SERMONS - AUGUST 2007
5 August 2007 - Pentecost 10 - Luke 12:13-21
As he often does in the pages of the New Testament, Jesus today tells us a parable. It is, as he himself describes it, a parable about covetousness. A covetous person is someone who finds his security and contentment in the abundance of his possessions.
The main figure in today’s parable is a prosperous farmer, who was blessed with a particularly bountiful crop. There is no hint in the parable that he was a dishonest man, or that he was a man who exploited his workers. There is no hint that he had done anything morally wrong in his acquisition of his riches.
He was an honest, law-abiding, hard-working farmer. And as a result of his hard work - in combination with good seed, good weather, and good soil - his lands yielded a great harvest. It was so great, in fact, that his barns were not large enough to accommodate it.
The man’s spiritual problem did not lay in the fact that he was successful in his labors, or that his lands had yielded a bountiful harvest. Rather, the rich farmer’s spiritual problem lay in the attitude and attachments of his heart toward his bountiful harvest.
“The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
Security and contentment. That’s what we all want. Nobody enjoys being unhappy or fearful. Everybody wants to have stability and predictability in their lives. We want to be able to relax and be at peace.
That’s what the rich farmer wanted too. We certainly can’t fault him for that. But we can fault him - and Jesus in his parable does fault him - for where and how he tried to find security and contentment.
The farmer was seeking security and contentment only in terms of life in this world. There are a lot of people like this, especially in our materialistic age. They assume that this world is all there is. Therefore they live only for the things of this world, and they seek security and contentment only in regard to the affairs of this world.
And, the farmer in Jesus’ story thought that his level of security and contentment would be increased if the abundance of his possessions increased. So, when he took in a particularly large crop, he imagined that now he would be able to be more secure and more content than ever before.
The farmer already had barns. These barns were no doubt large enough to store all the food that he would ever really need to have in the course of a typical year.
But when he harvested a crop that was so large that all of it could not fit in these barns, he did not then think about giving the extra food to the poor, or selling it on the market so that he could donate the income to his synagogue or to some other worthy cause. No. His first thought was to build larger barns, so that he could save it all up for himself.
And notice how big and farsighted his plans were! As he looked forward to the completion of his new barns, and to the storage of his crops inside of those barns, he even planned out how he would comfort himself in his prosperity. He planned to say to his soul: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
“Many years.” Do you have plans for your security and contentment that reach forward into your future for “many years?” Have you, through hard work and honest effort, saved up the resources that you expect to need, to be protected from future troubles and worries?
Have you erected your equivalent of larger barns? - maybe in the form of making wise investments, or building up a large bank account?
I’m not asking you if you have done anything illegal or overtly wrong in preparing for your future. That’s not the point. But you and I should consider how much faith and confidence we have placed in the plans we have made, and in the resources we have accumulated. To what extent do we find our security and contentment in these provisions?
And we might also consider how many unnoticed or unused opportunities to share our bounty with the needy we have let go by as we have done all this accumulating. And can we count how many times we have decided that we will support the next financial appeal from our church, but not this one?
Nobody wants to be worried about an uncertain future. Nobody wants to be vulnerable or afraid. We all want to have a feeling of security and contentment.
But where do we find this security and contentment? What is it based on? How durable and permanent is it?
A few days ago, the people who were driving over the Interstate bridge spanning the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities did not feel insecure as they did this. They did not have any reason to think that the plans they had laid out so carefully for their future would fail them.
But for several of those people, that bridge was the last earthly bridge they would ever cross. In an instant they were crossing another kind of bridge: a metaphorical “bridge” from this world to the next.
Were they ready to cross it? Only God really knows. Would you be ready to cross that bridge - a bridge to eternity - if it were placed before you, by circumstances beyond your control, on your way home from church today?
When things like the bridge collapse in Minnesota happen, or when an individual is surprised by a heart attack or stroke that brings his bodily life to an end in an instant, we are all reminded of something very sad and very frightening. The security and contentment that we try to achieve through the accumulation of earthly possessions is an illusion.
These things may seem to be very real and stable, as we build up our investment portfolio, or sock away our savings. The “many years” that we have in mind when we confidently make our financial preparations may seem like a very long time into the future. As we look forward to those years, if we have planned for them adequately, we probably expect to have few if any worries.
But eternity can break into those plans at any moment. At any moment, as you speak words of comfort to your own soul about the security and contentment that you have achieved for yourself, God can say to you: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
“Whose will they be?” Depending on how our wills are written, the answer to that question will differ for each of us. But one thing is certain. Those possessions, those finances, those resources, will not be ours. You will not take them with you where you are going.
And if you have placed all of your hope for security and contentment on those things, then your security and contentment - such as it is - will in that moment disappear, and be replaced by fear and hopelessness.
The familiar props of this world, in which so much confidence had been placed, will vanish when your soul is required of you. And you will be left with nothing.
Jesus gives a warning to each of us at the end of his parable: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
The rich farmer in the story was mistaken in two significant ways. First, he was laying up treasure for himself. He was trying to draw as much material wealth to himself as possible, in the false belief that this would increase his security and contentment. And second, he was laying up earthly treasure and only earthly treasure.
The treasure that was so important to him was treasure that would have only temporary value. Confederate money did have value in the southern states for a limited time in history - during the four years of the Civil War. But after Lee’s surrender to Grant it instantly became worthless.
In this world the material treasure that we build up may indeed - for a time - provide some benefits for a comfortable earthly life. And that’s good, as far as it goes. But in the eternal scheme of things, it doesn’t go very far. In the next world, this material treasure will have no value at all.
The treasure that will have value in eternity is the treasure of the Gospel - that is, the living and life-giving message of our living and life-giving Savior. St. Paul says that this Gospel, miraculously, “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
True security and contentment, which starts in this life and continues on into the next, is to be had in Jesus Christ. Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
The material possessions that we have, if we have acquired them by honest means, are nothing to be ashamed of. But we must not put our trust in them or love them.
Rather, we are to put our trust in God. And we are to love our neighbor - and in love to share from our abundance with those who are in need.
St. Paul says: “we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Paul also says: “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need...”
And, of course, the work of God’s church is never done as long as there is at least one deluded soul on this earth who thinks that he has found his security and contentment in material possessions, and not in the grace of Christ.
Therefore, out of the abundance of what God has given you, you can be a partner in the ministry of those who preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments in the Lord’s name.
St. John says: “You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name... Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.”
The truth of which he speaks is the truth of God, which is preached and believed all around the world. It is the truth concerning the atonement that God’s Son made for your sins on the cross, and the truth concerning the forgiveness that he now lavishes on you in his Word.
This truth is a genuine treasure that enriches all areas of your life. Even if you are materially poor, if you know the everlasting security and heavenly contentment that Christ gives, then you are rich toward God in Christ.
At his altar, here in this sanctuary, Jesus will be offering to his disciples today yet another installment of this treasure. The blessed bread and wine are like a treasure chest, which encloses the Lord’s own body and blood.
These earthly elements are not empty signs. They are not an empty box. Rather, through the power of his Word they are filled with the priceless treasure of Christ himself, the forgiver of your sins and the giver of your salvation.
When you have Christ, you have everything that really matters. And when you have Christ, you can face all things without fear. The worst that this sinful world can do to you cannot rob you of this treasure.
And so, if your earthly life is unexpectedly brought to an end, it will not be an occasion for fear and hopelessness. It is, instead, your peaceful passage into the full enjoyment of fellowship with your Savior.
And when that time of passage does someday come - when your soul is required of you by your Creator - all the genuine treasure you acquired during this lifetime, by faith in the Gospel, goes with you. And it stays with you forever.
Martin Luther speaks of this hopeful confidence in the final lines of his best-known hymn: “And take they our life, Goods, fame, child and wife, Let these all be gone, They yet have nothing won; The Kingdom ours remaineth.” Amen.
12 August 2007 - Pentecost 11 - Luke 12:22-34
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus is here making an observation that is applicable to all people, regardless of what their beliefs and priorities may be.
If you think that something is valuable and important, then your heart will be attached to that thing. If you consider something to be a treasure, you will be emotionally and intellectually connected with it. You will spend time thinking about it, and you will expend effort protecting it.
The Presidential campaign season has been in full swing now for a long time. It began, actually, on the day following the last Congressional election. And the Presidential election toward which it is all pointing will still not be held for another fifteen months!
There is a troubling historical trend here. The campaigns that take place every two years - Presidential and Congressional - have been gradually creeping back to take up more and more time, so that we are now always in a campaign.
There is no longer any time dedicated just to governing after an election. Instead, when one campaign is over and the votes are tallied, the next campaign, for the next election, begins immediately.
This suggests that there are more and more people in our country whose hearts are completely devoted to politics. That is what they believe in, and that is what they live for.
For these people, the political process, and the desire to work toward the political victory of a favored party or set of candidates, absorbs all their time and attention. It’s the most treasured thing in their lives.
The term “workaholic” is not really a word, but we all know what it refers to. It describes a person who spends all his time either doing his job or thinking about his job.
A so-called “workaholic” tends to ignore his wife and children. He can seldom be seen at his son’s Little League baseball games or at his daughter’s ballet recitals. The place in the church pew next to where his wife sits is usually empty.
Such a person invests all his energy into his job. It’s what he lives for, and where he finds his identity. It’s the most treasured thing in his life.
For some people, their devotion to home and family is all-consuming. The house where such people live looks more like a museum than like a home where a real family spends its time.
Nothing is ever out of place, and every remote and obscure surface would pass the white glove test any time, day or night. And every moment that is not dedicated to housework is spent doting on the children, or primping for the husband.
For such people, their family is everything. There is no time for outside interests and activities. All aspects of life are wrapped up in their relationships with spouse and children. These relationships are the most treasured thing in their life.
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
In regard to such examples of how people often live and think, fear also plays a major role in this. These “treasures” - the political process, the workplace, home and family - are all deeply rooted in this world, with all of its uncertainties and insecurities.
Therefore, the more devoted someone is to these kinds of things, the more protective of them he is, and the more fearful he becomes when he considers the possibility that something or someone might disrupt or destroy them.
What will happen if the opposing side wins the election, and is then able to implement its policies and make them the law of the land? The moral fibre of the society will be further eroded. The country will be in greater danger of terrorist attacks. The economy will be severely harmed.
Such fears captivate political activists from all parties. Hearts that are set on politics, and that think of politics as the most important thing, are hearts that are often troubled and in turmoil when faced by the uncertainties of the political world.
What will happen if I am laid off, or if I become sick or injured so that I can no longer work? How will I support myself if my company downsizes me out of a job, or relocates overseas? If I have to endure the shame and embarrassment of unemployment, how can I look other people in the eye?
Such fears captivate “workaholics” of all stripes. Hearts that are set on one’s job, and that think of one’s job as the most important thing, are hearts that are often troubled and in turmoil when faced by the uncertainties of the workplace.
What will happen when my children grow up? Will they move away, and abandon me? What will I do if anything ever happens to my husband? Would I have anything to live for any more? And if I my home is destroyed - by fire, flood, or storm - what would I do? Where would I go?
Such fears captivate all obsessive homemakers. Hearts that are set on home and family, and that think of home and family as the most important thing, are hearts that are often troubled and in turmoil when faced by the uncertainties of domestic life.
Now, aren’t these arenas of life supposed to be important to us? Aren’t we supposed to exercise responsible citizenship, and be concerned about the welfare of our country?
Aren’t we supposed to work gainfully to support ourselves, and to avoid being a public burden? Aren’t we supposed to take care of the people who have been entrusted to us, and show love and concern for them?
Yes, we are. Christians know that they have been called to serve their neighbor in these various arenas of life.
We are to “render to Caesar” the patriotic participation that our democratic system requires of its citizens. We are to pursue our vocation with diligence and integrity, knowing that God himself has called us to the station in life in which we find ourselves.
And we are to remember that God himself has joined husband and wife together, and has given them a mutual calling to establish a godly home where children can be raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord.
But involvement in politics, the demands of the workplace, and the needs of home and family, are not supposed to be the treasure that we value most in our lives. Our hearts are not supposed to be attached to these things in such a way that we think of any of them as the most important thing there is.
That place in our heart is to be filled by one thing and one thing only: the Lord Jesus Christ and his eternal kingdom. The love and service that we render to others in these various avenues is love and service that we are actually rendering to God.
God is hidden in and behind these callings and relationships. And as our king, he governs us, and sets limits for us, within those callings and relationships.
Christ’s kingdom, in its essence, is not of this world. It is not accessible to us as a tangible thing that we can see and touch. We do not know of its existence in the way we know about our politics, our job, or our home.
But the kingdom of Christ is the defining reality of our existence. Not only do we know that it is real, but by faith we know it to be the most real and permanent thing there could ever be.
The Epistle to the Hebrews says: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.”
In speaking of the patriarchs and matriarchs of old, who in faith waited for the Messianic fulfilment of the Lord’s promises, the epistle also says:
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. ...they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
In Christ, he has prepared for us a city too. St. Paul writes that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ...”
He also writes: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
In today’s Gospel, our Lord speaks of the stress and worry that we do often experience in this life. If we attach our hearts to this unstable and unpredictable world, and if we find our treasure in the affairs of this world, such stress and worry is inevitable and unavoidable.
The solution, therefore, is not to try to find a way for our hearts to be attached to the world, while avoiding the stress and worry that always comes with such an attachment. Instead, we need to find a way for our hearts to become detached from the world.
And Jesus tells us what that way is, in very simple words: “do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”
Where and how is this kingdom to be found? Since it is not of this world, it cannot be found in the way that immigrants to America find their new homeland, or in the way that archaeologists find a lost ancient civilization.
In a certain sense we don’t find the kingdom of God at all. It finds us! It’s something that God gives us!
The Large Catechism relays to us the “directions” to God’s kingdom that God himself gives in Scripture, when it instructs us as follows:
“What is the kingdom of God? ...that God sent his Son, Christ our Lord, into the world, to redeem and deliver us from the power of the devil, to bring us to himself, and to rule us as a king of righteousness, life, and salvation - against sin, death, and an evil conscience. To this end he also gave his Holy Spirit, to deliver this to us through his holy Word, and to enlighten and strengthen us in faith by his power. ...”
“The coming of God’s kingdom to us takes place in two ways: first, it comes here, in time, through the Word and faith; and second, in eternity, it comes through the final revelation.”
That’s what we believe. That’s what we know. The Word of God brings the comfort and security of this kingdom to us while we still live in this world.
Even now, by faith, we have begun to enjoy the blessings of this kingdom: forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, and eternal life. And, by faith, we look for the final revelation of this kingdom, yet to come.
No matter how unstable or dangerous the world in which we now live may be, the kingdom of Christ is not threatened, because the kingdom of Christ does not depend on the stability and safety of this world. Even if everything in this life collapses - the family, the economy, the society as a whole - and even if we die, the kingdom of Christ will remain.
His crucifixion in our place cannot be undone. His resurrection on our behalf cannot be reversed. That’s why Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
We would have reason to fear if our treasure were in this world, and if our hearts were attached to the things of this world. But when our treasure is in heaven - in the eternal kingdom that Jesus has prepared for us - there’s nothing to fear from any of the attacks or persecutions or tribulations that might be experienced in this life.
In the midst of all of them, we, like the patriarchs and matriarchs of old, desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. And we know, with the patriarchs and matriarchs of old, that God is not ashamed to be called our God, for he has prepared for us a city.
By the grace of the Holy Spirit, this is our treasure - our eternal, abiding treasure. And by the grace of the Holy Spirit, this is where our hearts are. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Amen.
19 August 2007 - Pentecost 12 - Hebrews 11:17-31; 12:1-3
Recent news reports from China have discussed the problem of air pollution in the capital city of Beijing. Of course, this city’s pollution problem is a matter of concern all the time for the people who live and work there. But more recently the concern has been focused on the fact that the Olympics will be held in Beijing in 2008.
The pollution will probably have an adverse effect on the competitors in various events - especially in running events - who will be breathing in this polluted air. The Olympic officials are worried that the air pollution will hinder the athletes’ ability to do their very best, by restricting their intake of oxygen, and by forcing them to breathe in gases and particles that are dangerous to their health and harmful to their athletic performance.
This is just one example of the kind of concerns that competitive runners always have, to do whatever they can to make sure that they can run their race with the fewest possible distractions and inhibiting influences.
The term “Olympics” comes from Mount Olympus, in Greece, where Zeus and the other Greek gods supposedly lived. The ancient Greeks competed with each other in various “Olympic” contests in honor of these gods.
When the Romans came on the scene as the dominant political power, and absorbed the Greeks into their new empire, they picked up on this Greek athletic tradition and perpetuated it.
These ancient competitions serve as the inspiration for the modern Olympics. They also serve as the inspiration for the racing analogy that today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews presents to us, as an illustration of the meaning and character of faith.
We usually think of faith as something passive. In relation to God and his Word, faith doesn’t really do anything, but it trusts in what God does for our salvation.
In this sense faith simply receives what God offers, as our soul rests in God’s grace. As St. Paul writes in the Epistle to the Romans, “to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
This is all true. But this does not exhaust all the Biblical imagery regarding faith and what faith is like.
The Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz observes that “there is the further question concerning the exercises of faith under the cross, in obedience, in prayer, and the expectation of bodily and spiritual blessings, when the person is reconciled by faith. In regard to this question the Epistle to the Hebrews discusses how faith after justification exercises itself through suffering and receives various gifts and benefits...”
That’s what our lesson today is talking about when it compares faith - and the exercise of faith in the life of a Christian - to the running of a race. In this sense, faith is active, always in motion, always striving toward its object and goal. In faith we actively reach out to Christ, and actively grasp him.
And just as the Epistle to the Hebrews exposes us here to a different aspect of the doctrine of faith, it also exposes us to a different aspect of the doctrine of sin. It says: “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us...”
Usually we think of sin in terms of humanity’s inner corruption, which inclines us away from God and causes us to be God’s enemies; and in terms of humanity’s rebellion against God and his law, which invites God’s judgment. Jesus himself said: “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
Again, this is all true. But this also does not exhaust all the Biblical imagery regarding sin and how sin hurts us.
Sin paralyzes us spiritually. It is like a ball and chain that weigh us down and bind us up, making us spiritually immobile. It is that aspect of sin that our lesson today is addressing when it admonishes us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely,” so that we can run the race of faith.
A smart runner will take off anything he doesn’t absolutely need to be wearing before he begins his race. I’ve even heard of racers who shave down the rubber on the side of their running shoes to minimize the weight.
Runners will also make sure that their clothing is not clingy or restrictive. They will wear only as much as they need to, and none of it will be tight-fitting. Everything that would limit the movement of their arms or legs in any way is laid aside.
That’s the way it has to be with us as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith, if they are real, always go together. If a desire to embrace the forgiver of sins is genuine, it will be accompanied by a corresponding desire to lay aside the sin, which would prevent us from being able to run the race of faith if it were not laid aside.
The Formula of Concord warns that “a person should not concoct a kind of faith that can exist and remain with, and alongside, an evil intention to sin and to act against the conscience. Instead, after a person has been justified by faith, there then exists a true, living ‘faith working through love.’”
The Formula of Concord also observes that “many construct for themselves a dead faith or illusory faith, which exists without repentance or good works. As if true faith and the evil intention to remain and continue in sin could exist in a single heart at the same time! That is impossible.”
You cannot run the race of faith if you have not, in repentance, laid aside all deliberate, evil intentions, and turned away from all intentional, wicked actions. If these remain with you and on you, they will weigh you down, and prevent you from moving in God’s direction.
You cannot run the race of faith if your mind is bound with a straightjacket of greed and lust, and if your soul is hobbled with the restraints of hatred and deception. If you willfully cling to your sins, and allow them to cling to you, you cannot at the same time cling to Christ.
The kind of repentance that God demands is not simply a matter of saying you are sorry. It is a matter of being sorry, for what you have done that you should not have done, and for what you have not done that you should have done.
The prayer of repentance that we speak together at the beginning of each service is not a magical incantation. We don’t use the sound of the words to cast a spell on God, and to manipulate him - in a self-serving way - into ignoring or overlooking our sins.
It doesn’t work that way at all! Unless you really mean those words, and are using them to express your sincere anguish and deep regret before the Lord, they are only a vain repetition that invites his anger.
If you are sorry for your sins, you will hate your sins. And with the Lord’s help, and in his strength, you will want to lay them aside, and indeed to cast them as far away from you as possible.
Therefore, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Jesus is here called the “founder and perfecter of our faith.” This is perhaps not the best translation.
The Greek term rendered by our translation as “founder” might better be rendered as “beginner.” A variant of that Greek term also appears in John chapter 1, where we read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And the Greek term rendered by our translation as “perfecter” might better be rendered as “finisher.” A variant of that Greek term appears in John’s crucifixion account, when Jesus is quoted as saying, “It is finished.”
And so, in the context of his racing analogy, Jesus is described by the writer of the Epistle as the beginner and finisher of the race that is our faith.
It’s easy to imagine that this race of faith is, as it were, taking place on an oval track, where the starting line and the finish line are the same line. In a literal race, on such a track, the runners set out on their race at the same location where they eventually end up.
And in our Christian faith it’s very similar to this. Jesus is the one who gets us started in our life of faith, and he is also the goal toward which our faith is pressing.
Unlike the starting and finish line on a literal race track, however, Jesus is not just an inanimate scratch in the dirt or splash of paint on the pavement. Instead, he is very much alive, and the giver of the spiritual life that impels us forward in our life of faith.
At the beginning of our race, in our Baptism, Jesus pushes us out into a life of trusting discipleship. And from the finish line, in his resurrected glory, Jesus draws us forward in the hope of everlasting salvation.
And along the way, whenever we falter, or stumble, or start to feel worn out - wondering if we will finish the race - Jesus rejuvenates us by his Word of pardon, and refreshes us by Holy Supper.
On the news of late we have heard many disappointing reports of “juiced up” athletes in various sports. These athletes did not compete fairly - on the basis of their training and fitness - but they cheated, by taking into themselves the unnatural strength of steroids.
In the spiritual race of faith, however, this sort of thing is not cheating. You and I cannot even begin to run this race in our own strength. Nobody can. Only Jesus has made it possible for us to have faith, and to be saved by faith.
For the joy of the resurrection that was set before him, Christ endured the shameful death of the cross. Our sins needed to be atoned for by a perfect divine-human Savior. Only Jesus could accomplish this for us. And in love for the whole human race, Jesus did accomplish this.
Now, as the crucified and risen Savior, Jesus infuses into each of us, by his Word and Spirit, all the supernatural strength we need to run this race - to stay on our feet, to press forward, to persevere without giving up! All of that comes from him.
He says, “Without me you can do nothing.” He also says, “With God all things are possible.” With Christ sustaining us every step of the way, we are able to do what we would otherwise never be able to do.
We repent of our sins and believe his Gospel. And we live in that faith. We run the race that has been set before us, energized by the grace of our Baptism, and encouraged onward by the promise of the resurrection.
We’ll close with one of the most uplifting passages in all of Scripture, from the prophet Isaiah, which seems especially fitting for what we have been considering today:
“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Amen.
26 August 2007 - Pentecost 13 - Luke 13:22-30
In most cultures, the sharing of a meal has a symbolic value that goes far beyond the practical purpose of providing bodily nourishment to yourself and your guests. Sharing your table with someone is a gesture of friendship toward that person.
When you invite someone to dinner, you are accepting that person to be a part of your life in general. You are acknowledging a level of fellowship and commonality with that person that you do not share with others.
Table fellowship had a very significant meaning in the Middle Eastern culture of first-century Palestine. The most important factor among the Jews regarding the sharing of a meal, and regarding with whom a meal would be shared, was the ceremonial law of the Old Testament.
These regulations tended to restrict the Jews’ social contact with Gentiles in all areas of life. You’ll remember, for example, that the leaders of the Sanhedrin would not enter the home of Pontius Pilate when they wanted to press their point about the necessity of condemning Jesus. If they had entered his home, they would have made themselves ceremonially unclean.
And of course, the leaders of the Sanhedrin would never even have imagined the possibility of sharing a meal with Pilate. They also watched carefully who ate with whom, and judged people accordingly.
Jesus did not behave in a morally reprehensible way in his own personal life. Even his enemies acknowledged this. But, his enemies were very severe in their criticism of the people with whom he was willing to share a meal.
And they were very severe in their criticism of his willingness to share a meal with such people. “...the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
Of course, when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, he did so not to express solidarity with their sin, but to teach them about the kingdom of God. He did not unite himself to their wickedness, in the sense of showing approval of it.
Rather, he thereby gave them a chance to be united to him and his righteousness, through repentance and faith. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
As a devout Jew who respected the ceremonial law that had been given to his nation through Moses, Jesus did not eat with Gentiles - although he came as close to doing so as he could when he asked a Samaritan women for a drink of water. But Jesus was willing to speak well of Gentiles when the circumstances warranted it. Regarding the Roman centurion who had asked Jesus to heal his servant, the Lord said: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”
That was quite a thing to say. And so was the statement that he made in today’s Gospel, to a gathering of his countrymen:
“...there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Jesus looked forward to a time when the ceremonial law against table fellowship with Gentiles would have found its ultimate fulfillment in the completion of his own saving work. He eagerly anticipated the spiritual realities of the New Testament, and of eternity, when the outward observance of this law would no longer be in effect.
Jesus knew that the division between Jew and Gentile was a temporary division. Through the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God had established the Hebrew people as a chosen nation for the sake of the promise of salvation. He had entrusted his sacred oracles to this nation.
The descendants of Noah had not faithfully passed on to succeeding generations the message of God’s messianic promise. This message could have been preserved among all people through oral transmission. But it was not. Sinful negligence and indifference had resulted in the loss of this message, and of the faith that this message would have engendered.
But in his mercy God restored the testimony of his Word among men when he called Abraham to leave Ur, and to go forth in faith to a new land. God spoke to Abraham.
And as the history of God’s people progressed, his Word was written down, by divine inspiration. In this way it would be preserved in an unchanging form among the people of Israel, so that the people of Israel would always be ready to receive into their midst the promised Savior, whenever he might arrive.
God was offended by the idolatry of the Pagan nations, even as he was offended by the recurring unfaithfulness of his chosen people. But he never stopped loving those nations, and he always had a plan for them.
He did not, as it were, invite them to dinner right away. But he was always planning a feast - an eternal, heavenly feast - to which they would indeed be invited.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be there. The prophets of old, who had proclaimed God’s Word to Israel, would be there. And true believers from all nations would likewise be there.
Those who are Gentiles according to their genealogy, but who have the heart and mind of the patriarchs and prophets, will participate fully in the table fellowship of God’s kingdom. However, as Jesus points out in today’s text, those who are descendants of the patriarchs and prophets according to their genealogy, but who have the heart and mind of unbelievers, will not be included.
Many Jewish people believed in Jesus when he revealed himself to his nation. For those who needed some time to digest the Lord’s claims about himself, like Nicodemus, Jesus was patient. And Jesus forgive the weakness of others, like Joseph of Arimathea, who in fear originally hesitated to confess Christ.
And of course, all the disciples were Jewish. Their whole way of thinking, and of evaluating their Rabbi and his ministry, was Jewish. Jesus was the perfect fulfillment of all the genuine hopes and aspirations that God’s Spirit had ever implanted in the breasts of his faithful people.
For all the Jews of the first century who were able to see who Jesus was, and what he meant for their salvation, faith in Christ was a continuation, and a deepening, of what they had believed all along. Simeon at the Temple spoke for all these people when he thanked the Lord for fulfilling his Word by sending Jesus, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of his people Israel.
During the forty-odd years between the resurrection of Christ and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Judaism found itself in the midst of a great struggle. Some believed that human salvation is based on divine mercy alone, and that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah who came in the name of the Lord to atone for the sins of the whole world.
But others - a majority as it turned out - believed that each man needs to make himself right with God by obedience to the law - especially the ceremonial law - and that Jesus was an imposter and a false teacher.
The Christian Jews and the non-Christian Jews lived and struggled together in Jerusalem and Judea until the Roman destruction of the city. After that, the Christian church pursued its divine mission to be the new, spiritual Jerusalem, and the new, living Temple, into which all nations were now to be invited.
It is sadly ironic that most of our Jewish friends today think of Christianity as an inherited religion for Gentiles, and not for them. Actually, when the early Christian missionaries brought the Gospel to the various nations of Africa, Asia, and Europe, they told the inhabitants of those lands that they needed to turn away from the false beliefs of their inherited religion, and to embrace the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob instead. As Abraham himself had said, this God is the judge of all the earth.
The Christian faith, in its genuine form, is not the folk religion of any particular nation. Nobody is a Christian simply because he is born in a particular country, or from a particular ethnic group. Christian baptism makes no distinctions among people in this respect.
Looking at it from an historical perspective, the Christian faith was and is a foreign and strange faith to every nation and ethnic group to which it came, with the exception of one: the people of Israel. The Bible was their Scripture before it was ours. Jesus was their Messiah before he was ours.
God invites people from all nations to join him and his saints in the great feast of his kingdom. All who repent of their sins, and who embrace the forgiveness and life of Christ, are welcome. All sins are pardoned.
God is not ashamed to draw us to himself in peace and reconciliation. He is not ashamed to be in table fellowship with redeemed humanity. He is not ashamed to invite us to his sacred dinner. And our Jewish friends should not be offended if we remind them of the Lord’s invitation to them too.
Gentile Christians do need to be sensitive to the fact that many atrocities were perpetrated on the ancestors of the Jewish people of today by those who claimed to be acting in the name of Christ. The history of the interaction between Judaism and the institutions of Christendom is not a history of which we can be very proud. But none of this negates the Lord’s love for the Jewish people, and his desire that they would come to know the true and liberating meaning of the oracles of God that they still preserve.
Our willingness to invite our Jewish friends to believe in their Savior does not flow from a desire to exalt or vindicate ourselves, and certainly not from a desire to exalt or vindicate the professing Christians of the past who mistreated their Jewish neighbors. It flows instead from God himself, and from the love of God that is shed abroad in our hearts by his Holy Spirit. It flows from a desire to exalt God, and what he has done for all of us in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The true church has always had a special desire to bring the message of Christ to the Jewish people. In one of the traditional prayers of the church, we intercede to the Lord for the work of missions and evangelism in these words: “Send forth laborers into your harvest, and open the door of faith to all the heathen and to the people of Israel.”
Martin Luther on one occasion wrote a kind, respectful, and hopeful letter to a Jewish convert named Bernhard. He said this:
“Now since the golden light of the Gospel rises and shines, the hope is at hand that many of the Jews will be...converted and drawn in earnestness to Christ, like you and some others have been, who are the remnant of the seed of Abraham, which is supposed to be saved through grace. For the one who has begun it will also lead it to completion and not allow his word to return to him empty. ...you recently learned to know [Christ] from the Gospel, and into [him] you now finally also are baptized in the Spirit and are born from God. I...would wish that through your example and your work, Christ might also be made known among other Jews, who were predestined, are called, and shall come to their king David, in order that he might lead and save them... Conduct yourself well in the Lord, and pray for me.”
Luther’s wish has been fulfilled many times over. The history of our Lutheran Church is adorned with the life and faith of many from among the “people of Israel” who embraced Christ - or rather, who were embraced by Christ - through the ministry of the Lutheran Church.
The composer Felix Mendelssohn, the church historian August Neander, and the theologian Friedrich Philippi are three nineteenth-century figures who come readily to my mind.
In our synod we also have a special place in our hearts for Carl Caspari, a learned and pious theology professor at the University of Christiana in Norway, who had been raised in a Jewish family, and who trained several of the men who eventually became the founding pastors of our church body.
Richard Wurmbrand, the famous pastor who endured horrific persecutions in the last century in communist Romania, is also a Jewish Lutheran believer.
As Jesus also says, the door to God’s kingdom, where table fellowship with the patriarchs and prophets can be enjoyed, is narrow. It is too narrow to accommodate all the various pathways of works-righteousness that each person may devise in his own mind, thereby making himself his own savior. Instead, this door is wide enough for only one pathway, and for faith in only one Savior.
The only Savior who can get you into this feast is the Savior who took all your sins upon himself, and who then carried those sins to his cross to atone for them in your place. You don’t get automatically admitted through this door just because you are ethnically and culturally Jewish. You are also not automatically barred from this door just because you are ethnically and culturally non-Jewish.
Instead, as Jesus says to a Jewish audience: “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves cast out.” And as he also says to this audience, and to us: “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.”
Whatever your national heritage may be, there is a place for you at God’s table. But do always remember that there is, as it were, a mezuzah attached to the doorsill of the narrow door that brings you to this table!
We close with these words from the Lord himself, as recorded in the book of Isaiah:
“...the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, ...to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. ... For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord.” Amen.