3 July 2011 - Romans 7:14-25a - Pentecost 3

C. S. Lewis once said: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

This sentiment might seem odd to many of us, especially when we remember these words of our Lord:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Isn’t Jesus speaking of comfort here? Don’t these soothing words of our Savior make us feel “really comfortable”?

Well, let’s remember what St. Paul writes, when he addresses the topic of Christian comfort and peace: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The world, with all of its allurements, cannot reconcile us to God, or provide an avenue to fellowship with God. Jesus alone can do this.

In regard to God, our hearts are indeed set at ease when we ponder his great mercy toward us in Christ. God’s judgment against our sin is lifted through the shedding of Christ’s blood.

God’s forgiveness is declared to us, and a new life of faith is bestowed upon us, through the resurrection of Christ.

And so, in that new life - in that new nature that we have in Christ - we do indeed enjoy the peace of God. That divine peace does dwell within us.

But what C. S. Lewis says is also still true. What St. Paul says in today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Romans is also still true.

A Christian, according to his new nature, does now have a peace and harmony with God that he didn’t used to have. But a Christian also now has a conflict - a conflict within himself - that he didn’t used to have.

Those who live in unbelief, without the Lord, and without the influence of God’s Word in their lives, may occasionally have a twinge of conscience that tells them that they probably should not do all the things they desire to do. But in spite of this, there is a fairly consistent correlation between an unbeliever’s will, and an unbeliever’s actions.

People usually do what they feel like doing. An inner feeling that a certain course of action would be O.K., is all most people need as the basis for following that course of action.

Corrupt and wicked actions are the result of corrupt and wicked thinking, and corrupt and wicked desires. So, there is a certain inner harmony in the life of a man who feels like indulging in a lifestyle of drunkenness and debauchery, and who then does indulge in a lifestyle of drunkenness and debauchery.

There is a certain inner peace in the life of a woman who feels like committing adultery or fornication with her coworker, and who then does commit adultery or fornication with her coworker.

All unbelievers do not desire to commit all the same sins. Humanly speaking, some are more civilized than others, and some have a greater sense of human decency than others.

So, the sins that more civilized or more decent people want to commit are perhaps not as blatantly destructive as the sins that less civilized and less decent people want to commit.

But in general, all unbelievers do what they want to do. There is a basic correspondence between their outward deeds and their inner thoughts.

But that all changes when the Holy Spirit does his regenerating work in the souls and minds of men. Through the Prophet Ezekiel, God himself has promised: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.”

This promise is fulfilled when God’s pardon and salvation come to us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and when God - through the Gospel - creates within us a new godly nature.

But the old nature remains. It is not obliterated. The old impulses, and the old temptations, are not eradicated.

By faith in the Gospel we receive the forgiveness of sins, and we are now at peace with God. But we are no longer at peace with ourselves.

The beginning of faith in Christ, is also the beginning of a life-long struggle within each Christian. The desires of the new nature that God has given us, are now at odds with the harmful inclinations and obsessions of the old nature.

As we grow in faith over time, we also grow into an ever deeper awareness of how much difference there really is, between God’s loving and life-giving will - which our new nature embraces - and the evil things that we continue to do, against God’s will, and against our own regenerated will.

The inner struggle between a mind that has been liberated by the Gospel of Christ, and a carnal nature that remains enslaved to the power of sin, is great indeed. In a very personal way, St. Paul describes this struggle, and the anguish that comes along with it, in today’s text:

“we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. ...”

“So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. ...”

“Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”

“For I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!”

As he is led by the Holy Spirit, Paul seems to be grappling to find the right words to describe this. He makes a distinction between that which is spiritual, and that which is of the flesh.

He compares the law of his mind - which agrees with God’s law - to the law of sin, which drives his “members” to sin. He contrasts the good that he wants to do with the evil that he does do.

Paul tells us that in his inner being - in his new nature - he delights in the law of God. But he also tells us - with great disappointment in himself - that according to his old nature, he is still a captive to forces that are antagonistic to God and his law.

The inner disharmony that afflicts Paul, as he experiences this struggle, is not a fun or comforting thing to experience. This is the kind of thing that C. S. Lewis was talking about when he said, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

The alternative to this struggle is even worse, of course. The alternative is to go back to a life where you would not only act wickedly, but also think wickedly, and desire wicked things; a life where you would have no more desire to suppress the destructive impulses of sin.

But for those who know the love that God has revealed in his Son; who have tasted of God’s forgiveness; and who have experienced the joy of fellowship with God, the struggle against sin that comes along with that, is something that we welcome.

If there is no such struggle within you, this doesn’t mean that you have successfully overcome all temptations, and are now free from all sin. In this life that will never happen.

What it means is that you have surrendered to the old nature, and no longer care that the corruption of sin is destroying you and degrading you.

If you love Christ, you must hate sin, and fight against it. If, however, you love your sin, and eagerly embrace it, then the love of Christ is not in you.

God does save us by grace, through faith, and not by works. Our works do not earn God’s favor. It is the redeeming work of Christ - in his life, death, and resurrection on our behalf - that has earned God’s favor toward us.

But when God does save us for the sake of Christ, he saves us from sin. He does not save us in sin.

Those who know Christ will therefore be different from those who do not. They will become increasingly aware of the fact that the will of God, and the impulses of the sinful flesh, are contradictory to each other.

As a Christian continually grows into an ever closer union with Christ by faith, and puts on the mind of Christ, his renewed mind will come into ever greater conflict with the ugliness of sin that remains within him. But this struggle is not a struggle that we fight in our own strength.

Christ is our champion. His Spirit within us strives against everything that opposes God. And his Spirit rejuvenates and strengthens our faith by the power of the Gospel.

Over time, as you fight this good fight in the strength of the Lord, you will change. You will become more like Christ in how you act, and in how you react.

These improvements in character, modest though they may be, will be noticed by other people. But they will probably not be noticed by you.

A growth in Christian virtues comes as the result of greater spiritual maturity. But what also comes with greater spiritual maturity, is an ever greater sensitivity to how far from God’s perfect will we still are.

As we get closer to what we should be, we also become aware of how much further we actually have to go.

This keeps us humble, and prevents us from ever boasting in ourselves. This keeps us in the state of mind that Paul was in, when he cried out in anguish over the enduring presence of sin - and of the power of sin - within his flesh:

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And that, my friends, is the key to coping with this struggle. That is the key to enjoying the goodness of God, the wonder of God’s grace, and the assurance of God’s love, even in the midst of this struggle.

When you become aware of your sin, don’t be complacent about it. Hate that sin, fight against it, and repent of it. But also don’t be discouraged when you see that sin lingers within you, in spite of your hatred of it.

Don’t just look at the sin, and sink into despair. Look at the cross of Jesus Christ, and be lifted up in hope. The blessings that Jesus won for you by his death and resurrection are always there for you in the Gospel, to be received in faith.

In the Lord’s Supper, the glorified and sinless flesh of Christ enters into your flesh, to fortify you in this struggle. In his body and blood, Christ comes to your soul, to fill you with a renewed conviction that this struggle is indeed a struggle that should never be given up - because your resurrection victory, in Christ, is fully assured.

The message that is layered upon you over and over again in the Gospel - in the preaching of Christ and in the sacraments of Christ - is simply this: Jesus died for your sins.

He died for the sins that may not seem to captivate you now as much as they once did. He died for the sins that you feel are still overwhelming you.

He died for all your sins. And he forgives all your sins.

His forgiveness covers you, and his shed blood cleanses you, as you come to him in faith every day - and many times in a day - for the heavenly rest that he promises to give to his people.

We heard the Lord’s invitation in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. And we hear it again now. Jesus says:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

As we are burdened by our struggle against the sin that remains within us, we do find rest and peace in Christ. As we are weighed down by our struggle against the dark side of ourselves, we find victory and life in Christ. Amen.

10 July 2011 - Pentecost 4 - Romans 8:12-17

I know that several of you have experience with adoption - either because you were adopted, or you have siblings, children, or grandchildren who were adopted. When a child is brought into a family by adoption, the child is given the same legal and moral rights as any children who might have been born into the family biologically.

An adopted child is given a new birth certificate, with the names of the adoptive parents on it, as a formal testimony to his or her full membership in the new family. Perhaps family heirlooms are eventually given to the adopted child as well, as emblems of the child’s acceptance into the family, and as symbols of the fact that, by means of the adoption, the child had become a part of the ongoing story and legacy of the family.

But biologically, the adopted child is still connected to his or her birth parents. The most obvious evidence of this is seen in the fact that the child’s physical appearance resembles the physical appearance of the birth parents, and not the physical appearance of the adoptive parents.

This continuing connection to the birth parents is also something that is taken into account when it comes to any genetically-related diseases that the child might have. The physicians who treat an adopted child want to know the medical history of the biological parents, not of the adoptive parents.

But in every way that really counts - when the attitude of all concerned is what it should be - an adopted child is welcomed into his or her new family with unconditional acceptance. When things are as they should be, an adopted child will never feel left out, or like a second-class citizen of the family.

These images of adoption are the images that God presents to us, through St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, to illustrate his forgiving and embracing love for us. We are adopted by God through the supernatural working of his Spirit, and are welcomed into the household of faith.

In the state of nature in which we come into the world, there isn’t very much about us that would recommend us to God’s attention or sympathy. But God pays attention to us anyway.

He is compassionate toward us, and loves us with an inexpressible love - a love that passes all human understanding. And he does not remain aloof from us.

In Christ he comes down to where we are. He covers over our sins, and instills within us a new nature.

He fills us with the Holy Spirit - the Spirit of adoption. He ceases to be a fearful God of mystery, and becomes for us, instead, an approachable, divine Father.

To you who believe in Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, as your Savior from sin and death, St. Paul gives the assurance that you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom you cry, “Abba! Father!” “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”

In the case of literal adoptions in human families, the adopted child often develops a curiosity in later years about who his or her birth parents actually are. And so, with a little research, birth parents are often identified, and contacted.

This answers a lot of questions for those who had been adopted - even as they continue to love and appreciate, as their “real” parents, the adoptive mother and father who raised them.

I have a friend who was adopted and raised by a loving Christian couple, with whom she still has a very close relationship. But when she reached adulthood, she made the effort to search for her biological mother and father.

And she found them. They now play a role in her life as well, as close and supportive friends. This all worked out very well for her, and for all the members of both of her families.

Sometimes, though, people who were adopted suspect - or know - that the circumstances of their conception were of such a nature that they don’t want to dig any of that up, or try to track down any of their biological relatives.

They don’t want to become familiar with the circumstances of their birth. They sense that they are better off not knowing, and would rather not try to become a part of the lives of the people who brought them into the world.

This second scenario is similar to the situation we are in spiritually, in our adoptive relationship with God. It is never a good thing for us to try to find our way back to the circumstances of our natural conception - before God adopted us by his Spirit through the Gospel.

What waits for us back there, in our spiritually corrupt “birth family” of fallen humanity, is nothing but sin and death, misery and despair.

It’s true, of course, that we do still have certain “connections” with our “birth family.” In the attitudes and actions that rise up from the darker side of our life, we do “look like” our birth mother Eve.

She was a rebel against God and his Word. She was an idolater, for whom the desire to “be like God” was more important than her obligation to submit to God’s will.

According to our sinful flesh, we, too, are rebels against God, and idolaters. We are constantly tempted to live for ourselves, and for our own carnal ambitions.

Whenever God’s Word contradicts our personal agendas and schemes, there’s a part of us - a wicked part of us - that wants to ignore God’s Word, or even to become hostile to it.

And as far as the “medical history” of our birth family is concerned, the “disease” of spiritual and physical death, that originated with our birth father Adam, remains in our spiritual “DNA.” “In Adam all die,” as St. Paul soberly reminds us.

But these lingering “connections” to where you originally come from must not become the basis for a yearning or a desire on your part to return to that evil and hopeless existence - in the way that you look at the world, and think and act.

You must never surrender to that inner, destructive curiosity, to know what it would be like to live as if God had never adopted you, or as if he had never rescued you from the spiritual and moral chaos into which you were originally born. In today’s text from Romans, St. Paul warns us: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die.”

But he then immediately encourages us toward a deepening of our new connection to God - and to the life of God that now indwells us through Christ. He writes: “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Your true joy, and your true identity, are to be found in your status as a child of God - as a son and heir of your heavenly Father, and as a fellow heir with Christ. To confirm you in the assurance that he has indeed accepted you - and is still embracing you as his very own - God, in a sense, gives you an official “certificate” of your regeneration, which testifies to who you really are now.

This “certificate” is not a literal document. It is the living voice of the Spirit of God, speaking to your heart through the message of the Scriptures.

It is, of course, possible for someone to repel the testimony of the Holy Spirit, and to reject the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, through the hardening of the heart against him. But those who hear the voice of their shepherd in the Scriptures, and who in faith heed that voice, also hear, and rejoice in, this special assurance of their status as God’s own children.

Henry Jacobs helps us to understand how this works, when he explains:

“The assurance of God’s forgiveness meets us through the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Word of God, and, through that word, as sealed to us in the sacraments. The general assurance and promise of the Gospel are then applied to every individual, not repelling them.”

“The general assurances are: ‘God loved the world,’ ‘Christ died for all men’ ... The Holy Spirit applies these assurances, so that we read them: ‘God loves me,’ ‘Christ died for me’ ... Thus the Holy Spirit says: ‘You are a son of God,’ and on the basis of this assurance, the regenerate spirit declares: ‘I am a son of God. You, O God, are my Father.’”

So far Dr. Jacobs.

The testimony of God’s Spirit that you are a child of God, is not something that comes to you outside the Gospel, or apart from the Gospel - in the form of a personal revelation, or an inner sensation. This testimony comes in and through the Gospel.

This testimony is the Gospel, as the Holy Spirit impresses the message of God’s forgiveness in Christ upon your heart, and bestows upon you personally the gift of faith in the truth of that message, for you.

Dr. Jacobs mentioned that the assurance of God’s forgiveness is sealed to us in the sacraments. To borrow a phrase, “this is most certainly true.”

The sacraments are in some ways like “family heirlooms,” which God passes on to us, to demonstrate to our doubting conscience that he has truly adopted us, and has accepted us into his kingdom.

A difference between these supernatural heirlooms, and literal earthly heirlooms, however, is that the sacraments are not just symbols of our acceptance and inclusion into God’s family. They are means through which God actually makes that acceptance and inclusion happen.

“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

By the working of the Holy Spirit, you have been adopted into the one family of God. You have been incorporated into the one body of Christ.

In Christ, this is now who you really are. “God” is now your “real” Father, not Adam!

Your identity now is not oriented toward the past - toward who you were, before God intervened in your life. Your identity now is oriented toward the future - toward your destiny as an heir of heaven.

And so we live today, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. With confidence that he hears us and cares about us, we call out to God daily, in prayer, saying with love and affection, “Abba! Father!”

In repentance for all our sins, we die daily to the old nature, and to the old life from which God’s grace delivered us through the death of Christ.

And in faith we rise daily, in the power of Christ’s resurrection - in joyful gratitude to God for everything he has given us and made us to be; and with a God-given certainty that we will continue to be a part of his family forever.

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him, in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Amen.

17 July 2011 - Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - Pentecost 5

When the Bible speaks of the “world,” sometimes it accentuates the negative, and sometimes it accentuates the positive.

Among the positive things that we believe about the world is that God created it, and that God also continues to bless it according to his loving providence. Everything in the world actually belongs to him, and exists for the purpose of glorifying him.

But among the negative things that we believe about the world is that the world has now become corrupted by sin. In that corruption, the world is a source of hostility to God, and a source of opposition to all that is good and pure.

The world is cursed because of sin. It continuously offers destructive temptations to those who live in it, and will do so until Christ returns.

Satan is the prince of this corrupted world, and he reigns within it, in opposition to God and the will of God. The created world at present is in bondage to decay, as today’s Epistle lesson says, and has been subjected to futility.

But again, in spite of all this, the world is still, most fundamentally, a creation of God. And insofar as God created it, it is still a place where the goodness of God can be experienced - where good and wholesome things can happen, with the help of God, and under the guidance of God.

Jesus tells his disciples - he tells us - that we are the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to be the world’s Savior. And Jesus, as the Lamb of God, took away the sins of the world, and atoned for those sins, on the cross.

This tension - between the world as God’s good creation, and the world in its corrupted state - serves as the backdrop for the parable that Jesus told in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. He said:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.”

“And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’”

“So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Jesus then explained the meaning of this parable to his disciples:

“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels.”

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

You are among the righteous, who will be vindicated on judgment day, if you repent of your sins, and believe the Gospel of Christ. You are a child of God’s kingdom, and of God himself, if the Holy Spirit - the “Spirit of adoption” - dwells within you, to bear his fruit in your life.

But if you are a child of the kingdom, this does not mean that you must now live a “reclusive” life as far as this world is concerned, or that you should withdraw from involvement in the affairs of this world. We do not believe that a “monastic” way of life, or an “Amish” way of life, is normative for those who have been delivered from the slavery of sin, and who have been incorporated into God’s family.

You have been rescued from the corruption of the world, but you have not been removed from the world itself. In fact, as Jesus teaches us today, you have been specifically planted in the world, where you are to grow and bear fruit to the glory of God, according to the callings that he has given you.

Jesus himself has planted you in it, to be his ambassador and representative. By his atoning death, he has staked a claim on the world, and on all its inhabitants.

He wants all people to turn away from sin and rebellion, and to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. And he has placed you in the world, to represent his claim to it, and to “colonize” the world in his name.

Of course, there are many - whose hearts are still hardened to the grace of God - who don’t like it that you are here, and who don’t like it that you are here in Christ’s name. There are “weeds” also growing in and with the “grain” that the Son of Man has planted.

Like a frightened animal that bites the hand that feeds it, the “sons of the evil one” in this world lash out against the “bread of life” that God offers to them. And they lash out against you, as you live and work here in the name of Christ, and as you serve as the instruments of Christ in offering them the bread of life.

But even so, we still have our baptismal calling to be the people of God on earth. We have been planted in this world by Christ, to be a community of reconciliation, forgiveness, and love, even in the midst of the hostility, anger, and hatred that the evil one inspires among those who are still under his deception.

It is often uncomfortable for the children of the kingdom to live among people who hate what we love, and who hate us, even as we love them and seek to serve them. We might be tempted to try to extricate ourselves from this tension by retreating from society - which would, of course, allow society to slip away from God and his ways more than ever.

But this is not an option for us. It’s true, of course, that a separation of the wheat and the weeds will come someday. But only on judgment day, as Jesus teaches us.

Such a separation is not an option for us now, because the God who created the world has also redeemed the world. And he has sent us into the world to be the messengers of his redemption.

In the preaching of the Gospel, the church of God on earth proclaims to the world a better way. In the love and respect that we show people - even those who do not reciprocate this love and respect - the church of God on earth shows the world a better way.

Now, when I speak of “the church of God on earth,” I don’t necessarily mean everyone with some kind of outward association with a Christian congregation. The distinction that Jesus makes between the wheat and the weeds is not a distinction between church members and people who don’t belong to a church.

He speaks instead of “the children of the kingdom,” who are further described as “the righteous”; and of “the sons of the evil one,” who are further described as “law-breakers.”

If your existence in this earth is characterized by a lifestyle of breaking the law - meaning God’s moral law - don’t presume to think that you are a child of the kingdom just because of an outward religious connection. You may very well be one of the weeds that the devil has deceptively planted in the world - and externally, even in the church.

God is not mocked! On judgment day, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The particular analogy that Jesus uses in today’s parable, to illustrate the fruitful presence of his people in this world, side-by-side with unbelievers and law-breakers, could suggest that everybody in the world is permanently either one or the other. In literal agriculture, wheat does not ever become a weed, and a weed does not ever become wheat.

But in the realities of the kingdom of God, this analogy does break down at a certain point. And that’s because in God’s kingdom, it is possible for someone who started out as a weed, to be transformed, by God’s regeneration, into wheat!

When the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes to you, and bestows the new life of God upon you, you become something different from what you once were. In Christ, you are now his wheat. He now embraces you as his planting.

Because Christ has staked a claim on the whole world, that also means that - with few exceptions - wherever you happen to be at the time you cease to be the devil’s weed, and become the Lord’s wheat, this is the place where Christ has now planted you, to grow and bear fruit for his kingdom.

In the death of his Son, God has redeemed the world. And he has redeemed all the circumstances of life in this world - so that his people can be his people, do his will, and serve others in his name, wherever they happen to find themselves.

During the years of my ministry, I have at different times been in pastoral communication with men who were incarcerated. Obviously, what put them in prison was one form or another of law-breaking, and not their bearing of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

But when these men experienced a spiritual awakening while in prison - when they repented of their sin, and trusted in Christ for forgiveness - the prison now became, for them, the specific place where Jesus had planted them. They were his “wheat” - right there, where they were - called to grow in faith and in good works, for the benefit of those around them, and as a testimony to the new life that God gives to the children of his kingdom.

Most of us do not find ourselves in such a difficult circumstance - even when we have lived apart from God’s will, and outside of his kingdom. But for you, as someone who now knows Jesus as your Savior from sin, the circumstance where you are now, is the circumstance where you have been planted by Christ.

Your relatives, such as they are, are the family in which Jesus has planted you. You job, such as it is, is the vocation in which Jesus has planted you. Your neighborhood and town are the community in which Jesus has planted you.

In all of these locations and contexts, the devil’s weeds will no doubt also be growing. Those weeds will seek to tangle their roots around your roots, to inhibit your growth.

Those weeds will seek to overshadow you, and crowd you out. But this simply creates a context, by God’s providence, for your maturation in faith.

You learn patience, by being put in situations where your patience is tried. You learn to trust in God’s almighty protection, by being put in situations where you feel vulnerable.

You learn to hope in your heavenly Father’s promises for your future, by being put in situations where it’s difficult to guess what the future will bring.

And as you grow where you are planted, and live every day by faith in the grace of Christ, you are also deepened in your gratitude to God for all the blessings he gives you.

Your life in this world, as the “wheat” of the Lord, is not just a time of testing and trial. It is a time of peace and satisfaction.

This is, at the deepest level, still God’s world. He gives us our daily bread within this world.

He allows us to see and enjoy his continuing goodness, in the godly relationships to which he calls us - and especially in the fellowship of his true church, where - through the ministry of Word and Sacrament - his Spirit calls believers to come together in the name of Christ.

The children of the kingdom find Christ In those special gathering places in the world, where Jesus meets us in his Gospel, to cover us with his righteousness.

In those special places of peace and worship, where Jesus finds us - to forgive us, and to renew us in love - the children of the kingdom find each other. And they forgive and love each other, and help and uplift each other.

As we grow together in Christ in this world, we also wait together in Christ. For as long as this life lasts, we do remain busy with the duties of love and service to the world that God has entrusted to us.

But we also wait, in faith, for that ultimate day of “harvest,” when a final separation of the wheat and the weeds will take place. We wait together for “the close of the age,” when the wheat will be gathered into the Lord’s barn; and when “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

“He who has ears, let him hear.” Amen.

24 July 2011 - Pentecost 6 - Matthew 13:44-52

Universal redemption. The election of grace. The visible church.

These theological terms may be familiar to us. But it’s likely that it would be a challenge for us to define each of them fully and accurately.

I think Jesus also knew that it’s not easy for most people to keep track of precise theological definitions. And that’s why he usually gets his theological points across through stories and parables, and not through the use of technical vocabulary.

In the three parables that he tells in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, this is exactly what he is doing, as he pictures for us, in these ways, the doctrines of universal redemption, the election of grace, and the visible church.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

We are all familiar with the hymn, “Jesus, Priceless Treasure.” Jesus is indeed our greatest treasure.

But this parable is not about that. It is about the way in which Jesus treasures us.

The Lord’s saints are a great treasure to him. St. Peter describes each member of Christ’s spiritual temple as “a living stone, rejected by men, but in the sight of God chosen and precious.”

St. John teaches us that “the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” This doesn’t mean that every human being in the world will go to heaven when he dies.

But it does mean that the blessings of Christ’s saving work are offered to all, because Christ died to redeem all, and to pay for the sins of all.

This is an important truth for each of us to believe - especially when our consciences may be troubled by an awareness of our failures before God, and when our minds may be plagued by doubts as to whether God is really willing to forgive us.

At such times, it is important for me to know that my membership in the human race guarantees to me that I have indeed been redeemed by Christ; that my sins were carried to his cross; and that God does sincerely want me to believe his Word and receive his forgiveness.

And when I do in fact then believe the Gospel, at the Lord’s invitation, I am then comforted to know that I am an heir of his family, and a citizen of his kingdom. In the humble confidence of a God-given faith, I then know myself to be included as a part of the precious “treasure” that Jesus, as it were, finds “in the field” - that is, within the human race as a whole.

I am further comforted to know that Christ’s desire to own that treasure - to have for himself a new holy people, drawn out of the mass of humanity - prompted him to pay the price of his own lifeblood, in order to purchase the field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

The popular forms of American Protestantism put a lot of emphasis on the “decision for Christ” that an unbeliever is required to make, in order to be “born again” and saved from sin. Each of us, in our natural state, is said to have a “free will,” with an unfettered power of choice between God and Satan, between righteousness and sin, between faith and unbelief.

The Bible, however, describes these things in a different way. Jesus once said to his disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.”

Certainly a Christian, who has been regenerated by the Spirit of God, does now actively and willingly believe in Jesus as his Savior. But that’s not because he had a free will to make such a choice before the miracle of his conversion.

It’s because his previously godless will has now been transformed into a godly will - by the grace of God. It’s because his will, previously enslaved to sin, has now been liberated by the Gospel.

That’s why St. Paul says to the Philippians - and to us - that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Our saving relationship with Christ, does not rest on our choosing of Christ. It rests on his choosing of us. We are indeed saved by God’s grace alone.

And that grace - that gracious choice of God - is part of a divine plan that extends back before the foundation of the world. St. Paul speaks of this profound mystery in today’s Epistle lesson, from his letter to the Romans:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

God did not save you on a whim. He planned out your salvation, and everything that pertains to it, from eternity. Your faith can therefore withstand all the trials and temptations of this life that will be brought to bear against it.

As you cling to Christ now by faith, you can know, in that faith, that you have been chosen in Christ. You belong to him, and he belongs to you. No one can pluck you out of his hand.

Indeed, you are a “pearl of great value” to Christ. In order to obtain you for his own possession, he, as it were, was willing to sell everything else, in order to buy you. And you were bought, with the price of his own blood.

What the Bible says about predestination, and the eternal choices of God, cannot be fully comprehended by our finite minds. They are mysteries of our faith.

But even if we cannot understand everything that is involved here, we can still hear the voice of our Lord, in his word of absolution, assuring us, through his forgiveness, that he will be with us always, to the end of the age. We can and do hear the voice of our Savior in the words of his Holy Supper, through which he pledges that he will never leave us nor forsake us.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” If you hear the voice of your shepherd - as he leads you to repentance for your sins, and as he announces his forgiveness to you - then you are one of his sheep.

You are among his elect. You are a pearl of great value to him, to which he will cling forever.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea, and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad.”

“So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

A Christian’s assurance that he is indeed chosen by God, and is forgiven by Christ, is not a superficial assurance based on external church affiliation, or on outward conformity to the rituals of the church. The number of those who profess to be Christians in this world is a much larger number than the number of those who actually are Christians.

Jesus tells us that on judgment day, “many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

Our Lutheran Confessions speak to this as well - referring, in fact, to today’s third parable. We read in the Book of Concord:

“Christ has compared [the church] to a net in which there are both good and bad fish. ... We grant that in this life hypocrites and wicked people have been mingled with the Church, and that they are members of the Church according to the outward fellowship of the signs of the Church, that is, of Word, profession, and Sacraments. ... But the Church is not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites, its core, it is a fellowship of faith and of the Holy Spirit in hearts. ... Those in whom Christ does not act, are not the members of Christ.”

During this life, many unbelievers are indeed in the “net” - that is, they are physically associated with the Word and Sacraments of Christ, and profess to be adherents of the faith that is proclaimed in that Word and in those Sacraments.

But as those who are without repentance, and without faith in the heart, they are bad fish, not good fish. And if they die in such hypocrisy, they will be cast out and thrown away.

Today we had the privilege of witnessing a baptism. I would venture to guess that everyone in this room has been baptized.

Baptism is a work of God - a saving and forgiving work. Throughout life, we can cling to our baptism, and be comforted by it.

But a Christian does not look to Baptism for such assurance only in a superficial way - as an external ritual act, apart from its inner meaning and power. We don’t cling to Baptism in the way that a superstitious child clings to his rabbit’s foot while walking home in the dark.

Baptism saves us, because baptism has the power to create and strengthen within us a saving faith in the promises of Baptism. It is through faith in those promises - those living, life-giving promises of the Triune God - that baptism becomes and remains a true source of daily comfort to us: as we, in Christ, die to self daily; and as we rise daily in the grace of Jesus’ resurrection.

Perhaps the Lord’s warning about the existence of “bad fish” in the net of his visible church has gotten you to thinking about what kind of fish you are. That might be a good question to ask.

But don’t leave here today without knowing the answer! If you are, at the very least, outwardly associated with the Word and Sacraments of Christ, then the solution to your problem is right there!

Listen to the Gospel, as it comes to you in the preaching of the Word and in the administration of the sacraments. And as you listen - as you really listen, perhaps for the first time in a very long while - God will give you a faith that knows that what you are listening to is true.

Even if your faith is initially a weak and struggling faith, if it is a faith that is in Christ, then by the grace of Christ you are not a bad fish. And on the day of judgment, you will not be discarded.

As a good fish in the “net” of the church; as a pearl of great value that the Lord bought to be his own; and as a part of the treasure in the “field” of humanity, which Jesus purchased with his own blood: Listen to these words, brought to you today by God through the apostle Paul:

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

“Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

31 July 2011 - Pentecost 7 - Matthew 14:13-21

Have you ever had the experience of being told by a person, with authority over you, that it was your duty to do something that you knew you could not do?

Field officers in a combat zone have often had this experience, when they were ordered by their commanding general - behind the lines - to lead their men into a battle that they knew they could not win. People who have committed an infraction of the law have often been assessed an exorbitant fine that they simply could not pay.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples of the Lord initially experienced a similar kind of anxiety when Jesus told them that they were responsible for doing something that they knew - that they absolutely knew - they could not do.

St. Matthew reports that a crowd consisting of around 5,000 men - plus who knows how many women and children - had gathered around Jesus. As suppertime approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

What Jesus told them to do was humanly impossible. Among them they had only five loaves of bread and two fish.

They couldn’t imagine how they would be able to comply with his command. And yet, since he was their Lord and God, they must comply.

We know, of course, how the story ends. Jesus miraculously causes the loaves and fish to multiply, so that the whole crowd is able to be fed after all.

The disciples were amazed by what they saw. And they also learned a lesson that day about how Jesus was going to continue to operate, and about how he was going to continue to tell them to do humanly impossible things.

At a later time, Jesus gave these same men - minus one - another impossible commission. He said:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus had told his disciples, in regard to the physically-hungry crowds that had gathered: “you give them something to eat.” Now, in effect, Jesus once again tells his disciples, in regard to the spiritually-hungry, benighted nations of the world: “you give them something to eat.”

You give them something to believe in, for their salvation from sin and death. You give them the Bread of Life from heaven.

In the feeding of the multitude, when Jesus told the disciples, “You give them something to eat,” the disciples might have wondered why Jesus didn’t just provide food for the people on his own. They had seen him exercise his miraculous power on many occasions before this, in healing the sick, casting out demons from the possessed, and calming a storm on the sea.

These were things that Jesus had done on his own, and the disciples had watched him do them. Feeding a hungry crowd was certainly something that he could have done on his own too. Why, then, did he put them on the spot, and tell them to do it instead?

And even more so, why did he entrust the task of making disciples of all nations in the world to them? Couldn’t he do that himself as well?

With his divine powers, couldn’t he fulfill that task more successfully than they could? Didn’t he say that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him? Why couldn’t he exercise that authority directly, and make disciples of all nations on his own?

Why couldn’t the disciples just sit back and watch that too? Why did they have to go out and do it?

I suppose we might also ask such questions - since the task that the Lord gave to his original disciples has now fallen to us. But as we ask these questions, the Lord of the church is nevertheless still saying to us - to you, and to me, according to our respective callings - “you give them something to eat”; you “go and make disciples of all nations.”

On judgment day, Jesus will appear visibly in such a way that all people will see him. That will certainly be a manifestation of his divine power.

But this glorious appearance in itself will not instill a saving faith in those who see him in this way, at this time, if they do not already have a saving faith. As the Revelation to Saint John tells us: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.”

“Wailing” is not the same as becoming a disciple. Men and nations become disciples of the Lord through the Word of the Lord.

Fallen human nature being what it is, outward displays of divine power might intrigue unbelievers, or stimulate their curiosity. Outward displays of divine power might intimidate or frighten unbelievers.

But such outward displays, in themselves, will not convert unbelievers. What will convert them, and cause them to become disciples of the Lord, is the crushing conviction of the law, proclaimed to them by a fellow human being; and the forgiving and regenerating grace of the Gospel, also proclaimed to them by a fellow human being.

Remember what Peter said to Jesus, when the Lord asked the apostles if they also were going to abandon him, at a time when many of his followers - who had been attracted by his previous miracles - were now turning away. Peter replied:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

It wasn’t just the outward miracles that had drawn Peter. And it wasn’t the outward miracles that was keeping him with the Lord.

Jesus had given him the words of eternal life. And those words had transformed him, and changed him forever.

As compared to big flashy displays of awe and wonder, the words of eternal life come to us calmly, and almost unnoticeably. They come to us in peace. And when they are received, in simple faith, they create peace in the heart, mind, and conscience of those whom they have entered.

The medium by which the words of eternal life are brought to a person, is through another person. During his earthly ministry, as he humbly walked the earth according to his humanity, Jesus gave the words of eternal life to his disciples in this way.

He fed them with the Bread of Life, and with his own life-giving Spirit. In the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, which served as an object lesson of sorts, he taught them something about that.

He then sent them forth to all nations, with his words - his gentle, saving words. And he told them to go - as men among men; as human beings reaching out to other human beings - “you... give them... something to eat.”

You speak to them a message of warning on account of their sins. You speak to them a message of deliverance and hope on account of the death and resurrection of their Savior. You give them, in my name, the gift of eternal life, through the words that you share.

The ability of these words to accomplish such miracles in the lives of sinners is not based on the human cleverness of the individual who speaks them. The words of eternal life, though coming in the form of ordinary human words, have a divine and heavenly power.

The loaves and fishes were miraculously multiplied by the Lord, so that they satisfied the hunger of well over 5,000 people. Likewise, the power of these words is “multiplied” by the working of the Holy Spirit, so that the words of God that we speak do not simply engage the natural religious curiosity of the human mind, but they feed and satisfy the deepest spiritual needs of the human soul.

The apostles were public teachers of the church. Most of us are not that. But that doesn’t mean that the Great Commission doesn’t apply also to us. Within the parameters of our individual callings, it does.

According to the opportunities that you have to speak the Word of God to those you know, Jesus also tells you, as a baptized member of his church: “you give them something to eat.” For each of you, in a practical way, that can mean different things in different circumstances.

If God gives you a natural opportunity to tell your neighbor what you believe about God’s mercy, and what Jesus would like him to believe, use that opportunity, and tell him. If God opens a door for you, to refer a troubled friend to your pastor for counsel and instruction, walk through that door, and make that referral.

If God creates a circumstance in which you can invite a relative who lives close by to come to church with you, or to invite a relative who lives at a distance to listen to the recorded sermons that are available on the church website, then issue that invitation.

In such ways, you too are making disciples of all nations - one person at a time. You are, beyond your own human ability, giving them something to eat.

Perhaps Jesus could figure out some way to make disciples of all nations without you. But even if that were possible, he doesn’t want to do that.

He wants to include you. He wants to entrust this humanly impossible task to you, and to all his saints on earth. We are among the Lord’s disciples. What he tells his disciples to do, he tells us to do.

But from another perspective, we should also see ourselves in the place of the hungry crowd, gathered around the Lord in need of being fed. We should also see ourselves among the nations, to whom Jesus sends his called servants, to give them the Bread of Life to eat.

And this is especially so when we consider our failure to follow the Lord’s directive to us, within our callings, as faithfully and as confidently as we should. So often, instead of simply doing as the Lord has bidden us to do, we are distracted by thoughts of how humanly impossible it is.

And so, when Jesus says, “you give them something to eat,” we do not. We give nothing. We say nothing. And we thereby disobey our Lord, and sin against him - against his rightful authority over us, and against his love for those to whom he sends us.

At such times, let us remember that Jesus also sends people to us, to give us what we need; to give us something to eat.

As your pastor, Jesus has commissioned me to do what is humanly impossible in regard to your soul, and in regard to your need for a clean heart, and a clear conscience, before him.

No message of “positive thinking” that I might come up with on the basis of human psychology could ever satisfy those needs. Nothing that I could give you out of my own imagination or ingenuity would be able to bring God’s peace to you.

But Jesus has given me the words of eternal life, not only for me to believe for my own salvation, but also to pass on to you, according to my calling as your pastor. He has given me the Gospel, in which his saving power dwells - not only for my own benefit, but also so that I can give it to you.

Jesus, the Bread of Life himself, dwells in his Word and Sacrament. By means of my call, Jesus has told me - in regard to that Bread of Life, and in regard to your need for that Bread of Life - “you... give them... something to eat.”

Humanly speaking, this is impossible. But God is here, to make all things possible - especially the things that his Son has commanded to be done, and that his Son has promised to make sure get done.

When the absolution of the Lord is spoken to you, God’s forgiveness is thereby given to you. When the blessed bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are distributed to you, the body and blood of Jesus - his pledges of life and resurrection - are thereby given to you.

When the message of the cross is preached to you, and when Christ is presented to you as the Lamb of God who takes away your sin, and who grants you his peace, those blessings are thereby given to you - to be received in faith, and in joy.

You can be sure that all of this is so, because Christ has said that it is so. You can be sure that these saving gifts are truly offered to you - even though it is through such simple and unspectacular means - because Jesus has commanded that they be offered to you precisely in these humanly impossible ways.

The disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Amen.