6 July 2008 - Pentecost 8 - Matthew 11:25-30

The life that people lead in many of the undeveloped societies of the world is very labor-intensive. In such societies there is very little in the way of mechanization, to make things go more easily.

There is, instead, a lot of work to be done - by women and men alike. There is a lot of lifting and carrying.

Two examples of this sort of work would be the job of a homemaker, in carrying water from the communal well to her home, and the job of a bricklayer, in carrying bricks from the community kiln to the place of construction.

These tasks are, however, usually not performed by simply lifting with both arms the burden in question - a bucket of water, or a stack of bricks - and then lugging that burden across the village with great difficulty. Instead, for the carrying of water or bricks, a yoke is often used.

A yoke is a piece of wood that is carved in such a way that it rests comfortably on the shoulders of the person who is using it. It extends out a little distance from each shoulder, with a hook of some kind on each end, to which two objects of equal weight can be attached.

When a woman uses a yoke to carry water from the well, she can carry twice as much - two buckets, and not just one. And she becomes much less fatigued than she would be if she were to carry just one bucket with the strength of her arms.

When a man uses a yoke to carry bricks from the kiln, he, too, can carry twice as many - two stacks, and not just one. And he becomes much less fatigued than he would be if he were to carry just one stack with the strength of his arms.

A yoke does not eliminate the work of these people. It does not lift their burdens from them completely. But it makes the burdens bearable, and it makes the work easier to do.

This is the image that Jesus intends to call to our minds when he issues this invitation to us: ďCome 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.Ē

The life that we lead in this world - also at the level of the struggles of the soul - is very labor-intensive. There are no mechanized ways to make our emotional and bodily burdens disappear. Itís not easy to survive, physically or spiritually.

In this world we experience many injustices. Our efforts for good often turn out to be for nothing, at least as the world measures such things. We get worn down by criticism, by frustration, by ill tempers and ill health.

And worst of all are the burdens that lay heavily on our conscience. We canít forget the sins and mistakes of the past. We canít undo all the hurt weíve caused others.

Sometimes we may seek to relieve ourselves of at least a part of that burden through self-justification. We didnít do anything all that bad. We havenít been as bad as other people. Or at least not as bad as some other people.

But it doesnít really work. The weight of the guilt is still there. And as we lug it around, we get tired. Emotionally, spiritually, morally tired.

And the burden of past transgressions is compounded by the burden of current weaknesses. In our own strength we canít be the kind of people we want to be.

We canít balance off our responsibilities at work and at home. So someone always gets less of our time and attention than they deserve.

And there are also those destructive, almost incomprehensible impulses that rise up from within us - impulses that attack the things we actually value in this life.

We betray those we love. We lie to those with whom we have a relationship of trust. We break our commitments to those who rely on us and depend on us.

In our sinfulness we are wretched men - and wretched women. We are weighed down by unbearable burdens.

These burdens press upon us more and more, as we continually increase our measure of failures and disappointments in this life. These burdens grind us down. They sap away our strength.

But it is to people like this - people like us - that Jesus speaks his words of invitation in todayís Gospel. ďCome 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.Ē

When Jesus offers us the grace and peace of the Gospel, he does not promise that the burdens of this life will disappear. But he does promise that through him, these burdens will no longer overwhelm us.

Our human frailty will remain, even as the old sinful nature remains as a constant source of temptation. But in the forgiveness that Christ offers, our eyes are turned upward, away from our failures, to the regenerating mercy of God.

God fills us with joy as he tells us: ďthough your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.Ē We are given a new life, brought to us by Godís own Spirit.

Godís pardon in Christ, through the cross of Christ, is like a yoke, which allows us to bear the burden of our own weakness in such a way that this burden does not crush us. And the Gospel alleviates this burden to such an extent that we begin to see new opportunities for loving service to others. In the strength of the Lord we pursue those opportunities.

We expend ourselves, willingly and cheerfully, for others. And the more we show others that we care about them for the sake of Christ, the more spiritual energy we have to serve them in Christís name.

We donít spend all our time feeling sorry for ourselves, or dwelling on the mistakes of the past. But we look to the future, with optimism, and with a happy expectation that God will be a part of our future. It wonít be so bad. It will, in fact, be pretty good.

Jesus has purchased us with his own blood. We belong to him. Our future belongs to him.

And when new hardships come our way - and they will still come, for as long as we dwell in the earth - the yoke of Christ allows us to bear up under them too. The troubles of this world - as heavy as they may become - cannot destroy us.

We know in faith that we have an eternal habitation in the heavens, prepared for us by our Savior. And so we press on, and move forward, invigorated by the living hope that is ours through the resurrection of Christ.

The worse that this world can do to us, and pile up on us, cannot touch what really matters. Neither fire nor sword, neither sickness nor injury, can destroy us.

We can get through all these things. We can bear them, and carry them, with the yoke of Christ.

Again, the yoke of Christ doesnít remove our burdens from us. With the rest of the world, we, too, will suffer. We will have struggles and trials.

There is a popular but false theology out there that promises prosperity and health to those whose faith is strong enough and specific enough. Itís often called the ďhealth and wealthĒ gospel by its detractors. But this is not what Jesus promises when he offers us his yoke.

And even when people do not consciously embrace the ďhealth and wealthĒ teaching, they often do expect that things will go well for them in this life. When they donít, they cry out, ďWhy me?,Ē as if they somehow didnít deserve what happened to them - as if God was falling down on the job by allowing a trial to come to them.

But when Jesus invites us to come to him in faith for forgiveness, and to be fitted for a yoke, he is not thereby inviting us to a life of ease. As with the homemaker and the bricklayer in a primitive village, he is, instead, inviting us to a life of work. And to a life of bearing a cross in his name.

He gives each of us a calling, and with our calling he lays certain obligations upon us. And those obligations can often be very heavy. In our own strength we could not carry them.

And thatís why itís so important for you to know that Jesus gives you that yoke. His promise of his enduring and sustaining presence in your life is the yoke, which enables you to carry every burden that he places on you, or allows to be placed on us.

The good news of Christís death and resurrection for you - the message of redemption and reconciliation with God - delivers to you his forgiveness for your failings. It also delivers that wonderful yoke to you once again.

You can go on. You can rise up and start again.

With the yoke of Christ on your shoulders, you donít have to try to lug your burdens around by the strength of your own arms, to the point of exhaustion. With the yoke of Christ, these burdens are lightened.

They become bearable. They become manageable. You will not be crushed under them, but you will be able to carry them as long as you need to.

When the communicants among us come forward in a few minutes to receive, in faith, the body and blood of Christ, some important things will happen. All past sins, all past failures, all past stumblings, will be forgiven and washed away.

Thatís the primary blessing of this sacred Supper. But thatís not the only blessing. The Lordís call on our lives will also be renewed to us, and we will be renewed in our desire to serve him and do as he has commanded.

And, the yoke of Christ will once again, ever so gently, be placed upon us. The Lord will promise, as he always promises, ďI will never leave you nor forsake you.Ē We will therefore rise from the Lordís sacrament equipped for the challenges we will face, and for the burdens we will bear.

ďCome 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.Ē Amen.

13 July 2008 - Pentecost 9 - Matthew 13:1-9;18-23; Isaiah 55:10-13

Those who practice sorcery believe that the incantations they speak, in casting spells, have the power to produce the effect that they want. It is believed that if the sorcerer says the right words, in the right way, those words will make something happen.

It doesnít matter if the person or people who are affected by this spell believe in what is happening, or understand what is happening, or even know what is happening. The incantation itself has the power to bring either a curse or a blessing to them.

And the words of the spell are believed to have this power even if those words donít have a particular meaning, as a part of a specific language. Linguistic scholars and historians are still trying to figure out the original source and meaning of the word ďabrakadabra.Ē

An incantation retains its power even if no one understands what it means. It is not necessary for people to reflect on the words, or to ponder them. All that is necessary is for a sorcerer to speak them.

Christians believe that the Word of God also has power. It has power in itself to accomplish what God wants it to accomplish.

We do not believe that Godís Word is merely a collection of interesting but lifeless religious information. Rather, when Godís message of law and Gospel comes into contact with people, it is able to change them and their whole existence.

Thatís the point of the passage from the prophet Isaiah that was read a few minutes ago as todayís first lesson. God himself speaks through the prophet, and says:

ďFor as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.Ē

Godís Word shall accomplish its purpose - somewhere, somehow. Godís Word shall succeed and not fail, somewhere, somehow.

Godís Word has within it a supernatural, active power. It does not go out from him empty, and it will not return to him empty.

But the way in which the power of Godís Word operates is very, very different from the way in which a sorcererís incantation operates. An incantation does not require, or stimulate, any conscious interaction or thoughtful deliberation on the part of the person whom it affects.

An incantation works externally. It forces its power onto the person on whom a spell has been cast.

But Godís Word does its work precisely in the heart and mind of the person with whom it comes into contact. Thatís where its power is made known. And thatís one of the main points of the parable of the sower, which we heard in todayís Gospel from St. Matthew.

In this parable, Jesus speaks of a sower who spreads his seed around in a way that seems a bit haphazard. The seed - like the Word of God - goes everywhere.

It does not get planted or germinate in every place where it lands, although there is always someplace where it does get planted and germinate. In spite of the power of life and growth that is inherent in the seed, sometimes that power does not get released, or bear its fruit.

Remember this, dear friends, if you are ever tempted to think of the Word of God as it if were the same as an incantation, which has the desired effect regardless of the state of mind of the people who are involved. Godís Word is not like that.

Jesus teaches us that some people who are exposed to Godís Word immediately harden their hearts against it. We might say that when Godís Word comes to them, they immediately push it back in unbelief.

He explains: ďWhen anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.Ē The people Jesus is describing here are those who do not understand Godís Word.

Actually they refuse to understand it. They refuse to listen to it. The devil has his way with them instead, keeping them in a state of spiritual ignorance, and in the darkness of his deception.

They do not believe what God tells them about the danger and destructiveness of their sin, and about his remedy for their sin. Consequently they receive no benefit from their outward exposure to this message.

If a manís wife drags him to church every week, and he is willing to go to please her, but if he is not willing to listen to, and understand, the message of the sermon and the hymns, his physical attendance at church will do him no good.

If a woman by force of habit goes to church, and thinks somehow that a spiritual benefit will come to her simply because she is in the presence of preaching and singing, this is nothing more than superstition.

If through unbelief you keep the Word of God on the outside of your life - even if you are externally religious in your habits - you will not know the power of Godís Word to save you.

Godís Word does not work like an incantation, on the outside. It works, and accomplishes its saving purposes for you, only on the inside - in your heart and mind - just like a seed works and germinates only when it is planted in the soil.

In the parable of the sower Jesus also teaches that there are cases when the Word of God is believed or acknowledged only temporarily, or only superficially. He explains:

ďAs for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.Ē

You cannot comfort yourself with the memory of a faith that you no longer have. Of course, it is a good thing if you have been baptized - that is, if you were given the washing of water with the Word at some point in the past. It is a good thing, too, if you attended Sunday School as a child, and believed then what you were taught.

But if you are not living in your baptism right now, in daily repentance and faith, Godís Word is no longer benefitting you.

If you do not believe at the present time what you were previously taught from the Bible, then as far as your current state of salvation is concerned, you might as well have never believed these things.

The power of Godís Word in your life cannot be limited to the realm of sentiment and memory. It is either a contemporary and vibrant power, shaping and directing your mind and heart right now, or it is not a power in your life at all.

Godís Word does have within it a supernatural power that can indeed drive us to our knees in humility when we have sinned, and when Godís law makes us admit that we have sinned.

And it has within it a power that can lift us up in Christ - up to the glory and peace of heaven itself - when the Gospel lays upon us the pure garment of Christís righteousness, to cover over all our sins.

The power of Godís Word is a power that can permeate all aspects of our life with the life of God himself, so that we bear the fruit of the Spirit in what we think, say, and do.

Godís Word confronts and subdues the sinful impulses that still reside in us. It shines brightly to dispel the darkness that lurks in the corners of our old nature. It brings understanding to our confused and frightened minds.

Godís Word makes us truly alive in Christ. Jesus describes all of this in this way:

ďAs for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.Ē

What is the basic difference between those who respond positively to the Word of God, and those who reject it, either immediately or in time? Why are some saved and not others?

This is a question that cannot be answered, because Scripture does not answer it.

The point of comparison of the parable is also limited in what it is attempting to teach us. The imagery of the parable doesnít raise or answer this question.

We cannot say that God does not earnestly intend to plant the seed of his Word in the lives of those who end up not believing. This would violate the Bibleís teaching that God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

We also cannot say that those who have the ďgood soilĒ of faith were by nature more receptive to the Gospel than others. This would violate the Bibleís teaching that we are all by nature sinful and unclean.

This would also violate the Bibleís teaching that those who are saved are saved by grace alone, through a faith that is a gift of God. We are not saved through a faith that arises from the unregenerated heart and mind of man, since the unregenerated heart and mind are hostile to God.

We are saved by a faith that God gives us, miraculously, through the power of his Word, when he engenders within us a new nature, and a new way of being and living.

If you are resisting the operation of Godís Word, and are closing yourself off to what God wants to do for you and in you through his Word, then be warned that the power of Godís Word will not benefit you.

If you are trying to find some kind of assurance for eternity on the basis of a past faith, or on the basis of a former relationship with Christ that does not exist any more, do not deceive yourself.

But, if you today do repent of your sins - if you acknowledge, today, that what God says to you about those sins is true - then know that God in his love for you is making you to be a person of ďgood soil.Ē

If you today do trust in Christ for forgiveness - if you stake everything, today, on him and his promises - then know that Christ, your true hope, is planting the Word of his kingdom in you.

And remember what the Lord says in todayís lesson from Isaiah: ďFor as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth...Ē

In the parable from St. Matthew, Jesus compares the seed that is planted in the good soil to his Word. But in the prophet Isaiah, God reminds us that his Word is what makes the good soil to be good.

Godís Word, as it were, ďwatersĒ you, and makes the ďsoilĒ of your heart and mind to be receptive to the Gospel. Godís Word does everything.

As a seed that is planted, it offers forgiveness and life to those who will receive these heavenly blessings in faith. As a refreshing rain that invigorates the soil of the heart, it creates the very faith that it calls for.

The power of Godís Word is not like the power of a sorcererís incantation. Godís Word addresses your mind. It plants itself in your heart. It transforms you internally. It changes your way of thinking, and your way of living.

And Godís Word brings to you a faith that is centered on Christ, to receive from him his pardon and all his mercies; and that is alive with the fruit of good works, to show kindness and compassion to your needy neighbor.

Almighty God, Thy Word is cast Like seed into the ground;
Now let the dew of heaven descend, And righteous fruits abound. ...
Oft as the precious seed is sown, Thy quickening grace bestow,
That all whose souls the truth receive, Its saving power may know. Amen.

20 July 2008 - Pentecost 10 - Matthew 13:24-30

Jesus apparently thought that the imagery of seeds being planted in the soil of a field was a very useful imagery for illustrating various aspects of the message of Godís kingdom that he proclaimed.

Last week we heard the parable of the sower. In that parable, the seed stood for the Word of God, and the soil stood for the life of those people in whom that Word is planted, so that it can grow and bear fruit.

This week, our reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew recounts for us the parable of the wheat and the tares, or the wheat and the weeds. In todayís parable, the seed stands for something else - for Christians, whom the Lord calls the ďchildren of the kingdomĒ - and the field in which they are planted stands for the world, in which we now live.

As we listen to this parable, and to Jesusí explanation of it, we can learn a lot about the life that we now live, and about the things that we experience in this life.

First, the world in which we live - described in the parable as the field in which Christ has planted his seed - belongs to Christ. We confess in the First Article of the Creed that God has created the heavens and the earth.

Even though the Lordís good creation has been corrupted by sin, it is still his creation. And he is still the Master of it. Thatís why Christ, the Son of God, has taught us that all legitimate authority in heaven, and on earth, has been given to him.

The power that Satan exercises in this world is an illegitimate power. He is a usurper over Godís creation. He has no legitimate authority.

And therefore we, as the children of the kingdom, owe Satan no deference. He has no authority over us.

Before the Gospel had its impact on us, we were indeed in the clutches of the devil. With the rest of fallen humanity, we had been swept up in the devilís rebellion against God. We were, in our old sinful nature, a part of Satanís insurgency against Godís legitimate government of the world.

But in Christ all of that has been changed. We have been restored to our true loyalty and to our true allegiance as children of Godís kingdom.

As Godís baptized and believing people, we therefore live in this world now, as those who have the supreme right to live here, and to partake of the divine blessings and godly joys that can still be found in this life. Jesus has planted us here, to fulfill the mission that he has given us.

We are not children of this world, in the sense of the sinfulness of this world. But we are children of Godís kingdom in this world.

In everything that we say and do, we have the opportunity and the privilege to confess the name of our Savior - the true sovereign over his creation. And we have the opportunity and the privilege to honor him in the works that we perform according to our vocation.

But to quote a well-known saying coined in another context, in this world ďwe are not alone.Ē

By way of illustration: The state of Iraq is not inhabited only by the legitimate citizens of that country, who are trying to establish a normal country for themselves. It is also inhabited by foreign al-Qaida insurgents and terrorists, who have crossed the borders from other countries in the region, and who are trying to undermine these efforts toward normalization.

So, too, the world in which we live. God sustains the world in his divine providence. Especially through the vocations that he gives to his people, he keeps the world and its legitimate institutions going.

But what he does through us in these respects is always attacked by what Jesus calls the sons of the evil one, who have been illegitimately planted in the field of Godís world, intertwined with the children of the kingdom. These agents of destruction are weeds, which seek to undermine the life and work of the legitimate plants that Christ has placed here.

They try to choke these plants: crowding them out, inhibiting their growth. In this way the plants that Jesus actually planted in his field, according to his good and gracious will, suffer greatly. They are severely hindered in their attempts to achieve what Godís Son would want them to achieve.

But even when we are surrounded by such weeds; even when our efforts for good are thwarted and turned back; we do not lose hope. The weeds can never overcome us completely. The earth in which God has planted us will sustain us according to his will.

Hardships may press upon us, but God does not revoke the callings of this life that he has given to us: in the family, in the society, in business, and in government. These callings remain, and with the help and guidance that God gives in his Word, we remain in these callings.

We remain in the world where Christ our Lord has planted us, to fulfill his will. And our presence here, where Christ has planted us, validates his claim to a world that he does truly own, in spite of the devilís pretensions. When the devil sowed seeds in this world, he was sowing them in someone elseís field, not his own.

He may claim to own this world, and he may pretend that he has the power to give and take its kingdoms. In his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the devil presumed to be able to ďgiveĒ Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would be willing to worship him - as if these kingdoms were his to give!

But they were not. And Jesus said, as he should have, ďBe gone, Satan!Ē

In a certain sense the devil is sometimes called the prince of this world, because he is the prince of the sin and corruption that exists in this world. Due to his influence ďthe world is very evil,Ē as we sometimes sing in the hymn of that name.

But the devil is not a creator. He did not make the world.

In spite of all the wicked things that he and his servants do in this world, to try to wreck it, it remains Godís good and glorious creation. The evil forces that exist in this world, as insurgents and usurpers, will ultimately not succeed. God still, ultimately, will have his way.

And we, as Godís representatives in this world of his, will still be blessed and sustained in what we do here in his name, and for his glory. We will grow and flourish, where we have been planted - the weeds that surround us notwithstanding.

And on judgment day, when God brings all of the devilís pretentious schemes to an end, everyone will see how futile and pointless his efforts were. He and his ďsonsĒ will be uprooted from where they have no right to be, and they will be cast away to be burned in the fires of perdition.

Remember that, dear friends, when you begin to lose sight of the fact that the world does indeed belong to the Lord. Godís promises and threats are never vain. Judgment will someday come to those who have sought to defile the goodness of his creation.

There are two kinds of temptations that face us, as Christís plantings in this world, which with Godís help we must make sure we avoid. The first is the temptation to despair when we see, and perhaps experience for ourselves, the evil deeds of the sons of the devil.

There are so many examples of manís inhumanity to man - diabolically-inspired - all around us. According to the parable that Jesus tells us, of course, we should not be surprised by this. The devil has planted his weeds, and those weeds are growing, interspersed among the good plants that Jesus planted.

But sometimes itís hard to understand why God allows those weeds to do so much that is evil, and to inflict so much suffering on so many people. Our human reason begins to wonder if God is really almighty, or if he is really good.

If he is almighty, why doesnít he bring the evil to and end - or why doesnít he prevent it in the first place? If he is good, then why do those who are evil seem to prosper in a world that belongs to him? We donít really know the answers to these questions.

We do know, however, that God is indeed good. He has shown his goodness to us in so many ways, especially in the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, and in the merciful forgiveness that he offers in that Gospel.

We also know that God is indeed almighty. He is able to bring life from death, in raising Jesus from the grave, and in giving us a new birth by the power of his Word.

But why a good and powerful God tolerates wickedness as much as he does - this is a question we canít answer. To be sure, he has a reason, just as he has a reason for everything that he does and allows. But we donít know what it is.

Simplistic explanations wonít do - especially since Scripture doesnít give simplistic explanations of these things. But Scripture does tell us that God has set a limit to this evil.

On the day when Christ returns visibly to the earth, to judge the living and the dead, this evil will come to an end. Godís people, and the things that they stood for, will be vindicated.

Until that day, the children of Godís kingdom will live and grow side-by-side with the sons of the devil. We will all inhabit the same world. And we will remain locked in a mortal struggle with each other.

The weeds - that is, the devilís insurgents - will try hard to erase all evidence of Godís sovereignty in the world, and to bring a culture of death upon us all. Godís people, on the other hand, as they are animated by the love for the human race that Godís Spirit has placed within them, will continue to struggle for that which is good and pure, and for a culture of life.

When Jesus returns, may he find us still engaged in this struggle. The only alternative to this struggle, before that day comes, would be surrender.

And that brings us to the second temptation that faces us. Based on the empirical evidence that is around us now, which suggests, at least superficially, that the world does not actually belong to God, we might come to believe the devilís lies, and to accept his false claims.

We might not necessarily become conscious Satanists, in the formal sense. But there are way too many people who have become functional Satanists, without even knowing it.

They do not believe that God is the true sovereign of this world. They do not live in a way that shows a willingness to make sacrifices, or to follow through on difficult decisions, in order to remain within Godís revealed will.

Godís will doesnít matter to them any more. In this world, at least as it is now, he seems powerless. So why serve him? Instead, live as others live.

Donít deprive yourself of what you want now. Take it, if you can. Donít look ahead to a pie-in-the-sky dream of heaven, which was probably just a figment of some old prophetís imagination anyway. Live for the moment.

What makes this temptation more of a problem than it might otherwise be, is that the old sinful nature that clings to all of us - from the time before we became one of Christís seeds - is actively in cahoots with this temptation. Thereís a part of us that doesnít want to submit to Godís authority in this world - or in any world.

But donít succumb to this temptation! Donít heed the siren song of the flesh and the devil to ďswitch sides,Ē and to become an insurgent against the goodness of Godís plan for the world - and for you. Listen instead to these words:

ďJust 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.Ē

Dear friends, Christ has made you righteous in Godís sight by forgiving your sins. Christ has placed his righteous Spirit within you, to guide you in your ways. Christ has called you to live righteously in this world.

He had planted you here. He wants you to grow here, and to partake of the goodness of his creation, for as long as you live. He bolsters you in your resilience against the devilish weeds that would seek to choke you, with the Gospel and sacraments that he continually pours out on you.

He sustains you in your calling with the promise of his protecting hand, to shade you from the burning heat of temptation. And he invites you to enjoy this life, as a child and heir of the one who actually owns this world, and who has never revoked his claim on it.

As children of God, know that you are at home in Godís world. Embrace the wonders that it affords. Live, and grow, and thrive.

And on the day of judgment, when you and all the righteous are graciously ushered from this world to your eternal habitation, you can look back with satisfaction on a life well-lived and well-enjoyed, as the plantings of the Lord in the Lordís good earth.

ďLet 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.Ē Amen.

27 July 2008 - 11 Pentecost - Matthew 13:44-52

In todayís Gospel, Jesus once again speaks in the form of a parable - three parables, actually. Each one of these short parables addresses an important aspect of why and how Godís saves us.

In the first parable, Jesus says: ďThe 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.Ē

This parable is often interpreted as a reference to what happens when a man or woman finds Jesus. The hymn, ďJesus, Priceless Treasure,Ē reflects the idea that Jesus is indeed the greatest of treasures, and that we should be willing to make any sacrifice, or expend any effort, in order to have him.

This is true, of course. But it is doubtful that the parable at hand is talking about this. Remember that this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven, or about the kingdom of God.

As with other parables, it is better to see this one, too, as being chiefly about God, and about what God does. God is most properly to be seen as the man who finds the treasure in the field, and who then purchases that field, so that he can take ownership of the treasure.

In his epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul describes the mystery of Godís eternal election of those who will be saved by his grace alone:

ďBlessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will...Ē

Before the foundation of the world, the eternal and infinite God ďfoundĒ his elect in the ďfieldĒ of fallen humanity. And God the Father then did what was necessary, according to his holiness and grace, to bring this beloved treasure to himself, and to obtain this treasure as his own precious possession.

This treasure was, however, buried in a field. If the treasure were to be taken from the field by someone who did not own the field, that would be stealing. So, in order to gain a rightful possession of the treasure, such a person would need to gain a rightful possession of the field.

Thatís what God did when he sent his Son to redeem, or to purchase, the whole human race, by his suffering and death. The Bible teaches that Christ died for all people, and that by his sacrifice on the cross he atoned for the sins of all people.

This includes unbelievers who persist in rejecting him, and false teachers who persist in denying him. The Second Epistle of St. Peter points out that even heretics, who actively work against the true Gospel, were nevertheless also included in the ransom that God paid, to purchase the human race.

We read: ďthere will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them.Ē They, too, were ďboughtĒ by the Master.

But because of their unbelief and hardness of heart, they never benefit from the redemption that was accomplished for them, and for all people.

Now, a natural question that will arise in our minds would be this: Am I one of the elect, whom God by his grace chooses out of the mass of humanity?

Am I included as a part of that beloved treasure, which God specifically had in mind when he purchased the whole field with the price of his Sonís life?

We cannot and should not ponder these mysterious questions in a speculative way, or in a way that causes us to take our eyes off of Christ. Instead, we should heed the counsel of the Formula of Concord:

ďWe should not judge this matter according to our reason, nor according to the law, nor on the basis of outward appearance. Nor should we have the temerity to search the secret, hidden abyss of divine foreknowledge.Ē

ďInstead, we are to pay attention to the revealed will of God. For he has revealed to us and Ďmade known to us the mystery of his will,í and has accomplished it through Christ, that it may be proclaimed.Ē

The mystery of election is discussed in Scripture with only a very narrow focus: to give comfort to those whose hearts have already been touched and transformed by Godís Word - which is preached to everybody - and who have already been brought to faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.

Election is a component of the Gospel. There is no similar ďlawĒ teaching in Scripture in regard to those who do not believe.

Nowhere does the Bible say that God planned out the sin and unbelief of those who reject him. But the Bible does tell us that God did lovingly plan out the faith and preservation of believers.

If, in a time of trial or doubt, a Christian in weakness wonders if Godís grace will remain with him, to sustain him in his faith, the answer of Scripture is ďyes.Ē This is the answer of divine election.

All of these things are in Godís hands. They always have been, and they always will be.

God did not bestow faith on such a Christian yesterday in a random or arbitrary way, and he will not withdraw that gift tomorrow in a random or arbitrary way either. Rather, from all eternity God has been planning out everything that he would do for the welfare of that Christianís soul.

God chose him in Christ before the foundation of the world. God found him in the field, and God planned out and accomplished everything that needed to be done, so that this precious soul would become and remain Godís precious possession.

Jesus goes on to teach another brief parable, similar in many ways to the previous one. ďAgain, 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.Ē

Here God is compared to a pearl merchant, and the Christian whom he redeems and saves is compared to a pearl of great value. And when Jesus says that the merchant ďwent and sold all that he hadĒ in order to buy that pearl, he is talking about himself, and the great sacrifice that he would offer.

God held nothing back in his work of redeeming fallen humanity. As recorded in the Book of Acts, St. Paul says that God has purchased the church ďwith his own blood.Ē

God himself, in the Person of Christ the Son, took all of the grief and guilt of our fallen race upon himself. He did this, so that we could be saved from the power and consequences of our sin.

As a holy God, our Father in heaven could not simply ignore humanityís rebellion against him, and hatred toward him. But as a loving God, our Father in heaven also could not simply allow humanity to perish without hope.

So, he did what needed to be done. He himself paid the price that needed to be paid. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the eternal Son of the Father, was sent into the world, not to gloat over manís unrighteousness, but to purchase for man, and to declare to man, a righteousness that will save him.

The Prophet Isaiah describes it in this way:

ďSurely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.Ē

To obtain a valuable pearl, a pearl merchant would be willing to sacrifice much. But a pearl merchant would be willing to sacrifice everything, and to sell everything, only for the most valuable and most precious of pearls.

God would be willing to sacrifice his own Son only for that which was most valuable, and most precious to him. God did sacrifice his own Son, for you.

The third parable - about the net, and about the good and the bad fish - shifts into a different gear. It does not deal with Godís motivations, but with his methods.

It talks about the work of the church, and about the outward fellowship of the church, as we await the final judgment. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains:

ďChrist...speaks about the outward appearance of the church when he says, ĎThe kingdom of heaven is like a netí... Thus he teaches that the church has been hidden under a crowd of wicked men in order that this stumbling block may not offend the faithful, and so that we might know that the Word and sacrament are efficacious even when they are administered by wicked men. Meanwhile, he teaches that although the ungodly possess certain outward signs in common, they are, nevertheless, not the true kingdom of Christ and members of Christ. For they are members of the devilís kingdom.Ē

God uses the means of grace - the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments - to make contact with the hearts and minds of penitent people, and to bestow forgiveness, life, and salvation on such people. He uses ordinary external means - human words and earthly elements - to accomplish extraordinary things.

With our physical eyes we cannot see the grace of God at work in these activities. When a pastor delivers a sermon, or pours a few splashes of water onto a child, or feeds men and women with a little bread and wine, human reason would not perceive that anything supernatural or miraculous is happening.

And by the same token, human reason, and the natural senses, cannot perceive the faith with which genuine believers partake in these activities, and by which they receive the supernatural gifts that God offers through these activities.

But God uses simple, ordinary-looking means like these for a reason. He does not want to frighten his people away from him, or throw them into a state of trembling confusion by the full revelation of his glory when he encounters them.

If you donít think thatís what would happen, just remember the reaction of Peter, James, and John at the Lordís Transfiguration, when Jesus shone with heavenly brilliance, and appeared, for just a few minutes, with Moses and Elijah. St. Mark tells us that Peter, and the others, ďdid not know what to say, for they were terrified.Ē

In our human frailty we could not endure very much exposure to the glory and majesty of God. So, in mercy, God hides his glory and majesty.

He comes to us cloaked under the forms of simple human speech; under the forms of water, bread and wine. And through the faith-creating and faith-building work that his Spirit accomplishes in these means of grace, he unites us to Christ and to each other in Christian fellowship.

But because there is nothing outwardly spectacular about these processes, it is possible for unbelievers, with ulterior motives, to become outwardly associated with these processes, and to slip themselves into the outward fellowship of the church.

The church, as the mystical body of Christ, includes only true believers. But the church as an institution, and as an outward association of those who profess to be Christians, includes not only true believers, but also hypocrites, who do not really believe what they claim to believe.

The outward fellowship of the church - the association of all those who are physically gathered around the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments - is like a net that is cast into the sea, and that brings up both good and bad fish.

Now, God knows who the bad fish are, and on judgment day they will be separated out from the good fish. But at the present time in history the bad fish are still mingled in with the good fish.

This means, therefore, that an outward association with the church as an institution, or as an external gathering, is, in and of itself, no guarantee at all of salvation. Donít ever presume to assure yourself that you have a proper relationship with God simply because you belong to a church, and physically attend its services.

The certainty that you are indeed one of the good fish, who will not someday be cast away, must come from something else. In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus tells us that ďGod so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.Ē

You are a ďgood fishĒ if you believe in Jesus Christ: If you, as a penitent sinner, believe the words of pardon that he addresses to your conscience; and if you, in the struggles of this life, believe his promise that no one will be able to pluck you out of his Fatherís hand.

An awareness of your sin and spiritual weakness does not disqualify you from receiving this comfort. In fact, your concern over your weakness, and your desire to be forgiven, is itself the evidence of your faith. An unbeliever would be indifferent to such things.

We certainly want our pastors to be the kind of men who actually believe what they preach to us. But if, by some chance, some of them do not believe it; if some of them are among the hypocritical bad fish, this does not invalidate the Gospel that they proclaim, or the sacraments that they administer.

The Word of God has its own inherent power, regardless of the person who speaks it.

The office from which Godís Word is publicly preached, and from which the sacraments are administered, has its authority from the Lordís institution of the office, and from the Lordís call to the office, and not from the personal faith of the man who holds the office.

So, while we are certainly disappointed on those occasions when the hypocrisy of members or ministers of the church is unmasked, we remain confident that Godís means of grace are still doing their work. We are still able to know that within the fellowship of the church, our faith can and will be nurtured by these means of grace.

Itís too bad that there are some bad fish in the net. But the presence of bad fish doesnít make the net disappear. The net remains.

The gathering of men and women around the ministry of Word and Sacrament remains in this world, for as long as this world remains. And the Gospel of Jesus Christ remains within this gathering, so that we, who have been chosen and purchased in Christ, can believe the Lordís promises, and be comforted by the Lordís promises, in life and in death.

After telling them these three brief parables, Jesus asked those who had been listening: ďHave you understood all these things?Ē They said to him, ďYes.Ē

With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and in the confidence of faith, may we also answer ďYesĒ to this question.

God, in the mystery of his unmeasurable grace, has found us and elected us in Christ. God has purchased us to be his own, by the blood of his Son, and by the redemption of all humanity that Jesus accomplished.

And God gathers us into his church and kingdom by his Word and Sacrament, through which he exercises his hidden yet real saving power, in regenerating us, in forgiving us, and in preserving us. Amen.