SERMONS - MAY 2008
4 May 2008 - Easter 7 - 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11
St. Peter writes: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” The apostle’s statement presupposes that we will have anxieties in this life. And he is right.
We do worry about the future. Our uncertainty about what tomorrow may bring causes us - at least at some level - to be afraid of tomorrow.
We all like to be in control of our lives and of our destiny, as much as we can be. This is, I suppose, a manifestation of our common sinfulness. By nature we do not trust in God, but we trust in ourselves.
We don’t want to be surprised by anything. Therefore we try to tie up all the loose ends of our lives, and insulate ourselves from all future hazards and threats.
But the idea that in this world we are able to have that kind of control over our lives is an illusion. As much as we try to be in charge of our destiny, unexpected and unwelcome things do happen.
And so, we worry. We are anxious. We are afraid of our uncertain future. We are afraid of our dangerous world.
As a preacher of the Gospel, St. Peter tells us that this is not to be. He calls upon us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, and to cast all our anxieties on him. And he also gives us the reason why we should do this: “because he cares for you.”
“Because he cares for you.” There’s a lot of meaning packed in that little phrase. God notices you. He is aware of everything that is going on in your life. He is aware of your fears.
And not only is he aware of you and your anguish, but he is also at work in the world, and in your life, to solve your deepest problems, and to satisfy your deepest needs. Earlier in his epistle, St. Peter had reminded us:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
That’s what God has done for us, and is even now doing for us. That’s the extent to which God holds each of us, and our future, in his hands. And that’s why St. Peter now calls on us to cast all our anxieties, and cares, and worries upon him.
We don’t need to know everything that the future holds for us, in order to feel safe as we face the future. All we need to know is that the grace and love of God will be in our future.
He will take care of everything else. As we trust in him, he will protect us from whatever threats may rise against us. As we cling in faith to his promise of eternal life in Christ, he will carry us through whatever dangers may come against us.
That does make us feel safe. And it also causes us not to dwell on the possible bad things that might happen, or to be consumed with fear over such things. God cares about us. God will take care of us.
But as we read St. Peter’s epistle, that good, safe feeling is likely to last only for a moment. Immediately after assuring us of God’s care and protection, St. Peter goes on to say this:
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
We might think that if St. Peter, in this epistle, is trying to help us not to be anxious or afraid, he doesn’t do a very good job of it! As soon as he tells us to cast all our anxieties on the Lord, he then reminds us of the most fearful, evil, and destructive enemy we have in the whole universe: the devil!
In telling us to cast our anxieties on the Lord, who cares for us, St. Peter is not trying to trick us into a feeling of false security. He is not trying to get us to think that there are actually no spiritual dangers out there.
Rather, he is offering comfort - the comfort of the Gospel - even in the face of a very real spiritual danger - a danger that will be hovering around us, and pursuing us, throughout our earthly life.
In speaking to us so frankly and honestly, Peter shows his respect for us as fellow-Christians. He’s not going to patronize us, or play games with us.
He is not going to treat us like the proverbial children who are afraid of the sound of a branch hitting the outside of the house. He’s not going to be like the bemused parent who says to such frightened children, “Don’t worry, there’s not really anything dangerous out there.”
Instead, Peter says this: “Don’t worry. But, there really is something very, very dangerous out there. Be prepared. Don’t ever let your guard down.”
The devil, that fallen angel and the prince of darkness, is very active in the affairs of men. He hates God. But since he can’t get at God directly, he goes after those whom God loves. He goes after us.
Don’t ever underestimate the reality of the devil’s intrigues and temptations. Don’t ever underestimate how dangerous he is.
But as you are on your guard against him, don’t expect him to make an appearance in your life dressed in a red suit and carrying a pitchfork. Expect him to come in disguise. He will disguise himself in the form of something that seems to be good and desirable.
If you let him get close to you, he will seek out your weak point. He will find the chink in your armor. He will enlist your sinful flesh as his natural ally, in his efforts to wrench you away from God, and into his own clutches.
And in the process he will definitely lie to you. He will wear down your sense of right and wrong.
He will whittle away at your convictions. And slowly, ever so slowly, he will lead you to embrace something evil and destructive, that will destroy you. He will devour you.
Does this make you anxious? Does this make you fearful of the future? Well, I suppose these warnings would make anyone afraid - even someone with a strong faith - except for one small detail.
Notice this curious phrase: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” A roaring lion.
In the bush country of Africa, does a roaring lion get a meal very often? No, he doesn’t. A lion needs to depend on stealth, to sneak up on its prey in silence, if it is going to be successful.
A potential victim that is able to hear the lion coming will be able to get out of the way, and prevent the lion from devouring him. So, a roaring lion will not be successful in its efforts - that is, unless it comes upon a seriously injured animal, which cannot run away; or a deaf animal, which cannot hear him approaching.
St. Peter warns us about the lion - about the devil - but he also reminds us that if we remain true to the faith that has been revealed to us, we will be able to hear him when he does approach. And thereby we will be able to remain in spiritual safety. “Resist him, firm in your faith,” the apostle tells us.
The faith that God’s Spirit has bestowed on us in his regenerating Word, and that God preserves in us through his sustaining Word, is a faith that keeps us sharply aware of the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong, between the voice of Christ and the voice of Satan.
The Holy Spirit, in the convicting work that he accomplishes in us through the law, makes us face up to our own failings, and leads us to repent of those failings. The Spirit of Christ also makes us ever more aware of sin in general, and allows us to identify the roar of the lion to be what it is - a satanic temptation to sin, which is to be avoided.
If you would ever harden your heart against the testimony of God’s law, and if you would ever allow yourself to be enticed by sin in such a way that you stop listening to the voice of your conscience, then you would indeed be making yourself into an easy victim for the lion. You would thereby be making yourself deaf to the devil’s roaring.
If you through unbelief would ever push God and his divine might out of your life, you would thereby be making yourself incapable of escaping from the devil’s attack - even if it is a noisy attack.
Without the Spirit of God to empower you, you would be spiritually crippled. And you would be devoured.
But none of this ever has to happen. It is possible to face such temptations without fear that we will succumb to them. It is possible to cast all our anxieties onto God, and to trust him to take care of us, regardless of what the devil might try to do.
Such confidence in the face of uncertainty does not arise from within us. It does not come from us. It comes to us, from God, when God forgives our sins, and when he renews in us the faith by which we have been saved.
And so, even as we contemplate the various intrigues and schemes that the devil is sure to use against us, we are able to have a joyful and bold confidence as we face the future. This is because of the Word of God, which God’s Spirit implants deep within us. Remember this statement by St. Peter from earlier in the epistle:
“you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”
When the law of God brings you under conviction, don’t rationalize your sin, or try to justify it. Instead, in sincere repentance, humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you.
And he will indeed exalt you, in the healing and restoring message of the Gospel - the message of Christ crucified and risen for your salvation. When Jesus says, “I forgive you all your sins,” believe that message, and by faith be filled with life and strength.
When Jesus says, “This is my body, which is given for you”; “this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins,” believe this pledge and promise. And in believing it, cast all your anxieties on the Savior who comes to you in his Word and Sacrament, and who bolsters your faith against all the assaults of the evil foe.
Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpower us.
This world's prince may still Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none, He's judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him. Amen.
11 May 2008 - Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21
Some pretty spectacular things happened on the day of Pentecost. St. Luke describes these occurrences in this way:
“And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
For many people, this is the main thing that they associate with the day of Pentecost - that is, the flames of fire resting on the apostles, and especially the speaking in tongues. “Pentecostalism,” as a movement within Christendom, focuses its attention specifically on these extraordinary and spectacular events.
Pentecostals see the apostles’ experience of speaking in tongues as a testimony of God’s power in their lives. And they seek to appropriate that power for themselves, by appropriating the miraculous phenomenon of speaking in tongues for themselves.
Pentecostal churches are characterized by a strong yearning for miracles and revelations from God. Pentecostal worship is characterized by a fever pitch of religious fervor. This, it is thought, is evidence of the working of the Spirit, just like on the day of Pentecost.
Churches like ours, in comparison, are seen to be quite dull and lifeless. The word “dead” is often used to describe congregations that do not seek after such miracles, and that do not have such emotionally-charged worship services.
With all the claims to spectacular miracles that are often made from within the Pentecostal churches, I suppose we can begin to wonder if we might actually be missing out on something that God wants us to have. If miracles like speaking in tongues occurred among the first Christians on the day of Pentecost, shouldn’t such miracles be occurring among us too?
Might we be closing ourselves off to what the Holy Spirit would like to be doing also in our midst? For the strengthening of our faith, might we want to seek out a more fervent and outwardly miraculous kind of religious experience, as the people on the day of Pentecost had?
Well, before we go down that road, let’s make sure we understand what was really happening on the day of Pentecost. Was the power of Pentecost really about that? Or was it about something else?
It is certainly true that extraordinary events did happen on the day of Pentecost. And those extraordinary events definitely did get the people’s attention.
But how beneficial was the speaking in tongues for the spiritual life of those who heard and witnessed this? How helpful was the speaking in tongues for their faith?
Were the crowds who heard the tongues touched by God’s Spirit through that experience in such a way that they immediately recognized these things as evidence of God’s power? Did they immediately fall to their knees in repentance? Did they in that moment put their trust in Christ?
Well, let’s see what the reaction of the crowd really was. St. Luke tells us: “And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. ... And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”
The reactions included everything from bewilderment and perplexity to mocking derision. But nobody - I repeat, nobody - was brought to repentance and faith as a direct result of the tongues and other extraordinary occurrences that took place.
This does not mean, though, that the Holy Spirit did not work on the day of Pentecost, to call people to repentance and to bring them to faith. Actually, about three thousand people became devout followers of Christ on that day.
But it was not on account of the speaking in tongues or other overt miracles. It was on account of the deeper and more profound miracle of preaching. After the speaking in tongues got the people’s attention, St. Peter rose up to preach a Biblically-based, Christ-centered, law-gospel sermon.
He pointed out that the prophet Joel had predicted the events of this day, and that these events marked the beginning of “the last days” of the world’s history. He went on to tell them about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, declaring that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” and also declaring that “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”
After a couple references to the Psalms of David, with explanations of what those Psalms mean, Peter finally concluded his sermon with these words: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” St. Luke then gives us the reaction to this sermon:
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’”
“And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
That’s quite a different reaction than the reaction they had to the speaking in tongues. Instead of bewilderment and perplexity, Peter’s sermon has now brought the crowd to see their need to repent of their sins - and their need to repent of their complicity in the death of Jesus.
Instead of an attitude of mockery and derision, the people are now filled with the joy and peace of divine forgiveness, as they embrace and experience the blessings of Holy Baptism, and as they are incorporated into the ongoing liturgical and sacramental life of the Christian community.
The day of Pentecost was indeed characterized by great miracles. But the speaking in tongues was not one of them. To be sure, this was a miracle, brought about by God for his own purposes on that day.
But it was not one of the great miracles of that day. The phenomenon of speaking in tongues, all by itself, did not result in the salvation of one soul.
The great miracles on the day of Pentecost were the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacrament. Through these means of grace about three thousand people were saved from their sins, and destined for eternal life.
On the day of Pentecost, the working of God’s Spirit for the creation of faith and the saving of souls was linked, not to the tongues, but to St. Peter’s Biblically-based, Christ-centered, law-gospel sermon. The reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins was linked, not to the tongues, but to the sacrament of Baptism, administered in the name of Jesus according to his institution.
What does this mean for us? A lot! If you want to taste and experience the miracle-working power of Pentecost, don’t seek out that power in the spectacular claims of modern-day Pentecostalism.
Instead, seek out that power where that power resided on the day of Pentecost: in the preaching of the Gospel. Listen carefully to your pastor’s sermons.
If they are based on Scripture, if they speak God’s judgment against sin, and if they point you to Christ as your only hope, you can be assured that the Holy Spirit is working through them, even if there are no extraordinary phenomena associated with them.
Listen, too, to the hymns that we sing. Even though none of today’s hymns are exactly like this, many of our hymns are really just sermons, written in poetic form and set to music. That’s why everyone should join in the singing as well as they can. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a good singer.
When you sing one of those hymns, you’re not performing for people, and you’re not performing for God either. You’re preaching - to the people sitting around you, and to your own soul. And it is through the preaching of the Gospel that the Holy Spirit works faith and spiritual strength in the heart - just like on the day of Pentecost.
Likewise, as St. Peter pointed the penitent crowd to baptism on the day of Pentecost, so too are we, in our penitence, pointed by God’s Word to baptism.
Those who have not yet been baptized are pointed forward to their baptism, with the expectation that a great blessing will be received in that sacred washing. Those who have been baptized are pointed back to their baptism, with the assurance that the gift of God’s Spirit has been sealed to them, and that the gift of God’s forgiveness has been bestowed on them.
We are weak in many ways. Sometimes we are emotionally weak, as we struggle with our fears of the future, with our regrets of the past, and with the uncertainties of life in general.
Sometimes we are physically weak, as we are afflicted with various infirmities that sap our strength and rob us of our health. In the midst of all these weaknesses, we can be led astray by the siren song of spectacular miracles, and by the claims of those who say that we can receive such miracles through them.
It is, of course, true that God does reserve the right to perform extraordinary miracles of healing, for those who are in emotional or physical need. And he has often done so. We would never deny God the right to show mercy to people in these ways when it is according to his will.
But the chief miracle that God wants to perform in your life is not that kind of external healing. It is the healing of your soul through the forgiveness of sins.
The deepest need of all people, whether they be weak or strong, is the need for reconciliation with God and the gift of eternal life in God. And God’s Spirit performs that miracle, over and over and over again, in the ministry of Word and Sacrament that he offers to us in the fellowship of his church. God’s Spirit performs that miracle through the message of Christ crucified for sinners, brought to us and applied to us in both sermon and Supper.
After the events of the day of Pentecost, the Christians in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This was not a let down or a “low,” after the “high” of Pentecost. This was, instead, a continuation of the true power of Pentecost.
The apostles were teaching the people - expounding the Scriptures to them, and recalling the life and deeds of Jesus for them. The members of the congregation were sharing together in the breaking of bread - the sacramental bread of Christ’s body in the Eucharist.
And through these simple yet profound activities, God’s Spirit was working, vigorously and effectively, to draw the people ever closer to their Savior, and ever closer to each other.
As they continued in the prayers - that is, the ordered life of prayer and devotion that the early Christian liturgy provided for the people - they were built up in their faith.
And all of this is available to you too. All of it. Even after 2000 years, the true power of Pentecost is still there, alive and well, in the church of Jesus Christ.
Extraordinary and spectacular miracles come and go. But they’re not really all that important anyway, in the eternal scheme of things. The enduring miracles of Pentecost are not those - not the speaking in tongues and such phenomena.
The enduring miracles of Pentecost are the deeply refreshing, deeply moving miracles of faith and hope, peace and life, which God’s Spirit gives us in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
In Christ we are not bewildered and perplexed by these wonders, and we certainly don’t mock and ridicule them. These miracles, in all of their exhilarating power, remain among us today. As God’s Word comforts us, and as God’s sacraments seal to us the pledge of his forgiveness, we know and experience, now and always, the true power of Pentecost. Amen.
18 May 2008 - Trinity Sunday - Genesis 1:1-2:4
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
It’s an interesting coincidence that the creation account from the book of Genesis presents itself as the appointed lesson for Trinity Sunday, at the same time as Ben Stein’s controversial documentary film, “Expelled,” is making the rounds in movie theaters.
This film points out that a new “dark age” of Darwinian, materialist dogmatism has settled over much of the scientific establishment, and that scientists who wish to pursue the evidence for intelligent design that they see in the material world are often fired, or persecuted in other ways.
There is indeed much evidence for intelligent design in the intricate structures of DNA in all forms of life, and in the precise physical laws that govern matter and energy in this world. It’s a shame that many people in the world of academia have been so thoroughly brainwashed by the ideology of materialist atheism that they can’t see it.
But these scientifically-observable bits of evidence do not reveal who the designer of life and matter is. Some atheistic scientists who are not as closed off to the evidence for intelligent design as many of their colleagues are, have actually proposed that an earlier and higher life form from another planet may have seeded the earth with life, so that the intelligent designer is actually a crew of prehistoric astronauts who visited our world long, long ago.
I kid you not. There are really some scientists who propose this.
In today’s lesson from God’s Word, however, we see a different picture. Of course, the Bible in general, and the book of Genesis in particular, are not to be seen as science textbooks.
The Scriptures do not speak in the technical scientific jargon of any generation - past, present, or future. They do not go into detail in explaining the mechanisms of genetics, the laws of physics, or any other area of scientific inquiry.
There is therefore much work to be done by godly scientists in studying the world in which we live. These scientists can be motivated in this study by their belief that what they are studying is indeed the handiwork of God.
Theologians, for their part, should be hesitant to speak dogmatically in regard to scientific matters that the Bible does not actually address one way or another. They should allow scientists to use their expertise in the pursuit of their calling from God, to the glory of God.
But where the Scriptures do speak, theologians and pastors likewise should speak. And today, the Scriptures speak to us in some very important ways.
It’s not possible in just a few minutes to explore everything that this lengthy reading from the book of Genesis touches on. But on this Trinity Sunday we should think together about some of the things that the creation account tells us about the Triune God, and about the relationship that exists between this God and his creatures.
In the ancient world, the testimony of the book of Genesis, as preserved among the Hebrew people, would have seemed shocking and downright revolutionary to the various pagan nations. They all believed that the heavenly bodies - the sun, the moon, and the stars - were gods.
They prayed to the sun and moon. They sought to appease the sun and moon, and to cajole blessings and favors from the sun and moon.
But here, in the book of Genesis, the sun and moon, and all other heavenly bodies, are described as impersonal creatures of one supreme, personal God. They are not to be the objects of adoration and petition.
Rather, this honor belongs only to the infinite God who stands behind them; who brought them into existence by the power of his word; and who set them in their place to mark times and seasons according to his divine will and purpose.
This also goes for all the earthly objects and natural phenomena that the superstitious peoples of the past deified and worshiped. Mountains and rivers, bulls and birds, were and always have been creatures of the one true God - the maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
Another aspect of the Genesis account that would be shocking and offensive to the ancient pagans is the testimony it gives to the unity of the human race. Most of the old pagan cultures had an independent myth of origin for themselves, which put supreme value on their own existence, but which minimized the value of people in other nations.
These myths of origin usually put forth a far-fetched story of some kind which explained where the people of that nation came from, but which did not include the people of other nations in the story. These pagans therefore did not feel a brotherly connection to their enemies, and as a consequence they became capable of extreme cruelty in their treatment of those enemies.
They could be slaughtered like cattle, because according to the myth of origin in which the conquering nation believed, they were like cattle. They did not spring from the same source. They did not share a common humanity.
But here we have the book of Genesis, telling us about God’s special creation of the original parents of the whole human race. And this man and woman were created in his own image and likeness, no less!
It would have been in the political interest of the Hebrews to have their own myth of origin which excluded the Egyptians, the Canaanites, and other enemies from the human family to which the Hebrews belonged. But in spite of the propaganda value of making up such a tale, the ancient Hebrews did not do this.
Instead, they believed the word of God, who told them that even their earthly enemies were, at the deepest level, their brothers - descendants with them of Adam and Eve.
And this truth about the unity of the human family always remained among God’s people, in spite of their frequently lack of faithfulness to that truth. This truth later prompted King David the Psalmist, and the prophets, to speak of a day when all nations would stream to the Lord’s Zion, and taste of his salvation.
Except for a few crack-pots, nobody today builds altars to the sun, or offers sacrifices to the moon. But the kind of belief system that is held to by those atheist scientists we talked about a few minutes ago is actually similar to this ancient paganism.
To these scientists, the material world is all that exists. It is the ultimate reality. There is no supreme creator standing behind it, giving it meaning and purpose.
This means, therefore, that they put their trust in this material world. It’s what they believe in.
Materialism, in spite of its intellectual trappings, is really a superstition - a superstition in the same basic category of the superstition of the sun-worshipers and moon-worshipers of the past. Materialism attributes to the material world the kind of ultimacy that belongs only to the true God, and not to any creature of God.
I doubt very much that any of you sitting here today are atheists and materialists. But as you work your way through the issues of life, and as you make decisions about how you are going to interact with the people and events you encounter each day, how conscious are you of the fact that there is a creator who stands behind everything, and who is governing and guiding all the processes of nature that surround you?
The decisions that you make in life - ethical decisions, practical decisions, decisions about relationships - all decisions should begin and end with an acknowledgment of the God who made everything, who preserves everything, and who oversees everything that has ever existed.
In this life, you can’t trust ultimately in your own judgment, and you can’t place your confidence ultimately in your own instincts, because God is the one who created your judgment and your instincts. He created you.
So, seek his wisdom. Ask for his help. Pray for his direction and protection in all your ways.
Today there are few people in the world who do not acknowledge the essential unity of the human race. The existence of an organization like the United Nations, and the fact that all countries in the world belong to it, are evidence of this.
We all admit that we are supposed to acknowledge the value and dignity of all other human beings. But we do not always live out that admission in the way we actually treat other people.
We certainly don’t have to approve of the behavior of all people - especially when people break the law, or put others in danger by the way they live. But the obligation that the book of Genesis lays on us to acknowledge all people as brothers and sisters in a common humanity, and to be concerned about their well-being as fellow human beings, does not depend on their moral behavior, their legal status, or any other secondary factor.
God made them, just as he made you and me. They are accountable to him, just as we are. And God’s love for them is also no less intense than is his love for us.
That basic principle of creation applies to all descendants of Adam and Eve, regardless of race or ethnicity. And it also applies to all descendants of Adam and Eve, regardless of physical size and condition of dependency. Unborn human beings are also our brothers and sisters.
We live in a sinful society that does not grant unborn babies any legal rights or objective moral value. But if we believe in the teaching of the book of Genesis - that all human beings descend from common ancestors who were created in the image and likeness of God - then we cannot embrace a “myth of origin” for ourselves, as people who are already born, that would exclude the smallest and most vulnerable members of the human family.
But the common humanity that we share with all other descendants of Adam does not only place obligations on us. It also bestows great blessings on us, especially when we consider the saving work of Jesus Christ - the second Adam.
On this Trinity Sunday we do indeed acknowledge the divinity of Christ. Together with the Holy Spirit he is one in substance with God the Father from all eternity.
As St. Paul reminds us in his epistle to the Colossians, “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
But the world which God created through Christ to be very good became corrupted by the sin of man. Adam and Eve fell away from their fellowship with God through their disobedience to his command, and they brought into themselves, and into all their descendants, the contagion of spiritual death and animosity toward God.
And yet God did not leave us as we were. To save the human race from the guilt and power of sin, God’s Son became a part of that which he sought to save. As a real flesh-and-blood man, he became the substitute for all men under the curse of the law, and he atoned for the sins of the world.
It is Christ’s will that his gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation be preached now to all people - to every single member of the human race. The message of this gospel discloses that he died and rose again for everyone. The blessings of this gospel are intended for everyone, and are to be offered to everyone.
As St. Paul explains it, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
The impact of this gospel on those who have believed it is described by St. Paul in this way: “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”
Again, he writes that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
The doctrine of redemption from sin rises or falls with the doctrine of sin. And the doctrine of sin rises or falls with the doctrine of creation.
Each of us belongs to a human race that was especially created by God, in his image and likeness. Each of us belongs to a human race that fell into sin and death, through the disobedience of our first parents.
Each of us belongs to a human race that was redeemed by Christ, God of God and also our brother according to the flesh. Each of us belongs to a human race that is therefore the object of God’s forgiving and restoring love, as revealed to us in the gospel.
All of us, as creatures of God, are accountable to God. This is true for everyone, because God made everyone, whether or not they believe that it is so. An atheist’s unbelief doesn’t make God go away, just as a Christian’s faith in God doesn’t bring God into existence.
But in faith we are able to know and see who God is, as the supreme creator and governor of the universe. In faith we are also able to know and see the redemption that God has provided for his beloved creatures. In faith you are able to know and see the redemption that God has provided for you.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Amen.
25 May 2008 - Pentecost 2 - Matthew 6:24-34
Around the time I was graduating from high school, a lot of us were listening to a Grammy-Award-winning song by Bob Dylan that had this refrain:
“You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed, You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
As Americans we pride ourselves on the conviction that we are free. We go to great efforts to preserve our political and social freedom, and we are indignant when others infringe on our freedom.
In the realm of our civil life, we do, of course, live in a free society. We do not languish under the kind of military dictatorships or totalitarian police states that many people in the world are forced to endure. And certainly that is a good thing. On Memorial Day we remember those who made the supreme sacrifice in preserving and defending the freedom we enjoy.
But at a deeper level, in terms of what we live for, and why we make the decisions that we make, are we truly free? Is it even possible to be free? Are we not instead, ultimately, all servants of a master of one kind or another?
“You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed, You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
In today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Jesus makes the observation that a person can have only one ultimate master.
He does not, however, leave open the possibility that it’s possible not to have any master. This is not possible. We all have a master.
We all believe in something. We all make our decisions in life on the basis of the conviction that there is something in this world, or in this universe, that is more important than everything else, and that has an influence over us that is stronger than any other influence.
What we do, and what we refrain from doing, is a testimony to what it is that we ultimately believe in, in this respect. The way in which we establish and organize our priorities in life, is a reflection of the master that we actually serve in life.
“Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Something else to consider about the Lord’s statement that we cannot serve two masters, is that the Greek word translated as “serve” has the same root as the Greek term for a slave. It refers to the kind of bond-service that a slave performs. Jesus is saying that you cannot be a slave to two masters, only one.
He is not talking about a temporary kind of service to a temporary “master.” He’s not talking about the kind of service that is rendered to us by a waiter for the couple hours we are in the restaurant, or about the kind of service we receive from a flight attendant for the couple hours we are onboard the airliner.
He means a kind of service - a kind of commitment - that encompasses all of life, and that defines our life.
There are lots of possible “masters” to whom sinful people like you and me might submit in this world. Some people serve their carnal impulses, and their desire to use other people for selfish gratification. For them, their predatory lust is their master. That’s what they live for.
Other people serve their chemical dependency, and their need for whatever drug it is that controls their lives. For them, their addiction is their master. That’s what they live for.
In today’s text, however, Jesus focuses on a different kind of false and illegitimate master - and one that is all too common. He says: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
In its explanation of the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” the Large Catechism points out that “to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. ...it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol.”
“If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, ...that is really your God.”
The Large Catechism then goes on to make an application of this distinction between a true faith and an idolatrous faith, with the use of the words that we hear from Jesus today:
“There are some who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property; they trust in them and boast in them so stubbornly and securely that they care for no one else. They, too, have a god - “mammon” by name; that is, money and property - on which they set their whole heart.”
“This is the most common idol on earth. Those who have money and property feel secure, happy, and fearless, as if they were sitting in the midst of paradise. On the other hand, those who have nothing doubt and despair as if they knew of no god at all. We will find very few who are cheerful, who do not fret and complain, if they do not have mammon. This desire for wealth clings and sticks to our nature all the way to the grave.”
“You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed, You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
What master do you serve? Do you serve God, or do you serve mammon? I think each and every one of us here today would say that we serve God. We believe in him, and we are committed to him.
But do we say this because we have been well-catechized and therefore know that it should be true? Or do we say this because it is true?
If the people who see and hear you on Monday through Saturday - at work, in your neighborhood, in your family circle - were to be asked if you served God or mammon, I wonder what they would say. I wonder what such people would say about me, and about who, or what, I seem to serve.
Would it be as clear to our coworkers, our neighbors, and our relatives on Monday through Saturday, as it is to each of us on Sunday, that we do not recognize money as our master?
Remember, too, that people can still look to mammon as the master they serve even if they don’t have a lot of money. Indeed, those who lack money are probably more enamored with it than those who are prosperous.
If you think, deep down, that money is really the most important thing in life, then for you that money is an idol, and you are an idolater. This remains true whether you are serving the money you have, or the money you want.
If you are serving mammon, you are not serving God. You cannot serve two masters.
And it’s also not enough simply to acknowledge God as playing a role in your life. That doesn’t necessarily make him your master.
Believing that God is around, and that he has a purpose of some kind, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are submitting to him as his slave.
In a somewhat cryptic passage from St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” So, while wealth should not be our master, it is something we can use in this life, for the benefit of the kingdom of God.
But there’s a popular theology out there, often blaring at us from religious television, that turns this around. Instead of using mammon for the sake of God and his kingdom, this theology says, in effect, that we should use God and his kingdom for the sake of mammon.
If we have a strong enough faith, and if we plant the seeds of our prosperity by sending in a generous donation to the right television ministry, God will bless us in return, and will give us the material blessings we want. People are encouraged to believe in God so that they can receive wealth - mammon - from God.
But even if we renounce these particular blasphemies, we might still be operating according to a softer version of this theology. If you have a set-back in terms of your physical and material well-being, do you question God? Do you feel, perhaps, that he is not protecting you or taking care of you as he should?
Do you wonder, at such a time, why he’s not being the kind of God he’s supposed to be? - why he’s not holding up his end of the deal? You believe in him. Why doesn’t he believe in you? And bless and reward you?
“Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Whom or what do you serve? Whom or what do you consider to be the most important influence in the decisions you make? Who or what governs your thoughts, your plans, your wishes, your dreams?
Jesus says: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
But Jesus also says this: “I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
“And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Into the confusion of our weak and distracted faith, and in the midst of our wavering between two masters, Jesus, the true Lord and master of our souls and bodies, speaks a word of peace and assurance. He speaks to us a word of restoration and power, which once again transports us to where we belong, under him and in his kingdom.
By his Word, Jesus once again stakes out his rightful claim to us and our obedience, because of the obedience that he rendered for us - in redeeming us from sin, and in purchasing us as his own precious possession with the price of his own blood.
Jesus has in fact liberated you and me from our slavery to sin, death, and the devil, “in order that I might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness; even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”
You don’t have to try to free yourself, by your own efforts, from the false masters you may be serving. Jesus is your emancipator. Repent and believe the Gospel, and in that faith be free - instantly and fully free, in time and in eternity.
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Seeking God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness is another way of describing faith in God, and faith in God’s word of forgiveness.
God’s forgiveness - for our sins of idolatry, for our sins of following false and illegitimate masters - God’s forgiveness offers to us, and bestows on us, the righteousness of Christ, by which we are made to be righteousness before God.
Seek God’s kingdom. Turn away from mammon, or from whatever other false god or false ruler you have been tempted to serve. And in the freedom of Christ’s redemption serve your heavenly Father, your true and legitimate master.
Seek God’s righteousness. Know that the Lord who has created you, and who loves you with an indescribable love, will certainly take care of you. Put your trust in him.
With his help commit yourself to his ways. In his strength cast your burdens and your worries on him.
You cannot serve two masters. So don’t try. Serve the Lord.
He has demonstrated his divine love by sending his Son to die for your sins. He has provided for you an eternal habitation in the heavens.
He will, therefore, certainly not let you perish. As a child of his family, and as a citizen of his kingdom, you will be sustained by his Spirit in all your trials.
In those trials, and in those fears, you will never be alone, because God has promised that he will never leave you nor forsake you. And God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can withstand. As you serve him, he will protect you, and will bring you to everlasting life.
“You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed, You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Amen.