31 October 2018

A Resting Place for Restless Hearts

It is common knowledge that Dr. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk when he set off the chain of events that we remember as the 16th-century Reformation.  As an Augustinian, Luther followed in the footsteps of the great St. Augustine of Hippo.  Not only in his theology, but also in his personal journey of faith, Luther mirrored the famous namesake of his monastic order.  Both men spent years searching for the truth of God, before the Lord would use them to make such monumental contributions to the historical life and theology of the Western Church.

There is one saying of St. Augustine, in particular, found in his autobiographical Confessions, which captures the essence of Luther’s own search for the truth.  “You have made us for Yourself, O God,” the Bishop of Hippo prayed, “and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You.”  It is a justifiably famous saying.  And what is more, it is in fact a profound prayer that could easily be used to summarize the entire thrust of the Reformation.

As a young man, as near as we can tell, Luther must have thought and reflected a great deal on the meaning of life.  He was restless for a sense of purpose, as young people often are, and he was especially anxious to know where he stood in the eyes of God.  Finding little satisfaction or fulfillment on his way to becoming a lawyer, in desperation he entered the monastery.  And just as St. Paul had excelled as a pharisee among pharisees, so did Luther push himself to be the most diligent of monks.  The stories of his self-inflicted burdens and deprivations are legendary.  So many hours on end did he spend in the confessional, wrestling with his restless conscience, that his father confessor finally had to scold him and send him away.

How often have you also wondered, Why am I here? What is the point to it all?  How many restless nights have you spent — unable to sleep, worrying about money, worrying about your children, worrying about your job?  How many times do you find yourself in such a hurry to get through the day, already anxious for tomorrow, yet frightened of what the future might hold?  Like running on a treadmill, or riding an exercise bike, you work and sweat with all your might, never seeming to get anywhere.  Or what is worse, maybe everything seems to be going your way, so that you start to feel like you’re really in control, only to discover (when all is said and done) that nothing lasts forever, and you can’t take it with you.  Why are you here, and what is the point to it all?

In a restless search for answers to those fundamental questions, too often you work and struggle to create your own meaning and purpose, to make a name for yourself.  Perhaps you take on the impossible task of trying to please all of the people all of the time.  It is even more bold and foolish when you strive to set things right with God and earn His favor by way of your own efforts and achievements.  But as futile as such strategies are, it is very possible that you might be able to fool yourself for a while with your various attempts at self-styled meaning and purpose.  Sadly enough, many people never do see past their own charade.  They fool themselves, until it is too late.

That was the case for many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, the very people who should have known better.  As St. Paul indicates in his Epistle to the Romans, they had been given all the advantages.  They had the Covenant from Yahweh, the Word of the Lord, the Temple, the Priesthood, and the Sacrifices, the Worship of God.  They had the promise of Messiah.  And all of that was pointing to the Sabbath Rest of Christ Jesus, the promised Seed of Abraham, who would give meaning and purpose and blessing to the people of Israel and become the Light of Revelation to the Gentiles.

To be sure, many of the Jews did receive their Messiah with faith and thanksgiving: Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, Peter, James, and John, and (eventually) even Saul of Tarsus.  As the Scriptures had promised, Salvation did begin with the Jews.  But far and away the majority turned their backs on that Salvation.  Instead of receiving the one Seed of Abraham who gave meaning and purpose to the whole family, most of the Jews chose to boast in themselves instead of Christ.

“We are the seed of Abraham,” they have asserted against Him in this Holy Gospel.  And in their words you hear echoes of your own claims to fame, as though you were something special in your own right, by virtue of your own heritage, your own efforts, your own wealth and achievements.  And don’t we all want to believe that “we have never been slaves to anyone.”  Especially in these United States, there is a lot of talk about our rights and freedoms.  But like the Jews in this Holy Gospel, you are tempted to deny or ignore that your fallen flesh has been enslaved by your sin and kept in thrall by Satan, trapped by the inescapable fact of your mortality and death.

In response to such denials, the Word of the Law is clear: “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”  You sin, not because you are free to do whatever you choose, but rather because you are sinful in your heart, mind, body, and soul, already from your conception and birth.  It is not that you could “quit any time you like.”  In fact, apart from Christ, you can do nothing else but sin, and then die.

So the truth is that you are a slave to begin with — a slave to sin, death, and the power of the devil.  And a slave does not remain in the house forever.  In this body and life, we all receive the gracious providence of God, both slaves and children alike.  The sun shines and the rain falls on both the evil and the good, and God gives daily bread even to the wicked.  To that extent, everyone is in His house for now.  But if you remain a slave to sin, that is, apart from faith in Christ who sets you free, then you will not remain in the House of the Lord forever.  There will be a Day of Judgment.

For Brother Martin, for all his dedication to monastic life, that Day of Judgment hovered always on the horizon.  Like a great black menacing storm cloud, that great and terrible Day of the Lord — that day of wrath and punishment — was enough to shake his frightened heart like a withered leaf on a tree as winter approaches.  Always on the brink of hopeless despair, Martin Luther drove himself into the ground, trying with all his might to reconcile an angry and wrathful Judge.  Yet, he could not escape the dread of being trapped and doomed by his sin and the judgment of God.

But of course, that is not the end of the story, as you well know.  For even as Luther was quailing in fear of his heavenly Judge, his heavenly Father was beholding him in mercy and compassion.  As He has done for you, as well, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ sent a minister of His Word to comfort Luther’s frightened heart with the Gospel.  His wise and godly father confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, though he did not live to see the Reformation develop, was instrumental in pointing Luther toward the only resting place that any of our restless hearts will ever find.

“Believe the Gospel,” Staupitz ordered Luther.  That is truly an evangelical command.  For the Lord your God has commanded that you look to Him for mercy and forgiveness.  It doesn’t matter whether you feel like it or not.  It certainly does not matter whether you think that you are worthy.  The fact is that you are not worthy of a bit of it, and you never will be.

That is what grace is all about.  It is the charity of God.  Regardless of your feelings and opinions, and despite all of your sins and weaknesses, God has forgiven you in Christ by His grace alone.

“Believe the Gospel,” Father von Staupitz ordered.  “Seek and receive the forgiveness of Christ.”  Stop trying to earn the mercy of God, and simply take the gift that is given to you freely in Christ.

That word of grace and mercy that Staupitz spoke to Luther is spoken to you, as well.  For your rest is found in Christ Jesus alone, just as He offered His peace to the Jews in this Holy Gospel: “If you continue in My Word,” He declares — if you cling to Me alone — “then you will know the Truth” — for I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life — “and the Truth will make you free.”  Free at last.  Free at last.  By the grace of God Almighty, free at last.

Unlike a slave, who must finally be cast out of the house, the Son remains forever.  Christ Jesus your Savior, the only-begotten Son of God the Father, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary as true Man — the Seed of the Woman, the Seed of Father Abraham, of the Patriarch Judah, and of great King David — He is Himself the living and eternal God in human flesh and blood.  And because He lives forever — in flesh and blood like your own — the life that He gives to you, and the rest that He provides for your restless heart, is never-ending and eternal.  Indeed, He is your Life and your Sabbath Rest.  Therefore, if the Son shall make you free, then you are truly free.

All of your Creator’s purposes and plans for you are fulfilled on your behalf by His own dear Son; your life and rest and peace and happiness are found in Him alone, who will never leave you nor forsake you.  So are you called to the freedom and security of faith and confidence in Christ Jesus.  No longer must you strive to make it on your own.  No longer must you search for the meaning and purpose of your life.  Instead, you live forever in the House of your own God and Father in Christ.

Your resting place, then, is that Mighty Fortress of Dr. Luther’s Reformation hymn.  In this body and life, it is found within the Lord’s House, His Holy Christian Church, wherein you are Baptized in His Name, granted Peace by His Word of Absolution, that is, the forgiveness of all your sins in His Name and stead, and fed the Supper of His own Body and His Blood.  Here you live and walk by faith in Christ, and not by sight, but in the Resurrection you will abide in the House of the Lord forever, as the crucified and risen Body of Christ Himself is and remains the very Temple of God.

It actually took several years before Martin Luther was able to embrace the wise and pastoral counsel of his father confessor.  But when he finally did, it was then as though the heavens were opened, and he collapsed into the hands of his gracious and merciful Father in heaven.  The storm clouds of judgment were gone.  His restless heart had found at last its resting place in Christ Jesus.  The purpose and meaning of Luther’s life, as well as yours, was finally clear to him in the Gospel.

There was nothing abstract or theoretical about the Reformation.  It began with Luther’s restless heart, desperately searching for a place of peace and rest.  And it continued because he found his rest in Christ Jesus.  Despite all the numerous trials and temptations of the turbulent 16th Century, he was able to live and work, and finally die, with a peaceful confidence in the Gospel of Christ.

In his morning and evening prayers, Luther entrusted his life, his body and soul and all things, into the hands of God.  Safe within that Mighty Fortress, he was able to rest secure, though devils all the world should fill, and though his family and friends and possessions might be taken away at any moment — to say nothing of his own life.  Instead of striving to reconcile God with his own good works and harsh monastic discipline, Luther preached the reconciliation of God in Christ Jesus.  And while that Gospel did its work throughout Germany and all the world, Luther was able to relax with friends and his good Wittenberg beer.  No longer was he lost and restless for meaning and purpose, for he had found his resting place in Christ, who is alone our Rock and Castle.

The rest that Luther found is just as surely yours.  By faith in the Gospel you look forward to that great day when you will rest in peace with Christ forever in the Resurrection.  And already here and now, you find peace and rest in the Liturgy of Christ, in the preaching of His Word and in His Holy Sacraments.  Resting securely in Christ Jesus, you live and work with peaceful satisfaction.  For whatever it is that you are called to be and do in this life, wherever God has put you here on this earth, He has created you and called you by His Word to live with Him in His Kingdom.

Day by day, you are granted to share the security of the Psalmist, in spite of the insanity of the world around you.  For the Son of God is your Refuge and Strength, a very present Help in trouble.  Therefore, have no fear, even if the earth should open up beneath you, and even if the mountains fall upon you.  You live in the Lord’s House, in the midst of the City of God.  The Lord of Hosts is with you, the God of Abraham, Martin, and John is your Refuge.  He is with you here, and He will surely help you.  He calms your restless heart with Peace: “Be still and know that I Am God.”

“You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You.”  So it is that, when you breathe your last breath of life, you can rest in peace and smile as you go, because your restless heart already knows its way home.  You know the way, because Christ Jesus has become the Way for you and has revealed His Father to you.  And just as you have done so many times here at the Altar of Christ, so also in Paradise will you join forever with Luther and the Psalmist, and with all believers in Christ who have gone before, with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven, sharing the Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end.

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

28 October 2018

Seeing the Lord Jesus with the Eyes of Faith

Your dear Lord Jesus is nearing the end of His journey from the Jordan to Jerusalem, from the waters of His Baptism to its fulfillment in His Holy Cross and Passion.  Approaching the walls of Jericho, He is only miles from His Holy City, His entrance on Palm Sunday not many days away.  He has set His face toward the Sacrifice of His Body and Life for your Redemption and Salvation.

But Jericho is no mere pit-stop or detour on the way.  There is significance in everything Christ Jesus does.  And one cannot hear of  Jericho, that once-ancient city of Canaan, without recalling the Old Testament “Jesus,” Joshua the son of Nun, who led the sons of Israel into the Promised Land and began the work of driving out its pagan inhabitants by destroying the walls of Jericho.

Now this new and greater “Joshua,” Jesus the Christ, the Son of David, is on His Way to the Cross.  And His voluntary sacrificial death will bring down the walls of pagan darkness, the walls of sin and death, which have separated man from God and prevented the sons and daughters of Adam from entering into His Kingdom.  His Cross and Passion are the way and means by which the Lord brings His people into the Promised Land, as by the preaching of the Gospel of His Cross He calls people from all nations to follow Him through death into His Resurrection and everlasting Life.

So it is that, in His dealings with Blind Bartimaeus, you see portrayed the gracious work of mercy that this Lord Jesus has come to perform for you, as well.  He opens the eyes of those who cannot see — not only the eyes of their bodies, but also the spiritual eyes of faith, that they might see and know Christ Jesus as the God of Grace and the King of Mercy.  Both sorts of blindness are the result of sin, which has brought death and decay into an otherwise beautiful and good creation.  But so does the Savior bring life and light, and the health and strength of a new creation, to both body and soul.  And so it is that even Blind Bartimaeus, and you, and all the faithful, shall see and behold with your own eyes your great Redeemer in the flesh, when He shall stand upon the earth.

By the same token, as you are given to see the mercy of the Lord in His dealings with Bartimaeus, so are you taught the proper response of faith to the Lord Jesus in the example of this poor beggar.  In him you hear and see the most basic activity of true faith, which cries out to the Lord for mercy.  It is a faith which is truly humble and patient, yet equally confident and persistent.  A faith which offers nothing of its own, but seeks all good things from the Son of David, Jesus Christ.

The irony and paradox of this poor man’s example is identified already in the contrast between his situation and his name, “Bartimaeus,” that is, the son of Timaeus.  “Timaeus” is based on the Greek word for the price or value of something.  Most significantly, it is the word that is used for the precious blood of Christ, which He pours out for you upon the Cross as the ransom price of your redemption from sin, death, and hell.  It is also the word that is used for the honor and reverence that belong to the Lord by right, but which He bestows on you by His grace through the Gospel.

It is clear that both of these qualities, both value and honor, have been utterly lacking in the life of poor, blind Bartimaeus, who appears to be a total nothing in the eyes of the world.  Which is not unlike the paradox to be found in the “Son of David,” on His way even now to the royal throne of His Cross.  And yet, the death of this King, who is both David’s Son and David’s Lord, is the price that He pays for you and for all, including Blind Bartimaeus; not gold or silver, cash or credit, but the price of His own Body and Life, given and poured out for the salvation of the world.  That is how He honors you, and that is the value that He assigns to you, according to His tender mercy.

It is in view of the coming Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus that Bartimaeus is given the eyes of faith to see Him rightly.  And it is by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus that Bartimaeus is granted the mercy that he so desperately seeks.  All of which is true for you, as well.  That is to say, the blindness of your sinful unbelief and the darkness of your death are overcome by the Light of God in Christ, which shines upon you from His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead.

It often takes a while, however, for the Light of Christ to cut through the fog of sin.  Earlier in the Gospel, when Jesus had healed another blind man, He chided the disciples for their blind ignorance and lack of understanding.  “Having eyes,” He said, “do you not see?”  In fact, they did not and could not yet see.  Which is why they have since responded to the Lord’s three explicit revelations of His coming Passion with confusion, fear, and squabbles over greatness and glory.  Still, Jesus has continued with steadfastness of purpose on His Way to the Cross, whereby He will heal sin’s blindness.  So that, with Bartimaeus, “the people who in darkness sat have seen a great Light.”

In order for that Light to shine upon you, that you might see the Lord and know Him as your own, it is necessary that He come and reveal Himself to you.  And so He does.  He takes the initiative in coming down from heaven to seek you out and find you.  He comes in the flesh, and He enters fully into the darkness and death of your sin, unto His death upon the Cross in your stead, in order to gather you up in Himself and bring you in His resurrected Body to God the Father in heaven.

Bartimaeus confesses that saving grace of God in Christ when he calls upon Jesus as the “Son of David.”  Thus does he acknowledge that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Savior-King who was to come from the house and lineage of David.  But this Son of David, Jesus Christ, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is also the almighty and eternal Son of the Living God, who for us men and for our salvation has come down from heaven in the flesh to give you everlasting Life.

And as He is, therefore, God from God, Light from Light, very God of very God, who comes to you in Person, in His own Body of flesh and blood, crucified and risen from the dead, His presence calls forth a response — most appropriately, the cry of faith for mercy from this King, as you have heard from Bartimaeus.  But of course, you would not even know that Christ is present if not for the proclamation of His Word, just as none of the disciples recognized that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, except by the revelation of His Word.  And more to the point at hand, Bartimaeus would not have known that it was Jesus of Nazareth who was passing by — nor even that He was passing by (whoever He was) — if not for the Word that Bartimaeus heard from those around him.

You are in the same position as Blind Bartimaeus, a beggar by the roadside.  You would have no way of knowing that Christ Jesus is here with you in the ministry of His Gospel, in the waters of His Holy Baptism, and in the bread and wine of His Holy Communion, if not for the Word that He preaches to you, by which He calls you and brings you to Himself in repentance and faith.

Do not underestimate the necessity of hearing the Word of Christ, by which alone you have faith and life with God.  For it is the case, as St. Paul writes, that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.  And such faith is nurtured by the preaching and catechesis of that Word, which it is always eager to hear and receive, and which it never stops depending on.

Even after he is called to faith in the mercy of Jesus, Bartimaeus does not presume to act apart from the Word of Christ.  He does not come running until Jesus calls for him to come.  So are you taught to seek the Lord where He may be found, which is to say, where His Word directs you to find Him.  Although He fills all things and is not far from any part of His vast creation, He has not told you to look for Him in all places.  Instead, He directs you by the Word and promises of Holy Scripture to come to Him and find Him in the preaching of His Gospel, in the gracious Word of Absolution, in the waters of Holy Baptism in His Name, and in His Word-made-Flesh in the Holy Communion.  He calls you to find Him in His Church, which is where He has taken His stand upon the earth.

Along the same lines, Blind Bartimaeus is one of the many New Testament examples of someone who is helped along and “brought” to Jesus by his companions, that is, by those who urge him to have courage, to rise and come to Jesus at His call.  Truth be told, the Christian faith and life are always a communal activity and experience.  You cannot come to Jesus or follow Him as a disciple outside the community of His Church.  So, in this case, Jesus stopped and stood and purposefully called Bartimaeus to Himself through the agency of others, whom He sent to call the blind man.

Satan, however, is always mimicking the practices of God, and he is a master of leading you astray and holding you back from Christ through the agency of others.  So, then, not only the Gospel, but also the temptations of the devil come to you by way of the company you keep, whether it be a case of  “mob rule” or other “peer pressures,” as in the case of those who told Bartimaeus to shut up.  Beware of such dangers, and use discretion in choosing your friends and companions; not that you attempt to flee the world, but that you associate with those who adhere to the Word of Christ.

Thankfully — in spite of the devil, the world, and your flesh, which always aim to shut down the cry of faith and discourage you from seeking the Lord Jesus — the call of His Word and Spirit are powerful, persistent, and active, that He should strengthen you against the crowd’s temptations.

Accordingly, as I have already pointed out, you are given a beautiful example of faith in the case of Blind Bartimaeus.  For he is not dissuaded by the people who tell him to be quiet.  And he is not ashamed to cry out for mercy, uttering the most basic prayer of the Christian faith: “Kyrie Eleison.”  “Lord, have mercy!”  Whenever you join the Church around the world in using that prayer, you likewise join with blessed Bartimaeus in throwing yourself at the feet of your dear Savior, Jesus.

Be encouraged, therefore, by the gracious response of that same Lord Jesus, who calls Bartimaeus to Himself.  And follow the example of that poor beggar, who throws off his garments and runs to Christ Jesus at His Word.  Perhaps you have recognized the parallels to Baptism in this action, in which all of your old sinful ways have been removed like dirty clothing, that you might come to Jesus in the humility of nakedness (like a newborn infant); and that you, like Bartimaeus, might offer nothing to the Lord but your desperate need, and ask for nothing else than His mercy.

Then also rise with Bartimaeus to follow after Christ as a disciple in the Way of His Cross and Passion.  No more are you left sitting in your blindness on the sidelines.  You rise to walk with the Lord on His Way to the City of God — to die with Christ Jesus in His death, and to live with Him in His Resurrection.  It is not an easy Way that you follow.  It is not an easy road that you walk.  It is not an easy journey that you make with the Lord Jesus Christ.  But the Cross that you carry, for now, is the Cross that He has borne and carried for you.  And by His Word and Holy Spirit, you are given the eyes of faith to see in that Cross the glory of His forgiveness, His life and salvation.

How different is this poor beggar, Bartimaeus, from the rich young man who came to Jesus earlier in this same chapter of St Mark.  That man had so much, but he was unwilling and unable to let go of his own efforts and possessions in order to follow Jesus.  But this man who has nothing, not even his sight, here demonstrates the very posture of faith which you are likewise called to assume, a posture of poverty and humility before the Lord, which nevertheless clings in hope to His mercy.

And then there is the gracious response of the Lord Jesus.  His healing of Blind Bartimaeus is far more than the evidence of His power, proving who He is.  It is a manifestation of His Gospel and Salvation in the flesh, which comes by the Way of His Cross and points to His Resurrection.  In restoring sight to the blind, He brings an end to the captivity of sin, death, and the power of the devil over all mankind.  He undoes the ignorance of unbelief, and He opens up the eyes of faith.

It is clear from the words of Jesus that Bartimaeus already “saw” (by faith) even before his eyes were healed.  Ironically, then, it was a blind man who saw and understood what the sighted scribes and pharisees and crowds, and even the disciples, were unable to perceive.  He saw and understood that Jesus, the Son of Man, came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His Life as a Ransom for the many.  In that light, there is no room for a false modesty which refuses to ask for His help.  It is true, of course, that you do not deserve the charity of God.  So be it.  But the Savior has come to serve you by His grace.  And He would have you emulate the shameless humility of Bartimaeus, which drowns out the crowd by drumming the ears of the Lord with incessant cries for mercy.

Christ be praised that, even as you call upon His Name, the merciful heart of God is open to you in Him.  Take courage.  Rise up.  He is calling you to Himself.  Your prayer is not despised, and your faith will not be put to shame or disappointed.  For here at His Altar you receive the mercy of God in Christ, in His Body given and His Blood poured out for your forgiveness and salvation.

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

21 October 2018

What You Could Not Do, God Has Done for You in Christ

The Word of our Lord in the Gospel this morning follows immediately after the story of the rich young man that we heard last Sunday.  That young man asked what he must do to inherit eternal life, sincerely believing that he had already been keeping the Commandments of the Law, and yet looking for something else, for whatever it was that he was still missing.  It was in love that Jesus responded by exposing the man’s fatal attachment to his wealth and riches, by telling him to give it all away to those in need, and to follow after Jesus as a disciple to the Cross.  Upon hearing that challenging Word, the rich young man went away deeply disappointed and sorrowful.  He was, at that point at least, unable to let go of his stuff in order to lay hold of Jesus and His free Salvation.

It was then that your Lord Jesus looked around at His disciples and began to catechize them with the Word that you have heard from Him this morning.  He would teach you, as well, how hard it is for those with wealth and riches to enter the Kingdom of God.  But to understand what He has said to you in this case, it is necessary that you bear in mind the context and circumstances.  Otherwise, it is far too easy to hear His Words as a criticism or condemnation of material wealth, or as indication that self-imposed poverty is somehow the key to entering the Kingdom of God.

As I pointed out last Sunday, your possessions are not the problem, though they may well present a challenge to your repentance, faith, and life, as they did for that rich young man.  But it is neither material wealth nor poverty that is decisive in determining whether you will live with God.

The real issue that confronts you here is the question of what you cling to and depend upon.  What is it that you fear, love, and trust above all things?  Which is really to ask: What is your god?  What is it that you worship with your heart, mind, body, and soul, with your time, treasures, and talents?

As Dr. Luther describes in his discussion of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, your god is whatever it is that you look to for life and depend upon for your happiness; and when you have it, you are content and satisfied, you feel safe and secure, but if it is threatened or taken away, then you panic and are thrown into despair, as though there were no longer any hope or happiness.

With that in mind, it is apparent that those who are poor in this body and life are no less tempted to make wealth, money, and possessions into their false god than those who are rich.  The fact that you may not have it certainly does not mean that you don’t want it more than anything else in the world!  The poor often spend their lives thinking that, if only they were rich, they’d be happy.

Even so, those who are poor do have an advantage in this regard, that they are less likely to fix their hopes and rely upon what they don’t have.  In recognizing their poverty and need, they are more likely to repent of their sins and to look to the Lord for His forgiveness and His gift of life.  That is yet another way of becoming and learning to live like a little child in the presence of God.

The especially difficult challenge for those who are rich in their worldly possessions, is that they do seem able to rely upon those material things for life and health and all manner of advantages.  Their wealth and their possessions are all good gifts and blessings from the Lord their God, but it requires the humility of repentance and the clarity of faith to receive them with thanksgiving, to use them to His glory and for their neighbor’s benefit, and not to put their trust in those things.

The same thing holds true, of course, whether your “wealth” in this world happens to be money or some other gift and blessing of God.  Your intelligence and education may become your idol and false god, to which you cling for security and success.  Or your athletic abilities, your bodily health and strength, or your outward attractiveness, charm, and charisma.  Or maybe you are more tempted to “fear, love, and trust” in your marriage and family, your husband or wife, your children and grandchildren.  Or you might be prone to rely upon your track record of dedicated service to the church, as though that were your ticket to eternal life in the Kingdom of God.

Bear in mind that these examples of “wealth” are all good things, gracious gifts and blessings from the hand of God.  But the problem, again, is found within the attitude of your sinful heart, when you cling to and depend upon the gifts instead of their Giver; when you worship your wealth of whatever sort it happens to be, instead of worshiping the Lord your God.  That is not to be!

Sad to say, you do fix your heart, mind, and strength, your body and life, upon your possessions and your stuff, your achievements and activities, your hopes, dreams, and aspirations, instead of fixing yourself on Christ and following after Him by faith in His Cross and Resurrection.  Which is why you must let go and leave behind all of those idols in order to enter the Kingdom of God.

Consequently, the more of whatever you have, the more you are called to give up and leave behind.  Not that you must necessarily liquidate everything and donate it to charity, or quit your life and go into seclusion.  On the contrary, it is much more to be a change of heart and attitude, whereby you live by faith in God and in self-sacrificing love for your neighbors.  It is not so much your stuff that is the problem, far less the people in your life, but the idolatry of your sinful heart and flesh.

What you must give up and leave behind, therefore, are all of your attachments to everything other than God, whether people or things, whether tangible or intangible, whether it be what you have or what you really want.  It is necessary that you give up and leave behind all of those attachments; that you take up the Cross and follow Jesus; and that you die to yourself and live unto God in Him.

Unfortunately, whether you have a lot or very little, in your native sinfulness you are not able to give up your false gods and leave them behind.  You simply cannot do it, no more than that rich young man last week.  And do not suppose for one moment that St. Peter and the other disciples gave up everything they had to follow Jesus by any reason or strength of their own!  It was rather that Jesus called them to repentance and faith by His Word of the Law and the Gospel.  He called them to take up the Cross and follow after Him, even to the point of persecution and death.  And it was only by the power of His Word and Holy Spirit that they answered His call and followed.

It is the same for you, as well, who are called by the Gospel and enlightened by the gifts of His Word and Spirit.  Otherwise, your sinful heart would go on trusting your own wisdom, reason, feelings, and opinions, relying on your money and material possessions, and prizing your family and friends above the Lord your God.  Well, if you are honest with yourself, you will know better than I do what are the idols and false gods in your life.  They are, again, those things which, when they are in place, then you are content and secure; but whenever they are threatened in some way, or if they are taken away from you, then you become frantic with despair and hopelessness.

To be sure, left to yourself and your own devices, all would be lost and hopeless.  To save yourself is not simply difficult; it is impossible.  You cannot save yourself.  You cannot even come close!

Thankfully, what you could not do for yourself, the Lord your God has done for you in Christ Jesus.  He has obtained salvation for you by the sacrifice of His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead.  And now He saves you, by His grace, by the Word and Ministry of His Gospel.

In willing obedience to His God and Father, in perfect faith and holy love, He let go of all that was His and made Himself nothing — even to the point of His death on the Cross — not to achieve any benefit for Himself, but to atone for the sins of the world and to reconcile sinners to God.

So it is that, by the preaching of His Word, and by the gracious working of His Spirit, He calls you to receive and trust what He has accomplished for you by His Cross and Resurrection.  All that He has done for you and gotten for you, He offers and gives to you here by the Ministry of His Gospel.

It is likewise by His Word and Holy Spirit — by faith in His forgiveness and the sure and certain promise of His Resurrection — that you are set free from your reliance on riches and from your worship of wealth; and you are able, then, to receive whatever God has given you in this body and life with thanksgiving, and to use it in faith and love according to His good and acceptable will.

It is likely the case that repenting of your misplaced trust in wealth and riches will sometimes mean that you must give up on certain things altogether, in order to alleviate their hold upon your heart and mind, body and soul.  Various addictions can only be broken by going “cold turkey.”  And it may well be that the fruits of repentance will include the surrender of things you have relied on.

Beyond all that, however, it is not so much your stuff or your habits but yourself that you must give up, and set aside, and put behind you.  It is the work of the Cross, within your Holy Baptism and throughout your life, that puts you to death and buries you with Christ through daily contrition and repentance.  And it is the forgiveness of His Cross that raises you up to a brand new life in Him.

By and large, repentance and faith in the true God do not require that you must give up or get rid of your possessions, far less that you must abandon your neighbors.  It is rather that repentance and faith result in a brand new relationship with the people and things in your life, so that you are able to enjoy and appreciate whatever you are given with a heart that fears, loves, and trusts in God.

To say it simply, your entire life is lived under the Cross of Christ in the hope and promise of His Resurrection from the dead.  Relying on His forgiveness of sins, you find true peace and Sabbath rest in the grace of His Gospel, regardless of how much or how little you may have in this world.

In actual fact, to inherit eternal life and to enter the Kingdom of God by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, is to receive one-hundredfold the gifts and blessings of God in the Body of His Son.  That is true already here and now within His Church on earth, the household and family of God to which you belong by His gracious adoption, and wherein you are surrounded by numerous brothers and sisters in Christ.  So shall it be, all the more so, in the Resurrection of your body to the life everlasting of your body and soul in the Kingdom of your God and Father in heaven.

Oddly enough, among the gifts and blessings that you have from the Lord, the most important — although it is the hardest of all to receive and understand — is the strange, divine, paradoxical blessing of the Cross.  That includes, for example, the persecutions that Jesus says will come your way on His account and on account of the Gospel.

Such persecutions in this body and life, and the Cross of Christ that you bear, will take many and various forms — some of them subtle, and some of them quite obvious and traumatic.  They may at times involve the loss of your family and friends, or the loss of your house and home, or the loss of your money and goods, as happened in the case of Job, for example, in the Old Testament.

Be that as it may, whatever the particular shape or form of the Cross in the course of your Christian faith and life, it remains the gift and blessing of the Lord your God.  It is the Cross of Christ Jesus that you bear, with which He has marked you as His own by His Word and Holy Spirit in your Baptism.  And as the Cross is the height of His own divine glory as your Savior, it is likewise your greatest glory as a child of God, because it is the power and wisdom of God for your salvation.

It is by the Cross of Christ that you are saved.  And so it is that, when you bear that Cross, you are already sharing and participating in the eternal life and salvation which Christ has thereby obtained for you and all, which He gives to you and bestows upon you by His grace and through His Gospel.

Thus does He feed you, here and now, with His own sacrificial Body and Blood, given and poured out from His Cross into His Church, for the forgiveness of all your sins, and for life and salvation in Him.  What is more, it is in and with that Holy Communion that you receive and share the fruits and benefits of His Cross, and that you are united with the entire household and family of God, which is the Bride of Christ, His Holy Church, who is your Mother in the same Lord Jesus Christ.

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

17 October 2018

The Life-Giving Word of the Good Physician

What is it that ails you?  What infirmities afflict your body?  What burdens weigh upon your mind and your heart, your emotions, and your spirit?

The one who is healthy and well has no need of a physician.  So, if you want to pretend that you are doing just fine, that your heart, mind, body, and soul are healthy and strong, then you may as well not be here.  This is a hospital for sinners, where the Good Physician heals what truly ails you.

The truth is that you are dying.  From your conception and birth, you are dying.  Your body is mortal and wearing out.  Your mind and heart are as frail and finite as your flesh.  And your soul and spirit are subject to the assaults and accusations of the devil, afflicted by the fear of death.

You are sick to the core of your being, and you are dying from the inside-out, on account of sin.  You have inherited the curse of sin and death from your parents, all the way back to Adam & Eve; and you have contributed to that legacy by your own persistent sins of thought, word, and deed.

Some of your sins bring their own consequences directly upon you, and it is foolish as well as wrong to persist in such sins.  But sin brings death because every sin is a turning away from the one true God and a reliance on that which is perishing and impotent to save you.  In all your sins you turn away from the only Author and Giver of life, and so it is that you are always dying.

You live at all only by the grace of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  You live solely by His mercy, because He feeds you and clothes you with divine charity.  He gives you breath, He gives you life, and He sustains you.  And in spite of all that, you chase after death by continuing to sin.

For all of that, the Lord Jesus is your Good Physician of soul and body.  And that He might heal you inside and out, He sends doctors to care for you with a Medicine that only He can provide.

He sends to you a pastor, a bishop and physician of your soul.  A Seelsorger, as our Lutheran fathers liked to say, who comes to you and cares for you with the Medicine of the Gospel.  Words and Water, Bread and Wine, that is all your senses are able to perceive on the surface.  But the Words of Christ are the power and authority of God, unto repentance, faith, forgiveness, and life.

The Lord Jesus has sent you Pastor Luke, an Evangelist, a preacher of the Word and a minister of the means of grace, whom we remember on this day.  St. Paul calls him “the beloved physician,” and so we suppose that he was a medical doctor.  There are some hints along those lines in his Gospel, the sort of comments that a doctor might well make.  But St. Luke is a better physician in the record of the Holy Gospel than he was of the body.  All of the people he treated died.  But all who hear and receive the Gospel he has written by the Spirit of Christ shall never die but live.

St. Luke has done extraordinarily what every pastor does ordinarily.  He has published the Word of Christ and His Apostles for the healing of the nations.  He has done so for the world, but your pastors, to this day, preach and proclaim that same Holy Gospel, that same Word of Christ, here to you in this place.  And it is by that Word of the Gospel that you are healed in soul and body.

Your sins are all forgiven, every one of them.  And though your body still languishes in this life on earth — and though your body will die, sooner or later, if the Lord does not return in glory before that day and that hour — though your body wastes away, and your body and mind are both afflicted by the consequences of sin and the fallenness of creation — yet, none of this will have the last word concerning you.  Not concerning your soul, and not concerning your body, either.

Whatever may wrack your body now, it will be done away with, and your body will be perfect in the Resurrection of all flesh.  No more aches and pains.  No more fatigue and tiredness.  No more poor eyesight or loss of hearing.  No more sore tummies, or hurting backs, or tired feet.  No more coughs or colds.  All of those infirmities shall be gone, because your sin is taken away by Jesus.

To that end, if you would hear and receive the healing Word of Jesus — if you would not die but live — go to where He sends His messengers, because He sends His messengers before His face to every place where He Himself goes.  He sends them to speak His Word with His authority.

If you look for Jesus somewhere else than where He has sent His messengers, you will not find Him.  But He finds you by sending His men to you, His pastors, His good physicians, His Lukes, His Matthews, Marks, and Johns, His Richards and Davids.  So does He seek you out to save you.

There are plenty of alternatives to the Ministry of the Gospel, lots of  things competing for your attention and allegiance, all around you in the world.  But no matter how appealing they may be, alternatives to the Gospel are no real medicine at all.  None of them will be able to save you.  It is only the pastors of Christ, the servants of His Word, who have the right sort of medicine for that which truly kills you.  The Gospel, that is what saves you from sin, death, the devil, and hell.

And yet, the Lord’s physicians of the soul don’t look like much.  Their own bodies and lives surely do not display any great health and strength.  They are rather like lambs among wolves, Jesus says.  They are sheep led to the slaughter.  They are sent out to be sacrificed for the sake of the Gospel.

The ministers of Christ are sacrificial lambs, like the Lord before them, because their entire lives are defined by the Gospel of His Sacrifice.  Not only what they preach and do, but their bodies and their lives are defined by the Cross of Christ the Crucified.  They are like the One who sends them.

So the world scoffs and laughs at those whom Jesus sends.  And yet, because they are like Him, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Medicine they bring in His Name and stead is a potent medicine indeed.  It is the power of His Cross and Resurrection from the dead.  It brings the forgiveness of all your sins.  It justifies you with the righteousness of God in Christ.  It sanctifies you with His Holy Spirit in body and soul, and raises you up unto everlasting Life.

How, then, will you hear and receive the physicians that Christ Jesus sends before His face to care for you in this place?  Will you receive them in peace, by repentance and faith in His Word?  Will you receive the preaching of His Word as the healing and life that it truly is, as the forgiveness of your sins, as the very presence of Christ among you?  Or will you reject His Word and preaching?

Hear and heed the Word of the Lord Jesus, and know that the Kingdom of God is here at hand in the preaching of Christ, whether you believe it or not.  The Kingdom of God is here with you tonight, because Christ is here.  He is here in His Word to you.  He preaches His Law to expose your sickness, so that He, the Good Physician, can heal you with His Gospel, the perfect Medicine.

He is not here to condemn you or destroy you.  He will not leave you dead on the operating table.  Trust this Doctor.  He knows what He is doing.  When He cuts you open and exposes all of those things that you don’t want to know about and don’t want to see, He does it so that He can heal you from the inside-out.  And when He speaks His Word, it is the Truth, which gives you real Life.

Consider this.  The Lord your God has taken a Body of flesh and blood like your own for Himself.  And He has sacrificed Himself for you, His Body and Blood on the Cross.  Yet, death could not hold on to Him or keep Him.  The gates of Hades could not prevail against Him.  He has burst open the tomb, He has risen from the dead, and He is all glorious, immortal and imperishable forever.

But even now He comes to you in the midst of your sin and death, in order to feed you with His Body and His Blood.  He gives Himself into your mortal body of flesh and blood, in order to confront the sickness of your sin and death and prevent them from defeating you.  So it is that, when the devil tries to lay hold of you, when sickness tries to ruin you, when death tries to swallow you up, they all meet up with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, and they cannot win.

By and with His Word, the Lord Jesus anoints you with His Spirit, and He unites Himself to you — His Body and Blood united to yours — that you should live with Him forever in body and soul.

When you hear and receive the Word of St. Luke, you hear and receive the Word of this Doctor, Jesus.  And when you hear the preaching of that Word from your own pastors, it is Jesus you hear preaching to you, who forgives you, heals you, feeds you, and clothes you in His tender mercy.

All of this He does for you because He loves you.  The Kingdom of God is here with you in this place, on earth as it is in heaven, because the Creator and the King of the heavens and the earth loves you.  He is here to save you by and with the Word that He preaches to you.  He has come to forgive your sins, to cast out all your demons, to heal your diseases, and to give you His own Life.

Take and eat what He presents, His very Body.  Drink the Medicine of Immortality from His Cup, the New Testament in His Blood.  For in these Gifts there is health and strength and life forever.

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

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.