28 July 2013

The Lord Jesus Teaches You to Pray

Prayer is possible, and it begins, because the Lord your God has chosen to communicate with you, and has thereby established a relationship with you, in which He invites you to call on His Name.  Everything depends upon the fact that He has called you to be His own, and He has named you His own dear child — in the circumcision made without hands, that is, your Holy Baptism into Christ.

As a newborn infant is held safely in the arms of his parents, sheltered in their home, protected by their constant attention, fed and clothed, washed, and cared for, so are you held, safe and secure, in your Father’s hand.  Before you have ever learned to know your need or how to ask for help, and while you are still so often oblivious to His providential care, He is meeting all your needs and preserving the life that He gives to you in body and soul.

But as you grow up, and live and learn in the household and family of God, He teaches you to pray: Not to play games with you, to toy with you or tease you, but to catechize you in the life of the family.  He would have you know and trust, more and more, what He is like, and to become more and more like Him in the way that you think and speak and act, in the way that you live.  He would have His sons grow up to be men after His own heart; and His daughters to become women like His Bride, the Church, the Mother of us all.

So He speaks to you and deals with you in love, and He bestows His Spirit upon you, by His grace, through the Ministry of the Gospel of His Son.  For it is in the Word and work of Christ Jesus, the promised Seed of Abraham, in His own Body of flesh and blood, that you behold the God and Father, and you learn to know Him, to love and trust in Him.

You have heard it, already, in the case of father Abraham.  When he was a stranger in a pagan land, the Lord God called him, and led him, and brought him to the land of promise.  He named him the father of many nations, when the man was yet old and childless.  And the Lord swore an oath to that old man, that He would be with him and bless him, and that all the nations would be saved through his Seed.  By the Covenant of Circumcision, the Lord God Almighty actually bound Himself to Abraham’s flesh, and sealed His promise in Abraham’s body, eventually to be fulfilled in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus.  By the Spirit of the Lord, Abraham believed the Word and promise of God, and by such faith he was accounted righteous.

All of this, the Lord has already accomplished in calling Abraham to Himself, when He chooses to reveal to Abraham His plans for Sodom and Gomorrah.  For He has made Abraham His own beloved child by faith, but He also invites the man into the intimacy of friendship, and He catechizes Abraham in what it means to be a father.  By Word and example, the Lord prepares the old man to become the patriarch of His people.

In short, the Lord leads Abraham to pray in the righteousness of faith, and in the justice of love and mercy.  In laying before him the intentions of His wrath against the wicked cities, He provides Abraham an opportunity to call upon His mercy, and thus to lay hold of Him according to the true heart of His almighty power, which is chiefly manifested in compassion.

Abraham does so with humility and reverence, in the fear of the Lord, to be sure; in repentance, he knows himself to be dust and ashes.  Yet, in the faith and knowledge of God’s forgiveness, trusting His Word and promises, and responding to the friendship God has shown him, Abraham prays and intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah with an almost brazen boldness and courageous confidence.  In the righteousness of faith, he appeals to the righteousness of God.  And with that, he demonstrates profound understanding, that God will not destroy the righteous with the wicked, but will, rather, spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous.

Like a little child asking his father for good things, always eager for more, in the certainty of Dad’s generosity, Abraham is not shy about asking — and even continuing to push for more.  Except that Abraham does not appeal for himself, nor only for his nephew Lot and his family, but he intercedes for the entire population of those evil cities; not that he condones or defends their wickedness — he does not — but that God would be patient, and preserve the righteous remnant, and spare the rest on account of the few righteous.

This is not simply how Abraham happens to pray, but this is how he believes in God, and exercises faith in the promises of God, and lives in the confidence and expectation of God’s faithfulness.  And with such prayer he will teach his children, likewise, to know and love the Lord their God, to worship Him in repentant faith, and to live in the sure and certain hope of His mercy and forgiveness.  It is specifically for the sake of such catechesis of his children and descendants that God here catechizes Abraham by opening Himself up to the man.

This is what fathers do for their children: they teach them how to pray, and thereby teach them to know God rightly, to love and trust in Him, and to live in love for other people, too.  Along with all the other things a father teaches and does for his children, nothing else is more fundamental and important than prayer.  A father prays for his children, and sets an example of prayer for them.  He prays also for himself, because he lives by faith in his own God and Father; and he intercedes for others, beyond the family, because he exercises love for the neighbor.  Children learn from all of this, even as they learn to ask for and receive good things from their Dad.

So Abraham did for his family, for his descendants.  And, humanly speaking, you might consider, then, where and how the Lord Jesus first learned to pray, and how to pray, when He was a little Boy.  Surely His parents taught Him, with their words and by their example: Joseph and Mary of Nazareth, who were faithful in their callings, as they also had learned from their own fathers and mothers.  They catechized and taught their Son from the Holy Scriptures, and so did Jesus learn to pray from the Word of God in their home, in the synagogue, and at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Now, then, in much the same way, the Lord Jesus teaches His own household and family to pray: As the Son of God, a Man after His Father’s heart, He is a faithful Husband and Father to His Church; not only protecting and providing for His people, but also teaching them to live by faith, to live in love, to call upon Him, and to call upon the Father in His Name, to pray and petition, to praise and give thanks.  So does He catechize you today.

He urges you to pray with all boldness and confidence.  That is the chief and central point to His two little parables.  You should not be shy or hesitant in going to the Lord in every circumstance, whatever the time of day or night.  You can count on Him to provide for your every need, so that you will lack for no good thing, for yourself, and for your family and friends.  And you may ask Him with the confidence of a child seeking help from his or her Dad; except that He is not a sinful man, but the gracious and merciful Lord, who is merciful to all who call upon Him.

Jesus not only urges you to pray — as elsewhere the Lord commands you to pray — but He also provides you with the very words by which to call upon the Father in His Name, and He promises that His Father will hear and answer your prayer.  He will not ignore you.  He will not deny your prayer, nor refuse to meet your need.  Neither will He give you evil things instead of good, but He will pour out His Life-giving Holy Spirit upon you, that you not perish but have everlasting life.

The Our Father is more than information or instruction.  With these Words, the Lord God does for you as He did for Abraham: He initiates and establishes a relationship with you, an intimacy of friendship and familial love.  He draws you into a fellowship of faith with Himself, and thereby also makes a place for you within the broad fellowship and family of His one holy Church.  He teaches you to pray, not in lonely isolation, not as a private individual, but within a community of brothers and sisters in Christ, with one God and Father in heaven.

To pray in this way is to be and to live as a disciple of Christ Jesus, a Christian.  It is to actively rely upon the Lord your God for all that you need, for body and soul, for this life and for the life everlasting.  It is to live by faith in His forgiveness, and therefore, also, to forgive those who sin against you.  It is to eat from the open hand of God, and to open your hand in love to feed and care for your neighbor, for your own children and family, and for your fellow Christians, and for the fellow who comes calling on you for help in the middle of the night.

As you pray, so do you believe, and so do you live.  Or, so you should.

Where do the confidence and courage come from?  Where are such faith and love to be found?  How shall you pray as you ought, and live and love in harmony with that prayer?

The answer is found, and is given to you, in the very One who teaches you to pray.  Your boldness and confidence rest upon His generous love and gracious mercy toward you.  Your faith resides in His faithfulness.  As a child of God in Christ, you learn to rely upon your Father through His constant care for you, and through His compassion upon you in all trial, fear, and need.

Jesus teaches all of this, in teaching you to pray.  But that is not all that He does.  For one thing, He exemplifies the life of prayer in His own practice.  Especially in the Gospel of St. Luke, the Lord Jesus is frequently found in prayer; because He lives in perfect faith and perfect love, and so He persists in perfect prayer.  That belongs, first of all, to His life as the true and perfect Man.  And then it also belongs to His merciful and great High Priesthood as your Savior.  It is still the case that He actively prays and intercedes for you, now and forever, at the Right Hand of the Father.

The Lord Jesus Christ, by His Cross and Passion, and in His Resurrection and Ascension, is not only the One who prays for you, but He Himself is your Voice of Prayer to the God and Father in heaven.  As He is the Word of God to you, made flesh and dwelling with you bodily in the Gospel, so is He also the divine Word that avails for you and speaks to the Father on your behalf.  And He is also, already, the Father’s resounding “Yes” and “Amen” to all of your prayers, and to all of your needs.  It is in Him, by His Ministry of the Gospel, that the Father gives to you the Holy Spirit.

For the sake of this one Righteous Man, Christ Jesus, the Lord God Almighty forgives you all your sins.  He does not punish or destroy you, nor count your transgressions against you, nor withhold any good thing from you because of your sin.  On the contrary, He rescues you from every evil of body and soul, and saves you from sin and death, and reconciles you to Himself in Christ Jesus.

With His forgiveness of all your sins, He also feeds you with the Bread that you need: Bread for each day, yes, to nourish and support this body and life on earth.  But also the Bread of eternal life, the Bread which does not perish but preserves you in the imperishable Body of Christ.  Hence the very natural connection that Christians have always made between the Fourth Petition (for bread) and the forgiveness of sins and the fellowship of the Lord’s Altar, of His Body and His Blood.

It is in the eating and drinking of these Holy Things, this Bread and this Cup, which are given and poured out for you and for the many, that you are firmly bound to Christ, your Head, and that all of you are knit together as one Body in Him.  Forgiven and forgiving, you eat and drink together with the Lord, and with each other in Him, unto faith and life forever.

Beloved in the Lord, as He so teaches you to live by faith in Him, and in fervent love for family, friends, and neighbors, so, then, pray for one another.  Pray that God’s Kingdom would come to all of us, and to all the world.  And pray that He would take not His Holy Spirit from His Church on earth, but continue to pour out the Spirit generously upon us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The One who teaches you to pray is faithful, and He will do it.  Not because of your resolve or perseverance, but for the sake of His own righteousness.  For Christ has come, and He remains with you in peace and love.  He has taken His stand with you, and as He has died for you and risen from the dead, He ever lives to make intercession for you.  His prayer for you is signed and sealed with His holy and precious Blood, by His Cross and Passion, and in His Holy Communion.  And His own Resurrection and Ascension are indeed the answer that your dear Father gives to you: Amen, Amen, it shall be so.

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

25 July 2013

Sharing the Glory of Christ the Crucified

Our dear Lord Jesus Christ has come to serve you (and all people) by giving His life as a Ransom for the many, and by sharing His life with you by the ways and the means of His Cross.  What is more, this self-sacrificing love and humble service of Jesus, the Christ, even unto death upon the Cross, is the true greatness of His divine glory.  For He chooses, in His grace and mercy, for the sake of His divine and holy love, to give Himself for you, to forgive you all your sins, and to give you life and salvation with Himself forever.

In turn, for you to receive all of this great divine service of His — by His grace alone, through faith in His Word — that is your true greatness and your glory as a Christian disciple of Christ Jesus; which is, for now, paradoxically hidden under the Cross and suffering in this poor life of labor.

To be sure, none of this makes any sense to the world, which measures everything by its standards of power and might, of popularity, position, and prestige, and by the criteria of wealth and fame.  The world, therefore, simply cannot understand this Lord Jesus and His glory: It does not think as He thinks, nor does it perceive or know what is the divine truth of the matter.  And, that is likewise your predicament, as well; for your thoughts are not His thoughts, nor are your ways His ways.

Ask yourself: What is it that you want from Jesus?  What do you want Him to do for you?  What sort of Savior are you looking for?  One who forgives your sins and gives you life, by and with the Cross?  Or one who makes your life on earth happier, easier, and more carefree and comfortable?

In your heart of hearts, what is it that you’re really after?  And what do you presume to deserve?

If you are not bold enough to ask for it straight up, then think about how jealous and resentful you become of  your neighbor and of the gifts that he or she has received (but which you have not).

How often are you driven by pride, by selfishness and greed, by envy and jealousy, by covetous lust for what you have not been given (though such coveting is really nothing less than idolatry)?

How quickly do you put yourself forward and reach out your hand to take this or that for yourself?  Or do you, instead, harbor bitterness against those others, those neighbors of yours who do take that sort of initiative, for fear that someone else is getting something that you’re missing out on?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, it should not be so among you.  Such desires and such impulses in you, are not the fruits of faith and love, but of sin.  Indeed, they are destructive of faith and love.

Do not suppose yourself to be cheated or ill-treated, and do not listen to the lies of the devil, who would have you despair of God’s love and favor toward you.  Nor regard God’s love so lightly.  For His great heart of Love is fully opened to you in the Cross of Christ, the incarnate Son.  That is where you find and know the greatness and glory of God, which He shares with you by grace.

Consider, then, the example of St. James, the son of Zebedee, even though you do not find him at his best in this particular Holy Gospel: From a human point of view, you can surely understand his (and his brother’s) request.  Depending on your own personality and sinful tendencies, you may be tempted either to sympathize with him, or to be indignant toward him (like the other disciples).

But, for all his faults and flaws and weaknesses, and even in the face of his martyrdom — indeed, precisely there, in his suffering and death for the sake of the Gospel — St. James has been glorified by and with His Crucified and Risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

He was cut down in the prime of life, not only the first of the Twelve to be martyred, but the only one of the Apostles to be martyred within the record of the New Testament; yet, this was his glory, and part of his own particular calling as an Apostle, that is, to serve in the Name of Christ Jesus, and finally to suffer and die for Him Who died for us all and was raised again for our justification.

Not every Christian is called to such a martyrdom; it belongs only to those for whom it has been prepared.  Take comfort in this, that not one of His dear children suffers and dies, nor even a single hair falls to the ground, without your Father’s knowledge, perfect wisdom, and gracious care.

Whether you will finally be put to the sword, or crucified, or burned at the stake, or shot to death for the Name of Christ that you bear — or if you live a hundred years on earth before you depart — you are given the vocation of discipleship, that is, to carry the Cross of Christ in your own place and position (whether you be great or small in the eyes of the world, or in your own eyes).

Whatever your stats may be, your real greatness and true glory are not to be found in yourself, in what you acquire, accomplish, or achieve in this world.  No, your greatness and your glory are Christ Jesus, the Crucified One, who gives Himself to you in love, by His grace alone.  It is in Him, therefore, by faith in His Word, by the wisdom and the working of His Holy Spirit, that you walk in the way that is set before you; whether for life or death, come hell or high water against you.

If you are not called to the martyrdom of bodily suffering and death for the Name of Jesus Christ, be sure of this, that you are in fact called to the daily martyrdom of repentance — whereby you are returned to your Holy Baptism into the one Lord, Jesus Christ: into His Cross and Resurrection.

It is by your Baptism that you are His, and that you live with Him in His Kingdom; even now by grace through faith in Him, and hereafter in the resurrection of your body to the life everlasting.

Likewise, in the new and better Passover of the Holy Communion, you are given to eat the Body of Christ Jesus, which He sacrificed for you upon the Cross; and you do drink His Cup:

For Him, it was the Cup of God’s wrath, the bearing of God’s holy anger and righteous judgment against the sins of the whole world, and the suffering of the due punishment for all of your sins.

But, as He has drained that Cup to the dregs in His Passion, He has filled it for you with His holy and precious Blood; which He now pours out for you (and for the many), for the forgiveness of all your sins, and for life and salvation with Him in the glory of His Kingdom forever and ever.

It is the administration of this Divine Service, the Ministry of the Gospel-Word and Sacraments, that St. James was privileged to serve in the Name and stead of Christ Jesus for a little while — until his faithful service was filled up and completed in the witness of his death and bloodshed.

The same Divine Service of the same Lord Jesus Christ still continues: as it did back then, by and for the Twelve Apostles, so also here and now for you.  Because the Son of Man, who lived and died and rose again, continues to come, not to be served but to serve, to give Himself, to give life, for you and for the many.  To Him be all the glory, honor and praise, both now and forevermore.

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

21 July 2013

Love the Lord Your God by Listening to Jesus

It should be clear that Martha is not sinning by welcoming Jesus into her home and preparing a meal for Him.  Indeed, it is a good and godly thing to do, and a loving way to serve Him, who is not only her Lord but also her neighbor (and, as we know from St. John, her friend).  She is not sinning in her careful efforts and hard work, nor in her desire that everything be done well.  In contrast to Simon the Pharisee, earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel, Martha is eager to provide suitable and appropriate hospitality for her honored Guest.

And Jesus does not despise her efforts, nor reject her hospitality.  He receives these gifts, as He has instructed His sent ones to receive and be content with the hospitality that is provided for them in the homes of peace to which they come.  Our Lord, in human flesh, needs food and drink and so forth, and here He benefits from Martha’s service.  As any host or hostess knows, someone has to do the work, or there won’t be anything for anyone to eat or drink: It don’t prepare itself!

But Martha does sin against her sister, and she misses the mark with her Lord, as well, by the division and distraction of her heart and mind.  She is driven, not only by faith and love, but by anxiety and trouble; and, along with that, instead of being driven to find her peace and rest in Christ Jesus, she is drawn away from Him and His Word to her own work and worry.  In striving to serve Him, and to please Him, she neglects His service and the very point and purpose of His visitation.  Not only that, but in her efforts to serve the Lord, she fails to love her sister.

How often isn’t that the case for you, as well?  That you strive to serve the Church, which is good and right in itself, but that you do so at the expense of your family?  Or, that you go the extra mile for a friend or neighbor in need, which, again, is a good and godly thing to do, but that you fail to show consideration, gentleness, kindness, or patience with your own spouse, with your children, or with your siblings?

It’s not that you should neglect to serve the Church and your neighbors with your time, treasures, and talents.  Indeed, you should do so!  But so also serve your closest neighbors, that is, your own family, who in most cases are also members of the household and family of God.

Well, then, you might say, what about Mary in this case at hand?  Wasn’t she neglecting to love and serve her sister Martha, by not helping her with the meal preparations?  Could not her two hands have lightened the load and quickened the whole process?  Perhaps, and probably so.

And yet, Jesus responds quite differently to Martha’s complaint and request.  It’s actually rather frustrating, I suspect, especially to those who are often the ones slaving away behind the scenes, before, during, and after the party, while others are taking their ease and enjoying themselves.  Truth be told, our Lord is not very practical or realistic in what He says to Martha; leastwise not by any worldly human standard of common sense.  But don’t take that the wrong way:
Our Lord Jesus is not rude, nor mean, nor inconsiderate.  He certainly does care about Martha, and He speaks to her with gentle compassion.  It is in His love for her that He corrects her mistaken perspective and her wrong way of thinking.  He calls her to repent of her sin, and He catechizes her in the One Thing truly needful, in the Good Portion that will not be taken away.

He does not enter into any arbitration of whatever sibling rivalry or suspicion there may have been going on between Mary and Martha.  If you are a parent or a sibling, you can easily imagine that being a factor at work.  These sisters certainly had different personalities, and it is likely that Martha was the older of the two.  Since their parents are not mentioned, perhaps it had fallen to Martha to bear the load of responsibility for her sister and their household.  It may be that their brother Lazarus had already taken ill or was otherwise unable to care for them.

All sorts of possibilities, but, whatever the particulars of the situation, Jesus does not address any of that.  He seems to ignore altogether the logistical necessities, and He pays no attention to family politics.  Instead, He points Martha to Mary’s good example, and, in doing so, He points both of them, and you, as well, to Himself, to His Word, and to His Divine Service.

It is noteworthy and significant that Mary says nothing at all; and she does nothing, either, except to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him.  In this, she honors Him and worship Him most devoutly.

If Martha has far-and-away outdone Simon the Pharisee in her gracious hospitality for the Lord Jesus, her sister Mary has outdone even that blessed sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Simon’s home.  It is interesting to note that this same Mary of Bethany, Martha’s sister, will likewise anoint the Lord’s feet and dry them with her hair, when, again, her sister Martha serves a supper for Him on the cusp of His Passion.  But here, today, Mary is sitting at His feet, not to serve Him with any work of hers, but to love Him above all things by listening to His Word.

Such listening to the Word of Christ is still the first and foremost activity of faithful Christian worship in Spirit and in Truth.  To be sure, you are to be a doer of the Word, and not a hearer only; but all of your obedience and faithful doing begin with, and depend upon, your hearing of His Word; even as your hearing itself depends upon the preaching of Christ Jesus.  It is for such preaching that He comes, and you worship Him by listening to Him.

Your pastors preach and teach the Word and administer the Sacraments, as their vocation and service, just as you perform the duties of your own callings and stations in life.  All of this is good and right and as it should be: it is the fruit of faith and the work of love, in the place where God Himself has positioned each of us.  But the foremost worship of the Lord your God is not in your serving, but in your receiving of His Service: in your listening and learning, and in your eating and drinking of what He gives to you here within His House.  All of your serving, and your pastors’ serving, too, depends upon the Lord’s speaking and giving: None of us have anything to say or do, expect what He has spoken by His grace.  None of us have anything to offer, except what He provides and we receive from Him, according to His mercy.

So, first things first, Mary has it right.

Again, it’s not a matter of neglecting duties and responsibilities.  There is work to be done, and someone has to prepare the meal, serve it, and clean up afterwards.  Many hands do make for light work, and you should not leave your neighbor to do everything for you.  But all of this is for nothing, apart from the Word and work of Christ Jesus for you.

It is like the Feeding of the Five Thousand, as you might consider, when those great crowds of people listened to the Lord Jesus as He preached and taught them throughout the day.  And then, as evening approached, and the disciples were worried and anxious about how all those people were going to eat, because there was no food but a few loaves and fishes — well, you know that Jesus fed them all with more than enough.  Before that, He Himself had feasted on the Word of God His Father, throughout His forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, following His Holy Baptism; there He fasted with His Body and waited on His Father to provide all that He needed.

So, too, at that first Emmaus, Jesus “fed” the two disciples with His Word along the way; and then, when they invited Him to be their guest, He became their Host in His Breaking of the Bread.  For He is the One who feeds both soul and body by His grace.  Therefore, seek first His Kingdom and His Righteousness — by listening to Him, by hearing His Word and the preaching of it, and by eating and drinking the Meal He serves you — and all things shall be added unto you in Him.

I don’t mean that you should be lazy, nor that you should quit your job and leave your family in order to spend all your time at church.  Do the work that God has given you to do, and serve the neighbors He has placed around you and before you on your path of life.  But set your ears, your heart and mind upon His Word, which is the One Thing on which everything else depends.  Find your peace and Sabbath rest in Him, and so find life and health and strength for now and forever.  Then you’ll also serve Him with the worship of your body and your soul, with your confession of His Name, and with your prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.  And in Him, you’ll learn to love your neighbor as yourself, and to serve your neighbor, as the Lord Jesus serves you with His Gospel.

Not by your own reason or strength: None of this is, not even your listening and hearing.  Jesus comes to you and enters in.  He makes His visitation, and He preaches.  He sends His messengers before His face.  His Word opens your ears, your mind and heart, and finally your mouth, as well.

It was the same for Mary, as it was also for Abraham and Sarah.  Each of them was just as flawed, distracted, worried, and troubled as you are, and as Martha was.  Incredulous, fatigued, cynical, or jaded.  Sarah laughed in disbelief at the Word and promise of the Lord; yet, His Word was fulfilled for her nonetheless.  Her skepticism became faith, and her sarcastic snort became the laughter of genuine joy and gladness in her son.

Abraham also served the Lord with hospitality, as Martha does in her day.  He did so as one who had found favor in the Lord by faith in His Word; for Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.  His faith depended on God’s faithfulness.  He rested in God’s Word and promise.  And despite father Abraham’s doubts and fears and sins and failings, he was sustained and saved by the Lord his God.  So, too, with Mary of Bethany, and with her sister Martha, also.

The Word and promise of Christ the Lord are also here spoken to you.  These are not empty and meaningless chatter, nor simply a lesson in history and morality.  By this Ministry of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit lays Christ upon your heart, and you are reconciled to God the Father through this beloved Son.  His Word calls you to repentance, and brings you to faith and life in Christ Jesus, by and with His forgiveness of all your sins.

He is gentle in His rebuke, and He is generous in His Divine Service.  For He does care deeply about you, and for you, and His whole purpose in coming to you, here and now, is not to put you to work for Him, but to give you peace with God and perfect rest from all your heavy burdens.

The One Thing that you need is here provided for you, freely, by the grace of God, in this Word of the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  Here is your hope of Glory, which shall not disappoint you: For Christ is actively present in His Word, and He thereby gives Himself to you, with all His gifts and benefits.  You honor Him and worship Him by hearing and receiving Him, who is your gracious Host; and, not only your Host, but He is the Butler and the Cook, the Waiter, and the Meal.

Already He has cleaned up after you, and He has prepared a permanent place for you at His Table in His House, in the City of God forever and ever.  Recline here at His feet, and set your heart and mind at ease in Him who serves you.  Feast upon this Main Course, this Good Portion, this Meat and Drink of Christ, the Lord.  It will not be taken away from you; nor shall you ever perish.

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

14 July 2013

The One Who Shows Mercy Is Your Neighbor

Eternal Life is not a destination, but a journey.  It is not something to accomplish or achieve, but a gift that is given by God, received by His grace, and lived by faith in His Word.  It is not a place to arrive at, but a path to follow, as the Lord lays it before you and provides all that is required.

If the prospect of such an ongoing, neverending journey seems daunting or exhausting to you, then you, like the lawyer who put Jesus to the test, are thinking of eternal life in the wrong way and approaching it in sin instead of faith.

That’s the fatal flaw in your desire and all of your attempts to justify yourself.  Not only can you not do it, but you’ll wear yourself out and kill yourself trying.  You cannot give yourself life; nor can you make life for yourself, nor keep it forever by any power, reason, wisdom, or strength of your own.  You did not decide to be conceived and born, and you would not have survived beyond your birth without others to feed and clothe and care for you.  It never ceases to be the case that your daily bread, and all that you need for this body and life, is provided by the Holy Triune God.  Every breath, and every bite, is from His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy.

That much is true, even for temporal life in this fallen and perishing world, in which the Lord still causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the evil and the good.  He gives seed to the sower, and bread to the eater, by His grace, whether with or without man’s petition and praise.  But He has taught you to pray, to look to Him, as a child to your dear Father, that you would realize and rely upon His grace and goodness toward you, and so live by faith in Him, and learn to love Him above all other gods.  It is not a matter of somehow getting life for yourself, but of learning to live the life that He is giving you.

So much more is it the case, that eternal life derives entirely and only from the Holy Triune God.  For He alone is the Author and Giver of Life, because He alone is the Living God, who not only has but is Life in Himself.  There is no eternal Life at all, except that of the Lord: the divine Life of the true and only God.  All attempts to manufacture or manipulate that Life for yourself are nothing else but futile forms of self-idolatry.  Your efforts to justify and save yourself, therefore, are not only selfish, but utterly sinful and self-defeating.

If you would have eternal life, and live it, then let God be God, and learn to know and love Him above all else with every part and aspect of yourself: with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Whatever part of you is not fully invested in Him, and found in Him, will not live forever, but will perish.  For you cannot live a life that you don’t have, and you have no life at all — not really, not now nor ever — except from God.

The good news is that He freely and richly gives you His own Life by grace, by His Word and Spirit, in and with and through the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  So, the question at hand, or, at least, the question Jesus actually answers, is not of how you get life or come to have it, but of how you now live it.  He does not give you directions to some far off, distant destination, but He defines and describes the journey, that is, the path of life, which is lived by faith in the grace of God.

To live the divine, eternal Life, which is from God, is to live with God and for God, and to live as God lives: It is to love Him as the Living and Life-giving One, and to love your neighbor, as the Lord your God loves both you and your neighbor, with divine grace.

To ask about limits, parameters, or boundaries on such love, is already to be off track and on a different path.  It is already to have turned your heart and mind away from God to yourself, and at the same time, in the same way and to the same extent, to withhold yourself from your neighbor: to love yourself instead of your neighbor.  It is to see him, and then to look away from him, to pass him by on the other side of the road, and to carry on with “your own life” and your own pursuits.

That’s what happens when you perceive eternal life as a destination you’re trying to reach, rather than a journey you’re already on by God’s grace.  Then everything has to be calculated, measured, weighed, and evaluated, as to whether it will help or hinder your progress, and whether or not you can “afford” the time, energy, or money it takes.

How, then, do you look at your neighbor and think about him and his need?  Is he a distraction, a nuisance, or a burden?  Or perhaps a means to some end?  A rung on the ladder, or a stepping stone, by which you will earn brownie points and justify yourself?  Or is he an object of mercy and compassion?  Do you perceive that your neighbor’s pain, his hurt, his poverty and hunger, are a blessed Cross for you to bear, which belongs to your living the divine, eternal life along the way?

The trouble is, that you’ve already set your goals and made your plans, right?  You’ve plotted out your day, scheduled your week, and figured out the month with its bills and appointments, its obligations and its fun times.  You’ve got your “New Year’s resolutions,” which, by now, you’ve forgotten, given up, reaffirmed, or revised.  But, the point is, you’re mapping out your path: both your short-term and long-term goals, your five-year plan, your bucket list.  And, you’ve set your sight on some destination.  So, you get up, and you set off down the road to make your way.

Except that, not even your own life is in your own hands, much less the whole wide world and all your neighbors in it.  “As God so wills,” you’ll do this or that, as St. James teaches you to think and say and pray.  Deo volente.  What, then, do you actually encounter on the way?

The bandits and robbers who beset you are numerous and varied.  They are legion, we might say.  Not only coming at you from all around, but also within, as your own addictions, bad habits, frailties, fears, and weaknesses trip you up and bring you down.

Or else, maybe you’re not attacked or hindered like that, but you happen upon someone else who has been.  Then what?  What do you do, or not do?  And what of the consequences, either way?  What will it mean for you, for your plans, for your life and your destination, if you stop and stay and stick around to help?  Or if you keep on going?

Over the centuries, all kinds of explanations and excuses have been offered, as to why the priest and Levite chose not to help the man who fell into the robbers’ hands.  But, make no mistake, they should have helped him.  What the Samaritan then did, with compassion for the man, was the good and right thing to do; the godly thing to do.  It wasn’t too much.  It wasn’t over the top, above and beyond the call of duty.  It was what duty called for.  It was to live the divine, eternal life, as it was laid out before him.  And so should you “go and do the same,” as you are met with the needs of others.

But in this way, you are set upon, as much by the burden and the cross of your neighbor and his needs, as you are by the burden and the cross of your own sin and death.  In helping your neighbor, your time, energy, and resources are spent and used up, as surely as the robbers would have taken them from you.  Or, if you decide not to help, your conscience besets you with guilt and shame for having turned away from your neighbor.  Then you are attacked and accused, not only by the devil and the world, but by the Law of God: For you are to love and serve Him, who is your Lord, with all that you are and have; and, because of who He is, because He is the Lord, you are to love and serve your neighbor in the same way that you cherish and care for yourself.

So, then, think of what that means: When you are the man who has fallen among robbers, and you’ve been stripped and beaten, and you are left behind, dying in the ditch by the side of the road, you do whatever you can, whatever is in your power, to save yourself.  So, too, for your neighbor, whether he be friend or foe, or a total stranger: You are to do whatever you can to save him.

And when you are finally forced to realize that you can’t: that you can't save your neighbor or yourself; that the need is too great, the hurt is too big, the situation too desperate and beyond your ability to rectify, then you must die altogether: die to yourself, to your sin, to your strength, to everything.

You cannot justify yourself.  Your inability is no excuse, but confirmation of the fact.  You cannot do anything to capture life and keep it for yourself.  You are half dead already, and the only reason — the only reason — that you are not all the way dead, is that God has given and preserved your life thus far.  There is no “destination” of your own devising, but only the path on which the Lord has put you, and the point to which He has brought you.  Each moment is your “Ebenezer,” in which you are given to live or die; not by your own reason or strength, but by the grace of God.

Stop thinking of your neighbor as a nuisance and a bother.  He is not an interruption on your way to finding life, but caring for his need is exactly the life that God has given you to live right now.  “Justify God,” therefore, by acknowledging His Wisdom and His Righteousness; and so receive eternal Life from His hand, and learn from Him how to live it.

From the beginning, Christians have recognized Christ Jesus in the Good Samaritan, and that is most certainly true.  For here is the New Man who has come down from heaven from God, the almighty and eternal Son of the Father, conceived and born of His Virgin Mother.  Here is the Love of God, Who is the Life and Light of all men.  He has seen you, in love, from before the foundation of the world, and has been moved in the depths of His being by compassion for you, to come and help you, to act heroically on your behalf, and to save you from sin, death, and hell.

He is the Man who has lived the divine, eternal Life in the flesh, for you and for all people, while one and all of you were still at enmity with Him.  He has given Himself for you, and poured Himself out in order to fill you up with His own Life and health and strength and every good thing.  In order to do so, He has taken your place under the Cross, under your burden of sin and death.  He has borne your grief and carried your sorrows.  He has been wounded by and with and for your transgressions, so that, by His stripes and scars, you are healed and made whole.

He comes, not only as the Good Samaritan, but to become the beaten, bruised, and bloodied Man, who has suffered the fullness of death at the hands of sinners.  For He has thus borne your sins in His own Body, even as He now bears you up in His arms, upon His back, and across His shoulders, in order to bring you home rejoicing to His God and Father in heaven.

The Lord is your divine, eternal “destination,” who has come to be with you, to abide with you in your misery and hurt, and so also to journey with you on the path of life laid out before you.

He has brought you here, to this Inn, where He cares for you and provides for all your needs; where He raises you from the dead and strengthens you in body and soul, unto the life everlasting.  He spares no expense in serving you.  Not with silver and gold, but with His holy and precious blood He has redeemed you, ransomed and won you for life with Himself in His Kingdom; and even now to minister the balm of His Gospel, in order to cleanse and heal you.

By all these ways and means, the Lord your God, your Savior Jesus Christ, has befriended you and has become your Neighbor.  That is the answer to the lawyer’s question, though he knew not what he was asking: “Who, then, is your neighbor?”  Jesus is: the One who has shown mercy to you.

As God has thus become your Neighbor in Christ Jesus, so are you now able to love God by loving your neighbor: Because God loves you with all His heart, soul, mind and strength; the Lord your God loves you, and He has rescued you and set you free; He has become true Man, and has bound Himself to your neighbor and his need, as also to you and yours.  It is one Lord Jesus Christ who has become all in all, who is at hand in your neighbor to help you in your hurt, and so also in your neighbor who needs help, so that you now love and serve the Lord in him.

Everything is provided for you.  The Lord Jesus has it covered.  Nothing is lacking for the journey.  Nothing can hurt you anymore forever; nor can anyone rob you of the life that is given to you freely by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.

See, here are the two denarii that He has placed into my hands, to care for you as your pastor: His Body given, and His Blood poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.  Where there is forgiveness of sins, there also is eternal life for you.  Whatever may yet seem to be lacking, He will fully restore and openly reveal when He returns in Glory at the last.  He is the Lord, and He is faithful: He will do it.

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

06 July 2013

This Great Mystery Is of Christ

Lots of questions in the air and on the news these days, concerning marriage, what it is, what it means, and what it’s for.  So, what is it all about?  What is the reason for which God gives this woman to this man?  For, make no mistake, it is the Lord who has created Anna and brought her to this point, who now gives her to Ben.  But, why, and what for?  Why does this son now become a husband?  For what reason and what purpose does this daughter become a wife?

If you polled the room, and if you got the honest answers from each person’s own heart and mind, you’d span the entire gamut with a tangled mess of mixed feelings, conflicted emotions, and competing opinions.  Everything from fairy tale romance and schmalzy nostalgia, to bitterness, resentment, and cynical despair.  As they say, “it’s complicated,” and all so confusing.

Except that none of that chaos defines or determines what marriage really is.  You need a better GPS than that to know where you’re going and how to get there.  And I don’t just mean for these two young people who are getting married, but for each and all of you, whether you are already married, were married, want to get married, or would live a chaste and celibate life, unmarried.

It is not good for the man to be alone; but God is good, and He is with you with His grace and goodness in whatever place He has called you to be.  Not least of all in this good gift of marriage, of the woman for the man, the man for his wife: So, too, with Anna for Ben, and Ben for Anna.

Marriage is not merely a legal formality, nor simply a human custom and tradition.  It is not a man-made thing.  The rites and ceremonies of holy matrimony are, in fact, the Word and work of God, which actually make this man and woman to be, henceforth, husband and wife.  Here the Lord Himself joins them together as one, and sanctifies them, by His Word and Holy Spirit.

He does this in His love, and for their good, for their mutual joy and blessing, to the glory of His holy Name.  The marriage rite has already declared, on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, the several purposes of this blessed estate, which collectively belong to the Image and Likeness of God in the union of the man and his wife: To be comrades, first of all, that is, partners in life, friends together on a common road.  And then, in that companionship, not only to be alongside each other on the same journey, but also to be face to face and heart to heart, united in the intimacy of spirit, soul, and body, to find comfort, compassion, and passion uniquely in one another.  Out of which, as the Lord so wills and graciously provides, their love for each other bears fruit after its own kind and is multiplied in the bearing of children, and in caring for them as the dear Lord cares for us all.

Sounds pretty sweet, doesn’t it?  And, truly, it is.  But we are not naive, nor ignorant of the hurts and fears, the burdens, challenges, and difficulties of marriage in this fallen world.  This ain’t no Disney princess movie, Cinderella!  Adam & Eve didn’t go riding off into the sunset, but were driven out of Paradise on account of their sin.  The curse lay heavy upon them, and upon their children’s children to the present generation.  The marriage rite, therefore, realistically expresses, not only the godly purposes of marriage, but also its inevitable termination: “Til death parts us,” that is the limit of what you can promise to each other.  Ben, you and your family have already known that, painfully.  Fathers and mothers do not always live to see their children get married and have families of their own.  To paraphrase the Prophet:  The food spoils, and the wine runs out.

Even before death comes, mortal life in this perishing world is always dying; and that means more than sickness and infirmity.  Even the best of human efforts will still fail, fall short, and fall apart.  Some marriages do not end with death, but in divorce.  Other marriages persist, but are unhappy.  You already know this, I’m sure.  It’s no surprise, really, that so many are so jaded about marriage.

No, we’re not naive, nor ignorant.  But, of course, you know that I’m not saying all of this out loud to discourage you or put a damper on this day.  On the contrary, we stand here today, before God and the whole world, to rejoice and give thanks for the goodness of marriage, and to face down sin, death, the devil, and hell with the Word and promises of the Lord.  For while it is true that all the sons and daughters of Adam die, it is also true that Christ has died, and He has risen from the dead.

So, then, approach and address the hardships that you’ll face, and every aspect of your marriage, with all its ups and downs and highs and lows, with all its joys and sorrows, with the Word of the Gospel of Christ, and by faith in that Holy Gospel.  That means listening, to start with, to His Word and the preaching of it; and, then, as you have heard, so also speak and sing, pray and confess the Word of Christ, to and for and with each other.  And, whatever He says to you, do it.

Ben, love Anna, even when she’s not so lovely and loveable as she is today.  Make her beautiful with your loving devotion to her, and with your faithful delight in her.  Forgive her sins, overlook her faults, and bear with her in love, as you bear her burdens in patience and peace.  Set aside your own desires, in order to comfort and take care of her.  When Satan would beguile her with his sly temptations and his brutal accusations, take up the Sword of the Spirit to defend and protect her.  Do not stand by silently while she is slain, but breathe Life into her by the Word of the Gospel.

Anna, entrust yourself to Ben, and learn to follow his lead and rely upon him.  I don’t mean that you should not think for yourself or speak your own mind, but let Ben be your husband and your head, as Christ is the Head of His Church.  When the devil would show you his weaknesses, his faults and failings, remember that Ben is clothed and covered with the majesty of Christ’s Word.  He is the one man to whom the Lord Himself now gives you, to protect you and provide for you.

No Christian would deny that Christ, the Son of God, has become true Man, and that He has died for us, to forgive our sins, and has risen again for our justification.  You know and believe, and you confess, that He is your Savior, who saves you by His grace alone, through faith in His Gospel.

But the question is, what does any of that have to do with your marriage?  How does it help?  What is there between the two of you and Christ Jesus?  I mean, aside from the fact that both of you are Christians, baptized into the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ: That’s already been the case for many years now, but what difference is that going to make in your life together as husband and wife?  What does your marriage and its daily wants and needs have to do with Him?

It is a great Mystery, as St. Paul has said, but from the beginning — from before the foundation of the world; from before either one of you were even a twinkle in your Daddy’s eyes or a baby in your Mother’s womb — it has been about Christ and His Bride, the Church.  Not only marriage in general, but your marriage, in particular, as it begins today, and as you move forward in faith.

Christ is not simply a guest, with His disciples, at this wedding, but at the heart of the matter, He is the Bridegroom.  It if for His sake that each and every one of you are here; not only that you are in attendance, but that you exist and are alive to this day.  It is for the sake of Christ that Anna and Ben have been created, and for His sake that they are bound together as one flesh by His Word.

Behind the father of the bride stands the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who brings the Woman to the Man and gives her to him.  Behind the Groom stands Christ Jesus Himself.  And behind Anna stands the Holy Christian Church.  That is the reality at work behind the scenes.  Not as a metaphor or a mere analogy.  It’s not that Christ and His Church are like a husband and wife, but that marriage has been made by God to be like Him, to live and to abide by faith in His Love.

Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, begotten of the Father from eternity, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary in time, is the Image and Likeness of God in Man.  In His own Person, forevermore, is the perfect Union — the perfect “Wedding,” if you will — of the one true God and true Man: without any confusion, but also without any division or separation.  And so it is in Him that the whole Christian Church in heaven and on earth is called and gathered together, and united or “married” to God, by the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel.

This Lord Jesus Christ, this Bridegroom from heaven, has come to you in His Incarnation, that is, in His becoming flesh, and in His Resurrection from the dead, and in His Ministry of the Gospel.  He seeks you out and calls you to Himself; He woos you, as the perfect Lover that He is, by His Word and Spirit of forgiveness.  In His great Love, He delights in you.  He joins you to Himself, and He to you, in body and soul: In your Holy Baptism, He has grafted you into Himself, into His riven side, from which the blood and water of His Passion have been poured out for you; and in the Holy Communion, the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end, He feeds you with Himself, putting His own Body and His Blood into your mortal body, to raise you up by the power of His Resurrection, and to abide in you with His own indestructible Life.  As He thus gives you Himself and His Life, He is fruitful in you, and He brings forth good fruits of life and love for others.  For the Tree of His Cross surely bears such fruits after its own kind.

This is what the Lord Jesus does for His whole Church, and for each and all of her members; and this is what He does for you, dear Anna and Ben, within the Communion of His Church on earth.  Do not doubt that, by these ways and means of His grace, within the sacred fellowship of His own Holy Bride, He bestows these very gifts and benefits upon your marriage in His Name.

“Take time to learn your marriage benefits.”  That’s what the front page of the business section of today’s South Bend Tribune advises.  The paper is talking about money, but I’m talking about a richer and more lasting treasure than that.  The goodness and benefits of your marriage, above all else, are those of the Gospel.  Which means that your marriage points beyond itself to that which is divine and eternal; to that which is freely given to all who are wed to Christ Jesus by His Word and faith: to your family and friends who are not married, and who may never be; to those whose marriages are difficult and disappointing; and to those whose marriages have ended altogether.

“The food spoils, and the wine runs out.”  But Christ and His Word of the Gospel abide forever, and He gives life, even in the midst of sin and death, under the weight and promise of His Cross.

Your “happily-ever-after” isn’t in your marriage to each other, but in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, for whom the Father has fashioned you, and to whom He has brought you and given you by His gracious Word and Holy Spirit.  That is the very thing which gives joy and gladness, and grace and every blessing to your marriage, “happily-right-now,” and even til death parts you from this life.

This Gospel of Christ Jesus is the confidence in which you begin your life together, and in which you live in the New Creation: “Naked and not ashamed,” with each other, like the first man Adam and his wife Eve, and like the New Man with His Bride.  Not only on your honeymoon and in your marriage bed, which is to be kept undefiled; but in bearing each other’s burdens and sharing each other’s weaknesses; in the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual intimacy of life together; in the cut and thrust, and bump and grind, of life under the Cross; in bearing the Cross for each other in faith.

Live together in mutual repentance and forgiveness; for Christ is with you, with His Love and His forgiveness of all your sins.  He is with you in your vocations for each other as husband and wife, to strengthen and support you in your callings, to sanctify and save you by the grace of His Gospel.

Take heart, and do not be afraid of anything.  Your heavenly Bridegroom is faithful, and He will never leave you nor forsake you.  He has joined the two of you to Him, as members of His Body and His Bride, and so He cleaves to you forever; He shall not allow your sin, nor Satan, nor even death, to separate you from Him.  He has pledged Himself to you, and has vowed to have you and to hold you as His own; He has sworn an oath by His own honor, and His Word cannot be broken.

That is what He does for His whole Church, and in the two of you today we see that pictured in a wonderful way.  Today, Ben, you and Anna are the icons set before us: of Christ and His Church.  We love you both, but you do us the service of pointing beyond yourselves to Him who loves us.  As beautiful as Anna here appears, so much more beautifully does Christ adorn the two of you, and all of us, with the brilliant and stunning white wedding gown of His own perfect righteousness.

Not only that, but His good wine is not restricted or reserved to this happy day of celebration; it is no less poured out for you in the crosses you will bear together in days ahead.  From His side you have been taken, and to His own side you are returned, even as the two of you now make that journey side-by-side together.  For He who is your Savior, by His Word, turns “ordinary water,” and, yes, even the bitters waters of affliction, into the sweetest of wine; not for drunkenness and debauchery, but for joy and gladness and delight through all your days, unto the life everlasting.

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