SERMONS - OCTOBER 2008
5 October 2008 - Pentecost 21 - Matthew 21:33-46
According to the building techniques of the ancient world, the cornerstone of a new structure was by far the most important stone in the foundation - and, by extension, in the whole building.
All of the possible cut stones that might be used in the foundation would be gathered in one place. The builders would then look them over, to try to find the one with angles and planes that were the most precisely cut.
Only a stone with perfect right angles, and perfectly flat surfaces, would be chosen as the cornerstone. It would be the first stone laid into place.
The other stones of the foundation would then systematically be laid into place, the first one next to the cornerstone, and then each of the other ones next to the previous one. Each stone would be tightly fitted right up next to the stone that had just been laid.
But it would all begin with the cornerstone. All the other stones, in their alignment with each other, would depend on the angles and surfaces of the cornerstone, to establish a square and even pattern for the building.
If the cornerstone would be off by just a couple degrees, it would throw off the entire foundation. The foundation would be lopsided and uneven.
And if the foundation were lopsided and uneven, the building would be lopsided and uneven. Walls that were supposed to be parallel to each other would not be. Corners that were supposed to meet at 90% angles would meet at odd and misfitted angles instead.
The whole building would be ruined. It would lean, and would eventually pull itself down by the unevenness of its weight-bearing capacity.
When the religious leaders of Jesus’ day set out to build the “structure,” so to speak, of the kingdom of God as they envisioned it, they obviously sought out a cornerstone for their building that had the kind of angles and surfaces they were looking for. They cast away any stone that would have established a trajectory for the laying out of their religious foundation that did not go in the directions they wanted that foundation to go.
And what kind of kingdom were these people attempting to build? What kind of religion were the Pharisees attempting to construct? Listen to these words of Jesus, from another section of St. Matthew’s Gospel, as he describes it:
“they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. ...and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces...”
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. ... Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. ...”
“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
That’s quite an indictment! And it boils down to these two points: The religious “structure” that the Pharisees were building was a structure of pride and public display, and not a structure of humility. It was a structure of superficial legalism, and not a structure of a religion of the heart - a heart that yearns to receive God’s mercy, and that yearns to be like God in showing mercy.
So, the cornerstone that these false teachers were looking for was a cornerstone with prideful angles, and with legalistic surfaces. And that is why Jesus, with the angles and surfaces that he represented, was rejected as a cornerstone by these builders.
Jesus, as a potential cornerstone, would have established a trajectory and pattern that was totally different from this. His “angles,” as it were, were perfect right angles of humility before God and man. Jesus said in another context: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
His “surfaces” were perfectly flat surfaces of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus also said in another context: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
God the Father sent his Son among men to build and establish his kingdom in the way that God wanted it to be constructed - first among the Jews, and then among all nations.
He sent him to a time and place where the Pharisees had taken it upon themselves to build their own religious kingdom - a kingdom that placed themselves front and center, and that had no room for the lowly, the downtrodden, and the penitent sinner.
So, when the Pharisees came across the “stone” that was Jesus, they rejected that stone. It had no place in what they were building.
But in the building that God wanted to establish, not only was there a place for Jesus and his ways, but Jesus was and is the cornerstone. God’s entire kingdom - his living temple, for all nations - was to be built according to the pattern of Jesus’ way of thinking and acting.
Every other stone that would be laid into the foundation of God’s house, and that would then be set on top of that foundation to be a part of the building, was to be put into place according to the angles and surfaces that Christ, the cornerstone, had established for that house.
“Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?”’”
The building of God’s holy, spiritual temple, described here by our Lord, has begun. Jesus is the cornerstone. That part is finished.
The foundation has also been laid. But God, the master builder, is not yet finished with the rest of the structure.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, with their love of self and their disdain for the weak and the fallen, were not built into this divine temple. They were the stones that were rejected by God, because of their unbelief and impenitence.
So, instead, they built their own temple - their own religion - which did not follow the pattern of God’s temple.
The Pharisees of our day - that is, all those who in their own way also boast of their righteousness before God, and who are unconcerned about the spiritual and bodily needs of others - these Pharisees are still at work building their own substitute temple.
They have no place for the real Jesus in their structure. And until they repent and believe the Gospel, the real Jesus has no place for them in his.
Which temple are you a part of? Which kind of cornerstone has established the trajectory and pattern for your spiritual life?
When is the last time you went out of your way to spend some time with a lonely person who needed a friend? When is the last time you prayed for someone with struggles in his life that he doesn’t always overcome?
When is the last time you thought about what you could do to help a needy family? When is the last time you provided such help?
There are certain limitations in the use and application of the slogan, “What would Jesus do?” Lutheran pastors often point out that this saying overly emphasize the moral example of Jesus, at the expense of the unique saving work of Jesus for us, that only he could accomplish.
But the example of Jesus - that is, the trajectory of justice, mercy, and faithfulness that he establishes for the building of his temple - can help us to discern, as we examine ourselves, whether or not we are a part of that temple.
Jesus spoke this accusation to the Pharisees: “you...have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” Could he accuse us of the same thing?
Here is where we need to depart from the imagery of today’s parable in order to see another aspect of who Jesus is, and what he does.
He is indeed the cornerstone, around which the foundation and structure of God’s temple is built. But he is also the master builder - God himself in human flesh - who has come among men to build us up into his holy dwelling place.
In the face of injustice, which he condemns, Jesus stands for justice. And he treats people with justice.
But on the cross he also absorbed into himself all the injustices we have ever perpetrated against others. And thereby he forgives us for those injustices.
In this way - and only in this way - we become acceptable to God, and a place for us is found in God’s temple.
In the face of harshness and indifference to the needs of others, which he condemns, Jesus stands for mercy. And he shows mercy.
But on the cross he also absorbed into himself all the harshness and indifference of which we are guilty. And thereby he forgives that harshness and indifference.
In this way - and only in this way - we become acceptable to God, and a place for us is found in God’s temple.
In the face of unfaithfulness, which he condemns, Jesus stands for faithfulness. And he is faithful: to his people, and especially to his Father in heaven.
But on the cross he also absorbed into himself all of our betrayals of our convictions, all of our spiritual cowardice, and all of our failures to live as we profess to live. He died for our unfaithfulness.
And he forgives our unfaithfulness. In this way we become acceptable to God, and a place for us is found in God’s temple.
And in this way he also answers the sincere prayer of our hearts when we implore him: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.”
And remember, too, what St. Peter once proclaimed: “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
We are savingly built into the temple that God is building, and we are aligned with the perfect cornerstone that lies at the base of that building, by the working of the Holy Spirit - who by God’s grace has not been taken from us, as our sins would deserve.
In Christ God’s Spirit makes us to be the kind of stones that are able to fit into his house. He gives us the gift of faith, and through that faith he bestows on us all the blessings that only faith can receive.
In his forgiveness he covers over the crookedness and flaws that would otherwise make us unacceptable. And by the renewing work of his Spirit in our lives, he conforms us ever more to the angles and surfaces of the cornerstone.
St. Peter says this: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”
He also writes: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
The builders - the self-righteous, self-loving, self-serving builders of a false temple - rejected the cornerstone. The building - the religious kingdom - that they wanted to build was not the Lord’s doing.
But the kingdom that the Lord is building - his marvelous, heavenly temple of justice, mercy, and faithfulness - is a temple that does have Christ as its cornerstone. And this is the building into which God, in his justice, mercy, and faithfulness, has placed you, for the sake of his Son.
He has included you. By his justice on your behalf, you are aligned with the cornerstone.
By his mercy on your behalf, you are a part of what God is building. By his faithfulness on your behalf, you are a part of what God is doing in this world.
When you do realize at various times how imperfect you still are in and of yourself - how uneven and crooked you are according to your sinful nature - God’s ability to see you in a different way through Christ, and his ability to find a place for you in Christ, is truly amazing. The eternal building that we by faith can see God constructing through the Gospel, with Christ as the cornerstone, is indeed marvelous in our eyes. Amen.
12 October 2008 - Pentecost 22 - Philip. 4:4-13
The stock market is crashing. Credit is drying up, so that almost all transactions in the economy have come to a screeching halt. The whole world is in a financial tumble.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
Personal investments that have been building their value for years and decades have plummeted in what they’re now worth. Retirement might now have to be put off.
Some businesses are so strapped for cash that salaries might not be paid. Jobs could be lost.
“do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
There’s quite a contrast between the financial problems we are facing this week - with all the worry that naturally comes along with them - and the cheerfulness and optimism of St. Paul’s words from today’s epistle lesson.
His admonitions to us to rejoice, and not to be anxious, don’t seem to fit the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. These words would seem to be more appropriate for other occasions, when things are going well.
Would Paul really tell people who are going through the things we are going through to rejoice? Yes, he would!
Is it realistic for Paul to expect people who have all the understandable fears and uncertainties that are afflicting us not to be anxious? Yes, it is!
Listen to these words, which the apostle also directs to his listeners: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me - practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
And what is it specifically about Paul’s life that he wants us to notice and to imitate, at a time like this? Listen again:
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Paul knew what it was like to be well cared for and comfortable in regard to material needs. Paul also knew what it was like to go through times of poverty and insecurity, and not to know where his next meal was coming from.
And he knew that the proper attitude of the heart during all such times would be an attitude of rejoicing in the Lord. With confidence in God’s fatherly goodness, Paul was emboldened to say what might almost seem to be an immodest boast: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
But this is not an immodest boast. It is a confession of faith.
People often quote this verse in order to get themselves revved up for the accomplishing of some goal. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” is taken to mean: “I can overcome any obstacle that stands in the way of my objective.”
“I can muster up as much motivation as I need to press on with what I want to achieve.”
But that way of applying this verse is not fully in accord with the context from which St. Paul is speaking. I like this alternate rendering, from the Revised English Bible translation, which captures the thought quite nicely: “I am able to face anything through him who gives me strength.”
In Christ I have the strength to endure any worldly trial that would tempt me to turn away from him. In Christ I have the strength to withstand any worldly attack on my faith in him.
With the Lord’s empowerment, I am able to do the work that he has called me to do, whether I am in prosperity or in poverty. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
And you, my friends, can do all things through him who strengthens you. You can endure any trial. You can withstand any attack.
Times of trial such as we are experiencing right now do indeed give the devil and our sinful flesh the kind of opportunity they will always take advantage of, to try to persuade us that the Lord is not going to take care of us, but has abandoned us.
The devil and our sinful flesh thrive in times of fear. They feed on our fear.
Times of fear are the most opportune times, from their perspective, to plant seeds of doubt in our hearts - and then, after tormenting us for a while with these doubts, to bring the coldness and death of unbelief to our hearts.
But times of trial such as we are experiencing right now also give God the kind of opportunity he will always take advantage of, to call us to a deeper consideration of what is truly important and permanent in our lives.
In fact, God in his loving sovereignty brings about such time of testing, for our ultimate good. At such times, when God shakes the foundations of the society in which we live, he thereby drives us to our knees in humility and repentance.
We should be prompted by these trials to reflect on the evils of our society, which are an offence against God’s justice and goodness, and which invite God’s judgment. And we should reflect on our own complicity in those evils.
For example, what have you done to stand against the holocaust of abortion in our land? Have you passively acquiesced in this evil, remaining silent when you should have spoken?
Have you actively participated in perpetrating this evil, by your counsel to those in crisis, or by your own actions?
What have you done to stand against the disintegration of the family in our country? As one activist high court decree follows another, an unnatural and perverse attraction is now being put on the same legal and moral footing as the divine institution of marriage, one state at a time.
Have you passively acquiesced in this evil, remaining silent when you should have spoken?
Have you actively participated in the breakdown of marriage and family as God instituted it, through words and actions that have denigrated and cheapened the divine gift of human sexuality that God bestows on us for the sake of marriage and family - and only for the sake of marriage and family?
In the days of the Old Testament, God’s people could listen to the prophets, as they made direct connections between the sins they were committing and the various judgments that God was pouring out on their land.
In the New Testament era, in which we live, we don’t have access to that kind of revelation. We can’t be as certain as they could be, on the question of why God is doing and allowing the things he is doing and allowing in the affairs of men and nations.
But we do know what kinds of things anger God. And we can see those things in the society around us.
We can see those things in our own thoughts, words, and deeds. As the Book of Proverbs reminds us: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”
But for those who repent and turn to the Lord, there is good news - profoundly good news - even in the midst of these trials. That news is not that the stock market has turned around, or that your retirement account has regained its value.
I’d like to hear such news, and if God is merciful to us we will be able to hear it before long. But the good news I am talking about is good news that we don’t have to wait for.
It’s not good news about this world, but it is good news that lifts our eyes up from this world to another world - to another reality, an eternal reality. Today’s epistle lesson expresses it very simply in these words: “The Lord is at hand.”
In the midst of all the financial uncertainty that we face, the Lord is at hand. He is not distant from us, ignoring us, but he is close to us. Very close.
Jesus promised, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And he is keeping that promise.
Christ is at hand in the means of grace: in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. He is at hand in his Holy Absolution, through which he speaks his life-giving and hope-inspiring word of forgiveness to your conscience.
He is at hand in his Holy Supper, through which he unites himself to you most intimately and most comfortingly. He places his own glorious body into your body, as you long for a taste of his resurrection life. With the blood of your redemption, which he shed upon the cross for you, he washes away your sin.
Christ is at hand as he keeps his promise to abide with you and to make his home with you. In the mystical union of your Savior and your soul, he dwells within you.
He energizes your faith with his Holy Spirit. He brings you under the divine protection of his Father. Wherever you go, he goes with you.
The Lord promises through the prophet Isaiah: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
And Christ is at hand also according to his promise to come again to this world on the last day, and in mercy to bring us to where he is. “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”
Jesus reminds us not to put our trust in this perishing world, and in the things of this perishing world, but to look beyond the horizons of both Wall Street and Main Street toward the streets of gold in the New Jerusalem, descending from heaven.
As Jesus says, “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And so we do rejoice.
We do not rejoice because of the worries and uncertainties of this world, but we rejoice in spite of them. We rejoice because of the goodness of God, which with St. Paul we are able to count on in times of plenty and in times of hunger, in times of abundance and in times of need.
We do not rejoice because God has promised that this world will get better. We rejoice because God has promised us an eternal home in another world - a world and kingdom where righteousness dwells forever.
In the Gospel of the forgiveness of our sins, the Lord invites us to this hope and joy; and in the Gospel of the forgiveness of our sins the Lord transports us into this hope and joy.
And so, as St. Paul says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. ... The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. ...”
“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me - practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. ... I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Amen.
19 October 2008 - Pentecost 23 - Isaiah 45:1-7
During the past decade or so, several books have been written by people who are, we might say, “evangelistic” atheists. In the past, atheists or unbelievers would, of course, look down their noses at what they would consider to be a gullible church-going population.
But they considered religious people basically to be a benign presence in the society. Christians and others could be allowed to entertain their fanciful ideas about God’s existence, and about God’s ultimate control over all things. It did no harm.
The current generation of atheists, however, are much more aggressive. People like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins actively “evangelize” others through their books and speeches, seeking to draw new recruits to their atheist belief system.
They are making their case that belief in God in general, and the Christian faith in particular, are actually harmful to people, both psychologically and socially.
It seems as if the atheist activists of our time subconsciously want to punish God for his various shortcomings, by not believing in him. “I’ll show you,” one can almost imagine them saying. “I won’t believe in you. So there! What are you going to do about that?”
They want to punish God for the injustices that they perceive to exist in this world, and for the cruel and inhuman things that sinful and misguided people throughout history have done in the name of God.
The great zeal with which they write and disseminate their books about atheism leads us to conclude that, at a subconscious level, they think that it is very important for God to know that they don’t believe in him any more.
They consider the question of humanity’s acknowledgment of God, or its lack of acknowledgment of God, to be a very important matter that has to be settled once and for all. And they want to make sure everyone knows where they stand.
I wonder, though, if these authors are overestimating the importance of this question. God, of course, is fully aware of himself, and of his thoughts and plans.
He is not affected all that much by the denials of his existence that regularly flow from the pens of atheist writers. He doesn’t feel the sting of the rebukes that are aimed at him.
I think, rather, that God would want us to ask a different question. In a certain respect, and on a cosmic scale, maybe it’s not so important to consider whether or not you acknowledge God. What is more important is to consider whether or not God acknowledges you.
Listen to what the Lord of the universe says to King Cyrus of Persia, through the prophet Isaiah:
“For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
We can see here that God is not at all insecure about his existence. He doesn’t have a need for affirmation from others, in order to be confident in himself.
God enjoys being God. He doesn’t let the insignificant pokes and proddings of self-important human atheists distract him from what he is doing in the world that he made.
And God has a purpose for King Cyrus. That purpose will be fulfilled whether or not Cyrus acknowledges him. He brings Cyrus into his plans, in spite of Cyrus’s unbelief.
The people of the kingdom of Judah had been carried away into captivity in Babylon, as a chastisement for their idolatry and other transgressions. They were carried away to Babylon to be humbled for their disobedience, to be brought to a state of national repentance, and to be purged of their sins.
But when the allotted time of their chastening was up, God raised up King Cyrus to conquer Babylon from the east - and to institute the imperial policy that would allow the people of Israel to return to their land, and to resume their national identity.
This was necessary, because the oracles of God had been entrusted to this nation. The promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were yet to be fulfilled through this nation. The Messiah - the world’s Savior from sin and death - would arise from this nation.
On the basis of contemporary inscriptions from archeological discoveries in Iran, we know that Cyrus was a polytheist. He may have externally recognized the God of Israel in some form, and may have taken note of Israel’s God in a patronizing fashion as a matter of political expedience - as he would take note of the gods of the other peoples he had conquered, to avoid offending them and stirring them up unnecessarily.
But Cyrus did not recognize the God of Jacob as the only God there is. He did not fall down before that God in repentance, and seek the forgiveness and eternal salvation which only that God could and would offer to a fallen and hurting humanity.
Cyrus was a superstitious man. As with all pagans of his time, he thought and acted according to a worldview that assumed the existence of a pantheon of multitudinous gods and goddesses.
But as far as the true God was concerned, he was an atheist. He did not acknowledge the God who says of himself: “there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
But God - this God - acknowledged Cyrus! The God of Jacob acknowledged this pagan - this essentially atheistic man.
The God who had promised to redeem Israel from all his iniquities, and to bring people from all nations to his holy, messianic mountain - this God led Cyrus, and pushed Cyrus, and called Cyrus to do what he wanted to be done.
Any possible protests from the king would have been meaningless and pointless. We can imagine Cyrus crying out in exasperation: “But I don’t believe in you! I don’t think you really exist” - as if that would bring God’s sovereign actions in human history to an end.
But God wouldn’t care about such protests - at least not in the sense of allowing them to have any effect on his plans to reestablish the people of Israel in the land that he had promised to their fathers.
God was going to be God. Cyrus could be whatever he wanted to be in his own mind. But as far as God’s perfect and overriding will for the direction of human history was concerned, Cyrus was going to be what God wanted him to be.
And what about you? The fact that you are here in a public worship service suggests that you do acknowledge God’s existence, and that you do believe in him.
But maybe you have your doubts. Maybe you don’t believe in him at all, and are here to please loved ones, or to satisfy a certain curiosity.
But whatever the case may be, know this: God is real. He is more real than anything else.
He is the eternal reality. Other things exist, and have a purpose in this vast universe, only because he made them, and gave them their purpose.
The existence of everything else besides God is more doubtful than is God’s existence. He defines the very concept of existence. The prophet Isaiah declares:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”
If we’re going to talk about what is or is not certain and sure, your existence is less certain than is God’s existence. On a scale of possibilities, it’s more likely that you are a figment of God’s imagination, than that he is a figment of yours! At least that’s the way God sees it.
You exist - if you do in fact exist - only because God has made you. You have a purpose in life only because God has given you this purpose.
None of this is really affected if you think that God doesn’t exist. He knows that you exist, and that’s what matters in terms of his sovereign use of your life for his purposes.
Ultimately it didn’t matter that King Cyrus didn’t acknowledge the God of Israel. The God of Israel acknowledged him, and was going to use him for the accomplishing of his purposes in the world.
But there’s another aspect of God thinking where it does matter to him what people believe or don’t believe about him. God does indeed hold the reins of all human history, and he governs the ebb and flow of all that happens.
But remember what we noted earlier, regarding the reason why God was pulling the strings that caused Cyrus to conquer Babylon. It was for the sake of his people Israel.
That nation had to be liberated, and be restored to its land. And the reason why those things had to happen, was for the sake of the Messianic promise.
The Savior of all men was going to be born of that nation. Cyrus’s Savior - your Savior - would come from this people, and would then go out, by means of the Lord’s apostolic Gospel, to all nations.
From this perspective, therefore, it does matter to God whether or not you believe what he tells you about Christ. Jesus Christ, the Son of God in human flesh, is offered to you in his Word and Sacrament. And as he is offered, God deeply wants you to receive him in faith.
What St. Paul wrote to the Philippians in today’s Epistle, he would want to be able to write to all churches and congregations, and to all people:
“we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. ...you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers... ...you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
The role that you are going to play in human history, you are going to play - whether it is a major lead character, or a bit part. God will do as he wishes.
But in matters of faith - in matters that pertain to your personal fellowship with God, God does not use coercion or external manipulation to make you do as he wishes. Instead, he comes to you in the power of his Word.
He addresses your heart and soul. He impresses his law upon you, to make you see how far short you have fallen even of the demands of your own conscience.
Not only have you not lived up to God’s expectations, but you haven’t even lived up to your own. God wants you to be honest about that, and his law makes you honest about that.
And then God impresses his Gospel upon you, to show you how much he was willing to do to win you back, and to redeem you from your captivity to sin and death. He sent his Son to suffer and die under the curse of the law, so that you wouldn’t have to.
He sends his Spirit to you now, in his Word and Sacrament, to cloak you with Christ’s righteousness, to wash away your sin, to bring to you the joy of a forgiven conscience.
The faith by which all of these blessings are made to be yours is not merely an intellectual exercise. God does not call on us simply to hold certain ideas in our head, and then to be saved.
It goes much deeper than that. Our faith saves us because of who our faith is connected to.
Faith in the promises of Christ mystically unites us to Christ - and to God in Christ. Faith in the promises of Christ unites us to all the blessings that God in his love wants us to have.
In regard to the state of your soul, and your eternal destiny: to say that it doesn’t really matter whether or not you are connected to Christ, would be like telling a paratrooper who is jumping out of a plane that it doesn’t really matter whether or not he is connected to a parachute.
It does matter - on both counts.
God is not so indecisive and uncertain of himself, that he would let King Cyrus’s unbelief alter the course on which he had always intended to take human history. But God is not so callous and uncaring, that he wouldn’t let King Cyrus’s unbelief be a source of sadness to him.
He was sending his Son to die for Cyrus too. The message of the prophets concerning the coming Messiah was a message that King Cyrus could have believed too.
God is not so indecisive and uncertain of himself, that he would let your unbelief alter the course on which he intends to take human history. But God is not so callous and uncaring, that he wouldn’t let your unbelief be a source of sadness to him.
He has sent his Son to die for you too. The message of the apostles concerning the Savior who has come, and who comes even now in his Gospel, is a message that you too can believe.
The only God that there is, who created and sustains all things, is a God whose plans and decrees cannot be brought to nothing. He is a God of unmeasurable power.
Whether or not you believe in him, or acknowledge him, he will remain who he is, and he will do what he intends to do.
But this God is also a God of unmeasurable compassion and mercy. It is his will also to draw you into his loving and forgiving embrace through the Gospel of his Son.
It grieves him when a human heart - a heart like Cyrus’s - is hardened against him. It is a joy to him, however, when his Spirit works the miracle of faith, and when a soul that his Son redeemed partakes of that redemption.
“I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, [Cyrus,] though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Amen.
26 October 2008 - Reformation Sunday - Psalm 34:11, 22; Psalm 48:12-14a
When we celebrate the Reformation of the sixteenth century, we usually think about the important things that people like Martin Luther did back then, to restore to the church a pure proclamation of the Gospel as the Scriptures reveal it, and to purge the church of many moral and doctrinal corruptions.
On Reformation Sunday we have a tendency to look to the past, with admiration for the courage and conviction of the Reformers, and with gratitude for the things they accomplished with God’s help. We know that we benefit from the things they did almost 400 years ago.
This year, however, for Reformation Sunday, I’d like to encourage you to look not only to the past, and to the events of the past, as important as those events certainly were. I’d like you to look with me also to the future.
Please consider with me not only what we have received from previous generations of faithful preachers and teachers, but also what God wants us to pass on to our children and grandchildren, and to all in the new generation that is coming of age in our midst.
Listen again to these lines from Psalm 34, which we sang in today’s Introit: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. ... The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”
The Reformation did indeed clarify for the church what God’s message to humanity actually is, in the face of the confusion and ignorance under which the souls of people in Medieval Europe had been languishing. The Smalcald Articles, in beautiful simplicity, summarize the preaching of the Reformers in these words:
“Here is the first and chief article: That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, ‘was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification’; ...he alone is ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’; and ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’; furthermore, ‘All have sinned,’ and ‘they are now justified...by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus...by his blood.’”
“Now because this must be believed and may not be obtained or grasped otherwise with any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us, as St. Paul says in Romans 3: ‘For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law’; and also, ‘that God alone is righteous and justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.’”
“Nothing in this article can be conceded or given up, even if heaven and earth or whatever is transitory passed away. As St. Peter says in Acts 4: ‘There is no other name...given among men by which we must be saved.’ ‘And by his bruises we are healed.’” End quote.
This is the message that God has brought to us, to comfort us in our sorrow, and to strengthen us in our weakness. Our sin alienates us from God. This message brings reconciliation.
Our sin makes us guilty before God and calls down his judgment. This message brings forgiveness, and it settles that forgiveness deep down in our conscience.
It is a false and empty dream when we think, in regard to the deeper issues of human fear and sorrow, that we can comfort ourselves with our own positive thinking. It is a matter of self-deception when we think that we can make ourselves spiritually strong by an act of our own will.
It is a blind delusion when we are led to believe that our own merit and supposedly good intentions can make us acceptable to a holy God, and worthy to be in his presence. It is a matter of damnable pride when we think that we are able to erase from our souls the stain of past sins through the performance of works that we consider to be good.
God’s law - proclaimed to us in all its accuracy and severity - has shattered for us all of these myths. God’s Gospel - applied to us with all of its healing gentleness - has lifted us up into a living hope that depends always and only on the mercy of Christ, who has done everything that needed to be done for our salvation.
I’d like to read to you from a letter written by several Lutheran theologians, as a part of a dialogue they were having with the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople in the latter part of the sixteenth century.
In this letter they explain the relationship between the atoning work of Christ and our salvation, and the relationship between our salvation and the works that we then perform in love for our neighbor:
“Whenever we say that one is justified before God by faith alone in Christ, we wish to make this clear: that through faith alone we receive our Savior Christ in order that we might receive forgiveness of sins and life eternal through His most perfect act. For we take faith alone in Christ to be that hand, whereby we received whatever our redeemer Christ has wrought for us.”
“We do not even debate whether we should do good works or not, or whether good works follow true faith or not. For according to [John] the Baptizer, we teach: ‘every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Nor do we say that dead faith, which is merely knowledge of history and which, according to James, even the demons have, produces righteousness... Neither do we claim that those who have not repented...obtain forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. Obviously, these are condemned. ...”
“Nevertheless, we are saying that our good works should not be included in the article of justification by God where the following is involved: through whom and by what means are we reconciled to God and are numbered among the children and heirs of God. Why? Because by as much as is ascribed in this matter to our works and righteousness, by that much do we judge that the worth of Christ’s work is diminished.”
This message - this Christ-centered and grace-filled message - is the message that the Lutheran Reformation proclaimed. It is the message that the genuine Lutheran Church of today still proclaims, and that we believe.
But will our children and grandchildren also believe it? Will the next generation know and experience the comfort, the strength, the reconciliation, and the forgiveness that we know and experience through faith is these divine promises?
This is to be a concern for all of us - not only parents, but all members of the Lord’s church. God would guide all of us, through the words of Psalm 34, to do and say what the psalmist did and said: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
This is a sacred duty that God has entrusted to his whole church - to his new Jerusalem, the spiritual Zion to which all nations are invited. The words of Psalm 48 - as they appear in today’s Gradual - are words that are therefore addressed to all of us:
“Walk about Zion, go around her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever.”
We read in Psalm 119: “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is an eternal Gospel. It will never cease to be true. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is of no saving benefit to anyone who does not believe it.
“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” But if Abraham had not believed God, he would not have been accounted as righteous before God. He would have been lost.
The fact that Abraham was a descendant of Noah, and of other men of faith in earlier generations, would not have saved him. God does not have any grandchildren.
In a certain sense we could also say that we who believe in the pure Gospel, as it was restored to the church by God’s providence in the Reformation, are children of the Reformation. But there are no grandchildren of the Reformation.
Each generation must claim the spirit of the Reformation, and the Biblical Gospel that was proclaimed by the Reformation, as its own. If not, the spirit of the Reformation will die. And the souls of those who do not trust in Christ alone for their salvation, will likewise die.
If you are a child of God, born again by his Word and Spirit, this is no guarantee that the generation that comes after you will likewise be filled with the life of God’s Spirit. If you are justified by your faith in Christ, and if you have the hope of eternal life through the resurrection of Christ, this is no guarantee that your children will share in this salvation.
They cannot believe in Christ unless they hear about Christ. And they cannot hear about Christ unless they are taught. If God’s Word of forgiveness in Christ is not brought to them, they will not know this forgiveness.
The legacy of the Reformation, which is so important to us, must not be a legacy that finds its end in us, and in our generation. It is, rather, a legacy that we receive for ourselves only as it then passes through us to others.
We are, of course, not responsible for things that God has not commanded us to do. You are not to blame if your child, or anyone else with whom you share the Gospel, refuses to believe it.
Someone who rejects the Gospel will have to give an account of himself before God. You can’t make someone believe in Christ.
That’s not your job. God won’t hold you to account for the unbelief of someone who had a chance to believe, but who refused to do so.
But God has commanded us, according to our respective vocations, to participate in bringing his Word to all nations, so that all nations will have an opportunity to believe it.
“All nations” includes your nation. And your nation includes your family and friends.
Today - Reformation Sunday - is a good day to admit before God that you have not taught the fear of the Lord to your children - and to the church’s children - as you ought to have done.
The day on which we all remember the restoration of the pure Gospel of God’s forgiveness in Christ, is a good day to acknowledge that you need that forgiveness. You have not been as diligent as you have been called to be, in telling the next generation about the glorious Zion of God, where all penitent sinners find a home with their Lord forever.
And then, on this Reformation Sunday, also be the Lutheran that you claim to be. Repent of your failures - these and all others.
And believe the promise of Christ, that all of your sins are forgiven and washed away for his sake. Be justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
And as a justified saint of the Lord, who is saved by faith and not by works, seek with the Lord’s help to bear the living fruits of your living faith, as would be pleasing to him.
Ask him to open your eyes to see with greater clarity how and where you can speak his Word to the younger generation. Ask him to fill your heart with courage and wisdom, so that you will fulfill this duty joyfully and faithfully.
As the Lord gives you the opportunity, bring your children and grandchildren to church. Bring them to Sunday School. Encourage all your friends to do the same.
Pray with your children and grandchildren at home, and read the Bible to them in the family circle. Talk with them about the things of the Lord.
In your own life set an example for them, that they may see your humility before the Lord. Show them what the priorities of their life should be, by letting them see what your priorities are.
As a testimony to our children and all people, and for the sake of our own souls, let us by faith live in the peace and confidence of which today’s Introit speaks: “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” Amen.