7 October 2007 - Pentecost 19 - Luke 17:1-10

“And [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!’”

There are a lot of things in this world that are inevitable and unavoidable. It’s often said that the two things you can’t avoid in this life are death and taxes. But here Jesus tells us that there is at least one more unavoidable thing: temptations to sin.

Temptations to sin are a much more serious problem than taxes. They are more dangerous even than death, since death is sometimes a portal to heaven. But the kind of temptations Jesus is describing here are never that.

The Greek word translated as “temptations to sin” is “skandala.” Sometimes this is rendered in English as “stumbling block.” But the word doesn’t refer to an ordinary block or stone over which a person may trip as he walks.

In the Greek usage of the day, this term was used, in its literal sense, to describe the equivalent of a trip wire in an ancient animal trap. When the animal stumbled over the skandalon, it thereby triggered the trap mechanism and made itself a captive.

Life is full of these trip wires. But the fact that they are all around us doesn’t mean that we should ignore them or think of them as no big deal. If you find yourself in a desert that is filled with ornery rattlesnakes and aggressive scorpions, you will not ignore the danger they pose just because there are a lot of them all around you. Instead, your alertness will be intensified. And if you’re stung or bitten, you’ll still try to avoid getting stung or bitten a second or a third time.

That’s the way it is with the spiritual danger that surrounds us in this world. It’s easy to get bitten or stung by the devil and those who serve him. It’s easy to get stuck in the traps that God’s enemies set for God’s people.

But we should never lose our sense of horror and revulsion at the thought of offending and disobeying God. Even if we see a hundred other people doing so - with no apparent qualms of conscience - we must never become comfortable with the idea of following the lead of those who would draw us away from God and his goodness.

And may we never entertain the thought that there would be no serious consequences if we ourselves, through a bad example or sinful coaxing, might be the ones to lead others away from God and his ways.

As Jesus says, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”

And so, with an awareness of the danger that is all around us, we listen to our Lord as he goes on to say, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Note that Jesus doesn’t say, “pay attention to yourself,” in the singular. He says, “pay attention to yourselves,” collectively.

The church is a body of believers. We are united to each other in many ways. And one of the ways in which we are united is in our diligence and concern regarding each other’s spiritual safety.

Do you remember Cain’s response when God asked him where his brother Abel was? He snapped back, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, yes, he was his brother’s keeper! And you are your brother’s keeper too.

If you saw your biological brother wandering toward the edge of a precipice, wouldn’t you call out to him to warn him? Or would you debate in your own mind whether you should really say anything, since he might resent it if you seemed to be telling him where to go or what to do?

If your biological sister has fallen into a den of rattlesnakes, and has already been bitten by one of them, wouldn’t you rush over and pull her out as quickly as possible? Or would you hesitate to intervene, with the thought that she might not like it if you involved yourself in her personal affairs?

If your spiritual brother has sinned - if he has gotten himself caught in a trap that Satan laid for him - would you rebuke him and implore him to repent of his sin? Or would you be silent, and do nothing?

Perhaps you might think that if you in the past have been guilty of the same sin, or a similar sin, then you would have no right to criticize someone else for doing what you yourself previously did. But that’s ridiculous. Would a man who had been stung by a scorpion in the past refrain - for that reason - from telling his friend that he was about to step on a scorpion?

Actually, those who have previously had a bout with a certain sin may be the best people to warn others of the dangers of that sin. Men and women who had fornicated before marriage, and later repented of it, may be the best ones to tell teenagers that sexual intimacy without commitment is not all its cracked up to be by the Hollywood culture.

People who have overcome a struggle with alcohol or drugs may be the best ones to admonish those who are still trapped in the web of chemical dependency, and to impress upon them the need to call upon the Lord for supernatural deliverance.

A decision to remain silent or to do nothing when a brother or sister in Christ is in such spiritual danger, would be just as wrong as a decision not to warn someone about the danger of falling off a cliff, and just as indefensible as a decision to allow a hapless person to remain trapped in a den of poisonous snakes.

I fear, though, that many of us - or maybe I should say all of us - have remained silent at times like this, when we should have said something. We have remained inactive, when we should have done something. We have allowed our brothers and sisters in Christ to be led into temptation, and we have stood by while their faith was attacked and ravaged by the enemy of their souls.

We didn’t warn them about the trip wires. We didn’t try to rescue them from the traps into which they had fallen. We didn’t do what the members of the Christian church are collectively told to do: “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”

You and I are often in need of being rebuked ourselves, not only for the personal sins into which we fall, but also for our loveless negligence in not rebuking and correcting those whom we have a duty to rebuke and correct.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are the goal of any rebuke. The goal is not to make ourselves feel superior by pointing out the shortcomings of others. Rather, we are genuinely grieved when a brother or sister strays from the safe pathways of Christ. We want only good for them, when we warn them of spiritual danger, and when we speak to them of the judgment of God against those who make God their enemy.

The Christian Church is a community that is defined by forgiveness. We confess in the creeds that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, and that we acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.

The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is the forgiveness of God. God’s forgiveness is his declaration of pardon and reconciliation, by which he makes it known to us that he will treat us as if we had never done or said anything wrong.

In forgiving us, God declares that he will not count our sins against us. The reason why this is possible, is because he already counted our sins against his Son Jesus Christ, who carried them to the cross and died for them there.

And, in forgiving us, God declares that he will credit to us the perfection and sinlessness of Jesus. That’s what our repentance prepares us for. That’s what our faith receives when we trust in our Savior’s gracious pardon.

And the forgiveness we have received from God bleeds over into our human relationships - even the ones that are strained and tested by many difficulties. A forgiven heart is also a forgiving heart.

This is not a matter of coercion as far as the new spiritual nature of a Christian is concerned. In Christ we want to extend to others the joy that we have in our relationship with God. We want to be at peace with others, as God is at peace with us. We want to share the life and love of God with all men.

When erring brothers and sisters have repented, and with the Lord’s help have turned away from the danger and destructiveness of sin, we joyfully embrace them in the love of Christ. In the strength of Christ we pardon their offense, and in the patience of Christ we overlook their weakness.

St. Paul has more to say about this in his epistle to the Colossians: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience - bearing with one another, and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other. As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.”

There is indeed a mutuality to these things. As we forgive others, so we ask them to forgive us when we fail and hurt them. As we prayerfully lift up others in their time of need, so we in humility are willing to let them lift us up and encourage us when we have stumbled.

And Jesus goes on to say this: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

Remember that stumbling blocks, and temptations to sin, are all around us. They are, in the end, impossible to avoid. But as often as a man falls into these traps and sins, that’s as often as we are to be willing to forgive him and give him yet another chance.

Repenting is not a matter of simply saying that you are sorry. It is a matter of truly being sorry - that is, hating the sin, and sincerely wanting to be delivered from it. God will, of course, judge hypocrisy and unbelief. He knows the heart of man, and can see through any deception.

But you and I cannot read hearts and minds. So, unless there is objective and persuasive evidence of dishonesty, if someone says that he is sorry, we are to believe him and take him at his word. And if that happens seven times in a day, so be it.

The model we follow as we bear with one another and forgive one another is the grace of Jesus Christ toward each of us. You and I each sin against God a lot more than seven times in a day. Our thoughts, words, and deeds are thoroughly contaminated by selfishness, laziness, pride, and a host of other vices.

But as often as we repent, and ask for God’s mercy, we receive that mercy. And even if we are not overtly conscious of all the sinful weaknesses that afflict us, God already forgives them, and strengthens us to overcome them.

The Lord’s Supper is perhaps one of the most vivid illustrations of God’s willingness in Christ to forgive us, repeatedly and continuously. This sacrament is not like Baptism, which is received only once. Instead, it sustains the penitent faith of Christians throughout their lives. It is to be received often, as our conscience dictates to us our need for the blessings that it offers.

A healthy faith is a faith that craves what Jesus bestows on his disciples, when he says: “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. ... Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

Martin Chemnitz speaks of this in a way that may not be familiar to all of us. But his words do reflect the genuine guidance and encouragement that our beloved Lutheran Church would give to her communing sons and daughters. He writes:

“...the rule about when and how often one should go to Communion must be taken, [first], From the [Biblical] teaching about the fruit and power of the Eucharist, namely, when and as often as we recognize that we have need of this power; [and, second], From the [Biblical] teaching about self-examination, lest we receive it unworthily. On this basis people are to be taught, admonished, and exhorted to more diligent and frequent use of the Eucharist.”

“For because Christ says: ‘As often as you do this,’ it is wholly His will that those who are His disciples should do this frequently. Therefore those are not true and faithful ministers of Christ who in any manner whatever lead or frighten people away from more frequent use and reception of the Eucharist.”

“There are beautiful examples of frequent use of the Eucharist from the true antiquity. Some had the custom of receiving the Eucharist daily; some twice a week; some on the Lord’s Day, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday; [and] some only on the Lord’s Day.”

We forgive our penitent brothers and sisters as often as they need forgiveness, because Jesus forgives us as often as we need forgiveness - in the Lord’s Supper, in Holy Absolution, and in the general comforts of the Gospel in whatever form they come to us. And we are certainly not to be less patient, or more demanding, in dealing with our fellow Christians, than Jesus is when he deals with us.

“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Amen.

14 October 2007 - Pentecost 20 - Luke 17:11-19

Leprosy, in first-century Palestine, was a horrible disease to have. The effects it had on a person’s body were bad enough, but according to the law of Moses the onset of leprosy also meant separation from society. A leper was a social outcast, cut off from all normal activities and relationships.

The New Testament scholar William Arndt describes this disease, and the life of those who were afflicted by it. This description is not for the squeamish, but we cannot fully understand the significance of what happened to the ten lepers in today’s Gospel unless we know how serious their problem really was.

Dr. Arndt wrote: “The people afflicted with this contagious plague were not permitted to mingle with the inhabitants of towns and villages, but had to live in lonely places, where they had contact with nobody except such as suffered from the same disease. The Old Testament Law, Leviticus 13, had so ordained. ...”

“Leprosy, said to be caused by a bacillus affecting, in the first place, the skin, produces ulcerations and deformations; the mucus membrane of the mouth and larynx are attacked, too. As the disease develops, the hair falls out, the nose and lips frequently are eaten away, and the bones and joints are dissolved. Lepers had to warn healthy people against approaching them by uttering the cry ‘Unclean.’ No human cure was known at the time. If any leper thought he was healed, [according to Leviticus 14] he had to show himself to the priest to have the cure authenticated, and his mingling with healthy people officially permitted.”

The ten lepers who called out to Jesus believed that he had the power to heal them. In this respect they had a higher regard for Jesus than did most of the Jewish religious leadership.

The scribes and Pharisees considered Jesus to be a deceiver, a false prophet, and perhaps even a man in league with the devil. They weren’t inclined to come to Jesus for help with any problem, whether spiritual, emotional, or physical.

But the lepers did come to him, and ask for his help. And he did help them. Jesus did not let them down. They had a need, and he met it. They had a problem, and he solved it. He showed himself to be an invaluable resource of supernatural power, and they were glad to have the chance to tap into that resource.

For nine of the lepers, that’s as far as this thing went. But for one of them, the importance of Jesus in his life went beyond this.

For this former leper - who happened to be a Samaritan - Jesus was more than a supernatural resource to be exploited. He was the living presence of God among men, to be worshiped and praised. And so this leper “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks.”

There are many examples of popular preaching today - especially on television, but not limited to television - that presents Jesus in a way similar to how those nine ungrateful lepers saw him. Jesus is presented as a supernatural resource - a heavenly problem-solver. We are encouraged to come to him with the problems in life that we have identified, and to seek his help with those problems.

If someone suffers from an addiction, or lacks a feeling of purpose in his life, or has a hard time controlling his temper, or is in financial need, or suffers from a bodily ailment of some kind, then he’s encouraged to call upon the Lord for help.

And that’s about it. This is the “therapeutic gospel” that has replaced the genuine Biblical Gospel in a lot of the popular religion of our age.

The genuine Biblical Gospel deals with the true, fundamental problem of humanity. Our most basic problem is that we are by nature sinful and unclean - contaminated with a deep and disfiguring spiritual leprosy. We are born into a state of spiritual death, and come into this world separated from God.

All the other problems we have - bodily illness and death, flaws in our personal character, emotional distress - flow from, and are based on, this most fundamental problem. If we treat these secondary problems without treating the primary one, we are really treating symptoms, and not the underlying spiritual disease.

But when the primary problem is dealt with - and when our relationship with God is restored in Christ - then the blessing of God begins to flow into our lives in many different ways. And God does then graciously work on the various things that trouble and hurt us.

On his own initiative, God solved this most fundamental human problem through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. In Christ God provided a perfect substitute for fallen man, and a perfect sacrifice for man’s sin.

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us. Those who in faith know the risen Christ as the victor over sin and death, and as the forgiver of sin, are therefore not consumed by divine wrath, but are enlivened by divine love.

The men who came to the Lord for help with their leprosy problem were told to go show themselves to a priest. This was in accord with the law of Moses. A priest was authorized to make a judgment as to whether a leper had been healed, and if so, whether he had permission to return to society.

Jesus caused these lepers to be healed while they were on their way to the priests. The nine who did not return to give thanks continued on their way, satisfied that they had gotten from Jesus what they wanted. They were looking forward to being pronounced “clean,” so that they could resume their lives where they had left off - before they got sick.

But the Samaritan was not interested only in going back to the way things used to be. He knew now that things were never going to be the same. And he also knew that before going to the priest to be certified as healed, he should go back to Jesus - or rather, that he absolutely needed to go back to Jesus - and to thank him for the mercy he had shown.

Jesus was indeed the true high priest - the ultimate priest who would offer himself on the altar of the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. And the Samaritan who had been healed - physically and now also spiritually - needed to go and show himself to this great, divine-human high priest.

He needed to hear the forgiving pronouncement of Jesus that he was now clean - that his sin had been washed away, and that his conscience was clear before God. And with joy he listened to the life-giving words that his Lord spoke to him: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

The man’s life belonged to the Lord now, and he knew it. He owed him everything. He was no longer going to decide on his own what he wanted in life, and then ask God to help him achieve it.

Rather, from now on, God was going to set his agenda. He would let God identify his needs, and then meet them according to his own divine wisdom.

In contrast to this Samaritan, the blessing that the other nine lepers had received from Jesus was, literally, only skin deep. Their souls remained in the same cancered and cankerous spiritual condition they had been in before.

And what about us? Might we actually be in the same spiritual condition as those nine ungrateful lepers?

You can’t comfort yourself to the contrary only on the basis of your belief in God’s power to accomplish good things in your life. The nine ungrateful lepers believed that too.

You also can’t assure yourself of a good standing with God simply because you seek the Lord’s help to achieve happiness in your family life, or success in your business, or stability in your emotions, or even healing from some physical malady. That’s what the nine ungrateful lepers also did.

But their hearts did not see Jesus for who he really was. He was embraced as a man who could fix problems, but not as the Savior who has solved the deepest human problem - the problem of sin - by his death on the cross.

Jesus was accepted as a person who could give them a better life in this world, but not as the Person - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh - who could justify them before God and fit them for eternal life in the world to come.

Jesus doesn’t want you to be like those nine men who did not return to give thanks. He wants you to be like the one man who did.

And by the convicting power of his law, and the regenerating power of his Gospel, he can and will cause you to be like that one faithful, humble Samaritan, who knelt before the Lord and praised God for what he had done in and through Jesus. His Spirit can and will give you a faith that sees Jesus to be the great high priest, to whom you joyfully present yourself after your cleansing, and whom you acknowledge to be the Lord and master of all things.

By the blood of Jesus you have been made clean. The Word of God has declared you to be pure and holy in Christ, covered by his righteousness and healed by his wounds. You have been given a faith that looks up, beyond the horizons of this world, to the heavenly home where all tears will be wiped away, and all diseases healed forever.

And in response to what Jesus has done for you, you, like the Samaritan, turn back to the Lord before you go on with your life. In this sanctuary you praise God with a loud voice. You fall on your face at Jesus’ feet - figuratively if not literally - giving him thanks.

In humility you acknowledge your sin and ask for the Lord’s continuing mercy. And Jesus then declares to you, in his absolution and benediction, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

In Jesus, as you cling to him in faith, you have indeed been made well. In Jesus, as you cling to him in faith, your sins are forgiven. In Jesus, as you cling to him in faith, you are cleansed from all spiritual leprosy, and restored to fellowship with your God. Amen.

21 October 2007 - Pentecost 21 - 2 Tim. 3:14-4:5

In today’s second lesson, St. Paul is writing to his young protege and spiritual son Timothy. Timothy is a minister of the Gospel, and in the two epistles that he wrote to him, Paul gives him guidance and encouragement for his public ministry.

In the particular passage that is appointed for today’s lesson, however, some of what St. Paul says applies to all Christians, not just to pastors. He tells Timothy - and all of us - some extremely important things about the Holy Scriptures, and about the role that God wants the Scriptures to play in our lives.

Paul reminds Timothy: “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings.” The Greek term translated as “childhood” is actually the term that is used to describe the time of infancy, as compared to toddlers or older children. So, what Paul is saying here is that Timothy has been acquainted with the Scriptures since he was a baby.

Timothy’s mother Eunice, and his grandmother Lois, are referred to by Paul elsewhere as pious and faithful women. They were Jewish. When they heard Paul’s preaching about Jesus and his fulfillment of the Messianic promises, they believed this preaching, and became prominent members of the early church.

This is the family in which Timothy was raised. From the time of his birth, his mother and grandmother saw to it that he was brought to the synagogue, and later to the gatherings of the Christian congregation. As he grew up, they taught him about God, about the Ten Commandments, and about the message of the prophets concerning the coming Messiah. They made sure that he knew about God’s saving acts in history, and about God’s grace and love in Timothy’s own life.

The message of the Scriptures - in his case the Old Testament Scriptures - was brought to Timothy in many ways. It is highly unlikely that Timothy’s family actually owned copies of the sacred texts. This was before the advent of the printing press, and only in the rarest of cases did someone other than a rabbi or a religious scholar actually have copies of the Scriptures in his own possession.

But these pious women brought Timothy to the services of God’s house, where the Scriptures were chanted out loud and expounded. They taught him at home about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; about Moses and the prophets; about Samuel and the judges; about David and the kings. They conveyed the saving message of the Bible to young Timothy, even though they were likely not able to read to him directly from a copy of the Bible.

What a wonderful blessing we have today, in comparison to the circumstances of Timothy’s family. I would venture to guess that every single family of our congregation owns several copies of the Bible, in perhaps two or three different translations. The Catechism, perhaps in more than one edition, is also easy to find on the bookshelves in many of our homes.

How easy it is for us to instruct our children and grandchildren in God’s Word as they are growing up - in addition to bringing them to church and Sunday School. I wonder, though, if we are as diligent in these matters as Eunice and Lois were. I wonder if our children and grandchildren know as much about God’s Word as Timothy did.

It’s never too early to start teaching them. Timothy was acquainted with the sacred writings from infancy. It’s a wonderful thing when someone who was raised in a Christian family is not able to remember a time when he or she was not in church on Sunday mornings. It’s a wonderful thing when a child is not able to remember a time when he or she did not already know about Jesus and his love.

Young children learn a lot more from being in God’s house than we may realize. They are able to develop a healthy sense of feeling “at home” with the sounds and activities of church. And, of course, God’s Word has miraculous, supernatural power.

God’s Word fills and permeates everything that goes on in a proper worship service. Through his Word - as it is read, preached, sung, and prayed - God is able to touch the heart and mind of even the youngest baptized Christian. Who are we to say otherwise?

The place for all of the Lord’s children, on the Lord’s Day, is in the Lord’s House. All of us, beginning in infancy and extending throughout life, are blessed by any opportunity we have to be exposed to the Scriptures and their message, so that we can become better and better acquainted with the Scriptures and their message.

And the reason why there is such blessing attached to this Biblical exposure, is because of what the Scriptures are able to do for us. St. Paul says: “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is careful to say that the Scriptures are able to make a person wise for salvation - and not that they always will do so. People who read the Bible in order to find things to criticize or mock, and who harden their hearts against the testimony of the Holy Spirit that comes through Scripture, will not be benefitted by their reading.

The ability of the Scriptures to make us wise for salvation is its ability to impress its message upon our hearts and minds. The Holy Spirit works through this message, to show us our need for God, and to show us God’s fulfillment of that need in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. There’s something supernatural going on, when you read the Bible with an openness to what God would say to you.

As you read the Bible, the Bible reads you. It discerns the thoughts, hopes, and fears of your heart. It judges your selfishness and pride, and humbles you before the majesty of God’s holiness. It then makes Christ known to you, revealing to your heart and mind who he is, what he did, and what he continues to do.

Notice that Paul uses the word “wise”: Scripture makes you wise for salvation through faith. The intellect of the thinking Christian certainty is engaged when the Bible is read and pondered. But the faith that is engendered in us by God’s Word and Spirit, and by which we are saved, is not limited to the knowledge of the intellect.

It is a matter of wisdom - holy, heavenly wisdom. Our salvation is not just about the facts of theology and religious history. It’s about how those facts all fit together, pointing to the deeper reality of Christ, and bringing Christ into our life.

God’s Word does not simply inform your mind. It suppresses and kills your old nature, and it bestows on you a new, Christ-like nature.

And the salvation that it brings to you, is a salvation that is received by faith in Christ Jesus. God’s point of entry into your life is his Word of promise. He tells you things in Scripture.

He tells you that Jesus died for you, so that you need not die forever on account of your sins. He tells you that Jesus rose again for you, so that you can live for eternity. He tells you that your sins are forgiven. You are pardoned, reconciled, and adopted as his own dear child.

These are all things that God tells you through the Bible. The way to receive something that somebody tells you, is to believe it. Therefore, the way to receive these promises and pledges from God, and to benefit from them, is to believe them.

As often as God tells us these wonderful things, that’s as often as we believe them. And we live in that faith.

Our faith is not focused on things that we simply wish would be so. Our faith does not create a religion to believe in, based on our own imagination or sentimental guesses. Rather, our faith is created by what God reveals to be so. It is built on his objective truth.

And the Scriptures are objective truth, which has its origin in God himself. St. Paul continues: “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” He’s not speaking here merely about the human authors of the Bible. He’s telling us about the Scriptures themselves.

The sacred texts are breathed out by God, or inspired. They are more than simply the Biblical author’s opinions about God, or their accounts of their experiences with God. Rather, these writings are God’s own message to us.

They are brought to us through human beings, in human form and language, so that human beings like us can understand and grasp them. But their origin is ultimately in God.

Luther considered the two natures in the person of Christ to be a good analogy to the divine and human natures in Scripture. He wrote that “Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written and, so to speak, lettered and put into the form of letters, just as Christ, the eternal Word of God, is clothed in humanity.”

Many theologians over the years have expanded on this observation. Elling Hove said it this way:

“Christ was God and man in one person. In the Holy Scriptures there is also a certain union of the divine and the human element. Christ was like us in all things, but He was altogether without sin. The Holy Scriptures resemble human writings in many respects, but they are without the human liability to err. The human nature of Christ was permeated by His divine nature. The whole of the Holy Scripture, which is indeed not without its human element, is given by inspiration of God and is the Word of God.”

As the inspired Word of God, the Holy Scriptures are, as St. Paul writes, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

We live in a world of competing value systems, competing truth-claims, and competing moral codes. Without an anchor to stabilize us, we can easily be tossed to and fro by the shifting waves of popular opinion. Without a reliable standard of truth, we can be easily confused and deceived - especially with our own sinful nature serving as a co-conspirator with the world and the devil against our soul’s salvation.

But when we have the Scriptures, we have the anchor and the standard that we need. We are able to know what is right and wrong, true and false. We are able to distinguish between ideas and actions that would lead us away from God, and ideas and actions that God himself is instilling and working in us.

The Scriptures are profitable for teaching. This refers to the kind of instruction that takes place in a catechism class, a Bible Class, or a sermon. The Scriptures are the source of our doctrine. The apostles and prophets are no longer living among us, but they continue to carry out their teaching ministry through the Scriptures that God led them to write.

The Scriptures are profitable for rebuke. It’s not popular today to tell someone that he is wrong or mistaken. It’s O.K. for people to have opinions, even religious opinions, but convictions about what is true or false for everybody are now out of bounds. Tolerance is the new idol, to which all knees must bow.

But God doesn’t se it this way. He has given us the Scriptures so that we can be rebuked when we err. In Christ we want to be told that we are wrong, when we are wrong, because we do not want to be led away from the Lord and his goodness.

God has reasons for telling us what to believe and do, that are more compelling that the reasons we might come up with to believe and do differently. If we are smart, we will listen to him. He knows a lot more about everything than you or I do.

The Scriptures are profitable for correction. Through his Word God does not simply tell us that we are wrong, but he also straightens us out, and puts us back on the right pathway. He takes no pleasure in our mistakes. Instead, he uses the Scriptures to help us to undo our mistakes, and to try again.

And the Scriptures are profitable for training in righteousness, that we may be competent in our calling, and equipped for every good work.

When you repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus, his perfect righteousness is credited to you as if it were your own. The righteousness of his Son, which God gives you, is the only righteousness that impresses and satisfies God.

Your own flawed and corrupted righteousness, if you were to present that to God, would only invite God’s judgment. But in Christ, your loving and forgiving God offers and gives what he demands. Through faith in Christ you are justified. In Christ you have the righteousness before God that you need, and that makes you acceptable to him.

As a Christian who is justified by faith, and in whom the Spirit of God lives, you will now have a desire to become more and more like Christ in the way you think, speak, and act. God sanctifies you, and according to your new nature he prompts you to follow the precepts of his Word in the way you live your life.

You will never fully succeed in becoming a sinless person in this lifetime. Your good works will never be good enough, in and of themselves. In your penitence you will always need to hear God’s Biblical Word of pardon for your failings - and for the sake of Christ you will always hear it.

But as God’s Spirit teaches you and leads you, you will not be discouraged. With God’s help, and with the guidance of his Scriptures, you will grow in your ability and willingness to love God and your neighbor in the way that God would want you to.

And the Scriptures instruct and train you to know what true love in this respect really is. As you live in Christ, clinging to him alone for salvation, you will grow in righteousness as far as your own behavior is concerned, even as you are continually covered with Christ’s perfect righteousness as far as your standing with God is concerned.

The Bible is a precious gift from God to his church. It is his precious gift to you, and to your children and grandchildren. Do not ignore, or underestimate, this great treasure.

May its message about Christ comfort you and save you. May its divine power fill you and transform you. May its teaching, rebukes, corrections, and training serve you and help you in your life of faith. Make use of God’s Word, so that God’s Word can make use of you.

“...from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

28 October 2007 - Reformation Sunday - Rev. 14:6-7

As the very first verse of the Book of Revelation tells us, this book was “sent and signified” by God to John the apostle. “Signified” indicates that it was revealed in the form of signs or symbols. So, when we are trying to figure out the meaning of any particular section of the book, the only approach that we would usually want to eliminate at the outset would be to follow a strictly literal interpretation.

The Book of Revelation is not a straightforward account of events - whether past, present, or future. Pretty much everything in the book is a sign, or a symbolic picture, that points to a deeper reality. This is the “decoding key,” as it were, that the first verse of the book gives us.

Over the centuries people with vivid imaginations have had a lot of fun with this book, suggesting various interpretations of its imagery that tended to intersect with the events of the interpreter’s own age. The passage that was read as today’s first lesson, from Revelation chapter 14, is one that has been decoded in more than one way.

“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth...’”

Several years ago I heard a Christian television broadcaster say that he thought this passage was describing Christian radio and television. The technology of the twentieth century made it possible for the Gospel to “fly directly overhead,” as it were, by means of broadcast signals going through the air, all over the world.

At the time of the Reformation, however, and for quite a while afterwards, a different interpretation of this passage was commonly advocated among Lutherans. The angel who had an eternal gospel to proclaim was interpreted as none other than Martin Luther. In fact, that’s why this lesson is appointed to be read on the festival of the Reformation.

Quite honestly, I don’t know if this passage refers to religious broadcasting, or to Martin Luther, or to something or someone else. But I do know that it is possible to have confidence in our interpretation of at least one aspect of this passage.

There’s one phrase that we can interpret literally, and from which we can draw spiritual strength and encouragement. What I’m talking about is the reference to the “eternal gospel” that is, in one way or another, proclaimed to all nations and people.

The Gospel is eternal. It doesn’t change.

Humanity’s deepest problem is its sinful rebellion against God and his ways, together with the alienation from God and man that sin causes. That problem doesn’t change. Generation after generation is born in the same fallen condition, with the same selfish and destructive impulses.

But God’s solution to that problem doesn’t change either. His solution is still encapsulated in the simple yet profound message of the Gospel - the good news about God’s love; the good news about God’s incarnation in the person of his Son Jesus Christ; the good news about Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection; and the good news about the forgiveness and restoration that God’s Spirit offers to all people in his Word and Sacrament.

This is the eternal Gospel. This message will never change for as long as this world lasts. And in the next world, those who will spend eternity with God, in the joy of heaven, will do so because of this eternal Gospel.

There has always been opposition to the eternal Gospel, for as long as this Gospel has been proclaimed. The world, the flesh, and the devil are uncompromising in their antagonism to this Gospel, because they are the sworn enemies of the human race, which the Gospel is designed to save.

But, while the Gospel itself does not change, the form that this opposition to the Gospel takes does change, according to the circumstances of history.

At the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Luther and his coworkers spoke out in opposition to the theological and moral corruptions of the institutional church. And, they spoke out in favor of a purified and reinvigorated proclamation of the eternal Gospel.

The Gospel in its essence had never been completely silenced during the Middle Ages. The Nicene Creed, for example, chanted or recited in every church on every Lord’s Day, had always testified to the saving truths of Christ’s divinity, his death and resurrection, and the gift of divine remission of sins bestowed on man through the means of grace.

Unfortunately, however, this was not the only message that worshipers heard when they went to church. This continuing testimony of the Gospel was mixed together with other harmful ideas, which contradicted the Gospel, and which were in competition against the Gospel for the souls of men.

What finally set Luther off were the abuses connected with the penitential system of the Medieval Church. A conglomeration of merits and satisfactions, good works and indulgences, was “served up” to troubled consciences by the clerics, with the assurance that this would bring them the spiritual relief they needed.

People yearning for certainty in their faith were directed, not to the cross of Christ and the comforts of Holy Absolution, but to their own efforts and religious exercises, and even to the financial disbursements they had made to the church in the purchase of indulgences.

These humanly-devised methods for dealing with the problem of sin kept the confused Christians of the late Middle Ages in a constant state of uncertainty about the grace of God. And these methods obscured the genuine gospel, with its powerful message of peace and pardon.

Only the eternal Gospel could truly have lifted the burden of guilt from a penitent sinner, and have brought to the sinner God’s justification - that is, the divine declaration of a right standing before God.

And so, Luther, as a knowledgeable Bible scholar and as a faithful pastor, drew everyone’s attention to what God’s Word actually says about the way of salvation. He drew attention to the teaching of today’s second lesson from the Epistle to the Romans, where the apostle Paul says:

“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

The Reformation movement spread like wildfire throughout Europe. It spread by virtue of the supernatural power of the eternal Gospel, which defined and energized this movement. But the Reformation movement did also stir up opposition.

Those who sat at the top of the medieval ecclesiastical hierarchy knew that this movement threatened their financial and political power. But what they usually appealed to, in order to frighten people away from the Lutherans, was the fear that the Reformation would bring division among the people.

It was important to sixteenth-century society that everybody would believe the same things, and think in the same way. Society would crumble or degenerate into chaos, it was feared, if there were different belief systems and different worldviews among the people.

The eternal Gospel, as the Reformers were proclaiming it, was seen as a threat to the unity of society. People should stop listening to Luther, and stop reading his books. They should also stop reading the Bible on their own.

They should, instead, conform themselves in all respects to the established religion, and submit without question to the authority of the established hierarchy. Only then would the unity of thought and belief in Europe be preserved.

Today, we who still embrace and confess the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ, also still face opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil. But this opposition takes a different form in our time.

Today, uniformity of thought and belief in a society is no longer considered to be a necessary or desirable thing. In fact, just the opposite is the case.

“Tolerance” is the new watchword. It’s considered to be a bad thing for the followers of a particular doctrine to make the claim that everyone should actually believe what they believe.

It’s seen as a dangerous thing for people to think that what they consider to be true for themselves is also objectively true for all people. It is unacceptable for anyone to hold to his religious opinions in such a way as to think that these opinions are more than mere opinions.

And so, the eternal Gospel that we embrace, as our only hope for salvation, is judged by the intellectual establishment to be a threat to the diversity of society. As silly as it may sound, churches like ours - which have life-altering convictions about God and ultimate realities - are actually seen by many as seed beds of potential violence and terrorism.

The ideology of “toleration” is the new idolatry. It is the “religion” of our age. And so, the eternal Gospel - with its claim on the consciences of all, and with its invitation to the consciences of all - cannot be tolerated.

Whether the Gospel is challenged by the intellectual and religious tyranny of the sixteenth century, or by the intellectual and religious tyranny of the twenty-first century, it remains the eternal Gospel.

Anti-Christian Empires - whether Roman, Islamic, or Soviet - have risen and fallen, but this Gospel remains. Christians have been persecuted and martyred for confessing Christ as their only hope - and in some parts of the world men and women are still dying for the name of Jesus - but this Gospel remains.

We are tempted every day to renounce this Gospel, to compromise this Gospel, or to be quiet about this Gospel. But we cannot.

God’s love for us - in saving us by his grace, and in justifying us by faith - compels us to continue to cling to the Gospel that clings to us. Our love for all people - which God’s Spirit engenders within us - compels us to continue to proclaim to the world the forgiving and healing message that has been proclaimed to us.

This is the legacy of the Reformation. I don’t know if Luther is the angel described in the Book of Revelation or not. But I do know that my eternal destiny with God - and your eternal destiny with God - are established and confirmed by the eternal Gospel.

This is the Gospel that Luther proclaimed, and that faithful pastors and preachers throughout history have also proclaimed - and still do proclaim.

“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth...’” Amen.