SERMONS - JULY 2009
5 July 2009 - Pentecost 5 - 2 Cor. 12:1-10 (ESV)
I think it would be difficult for any of us to feel that, in our religious life, we have a lot in common with St. Paul the apostle. The depth of his spirituality, and the extraordinary religious experiences that he had, are unlike anything that we can relate to.
Today’s lesson from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians gives us an example of those things that were unique to St. Paul. In modesty, and without drawing undue attention to himself as an individual, Paul recounts a unique supernatural experience that he had had fourteen years earlier.
He’s not sure if this experience was a divinely-given vision, or an actual out-of-body experience. But whatever it was, it was unlike anything that has happened to us. Paul writes:
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows - and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”
That’s the sort of thing that makes Paul the apostle to be a person who seems very different from us.
To be sure, we appreciate the sound teaching that his epistles provide for us. We are able to learn a lot about God and God’s ways from the things that St. Paul wrote by divine inspiration.
But St. Paul, as a person, is someone to whom we cannot easily relate. In comparison to you and me he is a spiritual giant. He seems to be so much higher than we are, in his closeness to God, and in the special ways in which he was blessed by God.
But in today’s lesson from Second Corinthians, there is also something that perhaps can change our perception of how different we are from St. Paul. In some ways maybe we are not so different from him after all. Listen to what Paul also says:
“to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”
Paul here speaks of a thorn in the flesh that was afflicting him, and that God had declined to remove from him - even though he had implored the Lord repeatedly in prayer to take it from him.
The idea of a thorn in the “flesh” can be taken as an indication that the problem of which St. Paul speaks was a physical malady of some kind. But Paul does not specify what this malady was.
Based on circumstantial evidence, gleaned from brief comments that Paul makes in other writings, some have speculated that Paul suffered from weak eyes, and perhaps also from headaches that accompanied his eyesight problem. Others have speculated that he suffered from epilepsy, and from the kind of seizures that epilepsy causes.
Over the centuries Christians have been curious to know what Paul was talking about when he spoke of his thorn in the flesh, but we are not really able to know. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
As a pastor, I have had many occasions over the years to quote this passage while ministering to people with chronic and discouraging health problems. The people to whom I have ministered in this way had no doubt prayed for divine healing.
But the healing had not come. God had not intervened and removed the physical burden. The cancer, the muscular sclerosis, the lupus, the heart disease - whatever it might have been - had remained.
Because St. Paul was not specific in his description of what his particular thorn in the flesh was, it was perhaps easier for those to whom I was ministering to see themselves and their situation in those words from the apostle. Maybe - just maybe - what Paul had was what they had.
And, as a pastor, it was also easier for me to assure them that God had not abandoned them in their suffering, and that his grace would be sufficient for them, just as it had been for St. Paul.
As Christians we are taught always to acknowledge that we are completely dependent on the grace of God. We are instructed by God’s Word that, in and of ourselves, we are powerless to accomplish anything of eternal significance.
We confess that we cannot, by our own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, or come to him. These are articles of faith for us. But sometimes we may not truly believe these things as deeply and firmly as we should.
They might be in our heads, as doctrines that we know we are supposed to accept. But are they in our hearts, as genuine convictions?
And so God, in his wise and fatherly love, sometimes allows circumstances to come into our lives that compel us to believe these things - and I mean really to believe them.
When all the flimsy props of human self-sufficiency are knocked out from under us - by chronic illness or serious injury - and when the objective circumstances of our life simply do not allow us to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are in charge of our future, then a true faith and trust in God, and in his power, is able to take its proper place.
We are then able to see, and to know, that the Lord’s grace truly is sufficient for us. When the illusion of human power is stripped away, the reality of God’s power becomes that much more evident.
When our pride and pretensions are gone, his grace is still there, to sustain us.
But let’s take another look at St. Paul’s description of that thorn in the flesh, which was keeping him humble and dependent on God. He writes:
“to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.”
He doesn’t limit himself to the metaphor of a thorn in the flesh, which would, of course, prompt us to think of a fleshly, physical disability of some kind.
He describes his affliction also in supernatural, spiritual terms. Quite literally, Paul is telling us that the Lord has permitted a “messenger,” or an angel, of Satan, to torment him.
Paul may indeed have been afflicted by some kind of bodily illness or physical handicap. But he was also distressed in his soul by whatever it was that he was talking about.
The thorn in the flesh that St. Paul so desperately wanted God to remove from him was not only producing physical discomfort. It was the cause also of a deeper, spiritual agony. The devil was working on him, and was threatening to destroy him and his faith.
This may have been in the form of some kind of depression or psychological discouragement - something similar perhaps to the “Anfechtung” that Martin Luther occasionally experienced. This may have been in the form of some kind of chronic temptation to sin - something deeply distressing that St. Paul might not have wanted to mention in his letter to the Corinthians.
But whatever it was, St. Paul was not on his own in struggling against it. God said to him, in the midst of his struggle, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
The messenger of Satan who with God’s permission continued to harass Paul, was not allowed by God to prevail over Paul. Instead, God’s powerful grace was also continuously there, to bring supernatural strength to Paul in his daily struggle.
Paul knew that he was a sinner. He also knew that the wages of sin is death.
This knowledge - this deep and personal knowledge - kept Paul humble before God. The knowledge of his sin kept Paul always on his knees in repentance, imploring God not to hold his sin against him, and imploring God to help him in his inner warfare against sin.
When St. Paul prayed his prayers of repentance, asking for forgiveness and help, he did so with confidence that God would hear him, and grant this prayer. God did not remove from Paul his thorn in the flesh - whatever it was.
Instead, God gave Paul his grace - his forgiving and sustaining grace. And God never took that grace from him.
Paul also knew that the grace of God - which he so desperately needed - was not merely an abstract concept. The grace of God was embodied and fleshed out for Paul - and for all mankind - in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul writes:
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
It was the power specifically of Christ that sustained Paul, in the face of the onslaughts of the messenger of Satan who buffeted him.
For Paul’s sake, and for Paul’s benefit, Jesus had resisted the devil’s temptations in the wilderness. In every moment of every day, the life of Jesus was a righteous life. His righteousness is now credited to those whom he came to save.
For Paul’s sake, and for Paul’s benefit, Jesus had died on the cross. He entered into the domain of the devil’s power over fallen humanity, to redeem humanity from the power of death with the ransom price of his own blood.
For Paul’s sake, and for Paul’s benefit, Jesus had risen from the grave. In his resurrection, Jesus broke the shackles of sin and death that had kept us captive, and he raised us up into an eternal hope.
All of these things had been accomplished by Jesus for humanity - for sinful, weak humanity. Therefore, all of these things had been accomplished by Jesus for Paul.
And therefore, all of these things have also been accomplished for you - to save you from your sin, and to strengthen you in your weakness.
When a messenger of Satan attacks your soul with temptations; when a dark angel from the pit of hell casts his menacing shadow over your spirit - do not fear!
Do not be discouraged! At such times God says to you, as he said to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Are you powerless, on your own, to fight off the temptations of the devil? Yes, you are. But that’s O.K.! Jesus has the power to fight them off for you, and that is what he does.
When you have sinned, and have broken God’s law, are you powerless, on your own, to make yourself acceptable to God once again? Yes, you are. But that’s O.K.! Jesus has the power to forgive you, and to cover you with his righteousness, and that is what he does.
God’s grace is sufficient for you, because God’s grace flows from the very real salvation that a very real Savior accomplished for you. God’s grace is sufficient for you, because in Christ God’s grace is never far away from you.
Christ and his grace are always there - whenever and wherever the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed, pondered, and believed. Christ and his grace are always there, to assure you, in your weakness, that he is strong - and that he is strong for you.
God uses the thorns in the flesh that afflict you to teach you humility before him. God allows the presence of messengers of Satan in your life to teach you the utter necessity of relying on his power and grace alone.
When God teaches you these things, so that by faith you become, as it were, a child or a little one in his family, he draws you ever closer to his Son Jesus Christ. He fills you with the peace of his Son Jesus Christ.
He protects you and strengthens you with the power of his Son Jesus Christ. And he gives you the privilege of singing a song like this:
Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong. Amen.
12 July 2009 - Pentecost 6 - Mark 6:14-29
You don’t have to be a Christian to know how important it is for a person to keep his word. Just about everybody thinks that this is important.
For example, since the day our current national president took office, people from the news media, and from numerous advocacy organizations, have been listening to all his speeches, and monitoring all his actions, to keep track of the extent to which he has been keeping - or not keeping - the various promises he made during his campaign for the presidency.
We know what happens when one of these watchdog groups identifies something in the president’s policies that seems to contradict one of his campaign promises. There are loud howls of protest and criticism.
Apart from national politics, each of us also knows the value of being able to trust someone with whom we have a personal or professional relationship. If somebody says that he is going to do something that he ends up not doing, or if someone makes a promise - or a threat - that he doesn’t keep, it will be very difficult to maintain a future relationship with that person.
King Herod Antipas, in today’s text from St. Mark’s Gospel - even with all of his many moral shortcomings - was also able to recognize the truth of this principle. If his subordinates were not able to trust him, or if they had no confidence that he would keep a promise or threat that he had made, he would not be able to govern for very long.
Herod’s commitment to this principle manifested itself in a deeply tragic way on the occasion of a certain birthday party, as recounted in today’s text. St. Mark tells us that “Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.”
Herod’s consort Herodias, who had left her first husband - Herod’s brother - for Herod - was also in attendance, as was Herodias’s daughter Salome. St. Mark continues the story:
“when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.’ And he vowed to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.’”
“And she went out and said to her mother, ‘For what should I ask?’ And she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist, on a platter.’”
“And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.”
Herod had made a rash and irresponsible vow to his niece. But once that vow was made - ill-considered though it may have been - Herod felt the need to keep it.
“How can I go back on my word?,” he thought. “How can I show myself to be untrustworthy and unreliable in the presence of all these high officials of my kingdom?”
And so, to preserve his reputation, as someone whose promises will be kept - no matter how stupid and wicked those promises may be - a brave and faithful prophet of the Lord must die.
Herod considered it to be a very important principle, that he, as a human king, would keep his word. What doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind was that John the Baptist had basically been preaching the importance of that same principle, in regard to God and his Word.
St. Mark gives us the background on why Herod, and even more so Herodias, were so angry with John the Baptist in the first place. He writes:
“it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death.”
The Lord had declared at Mount Sinai, “You shall not commit adultery.” John the Baptist’s point was basically this: God keeps his word. He will not make an exception for Herod and Herodias, regardless of how important they consider themselves to be.
They may have thought that they were above the law as far as earthly affairs are concerned, but the unchanging law of God applies to them just as it applies to everyone else. God will not go back on his Word just to accommodate their lust.
If Herod, in his own twisted and selfish way, could recognize the importance of keeping his word in the presence of his noblemen and generals, why could he not understand that God, too - as the highest moral authority in the universe - must likewise keep his Word?
Well, Herod was not able or willing to be consistent in his application of this principle, because he had been blinded to this truth by his sin.
Herod was a pathetic, immoral wretch, who still harbored within his conscience a trace of knowing the difference between right and wrong, but who had allowed himself to be made a captive to his own depravity.
John the Baptist, out of concern for the king’s soul, had rebuked him for his wrongdoing on the basis of God’s unchanging decree against adultery. His response was to imprison John - and then, to allow himself to be manipulated into executing John.
But the death of the prophet of God did not kill the prophesy of God. The death of the divinely-called teacher did not silence the divine teaching that adultery is sinful - that the adultery of Herod and Herodias was and is sinful.
If they would not repent of this sin - and of all the many other sins of which they were guilty before God - they would ultimately be called to account before God’s tribunal on judgment day.
Like Herod, God would keep his Word. And because God always keeps his Word, Herod and Herodias would be damned.
God keeps his Word in regard to you as well. If the Lord would not make an exception for a king and his illicit consort, he will certainly not make an exception for you.
If you - like Herod - are able to recognize the importance of keeping your Word in your human relationships, and of following through on the threats and promises that you make, don’t expect God to hold himself to a lower ethical standard, and not to follow through on his threats and promises!
When God declares in his Law that adultery, murder, lying, stealing, and idolatry are wrong, then that means that these things are wrong, and will always be wrong. And when God threatens to punish your violations of his unchanging Law - in thought, word, and deed - he will not go back on his Word!
Sometimes when a Christian pastor faithfully preaches the Law of God in such a way as to impact the consciences of his listeners, and to confront his listeners with the reality of their sins, they respond in a way that is similar to how Herod and Herodias responded to John the Baptist.
Of course, nowadays such defiant folks are not able to have the pastor arrested or beheaded. But they often do what they can, to come up with excuses not to listen to him any more.
And maybe they also seek for a way to get rid of such a pastor, and replace him with a preacher who will be more compliant and accommodating to their sin.
But when unscrupulous church members resort to such actions, this doesn’t really change anything as far as God’s Word is concerned. God still condemns their sin.
God still threatens to punish them because of their sin, if they don’t repent of it and turn away from it. God still keeps his Word.
When your pastor, or any other Christian, correctly identifies an action or an attitude in your life as something that God forbids, listen to that person’s warnings - because it is actually God who is warning you through that person.
Don’t try to escape from the Word of God by seeking out a new liberal pastor, or new indifferent friends, who will not speak the Word of God into your situation. When people employ these “evasive tactics” in their relationship with God, they are not actually silencing God, or getting him to go back on his Word.
For a time, they may thereby be closing their ears to God’s voice. But on judgment day, when they are once again forced to listen to what God says - and to what God has always said - the charade will be over.
The game that they have played will be finished. God’s Word will still be accusing them just as firmly and clearly as it did during their lifetime. And that’s because God always keeps his Word.
But God’s warnings and judgments against sin are not the only things he has said. We are not to think that it is only the threats of God which must be taken seriously and believed.
God has also made promises to us - gracious and uplifting promises - which he will also never retract or take back. In the Book of Joshua, we read: “Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.”
God does indeed warn us, through the Prophet Ezekiel: “Now the end is upon you, and I will send my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations.”
But through the prophet Ezekiel, he also tells us: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” In regard to this passage, our Book of Concord quotes these comments by the third-century church Father Tertullian:
“He invites us to salvation with an offer and even an oath. When God says, ‘As I live,’ he wants to be believed. Oh, blessed are we, for whose sake God swears an oath! Oh, most miserable are we, if we do not believe the Lord even when he swears an oath!”
Because of the oath that he had sworn in the presence of his dinner guests, King Herod felt that he must keep his Word. But look at the wonderful oath that God has sword!
It is an oath that assures us that God absolutely does not want us to suffer and die eternally because of our sins. It is an oath that assures you that God’s deepest desire is not to damn you, but to save you, and to forgive you.
This doesn’t mean that God is going to go back on his previous threat to punish sin. Remember, God always keeps his Word!
But it does mean that God has devised a way to fulfill the threat, and to keep the promise, at the same time. It is the way of the cross of his Son Jesus Christ.
No one explains this as simply and as profoundly as John the Baptist: “he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”
Jesus is the spotless Lamb of God - without any moral blemish which would cause him to be deserving of his Father’s displeasure. But according to the mystery of God’s eternal plan for humanity’s salvation, the sins of humanity were placed upon Jesus.
As your representative and human substitute, he took your place on the altar of the cross. As your loving, divine Savior, he willingly absorbed into himself the judgment of his own Law against your sins, and allowed himself to be consumed by his own divine wrath.
The message of the cross is therefore a message of hope and forgiveness for people like us, who are deeply aware of how our sins have offended God, and who are also deeply aware of God’s threat to punish sin.
God has not broken his Word. He has not taken back or overturned the threats of his Law. Rather, in the cross of Christ, he had followed through on those threats, and brought them to a fulfillment.
But he has done this in such a way as to be able also to remain faithful to his pledge to spare you this judgment, to be reconciled to you by his grace, and to bestow on you the gift of eternal life.
In Christ, and because of what Christ has done on your behalf, you will not be punished for your sins. Because your sins have already been paid for by His Son, God now invites you to believe him, and to trust him, when he tells you that you are forgiven.
God declares to you that, as far as he is concerned, the Lamb of God has taken away your sins! He has removed your sins from you, and has carried them to the cross himself.
Our holy and merciful God will never violate his pledge to forgive those who repent and believe in his Son, and who in faith are thereby united to Christ, and to the blessings of his cross.
This is the promise of the Gospel, which God will never break. This is God’s solemn oath, which he will never violate. This is God’s Word, which he will always keep. Amen.
19 July 2009 - Pentecost 7 - Mark 6:30-44
The image of a shepherd taking care of his sheep is one of the most common images that comes to our mind, when we think about Jesus and his relationship with his church. The reason why, of course, is because Jesus himself uses this imagery.
Today’s text from St. Mark is one example of this. We read: “When [Jesus] went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
We need to remember, though, that this imagery is a metaphor - that is, a picture or symbol. Jesus is not literally a shepherd, and we are not literally sheep.
What Jesus does in his relationship with us is not literally what a shepherd does with his sheep: prodding them with his staff, leading them out to the pasture, herding them into the sheepfold.
Perhaps we each have our own way of envisioning what the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep actually points to, in the realm of spiritual and religious realities.
If we think of our relationship with the Lord chiefly in emotional terms, then we will think of the work of a shepherd chiefly in emotional terms. A shepherd is someone who makes the sheep feel safe and contented. And so too, Jesus makes us feel safe and contented.
Is it completely wrong to think this? No, it is not. There is indeed an emotional component to our religious life, because there is an emotional component to all aspects of our existence as human beings.
We are emotional creatures. God created us with feelings. And those human feelings are activated in a wide range of situations - including situations involving faith, worship, and prayer.
But should the metaphorical description of Jesus as a “shepherd” be understood chiefly and fundamentally in emotional terms - that is, in regard to the feelings that we get as a result of what Jesus is doing in our lives? No.
An emotional application is not the primary way in which Jesus wants us to understand what it means to have him as our shepherd. There’s something else more fundamental and more basic than this, which the “shepherd” image is intended to portray.
And this is what it is: “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.”
Jesus exercises his shepherding role chiefly through teaching the Word of God to his sheep. His teaching is, as it were, the “shepherd’s staff” with which he prods his people.
The heavenly doctrine that he discloses is the “green grass” that he wants them to eat. The truth of divine revelation, which he explains and expounds, is the “sheepfold” in which they find safety.
In our society, the generation in which we live is not as “teachable” as previous generations. And that’s because the popular philosophies of the day do not acknowledge the existence of objective truth.
“What’s true for you might not be true for me.” “You have your truth, I have my truth.” Those are the kinds of nonsensical things that we often hear.
But Jesus, as the supreme teacher of humanity, does not agree. There are certain things about God, and about the human race, that people need to know.
These things are true for everybody, because they are simply true. And the truthfulness of these things does not depend on our willingness to believe them, or on our present level of understanding and comprehension of these things.
Several times in his epistles, St. Paul writes things like this:
“For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
“Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers...”
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.”
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
“What I have forgiven...has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”
All of these passages - and many more like them - speak of the importance of objective knowledge of objective truth. According to Paul, we as Christians are to be informed. We are to have understanding.
We are not to be ignorant. In regard to the things of God, and the genuine needs of our soul, ignorance is not bliss.
St. Paul’s epistles are filled with the conveyance of God’s unchanging truth to those who otherwise would be ignorant of what God wants them to know. And in this, the apostle is following the example of his Lord and ours, who, as the true shepherd of his sheep, teaches them about God and his kingdom.
The Christian faith is not about opinions and feelings and human speculation. It is about truth and facts and God-given certainty. Through the Scriptures Jesus continues to teaches us what we need to know, just as he taught the crowds who came to him during his earthly ministry.
He continues to teach us the difference between right and wrong. As he does so, he makes us honest about our past failures to uphold the right, as we should have. And he guides us in our knowledge of what we should do in the future, so as to serve our neighbor in a way that is pleasing to God.
In his moral teaching, as he expounds God’s Law, and applies the Ten Commandments to our lives, Jesus deepens our understanding of what a life that is lived according to God’s will, will actually be like.
All people - even unbelievers - do have a trace or remnant of God’s law written on their hearts. But this natural knowledge of God is clouded by the blindness of our sinful nature.
It’s easy for us, according to that sinful nature, to ignore those parts of God’s law that are, shall we say, inconvenient for the particular lifestyle we have chosen.
But when Jesus teaches the Law of God to us, deliberately and explicitly, it’s much harder to wiggle out from under the clear meaning of his words. Probably the most vivid example of this kind of moral instruction is the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus did two things:
He elevated the knowledge of the people regarding what God actually expected of them, in how they should treat, and think about, each other. And he brought the people to a point of deep humility before God, as they contemplated how far short they had come in living as God would have wanted them to live.
When you’re in the middle of a rant against someone you don’t like, you probably don’t want to be taught, at that moment, about the importance of not bearing false witness against your neighbor, or about the necessity of putting the kindest interpretation on the actions and words of others.
But that’s exactly when Jesus does want to teach this to you. That’s exactly the time when you need the shepherd’s staff of his rebuke and correction to be applied to you.
On a Sunday, when the time of public worship is approaching, and you are inclined to stay at home - to sleep, or to catch up on household chores, or to do anything other than get ready and go to church - you probably don’t want to be taught, at that moment, about the importance of honoring the name of the Lord, and of keeping the day of rest holy.
But that is exactly when Jesus does want to teach this to you. That’s exactly the time when you need to heed his command to go to where the verdant pastures of the means of grace are to be found.
As far as your lingering and resilient sinful nature is concerned, the moral teaching of Jesus is a real annoyance. Jesus always wants to have the last word.
He doesn’t let you get away with making a lame excuse for your bad behavior or bad attitude, and then just dropping the subject. He won’t drop the subject, until he teaches your old nature to death. He won’t be quiet, until you admit that what he is saying is true and just.
It’s not as simple as the post-modern conclusion that his “opinion” on these matters is different from your “opinion,” and that you and Jesus can therefore just agree to disagree. The way to look at it instead, is that he knows the facts, but you are ignorant of them.
He is right, but you are wrong. He is the teacher, and you are the student.
“When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.”
The teaching that Jesus carried out also took another form - not just the kind of moral instruction that the Sermon on the Mount presents. He taught not only about the righteousness that God demands, but also about the righteousness that God gives.
He did not limit himself to teaching the Law, and pointing out the demands that God makes on us. He also taught the Gospel - the glad tidings of what God was doing and would continue to do to save us. As St. Matthew writes: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.”
Through faith in the Gospel, we receive the forgiveness of sins; we are united to Christ and to all his benefits; and we are endowed with the gift of Christ’s Spirit. Saving faith is therefore much more than a mental knowledge of the history of Christ, or an intellectual assent to correct doctrinal formulations.
But a true saving faith does presuppose the objective facts of Christ’s person and work. And for those who are capable of grasping these things, an objective knowledge of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what Jesus continues to do, will quite naturally be intertwined with the confidence of the heart that our Savior does all that he does, to save me from my sins.
In regard to this wonderful Gospel, it is not enough to say that you believe in Jesus Christ, and leave it at that. Remember these words of the Lord, recorded elsewhere in St. Mark’s Gospel: “False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.”
And don’t forget St. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians to be on their guard against any false teacher who “comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed.”
So, which “Christ” do you believe in? There’s more than one! Which “Jesus” is the real one - the one who was sent from God to be the shepherd of your soul?
The “Jesus” in whom we are to believe is the “Jesus” who has taught us some very specific and important things about himself - things that we are to accept as objectively true - things that differentiate the real Jesus from the many false christs that are also out there.
He is, for example, “one with the Father,” in his divinity, and in his saving purpose. He is also a true man, with a true human mother for whom he cared deeply.
Jesus also explained to his disciples the true purpose of his presence among them in the flesh. Elsewhere in St. Mark we read: “he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
All of these things are objectively true. And it is necessary for you to know, in your mind and heart, that these things are true.
But the only way for you to know that these things are true, is for someone to teach you that they are true. A knowledge of these events of sacred history cannot be obtained by means of intuition or introspection. Somebody must proclaim these events to you.
A “Jesus” who did not die on the cross for you cannot forgive you. A “Jesus” who did not rise from the dead for you cannot give you eternal life.
But the real Jesus did all these things - and much more - for your sake. And therefore the real Jesus does wash away your sins, and does give you hope. For the sake of your salvation, the real Jesus teaches you everything your faith needs to know.
The teaching of Jesus is not just a matter of the intellect. His teaching does go to the heart.
Jesus assures you of important things, and comforts you in deeply personal ways. But Jesus goes to your heart - to assure you and comfort you - by means of teaching your heart!
Jesus does not bypass your intellect and mind, and give you direct spiritual experiences to serve as the basis of his relationship with you. He teaches his Word to you.
And that Word - that message of objective truth - informs and shapes your mind, and gives you something to think about and ponder.
And so, when you open your Bible, to read from its sacred pages, be prepared to be taught by the Lord.
When you come to church, come with the hope and confidence that Jesus, your shepherd, is going to teach you something important, by means of his Word and sacrament. Come with the expectation that your knowledge of God, and of God’s grace toward you, will be deepened and broadened by what you hear.
You certainly aren’t expected to be an unemotional stoic in church. You should indeed sing joyfully about the grace and love of God. You should indeed pray fervently for the needs of all men.
And you should indeed kneel with awe before God’s altar, as you receive into yourself the Lord’s miraculous gift of his own body and blood, for the remission of your sins.
But know always that the emotional experience - whatever it may be for each of us - is something that builds on, and flows from, the objective truth of what Jesus is teaching us. The emotional experience is not a substitute for such teaching.
Jesus, your loving shepherd, takes care of you, and guards and keeps you, by teaching you. He protects you from error and the devil’s deceptions, and strengthens your resistence against temptation, by teaching you.
He brings you all the blessings of his saving work, and seals those blessings to you, by teaching you about that saving work.
“When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.” Amen.
26 July 2009 - Pentecost 8 - Ephes. 3:14-21
A distinction is often made between a person’s “religion” and a person’s “spirituality.” A person’s religion is understood to be the set of beliefs to which he holds, and the ceremonial actions in which he engages: going to church, praying, reading the Bible, and so forth.
A person’s spirituality, in comparison, is understood to be the nature and quality of his inner experiences, his sense of connectedness to God, and the transformative power that is at work in his soul.
Some people have a very active religious life, but they don’t seem to be very spiritual. They go to church, say their prayers, and accept as true what their catechism teaches them.
But their general way of thinking - their attitudes and motivations - are virtually indistinguishable from the attitudes and motivations of unbelievers. After many years of outward religious observance, they are just as selfish, just as greedy, and just as spiteful as they ever were.
Other people seem to have a very active spiritual life, but they are not very religious. They don’t go to church or adhere to a consistent system of theology.
But they are very interested in exploring the world of their soul, and in having mystical experiences. They are much more likely to visit a place like Sedona, for meditation and inner reflection, than to visit a traditional worship service, to sing hymns and listen to a sermon.
Is this distinction between religion and spirituality valid? Well, in some ways I suppose it is.
God condemns outward religious observance that is not accompanied by a true inner faith. Through the prophet Isaiah he expresses his disapproval of those who “draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.”
At the same time, God is displeased when those who profess to believe in him stay away from the public religious gatherings of the church. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”
But in today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul illustrates why it is, that for us as Christians, there can really be no separation between religion and spirituality. These two concepts are intimately connected, and flow back and forth into each other all the time.
St. Paul writes: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”
He starts out with a religious reference. He speaks of an act of prayer, and even of the posture of prayer: “I bow my knees before the Father,” he says.
But what it is that he prays for is a matter of deeply personal spirituality: “I bow my knees before the Father, ...that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”
When we think of the “glory” of God, we usually think of things that are external to us: the grandeur of creation, or the hidden wisdom by which God governs human history. But here, St. Paul links the riches of God’s “glory” to the work that God’s Spirit accomplishes in our “inner being.”
God is glorified, not only when great and momentous things happen in the world and in the universe, but also when the Holy Spirit transforms and strengthens your heart. Think about that for a minute.
God, who is present everywhere, and who can do anything he wants to do, has decided that what he wants to do is to live in you, and to cause you to grow in your faith, and in the maturation of your Christian character.
As most of you know, my wife Carol and I are in the process of moving to a new house. After we make the move - this coming Tuesday to be exact - our house is going to be pretty untidy for quite a few days.
I expect that there will be unpacked boxes laying all around. The walls will be bare, with no paintings or other decorative items in place. Basically, the house will not be presentable for company.
But it just so happens that a pastor friend of mine, with his large family, will be taking their summer vacation next week. They will be passing through the Phoenix area two days after our move-in date, in need of a place to stay overnight.
They had a standing invitation from us for this sort of hospitality, to help them save on hotel costs, and now is when they need to redeem that invitation. So, my friend and his family will be bunking down in the midst of all the unpacked boxes, and they will experience the house at its worst.
Now, they know that this is what they will find when they come. But they want to stay with us anyway. Our friendship will cover over the inadequacies of our house as far as our guests are concerned, so that in Christian love and forbearance they will not see those inadequacies.
When you look at the state of your soul - the condition of your inner spiritual life - with all of its flaws and inadequacies, the last thing you would probably want is for God to come in for a visit. You would wonder, too, why he would even want to take up residence in your sinful heart.
In terms of outward religious practice, it is relatively easy for you to maintain a “tidy” appearance. But on the inside, it is not so easy to control or suppress your sinful thoughts, impulses, and motives.
You can easily refrain from bowing down physically to an idol, or raising your hand to harm your neighbor’s body. But you cannot consistently refrain from doubting God’s Word, or thinking ill of your neighbor, can you?
It’s like a child “cleaning” her room by hiding all the dirty laundry in the closet, but then having her mother come in and look in the closet. Or it’s like a woman “cleaning” her kitchen by hiding all the dirty dishes in the oven, and then having a guest open the oven door.
You can, in a sense, clean yourself up outwardly, by means of an observable religious practice. But all of your moral and spiritual shortcomings are still there, hidden, as it were, in your “inner being.”
When you do go to church, and engage in all the religious activities that everyone else is engaged in, you might hope that God will not look inside your closet or your oven. But he will!
And that’s because he’s not interested only in your religion. He’s also interested in your spirituality. And he intends to enter into the very midst of your spirituality, such as it is, by entering into you - into your heart, soul, mind, and will.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,” says Paul, “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”
And notice the phrase that comes immediately after this: “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
There is a reason why God is able to tolerate the untidiness of your heart. The friendship that he has established with you through his Son Jesus Christ covers over this untidiness, as far as he is concerned, so that he does not see it.
God in his holiness would otherwise not be able to tolerate the sinful condition of our inner being. But our heavenly Father comes to us, and dwells within us, in and through the person of Christ, and in view of the saving work of Christ on our behalf.
Jesus atoned for our sins by his innocent suffering and death. He thereby reconciled us to the Father, and caused God’s judgment against our sin to be turned away from us.
Don’t think that God will not come inside, and abide with you, until you get yourself ready for him. You would never, by your own efforts, be able to make your soul to be a fit dwelling place for the holy God.
But God, because of his friendship with you in Christ, considers your soul already to be a place where he wants to be.
And when the Father and the Son come to dwell within you in this way, the Holy Spirit likewise comes, and goes to work: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
The love that God manifested for you by sending his Son to die for you, is a love that he now plants in you, so that you, who are loved by God, become capable of loving others in God’s name. That’s a life-long process.
In regard to the topic of “love,” the primary carnal impulse that flows out of your old nature is an impulse to love yourself, and to use others - as your servants - to get what you want out of them. But the Triune God who now lives within you changes all that, and turns this impulse on its head.
God re-creates you, and gives you a new nature, which loves him first, and which then loves your neighbor - especially your neighbor in need. This divine love, as it gradually fills every crevice of your heart, prompts you to make yourself the servant of others, to fulfill what God wants you to do for them: meeting their needs according to the duties of your vocation.
And, as God dwells within your inner being, to mold and shape your spiritual life, he strengthens you “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,” to use St. Paul’s terms.
In last week’s sermon we spoke about the importance of the Lord’s objective teaching. A true Christian faith will latch onto sound Biblical doctrine, and onto the truth that God has revealed through the apostles and prophets, and not onto the mist and vapor of emotional experience.
Today we are reminded of the fact that the faith by which we grasp and comprehend what God makes known to us, is a faith that is supernaturally worked in us by God himself, as God dwells in us. The old, natural mind cannot understand the ways of God.
God’s mercy seems like weakness. God’s patience seems like indifference. The ways of the Spirit of God are foolishness to those who are unspiritual, and make no sense to them.
But the new “mind of Christ,” which the Holy Spirit builds up within you through his gift of faith, does have the capacity to know and understand what God has revealed, and to grow in that knowledge and understanding.
In his grace, God is willing to save you as he finds you. He demands nothing from you first, as a prerequisite to his offering and giving of his Son to you, in the preaching of the Gospel and in the administration of the sacraments.
But when God does save you, he does not leave you as he found you. He invests himself in you. Literally, he invests himself in you.
He recreates you from the inside out. He takes charge of your “spirituality,” and changes you to be the kind of person he wants you to be.
As you hear and meditate on God’s Word, God’s Word enters you. And by means of God’s Word, as he is carried along within it, God’s living Spirit also enters you, and remains in you.
Someone who is baptized into Christ, and in whom Christ lives, will never be the same again. Every day, in fact - by faith - you will become something different, in Christ, from what you were the day before.
At God’s pace, and according to his timing, you will become something better, something stronger, something purer. Through the Gospel of your forgiveness by the blood of Christ, which you hear and believe, the Holy Spirit is always active in you. He is never idle.
Therefore you are being transformed, every day, into the image of Christ: to be what God wants you to be; to know what God wants you to know; to think as God wants you to think. You are being transformed, every day, into what you were meant to be, and into what you will be forever in God’s eternal kingdom.
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”