14 October 2018

Not by Doing, But by Dying, You Inherit Eternal Life

Our Lord is on His way to Jerusalem, on a journey to His Cross and Passion.  He is on His way to fulfilling the purpose for which He was conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, namely, that He should suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, put to death, and buried in the dust of the earth.  For though He was rich beyond measure, yet, for your sake He made Himself poor in every way, that you might inherit all the riches, wealth, and treasures of the Kingdom of God in Him.

He is on His way to the Cross, on the heals of His blessing of the little children.  His journey and His purpose are defined by such as these, who receive in Him the Kingdom of God with childlike faith.  He has come, not for proud and self-sufficient adults, but for the helpless babes and infants, and for those who become like little children.  Not for the self-righteous, but for sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness.  Not for those secure in their own wealth, but for the poor in spirit.

And on the way, the Lord Jesus is approached by a rich young man, the ruler of a local synagogue, who poses a significant question.  He humbles himself before Jesus — he kneels at His feet — and he speaks to Him with sincere respect: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

There are various ways to interpret such a question.  As a Christian you might well be asking what it looks like to be and to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of God.  How should you be living as a child of God?  And what are you to do with your life in this world?  Those are questions prompted by the Holy Spirit working in your heart, so that you desire to know and to do the Will of God.

But the question of the rich young man might also be posed as a way of asking what it will take to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God.  What must you do to get your foot in the door?  Not that the good and gracious Will of God be done, but that you might obtain salvation for yourself.

As a sinful son or daughter of Adam, the fact is that you are more concerned with your own will than with the Will of God.  You pray when you find yourself in trouble or want something.  You do a good deed or go to church for the sake of appearances and to cover all the bases, just in case.  And when it comes to your eternal destiny, to the extent that you think about it, you’re willing to do and to pay whatever it takes to secure your place in heaven, in order to avoid the alternative.

With the rich young man, therefore, you pose a question of the Law, in the expectation of the Law.  After all, a list of rules and regulations seems simple enough, and easy enough.  It might take some work and effort and sacrifice, but you do what you gotta do to get ‘er done, and then you rest easy, as though you’ve paid your dues and earned your reward.

Such attitudes are entirely wrong in supposing that the Law of God is easily kept and satisfied, in thinking that you have managed to do pretty well so far, and in picturing the Law as a means to some other end, rather than a description of the life that is lived by the grace of God in Christ.

With your lips you confess that you are sinful and unclean, and that you have sinned against the Lord in your thoughts, words, and deeds, by what you have done, and by what you have not done.  But in your heart, you’re normally not so sure that you’re really all that bad.  You do your best to keep your nose clean, and to keep your sins relatively small and quiet, or at least well hidden.  And here you are in church again this morning.  So you’re clearly doing better than so-n-so who’s not.

In this respect, according to your flesh, your thinking is like that of the rich young man.  But as far as that goes, his evident knowledge and sincerity, his exemplary life, and his humble respect for Jesus, rather put you to shame.  Outwardly speaking, his life and his behavior were everything that yours ought to be, by the standards of the Law.  So, if you surmise that you are looking pretty good compared to others who have fallen short, yet, you do not measure up in comparison to this guy.

But consider how Jesus responds to the question at hand.  He does not refute or set aside the Law, but He plumbs the real depths of what the Lord requires and demands in terms of faith and love.

He begins with the Commandments pertaining to your relationship with other people, including your parents and your spouse, your neighbor and his household.  You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder, steal, or cheat; but you must honor your father and your mother.

On the surface of these Commandments, it may seem possible to claim that you have kept them all for as long as you have known well enough to do so.  But in response to that claim, the Lord Jesus digs beneath the surface to uncover the heart of your fear, love, and trust.  He is aiming, not so much at your behavior or your wealth, but at your god and at the worship of your god.

“Go and sell all that you have,” Jesus says. “Give all the proceeds to the poor.  And as for you, take up the Cross and follow Me.”  So much for tithing!  The Lord demands your entire body and life.

Now, understand that riches and possessions are by no means evil or sinful in themselves.  All that you possess is a blessing from God, which you are given to receive with thanksgiving to the glory of His Name and for the benefit of your neighbors.  It is all sanctified by His Word and Prayer, and it is rightly put to use in love for others.  That is to the point.  Not that you must live in a constant state of economic poverty, but that you recognize and use whatever you have as the charity of God.

So, too, what the Law of God requires is not only that you refrain from doing what is evil, but that you would actively do what is good and right.  To keep the Law is thus to live in love for others.

You keep the Fifth Commandment by helping and supporting your neighbor in every physical need; and when you fail to do what you can, you become an accessory to his murder.  Likewise, you keep the Sixth Commandment by leading a pure and decent life in all that you say and do, and by showing love and honor to your wife or husband.  And you keep the Seventh Commandment by helping your neighbor to improve and protect his possessions and income.  And you keep the Eighth Commandment by defending your neighbor, speaking well of him, and describing his life in the kindest possible way.  In each case, when you fail to do good, then you have done wrong.

These are the high and holy expectations and standards that God requires of you and commands you to obey, according to the righteousness of His Law.  And if you were going to gain eternal life by the keeping of His Law, then nothing less than divine perfection would do it.  There is no room for holding back or slipping up or getting lax at any point.  In which case, you are altogether lost.  For the bottom line, as Jesus clearly states up front, is that no one is good except for God alone.

It is time, therefore, to hear the answer of the Gospel to the question at hand, as the Lord Jesus has previously given.  “How is it that you enter the Kingdom of God?”  You must become like a little child.  You must be reduced to childish dependence on the care and provision of God in Christ.

“What must you do?”  You must do nothing.  You must become nothing.  You must let go of all that you have, your efforts and striving, your pride and self-sufficiency, and rely on Christ alone.

That is not to say that, by selling everything you own and giving it away, you could buy your way into heaven.  Even if you were to liquidate everything and give it to the poor, it would only be on account of Christ and His Gospel that such an extreme act of charity would have any bearing on the Kingdom of God — and even then, not as a cause but as a consequence of your inheritance.

But, no, it is not you, nor anyone else, but Christ Jesus alone who has kept and fulfilled the entire Law in its perfect righteousness, in holy faith and holy love.  As He is the one true Bridegroom, who has been faithful in all things even toward His adulterous Bride, so is He the truly wealthy Man, who has nevertheless sold all that He had to make you wealthy by way of His poverty.

Which is to say that, not only does Jesus answer the question of the rich young man, but Christ Jesus Himself has actually become the only real Answer to that question, since He has become the Way of Life for you and for all people, rich and poor alike.  His perfect keeping of the Law on your behalf — suffering the punishment of your sins, but also serving you as His neighbor in love — that is the Gospel by which you inherit eternal life and the righteousness by which you are saved.

The one thing that matters, therefore, is not your keeping of the Law, but your following of this One who is good — because He is true God in the flesh and the one true and perfect Man — this one Lord, Jesus Christ, who has journeyed to the Cross for you and your salvation.  Your life and your salvation hinge and depend upon your attachment to Him alone.  He is the One Thing that the rich young man was lacking, and the One Thing that makes all the difference for you, as well.

He does call you to repentance and faith, to take up the Cross and follow Him, to die with Him and rise with Him, to live a new life in and with Him.  But of course, none of that is anything that you could ever do by your own resolve or willpower.  Left to your own wherewithal, you would only end up turning around and walking away from Jesus with a crestfallen face and a sorrowful heart.  Your flesh is not able to let go of your reliance on your stuff and on your own accomplishments.

Nor would you ever realize that the purpose of the Commandments is not that you should save yourself, but that you should glorify the Lord your God and serve your neighbor in holy love.

Becoming like a little child, and living by faith as a child of God in Christ Jesus, that is a divine work which the Lord accomplishes in you by the preaching of His Word.  He exposes the self-righteousness and selfishness of your sinful heart, and He destroys all your self-confidence and self-reliance, with the impossible demands of His Law.  Not that He would cast you away from His presence, but that He would gather you into His arms as a beloved child of His God and Father.  He would have you die to yourself, that you might rise and live unto righteousness in Him alone.

So it is that, when all hope in yourself is lost, He looks upon you in love, and He gives to you the only Hope that any of the sons and daughters of Adam have.  He gives nothing less than Himself.

With that in mind, it is intriguing to consider the possibility that the rich young man was actually John Mark, otherwise known as the very St. Mark who has written this Holy Gospel.  There’s no way to conclude that possibility for certain, but there are some indications that it might be so.  I’d like to believe it myself, if only because it makes for a much happier ending to the story at hand.

In any event, there is another “young man” who appears later in this Holy Gospel, who is likewise thought (with somewhat more confidence) to be St. Mark himself.  That young man did follow the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He was arrested and taken away; and wearing nothing but a simple outer garment, that young man ran away naked when they tried to grab him, too.

So, from the young man who went away sad because he could not let go of his many possessions, we come to the young man who is stripped of absolutely everything, right down to the nakedness of a newborn infant, as the Lord Jesus Christ continues on His journey to His Cross and Passion.

And so it is that you, also, by the Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, have been stripped naked of all that was yours, in order to be crucified, put to death, and buried with Christ Jesus; that you should lose your life in this world, in order to inherit eternal life in the Kingdom of God; that you should be clothed, not in the perishing wealth and riches of this dying world, but in the righteousness and holiness, innocence and blessedness, of Christ Himself.

Born again as a child of God in Christ Jesus, you are a wealthy young man or woman by His grace.  For all that belongs to Him is now given to you as your inheritance in the Ministry of His Gospel.  No longer do you cling to your perishing possessions or rely upon your own works and efforts, as though to achieve some kind of life for yourself.  No longer are you driven by doubt and fear, by pride or presumption, but you live by faith in Christ and bear His Cross in love for God and man, in the hope and promise of the Resurrection.  Instead of going away sad, you live in peace and joy.

The inheritance of eternal life with God in Christ is not a commodity to be purchased or a prize to be won, but a free gift to be received through faith in the Gospel.  Not by your doing, but by dying to yourself, to the world and all its wealth, you are raised up to live forever in body and soul with Christ Jesus.  Today, as you hear His voice, do not harden your heart against Him in despair, but rest yourself in His Body given and His Blood poured out for you, and so rejoice in His salvation.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

07 October 2018

Men, Women, and Children in the Image of God

There’s been plenty of talk about “family values” over the past couple decades, often in the context of volatile political debates and posturing.  But the family itself has come increasingly under attack within our culture and society.  Marriage has been redefined and openly abused, on the one hand, mocked, disdained, and deliberately avoided on the other hand.  Children are murdered in the womb, abused and neglected, or handed over to surrogate caregivers for endless hours every day.  Sexual perversity and sins of all kinds surround us, undermining the entire structure of the family.

Over against all that depravity and confusion, the Lord Himself brings clarity by catechizing His Church to know and to value what a family is to be according to God’s own design.  He speaks of what it means to be a husband and a wife, instructing your heart and your mind with the Words of Holy Scripture, taking you back to the beginning, to the creation of the heavens and the earth.

It is the Word of God that reveals what it means to be a good and godly man — by showing you the God and Father of us all in Christ (by whom all fatherhood on earth is named), and by teaching you the purpose for which He created the man in His Image, namely, that man should receive all things from the hand of his Creator, enjoy them to the glory of God’s Name, and use them for the benefit of his neighbor.  In short, the man is to care for God’s creation with responsible dominion.

It is the Word of God that likewise reveals what it means to be a good and godly woman — by describing the Lord’s creation of the woman as a complementary partner and helper comparable to the man, and the way that He graciously gave her to the man and set her alongside of him as the queen of the world, that she might thereby assist him in the stewardship of God’s good creation.

Thus do you know the significance of marriage from God’s establishment of that holy institution, namely, that the woman, who was taken from the man in her creation, should be re-united with the man as one flesh in a relationship of mutual love and self-surrender.  It is the union of two hearts, two minds, and two bodies, male and female, in a life-long commitment to work together in mutual love as partners, thereby reflecting the loving unity of the Holy Triune God.

But if you stop there — with what it means and what it takes to be a godly man or woman in life and marriage — you will be forced to admit that you have fallen far short of that glory of God.

In your heart and life, whether you are married or not, there is selfishness and self-centeredness instead of care and concern for others, instead of companionship and cooperation.  It is not good for you to be alone, because you cannot reflect the loving unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit apart from neighbors to love and to love you.  And yet, in your sinfulness, you cling to your own personal autonomy, as though you were an island unto yourself.  You take pride in going it alone and doing things your own way, so much so that you withhold important aspects of yourself and your life from anyone and everyone around you, including even your own wife or husband.

It is sadly far too common for many men to relinquish responsibility for their families while they are busy catering to their own desires, and for many women to compete with men and with each other in a spirit of envy and jealousy.  All of which contributes to a recognized and ever growing tension between the sexes, not only within marriages but in the workplace and the public square.  Sex and sexuality are used as weapons in a battle for power and control, instead of being treated with careful reverence and treasured as sacred gifts of God in holy faith and holy love.

Then there is the particular problem of divorce, which our Lord addresses unequivocally in this Holy Gospel.  It has become so common in these grey and latter days that it is basically taken for granted and treated rather lightly, despite the fact that anyone who has gone through the pain and heartache of divorce (as a spouse or as a child) knows that it is not the way things ought to be.

But along with the outright fact and process of divorce itself, one must also include the many other ways and means of adultery and unfaithfulness which are typically a prelude to more open marital problems.  For the Sixth Commandment is routinely broken, not only by the sins that you commit, but also (and especially) by a constant failure to “lead a sexually pure and decent life” in all that you say and do, and by a daily failure to love, honor, cherish, and care for your wife or husband.

For all such failures, which are both temporal and spiritual, it is necessary that you hear the rest of the story.  Thus are you called to enter the house as a disciple of Christ Jesus, to learn from Him what is God’s plan for men and women, marriage and children, from the foundation of the world.

To that end, let me first of all explain the context of this Holy Gospel.  Among Jewish rabbis at that time, there were two different opinions on divorce.  Some claimed that it was lawful for a man to put away his wife only in the case of serious moral misdemeanor on the part of the woman.  That is basically the position that Jesus also takes, as indicated elsewhere in the Gospels, although He limits the legitimate reasons for divorce to cases of adultery or unfaithfulness.  Other rabbis argued that almost any dissatisfaction or displeasure was good enough reason for a man to send his wife away (which is sadly not so different from the common attitude and practice of the world today).

Now, as I have said, the Lord Jesus does follow the stricter guidelines for the permissibility of divorce only under the circumstances of adultery.  However, His answer to the question of the Pharisees in this case actually cuts through the legal debate altogether, and He returns instead to the original intentions of God.  It is true, He acknowledges, that Moses permitted divorce — or, better to say, that he tolerated divorce — as a concession to the hardhearted sinfulness of fallen men and women.  But it was the same Moses who also recorded the earlier, foundational account of Creation, which establishes God’s real purposes for males and females and holy marriage.

And there is still more to the question at hand than even that Creation account on the surface.  For you are given to hear and to see, beneath and behind the institution of human marriage, the deeper purpose of God for eternal life and salvation in Christ Jesus.  Men, women, and children alike, both in the beginning and now, are created precisely for that Life, which is always and only in Christ.  As such, you must learn to evaluate every aspect of your life on earth with reference to Him.

This Holy Gospel, for example, is consequently far more than just a word about divorce.  And it would miss the point altogether, were you to hear it as nothing but a condemnation of that one sin.

To be sure, the Word of Christ Jesus is clear.  Contrary to the tenor of our times, divorce is an outright contradiction of God’s intentions.  And His Law is not so lightly set aside.  The breaking of a marriage is sinful, and there are consequences for it.  The Lord Jesus therefore calls you to contrition and repentance for such sins, and to the cleansing freedom of forgiveness in His Cross.

If you’ve not gotten a divorce or put asunder what the Lord has joined together, praise God for His mercy upon you, and pray that He preserves you in such faithfulness and purity.  But also bear in mind that He calls you, as well, to repentance for your own sins and failings.  His Words today pertain to you as much as they did to the Pharisees then, though they were icons of public virtue.

The Lord would have you understand that divorce is one consequence of a far deeper problem, that is, the hardness of man’s sinful heart.  And He would have you understand that the lust in your heart, in your eyes, and in your imagination, is already adultery before it emerges in your flesh.

There is no one here this morning who has not sinned against the Sixth Commandment by those standards of our Lord.  It is true, therefore, as we confess, that each and every one of you deserve His temporal and eternal punishment.  For the hardness of your heart, and all of the ways that you have been sexually impure in your thoughts, words, and actions — all the ways that you have sinned against God’s gifts of marriage and family — all demonstrate your unfaithfulness toward the Lord, your lack of fear, love, and trust in Him, and your idolatrous worship of other gods.

The Words of Jesus in this Gospel surely do pertain to human marriages, and we must absolutely take them seriously in that respect.  But they also point you to the far more serious matter of your relationship — your marriage — with the Lord.  For He is your heavenly Bridegroom, and by His grace you have been called to be and made a member of His Bride, the Church.  All of the sins afflicting marriage and family in this body and life are assaults against the Marriage of Christ.

It is precisely for this reason that the question of the Pharisees is a testing — and a temptation — for the Lord Jesus.  According to the letter of the Law, by all rights, He could have, perhaps even should have, divorced His adulterous people and sent them all away, yourself included.

Understand, therefore, that those who defend the legitimacy of divorce — for whatever reason — are underscoring the legitimate right that God the Lord would have to divorce all the sinful sons and daughters of Adam and Eve and cast them away from His presence.  For whatever wrongs and whatever unfaithfulness your human spouse might commit against you, it remains the case that all of us poor sinners has sinned even more grievously against the Lord in our relationship with Him.

So, then, although the Pharisees did not realize or understand this point, the real significance of their question is this: “Is it lawful for You, O Lord, to divorce Your people and send them away?”

And the frightening answer to that poignant question is, “Yes.”  It would indeed be lawful.

But, from the very beginning of Creation, from before the foundation of the world, that has not been the Lord’s intent.  That is not the purpose for which He created the man and the woman and gave them to each other.  And it is not the purpose for which He Himself has become true Man.

He has not come down from His Father in heaven to file for divorce or to put you away from Him.  He has come instead to give His life for you, to shed His blood and die for you, that He might cleanse you by the washing of the water with His Word — as He has done in your Holy Baptism — and so present you to Himself as a glorious bride, beautifully dressed in the white wedding gown of His own perfect righteousness, without any spot or wrinkle or blemish of any kind.

And that is what God the Lord intended from the beginning of the world.  For everything in all of Creation is realized, perfected, and understood in Christ Jesus alone.  Which is to say, in this case, that Adam and Eve were created in the Image of Christ and His Bride, the Church.  And marriage, at its best, even after the fall into sin, is still a reflection (even dimly) of the intimate union between Christ and His Bride, His intimate union with you and all His Christians within His holy Church.

The one true “Godly Man” is Christ Himself, the perfect Son who is the Image of the Father from all eternity.  And He has fulfilled all God’s purposes for man — in the flesh of our flesh and the bone of our bones.  In Him you see what it means to be a Man, and what it means to be a Husband.

This true Man has reconciled you to Himself, and He has graciously restored you as a beloved member of His Bride, His Church on earth as she is in heaven.  Thus do you belong to the one true “godly woman” by the washing of water with His Word and Spirit.  And in His Church, to which you belong by His grace, you see what it means to be a Woman, and what it means to be a Wife.

Take it to heart that, even after the fall into sin, and notwithstanding its consequences, the Lord God blessed the bond of holy marriage — and especially the bearing of children in that bond — by promising the birth of the Savior, the Seed of the Woman, who has in time been conceived and born of St. Mary.  It is truly and only in Christ Jesus that marriage and family are divinely blessed.

So it is that children, too, from conception onward, are called and given to share in the salvation of Christ Jesus, the Son of God and St. Mary’s Son.  And by the same token, Christ and His Bride are fruitful and multiply by giving birth to the children of God through the Ministry of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.  Thus have you also been conceived and born again as a child of God.

What is more, for those who have been divorced; for those who have been betrayed, and for those who have been unfaithful; for you and all who have sinned against the Lord in heart, mind, body, and life — though the Lord does not condone any of these sins, He does forgive them by His grace.

Though you have been unfaithful toward Him, He remains faithful toward you.  By repentance and faith in His mercy, you are and remain a child of God and a member of His Bride, the Church, that you might live and abide in Christ Jesus as the godly man or woman He has created you to be.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

30 September 2018

Dying to Live by Childlike Faith in Christ

It is the Gospel that casts out demons.  It is the Gospel of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, which drives out the unclean spirit and pours out the Holy Spirit upon you; which guards and keeps your heart, mind, body, and soul from the assaults and accusations of the devil; and which gives you life in place of death.  For it is the Gospel that justifies you with the righteousness of Christ Jesus.  It comforts your troubled conscience with the forgiveness of all your sins.  It soothes your sad and sorrowing spirit with the promise of the Resurrection and the Life everlasting.  And in all of this, it glorifies the Name of Christ, who is your Savior and the Savior of the world by His grace alone.

Those who live by the grace of Christ are gracious to others for His sake.  Because they are at peace, set free from sin and death, from doubt and fear, they are confident and content with Christ, and they are consequently free and well able to give themselves to and for the benefit of others.

But those who depend on the Law, as though to justify and save themselves by the keeping of the Law, end up destroying others with its demands — even as they themselves are being destroyed.

If you play with fire, you will get burned!  And the Law of God is a deadly fire and brimstone, which consumes the sinner completely with its righteous demands and its strict judgments.

Insisting on the letter of the Law, as though anyone could keep the Law, invariably includes an objection to grace, and it causes a bitter and resentful jealousy against those who live by grace.

Those who rely upon the Law for their own life, and so insist upon the righteousness of the Law in others, despise the little children who believe in Jesus, who are welcomed and received by His grace, because they do not seem capable of righteousness or worthy of such gifts and benefits.

Jesus blows such ideas out of the water.  Or, rather, He plunges you into the water, in order to drown all such false ideas of righteousness, merit, and worthiness.  Before the Lord, you are a little child, yourself, and there is no righteousness of your own by which you will accomplish anything.  And yet, it is only as a child that you have any life at all, and that you live with God by His grace.

Now, to be clear, the remedy for legalism is not licentiousness.  Trying to live by keeping the Law will not work, because you cannot do it.  But a lawless life will simply damn you that much faster.

To sin causes both you and others to stumble and fall, as much as your self-righteousness does.

Egypt seems enticing, but that is not the answer.  Pursuing the flesh leads only to death and decay.  Riches rust and rot away.  And letting go of the Law to chase your own willful pursuits, is simply to exchange one taskmaster for another, neither of which is able to give you life or preserve it.

Take careful note of the difference, then, between a childlike faith in Christ and childish behavior.  Childlike faith is a gracious gift of God, which He gives to you and works in you by His Word and Holy Spirit; whereas childish behavior is a consequence of sinful unbelief and the fear of death.

Childlike faith is a matter of humility, dependance, and trust, whereby you know your inability, your littleness, your weakness, and your need, and yet you rely upon the Lord your God to provide for you in love.  Quite different is the childish behavior of sinners, regardless of their age, who presume, not only their own worthiness, but their own importance and significance, as though they were at the center of everything that matters.  That sort of childishness is belligerent and greedy.  It whines and complains and always begs for more.  It charges ahead in reckless self-pursuits, heedless of the cost or the consequence to others.  Like Israel in the wilderness, and like yourself.

But now, both legalism and licentiousness are scandalized by the Cross of Christ, which is the gracious Self-sacrifice of God for the sake of sinners.  His scandalous Cross is the real remedy and the only true solution, because it is the scandal of divine Love, the scandal of forgiveness in the Name of the Lord, and the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ freely granted to the guilty.

The preaching of this Cross of Christ, against both legalism and licentiousness, is the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  It crucifies your flesh and puts you to death with a fire that cannot be quenched, and yet, it does so in order to raise you up and give you life in Christ.

Repent, therefore, of both your strong sins and your weak sins.  Repent of your legalistic attempts to justify yourself and to condemn your neighbor under burdens that neither you nor he could bear.  And repent of your selfish chasing after all manner of flesh pots, which only serves to increase your idolatrous lusts and desires, so that your appetites remain unsatisfied and wanting more.

Whatever it is in your life and habits that causes you or your neighbor to stumble and fall, cut it out and throw it away by repentance and confession, that is, by naming your sins of thought, word, and deed for what they are.  Die to yourself, by doing without your false gods, and by doing away with the false god of your self.  Die to both your sin and your self-righteousness, and seek no other life than that of Christ Jesus.  Follow Him by faith in His Word, by hearing and heeding His Word, by trusting His Word, confessing His Word, and praying in accordance with His Word.

Live by His grace, by faith in His forgiveness of your sins.  That is the Resurrection and the Life which are yours by the way of His Cross.  You are crucified with Him, in order to live with Him.

And as you are forgiven by Christ Jesus, by His grace alone, so be at peace with your neighbor.  Forgive your neighbor his trespasses against you, and love your neighbor, for the sake of Christ.

The same Cross that sets you free from sin and death by forgiving all your sins and cleansing your conscience of guilt and shame, also defines the life that is set before you, which is characterized by self-sacrificing love, as the Lord your God has sacrificed Himself for you in His divine Love.

To be sure, the burden of your neighbor’s needs, and of your neighbor’s faults and failings, too, brings your own frailty and weakness to light.  Your own inadequacy and wretchedness, your own mortality and fast approaching death, and all of your own sins — it brings all of that to light.  And it humbles you to realize that you can no more save yourself than you can save your neighbor.

What, then?

Call upon the Name of the Lord — for yourself and for your neighbor.  For the forgiveness of sins; and for health and strength in body and soul; and for salvation, which is found only in Christ Jesus.

Such prayer is an exercise of faith, which finds patience and peace in the Gospel.  It is the practice of humility and trust in Christ, and, along with that, of love and forgiveness for your neighbor.  For you cannot come before the Lord your God in prayer without realizing your own desperate need and your own unworthiness, and, at the same time, the fact that your neighbor is in the same boat.  That is why the Lord has taught you to pray, not in lonely isolation, but in communion with the Church: “Our Father . . . forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Thus do you bring yourself and your neighbor to the One who is your only hope and only help.

And take it to heart, dear child of God, that your hope in the Lord shall not be disappointed.  Even though you are so faithless, yet He remains faithful to Himself, and to His promises, and to you, whom He has called.  For Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, is merciful and full of compassion.  It is His delight and His great glory to give good things to those who are His children by His grace alone, to provide for all their needs of body and soul, to forgive their sins and give them His Life.

Though you may grow weary in the wilderness — and though the fire of the Cross may remove your hands and feet and eyes, and perhaps your goods, fame, child, and wife, as in the case of Job — you are thereby salted and seasoned unto repentant faith.  And all the while, the Lord who loves you graciously provides for you and for your neighbor in your vocations, as He did with and for Moses, and with and for the seventy elders of Israel.  He sends His holy angels to guard and keep you in body and soul, and He sends His human messengers to preach to you His Gospel of peace.

By the preaching of this Word, He pours out His Spirit upon you for life and salvation in Christ.  It is indeed by His Word of the Gospel that He forgives you all your sins, and casts out all your demons, and cleanses you of all unrighteousness, and clothes you in the Glory of His Holy Name.

And it is with His Word that He also continues to feed you with a miraculous Manna from heaven, which shall not fail.  For this Manna is your true Meat, salted with the fire of the Cross for your redemption.  It is the sacrifice of Atonement for the sins of the whole world.  And as it has been offered for you, to reconcile you to God the Father in the one Lord Jesus Christ, so it is here given for you to eat, and His Blood poured out for you to drink, that you should not die but live forever.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

22 September 2018

Receiving and Embracing the Greatness of the Cross of Christ Jesus

The disciples miss the mark widely in the way they react to the Word of the Lord concerning His Cross and Passion — arguing among themselves, as to which one of them would be the greatest.

They do not even begin to understand what real greatness is, because they do not yet understand Jesus Christ or the true nature of His glory and His greatness.  Not only that, but they are afraid to ask Him, because they don’t really want to know.  They don’t want to understand His statement.

The thing is, if the Cross awaits Jesus, it awaits His disciples, too.  That is what it means to be a disciple, after all: To follow and learn from a master, not only by listening to what he says, but also by doing what he does.  So, if Jesus is on His way to die, then they are called to die with Him, as well, which is the very opposite of what they are wanting and hoping to accomplish and achieve.

You are no different and no better.  You are not more faithful than those first disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is the same for you as it was for them, according to your flesh.  You do not and you cannot understand the Cross and Passion of the Christ.  And you also are afraid to ask, because you do not want to know.  More to the point, you do not want to be crucified and put to death.

You want to live.  And not only to live, but to succeed and thrive on your own terms.  You want to be great, to be respected and admired, to be well liked and popular.  You want to be somebody, and to be known for your achievements and accomplishments.  It’s not just a matter of your ego, though it is that, but you actually trust and rely on yourself more than God.  You don’t trust Him to give you good things.  You don’t trust Him to bless the life that He has given you in the place where He has put you.  You don’t trust Him to give you what you need, far less what you want.

You don’t trust the Lord your God, and you don’t trust your neighbor, either.  Not that you should trust in mortal men, but you don’t trust the Lord to serve you through the people He has provided for you in this world.  Your heart and mind are beclouded by paranoia, suspicion, and fear.  So, instead of trusting God and thinking well of your neighbor, you strive to protect yourself, not only physically but emotionally and in every other aspect of life.  You spend your days feverishly trying to get more, and frantically trying to protect what you have.  And at night you find no peace or rest, and you do not sleep well, because you wonder and worry what might happen to all your stuff, and about where you stand in relation to your neighbors.  You live your life as though it were actually a competition, and as though everyone around you, even your family and friends, were opponents.

As a consequence, what happens?  On the one hand, you are consumed by your pride, and by your self-righteousness, though that is nothing but a massive self-deception, supposing that you can justify and save yourself, and get a life for yourself, but you cannot.  On the other hand, you’re driven by your lusts, and by your envy, and by your covetous idolatry.  St. Paul says it straight: Your greed is idolatry.  You want things more than God.  And you are selfish with what you have.

Meanwhile, despite taking the credit for what you have, you are jealous and resentful of what the Lord your God has given to your neighbor, whether it be his income, his possessions, his place in the world, or even his family.  If someone speaks well of your neighbor, your immediate reaction is to protest, even if only in your own mind, that you are the one who really ought to be praised.  And if your neighbor is successful in business, in sports, or in school, you suppose that he must have cheated in some way, or that he was given some unfair advantage over you.

You get angry and become bitter.  You harbor grudges against your brothers and sisters in Christ.  You think the worst about your neighbor, and too often you express that out loud to others, as well.  In your heart, you root for the downfall of your neighbor, and outwardly you mutter and complain and gossip about him.  If you get your dander up, you’ll quarrel and fight with your neighbor to his face.  And in various ways, whether in the body or otherwise, you murder your neighbor.

In all of this, there is the worldly appearance of strength and power, and the promising smell of success and greatness.  To get one up on your neighbor seems to be a way of winning (whatever).

But it is all a false and misleading dream.  It is no true wisdom or righteousness.  It is no path to real greatness.  It is not divine or heavenly.  Did you hear what St. James has written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit?   Such attitudes and actions, such envy and jealousy, quarreling and hurting, such things are demonic; they are devilish and deadly; they do not make you great but destroy you.

Bear in mind and be warned that friendship with the world — so also, competing and contesting with your neighbors according to the world’s terms and rules of engagement — puts you at odds and at enmity with the Lord your God.  The story of Cain and Abel is a painful case in point.

Humble yourself, therefore, under the mighty hand of God.  Resist the devil.  That’s already what the Lord said to Cain, warning him, but Cain did not listen.  You, now, hear and heed the warning.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you, because he is already defeated — not by you, but by the One who truly is the Greatest.  Turn away from your temptations, from your sins and every evil.  Don’t dally in them.  Don’t suppose you are strong enough to go only so far, and then to stop just in the nick of time.  There is no “nick of time.”  The soul that sins shall die.  Don’t go down that road, not even one step.  Repent, and trust the Lord.  Submit yourself to His Word in faith.

The Lord your God will exalt you in mercy.  That is His greatness in Christ Jesus, that He exalts sinners by forgiving their sins.  And He does it at His own expense.  That is the remarkable thing.  The One who really does have everything gives it all away.  That is what He does for you.

You see it in Christ Jesus.  Not only as an example, although He is an example.  You cannot save yourself by trying to copy Jesus.  You never will fulfill the Law by your own self-righteousness.  But the Lord Jesus Christ is an example, that you should follow in His steps.  You see in Him how you are to live as a Christian, and how you are to die as His disciple.  But He is far more than just an example.  For in Him you see the greatness of God, which He has accomplished for you and made possible for you.  He has obtained it, purchased and won it for you, and He gives it to you.

He has humbled Himself and become obedient unto death, even death upon the Cross.  He has made Himself nothing, small and weak and subject to death.  The almighty and eternal Son of the Living God not only became “like” a little child, but He was conceived and born as a little Child, the Babe, the Son of St. Mary, a Fetus in her womb, an Infant at her breast.

And from the womb, from His circumcision on the eighth day, from the Temple as a young Man, and from the waters of His Baptism, He proceeded in the confidence of His God and Father, in love for God and His neighbor, making His way steadfastly to the Cross as the perfect Servant of all people for the salvation of all the sinful sons and daughters of Adam.  He exercised His divine Wisdom in mercy and kindness toward those who were not merciful or kind to Him at all.  “Father, forgive them,” He prayed for those who nailed Him to the Cross.  So does He pray for you, as well.

It is by His perfect righteousness that He justifies you, reconciles you to His God and Father in holy faith, and sanctifies you by the gracious gift of His Word and Holy Spirit.  It is by His Word of the Gospel that you are justified and righteous, sanctified and holy, in His crucified and risen Body.  That is who and what you are, not in yourself but in Him, because God says so.  He grants to you His Peace and Sabbath Rest in Christ through the free and full forgiveness of all your sins.

That is the strength and glory of God; and that is real greatness, which is by the Way of His Cross.

Instead of striving to take care of yourself, to make a way for yourself, to protect yourself, and to take what you want for yourself in competition with and at the expense of others — rather, commit your way to the Lord; entrust yourself to Him, body and soul, in both life and death, and wait quietly and patiently on Him to deliver you and give you all good things in Christ.  For He will.

Even if you are persecuted, even to the point of being put to death, do not despair, and do not give up hope, and do not take matters into your own hands.  Do not fret yourself, the Psalmist says, but know that the Lord, He is God, and He will vindicate you.  He will exalt you at the proper time.

You know that He will do it, because He has already done so in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus.  To be His disciple is to be crucified and die with Him, yes.  But it is also then to be raised with Him, to live with Him.  That is why the Church confesses her faith in the Resurrection of the dead.

The God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ has received you as His own dear child in His Son.  That is what He was doing by the washing of the waters with His Word in your Holy Baptism, when He named you with His own Name, poured out His Spirit upon you, united you with Christ, and adopted you by His grace.  The Father has thereby taken you into His embrace within the Body of His Son, who was crucified for your sins and raised from the dead for your justification and life.

So has the one true God, the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, given Himself to you and drawn you to Himself in peace and love.  And so it is that, even now, you lack no good thing in heaven or on earth, regardless of your circumstances.  All things are yours, because Christ is yours, and you are His.  Anointed by His Holy Spirit, His God and Father is your God and Father.

The Lord your God, who has given Himself for you and given Himself to you in Christ Jesus, He is yours forever and always, for keeps, because you have not gotten Him for yourself by your own efforts, intentions, or accomplishments (all of which are fallible, frail, and fleeting, in any case).  But you are His, and He is yours, because He has spoken and acted in grace, mercy, and peace, for your salvation.  He has given and pledged Himself to you, and He will not withdraw Himself from you.  The One who promises is faithful.  He will do as He has spoken.  He cannot deny Himself, and He will not deny His Word and promises to you.  He will never leave you nor forsake you.

Now, I understand, there appears to be very little safety in the arms of Someone who was crucified, cruelly put to death, and buried in the dust of the earth.  To be and abide in the crucified arms of Christ, how safe is that, exactly?  For He Himself was like a gentle Lamb led to the slaughter.

“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,” they plotted and conspired against Him, “to cut off His life from the land of the living, that there should be no remembrance of Him.”

How easy it is to conclude that God abandoned Him in death.  According to the wisdom of our flesh, “we consider Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”  And how could any good ever come from such a Cross, from such a shameful and humiliating death and all that bloodshed?

But no, in fact, the truth of the matter is that the Cross of Christ is the Victory of God.  It is His greatness and His glory, His almighty power made perfect in His voluntary weakness, all for the sake of His divine and holy Love.  So it is that Christ the Crucified, the Son of God in the Flesh, has become your Salvation, your Strength, and your Song, by His innocent suffering and death.  For it is precisely by His Cross, by the shedding of His holy, precious Blood, that God the Lord has reconciled the world to Himself and established Peace for you — peace with God in heaven, and peace in your heart toward all of your neighbors on earth, no matter how they may treat you.

The Tree of the Cross is not what it appears, but is the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden of God; it bears living and life-giving fruits that remain for you and for all the disciples of Christ Jesus.  And by the eating and drinking of that Fruit from that Tree, by the crucified Body and shed Blood of Christ, the Name of the Lord is remembered, and His Name is hallowed from the rising of the sun to the place of its going down, even to the close of the age.  Not only in itself, as it surely is — God’s Name is holy — but His Name is remembered and hallowed in every generation, and so also here among us.  And so also for you, who bear His Name in His Peace.

Here, then, at His Table, take delight in the Lord who delights in you, and He shall give to you His heart’s desire, that you may be exalted by His grace, unto the Resurrection of your body and the Life everlasting of your body and soul in Christ Jesus.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

16 September 2018

“Lord, We Believe — Help, Thou, Our Unbelief!”

There are a number of similarities between this Holy Gospel and the story we heard from St. Mark last week.  In each case, a parent comes to Jesus seeking His help for a demon-possessed child; but this time it is a father seeking help for his son, instead of a mother seeking help for her daughter.

Again Jesus engages the parent in a bit of a dialogue, or even debate, instead of simply granting the request immediately.  The woman last week was thereby given the opportunity to confess and demonstrate the tenacity of her faith.  And today the father of the demon-possessed boy is led from his doubts and fears and his struggling faith to a greater confidence and stronger trust in Jesus.

Consider the progression of the story.  This poor, desperate man has come to Jesus on a whim, as more-or-less a last resort.  In desperate frustration, since Jesus was not around at first, the father all but orders the disciples to heal his son — something the disciples of Jesus had been given the authority to do in His Name — but the man’s request is hardly a prayer of faith; it is a demand.

When the Lord Jesus Himself draws near, the man’s desperation shifts from making demands of the disciples to wondering if Jesus might be willing and able to help.  And, upon hearing the Word of Jesus concerning what is possible for those who believe, he cries out in a kind of repentance.  He confesses his faith in the Lord Jesus, such as it is, but he also confesses the weakness of his faith; he acknowledges his unbelief, and so he throws himself upon the mercies of God in Christ.

Along with all that, aside from the similarities and differences between the Syrophoenician woman last week and the father today, there is here again the conflict between Christ and the demonic.  For He is God in the flesh, who has come to confront and cast out the devil and his evil minions.

In order to understand the nature of that strange and dreadful strife between Christ and the devil, it is helpful to know the context of the story at hand, which is indicative of the big picture and of the way that Christ will overcome Satan, sin, and death, for the salvation of the world.

The present story is bracketed, before and after, by the clear Word of Jesus foretelling His Cross and Passion, His suffering, dying, and rising.  And, paradoxically, it is precisely by that foolish divine wisdom of the Cross that God defies the so-called “wisdom” of the world and defeats the devil, all his works, and all his ways, beneath the wounded heal of the incarnate Son.  For it is by His Sacrifice upon the Cross, by His voluntary suffering and death, by the shedding of His holy and precious Blood for the Atonement of the world, that Satan is cast out and the Kingdom of heaven is open to all who believe and are baptized into the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Betwixt and between those Words of the Cross, the story unfolds at the foot of the Mountain, as the Lord Jesus returns from His glorious Transfiguration on His Way to the Cross in Jerusalem.

It was on the Mountain of Transfiguration that God the Father identified Jesus as His beloved Son, echoing the Word that He had previously spoken at the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan River.  And He admonished the disciples, not only then but now, to listen to Jesus — even as He made His way down the Mountain to the Cross.  For the glory of His Resurrection, briefly manifested in His Transfiguration on the Mountain, would be accomplished by His Cross and Passion.

The Word that Jesus speaks — which you are called to hear and heed — is the Word of His Cross.  And it is to His Sacrifice upon the Cross that both His Baptism and His Transfiguration point.

Down from the Mountain He came, therefore, with Peter, James, and John, making His way to the strange divine glory of His Cross and Crucifixion.  That is what awaited Him, and that is where He was heading, when He encountered the man whose son was possessed by the unclean spirit.

The difficult and dismal circumstances under which that boy had lived most of his life, from his early childhood, vividly and graphically demonstrate the circumstances of the entire world — and of each and every child of Adam — apart from the Lord Jesus Christ.  That is to say, one and all (apart from Christ) are subject to the power of the devil, whether possessed by demons in violent and obvious ways, or deceived and misled by more subtle manipulations.

So it is that the old evil foe, Satan the accuser, renders the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve deaf to the Word of God, and mute to the confession of the faith, so they neither hear nor speak rightly.  Drowning out the Word and promises of God, and pummeling you with falsehoods, the devil and his minions seize you by the heart and toss you about in many and various sins, gnashing your teeth in fear, clenching your fists in anger, and arching your back in stubborn pride.

Such are the fruits of unbelief and sin, outwardly manifested in the body and life of this poor boy.

But not only do his circumstances demonstrate the sinful condition of the world apart from Christ.  Beyond that, the trauma involved in the boy’s affliction, and the struggle involved in His cleansing by Jesus — to the point that he appeared to be a corpse! — also demonstrate the conflict, again, between Christ and the devil, and the way that He defeats the devil by and with His Cross.  For He conquers the foe, not by an outward display of power and might, but by sacrificing Himself, laying down His life and submitting Himself to suffering and death, in the confidence, faith, and prayer that His Father will raise Him from death to life.  He approaches His Cross and Passion in prayer to His God and Father, and He teaches you to pray in His Name by faith in His Resurrection.

It is likewise the case that, when the Lord Jesus here raises that poor boy back up from his corpse-like state, He thereby anticipates His own triumphant Resurrection from the dead!  That is the sure and certain outcome of His innocent suffering and death, because it is precisely by and with and through His Cross and Passion that He triumphs over Satan.  Sin, death, and hell dog-pile the Lord Jesus, and they all do their worst to possess Him in their wickedness.  But in that combat stupendous, it is the devil and his forces that are routed and driven out, never to return again.

By the same token, this whole Gospel-story — and the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, to which it directs you — likewise portrays the content and significance of your own Holy Baptism.

In the first place, it is your Holy Baptism that has given you life with God through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.  It thereby also delivers you from Satan, from sin, death, and hell — and, in doing so, it puts you at odds with the entire demonic world!  That is to say, the life that you are given in Christ Jesus brings even more and greater wrath and opposition from the demonic world against you.  For the devil in his jealous rage is all the more rabid and desperate to destroy you.

Your Baptism thereby also puts you at odds with your own sinful heart, perverse mind, and fallen flesh!  It has begun a war within you, not so different from the struggle that ensued within that boy in this Holy Gospel when Jesus drove the demon out. Indeed, the Cross of Christ in your Baptism crucifies you and puts you to death to yourself, to your sin, and to the world, so that you become a kind of corpse in the perception of this body and life.  All that you fear, love, and trust, aside from the one true God, and all that you have attempted, desired, and pursued apart from His Word, is laid waste and put down, so that you should live no longer in yourself and for yourself, but that Christ should raise you up to a brand new life in Himself, conformed to the Image of His Cross.

Instead of chasing down the addictions, habits, idolatries, and lusts which have characterized your life in the world apart from Christ, and which drive you from the Lord your God into eternal death, you are taught the humility of repentance and the confidence of faith, to pray and intercede in the hope and promise of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to pursue love for your neighbors in the world.

The true, spiritual reality is that the Cross and Crucifixion of Christ Jesus mark your entire life as a baptized Christian, as a beloved child of His Father.  Who you are and how you live are defined by His Sacrifice.  So, in this world you live under the Cross, engaged in constant spiritual warfare.

And yet, for all of that, although you often appear on the surface to be dead and utterly defeated — and I suspect there are plenty of times when you also feel within yourself that you are dead and defeated — still you are raised up, alive and victorious, by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.

The persistent problem, of course, is that, while you do believe the Gospel by the grace of God in Christ, you also wrestle and struggle with your sinful unbelief and native idolatry.  And as such, especially as you must live under the Cross, and as you are daily engaged in conflict with the devil, the world, and your own heart, mind, and flesh, it is often so hard to believe and trust in Christ.

After all, to believe in a Crucified God, to fear, love, and trust in a Crucified Messiah, and to hear and heed His Word of the Cross, is an utter contradiction of everything the world calls wisdom.

Consequently, it is a constant and difficult struggle to believe and confess the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.  It is the battle of faith and unbelief, of true and false worship, of God and the devil, waged within your own body and life, and always hidden and mysterious under the Cross.

That can be so discouraging and exhausting, and downright disheartening, because it can seem so pointless and ultimately hopeless.  Does it not seem as though your own sins and failings, and the sins of others against you, will never end?  I fully expect that poor father felt just like that!

But now take heart.  As also in the case of that Syrophoenician woman and her prayer last Sunday, the striving and the struggles in your life are neither pointless nor forever.  It is rather in the midst of the struggle, and by means of that struggle under the Cross, that the Lord Jesus teaches you and leads you to faith and hope and confident trust in Him.  It is by His Cross, and so also by the ways and means of His Word and Holy Spirit.  Not struggle in and of itself, and not for its own sake, but as it brings you to the Gospel of Christ, to His forgiveness of your sins, and to the ongoing, daily significance of your Holy Baptism, by which you die and rise with Him unto newness of life.

So, for example, you have heard how Jesus led the father in this Holy Gospel — along with His own disciples — from doubt and skepticism and unbelief to repentance and faith.  To the sort of faith that prays to God in Christ, clinging to His Word, listening to the Lord Jesus and trusting Him — against all odds, living under the Cross — confessing confidence in Him, yet also praying for help against the doubts and fears of unbelief that always linger and lurk within your fallen flesh.

The Lord Jesus Himself, the incarnate Son of God, as your Substitute under the Law, under the curse of sin and death, called upon His God and Father on His Way to the Cross, trusting that He would rescue Him from out of death; and though He was a Son, He learned the obedience of faith by that which He suffered in your place.  So does He teach you by His Cross to trust and to pray.

Thanks be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that He has answered your every prayer and provided for your every need of body and soul in the Person of His incarnate Son.  So does He also continue to answer your prayers and provide for all your needs in the same Son, Jesus Christ, who has taught you and commanded you to pray, and has promised to hear and answer.  For the same Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified for your sins and raised for your justification, is also seated at the right hand of His God and Father in heaven, where He ever lives to intercede for you.

As He has obtained the victory for you over Satan, sin, death, and hell, by His Cross and Passion, by His atoning Sacrifice and glorious Resurrection — so has He shared that victory of His Cross and Resurrection with you in the waters of your Holy Baptism.  Not only once upon a time, but as He calls you daily back to the significance of your Baptism through repentance and faith in His Word, He thereby forgives all your sins; He drives out the devil from your heart and life; He gives to you His own divine, eternal life in place of death; and He calls you to live unto God in Him.

So does He feed and nourish, guard and keep, your faith and life in Him — against all unbelief — by His Word of the Gospel.  And so does He feed and nurture you in the one true faith, unto life everlasting, with the fruits of His Cross and Passion, with His own holy Body and precious Blood.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

09 September 2018

Keep on Praying in the Confidence of Christ

The Syrophoenician woman’s remarkable persistence in asking the Lord Jesus to help her poor little daughter is the evidence and confession of her faith.  Her prayer is the voice of faith in this Man who has come to the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon, whose Word has gone before Him declaring His divine mercy and authority.  She continues to pray and to plead for His help, even when He seems to deny her, because she believes the testimony that she has heard about Him.

St. Matthew has given us more of the details, describing the buildup to the denouement we have heard from St. Mark this morning.  At first when the woman came to Him, Jesus answered not a word.  Nothing but stony silence, just as your prayers sometimes seem to meet with stony silence.

And when His disciples grew weary of listening to her beg and plead for His help, and they urged Him to do something, to give her what she asked so that she would leave them alone, He replied, “I have come only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”  So it would seem He is not for her.  Which is what you also hear from the Law, as it accuses and condemns you, exposing your sins and declaring that you are not worthy or deserving of anything but punishment from God.

But the woman persists because she is driven by her sense of need, and she clings to the Gospel, to the Word of Jesus she has heard, and to the fact that He has come.  Undaunted and undeterred, she asks Him simply to help her.  And that is when the cruelest blow of all is answered in return.  “It is not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs.”  So now there is insult added to injury.

To which she says “Amen.”  “Yes, Lord. Guilty as charged. But even the puppies get to eat the crumbs that fall from their Master’s Table.”  She owns the insult, and still she clings to His mercy.

At which point Jesus does what He has intended from the start.  He casts out the demon from her little daughter.  He gives what His Word has promised to the faith that has clung to that Word and confessed it so boldly.  He has known her faith, to be sure, even before her persistence in prayer, but He has dealt with her in mercy and steadfast love, although it did not seem that way.  He has delayed His response in order to strengthen her faith, and so that, by her suffering, the faith of His disciples should be strengthened and their prayers invigorated by this woman’s faithful example.

Are you not encouraged in your faith by the answer He finally gives, by the tender mercy that He grants, by the healing of her daughter and the casting out of the demon?  By His praise of her faith?

So, then, take heart.  The Lord is not deaf to your cry, and His heart is not hardened against you.

The fact is that you pray as you believe.  The way that you pray is the evidence and expression of how and what you think about God, and whether you fear, love, and trust in Him, or not.

So, how is it with you?  How do you pray?

Are you patient and persistent, like that Syrophoenician woman?  Do you persevere in the face of stony silence?  Do you trust the Lord your God, His Word and promises, even when you hear only a “No” from His Law?  Do you say “Amen” to the apparent insult of the Lord when He puts down any claim of merit, self-righteousness, or worthiness on your part?  And do you keep on praying, anyway, in the confidence of His mercy and His grace?  To pray in that way is to speak rightly.

But if you do not fully expect (by the way of trust) that God will help you, as He has promised — if you do not fully expect to receive good things from Him, from your Father in heaven who loves you, who has promised to hear you, and who has answered your every prayer in Christ Jesus — if you do not trust that, and rely on that, and fully expect His help — which is what faith does — then you do not know or think about Him rightly.  And so it is that you do not pray as you ought.

You imagine God in your own image, and you suppose that He will deal with you in the ways that you deal with your neighbor.  You do not expect Him to hear and answer your prayer, because you are too often deaf to your neighbor’s pleas for mercy and for help.  You show partiality, and you exercise personal favoritism.  You do good according to your own agenda, assisting those who are most likely to return the favor with interest.  So you assume that is how God will deal with you.

Such attitudes and prejudices are sinful.  Your lack of faith toward God and love for your neighbor is sinful.  It is therefore the case that you do not deserve to have your prayer heard and answered.

But in contrast to you and your life, the Lord Jesus Christ has perfectly fulfilled the Royal Law.  He has kept it, and He still does.  He loves His neighbor well, even at His own expense, at the cost of His own body and life.  In love for His God and Father, He loves you, and He helps you, and He does good things for you.  He comes to set you free and to save you from sin, death, and hell.

You could not believe in Him or come to Him.  You could not call upon His Name or pray to Him rightly.  Indeed, you could not find Him or understand Him, and you did not know how to pray.

But He has come to you in the flesh, and He teaches you by His Word and Holy Spirit to fear, love, and trust in Him, to pray, praise, and give thanks to Him, and to rest yourself upon His promises.

The little girl could not come to Jesus herself, and she did not.  Her mother came and interceded.  And the deaf man who could not speak, He did not ask anything for himself, either.  He was utterly silent.  His friends brought him, and they petitioned Jesus for him.  And all of this was possible because Jesus had drawn near.  The woman in Tyre and those men in Sidon came to Jesus, because Jesus had first come to them.  And the same is true for you, as well.  Jesus has drawn near to you.

The Word of God has come down from heaven in the Person of the incarnate Son.  He has become your Brother in the flesh.  He is close at hand, and His ears are open to your cries for mercy.

And you are here where He is because others have brought you here.  You are here in the Lord’s House, a child of God, a sheep of the Good Shepherd, anointed by His Spirit in body and soul, because others have prayed and interceded for you, and have brought you to Jesus in His Church.

And the Lord responds to the prayers and petitions of His people by continuing to do what He has done from the start.  He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies His Church, on earth as it is in heaven, by the preaching of His Word and the gift of His Spirit.  By the Ministry of the Gospel He lays His hand on you in mercy.  He daily and richly forgives you all your sins for His own sake, as He has also washed you with water and His Word in your Holy Baptism.  He receives you to Himself, He pours out His Spirit generously upon you, and He brings you to His Father in peace.

He opens your ears to hear His Word, and He opens your mind to comprehend it, even though it is mysterious, and it seems foolish to the world.  He opens your heart to believe and trust in Him, and to cling to His Word and promises in the face of all that would deny them.

It is by His Word of the Gospel that He opens what was closed, and He looses what was bound.  He opens your lips to show forth His praise, to call upon His Name and pray according to His Word, and to confess His Holy Name, come hell or high water and God’s own Law against you.

Cling to His Name, and bind yourself to it.  Cling to His sure and certain mercy; it will not fail you.  Cling to His Cross and Resurrection, because all things have already been accomplished there and then in Christ Jesus.  Crucified and risen from the dead, He is God’s Answer to your prayer.  He is God’s “Amen.”  Not a schwaffling “maybe-yes / maybe-no,” and not a kinda-sorta-iffy-maybe, but in Christ Jesus God’s answer is always “Yes” and “Amen.”  It shall be so.  Believe that.

And so pray without ceasing.  Let your whole life be one of prayer, and let prayer be your way of life.  Pray at all times, and do not give up heart.  That is what Jesus teaches His disciples to do.  Keep on praying, even when it seems as though God has turned a deaf ear and a hard heart to your prayer.  Keep on praying, even when it seems as though He will simply go on refusing you forever.

Your Father in heaven hears and answers your prayer for the sake of Christ Jesus.  You shall be saved; for everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.  You shall not die but live.

And you shall not only survive, but you shall lack no good thing.  For the Lord feeds you with far more than mere crumbs from His Table.  The Father gives to you His own dear Son in the flesh, who feeds you with His Body and pours out His Blood for you to drink, for the forgiveness of sins.

Here, then, is how the Lord Jesus deals with you.  He helps you in your every need.  In fact, in His love for you He is helping before you have even called on Him; while you are yet speaking, He is already acting in mercy.  He does all of these things, not because you have prayed, but because of who He is.  And it is for that same reason that you are to pray.  Not to coerce or manipulate Him, but because of who He is, according to His Word and promise and His steadfast loving-kindness.

The Lord Jesus helps you in your every need.  He heals you of all your diseases.  He casts out your demons, and He forgives your every sin.  He listens to you in mercy, and He answers you in love.  He clothes your nakedness, and He feeds your deepest hunger.  Indeed, He feeds you with Himself.

And all of this He does for you for the sake of His fair Name, with which He has named you a child of His own God and Father, a beloved and well-pleasing son or daughter.  His heart is more open to you than even the most devoted parent on earth.  For none of us can achieve, and certainly never exceed, the Love of God, our Father in heaven, which is yours in Christ Jesus, His beloved Son.

As He has opened His great heart of love to you, so love your neighbors in Christ Jesus.  Do it for His sake.  When you look at your neighbors, behold the Lord Jesus in them.  Look at them as God the Father looks at them in Christ — as God the Father looks at you in Christ.  That is, do not see their faults and failings, but see the mercies of God and the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, by which He has reconciled the world to Himself, not counting the sins of men against them.

The Lord your God shows no partiality.  He is near to all, and He is merciful to all who call upon Him by faith in His Word.  Since you, then, are a child of that God and Father, show no partiality.  Do not play favorites.  Do not pick and choose whom you will love, and do not distinguish whom you will and will not pray for.  Love and serve your neighbors as the Lord Jesus Christ loves you.

Listen to your neighbor in mercy, and speak to your neighbor in love.  Clothe your neighbor’s nakedness and shame with kindness, gentleness, protection, and peace.  And feed your neighbor’s hunger with bread for his body and the Word of Christ for His heart, mind, body, and soul.  Do not hold grudges or condemn, but forgive your neighbor — on the sole contingency of Christ Jesus.

So also pray for your neighbor.  Pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Pray for those who sit alongside of  you within this congregation.  If you have not thought about them, think of them, and pray for them.  And pray for those who are not here, that God would call them and bring them to Himself — or restore them to Himself — in love, in repentance and faith in His forgiveness.  Pray for those who are missing, the way a mother prays for her child; the way the Syrophoenician woman prayed for her little daughter; the way that St. Monica prayed for her son, Augustine.

Why would you not pray?  Do you not care?  Or do you suppose the Lord will not answer?

Pray as He has taught you.  And along with your prayer, speak the Word of the Gospel that God has spoken to you in peace.  And as the Lord so enables and gives you opportunity, bring your neighbors to Jesus by bringing them to His Church on earth.  Bring them here to the House of God, as others have brought you; so that your neighbors may also come to eat the Bread from the Lord’s Table and drink from His Chalice of Salvation; and that your neighbors also may be satisfied in body and soul, as you are satisfied, in the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, now and forever.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

02 September 2018

Sinful from the Inside-Out — Forgiven from the Outside-In

There is hardly another Word of God that so clearly and completely turns the world and all its “wisdom” on its head, and so utterly contradicts the world and everything that it believes about itself, as does the Word of our Lord Jesus this morning.

He reveals the painful truth of what belongs to our fallen human nature, and to all the children of man, apart from the Word and Spirit of God.  He thus reveals what you are like apart from Him, and what you are capable of doing and accomplishing on your own.  It is not a pretty picture.

From out of your heart — from within yourself — come evil thoughts, and sexual immorality; theft, murder, and adultery; sensuality and wickedness of every kind; envy and jealousy, coveting (which is idolatry), slander and deceit, and finally pride and foolishness.  “All these evil things come from within.”  That is what your heart does and accomplishes, unto death and destruction.

You cannot save yourself from who and what you are.  You cannot escape yourself and your sinful inheritance.  For the wickedness of Adam’s sons and daughters following the fall into sin is great upon the earth, and you also were conceived and born in the darkness of that legacy; from your mother’s womb you were dead in your trespasses and sin.  And it remains the case that, of yourself, you are a poor, miserable sinner, for which you rightly deserve nothing else but punishment.

What the Lord speaks to you this morning is therefore a sobering but necessary Word.  Not only does it expose the truth of where you stand apart from Christ, but it thereby also exposes the lies that you otherwise cling to in your sinful ignorance, stubborn disobedience, and selfish pride.

For example, to begin with, the Lord Jesus contradicts the very common notion that most if not all people are basically good — the false idea that, given the right environment and opportunities, most people will naturally make good and right decisions.  That is quite simply not the case.

The Lord thus resolves the dilemma of where all wickedness comes from and how such evil things can happen in the world.  It’s not just a bad seed here and there, or a black sheep in the family.  The problem is deeply rooted in the heart of the old Adam, in the entire human race of sinners.

Jesus also contradicts the popular and prevailing notion that whatever seems good to a person is good for that person — the false belief, in other words, that everything is relative and subjective.

And Jesus pulls the rug out from under the idea that your actions are only bad or sinful if they hurt another person or impinge upon another person’s freedoms.  You’ve all heard that excuse before; you’ve probably used that excuse for yourself on occasion.  But the truth is that whatever proceeds from out of your heart of sin is sinful, even if it may not harm anyone other than your own self.

Consider that the Lord Jesus includes envy and coveting, foolishness and pride, in the same breath as theft, murder, and adultery.  Those sins that eat away at your heart and mind on the inside — where you can hide them from others, but not from the Lord — may actually be more deadly to your Christian faith and life (and to your eternal salvation) than those sins that you and everyone else can see on the outside, which you and everyone else know to be sinful and wrong.

Here’s the deal: The Lord Jesus is not just talking about those really vile people out there, as the world tends to measure things.  He’s not just pointing His finger at the serial killers, rapists, and pedophiles.  Of course, He’s not excusing any of those people, either.  He’s really taking aim at everyone, including you.  He’s talking about your old Adam and your sinful human condition.

The real problem, then, is far deeper and more perverse than anything you can see with your eyes.  By the same token, it is such a common and pervasive problem that even the evidence — within your flesh and all around you in the world — just looks like so much “normal,” and maybe even good and right.  That is the charade of temptation and sin, which masquerade as angels of light.

But again, the Word of the Lord Jesus contradicts all those lies and deceptions of Satan.

So does He also contradict the notion that people are capable of finding their own way to God.  They cannot.  And He contradicts the notion that people are capable of determining the truth for themselves, as though their experiences, feelings, perspectives, and logic were decisive.  On the contrary, there is one true God, the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth, and not only does His Word reveal what is true and false, what is right and wrong; His Word determines everything that is.  And His Word exposes all that comes out of your heart as evil, wicked, mean, and nasty.

It is not possible for you to determine for yourself what you ought to be doing, not apart from the Word of the Lord and your God-given callings and stations in life.  You have freedoms, to be sure, but all genuine righteousness is elusive and well beyond the grasp of your heart, mind, and spirit, until the Lord reveals Himself and gives Himself to you by His Word and Holy Spirit.  Neither can you come to Him or believe in Him by your own reason or strength, but only as He breaks your heart of stone and makes of it a heart of flesh by His preaching of repentance and forgiveness.

In contrast to all of those false notions and opinions that arise and emerge from within your sinful heart, the forgiveness of your sins, the righteousness of Christ, and His divine, eternal life and salvation, all come to you from outside of you.  These good gifts of God, which are the remedy and solution to the problem, come to you from Christ the Crucified, and they are given to you by His Ministry of the Gospel, by His Word and Holy Sacraments, within His Holy Christian Church.

Not only does His Word expose and contradict the darkness of your sinful heart, but His Word of the Gospel shines the Light of the revelation of the Glory of God into your heart.  By that free gift and divine good work of the Gospel, He recreates your heart and mind, your body, soul, and spirit, into His Image and Likeness.  It comes from outside of you and makes all things new within you.

Apart from His Word, you are not capable of knowing or doing anything good.  But you are not apart from His Word, because it is spoken to you from the Lord.  Even now it is entering into your ears, and through your ears into your heart and mind, that you might have life instead of death.  That you might be no longer subject to the sin you have inherited from Adam, which dwells within your fallen flesh, but governed and guided by the mercies of the Lord your God in Christ Jesus.

His Word of the Gospel is your Light and your Salvation, by which He rescues and delivers you from that evil coalition of the devil, the world, and your own sinful heart.  And His Word to you, His Law and His Gospel, is also a Lamp for your feet and a Light for your path.  So does the Lord call you daily to repentance, unto faith and life in His forgiveness of all your sins.  And by His love for you, in and with His Word, He teaches you to love and serve your neighbor in His Name.

Even so, although you are given such a life to be lived in Christ — and even though the Law of the Lord is to be feared and obeyed as the revelation of His good and acceptable will — nevertheless, it remains the case that your righteousness is found, not in yourself or in your works, but in Christ Jesus, in His good works on your behalf, in the Atonement of His Cross and the righteousness of His Resurrection, all of which is credited to you and given to you by the Ministry of His Gospel.

That Gospel of Christ is not found inside of you, neither in your heart nor in your head.  It cannot be known intuitively, nor can it be obtained or held onto by any effort of your own.  It is a divine Mystery, above and beyond all human wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, or experience.

As such, the Gospel is always being given to you — by the Lord your God through the Ministry of His Word within His Church.  And it is received by faith alone, which is not your own work but is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word of Christ Jesus.  Consequently, you are always on the passive and receiving side of the Gospel, which comes to you from God in Christ.  From outside of you.  From outside of your heart, your head, and your hands, and quite apart from your feelings, your intellect, and all of your own works and efforts.

The Gospel comes to you, and it is given to you — freely, by the grace of God, for Jesus’ sake — by and with His Word of forgiveness: in this very preaching, here and now, and in the spoken Word of Holy Absolution.  It has come to you, once and forever, by and with the washing of the water with His Word in your Holy Baptism.  And even now, as you journey through the wilderness on your way to Paradise, as you live within the Church on earth in the hope and expectation of the Resurrection, the Gospel of Christ Jesus comes to you and feeds you by and with His holy Body and His precious Blood, which He gives to you again in the Liturgy this morning.

These means of grace are not the traditions of men or mere formalities, but the very gifts of God.  They come to you from Him, from outside of yourself, in order to give you life in Christ, in body and soul, here and now and hereafter forever.  It is in the hearing and receiving of the Gospel, in the remembrance of your Holy Baptism, and in the eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of Christ, that you are justified, forgiven, and reconciled to God through faith, unto life everlasting.

To be and to live as a Christian is not an exercise or achievement of your thoughts and feelings, your own opinions or convictions, your own determination or sincerity, or your own sacrifices and contributions.  It is certainly not a matter of merely being nice and polite.  All of these things may well be a fruit of faith in Christ and an exercise of love for God and your neighbor.  But only after the fact, as a consequence of the life that is given to you in Christ Jesus.  To be and to live as a Christian is to receive and trust the Gospel as it comes to you in preaching and the Sacraments.

It is in fact the Ministry of the Gospel of Christ that determines real Christianity and makes for real Christians, that is, disciples of Christ Jesus, who are the children of His God and Father, anointed by His Holy Spirit.  It is not at all a do-it-yourself, go-it-alone, independent-contractor enterprise or operation, but the gracious activity and blessed gift of God Himself, who comes to you by these ways and means in order to pull you out of your own heart and head and save you from yourself.

It is indeed true that, as a Christian, because you are given new life in Christ, you do live in faith and love toward God and in loving service toward your neighbors, all for the sake of Christ Jesus and to the glory of His holy Name.  But that Christian faith and life are the fruits and the produce of all that God has done and given and accomplished by the means of His Gospel.  It is only as Christ and His Spirit have thereby come from outside of you to live and abide within you, within your heart and mind, within your body and soul, that you now live and abide with God in Christ.

It is only insofar as you are living by faith in the Gospel — which is to say, by hearing and relying on His Word, by returning daily to the significance of your Holy Baptism through contrition and repentance, confession and Absolution, and by regularly receiving the Sacrament of the Altar — that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are brought forth in your body and life from a brand new heart that rests and resides in the Body of Christ Jesus, in His flesh and blood and His forgiveness of sins.

Despite the fact that you so often fail to live as a child of God, as a Christian disciple of Christ, He continues to come and do and give and accomplish what only He can do and give and accomplish.  By continuing to serve you with His Gospel–Word and Sacraments, He daily and richly forgives you all of your sins, and He thereby renews your faith and life in Him, unto the Resurrection of your body and the Life everlasting of your body and soul in His own crucified and risen Body.

That is the special beauty of the Gospel, namely, that it never does depend on you; it is nothing that you could ever do or accomplish for yourself.  The Gospel, which is the blessing of God and your Life and Salvation in Christ, does not come from inside of you, but only from outside of you.  So does it remain forever sure and certain in Christ Jesus, and it continues to do what He does for you, graciously and freely bestowing upon you all of His righteousness, His forgiveness of your sins, and His divine, eternal Life in body and soul, here in the Liturgy within His Church on earth, and hereafter when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead in His own righteousness.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.