SERMONS - OCTOBER 2009
4 October 2009 - Pentecost 18 - Mark 10:2-16
“What did Moses command you?” With that question, Jesus replies to a question that has been posed to him, by some Pharisees, concerning marriage and divorce.
St. Mark, in today’s text, quotes their question to Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Basically this is what’s happening:
These Pharisees are trying to draw Jesus into a dispute that had been raging among the rabbis for a long time, concerning the circumstances under which the dissolution of a marriage between a man and a woman would be justified. There were two schools of thought, oriented around the teaching of two famous rabbis of the past.
The followers of Shammai held that divorce was permissible only in the case of adultery, or something similarly serious. The followers of Hillel held that divorce was permissible for virtually any reason that the husband considered to be good enough, such as if his wife burned his dinner, or if he was attracted to another woman who was better looking than his current wife. Yes, they actually used these as examples!
Jesus replied to this query in a way that was consistent with his overall ministry. He asked them what Moses - that is, the inspired Scripture - had said about this matter.
Jesus himself, in all of his own preaching, consistently based everything that he said on Holy Scripture. He didn’t introduce any doctrine above and beyond what could be found in the Hebrew Scriptures - as long as those Scriptures were read and interpreted correctly.
He was, accordingly, very severe in his criticism of those teachers of Israel who distorted Scripture by quoting certain passages out of context, to make them seem to say things they didn’t really say; or who ignored important passages in constructing their theology; or who mixed into their teaching human traditions that contradicted what the Bible actually says.
In today’s Gospel, we see that Jesus wants to draw the Pharisees into a careful study of all the pertinent passages of Scripture that speak to the issue they are raising.
As sinful human beings, their tendency - and ours - would probably be to try to find a verse somewhere that could be construed to support what they already wanted to believe. But Jesus won’t let them do that. Let’s listen in to the conversation:
“Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.’”
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’”
The passage to which the Pharisees had referred was from the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses is laying down civil regulations for the orderly governance of the nation. We read:
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife...”
It is significant that in this passage, Moses is not saying that in certain circumstances divorce is a good thing, or is pleasing to God. Instead, this passage starts out with the assumption that people, because of their sinfulness, will sometimes get divorced.
What he tells them is designed to regulate divorce in such a way as to minimize the social upheaval it would cause. He is especially concerned to prevent something akin to “wife-swapping” or “wife-sharing” among the Israelites.
This was not beyond the imagination of the pagans of that day, whose perverse example the Hebrews might have been tempted to follow. And of course, such behavior is not beyond the wicked imagination of certain “pagans” in our own time either.
But under the provisions of this civil regulation, a man who would divorce his wife without justification could not do so with a clear conscience before God.
The external laws of society may have permitted it. But Moses was not intending to say that a frivolous or unnecessary divorce would be the right thing to do, for any man who truly desired to live as God would want him to live.
Maybe he could get away with it as far as the civil law was concerned. But he could not “get away with it” according to the supreme demands that God had placed upon him in his unchanging moral law.
That was Jesus’ point. And how do we know that this was a valid point?
Well, it wasn’t because Jesus simply decided to disagreed with Moses. It’s because Jesus knew that this was not the only place in the writings of Moses where the topic of marriage, and the permanence of marriage, was discussed.
What Moses permitted as a matter of civil law in the Book of Deuteronomy - because of the hardness of men’s hearts - must be read in the larger context of what he had also written in the Book of Genesis.
The Book of Genesis is, as we know, the target of severe attacks from skeptics, feminists, and evolutionists, who dismiss what it teaches concerning creation and the order of creation.
Historical critics usually assume that the stories contained in this book were made up many centuries after the fact, and that these various disconnected myths and legends were eventually pasted together during the reign of Kind David. Most modern scholars would laugh out loud if someone where to suggest that Moses was the human author of this book.
Now, we would not necessarily reject the idea that the Book of Genesis was compiled from a collection of earlier sources. But it would have been Moses himself who drew on these pre-existing documents - under the guidance of the Holy Spirit - as he compiled and edited the material for this book. This is what Luther had to say concerning this:
“I believe that many things had been written before Moses. Adam, I assume, wrote the stories of the creation, the fall, the promise of the seed of the woman, etc., likewise the other fathers, especially Noah, wrote what happened at their time. Afterward Moses took this material and brought it into good order, took away and added what and how God commanded him.”
It’s intriguing to ponder that the various chapters of the Book of Genesis provide us with personal, firsthand accounts of the events that were experienced by the ancient patriarchs, written down originally with their own pens - or, more precisely, with their own cuneiform styluses.
And this would mean that it is Adam himself - through Moses - who is instructing us concerning what God had told him about the permanence of marriage. Listen with me to these beautiful words, which were so important to Jesus, and which must be important to us too:
“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ ... So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.”
“Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
This is the “commandment of Moses” that Jesus wanted the Pharisees to take into account. What Moses himself set up later on - in terms of what the civil law of Israel would tolerate concerning divorce and remarriage - does not trump or overturn this most fundamental Mosaic teaching.
What Jesus wanted the Pharisees to understand - and what he wants us to understand - is that divorce, and the things that lead up to divorce, all have their origin in human sin, and not in God’s good and gracious will. Every divorce involves sin on the part of at least one of the parties - and usually both.
The end of a marriage, which according to God’s will was supposed to endure for life, is never something to be celebrated - not even by those who were betrayed by a spouse’s infidelity, or who had an unjust divorce imposed on them by a hard-hearted spouse. Divorce is always something to be mourned and regretted.
And for the person whose actions are the cause of the divorce, he or she can never stand before God with a clear conscience, until and unless the sins that led to the divorce are sincerely repented of; and reconciliation - if it is still possible - is sincerely attempted.
Our conscience cannot take refuge in what the civil law of our society may allow us to get away with. God allows and tolerates a lot of things in the arena of civil law that are not in accord with his moral law.
Conformity to God’s moral law - to his perfect will, as recorded in the Book of Genesis and elsewhere in Scripture - is what we must always strive for. But conformity to God’s perfect will is something we never do - not in regard to marriage, and the duties we owe to a spouse within marriage; and not in regard to our other relationships either.
We are reminded by the apostle Paul that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So, what are we to do? Are we to make excuses, or try to find loop-holes in the law of God, so that we can pretend that what is wrong is really right?
That’s what many of the Pharisees wanted to do. But that’s not really an option. Even if your conscience is hardened enough so that you do not feel guilty over those kinds of games at the time, God’s judgment will eventually catch up with you!
Where can we turn, then, as we struggle to do the right thing, but as we continuously falter and stumble in that struggle? How can we avoid God’s judgment on our impurity, and on our failures?
There is only one place to look. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, “we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
Jesus tasted death for everyone. And that means that Jesus tasted death for you, so that your sins may be forgiven, and so that the righteousness of Christ may be placed upon you.
As your Savior, Jesus did for you what you cannot do for yourself. He lived a perfect life.
And he still does live a perfect life, for your benefit. Included in this is the perfect way in which he conducts himself in the marriage into which God has placed him.
“Jesus’ marriage?,” you ask? No, I don’t mean his “marriage” to Mary Magdalene, as claimed by a recent popular book that is long on imagination and short on facts.
I mean his marriage to his church - his beloved bride. St. Paul describes the Lord’s role in this heavenly marriage, in the context of exhorting earthly husbands to love their wives. He writes to the Ephesians:
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.”
“He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Are you perhaps the victim of an unjust divorce, and still in need of healing from the trauma and turmoil of that experience? Are you struggling in your conscience with your own human weaknesses, which certainly didn’t help to make your marriage strong when you were married?
Were you humiliated by an adulterous spouse, who turned your life into a shambles, and then just walked away? - thereby planting seeds of anger and bitterness within you. Even if things like this happened a long time ago, you may very well be carrying around some serious unresolved issues, and some deeply-seated pain, that are affecting you in ways you don’t fully realize.
But Christ, in his forgiving and restoring Gospel, brings this turmoil to an end. Your “blemishes” are covered over and healed by the beauty of his grace, which he pours out upon you. The moral “wrinkles” in your life are ironed out by his moral perfection, which he gently drapes over you.
The persistent “stains” of sin in your life - past and present - are cleansed in “the washing of water with the word.” That’s your baptism, which Christ renews to you each and every time he declares, through his called servant, “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
He declared those words to you today. And he meant them. As a faithful husband to his beloved church, he will always mean them.
And he means those words, as you hear them in repentance and faith, if you in the past have been, not a victim of divorce, but a perpetrator. Even if you have caused a divorce by your own sins, or if you have harmed your marriage, and brought pain to your spouse, by a violation of your wedding vows, Jesus has not given up on you!
Whatever the sins of your past may be - in marriage, or in any other area of life - Jesus loves and forgives you too. In fact, he especially loves and forgives you.
Remember what he said at another time and place: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
If your conscience is telling you that you are, and have been, a “sinner,” this doesn’t mean that Jesus is therefore casting you off forever. It means precisely the opposite of this.
It means that he is calling you - he is calling you - to repentance: to heal you, and to give you another chance.
He gives you a new way forward, and a new beginning, in this life. And he gives you a renewed hope for the life to come.
All of us who bear the name of Christ, and who cling to the promises of Christ, can rest in the confidence that our Savior will preserve us in faith, and will continually work within us by his Spirit to conform us to his image.
In his Word and Sacrament he has been “joined” to us - as a husband is “joined” to a wife in marriage. And we have become, as it were, “one flesh” with him.
He is, and will always be, the faithful and forgiving bridegroom of his church. In the Book of Genesis, that’s what Moses truly commands. And that’s what Jesus does. Amen.
11 October 2009 - Pentecost 19 - Mark 10:17-22
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This question, posed to Jesus by the rich man in today’s Gospel, is based on two significant but unproven assumptions.
And in his response to this question, Jesus did not simply answer it in a straightforward way. He also challenged the wrong assumptions that lay behind the question.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The two assumptions that lay behind this question are these: that “goodness,” properly speaking, is something that can be attributed to a mortal human teacher; and that becoming an heir of eternal life pertains to what someone “does” - as long as he has been properly instructed in what it is that he is supposed to do.
When the man called Jesus a “good teacher,” he probably wasn’t intending to make a deep theological point. But he should have been!
Jesus immediately replied with a question: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Heretics who deny the divinity of Jesus take this mean that Jesus was correcting the man.
They interpret the meaning of the Lord’s words to be saying, in effect, “You shouldn’t call me ‘good,’ since only God is good, and I am not God.” But that’s not what Jesus said.
He was not correcting the man on this point, since what the man had said was actually true. But he wanted to see if the man himself was aware of the significance of what he had just said.
Without realizing it, he had just confessed Jesus to be God in the flesh - to be a teacher who truly is “good.” Only God is good in the absolute sense.
And Jesus is “good” in the absolute sense, because Jesus is God in the absolute sense. He is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who took a true human nature to himself in the womb of his virgin mother.
And since this is so, the rich man consequently should have been willing to submit to whatever it was that Jesus then told him. If Jesus is indeed the “Good Teacher” - which he is - then that means he is the Divine Teacher, whose word is to be believed and accepted without any hesitation or doubt.
We’ll come back to that in a couple minutes. But for now, let’s go on to the second major assumption that lay behind the man’s question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He was assuming that his salvation would be a matter of his “doing.” What must I “do,” he asked.
It’s not surprising that he would assume that the way of salvation is a way of human “doing.” In rabbinic Judaism, Moses is interpreted as the prophet who teaches people how to do what they need to do to be righteous before God, by means of obeying the law.
The religion of Islam sees Muhammad precisely in this way too. Muhammad is the prophet who brought us the Koran, through which we are able to know what to do, in order to be submissive to the will of Allah, and thereby to earn a place in Paradise.
The meditation and lifestyle techniques that are proposed by the Eastern religions are likewise basically telling us what to do, in order to achieve mystical enlightenment. There are some, perhaps many, who construe Christianity also as a moralistic religion, which supposedly teaches that in doing good works, as Jesus and the Bible define them, we can earn our way to heaven.
Today’s Gospel is one of those passages that would likely be interpreted by those who see things in this way, as an indication that even Jesus taught that an otherwise sinful person can become an heir of heaven by following the Ten Commandments. Let’s listen again to what he tells the rich man.
Jesus begins by reviewing for the man most of the Ten Commandments that God had given to Israel at Mount Sinai: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”
The man, in all sincerity, replied, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” But then Jesus said something that served to demonstrate that he could not honestly claim this in regard to the main commandment that Jesus had omitted from his original list: namely the First one. We read:
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
The First Commandment, in its actual wording, goes like this: I am the Lord your God... You shall have no other gods before me.”
If this commandment means anything, it means that the God who created us has the right to our complete obedience. It means that he is to be the most important thing in life, and that all other things are important only because, and only insofar as, they serve his purposes.
Jesus did not directly quote this commandment to the man, as he had done with the others, but he applied it to him, in a very personal way, in order to show what obedience to this particular commandment would actually mean in his individual case.
You might be wondering, though, how the specific demands that Jesus placed upon this person were an application of the First Commandment. Does the First Commandment require people in general to sell everything they have and give it to the poor? Actually it does - sort of.
We enter this world with nothing, and leave it with nothing. Whatever comes into our temporary possession during the years we spend on this earth, is through the permission of God, as a trust from him.
He is, and remains, the actual owner of everything. God himself tells us in Psalm 50:
“For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.”
If the First Commandment requires us to fear, trust, and love God above all things - which it does - then in the fear of God we must give up our presumptuous claims of true ownership and ultimate control over possessions that actually belong to him, and not to us. And, in principle, we are to make use of the possessions he has allowed to come into our hands only according to his will, and not according to our own selfish wishes.
The rich man in today’s text had the benefit - or maybe the curse - of being able to hear God’s own voice, directed personally to him, giving him specific information as to what God wanted him to do with his possessions.
Under usual circumstances people often need to make an educated guess of how they think God wants them to make use of their possessions. But this was not the case here, with the man to whom Jesus was speaking.
He had already acknowledged Jesus to be the Good Teacher, which is something that could be said only of God. And so, the First Commandment required the man to do whatever Jesus - God in the flesh - was telling him to do.
When Jesus told him to sell all of his possessions, as proof that those possessions were not his god, but that the Lord Jehovah was his God, then that’s what he needed to do.
For us, who do not customary receive direct communications from God, we don’t have that benefit. But this doesn’t mean that we are left completely in the dark in figuring out how God wants us to spend our money.
Jesus may not speak to us directly, face-to-face, as he did with the man in today’s account. But he does speak to us in a mediated way, through his Word and Sacrament, and through the earthly vocations that he gives us.
To the extent that the voice of Christ can be discerned and heard through these means, then to that extent we are indeed able to know how God wants us to use the possessions he has allowed us to have.
When our conscience has been properly instructed by God’s Word, and when a proper understanding of our duty toward others has been impressed upon us by the callings into which God has placed us, then the First Commandment requires us to be obedient to this instruction and this knowledge.
If you have a spouse to whom God has inseparably joined you - recalling last week’s Gospel - or if you are responsible for a family, then on the basis of this calling from God, it is definitely God’s will that you use some of your resources to provide for these people.
You need to keep house and home together for them. You need to provide for the education of your children, and to make reasonable plans for your own financial future, so that you will not someday be a burden on others.
It is God himself who calls you to such responsibilities. And therefore you can be confident that this is one of the requirements that the First Commandment places on you, according to the circumstances of your life.
If you are a citizen of your city, state, and country - and you are - then you also have an obligation to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. “Taxes to whom taxes are due,” St. Paul says.
And being a good citizen means that you are also concerned about the needs of disadvantaged people in your community, and in the larger human family. There are obvious applications of Scripture’s teaching that you are to “love your neighbor as yourself,” in the kind of charities and worthy causes you will support.
Again, you are called by God to these civic responsibilities. It’s a part of what it means to be “the salt of the earth.” And so, you can be confident that meeting such expenses is also among the requirements that the First Commandment places on you.
Innocent diversions and wholesome recreations - which help us to rejoice in the Lord always, and to rest occasionally from our labors, as God wants us to do - are also permitted. Your resources can be spent - in moderation - on such things as well, with God’s approval.
And as a member of the body of Christ, your life - in work and in play - is to be permeated always by God’s Word. A Christian is also to have a concern that the Gospel be spread to others, in his own community and in all nations.
Therefore, making provision for the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, and for regular public worship, is also among the uses to which God would direct you to put your money and possessions.
Not every Christian is called by the Lord to be a preacher and teacher. But every Christian does have a calling to “hold up the hands” of God’s prophets, and to make it possible for pastors to do their work for God’s kingdom.
Indeed, supporting the work of the Lord’s church, in local ministry as well as in global outreach, is probably the most important thing you can do with the material resources God has given you. The preaching of the Gospel has eternal consequences, for you and for all others who hear and receive it.
From the perspective of eternity, if you have amassed everything that the world offers, but you don’t have the Gospel, or the salvation that God gives you through the Gospel, then you have nothing. However, if in the end you are lacking in all the things that the world might offer, but you do still have and embrace the promises of God’s grace and reconciliation in Christ, then you have everything.
No money that you ever spend, is spent apart from the ever-watchful eye of God. Your use of the resources that have been entrusted to you is therefore always to be governed by a sincere and Biblically-informed belief that God has either commanded it, or permitted it.
Sometimes we are not able to be absolutely certain how we should use our resources, especially in regard to the details. So, we will often have to make an educated guess of what, in God’s eyes, would be the right thing to do with our money or goods: how much to save for retirement; how much to spend on a house, on a car, or on a vacation; how much to put in the offering plate on Sunday.
But as we prayerfully wrestle with these questions, God does not leave us without guidance. We are guided by his Word, and by the priorities that his Word teaches us to have. We are guided by the general requirements of the callings into which God has placed us, in family, society, and church.
For the man in today’s story, however, there was no doubt as to what God wanted him to do with his resources: “sell all that you have and give to the poor,” Jesus told him. But the man was “disheartened by the saying,” and “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Are you disheartened by the Lord’s claim on everything that you own - or that up until now you have thought you owned? Will you go away from him sorrowful today, because you reject this claim?
Or will you, in faith, recognize that God does indeed own everything you have, and that he is indeed to be in charge of how you use it?
And will you in faith - even if it is at present a weak faith - ask God to give you an ever increasing desire to know his will in these matters, and an ever increasing ability to follow his will in these matters? May this be your wish, as the Lord helps you by his grace.
But, a sincere desire on your part to grow in this area of your Christian life is not what saves you. You will not become an heir of eternal life by means of your halting and timid submission to the First Commandment.
The only way by which salvation can be earned through the law, is if the law is obeyed perfectly, and if all of its demands are followed without hesitation.
The rich man in today’s text certainly did not do that. And we, in our ongoing weakness and hesitancy - even when we have the best of intentions - end up not doing it either.
But Jesus is the Good Teacher - the Good Savior - who truly is good, as God alone is good. He did, of course, teach the rich man that the First Commandment, if it would be obeyed correctly, would require him to divest himself of all that he held dear, and distribute his largesse to the poor.
But that’s not all Jesus did. He also practiced what he preached.
St. Paul reminds us “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” On the cross Jesus did divest himself of everything he had, to save us.
He gave up the use of his divine powers, so that the suffering he experienced would be real, undiluted human suffering, endured in the place of sinful humanity under the judgment of God. He gave up the earthly companionship of his beloved mother and of his disciples, his closest friends.
And he endured the equivalent of hell itself, in our place. In his humiliation he had taken upon himself the sins of the world. He then had the very real experience of being forsaken by God on account of those sins.
Jesus said on one occasion: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” For Jesus, then, the First Commandment required that he lay down his life for his sheep, because that’s the reason why his Father sent him into the world.
That was the unique work he was called to accomplish. The First Commandment, when applied to Christ, required him to die for the sins of the world. And so, in perfect submission to God’s law, that’s what he did.
The rich man in today’s text asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But because of human sin, he could not do what would need to be done. However, Jesus could do it - for him, and for all of us. And Jesus did what only Jesus could do.
We are saved by good works, after all. But it’s not our own works that save us. We’re saved by the works of Christ, performed on our behalf under the supreme demands of God’s law, which he unswervingly obeyed for us.
He gave up everything for you on the cross. And now, in his Word and Sacraments, he distributes his spiritual largesse to you, who without his grace would remain in your inborn state of spiritual poverty.
In the Gospel, he gives you the status of a saint, covering your sins with his holiness. In the Gospel he regenerates you to be a child of God, filling you with the Spirit of adoption by whom you cry out “Abba, Father.”
He looks at you, and loves you. And he makes you to be an heir of eternal life by his grace, as you trust in his promises, and as you cling to his cross.
Many spend their lives in fretting Over trifles and in getting
Things that have no solid ground.
I shall strive to win a treasure That will bring me lasting pleasure
And that now is seldom found.
All depends on our possessing God’s abundant grace and blessing,
Tho’ all earthly wealth depart.
He who trusts with faith unshaken In His God is not forsaken
And ever keeps a dauntless heart. Amen.
18 October 2009 - Pentecost 20 - Mark 10:23-31
Sometimes people say things that are so unexpected, and so different from what we would expect them to say, that we are amazed. That’s the reaction that the disciples had to something Jesus said in today’s Gospel:
“And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were amazed at his words.”
Jesus had just gotten done talking with a rich man who had approached him, asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. We discussed that conversation in last week’s sermon.
In light of that conversation, it is significant that St. Mark tells us that Jesus “looked around” before he made his statement to the disciples. He wasn’t talking just about the specific man to whom he had been speaking.
He was now talking about everyone around him - who, it would seem, valued earthly riches in a way similar to how the rich man valued his possessions, even if they didn’t have as much money as he had. Basically, Jesus was now talking about the disciples themselves.
The disciples, along with others in their day, had always assumed that earthly prosperity was one of the marks of divine blessing. If you were a godly person, whose life was acceptable to God, then you could expect God to reward you with riches and earthly success.
Having money, it was thought, also meant that it would be easier for you to do the things that God wanted you to do, such as maintaining a kosher home, refraining from labor on the Sabbath Day, paying your tithes to the temple, and so forth.
It never crossed their minds that material prosperity would be a hindrance to one’s religious and spiritual life. Just the opposite! If you were to ask them, the disciples would probably have wondered if it would be possible for a poor man to enter the kingdom of God.
But a wealthy man? Well of course he could enter God’s kingdom! Unlike a poor person, he could do everything God requires people to do for their salvation - and then some!
But Jesus wanted to shake them out of this way of thinking. The first thing he said to them amazed them. What he said next absolutely astonished them, and frightened them:
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’”
Indeed, who can be saved? If the people who are best equipped with the resources for acquiring salvation cannot actually acquire it, then who can?
The disciples were here experiencing a profound life-changing and faith-changing moment. Their assumptions about some very weighty matters were not only challenged or questioned by what Jesus said, but these assumptions were shattered, with nothing of them left standing.
They didn’t know what to think now. They had no answer, now that all the answers that used to make sense have been declared to be utterly false and wrong.
When I was living in the former Soviet Union, I met a lot of people who had undergone profound changes like this in their way of thinking, when the political and social system in which they had been thoroughly indoctrinated simply collapsed all around them. And some of them - when I met them several years later - were still in a state of shock and confusion, not knowing where to turn, or what to believe in now.
Sometimes this sort of eye-opening and disruptive experience also happens to us: in regard to the political ideas to which we have always held, or in regard to the way we have always run our business, or in regard to the nature of the relationship we have always had with someone.
And sometimes this sort of experience happens to us in regard to our relationship with God, and in regard to our previous assumptions about how such a relationship is established and maintained.
Man in his natural state is not irreligious. He has an inborn perception that there is a God or a Divine Power somewhere out there, to whom he should be connected.
He also has an inborn assumption that this mysterious God is probably impressed by the things that impress human beings: sincere effort, sacrifice and commitment, eagerness and persistence.
So, these are the things that we are inclined to offer up to God, hoping - assuming - that we will thereby earn a place in his kingdom. And when we, in such religious efforts, are able to make use of a generous supply of material wealth - which makes it easier for us to serve God in these ways, and to accomplish the things he wants us to do - well, all the better!
But Jesus says No! Not only are the disciples - and all of contemporary Judaism - coming up with the wrong answers; they aren’t even asking the right questions!
It’s not a question of “how” - “How can I make myself to be an heir of eternal life; how can I make myself to be pleasing to God?” It’s a question of “who” - “Who saves me; who bestows eternal life on me; who causes me to be a part of God’s kingdom?”
And the answer to that “who” question is not you! The answer is God!
“And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.’”
It does not come naturally for a person to believe in a God who demands nothing, and who gives everything, as far as human salvation is concerned. We know that in this world there is no such thing as a free lunch.
But that is exactly the kind of God who has been revealed to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. The word “gospel” means “good news” or “glad tidings.” And the reason why the message of Christ is called the Gospel, is because it presents to us a salvation that is indeed free.
Or at least it is free to us. Jesus - God in the flesh - had to pay for it with his own life.
But he did pay for it. And therefore, whenever we see the image of the cross, or whenever we hear about the cross of Christ, we are reminded of this truth:
Everything that needed to be accomplished, so that you could be an heir of eternal life, has been accomplished - not by you, but by him. The price that needed to be paid, has been paid - not by you, but by him. The sacrifice that needed to be offered, has been offered - not by you, but by him.
And therefore it is to the cross of Christ alone that you are invited to look in faith, in order to have the confidence that this salvation, which Christ procured, is your salvation.
For your salvation, the Gospel demands nothing. If you try to offer God something anyway, that’s just another way of rejecting what God is offering you as his free gift.
In our earthly associations, when we insist on paying for something that a friend sincerely wants to give us, we may very well insult our friend, and put a strain on that friendship. So, too, in regard to the salvation of our souls.
Our misguided reluctance to receive from God, on his terms, what he freely seeks to give us, and our persistent sinful assumption that we have to pay something for admission to his kingdom, is an insult to God’s grace. It is an insult to the cross of Christ, where he said, “It is finished.”
Jesus said, “all things are possible with God.” When the message of the cross is preached to you, God is thereby telling you that what is possible for everyone, is a reality for you.
When he turns your heart away from anything else you might have been tempted to rely on, and turns your heart toward the cross of his Son, God does what only God can do.
Your riches, whether great or small, will not help you. In fact, if you trust in those riches, or love them more than you love God, or attribute to them the capacity to accomplish things that only the Gospel can accomplish, those riches will hinder and prevent your salvation.
But the Spirit of Christ comes to you in his Gospel, to disconnect your heart from these things, and to connect it instead to the cross of Christ. So, when the question is asked, “Who then can be saved?,” the answer is: You! You can be saved! In Christ you are saved!
There’s something else in today’s text that is also strange to our ears, even as it would have been strange to the ears of the disciples. Jesus said:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Is Jesus teaching here that people who leave the obligations they have toward their family members are somehow positioning themselves by such an action to receive eternal life and other blessings from God?
At the time of the Reformation, some of Luther’s opponents referred to this passage in their defense of the taking of monastic vows, even by people who already had a spouse or children to take care of.
The Lutheran Church responded to this in these words, from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:
“There are two kinds of leaving. One happens without a call, without a command of God... ...Christ...does not approve this kind of flight, since we know that the command of God forbids the deserting of wife and children.”
“The other kind of leaving is that which happens by a command of God, when a government or a tyranny forces us either to leave, or to deny the gospel. Here we have the command rather to bear the injury, to let property, spouse, and children, even life itself, be taken from us. This kind of leaving Christ approves. And thus he adds the phrase, ‘for the sake of the gospel,’ to show that he is not talking about those who do injury to wife and children, but about those who bear injury for the sake of confessing the gospel.”
In other words, our faithfulness to the Gospel sometimes sets in motion a sequence of events that may indeed result in a separation from parents or children. We would hope, of course, that we would never have to choose between remaining in our family and remaining in God’s kingdom.
But if we ever find ourselves in a situation where we do have to make this choice, then in faith we would have to choose the Savior, who in grace has chosen us. And then, in faith, we would ask him to sustain us in our trial, and help us to bear up under the grief and sadness of such a separation.
A real-life example of this is the story we have probably all heard on the news, of a teenage girl from an Ohio Muslim family who recently converted to Christianity. Because of previous threats from her father, she was in fear of becoming the victim of an “honor killing” because of her conversion, which Islam - in its more traditional form - would in fact call for.
So, against her parents’ wishes, and for her own safety, she fled to Florida to stay with Christian friends. The Florida courts recently sent her case to the Ohio courts, and we don’t know yet how those courts will resolve this.
But this story does help us to realize that Jesus is not speaking in mere hypothetical terms when he describes a situation wherein someone may need to flee even from parents for the sake of the Gospel. If something like that is necessary, then we need to be willing to do it.
It’s certainly a different kind of scenario from what we might usually think of in regard to teenagers. When I was in my early teen years, I doubt that I would have gone to church very often if my mother didn’t make me go with her.
Teens often stay involved in church only because their parents expect it and enforce it. Would I have gone to church, and would I have sought to cultivate my relationship with the Lord, if my mother was indifferent to my Christian faith, or if she was even hostile to that faith?
In my own case, through a providential convergence of various influences, the Lord opened my eyes, when I was sixteen, to begin to see more clearly what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. Through his Word, at the time of this “spiritual awakening,” he instilled in me a desire to worship him, and to be nurtured in my faith with the banquet of his Gospel, that did not depend on my mother’s external coercion!
But in my continuing human weakness, Jesus in today’s text continues to tell me - and all of us, whatever our life circumstances might be - that my relationship with him, and my citizenship in his kingdom, is always to be more important than any other relationship. And this remains true - for all of us - even if our closest relatives would be against it, or even if they might threaten us because of it.
If you are a Christian, with the priorities and convictions of a Christian, it’s not because of who your parents and other close relatives are. And it may even be in spite of who your parents and other close relatives are.
If you have a hard time believing this - as I certainly would have when I was a young teenager - then the Lord will help you, even today, to be reminded of the eternal family to which you belong in Christ. He calls you to come home, as it were, for the family meal - for the sacrament of his body an blood.
Through that sacred meal, he will renew in you a hope that looks beyond the things that seem important in this life, so that you can see once again the things that are truly important.
You’ve heard the saying, “blood is thicker than water.” But the blood of your earthly kinships is not “thicker” or stronger than the blood of Christ, which was shed for you, and by which you have been redeemed and purchased for eternity.
And nothing is thicker or more powerful than the water of Holy Baptism. This blessed water has joined you to a Savior who will always remain your truest friend, even if all other friends and family members turn away from you, or on you.
The appointed collect for Good Friday is a good prayer for us to say today, or on any day when we are reminded of what the Lord does for us, and gives us, freely, by his grace.
“Almighty God, graciously behold this Your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed and delivered into the hands of sinful men, to suffer death upon the cross; through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”
25 October 2009 - Reformation - Revelation 14:6-7
“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” As I’ve noted in the past, this verse from the Book of Revelation was interpreted in the earlier generations of Lutheran history to be a reference to Martin Luther, and to the reforming work that was accomplished through him in the sixteenth century.
When we remember that the word “angel” means “messenger,” and does not necessarily refer to a heavenly spiritual creature, I suppose we can understand why those who valued Luther’s work so highly might draw this conclusion.
But today I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the identity of the “angel” in this text. Instead I want to consider with you the identity of the “eternal gospel” that this angel proclaims - and indeed that all true angels or messengers of God proclaim.
That is, after all, what the Lutheran Reformation was all about. Most fundamentally, the Reformation of the sixteenth century wasn’t about Luther, or about any other human or heavenly angel. It was about the eternal gospel.
The eternal gospel is the living and universal message of a loving heavenly Father, who sends his Son into the world to save that world, from sin, death, and the devil.
The eternal gospel is the powerful and personal message of a divine-human Savior who brings his forgiveness to poor wretched sinners, and who, by his Spirit, bestows upon them the faith by which they receive and enjoy all the blessings of salvation and reconciliation with God.
There are several reasons why the Bible calls this the “eternal” gospel. It is eternal because it never changes.
Even when human beings, at different times in church history, have not fully understood or appreciated this gospel, this was always the gospel that God was offering to the world, in the Scriptures and in the sacraments.
Even when various heretics, through the centuries, tried to distort this gospel, and change it into a different kind of message, the gospel itself always survived, and emerged again with its full saving force, to bring God’s grace to a new generation.
The Lutheran Reformers of the sixteenth century were very much aware of the fact that the only gospel they had the right to proclaim, and to use as the basis for correcting errors that had crept into the church, was this one, unchanging, eternal gospel.
They knew that they would be inviting divine judgment upon themselves, if they presumed to invented something new to proclaim to God’s people, or if they put forth a message that differed from the message that the apostles and earliest Christian fathers had preached to the world.
John Meyendorff, a well-respected Eastern Orthodox theologian and historian of the last century, paid this complement to Luther and his co-workers:
“Luther’s main intention was to go back to the New Testament, to revive the sense of the God of the Bible, the living God, the Creator and the Sovereign. He recovers the primitive concept of salvation as a drama, a battle between God and the evil powers of sin and death which have usurped God’s sovereignty over the world.”
“Lutheran theology was indeed a re-establishment of the basic Biblical and Patristic elements in this drama. His concern for the catholic tradition of the church was obvious, and the Augsburg Confession itself claims to be nothing else than a reestablishment of the ancient apostolic faith liberated from all human philosophical systems.”
This eternal gospel is, however, under attack in many religious institutions of our time. It is being attacked, for example, whenever a modern religious leader claims that the message of Scripture is too old-fashioned, or too time-bound, to be relevant to the age in which we live.
We are all familiar with recent examples of this sort of arrogant attitude toward God and his Word, as we have seen it in various “liberal” churches all around us.
But we cannot let ourselves off the hook in this respect too easily. We might belong to a more “conservative” church, with a more conservative position on some of these matters.
But there are plenty of ways in which we succumb to the temptation to try to find loopholes in God’s Word. And there are plenty of times when we simply ignore certain passages of Scripture that would challenge some of the attitudes we have adopted, under the influence of the unbelieving world in which we live.
The good news of Christ - the eternal good news of forgiveness through the death and resurrection of God’s Son - is good news only to those who admit their need for this forgiveness.
But it is often too easy for us, in our own minds, to redefine sin, according to what the world thinks is acceptable. When we do this, we are clearly implying - even if we don’t come right out and say it - that we think that what the Bible defines as sin is out-of-date.
Sometimes the only sins we are willing to admit are still sins, to be avoided, are the sins that we perceive ourselves to be avoiding. Otherwise, we tend to find ways to rationalize away the improper actions and attitudes we have slipped into, and that we are no longer trying to avoid.
So, for example, we are more than willing to criticize the more liberal churches for their approval of homosexuality. But what do we say about the other sins that the Bible condemns, in the same breath as its condemnation of homosexual behavior?
“Do you not know,” asks St. Paul, “that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
We tend not to want to criticize those who wink at, or commit, these more popular sins, perhaps because our relatives and friends - or we ourselves! - are among the offenders. We have become comfortable with these sins.
But that’s not really an option that is open to us, if we, on this Reformation Sunday, wish to acknowledge and honor the eternal gospel. The eternal gospel cannot really be embraced, in a completely honest and consistent way, until God works yet another “reformation” in us - in our hearts and minds - similar to the Reformation of Christendom that took place in the sixteenth century.
In our current state of compromise and indifference, our hearts and minds must be changed by God. The modern church’s way of thinking must be restored to what it used to be, and to what is was always supposed to be, according to God’s Word.
Reconciliation with God, and justification and forgiveness before God, is received by those do receive it, through repentance of sin, as God’s Word defines sin; and through faith in the gospel, as God’s Word defines the gospel.
Immediately following the catalogue of sins that we quoted above from St. Paul, the apostle says this: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
From God’s perspective, this is the way it has always been - regardless of what misguided people at different times in history may have thought, and regardless of what misguided people may think today. And this is the way it will always be, to the end of the world.
That’s the gospel God wants you to believe: not a made-up gospel that is customized to fit the desires and expectations of our time, but the one unchangeable gospel that fits the true needs of all times. Repent of your sins, my friends, and believe that gospel.
And remember that this eternal gospel is a powerful gospel, and a personal gospel. Through the gospel itself, the Spirit of Christ gives you the faith by which you know that what Christ did for all, he did for you; by which you know that what God says is true for all, is true for you.
“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”
The eternal gospel is the same gospel that God has always offered to the world, as far back as you can go. And it is the same gospel that God will always offer to the world - as far into the future as you can go.
But when we speak of the eternal gospel, we speak also of a gospel that reaches out in all directions - not just backward and forward, but out to all nations, to all cultures, and to people in every conceivable life circumstance.
What the message of salvation in Christ does is bring an eternal perspective, and an eternal hope, to people everywhere - who would otherwise be trapped in the blindness and futility of life without God.
Today, after church, we are going to have a little “Oktoberfest” celebration. The reason why we are doing a German-type thing today is because of the historical connection of the Lutheran Reformation to Germany.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. This sort of thing gives the congregation an excuse to have some good clean fun and fellowship.
But we must also never forget that the Lutheran Reformation was not just something for the benefit of Germany, or people of German extraction. The eternal gospel - which is what the Reformation was all about - is a gospel that God wants people in every nation to hear and believe.
And in the midst of the upheavals and trials that people in many lands face, this eternal gospel, in all of its supernatural power, can and will give Christians the assurance of God’s unchanging love that they need.
Hermann Sasse was a Confessional Lutheran theologian in Germany in the twentieth century. He didn’t make himself any friends in the Nazi party when he publicly criticized Nazi ideology as a form of un-Christian idolatry, even before Hitler came to power.
When Hitler did come to power, and when the Second World War was inaugurated, Sasse did what he could to continue to encourage the Lutherans and other Christians of Germany to trust in God, and to believe that God would take care of them: even in the midst of Nazi persecution, and even in the midst of the suffering and danger that they endured as a consequence of the war.
As a believer and as a pastor, Sasse always looked in faith and hope beyond the horizons of the political and military tragedies that the world was then experiencing, to stay connected to God’s eternal perspective, and to the eternal gospel.
In a talk that he gave in 1942, he took note of some remarkable things concerning God’s true agenda for the world, which God was continuing to bring to fruition in spite of the cruelty and injustice that loomed all around. Recalling something that had happened two years earlier, he said:
“In the...Spring of 1940 I received two letters in one week from the Far East. The first one came from...the Lutheran Church in China... The Chinese Christians, who have been forced to fight a war against an invading Japanese army for several years now, have nevertheless maintained their church through great sacrifices. They asked whether more could not be done from Germany to provide them with good Lutheran literature in which the faith is taught.”
“The other letter came from...a Lutheran congregation in Tokyo, and it contained a similar request. The Evangelical Lutheran Japanese...want both Luther’s writings, and works about the Reformation, in the Japanese language. To this purpose they seek advice and help from the homeland of the Lutheran Faith.”
“The man who wrote this letter had once been fully immersed in the practice of Buddhism, but then became an Evangelical pastor. He explained to me why people in Japan need the Lutheran Faith: because it proclaims Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners, and not just as another religious teacher. They have always had teachers of religion and morality in the East, but they need a Savior.”
“Thus in the Far East, on both sides of the Yellow Sea, on both sides of a difficult war which has engaged these nations for years now, people are seeking the Lutheran Faith because they are seeking Jesus Christ.” So far Dr. Sasse.
This, my friends, is the legacy that has been entrusted to us, as Lutherans, here and now in the State of Arizona, in the United States of America. An unchanging and unchangeable gospel has been passed down to us, for the sake of our own salvation.
God wants you and me to be honest about our sins, and about our need for what this gospel offers. And God also wants you and me to believe the promises that God makes to us in this gospel - promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation - and by faith to live in those promises.
This gospel - this eternal gospel - is not for us to modify, or modernize, or revise, according to the dictates of the contemporary world, or according to the desires of our flesh. It is a gift from God, to be received and believed as it is, intact and pure, precisely as it flows out for us from the cross and empty tomb of our Savior.
And this gospel - this eternal gospel - is not only for us. It is for all men - for all nations, tribes, and people.
At the very least it is for everyone we know here in Arizona. And it is for everyone we don’t yet know - in Arizona, in Germany, in China, in Japan: everywhere.
It is a gospel that brings an eternal hope to those who are trapped in a maze of confusion and deception. It is a gospel that brings deliverance to those who are slaves of their sinful flesh, and who are captive to their fears.
Maybe the angel who has an eternal gospel to proclaim, in the Book of Revelation, is indeed Martin Luther. He certainly did have an eternal gospel to proclaim - even as he had an eternal gospel to believe for his own salvation.
Or maybe, in another sense, what the Book of Revelation says about the angel who has an eternal gospel to proclaim can be applied to Hermann Sasse, and to other preachers and theologians like him, who at various times in history have testified to the unchanging reality of Christ and of Christ’s kingdom, even in the midst of earthly upheavals and dangers.
Or maybe, in yet another sense, what the Book of Revelation says about the angel who has an eternal gospel to proclaim, can be applied to you. You have that gospel, for yourself, and for everyone else who will hear about the Savior through your testimony.
“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” Amen.