SERMONS - JULY 2006
2 July 2006 - Pentecost 4 - Mark 4:26-32
During his earthly ministry, Jesus told several parables that revolved around the themes of planting seeds and harvesting crops. Probably the most famous of these is his parable of the sower, in which he describes the four kinds of soil on which the seed - or the Word of God - may fall. This parable was not included in today’s Gospel reading, but you no doubt recall its main points. Jesus himself explained the meaning of that parable as follows: Some of those on whom the Word of God is scattered are like the hardened ground along the pathway, into which the seed did not enter at all, so that the devil plucked the word of God away before it had any effect. Others of those on whom the Word of God is scattered are like rocky ground, who receive the Word of God with joy - initially - but in whom the Word of God does not become deeply rooted, so that when persecution or hardship come, they fall away. Yet others of those on whom the Word of God is scattered are like soil filled with briars and thorns, which choke the Word of God so that it bears no fruit. And finally, there are those on whom the Word of God is scattered who are like good soil, in which the Word of God is permanently received, and from which the fruit of God’s Word comes forth.
That well-known parable is not so much about the seed of God’s Word as such, but it is about the people on whom the seed is cast. It is about you and me, as the Word of God comes to us. Do we harden ourselves against it, so that it bounces off and remains outside of us? Do we accept God’s Word only temporarily or superficially, so that we would with little hesitation be willing to cast it aside when it becomes inconvenient for us to continue to be identified with its teachings? Do we accept the Word of God into our lives half-heartedly, with lots of reservations and conditions, so that it does not displace those ideas and attitudes within us that compete with it, and so that its fruitfulness is choked and strangled? Or, by God’s grace, is the Word of God remaining within us, fulfilling the purposes for which God sent it, bringing us to daily conviction on account of our sins, forgiving us daily for the sake of Christ, and renewing us daily in a life of holy service to God and man?
According to the revealed mystery of God’s ways and thoughts - which are higher than our ways and thoughts - there is nothing that we can do, from within ourselves, to make the Word of God more powerful and effective in us than it already is, in and of itself. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, in and of itself, is the power of God for salvation. It is not just one ingredient in a cocktail of salvation - not even the major ingredient - which would still require that something also be contributed from us, in terms of willingness or openness or cooperativeness, so that the Word of God would become capable of performing what God wants it to do. The faith by which God’s Word is received, and by which it remains in a man’s heart and mind, is a miraculous gift of God.
But also according to the sublime mystery of God’s ways and thoughts, there are quite a few things that human beings can do, in their sinfulness, to close themselves off from the influence of God’s Word, or to expel God’s Word from their lives. God does not coerce people to believe in him. The fact that the seed of God’s Word has been sown in or around you at some point during your lifetime is no guarantee that the seed of God’s Word will of necessity take root in you and continue to grow. If you harden yourself against that seed, or if you expel that seed from your unbelieving mind and heart by saying a firm and definite “No” to the working of God’s grace, God’s Word will be of no blessing to you. It will not fulfill its divine and saving purposes within you. It will not be fruitful in your life. You will not be saved.
The two parables that are included in today’s Gospel text, however, are not so much about the people with whom the seed of God’s Word comes into contact. Instead, these parables are mostly about the seed itself. What does God’s Word do in the lives of those in whom it is working, and in whom it is fulfilling the purpose for which the Lord sent it? What comfort can you and I draw from the lessons of these parables, as the Word of God enters into our hearts and minds? What wonderful miracles can you and I expect from the hand of God’s loving grace, as he works repentance and faith in us by the power of that Word which he has planted in us?
The first of today’s two parables teaches that God’s Word carries within itself all of the power and energy that it needs for the effect that it is going to have on us. A literal seed carries within it the potential of an entire plant. No genetic plant material needs to be added from the outside, in order for the seed to be able to develop and grow. A farmer plants the seed, and then the seed itself takes over from there. And this is what God’s Word is like in those who belong to the Lord’s kingdom.
St. Peter, in his First Epistle, elaborates on this. He writes: “...you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” Whenever you hear the good news of Christ - that is, the message of your Savior’s death on the cross for your forgiveness, and of his resurrection from the grave for your comfort and hope - this is not just religious information or an inspiring story. It is the power of God, which God plants in you, and which grows in you.
And as it grows, the Word of God penetrates to the deepest recesses of your conscience. It exposes your deepest pain and fear, which you otherwise might try to pretend is not there. It reveals your darkest secrets. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” When the Word of God is in you, and is working in you, you can forget about trying to hide anything from God. You can forget about pretending to be stronger and holier than you really are. As God’s Word grows in you, its roots go down deep. It uncovers everything, and lays it bare. The power by which all of this is accomplished is in the Word of God itself - in that divine seed which the Lord lovingly but soberly plants within you.
But also, as the Word of God grows within you, it lifts you up to unimaginable heights of joy and peace in Christ. It forgives you, it cleanses you, it heals you, it re-creates you. God’s Word is the power of God for your salvation, and by means of this living Word that salvation embeds itself deeply in every nook and cranny of your being. God’s Word accomplishes much more than merely teaching you how to be righteous. God’s Word itself justifies you with the righteousness of Christ, which it even now is gently draping over you, and is imputing to you. God’s Word does much more than merely inspiring you to amend your sinful life. God’s Word itself changes you, so that by the Lord’s regenerating grace you become something you didn’t used to be - that is, a new creature in Christ.
In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul comforts you with this promise: “‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And the Psalmist speaks for all of us when he sings to the Lord in Psalm 119: “My soul longs for your salvation; I hope in your word.” The word of the Lord creates our hope, and it is the object of our hope, as it brings Christ and all of his blessings to us.
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” The second parable in today’s Gospel text deals with a slightly different aspect of what the Word of God is like, as it works in us and through us. In this parable, Jesus points out that the seed of God’s Word which is planted in our lives is very small, so much so that it would not be expected to produce very much at all. The message that we believe is a message about a victim of crucifixion, who endured the most degrading form of suffering and humiliation that the ancient world was able to devise. Most fundamentally, the message of Christ is the message of Christ crucified. And the way in which this message comes to us is similarly humble and outwardly unimpressive. A simple Word mumbled over water, sung over bread and wine, or pronounced from a pulpit, is the small and almost unnoticeable mustard seed of spiritual life that God plants in us.
But hidden within the wretchedness of the cross is the glory of God’s loving acceptance of us for the sake of Christ. Hidden within the humiliation of the cross is the exaltation of God’s children, adopted in Christ, to be heirs of eternal life. Likewise, hidden within the mustard seed of the Gospel, which God plants in us through preaching and the sacraments, is a fuller, richer, and deeper salvation than the natural human mind could ever imagine.
Many commentators have surmised that Jesus is here talking about the institutional and numerical growth of the Christian church over the centuries, to the point where it has now come to include hundreds of millions of souls, and to the point where it has achieved a very significant impact on human history. This type of interpretation may pick up on a part of what Jesus is talking about, as he speaks of the large and healthy tree that eventually emerges from the tiny little mustard seed. But there is no guarantee that the church, institutionally or numerically, will always grow. Sometimes it may very well shrink. In reference to the tribulations of the world and the persecutions of the church before his second coming, Jesus himself asks, “...when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
But in the lives of those individual believers in whom the mustard seed of God’s Word is planted, the life of God does grow and expand. God’s Word has the power to permeate every aspect of your life. It has the power to influence every thought of your mind. It has the power to shape every conviction of your conscience. As the seed of God’s Word continues to grow in you, even with its seemingly humble beginnings, the branches of God’s life within you will extend further and further, into every corner of your mind and heart, and beyond you, into your relationships with other people. As God’s Word works within you, it continues to fill up more and more space, as it were, and to influence your thoughts and attitudes to a greater and greater degree. Other people begin to notice that there is something different about you. Other people begin to find rest in the words of Christian comfort and hope that you speak to them in their troubles and uncertainties.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
If you have heard and believed God’s convicting message of judgment against sin, calling upon you to be honest about your own transgressions and to repent of them, then the seed of God’s Word has been planted in you. If you have heard and believed God’s faith-creating message of pardon and hope, restoring your fellowship with him and bestowing on you his heavenly peace, then the seed of God’s Word is growing in you. Amen.
9 July 2006 - Pentecost 5 - Guest Preacher: The Rev. Oleh O. Yukhymenko
Matthew 10:24: "A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household! Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. "
Praise be to Jesus Christ!
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:2).
Dear friends in Christ!
Guess how much hair you have on your heads. Have you ever tried to count? Getting ready to preach on today’s text from the Gospel of St. Matthew, I ... decided to count how much hair I have on my head. Well, of course, I decided to do it only approximately, since counting it exactly would take way too much time. So, first I counted how much hair I had on one square inch and then I was about to calculate the total square covered with hair on my head and to multiply it by the number of hairs per one square inch. Well, I tell you – it is hard to measure the square of hair surface on my head since my head is not perfectly spherical. That is why I ran out of patience and just looked it up in an encyclopedia. It reads there that approximately 100 – 150 thousand hairs grow on an average human head!
Neither you nor I have probably ever thought much about such thing as our hair. “What difference does it make,” – you may ask – “whether my head grow one hundred two thousand three hundred sixty seven hairs or one hundred fifteen thousand seven hundred forty eight hairs? No big deal!” Yes, you are right, we don’t care much about how many hairs we have on our heads. And who on earth might care? Other people don’t care much about our name, age or height. So, who can be concerned about how many hairs we have on our heads? Who can know us so well and be so concerned about us that he knows something about us that we ourselves do not know?!
Only He who created us can know this absolutely well and care for us perfectly, He who knows perfectly not only about our hair, but about the whole our body, to the very last cell, to the last molecule, to the last atom, because He himself brought this to existence. Who can know something better then the creator of things. He who creates something, who puts all his love in his creation, he will always care for, be concerned about and look after his creation. And if his creation does not behave the way he wants it to behave he makes all his effort to correct it and put it on its right way.
There are many things we may be afraid of in this life. It sometimes seems that nobody cares about us, we are nobody’s concern – and we are afraid of being it that state. Many things may cause our fear, but what troubles man most of all in this sinful world is death. Everybody wants to live. Nobody wants to die. We are afraid of losing our lives. We have just found out from our Gospel text that there is the One who cares so much for us that he knows the exact number of hairs on our heads. And it is Him who tells us to be afraid not of the one who can take our lives from us, who can physically kill us, destroy or execute us, but we ought to fear the One who has absolute, unlimited power over our life, our real life, our spiritual life.
Once we were dead, dead in sin, dead in transgressions... We used to be the enemies of God and only deserved to be thrown out to the hellish dump, which imaginative Jews called Gehenna, the ravine south of Jerusalem where fires were kept burning to consume the dead bodies of animals, criminals, and refuse. The fire was on the whole year. Our Lord has the full right acting by justice to send our bodies and souls to the place where the fire that would burn them would never cease. This is what our sin deserves. This is what we really should be afraid about, and not the temporary death, the discontinuance of our physical life, the transition to eternity.
But we believers are not afraid of that. We know that the price to get access to the Kingdom of God was paid. Our dear Lord Jesus Christ has fulfilled all God’s requirements, everything that was required of us. It was Him who suffered the tortures that we deserved! It was Him who God the Father forsook! We were supposed to be there, we were supposed to hang on the cross and feel all the disgrace worthy of criminals, sinners and transgressors of God’s holy Law! But no! God did not desire that! He decided to put the punishment that we deserved over to the shoulders of the Innocent Lamb, who never departed from the Father’s will neither in thought, nor in word, nor in deed, but instead fulfilled it perfectly, and being God he covered us from head to foot with His holy righteousness.
Yes, because of the fact that sin still clings to us, we are afraid. We are afraid of pain, we fear sufferings, we are afraid to die. Death scares us with its uncertainty. But is that uncertainty so uncertain? Of course not! Apartments in the house of our Heavenly Father await us, the places in heaven, which He prepared for us out of His mercy. We have the Holy Spirit, who leads all our lives and preserves us for them. What can our enemies do to us? What harm can the world around headed by its arrogant prince do to us? Only kill the body. But by doing so they will do the opposite – they will hurry our entrance into the full rights of the sons and daughters of God, the rights that we will enjoy in the full glory of our renewed bodies! There will be no more sufferings, no tears, no crying, but only eternal and ceaseless happiness and bliss of being in full glory and fellowship with God!
Therefore, my dear friends in Christ, let us not be afraid of those of Beelzebub’s household, let us not be afraid of the sons of the devil. Because regardless of how angry and fierce they may be, they will never be able to snatch us out of the hands of Him, who conquered the world, who loves us so much that He knows the exact number of hairs on our heads, so be brave and thank and glorify our Lord continuously.
And “may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you” (1 Pet. 5:10-11). Amen.
16 July 2006 - Pentecost 6 - 2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-14
One of the things that parents of small children usually spend a lot of time teaching them is the importance of sharing. It is not easy for a child to learn how to share his toys, or his candy, with other children. A child knows that, to the extent that someone else has a share in the use of his toys, or in the consumption of his candy, then to that same extent his own use, and his own consumption, will be diminished. When you share what you have with others, then you have less for yourself. So, because of the natural inclination toward selfishness and greed that their old nature produces, small children, in their natural sinful state, would rather not share their toys and candy with other children. They would rather keep what they have for themselves. Parents who are trying to instill the virtue of generosity into their young children will quickly learn, if they do not already know this, that they do not have to teach a child to be selfish. That comes naturally. It is the act of sharing that must be taught.
But let’s not think that it is really all that much different with adults. We are perhaps more refined and polite, and less obvious, in the methods we use to keep what is ours, and to avoid sharing it with others. But deep down, according to our sinful flesh, we are really just as selfish and greedy as small children are. We, too, have to be taught how to share. We, too, know that in this life, and in the affairs of this world, the extent to which we let others have and enjoy some of what we have, is the exact same extent to which we will not have or enjoy it.
Isn’t it a wonderful thing, therefore, that in his desire to save us from sin, and to give us the righteousness that we need in order to stand before God confidently and without fear, Jesus is as generous and unselfish as he can be. He does not keep his righteousness to himself, hoarding it and preventing anyone else from benefitting from it. But he bestows his righteousness upon us, and credits it to us, and clothes us in it, in the Gospel of his forgiveness. He allows us to participate in the blessings of salvation that he has won for us on the cross. He shares these blessings with us, and allows us to partake of them freely and completely.
St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “...you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Greek word rendered here as “fellowship” is rendered elsewhere in the English New Testament as “sharing.” Jesus shares his spiritual gifts with us. He shares his innocence and guiltlessness with us. He shares himself with us.
And you know what? All of us, with whom Christ shares himself, receive all of Christ. The righteousness of Christ our Savior, by which we are counted to be righteous, is not in any way diminished as it is spread out to the whole world. Like the miracle of the multiplying of the fishes and the loaves, the continual spreading of Christ’s righteousness to many others doesn’t mean that there is less and less of it for each person.
Whenever you turn to Christ in humble repentance, seeking his grace and forgiveness, his grace and forgiveness will always be there for you in fullest measure. If the number of believers is twelve or twelve hundred million, each of them has the whole Christ, and all of his mercy. Each of us who has a share in Christ shares in him equally. We receive his forgiveness equally. St. John comforts us with these words from his First Epistle: “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship” - that is, a sharing - “with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
When Christ is willing to share his forgiveness and mercy with all of us, freely and without restraint, and when he does in fact share all things with us, without holding anything back, this changes us. According to the new nature which the Spirit of Christ births within us by the Gospel, we are now growing into the image of Christ. We are putting on the mind of Christ. We are becoming like Christ. We give ourselves to the Lord and to his service. The Spirit of Christ prompts us to share what we have with others, according to their need, and according to the Godly love that we bear toward them and toward all men for the sake of Christ.
In a very special way this miraculous transformation manifests itself in a desire to be a part of the work of God’s church in this world, as the church, in very practical and tangible ways, brings the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to others. As Christ continues to share his grace with all men, so we share with him and with other Christians the material resources that we have, so that the saving work of our Lord can indeed go forward. In today’s epistle lesson, from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle speaks of the generosity that God worked in the Christians of Macedonia, which flowed from, and was built on, the saving generosity of Christ. He writes: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part” - that is, of sharing - “in the relief of the saints.”
Christ had shared himself fully with the Macedonians. He had given them everything, each of them equally, holding back nothing that was beneficial for their salvation. And in response to this, they begged Paul earnestly for the favor of sharing in the privilege of supporting the work of the church, and in sustaining the congregations of the Lord in their service to him. Paul says nothing about specific amounts of money, or specific donations in kind, that the individual believers had given. Those details were between each Christian and God himself. But Paul does say of them, that they had first given themselves to the Lord, whole and entire, and then, with the conscious realization of the fact that they and all that they had belonged to God, they shared their bounty according to their ability, and even beyond their ability, as Paul says.
In order to save us, God’s eternal Son became one of us. He became a part of the tangible world in which we live. And then, after his death and resurrection, he sent his disciples out into the same world of which he had become a part, to bring the message of his forgiveness to all humanity. This is a very practical mission, which the Lord of the church has entrusted to his people. And because it is practical, its fulfillment requires practical means.
But the Lord also provides the means that are required. He provides what the church needs to carry out its God-given saving mission in this material world, by using the material resources that each of us has received from the Lord of heaven and earth, and that he prompts us to share in Christian joy and freedom. He gives us the privilege of responding to Christ’s selfless sharing of his grace with all of us, by sharing with Christ, and with his church, the tangible means that are necessary so that preachers can preach, so that worshipers can worship, and so that missionaries can bring the saving Word to many others, showering on them, in the name of Christ and his people, the joy of redemption and eternal reconciliation with God. We love because God first loved us. We share what we have with God and his people, because God first shared what he had with us.
We do, however, sometimes grow faint in the fulfillment of this joyous task. Sometimes we hold back when we should be sharing what we have with others, in ways that call to mind the selfish child who does not want to share his toys or his candy with his playmates. Sometimes we act as if we think that we will be diminished in our own experience of God’s love and blessing, if we were to allow ourselves to be the instruments through which God blesses others, and through which the practical needs of his church are met.
When we do slip back into that kind of fearful thinking, then there is yet another kind of sharing that God provides for us, by which he forgives us fully and without restraint for these failures, and by which he lovingly calls us back to our first love. There is yet another concrete manifestation of Christ’s stupendous and wonderful love for his people, by which he shares all of himself with us, and by which he calls and invites us to partake in faith of that which he gives. St. Paul describes this gift of divine sharing, which will once again be shared with us in just a few minutes, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation” - that is, a sharing - “in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation” - that is, a sharing - “in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
God does not ask us to give or share anything, without first giving us everything, and without first sharing with all of us everything that we need for our salvation, by the riches of his grace. He bestows on each of us the righteousness of Christ. He gives to each of us his many heavenly blessings. He shares himself with each of us. And again, we hear the words of St. Paul in today’s epistle lesson: “But as you excel in everything - in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you - see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Amen.
23 July 2006 - Pentecost 7 - 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this.” Does this sound familiar? At some point in every Christian’s life, and perhaps for some of us on a regular basis, we plead for the Lord’s help and intervention when we are afflicted by something that is particularly troubling or fearful. We are taught to believe that God willingly hears and pays attention to all our prayers. According to the Small Catechism, the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven,” means that God tenderly invites us “to believe that He is our true Father, and that we are His true children, so that we may ask Him with all boldness and confidence, as children ask their dear father.” Jesus himself promises his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” And so, with faith in God and in his ability to do all things according to his will, we bring our petitions before him. This is especially so when we are facing unusual trials. Through the Psalmist the Lord himself invites us: “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” And so that is exactly what we do, when we feel that we are under attack, or threatened, or afraid, or in spiritual or physical danger. We call upon him.
And that is exactly what St. Paul did, when he was afflicted by what he called a “thorn in the flesh,” and a “messenger of Satan to harass me.” We don’t really know what Paul was referring to. Scholars of the Bible have speculated for centuries about what this affliction was. Some have suggested that it might have been epilepsy, brought on perhaps by the severe beating that he endured on one occasion at the hands of his persecutors, almost to the point of death. Some have suggested that it might have been poor eyesight, which limited Paul’s ability to work and travel. Others have suggested that it might have been some kind of non-physical affliction, perhaps bouts of depression or melancholy, or some other kind of psychological stress or malady. But again, we just don’t know. And maybe’s it’s a good thing that we don’t know, because in that way, each of us, whatever our individual problem might be, can relate it in some way to Paul’s experience. If we are able to think of our afflictions, such as they are, as thorns in the flesh, or perhaps as messengers from Satan, then we can relate to what the Lord told Paul about his experience.
Paul’s description of his affliction as a thorn in the flesh makes us think that it may very well have been some kind of bodily weakness or infirmity. Paul’s description of this affliction as a messenger of Satan to harass him makes us think that it may very well have had a supernatural dimension as well. But whatever it was, it was something that Paul did not want to have. It was a source of discouragement to him. It held him back, and kept him down. He pleaded with God, persistently and repeatedly, to remove it from him. He knew that God was powerful and loving. Therefore, he was certain that God would be able to remove it, and he hoped, and perhaps even expected, that God would also be willing to remove it.
But that’s not what happened. The Lord told Paul, in response to his prayerful pleadings, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Because of some unique circumstances in his life, St. Paul could have been tempted to exalt himself pridefully, or to think of himself as being overly important or special. God knew this, and God did not want this to happen. It would have hurt Paul’s own spiritual life, and it would have hurt his ministry. And so, as Paul came to realize, the affliction that was so troubling to him was allowed by his loving and all-wise heavenly Father to remain as a part of his life, as he said, “to keep me from being too elated.” The thorn in the flesh; the messenger of Satan to harass him - whatever it may have been - was not removed. Instead, Paul was prepared by God’s Word to endure it, to live with it, and to learn and grow spiritually because of it. A prayer that is spoken in the name of Jesus and by his authority is always a prayer that includes, implicitly or explicitly, the qualification, “Thy will be done.” That was certainly a part of each of Paul’s earnest prayers too. But the good and gracious will of God in this case ended up being something other than what Paul would have wished it to be. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
It’s interesting to note that the Greek word translated as “made perfect” in this sentence is the same word that Jesus used on the cross, when he said, “It is finished.” The point that God was making to Paul is that his grace can fulfill its supernatural and powerful work in Paul’s life even if he remains weak and under affliction, just as Jesus fulfilled the supernatural and powerful work of his earthly ministry - his atonement for the sins of mankind - in a state of weakness and affliction. In fact, the completion of Jesus’ saving mission required his complete degradation, under the wrathful judgment of his own divine law against the sinfulness of humanity - which had been imputed to him, and which he carried to Calvary in our stead. His gracious work for our salvation was fulfilled, not in spite of his profound weakness and death, but precisely because of his profound weakness and death. God’s grace works best when it doesn’t have to compete with human self-sufficiency and pride. God’s power works best when it doesn’t have to compete with human arrogance and assertiveness.
Is God’s grace a part of your life? Is God’s power at work in you? I can assure you confidently that if you repent of your sins, and believe that Jesus died for you, then God’s grace is definitely at work in you. If you in faith embrace the forgiveness that God offers to you in his Gospel, and if you cling to the hope of eternal life which he promises to his children, then without a doubt you can know that the power of God is having its way in you. God has created in you the miracle of faith. God has clothed you with the righteousness of Christ. God has mystically united himself to you, and has promised never to leave you or forsake you.
Does this mean that you endure no afflictions, or that you suffer no hardships? Does this mean that you have no struggles, or that you are not weighed down by any burdens? I suppose we could take a survey, but I’m pretty sure that each of us - every single one - would be able to identify something in our life - physical, emotional, or relational - which is a source of trouble or worry for us, and which we would rather not have. It would be my guess, too, that each of us has, at one time or another, or perhaps several times, prayed to the Lord to lift this burden from us, whatever it may be. But, it remains. Why? If God is able to remove it (and he is), why doesn’t he do so?
Well, we don’t know the answer to that question exactly. But we are able to come up with a likely guess. The reason is probably pretty close to the reason that St. Paul gave for the continuation of his affliction: “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.” God knows where you would be likely to falter in your life of faith, so that you might become proud or indifferent in regard to your spiritual state, if that faith were not tried and tested through the bearing of whatever burden has been placed upon you. God knows what the lessons are that you need to learn, as you mature in your faith, and as you grow in your daily reliance on his grace, and not on anything that is in or from yourself. God knows all of this. And because he knows this, he also knows which afflictions he can safely lift from you, and which afflictions he should let remain, so that you can learn and grow from them. He knows what is ultimately beneficial for you, even when you do not. And as the Epistle to the Romans reminds us, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
And if the Lord allows an infirmity - physical or non-physical - to remain with you, for the sake of keeping you humble and dependent on him, he will also bring to completion the work of grace that he is carrying out in and through you. As you remain weak in your own power, you will become strong in the grace of God. As you learn not to rely on your own wisdom, you will grow in your reliance on the wisdom of God. As you learn not to boast in your accomplishments, you will learn to rejoice in what God in Christ has done for you and is doing for you.
“So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Amen.
30 July 2006 - Pentecost 8 - Ephesians 1:3-14
“In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” What do you think St. Paul is talking about when he speaks here about the Lord’s “predestination?” That’s a pretty strong word, and it conjures up a lot of different things in the minds of various individuals.
There are some people in the world who embrace what can be described as a “deterministic” worldview. Such people believe that everything that has ever happened, or that ever will happen in the future, has been determined beforehand by a divine force or divine forces that are beyond any human influence. Some varieties of the religion of Islam are marked by a very pronounced kind of determinism. “Allah wills it” is spoken very often by such Muslims, as they resign themselves to things over which they feel they have no control. Hinduism, with its belief in “fate” or “karma,” and in the unalterability of a person’s caste or lot in life, is also in some ways a “deterministic” religion. During this lifetime, you will be what you were born to be. Accept it. It will not change.
I doubt very much that any of us have exactly the same kind of fatalistic or deterministic view of life as the adherents of Islam or Hinduism do. But sometimes the Biblical teaching about God’s “predestination” can be interpreted by professing Christians in ways that do suggest that certain kinds of deterministic assumptions are perhaps at work in their thinking, even if they do not actually say it in so many words. This may be especially so in the area of a person’s indifference to his sins.
According to the logic of predestination - or so we may think - everything that God has decreed will come to pass regardless of anything we do or don’t do. If God has predestined me to be saved, then I can indulge in any sin that I feel like committing and it won’t change anything. It’s all in God’s hands, after all, not mine. And, if God has not predestined me to be saved, then no effort or sacrifice on my part, however strong or sincere, will make any difference. So, I might as well not try to do anything, but just live my life according to the lust, greed, and selfishness that flow forth effortlessly from my sinful nature. But is that what St. Paul is really trying to say about the sovereignty of God in the affairs of men and in the events of your life, when he says, “In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will”? I don’t think so.
In his First Epistle, St. Peter tells us very forcefully: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him...” St. Paul gets very specific later in the Epistle to the Ephesians, where he says this: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” And in the most startling of terms, the Epistle to the Hebrews warns: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
There is nothing in any of these passages that would suggest that people are supposed to be passively indifferent, or disengaged in mind and will, when the question of their disobedience of God’s law is raised. When God speaks of human sin in its various forms, he says nothing about our having been predestined to commit the misdeeds that we do commit, so that we would have no real reason to worry about them. Instead, in these passages of Holy Scripture, and in many others like them, God lets it be known that he disapproves of our sins, and that we should therefore care very deeply about his warnings against them. Our sins are to be of profound concern to us. When our holy God makes known to us what he expects from us, we are to take this very seriously, and pay close attention to what he says. When he makes known to us his displeasure with our failings, our negligence, our indifference, and our disobedience, we are not to throw our shortcomings back onto him, with the idea that if he doesn’t like what we are doing, then he should have predestined us to do something else. No, God is not responsible for our sin. He did not predestine us to be indifferent to his law, or to ignore his demands. We are responsible for our own trespasses. You and I are responsible for our own sins, not God.
Whatever the Biblical doctrine of predestination is supposed to mean for our lives, one thing is certain: It does not mean that those who rebel against God and flaunt his commandments can blame him for what they do or leave undone. In their sinfulness they are not passively living out some kind of irrevocable decree from God that determined beforehand that they had to behave in this way. Rather, in their sinfulness, they are wilfully and deliberately choosing and plotting out their own destiny - a destiny that will lead them away from the heavenly presence of the Lord, unless the Lord miraculously intervenes.
Apart from these misconceptions about predestination, there is indeed a true Biblical doctrine of predestination. This doctrine does not pertain to the evil things that we do and say, and that bring pain to the heart of God and to ourselves and our relationships. It pertains to something else. The Biblical doctrine of predestination is about what God does and says to bring forgiveness and peace to our hearts, and to bring about a loving reconciliation between himself and us.
Later in his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul also says this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” The preaching of God’s law, whenever and wherever it takes place by divine providence, is intended to humble us, and to remove all pride and arrogance from us as we compare ourselves to God’s own righteousness. It is intended to take away from us the ability to make excuses for our misdeeds, or to put the blame on God or others for the wicked things we have done. And, when the law has accomplished its task, then the Gospel of God does its unique and wonderful work.
Everything that pertains to your reconciliation with God; everything that pertains to God’s acceptance of you; everything that pertains to the hope of everlasting life that is yours through Christ, is the result of God’s grace, and God’s grace alone. In his Word and the “washing of regeneration,” God graciously works in you a new life and a new beginning in your relationship with him. In his message of pardon and justification through the atoning death of Christ on your behalf, God clothes you with the righteousness of your Savior, and covers up every blemish and stain with the perfection of Christ, which he credits to you. In his promises never to leave you or forsake you, to comfort you in all your fears, and to sustain you in all your trials, God gives to you a confident faith that clings to him alone, and that finds its rest always in him.
God does all of these saving works, for you and in you, by his grace alone. They are his gifts to you. You haven’t earned them by good works, and you haven’t made yourself permanently ineligible for them by a previous lifestyle of unbelief and rebellion.
Paradoxically, those who are lost are lost through their own fault, and not because God predestined them to be lost. But those who are saved are saved only because of the magnificent, marvelous, and wonderful grace of God, and not because of anything in themselves or from themselves. And the grace of God that saves us - that saves each and every one of us as we believe the Lord’s promises - is a grace that had each of us, and the salvation of each of us, in its sights from all eternity.
Through the prophet Isaiah the Lord declares: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways... For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” According to our human reason and logic we cannot conceive of a “predestination” that applies to all those who believe - and that is in fact a cause of their faith - but that does not also apply, on the flip side, to those who do not believe. According to our finite minds we cannot conceive of a coin with only one side. But God, in his infinite wisdom, and in his infinite love for the world that he both created and redeemed, can conceive of it. And he has revealed this mystery to us in the cross of Jesus Christ, and in the Gospel and sacraments that bring the blessings of the cross to us.
God’s predestination of his saints for eternal life is not something that unbelievers are invited to ponder, or from which they are permitted to draw any legitimate conclusions, because it doesn’t apply to them or to their unbelief. But those who do believe, and who from time to time may struggle to remain faithful in the midst of trials and temptations, are invited to ponder God’s great love for them in Christ, and God’s eternal plan to save them and preserve them through Christ.
If you’re “playing with fire,” as it were, testing God to see how far away from him you can wander without being totally lost, or how much sin you can get away with without losing your faith, don’t let one thought about the topic of predestination enter your mind. Instead, repent immediately of having played such a dangerous game with the Almighty, and implore his forgiveness for it. But if in your human weakness or confusion you are wondering how certain you can be that God will indeed forgive you when you sincerely repent, and if you are wondering if God really does notice you and care about you, then you are invited by the Lord to reflect on, and to be comforted by, the reality of his eternal, loving plan in Christ to save you and to keep you always as his own dear child.
Listen, then, once again, to the words of St. Paul from today’s lesson concerning the Lord’s predestination of believers. Listen in faith. Listen in the name of Christ your Savior, in whom you trust, and whose grace has made you a new creature in him. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” Amen.