4 January 2009 - Christmas 2 - Ephesians 1:3-14

The events of the first Christmas, which we are continuing to celebrate in this Christmas season, were the work of God. The time, the place, and the people who were involved, were all determined by God.

God’s will for the salvation of the human race, through the incarnation of his only begotten Son, was fulfilled when, according to his plan, the fullness of the time had come. God is the one who providentially set in motion the political processes in the Roman Empire, that brought Joseph and his betrothed to Bethlehem for the census.

And there was nothing that the virgin Mary had done to bring about the visit of the angel Gabriel, or to cause the conception of Jesus to take place within her. This was accomplished miraculously by God’s Spirit.

God is the one who made Christmas happen. He was in charge, from start to finish. Everything happened according to his timing, and according to his gracious will.

And we can trace the working-out of God’s saving plan for humanity also in everything else that later happened, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Through the various means and mechanisms that God employed, it was God who caused all these things to happen.

That’s an important part of what we mean when we say that we are saved by grace, and not by human works. Nothing that you did caused Jesus to be born for you, to die for you, or to rise again for you. God did everything.

But that’s not all we mean when we say that we are saved by grace, and not by human works. The working of God’s saving grace is the reason why each and every one of you who believes in Jesus was brought to faith in the Gospel.

And the working of God’s grace is also the reason why you have been preserved in that faith. It is the reason why you are able to have the assurance that your sins have been forgiven, and why your conscience now is at peace with God.

When you ceased to be an indifferent or callous unbeliever, and when you began instead to trust in Christ and in all his life-giving promises, this did not come as a surprise to God. He is the one who made it happen.

In Christ, God called you to be his own. He bestowed on you the gift of faith. He blessed you with the heavenly gift of his Spirit, as the seal of your redemption.

And he didn’t decide to do this randomly or impetuously either. In his unmeasurable, eternal grace in Christ, he had been planning to save you, and to incorporate you into his family, for all eternity.

This is the mystery of God’s eternal election in Christ, or the mystery of divine predestination, of which St. Paul speaks in today’s epistle lesson:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”

“In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us.”

The doctrine of eternal election or predestination - which goes contrary to the feeling of self-determination that we assume is rightfully ours - is a doctrine that people usually have a hard time accepting. We believe in “free will,” after all. Don’t we?

Those thoughts might even be our first reaction to St. Paul’s words. But if God tells us, through his inspired apostle, that he is in charge of everything regarding our salvation, then we have to believe him.

We cannot project our belief in individual political liberty up onto our relationship with God. Sinful man cannot save himself, and cannot even muster up the desire to save himself - as the Scriptures would define salvation - apart from the working of God’s Spirit.

If it depended on us, it wouldn’t happen. We are by nature dead in trespasses and sins, as St. Paul says elsewhere.

So, the decision that your soul will be saved, must ultimately be God’s decision. Before God regenerated you, you were incapable of making such decisions.

And when you have become capable of wanting to be in fellowship with God, and wanting to believe in him, that’s the proof that God has already made such a decision about you, and has already implemented that decision by working faith in your heart.

We are, to be sure, talking about a deep mystery here. It is something for us simply to believe, and not to understand.

But human reason often does try to understand the idea of divine election or predestination, and thereby human reason often misapplies this teaching beyond the very specific and narrow purpose for which God revealed it to his church.

For some, the thought that God is in charge leads them to embrace a certain kind of fatalism. “Well, if God is going to do as he pleases, then I can do as I please.”

“If he has chosen me for salvation, then nothing I do - no matter how bad it is - can alter that. If he has not chosen me for salvation, then nothing I do - no matter how good it is - can alter that.”

But these rationalizations are totally wrong-headed. Notice that when St. Paul talks about God’s eternal choice to save us, he says that this is a choice for us to be holy and blameless before him.

This refers, first, to the forgiveness or justification that is ours through repentance and faith, by which we are able to stand before God, in Christ, totally cleansed from sin, and without fear of judgment.

But it also refers, secondarily, to the life of good works that we are called to lead, to the honor of God’s name, as we are guided in our thoughts, words, and deeds by God’s own Spirit, who lives within us.

If you hate God’s holiness, and if you are in love with your sin, and willingly immerse yourself in its destructive power, you cannot comfort yourself with the idea that there is some kind of arbitrary or fatalistic “predestination” that relieves you of your responsibility for the damnation of your soul, or that discharges you from your accountability to God.

In Scripture God does not invite us to speculate about things like election and predestination in a vacuum, or to make guesses about who is or is not chosen by God. Instead, we are allowed to get a glimpse into this mystery - such as in today’s lesson - only as a matter of hindsight.

Christians who have already been brought to a state of humility before God, who have already been filled with the grace of the Lord’s forgiveness, and who have already been given a place in the spiritual family of their heavenly Father, are only then comforted with the knowledge that God has known them, and has chosen them in Christ, from before the foundation of the world.

In Christ you, as a believer, are comforted in this way. Nothing that will ever happen in your life will surprise God. He will never be caught off-guard by any trial you may face.

Instead, he has a plan for how he will lead you through that trial - for how he will protect you - and also for what he will teach you in the process. He has a plan, just as he had a plan to bring the Gospel to you in the first place, and to change your life with that Gospel, in his own way, and according to his own timing.

But the only people whom God invites to think about these things are those whose lives are already marked by daily repentance and faith. The “language” of election and predestination, as an ultimate expression of God’s infinite grace toward sinners, is a “language” that unbelievers and skeptics cannot properly understand or speak.

The Bible doesn’t teach that God chose the unbelievers for hell, or that he predestined certain people to that judgment. Predestination - contrary to what human reason would expect - is like a coin with only one side.

You might wonder, how can that be? It’s illogical! Well, God doesn’t consider it to be illogical. It’s what he teaches.

If you today are unsure of where you stand with God, or if you are in a state of outright rebellion against God, in your thoughts if not in your deeds, what St. Paul says in today’s lesson about God’s predestination is not something that he wants you to listen to.

If that is your state of mind right now, then you are, in a sense, eavesdropping on a conversation that Paul is having with other people. But there is a part of today’s epistle lesson that God does want you to listen to, and to think about.

It is this: “In [Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

The pathway by which God’s grace travels to us - to all of us - is the pathway of his Word. Whenever the Gospel is proclaimed, and to whomever it is proclaimed, it always offers the same gift. And it offers that gift to everyone who hears this message.

If you are not sure of your eternal destiny, dismiss from your minds all confusing or frightening thoughts about election and predestination. Think instead about the Good News that God’s Spirit really is impressing upon you at this moment.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end...”

Again: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief... Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”

“But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Again: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

And in the words of King David: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity...”

This message is not preached only to the elect or the predestined. God’s Word tells us that it is genuinely offered to everyone. That means it is offered to you.

As you hear these words, don’t think about how unlikely it would be that God would want you to believe them. God does want you to believe them. God does surprising things, and maybe he has some surprises in store for you!

Today, as we honor the memory of Felix Mendelssohn, we can recall some of the things that happened in his life. His father Abraham, who brought him for baptism for pragmatic reasons, was no doubt surprised when he saw, over the years, the kind of impact that God’s Word had actually had on his son.

Four years after Abraham had arranged for his children to be baptized, he wrote this to one of them:

“Does God exist? What is God? Is he a part of ourselves, and does he continue to live after the other part has ceased to be? And where? And how? All this I do not know, and therefore I have never taught you anything about it.”

We can be sure that Abraham Mendelssohn did not expect his son Felix to emerge from his baptism, and from the instruction in God’s Word that followed it, with the kind of certainty, confidence, and Christian hope that characterized the rest of Felix’s life.

But the power of God’s Word was greater than anything Abraham Mendelssohn, in his skepticism, would have anticipated. The truth of Christ, the divine-human Savior, filled an emptiness in Felix that only the Gospel could fill.

Felix might not have expected it. His father certainly didn’t expect it. But it happened. It happened for him. And it can happen for you.

The divine Word that came to Felix Mendelssohn on the day of his baptism - and on every other occasion in which he heard, or sang, the message of the Gospel - is the same divine Word that is coming to you, to all of you, right now.

This Word is filled with the supernatural power of the Spirit of God, who is at hand to seal the faith of all who receive it.

And when you do receive it - when you believe that what God tells you about you, and about himself, is true - then you can think about the mystery of divine election.

Then you can be comforted to know that God himself was working - graciously and mysteriously working - to make this happen for you, and in you, for a very, very long time.

In all wisdom and insight he has made known to us “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him... In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who...hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” Amen.

11 January 2009 - Baptism of Our Lord - Romans 6:1-11

The Bible often emphasizes the negative side of the Gospel. The negative side of the Gospel, you ask? Yes. From one angle, the message of the Gospel is that God will not do certain things, because of Christ.

Those who repent and believe in Christ are assured that God will not hold their sins against them. Those who have been forgiven for the sake of Christ will not be damned.

This is an important part of the Gospel. As St. Paul says, the wages of sin is death - physical, spiritual, and eternal death. But in Christ, and for the sake of Christ, our sins are forgiven. And therefore we will not, ultimately, die.

But there is also a positive side of the Gospel. This is that part of the message that tells us what will happen now in the lives of those who have Jesus as their Savior. Will that make a difference in a positive way? Will things be better?

The answer is a resounding Yes! And in today’s epistle lesson, St. Paul explains what that difference will be.

Today, in our lessons and prayers, we remember the baptism of our Lord. And in conjunction with our remembrance of his baptism, we think also of our own baptism.

Baptism should not be seen so much as one limited part of the Christian Gospel among many other parts, or merely as a small piece of a larger whole. It is, rather, the whole reality itself, and the whole Gospel, in a specific sacramental form.

Baptism does not give us only a part of Christ. It gives us the whole Christ. It does not forgive only some of our sins, or only certain aspects of our sins. It forgives 100% of all our sins.

In the way that God set things up for his church, he layers his Gospel on us over and over again. The whole Gospel is bestowed on us, in a unique way, in the preaching of his Word.

The whole Gospel is bestowed on us in another unique way in the administration and reception of the Lord’s Supper. And the whole Gospel - in all of its benefits and all of its blessings - is bestowed on us in yet another unique way in Holy Baptism.

The saving power of Baptism does not reside merely in the external ritual of applying water as such, just as the saving power of preaching does not reside in the external act of articulating sounds.

Rather, Baptism has the ability to bring Christ to us, and to create and elicit faith in Christ, because it is a washing of water that is connected with the Word and promise of God. Baptism is what it is, and it has the power that it has, because Baptism is the Gospel.

Jesus, who is without sin, was baptized in the place of sinners, as their substitute. Through his baptism he was also launched out into his public ministry of preaching and teaching, serving and suffering.

We, who have sinned, are in our baptism clothed with the sinlessness of Jesus, and forgiven. And through our baptism we, too, are launched out into a new life - a life that is shaped by the life, and death and resurrection, of Christ.

Baptism, just as with the Gospel in general - in all of its forms - unites us to Christ. It unites us to his death, and it unites us to his resurrection.

When Jesus emerged from his grave he was alive - fully and irreversibly alive. When we emerge from our baptism - our baptism into Christ - we too are now alive. We are alive with a different kind of life: a higher kind of life that in Christ will never end.

St. Paul explains it this way: “We were buried therefore with [Christ Jesus] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Unfortunately, some modern translations “dumb down” their rendering of an important phrase in the imagery that St. Paul deliberately chooses to use, in his description of the Christian life.

He does not simply say that we “live a new life” as a result of our baptism into Christ - as one popular translation puts it. But, more precisely, he says - as our translation correctly says - that we “walk in newness of life.”

The imagery of “walking” helps us to see that as Christians we live in such a way that we are always moving forward - that we are always active, always progressing. But at the same time, we are being brought forward in a deliberate and steady way, and not in fits and starts.

We are walking, and not standing still. But we are walking, and not running around in circles.

St. Paul connects the idea of “freedom” to this walking - to this way of living, and thinking: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”

Christ was set free from the bonds of death and the grave when he rose from the dead. We, too, are set free from the power of death and sin when we arise from our baptism.

Before Christ came to us in his Gospel to set us free in this way, we were, as St. Paul says, enslaved to sin. Let’s think for a minute about what that means.

In the tragic history of slavery as a social and political institution in our nation’s history, the people of African heritage who were held in physical bondage were never content with their situation. They were never satisfied with their lives as slaves.

They wanted to be free. And they were willing to take great risks to try to break loose from their chains, and to become free.

The reason for this is because it was only their bodies that had been enslaved. Their minds were still free - free to dream about a better future, and free to figure out a way to try to escape from their unhappiness and find the liberty that they desired.

Their earthly masters might have been able to control their bodies, and force them to perform physical work against their will. But these masters could never control their minds. They could never make them like slavery.

But the slavery of sin is much worse than this, because it is a form of slavery that does affect our minds. Someone who is a slave of sin is a slave of sin precisely in his mind.

When the human race became spiritually enslaved through the fall of Adam, it lost much more than most people imagine. Not only did we lose our freedom from the destructive power of sin, but we also lost our ability to be unhappy about it.

We lost our ability to think in a free way, and to want to be free from sin. The natural man, who knows neither Christ nor the Baptism of Christ, lives under a heavy cloud of deception. He thinks he is free, even when he is in the deepest state of subjugation to forces that are cutting him down more and more every day.

It is true, of course, that even unbelievers are able to dislike the overtly harmful consequences of sin. They don’t love the pain and suffering that comes as a result of their spiritual slavery.

But they cannot see the root causes of this misery. So, they continue to love their sin, and to embrace it, and to walk in it, even as that sin continues to destroy them more and more with each step they take: destroying them as individuals, and destroying their relationships.

Sin functions very much like a moral backhoe in our lives. It continually digs a deeper and deeper hole in our souls, and creates an ever-increasing void within us. But sin never fills in that hole.

We might think that it will. We might think that if we continue to pursue our selfish way of living, and stick with it for a long-enough period of time, we will eventually reach a point of feeling satisfied and content.

But that time will never come. The hole just keeps getting deeper and deeper. The void just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

But the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings an end to all of that. It opens our eyes. It opens our minds. It sets our minds free from the deception of sin.

It allows us to see how foolish we have been. And it fills us to the brim with the resurrection life of Jesus.

To be sure, our Baptism, and the Gospel in Baptism, does not free us from temptations. But the Gospel does free us from the deception that temptations are actually opportunities.

Our baptism gives us the ability to be honest about what we have been, and about what we have done. The freedom of the Gospel opens the way for honest self-examination and reflection.

The Gospel allows us the privilege of feeling miserable over how stupid we have been - but for just long enough to then see and appreciate the forgiveness that Christ has earned for us, and that Christ freely bestows on us.

With that forgiveness comes a chance for a new beginning - for a new life. This new beginning is shaped by Christ, who now indwells us, and by the new beginning for all humanity that he accomplished in his resurrection.

When the resurrection life of Jesus becomes a part of your life, the way you think about everything begins to change.

The often-misguided opinions of other people about how you should conduct yourself become less and less important, and God’s opinion about such matters - as revealed in Scripture - becomes more and more important.

You become more secure in your sense of who you are. That is, you are less concerned about what you think you need to do to earn acceptance from other people, and instead you grow in your appreciation of the wonderful truth that in Christ God has already accepted you, and will continue to accept you.

You begin to understand more and more clearly that you don’t have to earn your way into God’s good favor. Jesus has already done that for you. Your righteousness before God is an established fact - built on the immovable foundation of the Lord’s death and resurrection.

In your baptism, Jesus has in a sense “transferred” to you, in a very personal way, the right standing with God that he has earned. And that changes the motivation for everything you do.

In Christ, our desire to achieve good and positive things is therefore not driven by a felt need to become someone special in the eyes of others. We are already special, in the eyes of the one whose thoughts about us count the most: God himself.

So, in Christ, our desire to achieve good and positive things is not motivated by selfishness and personal insecurity. It is prompted instead by a desire to meet the needs of others.

We know that in our individual vocations God has called us to have loving responsibility for other people: children, spouse, parents, fellow Christians, fellow citizens of our community.

Those are the people we are thinking about when we are working hard to accomplish something worthwhile. And the fact that we do what we do in order to serve them, and not in order to prove something about ourselves, will give shape and direction to what we do, and to how we do it.

A Christian, as a Christian, is not consumed by his work. He knows that his work, whatever it may be, serves a higher purpose. Love for God, and love for the people whom God has brought into our lives, is to be what consumes us.

But even there, perhaps “consumes” is not the right word. Because when you live a life of love and service to others in the name of Christ, you don’t become consumed, or depleted. In Christ, as you are energized and led by his Spirit, you never run out of the love that you are continually giving away.

The more you give to others in the name of Jesus, the more you are continually filled and refilled with God’s grace. When you spend yourself for others in Christ, you never become spiritually bankrupt.

All of this is a part of what St. Paul is talking about when he says that, because of your baptism, you are now able to walk in newness of life. This is what happens to you when the power of the resurrection begins to work its way through you, and when it eventually seeps into every remote crevice of your life.

Christ’s resurrection life works inside of you like leaven in rising dough. It transforms you, it heals you, and it recreates you in mind and heart.

If you ever find yourself slipping back into the old, backward way of thinking and living, or if you ever sense that you are once again falling in love with sin, catch yourself right away, and remember what you have become in your baptism.

That’s not who you are any more! It’s a deception - a demonic deception - when your old nature tries to woo you back to a life without Christ, with the false allurement that this is the better life. It is not!

You have been set free from that bondage of heart and mind. Your eyes have been opened. Don’t allow yourself to be enslaved, and blinded, once again.

You have become a new creature in Christ. Therefore renounce any thought, any word, and any action that would deny or ignore this fact. And then press forward once again, in thankful confidence and hopeful faith, to the life and freedom that God has given you.

“How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Amen.

18 January 2009 - Epiphany 2 - 1 Cor. 6:12-20

According to the way God created us, a person needs to eat. If you don’t eat, you won’t live. Our bodies therefore have a physiological mechanism - hunger - that give us a desire or impulse to eat when more nutrition is needed.

If an individual is to survive, eating is not optional. And sadly, there have been many cases in human history when a person’s cause of death was in fact starvation - that is, the lack of eating.

God created the human race also with another kind of desire - similar in some respects to the need to eat - namely the attraction of a man toward a woman, and of a woman toward a man. This physiological mechanism, in its own way, is also for the sake of human survival.

Physical intimacy between a man and a woman is the method that God designed for procreation - that is, for the bringing forth of each new generation. If that process were to stop, therefore, the human race would, in a relatively short period of time, come to an end.

But according to the way God created us, there is a major difference between this attraction between the sexes, and the need to eat food. If an individual doesn’t eat, he will die. But in the entire history of the human race, there has never been a death certificate that listed “sexual deprivation” as the cause of death.

It is true, of course, that animals have an uncontrollable compulsion to mate, in the spring of the year when a female is in heat. But human beings, who were created in the image of God, have the ability to be in control of those feelings and attractions.

Adam and Eve were created to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the livestock, as the Book of Genesis tells us. They were not created to be on the same level as fish and birds, living and acting only in the basis of impulse and instinct. Humans were not to act like livestock in regard to their reproductive behavior.

God did not create the world and everything in it on an impulse or in a haphazard way, but he created it according to a definite plan and order, in six days. Humans likewise were designed by their creator in such a way that they would not act impetuously or on impulse when they enter into a procreative relationship.

Such relationships are the instruments used by God to create a human family, and to bring children into existence. Through them people are therefore invited to participate, in a sense, as “junior partners” in God’s own creative activity.

And so, in matters of human sexuality, we are to discipline ourselves, in modesty and restraint, and imitate the orderliness and thoughtfulness of God’s way of acting.

A relationship of physical intimacy - that is, the marriage relationship - is to be entered into, if and when it is entered into, on the basis of clear thinking and planning. It is to be entered into with moral reflection on the divine purpose for such a relationship, and with a commitment to the permanence of such a relationship.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But because of human sin, and because of the way in which sin has corrupted our minds and wills, this is now often not the way things are.

As reflected in today’s lesson from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, people now often think of their sexual impulses as being on the same level as their hunger pangs: unavoidable and unrestrainable.

In today’s text Paul quotes the slogans that the immoral people of his day would have used to justify their indulgent behavior. But he then adds God’s judgment on those slogans, and on the people who would presume to live by them:

“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.”

“‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’ - and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

When sin entered into the human race through Adam’s fall, it disconnected man from his spiritual union with God. In our sinfulness we have indeed fallen.

We have fallen very far from the exalted and dignified way of thinking and acting that creatures made in the image of God would be expected to follow.

Humanity as a whole, in its moral decadence, has exchanged the image of God for the “image” of animals. In matters of physical intimacy, people now think and act like animals, and not like God.

This is not a new problem. St. Paul’s letter, in which he addressed this issue head-on, was written 2,000 years ago. The immoral corruptions in the ancient city of Sodom, about which the book of Genesis speaks, happened a very long time before that.

More recently - but not that much more recently - Luther’s Large Catechism also had much to say about the problem of immoral behavior in the sixteenth century. After commenting on various applications of the Sixth Commandment, Luther said:

“I say these things in order that our young people may be led to acquire a desire for married life and know that it is a blessed and God-pleasing walk of life. Thus it may in due time regain its proper honor, and there may be less of the filthy, dissolute, disorderly conduct that is now so rampant everywhere in public prostitution and other shameful vices resulting from contempt of married life.”

But I think we can also see that in our particular society, there has been an intensification of this problem within the past several decades. The popular culture bombards us with images and messages that are constantly pushing us further and further away from God’s design and purpose.

Movies and television, music and magazines, all seem to be working in collusion with each other to destroy our human dignity, and to turn us into animals. The result is the moral and physical destruction of individuals, the destruction of marriages and families, and ultimately it will be the destruction of society in general.

Christians live in the presence of this world. We are affected by this world. But we must not - we absolutely must not - allow ourselves to be drawn back into this world, and into the spiritual death of this world.

That’s where we used to be, before we were rescued from that chaos by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We used to be covered in the filth of that degradation, before the waters of our baptism washed all our sins away, and restored to us the union with God that was previous lost through the fall into sin.

Jesus, as your Redeemer, has purchased you with the price of his own blood. You belong to him now.

He has lifted you out of the mentality and lifestyle of an animal, and has made you, in him, to be a true man or woman once again. As a forgiven and restored child of God, you now have the mind of Christ.

Through Christ, and through the righteousness of Christ that has been placed upon you, the image of God has been restored in you. You are different.

The world, the sinful flesh, and the devil all continually tell you that you are not different. In regard to your sexuality, and also in regard to the other arenas of life that require clear thinking and moral reflection, they are continually telling you that you, too, are still like an animal, and should think and act like an animal.

But this is a lie. Don’t believe it. Listen instead to what God has to say to you, through his apostle:

“Flee from sexual immorality. you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

You belong to God. Your body belongs to God. Your thoughts, your words, and your actions all belong to God.

With the price of his own innocent death on your behalf, Jesus has atoned for all your sins. He has set you free from the slavery of sin. He has claimed you to be his own.

And he has lifted you up to a higher life; to a pure and holy life; to a joyous and fulfilling life; to a truly human life.

Especially in the Lord’s Supper, where he feeds us bodily with his own body and blood, Jesus very vividly renews his claim on us, in soul and body.

In his Holy Supper, he forgives all sins, of soul and body. From his Holy Supper, he sends us forth into the world, once again to be the different kind of people that we are - to be the moral, thoughtful, and genuinely human people that his saving grace has caused us to become.

If you are single, God has called you to a life of continence. He will help and guide you, through daily repentance and faith, to be what he has made you to be.

As you show forth in your single life the respect for yourself and for others that God’s Word instills in you, your life will be testimony to the world of the better way that God offers, and that God gives.

If you are married, God has called you to a life of loving faithfulness and selfless devotion to the person to whom he has joined you. In his strength he will help and guide you to be what he has made you to be.

As you show forth in your married life the respect for yourself and for others that God’s Word instills in you, your life, too, will be testimony to the world of the better way that God offers, and that God gives.

In Christ God has elevated all of us - single and married, young and old - into a new kind of human community. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has transported us into his church: a community of faith and love that reflects the image of God, that fulfills the purposes of God, and that glorifies the name of God.

God’s forgiveness of our sins - our sexual sins and all other sins - has made us to be a part of this community. God’s forgiveness of our sins - our sexual sins and all other sins - keeps and preserves us in this community.

We belong to Christ. By faith we are in Christ. With the power and guidance of his Spirit, Christ is in us. And so we pray in the well-known Communion hymn:

May God bestow on us His grace and favor
To please Him with our behavior,
And live as brethren here in love and union
Nor repent this blest Communion!
O Lord, have mercy!
Let not Thy good Spirit forsake us;
Grant that heavenly-minded He make us;
Give Thy Church, Lord, to see
Days of peace and unity:
O Lord, have mercy! Amen.

25 January 2009 - Epiphany 3 - Mark 1:14-20

Last week, in St. John’s Gospel, we heard about the time when a few of the disciples, including Andrew and Simon Peter, were first introduced to Jesus, and were given a preliminary invitation to be his followers. It would seem, though, that these men did not at that point begin traveling with Jesus on a full-time basis.

After the arrest of John the Baptist, however, as described in today’s text from St. Mark, Jesus was now ready to begin his full-time ministry. And he was now ready to have full-time companions and students.

So, he went to find Andrew and Simon Peter, at the place of their secular employment along the Sea of Galilee. They were fishermen. And when Jesus found them, they were in the middle of doing their work as fishermen, “casting a net into the sea,” as the text says.

In words that are very familiar to all of us, Jesus then said, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Jesus could see that the comparison between catching fish with a net, and catching the souls of men with the Word of God, was an apt one. But it is a comparison that is not always clearly understood by people today.

Most amateur anglers, when they hear something about “fishing,” think immediately of the kind of fishing they do - that is, line fishing, with a hook, and with the use of bait.

We all know what that kind of fishing involves. At the end of your line, on the hook, you attach a piece of bait that you think will attract the fish, and entice the fish to make a decision to comer over and bite down on the hook.

I’ve even heard people with theological training, who should know better, talking about the metaphor of “fishing” in this way, when they are promoting mission methods that involve “baiting” and attracting potential new members to a congregation.

They actually think that this is what Jesus was talking about when he told Peter and Andrew that he would make them to be “fishers of men.”

These supposed authorities in church growth methods want congregations to borrow the techniques of the advertising industry, and to draw people from their communities into the church by giving them the impression that the church actually offers the kind of things that they, as unbelievers, already want.

An hour of entertainment each week. Messages that make people feel good about themselves, or that give practical advice on how to be happy in life.

The idea is that churches should “bait” people with these kinds of things, or with the impression that these are the kinds of things that are going on inside the walls of the church. And then, once they have been drawn in by such advertising, they can be “hooked” for church membership.

But it is a totally misguided enterprise to try to defend such techniques on the basis of what Jesus said in today’s text, “I will make you become fishers of men.”

And this is because that’s not the kind of literal fishing that Peter and Andrew were doing on the Sea of Galilee. They were fishing with weighted nets, not with baited lines.

The popular baiting strategies of our time are also based on unbiblical and incorrect assumptions about the possibility of luring or tricking an unbeliever into becoming a Christian. They presuppose something that the Bible says is not so, namely that somewhere - deep down - unregenerated people actually want to be Christians, and to have a proper relationship with God.

But St. Paul teaches in his Epistle to the Romans that man, in his natural state, is an enemy of the true God. In his epistle to the Ephesians he says that those who do not believe in Christ are “dead in trespasses and sins.”

He goes on to describe the ungodly and unbelieving “spirit” that is “at work in the sons of disobedience,” and he declares that they are “by nature children of wrath.”

In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul explains that “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

That’s why we confess, in the Formula of Concord, that

“human beings were so corrupted through the fall of our first parents that in spiritual matters, concerning our conversion and the salvation of our soul, they are by nature blind. ...they are and remain God’s enemy until by his grace alone, without any contribution of their own, they are converted, made believers, reborn, and renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word as it is preached and heard.”

The preaching and hearing of the Word of God is the “net” that God uses to take hold of the souls of men. People in their unbelief are not baited to swim toward God’s Word.

The old sinful nature finds the genuine message of God’s Word to be poisonous and deadly. The unbeliever, in his inner hostility to God and the things of God, would actually like to stay as far away as possible from the true God and his holiness.

Rather, God’s Word is, as it were, dropped and draped over people, like a net, to convert them miraculously, and to bring them into a relationship with God by an act of divine grace.

This happens, when it happens, because of God’s undeserved love for fallen, unspiritual humanity. This does not happen because people have been lured into moving in God’s direction, or because they have been tricked into opening themselves up to the working of his Spirit.

God surprises us with his faith-creating mercy. By the power of his Word he overtakes us, and instills within us desires and wishes that come from his Spirit, and that do not arise from our own sinful hearts.

So, to be a fisher of men means to be a speaker of God’s Word - a speaker of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When God’s Word is proclaimed to someone, it’s like a net that is being cast over that person’s soul.

When people are converted, and believe in Christ, it’s as if they have been grasped by that net, have been taken up from the world of unbelief in which they were formerly living, and have been brought into the new world of the Lord’s Church.

In the events that are described in today’s text, Jesus is, as it were, admitting Peter and Andrew to the seminary program that he is now starting up. He is inviting them to be his companions and students, to listen to him and to watch him, and to learn from him how to be the first pastors of the Christian church.

The main thing that they were going to learn, in order to become fishers of men, was how to preach about Christ: his life and death, his resurrection and ascension. They were going to learn what kind of net they would need to throw out over the souls of men by means of their preaching and teaching.

Jesus himself gives us a basic summary of that divine message - that net - in today’s text. He himself preached: “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

That was the net he was casting out over the souls of men, to capture them for God’s kingdom. That was the net that his apostles would someday be throwing out over the world.

The preaching of repentance is the preaching of the law. Now the law, all by itself, is not actually the net that catches men’s souls for God’s kingdom.

More precisely, that’s the role of the Gospel. But the law is a necessary prelude and preparation for the casting of the net of the Gospel over the souls of men.

The law brings conviction. It makes us honest about our failures. It shows people how hopeless their condition is, when their moral state is accurately measured and compared to the standard of God’s holiness.

But then, as Jesus himself said, the Gospel is to be preached, and people are to be urged and invited to believe it. That is the casting of the net. That is being a fisher of men.

The word “Gospel” means “good news” or “glad tidings.” The Gospel reveals Christ to our minds and hearts.

And the reason why this is good news, and not bad news or indifferent news, is because Christ has accomplished everything that needs to be done for humanity’s reconciliation with God, and for humanity’s restoration as children and servants of God.

Pardon from God, and peace with God, are offered as a gift through the Gospel. And even the faith by which this gift is accepted is itself also a gift from God.

“For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” as we read in the Epistle to the Philippians.

Our minds and wills are actively involved in our faith. When you believe in Christ for forgiveness, you are actively trusting in him and clinging to his promises.

God does not convert us in such a way that we feel as if we are being dragged toward him against our will. Rather, it is precisely at the level of our will that God’s Spirit changes us, and gives us a desire to be saved from sin and to be joined in a mystical bond to Christ.

God doesn’t save you against your will. God saves you by transforming your will, by giving you a new will, and a new heart, through the regenerating power of the Gospel.

The supposed church growth experts of our time would encourage us to try to figure out ways to bait people into church or to coax unbelievers to make a decision to believe in God.

This is because it seems as if that is what is happening when someone stops being an unbeliever and becomes a believer. But at a deeper level, that is not what is happening.

A person who comes to faith is a person who is actually brought to faith by supernatural forces from outside of himself. A person who is made to be a believer in Christ is a person who has been fished out of the sea of despair and hopelessness, unexpectedly, by the net of the Gospel.

He has not been coaxed out. He has been snatched out, and lifted up, by grace alone.

As Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.” And in the words of St. Paul, from his First Epistle to the Corinthians, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”

Someone, somewhere, at some time, threw the net over you, and pulled you up into fellowship with God. Someone baptized you at the command of Christ.

Someone preached the Gospel to you, and taught you the Word of God, and declared the Lord’s absolution to you.

The fact that you personally and sincerely want to be a follower of Christ doesn’t mean that you get any credit for your faith. It simply means that God himself reached down into the depths of your soul, and transformed your mind and heart at the deepest level of your desires and priorities and aspirations.

If you are in fact a believer in Christ, who knows the daily comfort of his Gospel, you were not fished out of the world of unbelief with a baited line. You were fished out with a net.

It was cast over you, and before you knew what was happening to you, God was lifting you up into a better world, and into a better life.

In your spiritual life, everything you have, you have because God gave it to you. Everything that has happened to you for the welfare of your soul, has happened because God made it happen.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

But in today’s text, we do not only hear about the net of God’s Word by which men are fished out of the sea of unbelief. We also hear those words that Jesus addressed to Andrew and Simon Peter: “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”

In a public, official way, pastors and other public teachers and preachers in the church of our time are, like the apostles, fishers of men. Or at least that’s what they are supposed to be.

It is not the pastor’s job to inject his personality into his ministry in an attempt to bring entertainment to the masses. It is not the pastor’s calling to put on a performance that is intended to appeal to the unregenerated desires of unregenerated hearts.

He is, instead, a fisher of men. It is his job to throw the net of God’s Word out over anyone and everyone who falls within the reach of his preaching. A preacher is to preach.

He is to preach the Law, by which God’s Spirit brings people to a state of humility and repentance. He is to preach the Gospel, by which Christ reaches down and plucks up his elect: grabbing them, saving them, transforming them.

But these words of our Lord, “I will make you become fishers of men,” can also be applied to the life and calling of each and every Christian. All Christians have been entrusted with the Word of God, not only so that they can believe it for themselves, but also so that they can share it with others.

All men, women, and children who have been fished out of the sea by the Gospel, can become, in a sense, fishers of men themselves. They, too, can speak God’s powerful word to a neighbor or a friend.

Whenever God’s Word is spoken - whether it is proclaimed publicly from the pulpit and the altar, or spoken among friends privately and unofficially - a net is being thrown over the souls of those who hear it.

God is working to create and strengthen faith. Men are being fished.

And it is especially important for both pastors and laymen, as fishers of men, to go out into the world, where the people are, and bring the Gospel to them there.

Unbelievers don’t want to come to church to hear the Gospel. They’re unbelievers, after all.

So, don’t expect the men who need to be fished out of the sea to jump into the boat on their own. We are called to go out to where they are, and drop the net over them, so that by the power of God’s Word they will be brought up and carried in.

Certainly you should invite the people you know to come to church with you. But you also need to tell them the reason why.

Look for opportunities to speak a word of law and Gospel to the people you know. Share the Christian message with your friends, so that they can think about that message, and so that the message can work in them.

Speak to them the simple yet powerful message of a divine-human Savior, who died for their sins, and who rose again for their justification.

You don’t have to try to make them believe what you say with clever or manipulative arguments. Just tell them the story of Jesus. The story of Jesus has its own power, to accomplish its own purposes.

In this way you yourself can cast the net of God’s Word over the soul of another person. You yourself can in this way be a fisher of men.

“Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’” Amen.