But not impossible for God.  For all things are possible with God” (v. 27).  See, if you are to be saved, you cannot do it.  God must do it.  And so He does.  Remember, Jesus is the Young Man with all the eternal riches in His possession, very God of very God, the eternal Son of the Father, who gives it all up all the way to the death of the cross, gives it all up FOR US,  gives it all up TO US, that we poor, destitute, sinners may have it all, the very Kingdom of God, eternal life and blessedness.  Money, silver and gold, can’t buy that.  Jesus pays with His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death.  So if you’re counting on money to provide for you, protect you, help you in times of trouble, give you joy, and enable you to live a full and fulfilled life, then Friend, you’re betting on the wrong horse.  Jesus is the God who does all that.  Jesus alone, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit.  “And there’s none other God.”  If you can’t keep that straight, better to give it all away.  Certainly an important spiritual discipline to give a lot of it away, to the poor, to your neighbor, to preach the Gospel.  So that you keep money in its place.  As a gift of God, but most certainly not God.  This is actually why God gives you any wealth in the first place.  Not to hoard up for a rainy day, in case the Father forsakes you and you have to count on money to catch you when you fall.  No, to give.  To help.  To be a blessing.  To put to work for your neighbor, and for God.

            By grace, Peter and the others knew that money doesn’t save.  Only Jesus does.  He is not speaking pridefully when he says, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (v. 28).  It is a statement of fact, and it implies a question… What about us?  Salvation is impossible with man, but possible with God.  Where do we stand?  Now and then?  Because the fishing business is severely understaffed since we left the boats, and there isn’t much money in the bank.  Are we okay, here?

            You’re more than okay, Peter.  You have the true riches.  Jesus assures Peter and the Apostles that “there is no one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time… and in the age to come,” yes, eternal life” (vv. 29-30).  This means that those who make sacrifices for the sake of the Kingdom, like so many of my brother pastors whom I so admire, who unlike me, left big houses and high paying jobs to go to seminary, spent their savings on school, gave up their luxuries, just to become poor preachers of the Gospel and tend their little part of the flock; like so many of our brothers and sisters throughout history, and throughout the world at this very moment, who suffer persecution, the confiscation of their goods, rejection by their loved ones, imprisonment, beatings, death, simply because they are baptized, or because they are found in a Church, or because they own a Bible; like the saints of old, like these very Apostles, all of whom (with possibly one exception) suffered a martyr’s death; like the prophets who came before them and were rejected by the very people for whom God sent them.  They “loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11). 

            And like you.  Yes, even you.  Oh, I know you struggle to forsake your idols.  Truth be told, so did Peter and the Apostles.  But like them, by grace, you know that money doesn’t save you.  Nor does anything else, or anyone else, but your Lord Jesus Christ who loves you, who died for you, who is risen and lives for you.  And you do give generously for the good of your neighbor, to aid the poor, and to preach the Gospel.  It is the Spirit of the living God who works this in you.  And you do suffer (perhaps in much milder form) rejection on the part of those who think you’re silly to believe all this Jesus Christ and Bible stuff, who even think that must mean you are hateful and bigoted and ignorant, and that you should be cancelled.  Some of you suffer sharp rejection from your own family members for the sake of Christ, and there is nothing mild about that.  I know Christians right here in America who have even lost their livelihoods for their faithfulness to Christ.  And while, at the moment, we enjoy some measure of religious freedom in our country, we must know this freedom is fading.  Christianity is no longer favored by the state or the culture.  We must be prepared to give it all up, our wealth, our possessions, our comfortable lives.  And you are.  You are prepared.  Weakly.  Reluctantly.  But you are.  And you will in the time of trial, God strengthening you and helping you, as He promises He will.  For all things are possible with God. 

            So Jesus’ Promise here is for you, as well.  A hundredfold now in this life.  And in the age to come eternal life.  But what could He possibly mean by the “hundredfold”?  If it is taken away, and you die destitute, how has Jesus kept that Promise?  Well, what house does He give you a hundredfold but the holy Church, here and throughout the world?  And what brothers and sisters and mothers and children times a hundred, but the new Family of God in Christ, consisting of those who hear the Word of God and keep it?  And lands?  Each new land where the Gospel is preached, a foretaste of that great Day when the whole Land, the whole earth, will belong to Christ and His people, in the New Creation.  In other words, it is the very Kingdom of God.  Though, note, you don’t receive new fathers a hundredfold.  Because you have one Father, even God your heavenly Father.  And He is all the Father you need. 

            Salvation is impossible with man.  You can’t purchase it with earthly riches.  But then, it isn’t that kind of Kingdom.  This Kingdom is given to you as a gift, by grace.  Not because of your wealth, or your worthiness, your works, or anything in you.  Because of Jesus.  Because He died for you.  Because He is risen.  Rich or poor or in between, whatever wealth or possessions you have here and now are entirely beside the point.  Even faced with the loss of all things, having Christ, you have it all.  You are rich beyond measure.  Money is not your life.  Thanks be to God, Christ is.  And here He is this morning, to give you all His riches in His Word and Sacrament; in fact, to give you Himself.  Satan is a liar.  Wealth is but a tool.  Jesus Christ is all in all.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Monday, October 11, 2021

Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity


Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Blessed Sacrament Lutheran Church, Hayden, Idaho

October 10, 2021

Text: Matt. 9:1-8

            Which is easier to say?  “Your sins are forgiven?”  Or, “Rise and walk?”  On the face of it, of course, it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” because there is no visible test this side of Judgment Day whether the words have been effective.  But to say, “Rise and walk,” well… Either the man will get up and walk, or he won’t, and then we’ll all know whether Jesus has such authority.

            But in reality, in terms of words actually accomplishing what they say, it is much easier to say, “Rise and walk,” than “Your sins are forgiven.”  Doctors apply remedies to physical afflictions all the time, and that skillful application often (though certainly not always) results in the bedridden arising and walking.  We Christians recognize God behind the medicine and the doctor’s skill, and even unbelievers will often call it a “miracle” when extreme illness or injury is cured, or at least mitigated, by medical treatment.  But the fact remains, what we see is a mere human being, perhaps not even a Christian, saying to someone previously rendered immobile, “Rise and walk,” and that is just what they do.

            But only God can forgive sins.  The scribes are on to something when they say, “This man is blaspheming” (Matt. 9:3; ESV).  They are wrong, of course, but only because they do not recognize who Jesus is.  If Jesus is a mere man, like a medical doctor, He has no business forgiving sins!  And to claim such authority for Himself is to claim that He is God.  Blasphemy for any rabbi to claim of himself, no matter how pious and great a theologian he may be. 

            ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he then said to the paralytic – ‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’  And he rose and went home” (vv. 6-7).

            Authority.  This is the nature and purpose of the miracles.  They show Jesus’ authority.  They are a demonstration of who He is, and what He has come to do.  Who are You to forgive sins?  “I’ll show you,” says Jesus.  “I am the Creator come to heal my creation of its brokenness.  I am come to restore fallen sinners, broken people, paralyzed by their iniquities, dead in their transgressions.  I come to forgive.  I come to enliven.  I come to heal and to save.” 

            Now, unlike a medical doctor, in the case of this miracle, our Great Physician, Jesus, does not do His healing work by means of herbal or chemical prescriptions and physical therapies administered over time.  No.  He speaks His authoritative Word.  He gives a command.  And the cure is immediate and comprehensive.  The man gets up, and not only walks, but picks up his bed!  So what is the only conclusion to be drawn?  This is a miracle!  Only God could do such a thing!  Therefore, this man must be God.  And if He is God, not only can He miraculously heal paralytics, He can forgive sins.

            And which is the greater miracle?  It is the forgiveness of sins.

            Jesus begins by treating the foremost need.  Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (v. 2).  Paralysis is just a symptom.  Sin is the disease.  The wages of sin is death,” Paul reminds us (Rom. 6:23).  All illness, all affliction, and all injury, be it physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, is an indication of, a prelude to, death.  You may treat the illness, affliction, or injury, and you should.  Jesus does, after all, heal the paralytic.  But in the end, you’ll still die.  To save you from death, and that is to say, spiritual death, eternal death in hell, never mind physical death, Jesus must treat the mortal disease: Sin.  And that is what He does with the medicine of His Absolution.  Your sins are forgiven.” 

            I often use this same distinction between disease and symptoms to illustrate the difference between original sin and actual sins.  This is a common catechetical device.  Original sin is the disease passed from generation to generation.  We inherit it from our fathers going back to Adam in the Garden.  This is why newborns and even babies in the womb are in need of Jesus’ forgiveness, even before they have an opportunity to actually sin.  Actual sins, the actual bad things we do against God’s Commandments (sins of commission), and the actual good things God commands that we neglect or fail to do (sins of omission), are the symptoms of the disease, which is original sin.  This is where so much of Evangelical Christianity goes off the rails.  You can go to an Evangelical Church (which is a misnomer, because it is anything BUT evangelical, anything BUT Gospel-centered), and you will probably hear a sermon about how to combat some actual sin that is plaguing your life.  Now, understand, you should combat any actual sin that is plaguing your life.  Of course you should.  Actual sins are bad.  They hurt you.  You should strive against them, and not do them.  But you have to understand, such actual sins are but symptoms of the fatal disease called original sin.  And unless you treat the this fatal disease, no matter how successful you may be at eradicating the symptoms, they will come back again in one form or another.  If I have a brain tumor, I will most probably have a headache.  And it is fine and good to take Tylenol for that headache.  But I would be dead wrong if I thought that by taking Tylenol for my headache, I had in any measure successfully treated the disease.  And if I don’t treat the disease, the headache will be back, and more seriously, I will die.  There is only one medicine that will cure the disease of original sin, which is the cause of all actual sins.  And that medicine is not your striving and effort.  That works about as well as the paralytic trying really hard by his own efforts to get up, pick up his bed, and walk home.  The medicine is Jesus.  The medicine is His Holy Absolution.  Take heart.  Your sins are forgiven.

            They are forgiven, because Jesus, who is God, and therefore has the authority to do so, has taken them away.  He has taken them into Himself, all your sin, original and actual, your very death, and all the afflictions that are death’s indications.  And He suffers it all, and for it all, for you, in His Body on the cross, where He puts it to death in Himself.  He buries it all in His tomb.  This is why the medicine of the Absolution, Jesus’ Word of forgiveness, is effective.  Jesus Himself is the active ingredient in it.  He pulls the disease out of you, sucks out the poison of sin and its guilt and shame, and ingests it, and bears it away to His cross and death.  But that’s not all!  Now He is risen from the dead (though your sins and afflictions will never rise), and now by the same medicine of His Absolution, administered in Baptism, and Gospel preaching,  the Office of the Keys, and the Lord’s Supper, He infuses His resurrection life into you.  So that you rise.  He raises you.  By His authoritative Word.  Rise and walk.”  In your hearing of this Gospel, He addresses these words not only to the paralytic, but to you!  You have been raised from the dead… by faith, even now.  You have eternal life, even now.  And you are given to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

            And so, having been cured of the disease, what happens with the symptoms?  Well, in one sense, and it is the most important sense, they are taken care of, too.  That is, your sins are forgiven.  Not only original sin, the disease, but all actual sins, the symptoms.  And what Jesus has done for you spiritually already, He will do bodily, on that Day when He comes again in glory. 

            But in another sense, there are still the vestiges of the symptoms on this side of that great Day.  That is, Old Adam is always struggling to pop his head up above the baptismal waters.  You still sin, actual sins of commission and omission.  And though you are forgiven, it is a daily struggle.  Daily repentance.  Daily emerging and arising to live before God in righteousness and purity.  Simul iustus et peccator.  At the same time righteous and sinner.  Jesus didn’t only say, “Rise.”  He said, “Take up your bed and carry it until you get home.”  It is a burden.  But it is a burden always borne in the faith and knowledge that the disease has been cured, your sins are forgiven, and it is Jesus’ life that enlivens you to carry it until you see Him face to face, as He welcomes you into that place where all your burdens are cast away forever, and you are finally home with your Savior.

            And we do still get sick and suffer afflictions in this life, and these, too, are vestiges of the symptoms.  Now, when we do suffer in this way, our friends often bring us to Jesus for His help and healing.  That is, our brothers and sisters in Christ, pray for us, and Jesus hears their prayers, and answers.  We often take it for granted that, in most cases, when we are hurt or sick, we get better, we overcome.  But we forget that when we do, when we get over a cold, or COVID, or cancer, or a hangnail, even when this is accomplished by the intervention of modern medicine, it is the same Lord Jesus who healed the paralytic, who also speaks us well. 

            And the medicine we need above all else when we are ill or injured, as in our daily life of repentance and struggle against sin, is the Absolution spoken by Christ, “Your sins are forgiven.”  This is why you call your pastor when you are in the hospital, and want him to come to your bedside when you are sick, or hurt, or dying.  When you think about it, by any worldly standard, it is a rather ridiculous thing to call your pastor in a medical emergency.  What is he supposed to do about it?  He will only get in the way.  That is why, with almost no scruples, nearly every hospital, nursing home, and care facility immediately banned clergy visitation at the beginning of this pandemic, and even now, the door is only open for us a crack.  But you know what the world in general, and the medical profession in particular, has forgotten.  What you need most in a time of crisis is the forgiveness of sins.  That is why God has given you a pastor, to speak, not his own forgiveness (for no one can forgive sins but God alone), but the very forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  That is the most important thing.  When the paralytic was brought to Jesus, He didn’t immediately tell him to rise and walk.  No, the first thing He said, the first order of business, as a matter of first importance, was “Your sins are forgiven.”  Now, disease cured, He moves on to the symptom presented, thus curing the paralysis. 

            The forgiveness of sins, the curing of the disease, will always lead to the healing of the symptoms, from paralysis to cancer to hangnails.  Always.  Oh, it may first lead through the valley of the shadow of death.  But you know where the true and perfect healing will be manifest.  There is, of course, heaven, where your soul will be with Jesus, and you will no longer suffer.  But I’m not even talking about that.  No, I’m talking about the Day when Jesus comes to you at the cemetery, and because He has already, here and now, declared to you, “Your sins are forgiven,” He will bend down over your coffin and say to you, “Rise and walk!  “Live!”  And He will take your hand and pull you out of the grave.  So that you do just that! 

            Which is easier to say?  “Your sins are forgiven?”  Or, “Rise and walk.”  Jesus says both.  And He has all the authority to do it.  Because He is the Son of God.  He died for you.  And He is risen from the dead.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23B)

October 10, 2021

Text: Mark 10:17-22

            No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18; ESV).  So if Jesus is good, He must be more than simply a “Good Teacher” (v. 17).  From the rich young man’s own mouth comes the unwitting confession.  Jesus is good.  Therefore Jesus is God.  Not simply a teacher of ethics and moral philosophy.  Not simply an example of how to live your life, in every situation asking the question, “What would Jesus do?  No mere prophet or religious guru.  He is God.  Therefore, He alone is good.

            But the rich young man thinks he may be a candidate for the title, as well.  When he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 17), he is really looking for an endorsement from Jesus that he is good enough to have merited his way to heaven and resurrection.  Never mind the absurdity of earning an inheritance.  The rich man asks a Law question, so Jesus gives him a Law answer.  You want to be a good person by your own efforts and merit?  You know the Commandments.  Let’s start with the so-called “easy” ones, the Second Table of the Law, the Commandments in relation to the neighbor (v. 19).  Do not murder.”  Okay, got it.  Haven’t killed anyone lately.  Do not commit adultery.”  No problem.  Cheating on my wife would be unthinkable.  Do not steal.”  Check.  I always pay for everything.  Do not bear false witness.”  Truth is my number one virtue.  Do not defraud.”  Alright, I expected Him to say “Do not Covet,” but I suppose defrauding is the outward manifestation of coveting, and it is important to be honest in all our business dealings.  Which I am.  Check.  Honor your father and mother.”  Listed last for emphasis.  No problem.  Sure, I had my rebellious thoughts as a teenager, but I never acted on them.  And yes, when I had a chance to give some corban, money dedicated to God, I took what I might have given my parents for their support and care, and gave it instead to a holier cause, but surely they understand, and, after all, God will take care of them if they, like me, are holy enough, and surely God is more impressed with my pious offering than He would be with more mundane parental care.  But I always treat Mom and Dad with deference and respect.  Very important.  Check.  Teacher, all these I’ve kept from my youth” (10:20), from the time of my bar mitzvah at the beginning of my teenage years, when I became, literally, a Son of the Commandments, and God began to hold me responsible for my own holiness. 

            Now, you Lutherans need to give this young man a break with your Lutheranism.  You’ve heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5), and you’ve attended a Lutheran Catechism class, so you know the problem with the young man’s self-righteous assertions.  Keeping the Commandments is not just a matter of outward behavior, but of the heart.  He who even hates his brother, or wishes or does any harm, is guilty of murder, whether he kills him or not.  He who merely looks at a woman with lustful intent has committed adultery with her in his heart, whether he acts on it or not.  Thus the Commandments are broken, and we all do it.  All true enough.  You’re absolutely right.  Good job.  You pass your Catechism exam. 

            But the young man does have a point.  He has outwardly, and scrupulously, kept these Commandments of the Second Table.  And that is a good thing.  And as a result, everyone says of him, that he is a good man.  We speak the same way about people who live up to high moral principles.  And we should, humanly speaking, because it encourages people to do what is right, and not do what is wrong, and that benefits us all. 

            The young man has every reason to believe, or so he thinks, that he has also kept the First Table of the Law, the Commandments in relation to God.  He only worships the God of Israel.  Idols are abhorrent to him.  He doesn’t misuse God’s Name, because he doesn’t even say it.  When he is reading the Scriptures, where the text says “YHWH,” I AM, he substitutes “Adonai,” LORD.  And the Sabbath.  Never, ever, for any reason, does he do any work.  He attends synagogue service, and then goes home and eats what has been prepared the night before.

            But Jesus is good, and therefore God, and therefore knows what the young man does not know about himself.  For all his abhorrence for idols fashioned of wood and stone, the young man has an idol made of silver and gold and the trappings of comfort and luxury.  His wealth.  His possessions.  His stuff.  Mammon.

            So looking at him with intense, divine, saving love, Jesus essentially says to him: “If you want to be good by keeping the Commandments, I’ll grant you that you’ve kept all those we’ve talked about from the Second Table (though you may want to read my comments in the forthcoming Gospel of Matthew when that book is released, wherein I will show you that you really haven’t kept those Commandments to God’s standard, from your heart).  What I really want to get at now is a matter of the First Commandment.  You shall have no other gods.’  You should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  But you, my dear child, love and trust something else.  And it must be dealt with.  The idol must be toppled and excised from your life.  So ‘go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ (Mark 10:21).” 

            The issue is not that the young man hadn’t been generous to God and to the poor previous to this.  I’m sure he had.  He’s just the kind of person who would put large sums of money into the Temple treasury (Luke 21:1), and toss a few more spare coins to the beggars on the street (Matt. 6:1 ff).  The issue isn’t what he’s given.  The issue is what he’s kept.  And why he’s kept it.  Because he loves it for what it does for him.  He trusts it to provide for all his needs and desires.  And above all, he fears losing it.  Because then he would be destitute.  And that is why he goes away sad.  He cannot do it.  He cannot give up his god.  As it turns out, he is not good.  So when it comes to his own doing, he has no hope of gaining eternal life.

            So also with your doing.  You know you cannot gain eternal life by it.  You know the Commandments.  And you know that, even if you have kept them outwardly, keeping them really is a matter of the heart, and you know the disposition of your heart in light of all those Commandments.  And really, the Word of Christ in our text hits you, also, right where it hit the young man.  It is not that it is wrong to have money or possessions.  More on wealth next week.  But for now, suffice it to say, Abraham and David were both rich men for their time and place, and yet Abraham was a friend of God, and David was a man after God’s own heart.  Money, itself, is a good gift of God, as are many of the things money can buy, and more importantly, the good things money can do for your neighbor.  It is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evils (1 Tim. 6:10).  In any case, Jesus has not commanded you to sell all you have and give it all away to the poor.  But then, what if he did?  Could you do it?  And if you did, isn’t it true that you would still walk away sad, like the rich young man?  You love and trust your money, too, the pernicious idol, Mammon.  And you fear losing it as much as the rich young man did.  So you, also, are not good.  And even if you keep a pristine outward moral life, you will never inherit eternal life by your doing of the Law.

            But the Gospel has been implicit from Jesus’ first words in this text.  Let’s make it explicit.  No one is good except God alone.”  Jesus is God.  Jesus is good.  And it is by His goodness that you inherit eternal life.  He knows the Commandments.  He never murdered, never hurt or harmed his neighbor in his body, but helped and supported him in every physical need, healing the sick and injured, feeding the hungry, raising the dead.  He never committed adultery, but lived a sexually pure and decent life in all that He said and did.  And ever faithful to His Bride, the Church, He restored adulterers and prostitutes, sinners and the unclean to Communion with God, eating and drinking with them, as He does to this very day at the holy Altar.  He did not steal.  As a carpenter, He would have always been at the improving and protecting His neighbor’s possessions and income.  And He is the gracious Giver of all that you have.  He did not bear false witness, but always spoke truthfully.  He did not defraud anyone.  And as to His parents, we know that the Boy Jesus was submissive to them as He increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:51-52). 

            With regard to the First Table, Jesus feared, loved, and trusted His Father above all things, ever seeking to fulfill the Father’s will to save us.  He did not misuse the Name of God.  He bore it and revealed it for our salvation.  And He not only fulfilled, the Sabbath, He is the Sabbath’s fulfillment.  He is our Sabbath rest from the endless striving to win salvation and eternal life by our goodness, by our fulfilling the Law.  He is our forgiveness and redemption.

            And all of His keeping of God’s Law, He did not for His own benefit.  He who gave us the Law, was made subject to the Law, for our sakes, and for our salvation.  He fulfilled it.  He did it for us.  We are baptized into Christ.  And all His perfect keeping of the Law, outwardly and inwardly, is credited to our account.  And all of our breaking of the Law, outwardly and inwardly, has been atoned for in His flesh, in His blood and death on the cross.  And all of His perfect righteousness is given to us as a gift in the Gospel and Sacraments.  Our sins are forgiven. 

            And that is how we inherit eternal life.  Not by our doing, but by His.  Ask a Law question, and you get a Law answer.  This is what you must do, and do perfectly, to merit eternal life.  And you haven’t, so you can’t.  You’re doomed.  But Jesus has a better way, the Gospel way, His way.  As Martin Luther wrote, “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done.  Grace,” that is, the Gospel, “says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 26, LW 31:41).  

            We have a good God, who became man, taking on our flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.  Jesus is the One who gave up all He had and bestowed it on us poor, miserable sinners, who have nothing of our own.  He looks upon us with intense, divine, saving love.  He has done all in our place, and given us His goodness, His righteousness, as a gift.  He died for our sins.  He is risen from the dead.  This is grace, God’s unmerited favor bestowed upon us for Christ’s sake.  Believe in this, and you will not only inherit eternal life… you have it already.  Now, resting in this, that Jesus has done all for you, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, go love your neighbor by keeping the Commandments, because that is what your neighbor needs.  And look not to Mammon, to your works, or to any other god to provide for you.  Jesus is good.  He is the one true God, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit.  And He alone will do it.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.