1 August 2010 - Pentecost 10 - Colossians 3:1-11

In today’s collect, we prayed: “O Lord, grant us wisdom to recognize the treasures You have stored up for us in heaven, that we may never despair, but always rejoice and be thankful for the riches of Your grace.”

Notice the connection in this prayer between the concept of “treasure,” and the feeling of despair. We prayed that God would help us recognize and remember the treasures that are stored up for us in heaven, so that we will not despair.

The connection between “treasure” and “despair” can be helpful to us, as we would evaluate our attitude toward the various things that we own, or that are a part of our life. If you would be thrown into a state of despair if something that you owned were taken away, or destroyed, it would indicate that this thing was something that you treasured.

When you treasure something - an object, or perhaps a relationship with a person - it means that you invest yourself in that thing to such a degree that it identifies who you are. Your “treasure” is not just something that you have. At an emotional level, it is something that has you.

When I was in India a few years ago, I visited one of the orphanages that our sister church there operates. Each resident had a small suitcase - very small. In that suitcase were contained all of that child’s worldly possessions. These children were thankful for what they had.

For many of them, when they were living homeless on the street - before they entered the orphanage - they owned absolutely nothing. Now, at least, they had a couple changes of clothing, a Bible and a Catechism, and maybe a few other items.

But what they also now had, was the grace of Holy Baptism, the comfort of the Gospel, and the promises of their Savior Jesus Christ. As they were taught by their pastor and teachers the message that is contained in their Bibles and Catechisms, they knew that their possessions - such as they were - were not their true treasure.

Their treasure was the salvation from sin and spiritual death that Jesus had won for them, and that Jesus had given to them personally in his Word and Sacrament.

Those of us who live in a more affluent society are perhaps tempted to a greater degree to see our possessions as our treasure, because we have so many possessions. I, too, own quite a few material objects. And I do value them.

I’m glad to have my books, my CDs, my DVDs, my car, my house. I’m thankful for these material things, and with the Lord’s help I try to make the best use of them.

But I wonder what my reaction would be if some or all of these material possessions would be taken away from me. Would I sink into a state of despair? Or would I have the attitude of Job:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

As a Christian, I am not to allow material objects - whether great or small - to become my treasure. According to the requirements of the First Commandment, the possessions that the Lord has allowed me to have in this lifetime are not to have such an influence over me, that I would feel that my life is over, or that my life no longer has any meaning, if they would be destroyed.

Of course, we also need to remember that when Job spoke his well-known words of faith, he was reflecting not only on the loss of his material possessions. All of his children had also been taken from him, and from this world.

We would all probably agree that focusing one’s ultimate affection on material things is extremely superficial and foolish. We would also probably agree that a deep love for one’s family members is very different from this, and is a noble and virtuous thing.

However, even such a love cannot become for us an all-consuming love, or an idolatrous love. Not even our relationships with spouse and children can be allowed to occupy the position of chief priority in our hearts. That place belongs only to Christ, and the eternal hope that he offers in his Word.

You cannot allow your love for those people who mean the most to you in this world, to become that which defines your existence, or your reason to live. Your dear ones must not become your true and ultimate treasure.

If you were to lose them, even that sadness and tragedy must not be allowed to become for you a cause for despair and hopelessness. Despair and hopelessness at the loss of anything in this life - anything besides Christ - testifies to a sin of idolatry.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns us that we must not be like the foolish rich man, who put all his hope in his crops and earthly riches, and in his ability to hoard those resources for himself:

“God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

And as St. Paul writes in today’s epistle lesson from Colossians:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Of course, having our priorities straight in this way does not mean that we will not think about, or care about, the people who are around us here on earth. Knowing that our ultimate destiny is in God’s eternal kingdom does not mean that we will have a completely indifferent attitude toward the things of this world, for as long as we are still in it.

St. Paul goes on in this reading to describe the practical difference - in how we live, here and now - that will result from a proper focusing of our minds on the things that are above. The apostle forbids prejudice and discrimination against other people on the basis of ethnicity or social status.

He forbids sexual immorality and obscenity, lying and slander, in our human relationships. He enjoins upon us a respect for the property of others.

As Christians, we treat other people in an honorable way, in accordance with the honorable purposes for which God has brought them into our lives. We do not exploit others for carnal pleasure or material gain.

But in faith we also look beyond the specific people we know, to the divine Creator and Redeemer of us and them - who watches over our relationships, and who governs the way we think about others, and act toward others, within those relationships.

We are grateful to the Lord for the blessings that he bestows on us through the various people whose lives intersect with ours: in temporary and casual relationships, such as in school or a business transaction; and in permanent and intimate relationships, such as in marriage and family.

And we are grateful to the Lord for the opportunities he gives us to be a conduit of blessing to them.

But when those people cease to be a part of our lives, according to the ebb and flow of how things often do go in this world, we do not despair. Because we still have God - the true source of everything good and pure that we had enjoyed, with and through those people.

We recognize as well that the material resources we have, do not ultimately define us, and are not what we live for. For the limited time when we are allowed to have these resources, we understand them to be temporary gifts from above.

Our property and wealth are to be enjoyed and used in ways that glorify God and help our neighbor, and in ways that serve to fulfill the obligations toward others that our earthly callings place upon us.

We do see evidence of God’s love and kindness toward us, in, with, and under these material gifts, for as long as they last. But when those material gifts are gone, or when they have run their course in our life, God’s love and kindness are still there.

In Christ, and with the comfort that Christ gives, the greatest of human losses will not throw us into a state of despair. The loss of all that we own, if that would ever happen, would likewise not change the fact of who we are in God’s kingdom.

Jesus Christ, and his salvation, are our treasure. As Christ clings to us in his Word and Sacrament, and as we cling to him in faith, this treasure will never depart. We will never lose it. It will never lose us.

As Christians, the only thing that might cause us to despair, would be the thought that Christ has abandoned us, or turned away from us. Sometimes we may actually feel that way, when we have sinned against God, and when our conscience tells us that we therefore do not deserve to be in the presence of God any longer.

At such times, when our hearts are weighed down with guilt, the devil also chimes in, and tries to persuade us that God has in fact turned away from us, and has given up on us. This might work for a time, in causing us to feel hopeless and lost.

Until the message of the Gospel is once again preached to us! And the message of the Gospel is this: If you confess your sins, God is faithful and just to forgive your sins, and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.

The death of Jesus on the cross - for you - has not been undone. Your baptism, and the open invitation to return to Christ in repentance and faith that God issues to you through baptism, has not dried up.

And so, the only thing that might cause us to despair - if we were to lose it - we will not lose. There is always a pathway back to God, whenever we may wander from him, and as often as we wander from him. That pathway is never blocked, as far as God is concerned.

If, in faith, you yearn for God’s forgiveness for the sake of Christ, you have it! If, in your regenerated heart, you truly want to be at peace with God in Christ, you are!

If, in your liberated will, you truly desire to have a clear conscience before God through the righteousness of Christ, you do. If Christ - and his forgiveness, peace, and righteousness - are your treasure, you will keep your treasure.

Other things, other relationships, may come and go. Other objects of value may be destroyed. Other people, whom you may love very much, may cease to be a part of your life.

But the greatest of treasures remains. Christ and his promises remain.

Right now, as you are seated in this sanctuary, you are where you would be expected to be, if you really believe this. And that’s because the Lord’s house, where the Word and Sacrament of Christ are made available to us, is the place where we can best enjoy our true treasure.

Jesus is in heaven, where we too will go when we die in the faith. But Jesus is not only in heaven. He is with us here too, according to his promise to be with his disciples always, even to the end of the age.

Some people put their most valuable possessions in a safe deposit box at the bank. When they want to be in the presence of those valuables - to handle them, and look them over - they go to the bank, and take out the secured box where they are kept.

That which is most valuable to us - our treasure - is not in the bank. It is here. And when we want to enjoy that treasure, we come here.

In the Lord’s Supper in particular, we, as it were, take our cherished treasure into our hands. We take it into our mouths.

We are reminded of who we really are, and of what the meaning of our life really is, when we receive the body and blood of Christ - which Christ miraculously places into the bread and wine by the power of his Word.

There is no time in your spiritual pilgrimage when there is less temptation to despair, or when there is a greater and more personal enjoyment of your true treasure, than in that moment when your Savior’s body and blood are placed on your tongue, and when his pardon and peace fill your soul.

At such a time we may have this thought:

“Jesus, priceless Treasure, Fount of purest pleasure, Truest Friend to me.
Ah, how long in anguish Shall my spirit languish, Yearning, Lord, for Thee?
Thou art mine, O Lamb divine!
I will suffer naught to hide Thee, Naught I ask beside Thee.”

And at such a time we may whisper this prayer:

“O Lord, grant us wisdom to recognize the treasures You have stored up for us in heaven, that we may never despair, but always rejoice and be thankful for the riches of Your grace.” Amen.

8 August 2010 - Pentecost 11 - Luke 12:22-40

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus teaches us that we should not be anxious about the future. We should not worry about where our food and clothing and other necessities of life will come from.

But our honest response to this may very well be, “Easier said than done!” And that’s because anxiety and worry are not like many other sins, over which we may, to a degree, have a bit more control.

Anxiety and worry arise from the circumstances we are in. We don’t make a deliberate decision to start worrying about where our food and clothing will come from. We worry about food and clothing when we don’t have food and clothing, or when we don’t know where food and clothing will come from in the future.

How can someone in poverty or want not think about the things that he needs? And how can he think about the things that he needs without worrying about the things that he needs, when he doesn’t have those things, or when he can’t foresee a way by which he will be able to get those things?

But even so, Jesus does say, “I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat; nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”

And Jesus goes on to explain that such worrying and anxiety arise from a lack of faith: “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! ...”

“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!”

Now, if someone you trust has promised to give you something, you will expect that trusted person to keep his word, and to follow through on his pledge. But if a stranger, who has not earned your trust, promises to give you something, you will not be so sure that it will really happen.

You won’t count on it. And if the stranger ends up breaking his promise, it won’t shock you or surprise you.

God has promised to take care of us according to our needs, and to provide us with daily bread. By divine inspiration the Psalmist leads us in this prayer to the Lord, from Psalm 145:

“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.”

Now, if we all really believed this, with a firm and confident faith, then we would not be anxious about food or clothing, or anything. If we trusted in God with the kind of unswerving confidence that is reflected in this Psalm, we would have no doubt that he will keep his promises, and that he will see to it that we are taken care of.

Oh, my needs might not be met exactly in the way that I would expect. In my human pride, I would probably prefer that God would use me and my own labors as the instruments through which he gives me my daily bread.

But sometimes, when I might be down on my luck, it will be my Christian friends who will come through for me - to help me out until I get back on my feet again. And yet it will still be God who is providing for my needs even then, through the people whom he brings into my life.

Note what Jesus also says to his disciples in today’s Gospel: “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.”

If you have more than you need, and if your Christian brother or sister has less than he or she needs, you know what to do. Certainly you can and should be wise and circumspect in deciding how to show love to those in need, and in choosing the best way to help them. Sometimes, for example, you should give someone a job, instead of giving someone money.

But whether or not you will help a needy brother or sister in Christ, well, that is a settled question for the members of God’s family.

And when I am the one who is in a desperate situation, God may also teach me, in the crucible of experience, the difference between my genuine needs, and those things that I may want, but that I really could live without if I had to.

God does not promise to give us everything that we want, without qualification. But he does promise to give us everything that we want, when what we want is what we truly need.

In his Word, God reveals to us what our true needs are, so that on the basis of his Word we are able to ask in faith - not in presumption - for what he has shown us we should ask for.

Jesus says: “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” But St. James also says: “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly...”

Jesus tells us in today’s text that our thoughts about the present and the future should not be characterized by worry or anxiety. But he also tells us what should characterize our thoughts about the present and the future. He says:

“And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”

Notice the symmetry in what Jesus says here. We are not to “seek” food and drink, but instead, we are to “seek” the kingdom of God.

In the original Greek, the word translated as “seek” carries with it the idea of an undistracted and earnest pursuit of something, with great persistence and single-mindedness.

When you “seek” something in this sense, the thing that you are seeking or pursuing is the chief concern of your heart and mind. It’s what you spend all or most of your time thinking about.

And Jesus says, that even in the midst of our uncertainty about how our bodily needs are going to be met, we are not to seek and pursue the meeting of those needs - in and of itself. We are to seek and pursue the kingdom of God.

Now this doesn’t mean that we will not in any way be thinking about our bodily needs. We will be. But we will be thinking about them in a larger context.

We will not live for the sake of satisfying those needs, or focus all of our thoughts on food, drink, and clothing. Instead, we will think about, and seek after, the God who has promised to give us food, drink, and clothing.

And we will think about, and seek after, the God who has promised also to meet deeper and more important needs - eternal needs. In fact, even before we think about God, or seek after him, God thinks about us and seeks us, for the sake of saving us.

God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him, as St. Paul writes. God first brings his kingdom to us, in his Gospel, so that by the power of the Gospel our hearts are made capable of seeking his kingdom in return.

The kingdom of God that we do then seek includes what we confess in the Small Catechism explanation of the First Article of the Creed:

“I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them; that He richly and daily provides me with food and clothing, home and family, property and goods, and all that I need to support this body and life; that He protects me from all danger, guards and keeps me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I am in duty bound to thank and praise, to serve and obey Him.”

But what the kingdom of God is also about - what it is chiefly about - is what we confess in the explanation of the Second Article of the Creed:

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

When you in faith seek this, my friends, the other things - the temporary, earthly things - will come along with it. Through the gift of his only begotten Son for your salvation, God has earned your trust. When he promises also to give you things of lesser importance, in Christ, you believe him.

Trusting in Christ will bring you to the peace that comes from the Lord’s redemption of your soul. Jesus has purchased you, with the shedding of his blood, from the power of sin, death, and the devil.

You therefore belong to him. Your soul, your life, your future, all belong to him.

That is a profoundly comforting thought, in the midst of everything in this world that can scare us and threaten us. But it is also an invigorating thought.

That’s why trusting in Christ will also bring you to a clearer perception of the gifts and abilities with which God has endowed you. Trusting in Christ will help you to discern the vocation that God has arranged for you in this world - the calling in which you can use your gifts to be productive in your labors.

It is by means of your God-given abilities, as they are put to work in this way, that God will usually provide for you your food and clothing and other material necessities. And it is by means of your God-given abilities, as they are put to work in this way, that God will enable you to have the resources from which you can draw, to help your needy brother or sister.

When you are temporarily unable to use your abilities to provide a livelihood for yourself, or when you are temporarily unable to pursue your calling, this is a time of testing and learning for your Christian friends. And it is a time of testing and learning for you.

It is a time when others will learn when and how God wants to use them as his instruments, for providing food and clothing for you. And it is a time when you will learn how to accept these gifts - with humility, and with a godly commitment to do the same for others, when the Lord once again blesses you with an abundance, in the future.

In this way the needs of all are met. In this way all of God’s people are knit together into a caring and mutually-sustaining family.

In this way God helps us to avoid the sins of worry and anxiety - in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves - as we see how God does in fact keep his promise to provide for our needs.

In the church of Jesus Christ, where his Word governs and guides those who belong to him, no one will starve or go naked while others live in lavish luxury. That simply will not happen, when we all realize how gracious and generous God has been with each one of us, in sending us a Savior, and in bestowing on us the gift of his Spirit.

God’s grace and love fill us up. And then God’s grace and love overflow from us, and spill into the lives of those around us.

The sharing of material help is not the whole substance of this. It is not even the main thing.

We encourage each other primarily with words - Biblical words of hope and comfort; Gospel words of divine forgiveness and restoration - as we bear one another’s burdens, and as we build up one another in our most holy faith.

But the sharing of material help is certainly not excluded. The sharing of earthly gifts with the other members of our church family, when they have a special need for them, flows out naturally - together with the sharing of the heavenly gift of the message of eternal life in Christ.

We don’t treasure our material possessions more than we treasure God and his kingdom. And we don’t treasure our material possessions more than we treasure the people whom God has brought into our lives, to be our companions in the pilgrimage of faith that we walk together in this world.

Jesus says:

“ not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with...a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Amen.

15 August 2010 - Saint Mary, Mother of Our Lord - Luke 1:39-55

Joseph Stump, an American Lutheran theologian in the last century, once gave an interesting description of what he called the “twofold activity of faith.” He wrote:

“...saving faith is at once a receptive [power] and an operative power. As a receptive power it receives grace and forgiveness from God. As an operative power it works by love.”

“Every faith that is true and real has this twofold activity. It has, so to say, two hands. With reaches out and accepts God’s grace, and with the reaches out in the performance of works of love.”

In our church year, today is the feast day of Saint Mary, the Mother of Our Lord. As Lutherans we do set aside certain days for the remembrance of certain Christians of the past, who set a good example for future generations.

What we usually have in mind when we honor the memory of such people, is the exemplary way in which their faith manifested itself in their Christian life. In other words, when we honor the saints of the past, we usually think about what Dr. Stump called the “operative power” of their faith - that is, how their faith actively operated, through their callings in life, in works of love for the benefit of others.

So, the apostles are remembered for their work of bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations, and of faithfully proclaiming his saving Word. Missionaries and theologians in more recent times are remembered for the ways in which they followed in the apostles’ footsteps.

Great laymen of the past are also remembered, for their diligence in fulfilling the duties that God had assigned to them in their callings. And as we remember all these people from Christian history, and as we take note of their godly works and way of life, we seek to imitate their good example.

There are many people in Christendom who honor the Lord’s mother Mary in such a way. That is, they revere her for the ways in which they believe that her faith and godliness have been operating, and performing good works for the benefit of millions of people.

It is believed by many that Mary remains very busy and active even now, in bestowing gifts and benefits on those who pray to her. Lutherans, by comparison, are not comfortable with these claims.

Indeed, we would say that the kind of devotion that many people display toward Mary, and the kind of powers that are often attributed to her, are not in harmony with what the First Commandment requires of us regarding our undistracted worship of the Triune God alone.

We might remind our Catholic and Orthodox friends that there is no Scriptural invitation to us to call upon our Lord’s mother in times of need. But there is such an invitation regarding God, from God himself, when he says: “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

And so, perhaps as an over-correction to the problems that we see in other portions of Christendom, Lutherans tend to ignore Mary. We don’t want to say too much in honoring her memory, or in praising her example of faith. And so we end up saying little if anything at all.

But today is the day on our church calendar when we do in fact remember her, and think about her, and talk about her. August 15 is understood to be the anniversary of the day - many centuries ago - when Mary’s life in this world ended, and she fell asleep in the Lord.

But as we seek to honor Mary’s memory in an appropriate way today, we would note that the Bible actually says very little about the good works that she accomplished in her lifetime. We can certainly assume that she was a good mother to Jesus, and a good wife to Joseph.

But the Bible does not present us with very many specific stories about her, to illustrate or prove this assumption beyond the basics. And quite honestly, I doubt very much that I would refer to the story of Mary and Joseph’s departure from Jerusalem - while leaving Jesus behind! - as an example for any mother of a twelve-year-old to follow.

But this does not mean that Mary is not an example for us. Even though the Bible says very little about what Dr. Stump would describe as the “operative power” of Mary’s faith, it does say a lot about what he would describe as the “receptive power” of her faith.

We don’t have too many stories about what Mary’s faith did - how it operated, and worked itself out in service to others. But we do know about what Mary’s faith received.

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, her relative Elizabeth spoke of this receptive faith in regard to Mary. She said: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

When the angel Gabriel had appeared to Mary, he told her that she was going to be the mother of God’s Son - and of humanity’s Savior. She was unmarried at the time, and had never been intimate with a man. Therefore, what the angel told her was humanly impossible.

But it was still going to happen, because God had said that it was going to happen. And in spite of the human impossibility of this event, Mary believed the divine message that the angel brought to her.

She said to him, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Mary’s faith received the message that the angel brought to her from God. And Mary’s faith received the gift of a Savior - into her womb, and into her heart and soul.

Mary did not do anything to make this happen. She simply received what God gave. She accepted as true the promise that God made to her.

When we hear stories of Christians of the past who went out and did great things in God’s name, that does inspire us. And it’s fairly easy for us to make the connection between the good works of others, and the good works that we should then go out and do, in imitation of those people of the past whom we admire.

Now, there is indeed a time and a place for this. When we are supposed to be accomplishing the tasks in life that God has assigned to us, and fulfilling the duties of our vocation, doing nothing is not a good thing.

But there are other times when it would be wrong for us to want to go out and do something. When the Word of God is being brought to us, for the purpose of our hearing it and believing it, this is a time when we are to stay still, and do nothing.

This is not a time for our faith to be operating, and working for the benefit of others. This is a time for our faith simply to be receiving what God gives, and to accept as true what God says.

This is a time when the example of the virgin Mary is the example to follow - an example of humble trust in impossible promises, because God is the one who is making those impossible promises.

In this world, you reap what you sow. Your mistakes follow you. You get what you deserve.

And the seeds that you have sown in this world have often been seeds of sin - words and deeds that have caused pain and harm to yourself and to others. And these sins do follow you. They weigh down your conscience, and haunt your memory.

And those people in this world who were affected by your bad choices will likewise remember what you did and said. Their opinion of you will always be negatively impacted by this memory.

They may try to be gracious and forgiving, especially if they are Christians. They may try very hard. But in their human weakness, they will never be able to put all of it permanently out of their minds.

And if this is true of other people, with their limited knowledge of you, imagine what God thinks of you. God is aware of everything - the things that other people know, and also the things that you have successfully hidden from other people.

If other people - who are partly aware of your flaws - disapprove of you and turn away from you, won’t God - who is fully aware of your flaws - disapprove, and turn away, even more severely?

What could God ever say to change any of that? Can he perform a miracle that would make all of that just go away?

Well, actually he can. This is what God reveals to us about himself in Psalm 103:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. 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. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”

What this Psalm says about God’s removing of our transgressions from us, serves as the backdrop for what Jesus told his disciples: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.”

And this, in turn, serves as the authorization for what your own pastor, in the name of Jesus, told you a short time ago, after you had acknowledged your sins, and repented of them:

“Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead, and by the command, of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”

When God forgives you for the sake of Christ, it means that he does in fact forget about your sins. As the Lord said through the Prophet Jeremiah, in reference to the Messianic age in which we now live, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Your conscience, and all of your human experience, tell you that God will not forget - that God will hold you accountable for your blunders, and that there will be no way for you to avoid his judgment. But God himself says something very different from this - something that seems impossible.

He says that he will forget. He says that your sins are gone - washed away by the blood of Christ. He says that your sins are no longer visible to him, covered over by the righteousness of Christ.

When the Lord’s messenger speaks God’s message of forgiveness and spiritual cleansing to you, whose example will you follow in that moment?

The example of the many saints in history whose faith kept them busy in works of love and service for others? Or the example of Mary, who did nothing when the angel spoke to her in God’s name, but who simply believed that what God says is always true?

Mary did not merely believe that the impossible was now possible. By the working of the Holy Spirit in her heart, she believed that the impossible was now actually so.

And by the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we too believe that the impossible is now actually so. Sinners are at peace with God. God’s enemies have an eternal home in his kingdom.

When God’s ministers tell you this, my friends, don’t react by trying to think of something that you can go out and do. Instead, in that moment, receive what the Lord is giving you.

In that moment, don’t try to imitate the Christian activism of many hundreds of faithful saints of the past. Rather, in that moment, imitate the simple, receptive trust of one faithful saint - one humble virgin - who by the power of God’s grace became the mother of God himself, in human flesh.

Of course, God doesn’t cause you to become the physical mother of his only-begotten Son. He needed to do that only once. But by the power of his grace he does bestow on you the Spirit of sonship and adoption.

As St. Paul wrote to Titus in today’s Epistle: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”

And as Elizabeth said in regard to Mary - and in regard to all who follow Mary’s example - “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Amen.

22 August 2010 - Pentecost 13 - Luke 13:22-30

Is Christianity exclusive or inclusive? A belief in tolerance has been exalted in our society almost to the level of an unassailable dogma, to which everyone is expected to conform.

So, if Christianity is in fact exclusive of some, and not inclusive of all, the society’s commitment to tolerance would mean that Christianity must either be rejected, or corrected.

In today’s text from St. Luke, Jesus gives us the answer to this question. Or rather, he gives us a specific answer to each half of this question.

Is Christianity exclusive? Yes, it is. Is Christianity inclusive? Again, yes, it is.

How can it be both? Well, let’s listen to Jesus in order to find out.

“And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us,” then he will answer you, “I do not know where you come from.”’”

That does sound pretty exclusive. Jesus acknowledges that everyone is, in his own way, on a spiritual journey. With few exceptions, everyone does want to find his way to heaven, or to something like heaven, after his life in this world is over.

But Jesus says very plainly that not all who are on this quest will arrive at their hoped-for destination. Those who do not strive to enter God’s kingdom through the narrow door - and only through the narrow door - will not get in.

The seeming intolerance of this teaching has caused many in our generation to loose their faith - such as it may have been. I recently read this comment in an Internet discussion of certain modern trends in the church. It was posted by a man who was raised in a Christian church, and who in his childhood and youth was a very active member:

“I left the church, not because I didn’t like or appreciate the teachings of Jesus Christ. I left because I found myself in a much larger world where over 400 different faiths are practiced. In each of these faiths, there are wise men and women... - all confident that their path to God is the true and proper path - and that other paths are lesser paths than their own. And, when so many wise men and women disagree on such a fundamental idea, how can a young person claim to know better?”

Indeed, how can anyone, of any age, claim to know about such things? Well, we don’t claim to know because we have figured it out on our own, on the basis of our own logical analysis and rational deductions. We also haven’t simply made an emotional decision of what to believe, based on how a certain kind of spirituality makes us feel.

We know what we know about our eternal destiny because Jesus has told us of these things. And his Word, imbued with divine power, has reached into our minds and hearts, and taken our conscience captive.

Tolerance, properly understood and applied, is not a bad thing. But tolerance can become very illogical and even ridiculous when it becomes the overarching principle in every situation.

It is often said that all roads lead ultimately to God. People like to repeat that phrase, because believing it relieves them of the serious effort of thinking through which pathway is actually the one that will work. It caters to spiritual laziness and indifference.

And in this world, how often is something like that true? If I want to travel from Phoenix to Flagstaff, is it really true that I could take U.S. 60, or I 10, and would still end up where I want to end up?

When Jesus says that those who want to enter into eternal life need to enter by the one doorway that God has provided, he would be intolerant in this assertion, only if he were wrong in this assertion. But he is not wrong. He actually knows what he is talking about.

What we imagine to be so, or what we wish would be so, is not more important or more compelling that what he knows to be so. And he does know.

He knows that human sin is like a set of shackles that hold us back from truly being able to enter into the presence of God. He knows, too, that sin also blinds us, and numbs us, so that we don’t even see or feel those shackles.

We don’t realize how desperately incapable we are of getting ourselves to heaven by means of our own chosen pathways. We think we’re making progress, when in reality we are not any closer than we ever were.

But there is a door into God’s abode. Before God himself enlightens us and liberates us, we don’t see it or know about it. But it is there, and it is the only point of entrance that there will ever be.

Jesus himself tells us in the Gospel of John, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved...” Jesus is the door, because Jesus alone deals with humanity’s sin problem, and solves that problem for us.

Jesus alone, and no one else, takes the sin of the world upon himself, and carries it to the cross. Jesus alone, and no one else, recreates people in God’s image, and regenerates them by his Spirit.

As the Son of God in human flesh, only Jesus could be the Lamb of God, and only Jesus could be the one who makes all things new. Only Jesus could make a way for us back to God the Father. Only Jesus could be the door to heaven.

Men have their many theories of how to find God, and of how to achieve eternal life. But God also has his theory - or rather, he has his certain truth - of how he finds us in Christ, and of how he gives eternal life to us in Christ.

The patriarchs and prophets of old were not saved by their own personal holiness, or by their obedience to the law. They looked forward in faith to Christ, and by this faith they did enter through the narrow door.

We, too, are now invited to look to Christ in faith, and by means of that faith to enter into a sacred and holy place where only Christ can bring us.

But note, too, that Jesus teaches that our entrance into eternal life does involve a struggle. “Strive to enter through the narrow door,” he says.

In one sense, the way of salvation through Christ is very easy. It is by faith alone. St. Peter said: “To him all the prophets bear witness, that everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

But in another sense, the way of salvation through Christ is not easy. It is the most difficult and trying challenge we could ever face in this world.

Today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews soberly reminds us, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”

Following the way of Christ, and the way of faith in Christ, also means following the way of the cross; the way of self-denial; the way of daily repentance; and the way of a daily struggle against the destructive and deceptive power of sin.

Temptation to sin does not go away when we believe in the Lord. In some ways, when we orient ourselves, through faith in Christ, toward the narrow door, those temptations will intensify.

Our sinful nature goes into “survival mode” when we put our trust in Christ for salvation. Our sinful nature becomes more desperate than ever, to take back control of our lives.

Our sins are always trying to pull us away from Christ, and away from the doorway into heaven that God has provided in Christ. Our sins are always trying to redirect us onto an alternate pathway, that supposedly will still take us to heaven, but that will require a less radical commitment, and a less radical inner transformation.

But there is no such alternate pathway. There is no other point of entrance into God’s presence, than the narrow door of Christ.

And as we walk the pathway that brings us to and through that door, we will be in daily conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil. But we will also be renewed daily in the grace and peace of our baptism, and will return to that baptism daily in repentance and faith - for the forgiveness and healing of Christ, and for the strength and wisdom of Christ.

So, is Christianity exclusive? Yes, it is. It might not be politically correct to say this in twenty-first century America. But Jesus says this, and we too must therefore say this. And believe this.

But is Christianity also inclusive? Again, yes, it is.

As Jesus in today’s text warns those who turn away from the narrow door of what their fate will be, he also gives a message of hope and invitation to people, proclaiming that the narrow door, though narrow, is now open to all. He says:

“In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.”

One of the most jarring crises of the early church was their struggle with how to understand and implement Jesus’ commission to the apostles to make disciples of “all nations.” The earliest Christians were Jewish, and it was very difficult for them to come to grips with the fact that the Christian faith was not just for Jews, but was for the Gentiles as well.

It might be almost humorous for us to hear about that early debate, in view of the fact that our Jewish friends and neighbors today have a hard time imagining that the Christian faith could be for anyone other than Gentiles. But that issue was in fact something that the early church had to work through.

And we, too, still need to work through it. The Lord’s commission to the apostles is also his commission to us. We, too, are to bring the Gospel to all nations - to all tribes and peoples and races.

But this universal scope of the Gospel does not just translate into an obligation that he places on us. It also translates into a message of personal invitation by which he comforts us.

It doesn’t matter what your background is: who your ancestors were, where you come from, or what color your skin is. It also doesn’t matter how far from the Lord’s pathway you have previously wandered. The narrow door of Christ is open before you.

The Spirit of Christ is drawing you toward that door. The Gospel of Christ, in Word and Sacrament, will carry you through that door, and into the light and freedom of God that shines forth from the other side of that door.

No nation, and no individual, is excluded from the Lord’s invitation. In Christ none of us are counted as unworthy to sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and with all the prophets, at the Lord’s heavenly banquet.

All who are baptized into Christ, and who live in Christ by faith, are a part of God’s restored human family. We all have a place at the table.

So, is Christianity exclusive or inclusive? It is both.

It excludes those who refuse to enter by the narrow door. It excludes you, if you have hardened your heart to the voice of Christ, and if you refuse to acknowledge the fact that God’s Son does have the right to tell you what God’s way of salvation actually is.

But Christianity includes all those who do strive to enter by the narrow door - regardless of where they come from, or what mistakes they have made in the past. It includes you, as you with the Lord’s help turn away from sin, and toward the cross; and as you find your strength and hope for eternity in his certain promises.

Lo, many shall come from the East and the West,
And sit at the feast of salvation
With Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the blest,
Obeying the Lord’s invitation.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!

But they who have always resisted His grace,
And on their own virtue depended,
Shall then be condemned and cast out from His face,
Eternally lost and un-friended.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!

Oh, may we all hear when our Shepherd doth call,
In accents persuasive and tender,
That, while there is time, we make haste, one and all,
And find Him, our mighty Defender!
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus! Amen.

29 August 2010 - Pentecost 14 - Hebrews 13:1-17

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” When is the last time you stopped to think about what that means, to you, here and now, in the 21st century?

There are very few things in our fast-moving society that never change. Just think of the computer you used ten years ago - if you even had a computer back then. Your computer today can do so much more, and can do it so much faster, than the computer you had, or might have had, in the year 2000.

But the ever-changing nature of our society does not involve only technological improvements like these. Serious degenerations and declines have also occurred.

Ten years ago there was no state in the union that acknowledged such a thing as same-sex marriage. And it would have been difficult for most people in America, a decade ago, even to imagine that such a thing could become accepted in this country.

But now, one state after another is embracing this, or is having it foisted upon them by activist judges. Our society’s standards of marriage and family, of sexual discipline and public morality, are not staying the same.

The secular society is finding it increasingly difficult to believe that there are any unchanging, objective principles that all people should be expected to recognize as true. And this post-modern skepticism is spilling over into the church as well.

The most we have now, in many corners of Christendom, is tentative opinion. Many today think that it would a sign of arrogance and intolerance to have a conviction that certain things are true for everybody, and always have been.

Our fathers and mothers in the faith used to be able to say, in the words of the Small Catechism, “This is most certainly true.” But with the philosophical changes we have seen regarding the very concept of objective truth, the most that many today can muster is to say, “This is most possibly true,” or even, “This is most probably not true any more.”

Churches today are facing a crisis. People - especially young people - are leaving the church in record numbers.

Some churches are desperate to try to stem this tide by trying to become “cool” and “trendy,” so that dissatisfied young people will, it is hoped, stick around for at least a little bit longer. But it’s not really working.

And the reason why it’s not working, at least in the long term, is because these departing twenty-somethings are not leaving because they think the church is not cool enough. It’s because they recognize that the church is still the church.

The post-modern ideas of our changing world have infected the minds of many, and have invaded the souls of many, in such a way that they no longer feel at home in any institution that teaches the existence of objective truth outside of them, and that therefore places obligations on them.

Many in the generation that is coming of age today, and many older people too, make moral decisions on the basis of what feels right in the moment, and not on the basis of a belief in an unchanging moral code that exists objectively, above and beyond the feelings of the moment.

And the impulses and feelings of one day, in one situation, may not be the same as the impulses and feelings of another day, in another situation. So, the changes we are talking about are not just gradual changes that are taking place in the society as a whole.

They are the unpredictable and ongoing changes and fluctuations that now take place so often in each individual. What I believe and think today may not be what I believe and think tomorrow. But the day after tomorrow I might come back to the views of today.

But in reality, I simply cannot survive, and my relationships and commitments cannot survive, unless I am able to find a way to experience and implement some kind of consistency in my beliefs and values.

And here is the good news! Even in the midst of this ethical and creedal chaos, there still is something good and pure that has not changed. There is someone true and trustworthy who has not changed. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

Jesus is, of course, a historical figure. He is rooted in the experience of the Jewish nation in Palestine, 2,000 years ago, when he walked the earth among his people.

Quite often modern folks will say in regard to great people of the past, who held to beliefs and values that are different from modern beliefs and values, “If he were alive today he would know better, and he would think the way we now think.”

John Warwick Montgomery refers to “the common human failing we all have to want great men to agree with us.” And that is an accurate description of our human arrogance.

There are many people who think that if Jesus were alive today, he would also think the way they think. They are quite sure of it, as they appropriate his name and reputation to justify their modern moral - or immoral - causes.

But what they fail to realize, is that Jesus is alive today. It’s true that he died 2,000 years ago - on the cross. But he didn’t stay dead.

He rose from the grave, and has been vibrantly alive ever since, in his resurrected glory, as the living head and loving guardian of his church.

But even though he is alive today, and is very much aware of all the nonsense that the people of today believe in, he has not changed his beliefs and values. He is, to quote today’s text, “the same yesterday and today and forever.”

And this means some very practical things for us. Today’s text expresses the unchanging will of Christ, for us and for everyone, when it says:

“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers... Remember those who are in prison, ...and those who are mistreated... Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have...”

The kind of love and respect for others that Jesus showed in his earthly life, and that he taught his disciples to emulate, is the kind of love and respect that he is still teaching his disciples to emulate. Among the followers of Jesus, both then and now, there is no place for the sexual or monetary exploitation of others.

We are not to acquire for ourselves either carnal pleasure or material enrichment, at the cost of sacrificing the honor and dignity of other people. We are instead to remember that we are servants of God, and not of ourselves, at times when we are tempted to destroy ourselves and others with such lust and greed.

A person in our changing times will definitely need a sense of there being a higher moral code, above and beyond the realm of subjective emotions and inner impulses, if he is successfully to resist such temptations when they come.

We must have a sense of there being a Lord and Master in our lives who is the same yesterday and today and forever, if we are to avoid the kind of physical and spiritual harm that will inevitably come upon us, if we make our ethical decisions in the moment, according to the ever-changing feelings of the moment.

And our text goes on to say this: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

The saving faith by which the church of Christ knows its Lord, and confesses him to the world, is not a faith for which the church needs always to be searching. It is a faith that has been entrusted to the church, enshrined permanently and unalterably in Scripture, and passed on from generation to generation by faithful preachers and teachers.

Events such as the Reformation of the 16th century, which did result in a course correction in certain matters of doctrine and practice, were really just an intensified effort to appropriate more thoroughly, and to confess more consistently, this unchanging, revealed faith.

And a similar reform movement is needed also in our day, to awaken the various segments of the church from their sluggishness, from their compromises, and even from their outright loss of faith. A similar reform movement is needed among us as individuals too.

Your own church may have successfully resisted many of the philosophical temptations of the age, so that it still publicly holds to the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints. That’s certainly a good thing, to the extent that it is so.

But what is your individual attitude toward that faith? How easy would it be for you to be turned away from that faith? Under the influence of the ever-changing world in which you live, have you, in your heart, already turned away from it?

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. All of us - young and old alike - need to be reminded of this. As God’s Word does remind us of this truth, the Holy Spirit works supernaturally to impress it deeply into our conscience once again.

And this truth - this unchanging, divine truth - will withstand every attack, and every lie and distortion. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” our Savior tells us.

When the dust of all human conflict and chaos settles, and when the debris of all human presumptuousness and conceit is cleared away, this truth, and this Savior, will still be standing. This is certain.

What is not certain is whether you will embrace this truth, and place your trust in this truth, and be saved from your sin through this truth, and seek to govern your life in this world according to this truth.

The unchanging truth of Christ and of Christ’s Word - his word of law, and his word of Gospel - is not a distant and inaccessible truth. Rather, as St. Paul writes,

“‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Today’s text also speaks of this intimate accessibility of Christ in these words:

“We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. ...Jesus...suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him...”

Jesus sacrificed his body for you on the cross, and purchased you by the shedding of his own blood, in order to win you back for God. And if he needs to win you back again, by the power of his Gospel, he will.

Remember, he is the same yesterday and today and forever. If he loved you then, he will love you now.

He comes to you now in his Word: to rescue you from the confusion and deception of our time, and to instill within you a renewed faith in the eternal truth of the redemption that he accomplished for you, once and for all time, on the cross of Calvary.

You can still believe this, because it is still true. Jesus, the Son of God, died for you. Jesus, the Lamb of God, forgives you. Jesus, the mediator between God and man, reconciles you to your Father in heaven.

This Gospel has never ceased to be true. This invitation to you has never been silenced.

And as Jesus has come to you, and implanted his unchanging truth in you, and placed on your lips a confession of that truth, so too he also calls you in faith to come to him.

He invites you to come, as it were, “outside the gates” of this transitory world, to the altar of his cross. Those who embrace the unchanging truth of Christ, and who are embraced by that truth, do have the right to eat from this altar.

Christ, in his body and blood, is sacramentally accessible to us at this altar. The eternal truth of Christ, who lives among us forever, is there at that altar, for us.

In Christ we are all given an opportunity for a fresh start - a new chance to believe an old, unchanging truth; to live according to old, unchanging standards; to place our trust in an old, unchanging promise. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Amen.