1 June 2008 - Pentecost 3 - Matthew 7:15-29

Of late, the secular news media have been showing an inordinate level of interest in the sermons and public pronouncements of various clergymen who have a relationship of one kind or another with a presidential candidate.

So, on the evening news, and on the cable news channels, we have been treated to an endless loop of video and audio clips of various sermonic outbursts that speak to the supposed attitudes of different racial groups toward each other; that speculate about what mysterious role God may have been playing behind the scenes of the Nazi holocaust; and that express uncomplimentary opinions about various other denominations and world religions.

These ministers have involved themselves, to one extent or another, in the public political debates of the current campaign season. News commentators and campaign spin-masters have therefore not been shy about offering opinions of the public statements these ministers have made.

For the most part these controversial pronouncements have been denounced and repudiated. According to the standards of public political discourse by which the commentators and spin-masters operate, these highly-charged statements have been declared to be the political equivalent of false prophecy. Those who have made these condemned statements have been declared to be the political equivalent of false prophets.

I wonder if we in the church are as diligent as the commentators and spin-masters are, in evaluating the theological and spiritual content of the sermons and other religious pronouncements that we hear from our clergy. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” How faithful are we in following this injunction?

New Testament references to “prophets” hearken back to the Old Testament concept of a prophet. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “prophet” is derived from a root word that means “to bubble forth,” as from a fountain. So, a prophet is someone who has a message that “bubbles forth” from his office.

Usually when we speak of a prophet, we are thinking of someone who receives his messages directly from God. But the word “prophet” need not be limited to a person who receives divine revelations in this way. Anybody who has a message that “bubbles forth” from himself to others can be thought of as a prophet.

And Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets.” This commandment requires three things of us.

First, it requires that we know what it is about a prophet that needs to be evaluated. Second, it requires that there be an objective criterion - a measuring rod - by which true prophets and false prophets can be distinguished from each other. And third, it requires that we be familiar enough with this measuring rod so that we can make proper use of it in making this distinction.

In telling us what it is about a prophet or preacher that we should evaluate, Jesus declares: “You will recognize them by their fruits.” The fruit of a prophet is his prophesy - the content of his teaching. We are to discern the difference between false prophets (who are wolves in sheep’s clothing) and true prophets (who are faithful to their calling) on the basis of what they actually say.

Henry Hamann, a former professor of mine, commented on this passage, and on this requirement for watching out for false prophets. He wrote:

“A prophet tells forth the will of God. What he tells forth is his fruit. Only the prophet’s teaching is organically related to his claim to be a prophet. So, false prophets can be seen to be just that by what they teach. The same relation holds true, of course, for the true prophet.”

“Sheep’s clothing is everything that would conceal or obscure the fact that such-and-such a prophet is a false prophet. Among other matters we could mention the following: great success in gaining a following; a pleasant personality; sincerity; unselfishness, and generally a virtuous life. All these characteristics can, and of course often do, turn the attention of those who listen to prophets away from what they actually say and teach, which, after all, is the only reason why they are prophets at all.”

Jesus is very serious about the need for this kind of discernment among his disciples. He knows that many false prophets will indeed raise themselves up among his people. And he knows that these false prophets will lead his people away from the saving truth of the Gospel, by getting them to pay undue attention to the personality traits and personal charisma of their preachers, and not to focus on the actual prophecy, or doctrine, that flows out of their preachers’ ministry.

Jesus also gives a severe warning here to those prophets who would presume to speak falsehoods in his name. He speaks of a harsh judgment that will come upon those who use their status as public ministers and religious leaders, as a platform from which to preach their own self-serving human opinions. Jesus says:

“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

“On that 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.’

The will of Christ’s Father is that those who are called to preach the Gospel of his Son will do so. The will of the Father, which a Christian minister is supposed to fulfill according to his vocation, is that unrepentant sinners be warned of the dangers and consequences of their transgressions, and that repentant sinners be comforted with the perfect forgiveness and peace that God earnestly offers and gives to them in his Word and Sacrament.

Those prophets who do as they please, and preach as they please, are violating the will of God, and are denigrating the calling that God has given them. And they are demonstrating by their false teaching that their own faith is also false.

Also, those people who heed such prophets, and who willingly believe the ear-tickling lies that they tell, will share the fate of those prophets. Luther remarks:

“Therefore a Christian, be he preacher or listener, must be sure that he is not speaking or hearing his own word, but God’s Word. Otherwise it would be better if he had never been born; for now preacher and listener must go to the devil together.”

The measuring rod, or standard, by which we are to test the prophets, is, of course, the Word of God. In today’s text, Jesus commends everyone “who hears these words of mine and does them.” The words of Jesus, which are the Word of God, are the infallible truth. And these words are permanently enshrined for the church of all ages in the Holy Scriptures.

The first thing that we are supposed to listen for in the ministry of a true prophet is the confession of sound doctrine. There is not, however, a very high appreciation of the importance of sound doctrine in today’s religious world. Moral relativism and sentimental indifference reign.

A passion for truth, and for the honor of God’s name, is hard to find. Those who search the Scriptures often do so because they are trying to find loopholes and excuses for the introduction of worldly thinking and practices into the church, and not because they want to be enriched by a deeper knowledge of God’s Word, and to be bolstered in their commitment to remain faithful to that Word.

But then again, the importance of sound doctrine has never really been appreciated as much as it should be. In responding to this chronic problem, C. F. W. Walther made these observations in 1872:

“Many say, ‘Instead of disputing over doctrine so much, we should much rather be concerned with souls and with leading them to Christ.’ But all who speak in this way do not really know what they are saying or what they are doing.”

“As foolish as it would be to scold a farmer for being concerned about sowing good seed, and to demand of him simply to be concerned about a good harvest, so foolish it is to scold those who are concerned first and foremost with the doctrine, and to demand of them that they should rather seek to rescue souls. For just as the farmer who wants a good crop must first of all be concerned about good seed, so the church must above all be concerned about right doctrine, if it would save souls.”

The true prophesy of a true prophet does indeed include the teaching of sound doctrine, in the sense of a correct presentation of dogmatic theology.

But it is certainly not limited to that. A true prophet can also be expected to apply God’s Word pastorally to the specific circumstances of life in which people find themselves.

So, it is not enough simply to listen for a correct explanation of the doctrine of sin. Clear and accurate teaching on this topic is certainly important, but it is not the whole measure of the ministry of a true prophet.

In addition, when you personally have sinned, expect a true prophet to tell you that the specific thing you have done or said is wrong, and that it invites the Lord’s anger and judgment. As St. Paul writes: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” And when he tells you these things, believe him.

Likewise, it is not enough simply to listen for a correct explanation of the doctrine of justification by faith. Clear and accurate teaching on this topic is certainly important, but it is not the whole measure of the ministry of a true prophet.

In addition, when you are personally troubled and grieved by your sins and failures, and wonder if God will give you another chance, expect a true prophet to tell you that as far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed your transgressions from you. Expect a true prophet to impress upon you the invitation of our Savior: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And when he tells you these things, believe him.

You are not able to know that the preaching of law and Gospel in these ways is the message that God wants you to hear, though, unless you know that the message of law and Gospel is indeed the central message of Scripture. You need to know, for example, that St. Paul says in his epistle to the Romans: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

And one of the most important practical methods by which God’s people are able to come to know what Scripture does actually say - about divine judgment and divine grace - is described in today’s Old Testament lesson. The Lord Jehovah issued this command to Israel:

“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul... You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

I have known several elderly people who had learned and memorized many passages of Scripture in their childhood, and who were still able to recall what they had learned from God’s Word at a time in their lives when the effects of age were causing them to forget just about everything else.

In those scary and confused waning days of their earthly existence, they were deeply comforted by their abiding memory of these eternal truths. And they were deeply grateful to the parents, teachers, and pastors who had made them learn these things in their youth - a period in their lives when they probably didn’t realize how important it was.

The worthy hymns of our church and the text of the Small Catechism, which testify to the essential truths of Scripture, should also be taught to the children and youth of the church, even when they might not be so eager to learn them. The adults who are responsible for their spiritual care and instruction should be the adults, and not let the short-sighted resistance of such young people be the determining factor in whether or not these things will be learned.

When you have learned something by heart, nobody can take it away from you. A friend of mine - an ELS layman - was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for several years. During that time he had no access to a Bible, a hymnal, or a catechism. But he was not left without spiritual consolation, because he had learned God’s Word in his childhood.

He had memorized many passages from Scripture, together with the text of the Small Catechism and several comforting hymns. And he was sustained in his faith by the things he had learned in this way, as he passed through the severe trials and deprivations of his captivity.

The Small Catechism is an especially helpful tool that has been made available to us for these purposes. Certainly it is no substitute for the Bible.

But remember that much of the text of the Small Catechism is taken directly from the Bible. And those parts of it that are not direct quotations from Scripture are derived from the Bible.

The Catechism is, as it were, a “crib sheet” that we can use, to be able to remember the chief teachings of God’s Word as we go through the trials of our life, and to be able to follow the Lord’s injunction, “Beware of false prophets.”

Parents and grandparents who teach God’s Word to their children and grandchildren - who guide them through the Bible, the hymnal, and the Catechism - are doing them the greatest service imaginable.

If you give your child a toy, it will benefit him perhaps for a couple years. If you give your child a bicycle, it will benefit him perhaps for a decade. If you give your child God’s Word, it will benefit him for eternity. And it will protect him from being vulnerable someday to the smooth talk and showmanship of a false prophet.

With a knowledge of God’s Word, a person is able to know that it is the teaching of a teacher that is the most important thing to consider, not his personality or any other secondary factor.

With a knowledge of God’s Word, a person is able to know that this teaching should be evaluated and tested on the basis of the objective truth of the Scriptures, which protects the Christians who know it from the fate of those who are so easily led astray, in their gullibility, by gimmicks and flattery.

And with a knowledge of God’s Word, a person is able to fulfill the duty that God has given to every baptized Christian: to listen carefully to what a preacher or teacher says, and to make a distinction between false prophets and true prophets.

For the sake of your eternal soul, and for the sake of the salvation that comes only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you need to be sure that the kind of preaching to which you submit yourself is the kind of preaching that God wants you to hear.

You need to be sure that it is the kind of preaching that will protect your faith from all the assaults that will be brought against it by the world, the flesh, and the devil.

With God’s Word as your guide, you can and will recognize this preaching when you hear it. And as you hear it, you will be blessed by the assurance it gives you that Jesus died for your sins, and that your crucified Savior has reconciled you to God for time and eternity.

You will be blessed by the assurance it gives you that Jesus is now alive, never to die again, and that your living Lord abides with you every moment of every day, and will never forsake you.

In order to be saved, it is necessary that you believe this message. And in order to believe this message, it is necessary that you hear this message. “Beware of false prophets.” Amen.

8 June 2008 - Pentecost 4 - Matthew 9:9-13

Some of our favorite passages of Scripture are those places in the Gospels where Jesus invites people to come to him and to be his disciples. For example: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Or this one, a favorite of young people: “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” And we also think of these words of our Lord: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

These and similar passages show us that Jesus does indeed have a welcoming attitude toward the people in this world who need his salvation. These passages therefore help to make us feel welcome in the church of Jesus Christ.

In today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we see yet another of these welcoming and inviting passages. “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”

Matthew was a tax collector, working for the imperial Roman government. Among the Jews, such men were held in very low esteem.

Tax collectors were judged to be unpatriotic traitors. They were collaborators with an occupying foreign power. And they were often corrupt, both professionally and in their personal life.

Tax collectors often collected more money than they were supposed to, for their own personal enrichment. But they got away with it, because they were in cahoots with the Roman soldiers.

And in their personal behavior, tax collectors often led a very immoral lifestyle, with carousing and drunkenness and other forms of dissipation. And in this they were the social companions of others in the lower strata of society, who conducted themselves in a similar manner.

But here we see Jesus approaching one such tax collector, and inviting him to become one of his disciples.

To be sure, Matthew was not invited to remain as he had been as he became a follower of Jesus. When he was given the invitation, “Follow me,” this was an invitation to repent of his sins, and to turn away from his previous transgressions.

But even so, it is greatly comforting to us to see this example of Jesus’ willingness to give someone like Matthew a chance at a new life. He didn’t hold Matthew’s past, or the distasteful associations of his past, against him.

Christ’s willingness to forgive Matthew, and to incorporate Matthew into the circle of his followers, gives us the hope that Jesus will also forgive us, and welcome us into the circle of his followers, regardless of what the sins of our past may be.

And this hope is confirmed when we see the description of the meal that Jesus and his disciples then shared with Matthew and some of his friends: “And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.”

Jesus was willing to give all these people a second chance. Certainly he did not condone the professional and personal corruption that had no doubt characterized the lives of these people up until now.

But when they, like Matthew, would be brought to a state of conviction and repentance, Jesus would be willing and eager to forgive them, to embrace them, and to rejoice with them in their salvation.

Jesus is not a friend of sin. But he is the friend of sinners. In regard to sinful people - like Matthew and his friends, and like you and me - he shows himself to be a welcoming Savior. And he calls us to be his disciples.

The word “disciple” literally means a “student” or a “learner.” And that’s what he wants each of us to be: a forgiven and reconciled child of God, who now learns about God and God’s ways from Jesus, our teacher and master.

But in today’s text, Jesus does not issue an invitation to join his circle of disciples or “learners” to everyone he encounters.

To be sure, he does say “Follow me” to Matthew. But Jesus says something else to the Pharisees, who criticized Jesus’ willingness to associate with Matthew and his friends.

“And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when [Jesus] heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

In effect, Jesus says to Matthew, and to penitent people like Matthew, “Come to me, and learn what God wants you to know about his mercy and his forgiveness of your sin.” But he says to the Pharisees, and to self-righteous people like the Pharisees, “Go from me, and learn what God wants you to know about your wickedness and about his judgment on your sin.”

Jesus says elsewhere that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” If you think that you are already righteous in and of yourself, and that you don’t need the salvation that Jesus came into the world to give, then you’re not ready to become his follower.

In keeping with the mission on which his heavenly Father had sent him, Jesus does not invite people to come to him, and to recline at table with him, so that he can present an achievement award to them, or congratulate them for their success is being what God wants them to be.

He invites people to come to him, and to recline at table with him, for one and only one reason: to save them from their unrighteousness.

If you are not ready to learn this from Jesus, then you’re not ready to be his disciple. If you’re still a captive to sinful arrogance, and blinded by sinful pride, you’re not yet invited to recline at table with Jesus.

Instead, you still need to be a disciple of the Law, and to be instructed in your conscience by its condemnations. You need to learn of your sin, and of your inability to stand before God as a righteous person, before you are ready to learn of the forgiveness that God offers in Christ only to the unrighteous.

Before you can be enrolled as a member of the class of Christ’s disciples, you need to attend the summer school of the preaching of the Law. Before you can believe what Jesus tells you in the Gospel about his forgiveness, you need to believe what the Law tells you about your sin.

To the penitent, who know that they are unrighteous, Jesus does indeed say: “Come and learn.” But to the impenitent, who think they are righteous, Jesus says instead: “Go and learn.”

There’s an old story about a pastor inviting someone who didn’t attend church to visit his congregation. The person who was invited demurred, with the judgmental statement: “But there are so many hypocrites in church.”

The pastor, persisting in the invitation, then replied: “That’s O.K., there’s room for one more.” I suppose that’s something for us to remember when we invite our friends to come to church with us.

I wonder, though, if the worshipers in a church like ours can really be accused of hypocrisy. To be sure, we can all be accused of sin, and such an accusation would be accurate.

We have sinned, and we do sin. But does that make us hypocrites?

A hypocrite is someone who professes to be something he isn’t, or whose public claims don’t match his private reality. But in the liturgical orders that we follow in our Sunday service, we invite every worshiper to express sentiments like this:

“O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment.”

Or like this:

“Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto Thee that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against Thee by thought, word, and deed.”

It is not hypocrisy for sinners like us to admit publicly that we are in fact sinners.

If our faith is shaped by God’s Word - especially as God’s Word comes to us in the texts of the liturgy and hymns of our church - then according to that faith we do not present ourselves to Christ as those who are righteous, and who therefore need no forgiveness.

Instead, we know and admit that we are spiritually sick - sick even unto death - and that we need a heavenly physician to heal our souls with the medicine of his Gospel and Sacrament. It is only on these terms, and for this reason, that we presume to come here.

Through the testimony and conviction of God’s holy Law, the Holy Spirit has impressed on our conscience the undeniable fact that we are not righteous. In humility we know that this is so.

And when we know that this is so, then we also know that Jesus will not then say to us, “Go and learn,” but he will say, “Come and learn.” Come to me, and learn from me, and find rest in me, and follow me.

Come and recline at table with me. The sins of your past will not be held against you. They are all forgiven.

Churches that follow the practice of closed Communion also come in for quite a bit of criticism, from those who perceive this practice as a mark of a superior attitude on our part.

We are often accused of thinking that we are better and more righteous than others, when we ask those who have not been instructed in the faith of the church, or who do not yet confess that faith as their own, to refrain from participation in the Lord’s Supper.

But again, when you look at this more carefully, it’s hard to make that accusation stick. One of the primary reasons why the church expects all of us to undergo a period of instruction before receiving the sacrament, is to make sure we all know how to recognize our sinfulness, and to be honest about it before God.

Before we are admitted to communicant membership, the church asks us to acknowledge the truthfulness of what we have been taught from God’s Word about our need for what Christ alone can give.

And the church asks us to acknowledge the truthfulness of what we have been taught from God’s Word about Christ’s supplying of that need through his saving work.

We are not taught how to feel superior and self-righteous. We are taught, instead, how to feel guilty on account of our unrighteousness. We are taught how to repent of our sins, in the light of the Ten Commandments.

And we are taught how to confess the Lord Jesus Christ as the friend and Savior of sinners, who in a very unique way is willing to recline at table with us in this sacred meal. We are taught by the Gospel to hear and believe the loving invitation of Christ, as he welcomes us by his grace to the circle of his disciples.

What is Jesus saying to you today? If you are like the Pharisees, thinking of yourself as righteous, and looking down on those whom the Lord has forgiven and accepted, then Jesus is saying to you what he said to them: “Go and learn.”

But if you are like Matthew, humbly admitting your need for what Jesus alone can provide, then Jesus is saying to you what he said to him: “Follow me.”

Follow me in faith to the foot of my cross, where I wash away all your sins. Follow me in faith to my empty tomb, where I fill you with the hope of eternal life.

And follow me in faith to the fellowship of Word and Sacrament in my church, where I will always nurture and sustain you in the salvation that I have won for you. “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Amen.

22 June 2008 - Pentecost 6 - Romans 6:12-23

In the last century, when the military draft was still in effect, many young men had the experience of receiving an official communication from the government, directing them to report to a certain place, at a certain time, to begin the process of being inducted into the armed forces of the United States.

The young men in question who presented themselves to the proper authorities for this duty thereby recognized the sovereignty of the government over them and their lives. They knew that they needed to submit themselves to this authority, which had a valid claim on their allegiance and obedience.

These young conscripts were no longer going to be free and independent, doing as they pleased, when and where they pleased. They were going to become instruments of government policy.

Occasionally a man who held dual citizenship, or who was a citizen of one country but was temporarily residing in another, would be drafted by two different countries in a time of war - or would at least be regarded by two different governments as eligible to be drafted into their respective armies.

It was a particularly difficult state of affairs when the two countries in question happened to be on opposite sides of the conflict. And this sometimes did happen. When it did, the young man who found himself in such a predicament needed to decide between two sovereignties and two allegiances.

He needed to decide which government he would acknowledge, and to which authority he would present himself. He could not choose both, and he could not remain neutral.

In our civil and political life today - with our country’s all-volunteer military - nobody is subject to a draft. But in our inner, spiritual life, we are all under a supernatural sovereignty like this.

And in regard to this inner, spiritual dimension of our existence, there is a universal conscription. No one is exempt from this draft.

We have all been called up. We have all been destined to be instruments, through whom a higher and stronger power would seek to exercise its authority and fulfill its policies.

And, we have all been drafted, not by one, but by two belligerent powers, which are locked in a desperate struggle with each other. We have each been called to take our place in two competing armies, and have been ordered to present ourselves for service before two different authorities: the destructive authority of sin, and the life-giving authority of God.

As we consider the inescapable tug-of-war that is taking place over us and within us, between the power of sin and the power of God, let us pay careful attention to the admonition and encouragement that St. Paul gives us in today’s Epistle lesson. He writes:

“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

As we are faced with the competing claims of sin and God in our lives, St. Paul makes it clear where our true allegiance is to be. Before your baptism, and before the Gospel was implanted into your heart and mind, you were, of course, under the dominion and reign of sin. That was the only sovereign power you recognized back then.

Indeed, loyalty to sin was the only loyalty, at the deepest level, that you were even capable of having. You had no ability to immigrate, in your spirit, to another spiritual realm.

Before the Word of God touched you and changed you, you were completely impotent in regard to the things of the Spirit. These things were foolishness to you.

But now, for us who have been incorporated into Christ, and whose hearts and minds have been transformed by the Spirit of Christ, this is no longer the case. The Gospel of God’s Son has transported us into God’s kingdom, and has placed us under God’s loving rule.

The inner rebellion against God’s goodness that had previously defined our lives, has now been supplanted by a God-given willingness to follow God and to fulfill his will. The old unspoken fear of God’s holiness and judgment has now been supplanted by the joy and confidence of faith, by which we cling to God’s promises and yearn for his fellowship.

The spiritual emptiness with which we came into this world has been filled by the indwelling of God himself. He has created within us a new nature, in harmony with his own divine goodness, and reflecting the image of Christ our divine-human Redeemer.

And so, when St. Paul pleads with us today to present ourselves to God and to serve him, and not to be a slave to sin any longer, he is simply telling us to be who we now are in Christ.

In Christ God has set us free from the guilt of sin, and in Christ God has also set us free from the dominion and power of sin. God’s Word has instilled within us a new way of thinking and living.

Before God’s Word and Spirit became a part of our lives, we were trapped in sin and death, with no conceivable way of escape. But the Lord has given us an option for life instead of death. And by his Spirit he miraculously draws us in faith to embrace that option, and to dwell in it.

God brings us into his church, and makes us to be citizens of his kingdom. And he calls and appoints us to be his instruments, through whom he would accomplish his good and gracious will among men. St. Paul describes this new reality in this way:

“thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. ... For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”

But if all of these things are true about those who believe in Christ, why then do we so often not do as St. Paul directs? Why do we still so often present ourselves as slaves to impurity and lawlessness, and not as slaves to righteousness according to God’s will?

Why do we still struggle with temptations to sin? And why do we so often fail in those struggles, and act as if God were not our true authority and sovereign?

Why is it so hard to serve God in this life? Why is it so hard to submit ourselves consistently and fully to the will of God?

Well, it’s because sin - under which we formerly lived - has not willingly let us go. Sin, to which we were formerly enslaved, never ceases to try to draw us back, and to try to coax us into reversing our allegiance. And the tentacles and toxins of sin still reach down very deeply into us.

I have a very fond attachment to the area of New York State where I grew up. I miss the grandeur of the Catskill Mountains, and the majesty of the Hudson River. I miss the history, the people, and the culture of my native region.

I know that the circumstances of my life have called me away from my home town - where I haven’t lived now for about 30 years. But I still occasionally get homesick.

And this is especially true when I actually visit my home town, and see the sights, and hear the sounds, of my native state. When I then return to where I actually live and work now, for a little while I might have a bit of a struggle in once again getting used to the fact that I now belong somewhere else.

I have to remind myself that other people and places now have a right to my loyalty in this world. And that’s our collective problem in regard to our spiritual loyalty.

You and I have been baptized into Christ. We have become citizens of God’s kingdom and heirs of his promises.

We have been drafted into God’s army, and in faith have presented ourselves to him for a life of service according to his purposes for us. We have been filled with the grace of his Spirit.

But... but, we still get homesick for the place where we used to live, in the old country of sin and death. Unlike my literal home town, there was and is no redeeming value in a life without God, and without God’s wisdom and knowledge. But there’s a part of us that wants to go back to that place nevertheless, and to be in submission once again to that old sovereignty.

The old rebellious nature, which still clings to our flesh, felt very much at home under the dominion of sin. And that old nature is always trying to pull us back to that dominion.

This pull becomes especially strong when we pay a visit, as it were, to that former home. When you dabble in sins that you know are wrong - when you dwell on ungodly thoughts, and pursue ungodly ambitions - you are placing yourself on a dangerous pathway that leads away from the new country of freedom and peace, in which God by his grace placed you in your baptism, and that leads back to the old country of spiritual destruction and alienation from God.

Don’t let yourselves be charmed and blinded by these deceptive temptations. The place where you were before God rescued you was not a good place.

In that old existence, sin promised you a life of freedom. But freedom from the goodness and righteousness of God is no freedom at all. It is the most horrible bondage and oppression. You never want to go back there. Listen to St. Paul:

“When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death.”

Dear friends in Christ, never forget that you have been baptized into your Savior’s death and resurrection, and that you have been clothed with his righteousness. You have died to sin, and you have been raised in Christ.

That old life of sin is not where you belong now. It is no longer your home. Sin has no claim over you. It has no right to control your life, and to cause you to be its instrument for destruction.

That’s because God has purchased you to be his very own possession, with the price of his own blood on Calvary’s cross. You now belong to him.

Remember these familiar words of the Small Catechism, as they guide you to confess boldly who you now are, in Christ and because of Christ:

“I believe that Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary; and that He is my Lord, Who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death; in order that I might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness; even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

From the vantage point of the Gospel of Christ, this is not a list of requirements you must meet in order to earn a place in God’s realm. It is a description of what God has done for you, and continues to do for you and in you, by his grace.

In the Gospel of his Son, God bestows on you the full remission of all your sins. And he bestows on you the wonderful gift of a new life of service to Christ in his kingdom - in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.

In your new spiritual nature you are not forced against your will to obey God. Instead, by the power of the Gospel God changes your will, so that in your new nature you desire only that which is pure and right.

A life of faith, and of service to God, is a good and contented life. It is a free and liberated life. It is not a life lived in fear, under coercion, but it is a life that is lived in peace, under grace.

With the Lord’s help resist, therefore, those temptations that you face every day to change your allegiance back to what it used to be, before the days of your incorporation into Christ. With the Lord’s help listen instead to your Savior’s welcoming and restoring Word, and let this Word turn your heart back to your true home under God. Your true and eternal home.

If you have fallen away from your true allegiance, and if you have once again been presenting yourself to sin, to be its servant, and not to God, God will give you another chance. There is still a place for you in his army, in his holy nation.

On one occasion, when St. Peter had asked Jesus if he should forgive his brother up to seven times, Jesus replied, “seventy times seven.” In this way he taught the apostles, and us, that God, too, will always forgive.

God’s patience with hardened unbelievers does have its limits. God will likewise not always strive with those who are outwardly indifferent, and who inwardly hate the Gospel.

But God’s patience with those who humbly seek his pardon and grace will never, ever wear thin. No sin for which you are truly sorry will ever be left unforgiven. No sinner who turns back to God in repentance will ever be cast away.

As far as the east is from the west, so far has the Lord removed your transgressions from you. He will always take you back. He will always let you start over again.

And whenever God gives you such a new beginning, and wipes your slate clean for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ, you can take comfort from these closing words of today’s Epistle lesson:

“now that you have been set free from sin, and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification, and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

29 June 2008 - Pentecost 7 - Matthew 10:34-42

Every year on December 24th, we hear the familiar and comforting words of the Christmas Gospel: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’”

The angels’ statement to the Bethlehem shepherds concerning “peace on earth,” through the coming of the Messiah, is echoed by the Prophet Isaiah, who includes “Prince of Peace” as one of the Messiah’s titles.

We might wonder, then, how to interpret the words that Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

The easiest response would be to assert that there is a contradiction between these two sets of statements, and then to leave the matter without further consideration. That would be the response of the skeptical, unbelieving world.

But we know from the outset that there is no contradiction between these passages. There cannot be. These various statements have to fit together somehow.

This is, in fact, the expectation that we bring to our reading of all of Scripture. Our baptism into the name of the Triune God has supernaturally bestowed on us a faith in the truthfulness of everything the Triune God says or causes to be said.

Our belief in the complete truthfulness of Scripture is therefore not a conclusion that we come to after critically analyzing everything that the Bible says. It is, rather, the starting point for our study of the Scriptures.

It is the assumption that we bring to the text, before we even consider the difficulties of a particular passage. “Let God be true, though every man were a liar.”

What Jesus is talking about today can be compared to a situation in which there is a grand military alliance, involving many nations that have marshaled all their forces against a common enemy. The various members of the alliance are at peace with one another, especially as they face the common foe. But none of them is at peace with that foe.

But then that common enemy sues for peace. This enemy declares to the various members of the alliance who are arrayed against him that he no longer wants to be at war with them. Terms for peace and reconciliation are offered to all of them.

And then the members of the alliance have to decide what to do. Do they accept the terms for peace, and allow the war between themselves and the enemy to come to an end? Or do they keep on fighting?

This is an important decision for each belligerent party to make for itself, for the sake of its own welfare. It is also a decision that will have an effect on the alliance to which they belong, especially if some members of the alliance come to a different decision.

If some members of the alliance accept the terms for peace that are offered, and others do not, the alliance will be broken. A member of the alliance that would want to be reconciled with the former enemy, and to become friends with that former enemy, would likely now become a new enemy of those members of the alliance that want to keep the war going.

There’s an old Arab proverb that goes like this: “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” But in such a case, a variation of that proverb would probably apply: “My enemy’s friend is now my enemy.”

And so, a new alliance would be formed. The lines of battle would now be drawn up in new places.

Those who wanted peace would find that they are still at war - in spite of their wishes to the contrary. A major difference, though, is that they are now at war with someone else - with their former allies.

That’s the basic situation that the human race is in, in regard to its relationship with God. Without the Gospel, and before the Gospel makes its impact, all members of the human family are part of a grand alliance against their common foe.

Without the Gospel, and before the Gospel makes its impact, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, are united in their antagonism to their common enemy. And in that shared antagonism, in their united struggle against their common foe, they are at peace with each other.

And that common foe, against whom unregenerated humanity is at war, is God. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans:

“those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh... ...the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”

Paul also writes to the Ephesians that before we were brought to faith, we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

In its sinful rebellion humanity is hostile to God. And God, in his holiness, is wrathful against humanity’s sinful rebellion.

But the message of Christmas - proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds, and to the whole world through the Christmas Gospel - changes all that. From God’s side of the conflict, God declares to all members of the alliance who are arrayed against him that he does not want to be at war with them any longer.

He sues for peace. He offers his own Son to be the Savior of the world. On his behalf his heavenly messengers proclaim to the world a new reality, and a new harmony between God and his creation. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

And when this proclamation is made - when this Gospel, with its power to forgive and reconcile, goes out - the old alliance of all men against God is broken. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to those who believe.

By the power of the Gospel, some of the members of that old alliance are therefore drawn away from that alliance. They are made to be the friends of God instead.

Their sins are forgiven. The old hostility toward God and his goodness is broken down. A complete reconciliation is effected.

This is a wonderful thing. But it is not without some disappointing consequences in regard to other members of the human family, who reject God’s terms for peace, and who in their spiritual blindness and hardness of heart want to keep the war going.

When you become a friend of God, you become an enemy of those who hate God, and who refuse to be at peace with him.

God’s peace was indeed offered to them through the proclamation of the angels. God’s peace is still offered to them, continuously, whenever the Gospel is proclaimed.

But God does not coerce people to believe what he tells them. He does not force people to lay down the arms of their inner struggle against him and his ways.

And God does not force the unbelieving world to be at peace with its former allies - that is, with you - who are now at peace with God.

In this way Christ, who comes to bring peace, ends up bringing division. In this way Christ, who reconciles former enemies to himself, makes it to be so that those who remain antagonistic to him now become the new enemies of his new friends.

God doesn’t want it to be this way. We don’t want it to be this way. From God’s perspective, he wants all men to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

The Christmas Gospel really is proclaimed to everyone. He offers peace, and an end to the war, to everyone.

But if our old allies want to keep the war going, and if they force us to chose between them and Christ, we must choose Christ.

It is a choice for life rather than death. It is a choice with consequences that reach into eternity.

It is a choice we must make. Indeed, it is a choice that our faith compels us to make, regardless of the consequences. As Jesus says:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

The fact that most of us here today come from Christian families that encourage us in our faith, combined with the relative indifference of American society as a whole to questions of religious conviction, may prevent us from realizing the profound seriousness of what it means to become and be a believer in Jesus.

In many places on earth, a choice for eternal life in Christ is, effectively, a choice for death in this world.

For some opponents of the Gospel, whose family member becomes a believer in Christ, this is a symbolic death. A mock funeral may be held, and the converting relative is shunned from then on, as if he were no longer alive.

For other opponents of the Gospel, however, this does not mean a symbolic death at all. A literal death sentence is imposed on a person who in faith embraces the peace that God offers in Christ.

And the fanatical members of the new believer’s family, by tradition, are chiefly responsible for seeing to it that this sentence is carried out.

We have no idea what some people in this world must go through for the sake of the Gospel. But whatever these berated and persecuted Christians are forced to endure because of the name of Christ, they would still say that it is worth it.

With God’s help, and for the sake of the surpassing value of knowing Christ and his salvation, they - and we - are willing to lose everything, even physical life itself, if that’s what it takes to remain steadfast in the new alliance that God has established with his redeemed and reconciled people.

In one sense it can indeed be a very lonely experience to become a Christian in such a situation - especially if the other members of your family refuse to do so, and become hostile toward you because of your faith. But such loneliness, if it does exist, does not last for long.

God’s Word, when it has its impact on us and our lives, may break our old alliances. Old and valued family relationships may come to an end.

But God’s Word also forms new alliances. And God’s Word places us into a new family.

In today’s text Jesus goes on to talk about the new relationships that are formed between believers and the people who bring them the Gospel. And these satisfying and blessed relationships extend also to all others who likewise embrace that Gospel, and who receive in friendship the messengers who preach it. To the apostles, Jesus says:

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

Jesus stands at the head of a new family of faith. Through the Gospel that his apostles and prophets proclaim, he draws people into this family, and into a relationship with him. “Whoever receives you receives me,” he says.

And when you receive Christ, you receive those who are with Christ. When Jesus becomes a part of your life, they, too, become a part of your life, and you become a part of theirs. It reminds us of these words from Psalm 68: “God settles the solitary in a home.”

This blessed fellowship in the church is of great value to all of us, but especially for those who have been written off by their biological family, or who are mocked and ridiculed by their relatives, because of their faith.

One of the most important times in the life of an ordinary family is meal time - or at least it should be that way. When a family gathers around the table for dinner, they have a chance to talk with each other: to rejoice together in the happy events of the day, and to comfort each other in regard to the disappointments of the day.

And in the family of Christ - in the gathering of those who receive Christ in faith, and each other in love - meal time is also one of the most important times.

I’m not talking about the pot lucks or the luncheons put on by the Ladies Guild - although those are great events. I mean the sacred Supper of the Lord’s Body and Blood, instituted by Christ for his new family, to be enjoyed by them until he returns visibly to the earth.

And there is indeed great joy in our participation in this sacrament, and in the unity that we share with Christ and each other at the Lord’s Table. And while Jesus may not be visibly present, he is mystically and really present, by the power of his consecrating Word, to forgive and to heal.

In his presence he cements among us the bonds of love and companionship that are ours as God’s friends - God’s children. These are among the greatest rewards that we have as Christians.

We hear the Christmas Gospel, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” And as we hear it, we believe it, and are reconciled to the Lord as his friends and allies.

We also hear the sober words of Jesus spoken in today’s Gospel, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And as we hear it, we accept it as true, even though it can be a painful and distressing truth.

And yet the pain of rejection on account of Christ that we may experience from those whom we love, is assuaged, and made up for, by the peace and acceptance that we experience in the fellowship of the church.

We are counted among God’s people. Following the example of God himself, our Christian friends forgive us when we fail. Our Christian brothers and sisters lift us up when we fall. They care about us, and we care about them in return.

In a few minutes we will sing a hymn about this, as printed on the bulletin insert. I want all of us to sing this hymn, not as a display of our musical talent, but as a testimony to our love for each other in Christ. And when the time comes to sing it, pay attention especially to these words from the first two verses:

We are called by one vocation, Members of one family,
Heirs through Christ of one salvation, Let us live in harmony;
Nor by strife embitter life, Journeying to eternity.

In a land where all are strangers, And our sojourning so short,
In the midst of common dangers Concord is our best support.
Heart with heart divides the smart, Lightens grief of every sort. Amen.