7 September 2008 - Pentecost 17 - Matthew 18:1-20

Some people, when they are the victims of some kind of injustice, or when they have been hurt or offended, get mad. Others in a situation like this would say, “I don’t get mad, I get even.”

In today’s text from St. Matthew, Jesus teaches us that Christians should have a totally different response to sins and offenses - especially when they are caused or committed by fellow church members. Our response should be something like this: “I don’t get mad, and I also don’t get even. I get reconciled.”

What Jesus tells us about approaching a brother who has sinned is not optional. It is our duty to do so. If we truly love the person who had gotten involved in something wicked or spiritually destructive, and who is thereby inviting God’s wrath upon himself, we cannot just let him slip away, without trying to do something to rescue him.

That would be like being on a cruise ship and witnessing a man falling overboard. But instead of throwing him a lifeline, or informing the ship’s crew about the emergency, we stand at the rail, and passively watch the drowning man struggle and flail in the water, until he goes under for the last time.

How could you live with yourself if you ever acted in that way in such a circumstance on a ship at sea? How could you live with yourself if you ever acted in that way in your Christian life, if a fellow Christian were to “fall overboard” into an egregious sin, and get sucked under by the overwhelming destructive power of that sin, while you did, and said, nothing?

We do, of course, make a distinction between infractions of God’s law that arise from human weakness, and the kind of willful and deliberate sins that threaten the faith and salvation of a brother or sister.

St. John, in his First Epistle, is operating with this distinction in mind when he tells us simply to pray that the Lord would forgive the failings and shortcomings of our fellow Christians, without first requiring a confrontation or a direct admonition. But according to St. John, such forbearance would not be adequate in dealing with the guilt of someone who had committed a grievous, faith-destroying sin.

John writes: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life - to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.”

St. Paul also describes the attitude we should have toward the annoying things our Christian brothers and sisters may do, and toward the sins of weakness that flow out of them when they occasionally get emotional, or lose their temper, or say something that comes out wrong. Basically, he says don’t make a federal case out of those things. In love forgive and overlook these faults.

He writes in his Epistle to the Colossians that, as God’s chosen ones, we are to put on “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

In the Epistle to the Romans he adds that “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”

It’s a different matter, however, when someone’s sin is serious, willful and persistent, and when it threatens to disrupt the relationship of spiritual brother or sister that we enjoy with that person on the basis of our mutual faith in Christ. That’s when the directives that Jesus lays out for us in today’s Gospel kick in.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” The first thought that comes to mind when we hear this is, of course, that Jesus is speaking of situations in which we personally are the victim of a particular sin.

But a brother is also sinning “against you” whenever he does anything that threatens the brotherhood that he shares with you. If someone who commits an offense is a member of your church, his offense is a sin against the church, and not only against the person who is the direct victim.

St. Paul writes to the Colossians: “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” When, however, we do or say something publicly that is contrary to the name of the Lord Jesus, we are sinning against that name. And we are also sinning against all those who bear that name with us.

So, it is not only personal offenses that are involved here. You are to go to your brother and speak to him of his sin when he has behaved in such a way as to threaten the brotherhood that he shares with you, whether you are the direct victim of his sin or not.

We are our brother’s keeper. We are accountable to each other, and for each other.

Some people might hesitate to admonish a person for a sin if they themselves had previously been guilty of committing that same sin, or something similar. They might anticipate that the response would be, “Who are you to criticize me?”

But this completely misses the point. We do not approach a fallen brother or sister from the position of self-righteousness and pride.

We approach such a person as a wanderer in the desert, coming to him as a fellow wanderer, to tell him where the oasis, with its life-sustaining water, is to be found. We invite such a person to receive the forgiveness that we too have received, for sins that we too have committed.

If the brother or sister listens to you, repents of the transgression, and makes amends for it to the extent possible as the fruit of repentance, then the matter is settled. No one else needs to know about it, and it doesn’t need to be discussed again.

And when you forgive the offending brother, God also forgives him. When you assure him of God’s pardon, God works through that assurance to bring him comfort and peace.

Martin Chemnitz says this: “whatever is either loosed or bound in fraternal reproof and reconciliation is loosed and bound in heaven itself. Moreover, there is no doubt that when the Word of the Gospel is proclaimed, God works efficaciously, no matter by whom it is proclaimed.”

If, however, the brother does not listen to you, you’re work is not yet done. You are also not allowed to publicize the sin and use it as fodder for gossip.

Instead, you need to seek out one or two others - mature and wise Christians - and involve them in trying once again to persuade the person that he is endangering his soul by what he has done.

Jesus says: “if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” In view of their training and experience, the pastor and perhaps an elder would in most cases be the best people to bring in, to try to bring the matter to a God-pleasing resolution.

You shouldn’t look for people whom you think would automatically agree with you. You should, instead, look for people with knowledge of the Scriptures, and with independent judgment.

It’s possible that the people you seek out will actually tell you that you are overreacting to the problem, and that you should let it drop. It’s also possible that when they have examined the case, they will advise you that you are not interpreting everything in the most accurate way.

Always be open to Biblically-based correction yourself, as you sincerely seek the help of others in correcting an erring brother.

The goal in this whole process is to reclaim the fallen brother, and to restore him to his fellowship with Christ and his church. We are not out simply to purge the church of imperfections.

We should also not be driven by a desire for vengeance, or by a desire to prove before others that we are right and that the offending person is wrong. It is, rather, a sad and regrettable thing when we are forced to approach someone in this way.

It’s something we don’t enjoy doing. But it is a sad duty that we must perform. The Lord of the church has told us to do it.

Again, if the person repents and asks for forgiveness, the process ends at this point. We should always try to minimize the embarrassment of those who have come to regret their previous mistakes.

We should throw a cloak of Christian love over their shame. The fewer people who know about a past forgiven sin, the better.

But if the brother or sister who has caused offense does not respond properly to the admonition of the additional witnesses, then the matter must be brought before the congregation.

Jesus again says: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

The mechanisms that have been established in the congregation for the hearing of such cases need to be engaged. It’s very important to understand the obligations that rest on the members of a congregation, and particularly on the members of a congregational voting assembly, when something like this comes before them.

They cannot shirk their duty to render a judgment on the basis of God’s Word. They must speak, and they must speak as God would have them speak.

Someone who has been entrusted with the responsibility of being a voting member of a congregational assembly has not thereby been “empowered” in a carnal, worldly sense, so that he can boss other people around.

A voting member of a congregation does not have the kind of political power that people exercise in Washington or in the State Capitol, by which he can assert his personal will and selfish preferences into the life of the congregation.

Instead, he has a solemn calling to seek always to discern what the will of Christ would be in any given situation, and then, through the exercise of his vote, to express his submission to that divine will as he in his conscience has come to understand it.

When a member of the church has committed an egregious sin, or is in a state of committing egregious sin, without repentance, and without an expressed desire to amend his life, all those who are involved in hearing and evaluating this situation must do so only on the basis of the clear teaching of God’s Word.

Personal friendship with the offender must not be a basis for refusing to condemn his sin. In fact, if you are friends with the person, your friendship, if it is genuine, would impel you to warn him of his sin with even more persistence and seriousness than might be the case with others. Friends don’t let friends go to hell.

And take this warning to heart, too: It is not only those who personally transgress against God’s law who are guilty of sin. Those who condone such a transgression, or who refuse to condemn it when it becomes their duty to condemn it, are also guilty of sin.

St. Paul writes: “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Giving approval to sin is just as bad as physically committing the sin, and in some ways maybe it’s even worse.

C. F. W. Walther explains that “If it is clear from God’s Word to the great majority of the congregation that a sinner is to be excommunicated, and if one [person] protests against it but cannot give valid reasons for his refusal..., the protestor is to be put under discipline before the excommunication is carried out. The excommunication is not to be carried out until unanimity has been achieved by settling the objection (whether the protestor withdraws his protest, or shows himself stiff-necked and must himself be excluded as a manifest non-Christian). ...”

“Since Christ has commanded excommunication, ...a person is committing a manifest sin against God’s command if he stubbornly opposes excommunication in an obvious case in spite of all instruction, proof, and admonition. So he himself becomes subject to church discipline.” So far Walther.

These procedures are not for the faint of heart. They are matters of grave seriousness, and we are to conduct ourselves in them in the fear of God.

The goal of the excommunication is to apply the judgment of God’s law to the offending person with such severity that he will finally be jarred into an awareness of his sin, and in the end turn away from it. And like the prodigal son, when he then returns from the distant land of unbelief to his father’s house, he is to be willingly embraced and readmitted to the household of faith.

Jesus has bestowed on his church the right and duty to speak his Word with authority and power, as if he himself were speaking it. And actually he is.

When the pastor speaks from his office in the stead and by the command of Jesus Christ, Jesus is speaking through him. Remember what the Lord said to those whom he had sent out in his name: “He who hears you, hears me.”

But also, whenever anyone accurately applies God’s Word to a situation, rebuking the wicked and comforting the penitent, God is thereby rebuking and comforting. This is true of an individual who is concerned about the soul of his friend, and who speaks to him in private. And this is true of an entire voters’ assembly, as it carries out the final step of admonition that Jesus commanded.

Herman Preus reminds us that “all Christians have the right privately to admonish, teach, and pray, and indeed also in public assembly to teach, rebuke, and admonish one another.” And Jesus himself says this to his disciples:

“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

One of the most joyful experiences that I have ever had in my ministry was overseeing the restoration of a former member of the congregation I was then serving. Many years earlier, long before I was the pastor, this person had embraced a sinful lifestyle, and after refusing to heed the warnings of the pastor and church elders, quit the church just before an excommunication would have taken place.

But after several years, various circumstances in that person’s life - through which God was working - had brought this person to a point of admitting the sin, and of seeking God’s forgiveness and a restoration to the fellowship of the congregation.

What a wonderful privilege I had to report these developments to the voters. And what a wonderful privilege they had to declare publicly their reconciliation with this lost sheep, now returned to the fold of the Good Shepherd.

The absolution I had spoken to this person was God’s absolution, filled with God’s power to heal the broken relationship with him. The congregation’s acceptance of this person back into the household of faith was God’s acceptance, filled with God’s power to heal the broken relationship with his church.

And that, dear friends, is what you can expect: when you have sinned and caused offense, but also when you have repented of your sin and sought the forgiveness of the Lord. You will receive it.

Our holy and loving God has made this promise: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” You can claim this promise, and cling to it, whenever you are remorseful over your transgressions against God’s law.

This promise applies to you when your sin has caused public offense, so that a disciplinary procedure such as Jesus outlines has been initiated against you. This promise also applies to you when you are the only person who knows what you have done.

God, of course, knows about it too. He sees everything, and he knows all the thoughts of the human heart.

But God also knows that on the cross of Calvary his Son Jesus Christ has offered a perfect sacrifice for that sin. God therefore covers you fully with his Son’s righteousness, even as Jesus had taken your sin upon himself in his suffering and death.

The Christian Church is a fellowship of forgiven sinners. In the life of the church we don’t jockey for power or prestige over each other, but we embrace each other in mutual love and humble service.

In love and humility we also warn each other, when the destructive power of sin in someone’s life begins to cross the line from common human weaknesses, which we patiently overlook, to a faith-destroying rebellion against God, which we cannot overlook or ignore.

If you know of someone who needs such a warning, give it. If you are in need of such a warning, accept it. And believe the Gospel.

God does not want you to die in your sins, but to live forever. By the power of the Gospel, as you believe it, he delivers you from the guilt and power of sin, freely and fully, for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ.

God in his mercy restores you to the fellowship of his church. And he allows you once again to hear the precious words that he speaks to his church through the pen of St. Peter:

“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Amen.

17 September 2008 - Pentecost 18 - Matthew 18:21-35

“I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget.” Have you ever heard someone say that? Have you ever heard yourself say that?

This sentiment is, to be frank, meaningless and self-contradicting. It is operating with a completely unbiblical definition of the word “forgive.”

The Greek word for “forgive” that is used in the New Testament is a word that carries the thought of sending something away, or of leaving something behind. In general usage, then, if you “forgive” something, you put distance between yourself and that thing.

You let it go. You don’t keep it as a part of your life as you go into the future.

In regard to sin, therefore, when you forgive the sin that a person has committed against you, you thereby release that sin from your own mind and heart. You send it away, or walk away from it.

Your active memory of the sin will no longer be included among your thoughts about the person who had committed the sin. If you forgive a sin, you thereby cease and desist in your wish to punish the sin, or to see it punished.

God himself illustrates what forgiveness means when he describes his removing of our sins from us, and when he describes his forgetting of our sins. Listen to the words of King David in Psalm 103:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. ...”

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. ... He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”

It’s often thought - incorrectly - that the ancient peoples did not know very much about astronomy and geography. But this Psalm certainly does reflect an awareness of what east, west, north, and south mean in regard to the spherical globe on which we live.

The distance between north and south is a finite, measurable distance. I looked it up online. There are exactly 12,436 miles between the north pole and the south pole.

If you start out at the south pole and go in any direction, you are going north. But you can go north for only 12,436 miles. After that you will have arrived at the north pole, and then, if you keep going in the same trajectory, you will start going south.

It’s important to take note of this, because God does not remove our sins from us only as far as the north is from the south. He does not try to comfort us with the idea that, in his thoughts about us, he considers our sins to be 12,436 miles away from us.

From God’s perspective, that’s not very far at all. And therefore that wouldn’t really be a very comforting thing to say to a troubled conscience.

Rather, we are genuinely comforted to be told by the Psalmist that when God forgives us, he removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. And that is an infinite distance - just as infinite as is God’s love toward us in Christ.

If you start out at any point on the equator and head toward the east, how long will you have to go until you get there? Well, obviously, you will keep going and going and going forever.

There is no such thing as the east pole or the west pole. As a concept, the distance between east and west is not a measurable distance.

But that’s the distance God describes when he says that he has removed our sin from us. In other words, sins that have been forgiven are sins that have been absolutely banished and sent away from us.

In God’s thoughts about us, as he considers our standing before him in Christ, our sins have been banished and sent away from his own mind.

That’s what God is saying through the prophet Jeremiah, when he declares: “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Can you imagine God, with his infinite knowledge of everything, making himself “forget” something? How can he do it? Why would he do it?

As we’ve already noted, God forgives us, removes our sins from us, and removed our sins from his own memory, for the sake of Christ. The perfect law of a perfect God demands perfection from the human race.

In the fall of Adam, the human race corrupted itself, and willfully threw itself into a state of not being able to obey God’s law as it should. But this doesn’t mean that God has to lower his standards.

He cannot, in fact, lower them, without ceasing to be the perfect and holy God that he is. So, our sins - all of them collectively, and each one in particular - invite the curse of God upon us.

God’s curse is what we deserve, and it’s what we would get, without Christ. But with Christ, and because of Christ, we will not get what we deserve.

Jesus did obey the law of God perfectly - the first man to do so since the Garden of Eden. But instead of accepting divine and heavenly adulation for this success - which is what he deserved - he took the sins of the world upon himself, and carried those sins to the cross.

As St. Paul writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us - for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” The cross of Christ is where God dismisses our sins from us.

In the cross, God removes his anger against human sin from his own mind, and buries that anger deep in the wounds of his Son. And for those who are in Christ, that’s where his anger against their sin remains.

Apart from the cross, however, God’s wrath still burns against man’s wickedness and rebellion. Apart from the cross, man’s sin remain upon him, and the wrath of God remains upon the sons of disobedience. It’s the cross, therefore, that makes the difference.

We are obviously speaking here of mysteries that are too deep for us fully to fathom. As finite creatures, we cannot grasp how God’s infinite mind works.

How can God be angry about sin and not angry about sin at the same time? How can he simultaneously punish sin and forgive sin?

Is God a person with a split personality? No. But God is a person who is God. And as God, he has control over all things.

He has control over his own thoughts. When he promises that in Christ, he is reconciled to the world, and is not angry at human sin any longer, we can believe that promise.

When he tells us in the Gospel that when he looks at the human race through the lense of his Son’s atoning sacrifice, he sees no sin, and punishes no sin, we would be fools to stand still in perplexity as to how this can be so.

In faith we will run, not walk, to get ourselves connected to that atoning sacrifice, and to place ourselves under its protection.

Those who would stand before God without Christ are not forgiven. If a man presumes to present himself before the tribunal of God’s judgment apart from faith in Christ, his sin will not be sent away from him.

His failures will still remain wrapped tightly around him, and will strangle him. They will remain stuck to him like glue.

But those who would stand before God in Christ, and who would approach God through faith in the merits of Christ, are able to know and experience the forgiveness that Christ won for them.

In Christ, the gracious heart of God is revealed to them, and God’s judgment departs from them. In Christ their sins are sent away, and banished for good.

And when the sin is sent away, the forgiven sinner is instantly drawn close to the embrace of a loving heavenly Father.

When God causes himself to forget the misdeeds of the past, his mind is filled instead with the thought that those who are in Christ are righteous in Christ, and for eternity will receive everything that Christ deserves.

That’s what God really thinks of you now, when he forgives your sins for the sake of Christ. He would never say, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget.” Forgiving is forgetting.

When God forgets your sin, and draws you into his intimate embrace, he also fills you with his Spirit. And when that happens, you become a new creature in Christ.

God gives you a new nature - a nature that is like God, and that loves the things that God loves. God gives you a new nature that is shaped into the image of Christ, and that loves and forgives the people whom Christ loves and forgives.

With great poetic grandeur, St. John describes this change, and the evidence of whether or not this change has actually taken place, in these words:

“the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

And, in a more frank and forthright way, he also says it like this: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

That’s what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel, at the conclusion of the parable of the unforgiving servant. In the parable, the master - who stands for God - says this to the servant to whom he had offered forgiveness of an astronomical debt, but who had then refused to forgive his fellow servant a minuscule debt:

“You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.

Jesus then adds this closing commentary: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

God’s forgiveness is established as an objective reality in the crucifixion of Jesus: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” God has been reconciled to the world in Christ. Christ has atoned for the sins of the world.

Your repentance and faith do not cause God’s forgiveness of your sins to come into existence. God’s forgiveness of your sins - and of everyone’s sins - has already been brought into existence through the suffering and death of his Son.

But your repentance and faith, worked in you by the Holy Spirit, make it possible for you to receive the forgiveness of your sins. Your faith connects you to Christ, and to the benefits of Christ’s saving work.

And when you are connected to Christ, you receive a new, Christ-like nature. Jesus’ way of thinking starts to rub off on you, more and more, so that you become more and more like him.

One of the key indicators that you have received forgiveness for the sake of Christ, and that you have received a new nature that is in the image of Christ, is that you are now able, with his help, to forgive others as you have been forgiven by Christ.

In the famous “love” chapter of First Corinthians, St. Paul says that love “is not irritable or resentful.” Another translation very aptly puts it this way: love “is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.”

Your forgiveness toward those who have sinned against you is not a good work that you perform, so as to earn forgiveness from God.

Rather, by withholding forgiveness from others, and by keeping a record of the wrongs that others have done to you, you thereby make yourself to be the kind of person who is incapable of receiving forgiveness from God.

Your faith does not create God’s desire to forgive you in Christ, and your unbelief does not destroy God’s desire to forgive you in Christ. But what unbelief does is to disconnect you from Christ.

It thereby disconnects you from all those divine blessings that are available to you only in Christ.

Your unbelief disconnects you from the place where God casts human sin away, and where he forgets about human sin. Your unbelief reconnects you to a place - a place without Christ - where the undiluted judgment of God’s law against human sin remains in effect.

And if a refusal to forgive others is anything, it is evidence of unbelief. If you know the joy of God’s forgiveness of your many sins, you cannot withhold forgiveness of a few sins from your fellow men.

In Christ, God has forgotten your sins. If you are in Christ, you cannot continue to remember the sins of others, cling to those sins in your own mind, and hold those sins against them.

It’s important to forgive the sins of all who have offended you and hurt you, even if they never repent, or apologize, or ask for your forgiveness. That’s because of what a lack of forgiveness does to you, on the inside.

Remember that God’s desire to be at peace with the world is an objective reality that shines forth from Calvary’s cross. It has been established once and for all by the death of Christ on that cross.

Those who die in unbelief do die without having received God’s forgiveness. But they do not die without God’s forgiveness having been intended for them.

As far as God is concerned, in Christ, their sins were forgiven. God is not to blame if they never sought to receive that forgiveness in faith, so that they could personally benefit from it.

That forgiveness was there for them. It was there for the asking. But in unbelief, they never asked for it.

Those who have offended you, and who never seek to be reconciled with you, will likewise die without having received your forgiveness.

But for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of your own salvation, may it never be that such people would die without your forgiveness having been intended for them.

As far as you are concerned, God wants you to be free from the shackles of hatred and resentment and anger that will weigh you down, and destroy you, if you do not in your own heart forgive those who have hurt you.

Even if the people who have hurt you never give their sins against you a passing thought, your unwillingness to forgive them will destroy you.

Such bitterness and anger is actually a form of pride, and a form of idolatry. It is a reflection of an unspoken belief that you and your rights are more important than God and his rights.

He, after all, was willing to be reconciled to a wicked world that had sinned grievously against him in every way. Are you more deserving of obedience and respect than God is, so that you feel that you do not have the obligation to follow God’s example, when other people fail to obey and respect you?

It’s a wonderful thing when those who have offended you come to you with sorrow for what they have done, and ask for forgiveness. It’s a wonderful thing when they ask you to send their sins away from your memory, and not to hold their sins against them.

But when that happens, make sure that the forgiveness that they request already exists in your own heart, so that it can be instantly dispensed to them, for their comfort, and for the restoration of the broken relationship.

And even if the people who have offended you never come to you, for the sake of your own soul, forgive them anyway.

And be willing to forgive them over and over again. Be willing to forgive if they sin against you seven times. Be willing to forgive if the number of their offenses is seventy times seven.

Hard to do, isn’t it? Impossible to do, isn’t it? Isn’t it great to know, then, that the sin of withholding forgiveness from others is itself a sin that God forgives, and that he is willing to forgive even if the number of times we commit that sin is seventy times seven?

When you struggle in your weakness to release and leave behind the grudges and burdens of hatred and anger that weigh you down, know that God’s strength is at hand for you. God will rejuvenate your new nature with his forgiveness. He will renew your mind, and transform your will.

There’s a reason why the cross and the crucifix have become the chief symbol of the Christian religion. We hang crosses and crucifixes on the walls of our homes. We adorn our churches and altars with them.

We bless ourselves with the sign of the cross. We wear crosses around our necks as jewelry. It’s a good thing to see and feel the image of the Lord’s crucifixion as often as possible.

In our sinful weakness we have a tendency to forget things, even important things. But in our hearts we can never, ever forget the cross, even for one millisecond.

Whenever you see or feel the image of the cross, therefore, let it remind you of what the real cross means for your salvation. Let it remind you that you are forgiven, and are at peace with God in Christ.

As you cling to Christ in faith, he will shape and mold you ever more into the image of Christ. He will conform your heart ever more to the image of Christ’s heart - a heart that forgives and forgets sin.

“I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget.” Let’s make a pledge that, with God’s help, we will never say or think these words again, for as long as we live. And let’s be thankful to the Lord that in his infinite mercy, for the sake of Christ, he has already forgotten all the times we have ever said or thought this in the past.

Let’s be thankful to the Savior who died for us on Calvary’s cross, for the forgiveness of all our sins that he won for us, and for the righteousness that makes us pure and clean in God’s sight, and in God’s mind, forever. Amen.

21 September 2008 - Pentecost 19 - Isaiah 55:6-9

“Why?”, I asked my mother. “When you get older, then you’ll understand why.” This exchange, or one like it, occurred many times when I was a boy, on those occasions when I wanted to know the reason for some prohibition, or some directive, that my mother had given me.

I was not given the reason, however. Instead, my mother wanted me to trust her, and to believe that she, as the adult, knew what was best.

At the same time, she assured me that when I grew up, and became more mature in my knowledge of the ways of the world, then I too would come to understand the reason for the prohibition, or the directive.

At the time I was frustrated, and unpersuaded. I was sure that I could understand the reasons why things were the way they were, if she would just tell me those reasons.

Now, in hindsight - having raised three children of my own in the intervening decades - I know exactly what she meant. And I now know that I would not have been able to understand these things at that time of my life.

A small child doesn’t have the capacity to understand many of the things that his parents understand. The parents’ thoughts are higher than his thoughts. The parents’ ways are higher than his ways.

This is very similar to the comparison that the prophet Isaiah makes between the thoughts and ways of mankind in general, and the thoughts and ways of God.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Our minds are simply incapable of operating at the level of God’s mind. Our human reason cannot even begin to plumb the depths of God’s thoughts, or to scale the heights of God’s ways. In comparison to God, we are children. Very small children.

We might think that we can comprehend the deep mysteries of why God does what he does. But we can’t.

We may presume to pontificate on what is or is not possible in the will and methods of the Almighty. But we should remain silent. Because God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and his ways are higher than our ways.

The first reason why this is so is because God is infinite, and we are finite. God is the creator - the creator of all things in this vast universe. And we are creatures - small and limited in every way when compared to the God who made us.

And these creaturely limitations are made even worse - much worse - by the corruption of sin that permeates every corner and crevice of our mortal human existence.

Even the most enlightened of human minds comes far short of God’s mind in what it is capable of knowing and grasping. A fallen and sinful mind knows even less.

It knows almost nothing at all. And much that it thinks it knows, is false and untrue. But none of this prevents the human race from sitting in judgment of God’s thoughts, and second-guessing God’s ways.

When trials of one kind or another come upon us in this world, how many of us call out to the Lord in defiant exasperation, “Why me?” - as if he owes us an explanation?

As if we don’t deserve whatever is happening to us. As if we had already figured out with our own reason that God could not or would not allow such a trial to happen, so that he must now present himself before our tribunal, and give an account of himself to us.

Another aspect of this childish arrogance over against God is our presumptuousness. We don’t exactly say it this way, but when we are deciding what to believe or not to believe about God, we think: “If I were God, this is what I would do. This is what I would want.”

But we’re not God. As finite creatures, what we in our own little minds think God is like, usually bears very little resemblance to what he is really like. As fallen mortals, what we expect God to do or to refrain from doing, usually bears very little resemblance to what he actually does or refrains from doing.

We so easily forget the difference between ourselves and God. We forget that we are but children - very small children.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Our human reason cannot even begin to penetrate the recesses of the mind of the Divine Majesty. It is given to us simply to believe, in humble faith, whatever God tells us, and to accept, with humble resignation, whatever God allows to befall us.

It is not for us to question God, or to correct God, or to sit in judgment of God.

Sometimes, though, this kind of presumptuousness shows up in the most unexpected places - in subtle and indirect distortions of God’s thoughts and ways by those whom we can assume have only the best of intentions. But the harmful consequences of squeezing God’s thoughts and ways through the filter of human reason are enormous.

John Calvin was the acknowledged leader of the “Reformed” or “Calvinist” branch of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. He broke with the Lutheran Church, and set out on a different ecclesiastical pathway which has, over the centuries, fanned out into a myriad of Protestant churches and sectarian groups.

Listen to something quite telling that Calvin wrote in his Genevan Catechism: “...the Lord has instituted nothing that is at variance with reason.”

The Lord has instituted nothing that is at variance with reason. That is a sweeping assumption - a wholly unproven and dangerous assumption.

Compare this assumption to the viewpoint of the chief theologian of our church during the Reformation era. Luther said this:

“The knowledge of lawyers and poets comes from reason and may, in turn, be understood and grasped by reason. But what Moses and the prophets teach does not stem from reason and the wisdom of men.”

“Therefore he who presumes to comprehend Moses and the prophets with his reason and to measure and evaluate Scripture according to its agreement with reason will get away from the Bible entirely. From the very beginning all heretics owed their rise to the notion that what they had read in Scripture they were at liberty to explain according to the teachings of reason.”

It does not surprise us to see the deep cleavages that exist between the various belief systems that flow out of Calvinist assumptions, and the belief system that flows out of Lutheran assumptions. Different expectations regarding the extent of man’s capacity to understand the mysteries of God will, very predictably, result in different ways of hearing and believing the Word of God.

So, in a confessional document of the Reformed Church called the Consensus Tigurinus - coauthored by Calvin - we read this:

“We repudiate as preposterous interpreters those who in the solemn words of the Supper, ‘This is My body, this is My blood,’ urge a precisely literal sense, as they say. For we hold it to be indisputable that these words are to be accepted figuratively, so that bread and wine are called that which they signify.”

But what this document calls “preposterous,” is what we stake our souls on - as literally and marvelously true - when we draw near in faith to the mystical Supper of our Savior. In the Large Catechism - written by Luther - we confess this:

“Let a hundred thousand devils, with all the fanatics, come forward and say, ‘How can bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood?’ ... Still I know that all the spirits and scholars put together have less wisdom than the divine Majesty has in his littlest finger.”

“Here is Christ’s word: ‘Take, eat, this is my body.’ ‘Drink of this, all of you, this is the New Testament in my blood.’ ... Here we shall take our stand and see who dares to instruct Christ and alter what he has spoken.”

The famous words of St. Anselm, the eleventh- and twelfth-century bishop of Canterbury, apply to the reverent contemplation of this sacramental mystery more so than to just about any other article of faith. He said: “I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand.”

Is this difference divisive? It certainly is. But the sad divisions in Christendom that exist in regard to this article of faith have not been caused by those who believe and confess what God says, and who submit their reason and all their senses to the supreme authority and truthfulness of God’s Word.

The cause of this division lies at the door of those who assume that “The Lord has instituted nothing that is at variance with reason,” and who therefore dismiss out of hand as “preposterous” that which God, in the love and mercy of his infinite mind, would graciously seek to bestow on his church in this sacred Supper.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

And God is indeed gracious to you. The love for you that resides in his divine mind is so much deeper than you could ever imagine. The desire to draw you to himself that characterizes his way of dealing with you is so much stronger than you could ever hope to understand.

Sometimes, when you look at the abysmal failures that have characterized your life, and when you consider all the things you should have done so much differently than you did, you can be tempted to think that God is probably so disgusted with you, and so irritated by your many blunders, that he has likely given up on you.

You know that if you were God, you would have given up on someone like yourself long ago.

When you think about how ungrateful you have been for his many blessings, how negligent you have been in your duties to others, and how indifferent you have been to the things that God says really matter, it is easy for your guilt-ridden conscience to conclude that your chances with God have come to an end.

You know that if you were God, you would have lost your patience with someone like yourself long ago.

But again, you are not God. What you assume God thinks is not what God actually thinks. What you expect God to be doing is not what God actually does.

God bases his willingness to forgive you on something enduring, constant, and unchanging. And therefore his willingness to forgive is enduring, constant, and unchanging.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, is an objective, unchanging historical fact. These saving events can never be undone. They happened, and their significance can never be erased.

And the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection is this: Christ, the Lamb of God, has taken away the sin of the world. Christ, the Lamb of God, has taken away your sin.

And so God is willing always to forgive you - always - because in Christ he has forgiven you. He implores you, therefore, to be reconciled to him, and to receive the forgiveness that is yours for Christ’s sake.

If you are ever lacking this forgiveness, and the peace with God that comes along with it, it is not because this forgiveness is not available to you, or is no longer intended for you. It is not because God has given up on you, or has lost his patience with you.

In Christ, he has not given up. In Christ his gracious patience with you remains.

If you are lacking God’s forgiveness, it is because you are lacking repentance and faith. But if you do repent - if you at this moment turn away from all your sins, and in faith turn to God, all will be forgiven. All is forgiven already.

Listen again to the invitation that the prophet Isaiah issues to us, in God’s name:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Amen.

28 September 2008 - St. Michael (transferred) - Psalm 91:11

In our ecclesiastical calendar, tomorrow is the feast day of St. Michael and All Angels. In fact, we are already easing ourselves liturgically into the part of the church year that is consciously associated with this feast day.

We can see it in the new Gradual that we sang today, and will sing for the next several weeks: “For he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.”

In the New Testament, we know of Michael the archangel chiefly through what we read in the Book of Revelation, which recounts these events concerning the rebellion of Lucifer and his fall from the Lord’s presence:

“Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.”

“And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world - he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”

It’s good for us to pause and reflect on the significance of this passage - and also on the significance of the verse from Psalm 91 in today’s Gradual. As we do, we can consider these matters under four headings:

What angels are. What angels are not. What angels usually do. What angels usually do not do.

What angels are.

They are creatures of God. They appear to have been created toward the beginning of the Lord’s creative activity, so that they were witnesses to the rest of God’s creative work.

Sometimes in the Old Testament angels are referred to figuratively as the “sons of God.” God was referring to the angels when he asked these questions of Job:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? ... Who determined its measurements? ... Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

Angels are spirit beings. While they sometimes do appear in a temporary physical form, they have no permanent bodily nature.

They are not genealogically related to each other. Each of them is an independent creature, strictly speaking neither male nor female.

They have great knowledge and power. They are holy and righteous, and serve God willingly in perfect obedience.

What angels are not.

Over the millennia there have been lots of erroneous ideas about the nature of angels. First off, angels are not emanations from God, so that they have a divine or semi-divine status. They did not emanate from God, but were created by God - as we were.

Since they are creatures of God, they are not to be worshiped. And since they are creatures of God, they - like us - have the obligation to worship him: to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Listen to these important words concerning Christ and his divinity from the first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“ which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’? Or again, ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son’? And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’”

Angels also are not the spirits of deceased human beings. This is what was claimed by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and this is what is commonly taught by today’s “new age” religions as well.

People often think that their deceased grandmother, or a deceased spouse, or some other such departed relative, is a “guardian angel” who watches over them in the affairs of this life.

But this is not so. Angels are not human. They are not disembodied human souls.

When the Epistle to the Hebrews wants to emphasize that God’s Son was incarnate as a man, and became a human being in order to save human beings, it does so by explicitly noting that he did not come in order to save or help the angels:

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.”

In more modern times, self-assured “enlightened” people have often concluded that angels are myths. Angels exist only in the stories and legends of the unsophisticated peoples of the past.

Now, in our scientific age, we can see that these “angels” are simply personifications of various natural or psychological phenomena - invented in the imaginations of primitive people looking for explanations of various awe-inspiring experiences that they otherwise couldn’t understand.

I wonder, though, how long this modern theory would hold up if one of these smug rationalists would even have an experience like this one, as described in the Book of Acts:

“And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to [Peter], and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his hands. ... And he went out and followed [the angel].”

“He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. ...the iron gate leading into the city...opened for them of its own accord, and they went out..., and immediately the angel left him. When Peter came to himself, he said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me...’”

I would guess not very long.

What angels usually do.

The word “angel” means “messenger,” and that is one of the main functions that the angels fulfill as servants of God. The angel Gabriel informed Mary of the miraculous conception of Jesus.

An angel - perhaps the same one - told Joseph that his fiancee Mary was pregnant by a miracle of God, and that he should therefore not hesitate to take her to be his wife. An angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem.

But the angels do more than this. They also protect us from the attacks of the devil and his demons - the fallen, rebellious angels who are permanently cursed and rejected by God.

We are almost never aware of this protection, because it occurs in a realm that is invisible to us. But this protection is real.

In speaking of young children who believe in him, Jesus said: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

Angels live and work in the “borderlands,” as it were, between earth and heaven. Our guardian angel is always before God, receiving direction from him and obeying his commands. At the same time he is always with us, watching over us.

Because our angel is always with us, he also sees everything that is going on in our lives. When you, in a time of sinful temptation, think that no one is watching, or listening, you’re wrong!

Your angel is no doubt grieved and saddened when he witnesses your failures - the public ones, and the secret ones. But he rejoices when you repent of your misdeeds, and turn to the Lord for forgiveness.

Jesus tells us that “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” That’s why the morning and evening prayers in the Small Catechism are so appropriate, in so many ways.

“I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have graciously kept me this day; and I pray You to forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.”

There is, however, also another side to what God’s angels do. They execute his will not only in protecting Christians, but also in punishing those who despise the Lord and his commandments.

A telling example of this is what happened to King Herod Agrippa, when God finally had enough of his arrogance and defiance. We read in the Book of Acts:

“On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’ Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.”

If God in his justice and holiness were to decide to take out a “contract” on you because of your sins, and if one of his avenging angels were to serve as the “hit man,” you’d be dead already, before I even finish this sentence. I suppose this is yet another reason to be thankful for God’s mercy and patience with us.

And when God does decide to pour out his judgment on the wicked - which he always has the right to do - he often sends his angels to make sure that those who are under the protection of his grace will not be harmed.

Usually the angels nudge God’s people out of harm’s way in ways that they cannot discern. But sometimes this has been done in direct and noticeable ways.

The Book of Genesis records an example of this for our comfort when it tells us of the warning that two angels brought to Abraham’s nephew Lot, before the destruction of the city of Sodom, in which he was then living:

“As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.’”

God does not pour out his wrath upon his dear children. And he uses the ministry of angels to shield us from that wrath, at those times when he does choose to pour it out on those who despise him.

What angels usually do not do.

Quite simply and to the point, with all that angels do to accomplish God’s purposes on earth, and in the supernatural realm, they do not administer the means of grace. It is not their calling to fulfill the great commission.

This task - this privilege - has been entrusted to the church, and not to the heavenly spirits. We forgiven sinners are the ones who are called to bring the Gospel to our fellow human beings.

Therefore we cannot sit back and wait for the angels to do it instead. They won’t.

To be sure, angels do facilitate the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments in many ways. They also nudge and prompt the church and its ministers to do their work for the sake of God’s kingdom. But they do not ultimately do that work for us.

After Philip the Evangelist had preached among the Samaritans, and baptized several of them, the Book of Acts goes on to tell us this story:

“Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ ... And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, ...a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians... He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.”

“And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’ So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’”

Philip then joined this African man in his chariot, and explained to him that the text he was pondering pointed to Christ, the Savior of Israel, and the Savior of all nations. The Ethiopian was then baptized, and went on his way as a believer in the Lord Jesus.

It was the intervention of an angel that put in motion the bringing of the Gospel to the people of Africa. Today, on that continent, the Christian Church is more vibrant and active than in just about any other region of the globe.

But the angel did not himself go to the Ethiopian and preach to him. In accordance with God’s plan to reach people through people, and to build his church through the power of his Word as spoken by human lips, the angel sent Philip instead.

A similar angelic intervention was instrumental in bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Romans, and to people from Europe in general. The book of Acts also recounts for us the story of Cornelius, an Italian soldier stationed in Caesarea.

“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man... About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, ‘Cornelius.’ And he stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, lord?’”

“And he said to him, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.’”

It would seem to us that the angel should have just gone ahead and told Cornelius about Jesus right then and there. It’s almost as if he was playing a treasure-hunting game with the Roman officer, giving him a clue to the discovery of the treasure, and then telling him where he can go to find the next clue.

But that’s not what was happening at all. The angel was God’s servant, and was engaged in the very serious business of doing God’s will, for the sake of the church and its unique mission among the nations.

God wanted Cornelius to hear the message of Christ from a human minister of Christ, and to be baptized by the hand of that minister.

The church is the new Israel, ruled by Christ, the ultimate son of David. The church is the new humanity, living under the headship of Christ, the second Adam.

In the fellowship of this church, God wanted to bring about a personal connection between Peter and the Roman, between Jew and gentile. And the personal connections that we enjoy with each other, as we are gathered in this congregation around the ministry of Word and sacrament, is a similar manifestation of this loving divine plan for his church.

The reason why you are hearing this message from me, a fellow human being, and not from an angel, is not because angels are unavailable for this work - if it would be God’s will to entrust such work to them. Angels are all around us, surrounding us at this very moment.

But just as God redeemed the human race from within, by becoming a man in the person of his Son, so too he delivers the message and blessings of this redemption from within the human race, through men, and for the benefit of men.

God calls men - not angels - to the public ministry of the Word in his church. He calls such men through the voice of his church, and not through the voice of angels. He brings the Gospel of forgiveness to you through the preaching of those public ministers, and not through the preaching of angels.

Through you as well, as you privately speak God’s Word to each other and to your neighbor, God brings the comfort of the Gospel to those with whom you come into contact in your daily life. He does this through you, not through angels.

This is our duty, my friends. It is not the task of angels.

This is our privilege. The joy of sharing the Gospel from one man to another, from one woman to another, from one child to another, is a joy that angels, according to their calling, do not experience.

They do, of course, rejoice whenever they are able to see and hear us speak God’s Word to one another. But they are not directly involved themselves.

They help the church, and protect the church, and clear the way for the church, and in subtle ways often nudge the church toward the fulfillment of its mission. But they themselves do not participate in fulfilling this mission.

Perhaps it was your guardian angel who in some way helped you today to overcome the temptation to stay at home, and not to go to church. Perhaps it was your guardian angel who protected you as you drove, preventing the automobile accident that the devil would certainly like to have caused, so as to prevent you from being here.

Perhaps it is your guardian angel who is helping to keep all distractions from you at this very moment, so that you can be attentive to what your pastor is saying to you.

Don’t underestimate the angels, or what they do for you every moment of every day. And don’t forget to thank God for the ministry of the angels, who surround you in this life, and who someday, when your earthly pilgrimage is over, will escort you to the courts of heaven.

We close with some lines from a much beloved hymn, which acknowledges the hidden yet real wonder and mystery of men and angels, as we together praise the Triune God who made us all:

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;
O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest;
O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord. Amen.