10 October 2010 - Pentecost 20 - 2 Timothy 2:1-13

“Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” With these words, the apostle Paul, in today’s lesson from his second letter to Timothy, encourages his young protege to reflect on what Paul had just written to him regarding Timothy’s calling to the ministry of the Gospel: as a teacher himself, and as a “seminary professor” of sorts - a trainer and instructor of other teachers.

He impressed upon Timothy that this is now to be his life’s work, and that he should not turn aside from it to pursue, or dabble in, other things. With the use of some metaphors derived from other callings, Paul tells Timothy that he is to be a “good soldier”; that he is to be an “athlete” who obeys all the rules of competition; and that he is to be a “hard-working farmer.”

Paul himself had suffered greatly on account of his ministry, which is now, in a sense, winding down. In fact, he is writing this epistle to Timothy from prison. And Timothy can expect the same kind of suffering, persecution, and opposition, from a world that is hostile to the Gospel.

But Paul didn’t remind Timothy of his divine commission to be a minister of the Gospel in an abrupt and overbearing way. He told him, in the calm and calming tones of a gentle spiritual father, what his life would now be like, according to God’s will.

He did emphasize the radical commitment that is involved in this vocation. But then he said, “Think over what I say.” Use your mind to ponder these words. Give yourself a little time to let it all sink in.

Let the Lord show you, as he strengthens your faith and brings peace to your heart, that this is the calling you are meant to embrace. Let the Lord, over time, bring you to the conviction and the understanding that this is the life you are destined to lead.

God does not treat people like computers, to be programed impersonally and robotically with the content of his Word. We were created in the image of God.

The human race was designed by the Lord to have fellowship with him. The way things were supposed to be - before sin came in and wrecked everything - is that human beings would hear God’s Word intelligently, and receive it thoughtfully.

And now, as God seeks to reclaim us, to rescue us from the blindness of sin, and to bring us back into fellowship with him, he brings his Word to us in a way that engages our minds, and stimulates our thinking. In the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, his Spirit prompts us to think these things through very carefully, and to consider very deeply all the ramifications of what God has done for us through the life and work of our Savior.

Unbelievers, when they mock our convictions and beliefs, often accuse us of what they call a “blind faith.” They often say that we just thoughtlessly accept everything we have been taught. In contrast, they fancy themselves to be the intellectuals, and the thinking people.

But at the same time, unbelievers who have hardened their hearts against God’s Spirit usually have an impetuous and instantaneous reaction against any proposition from the Scriptures that doesn’t match with their worldly values and carnal ideas. They don’t give the Christian option any thought.

They dismiss God’s claim on them in an instant, with derision and even anger. They don’t actually have a very intellectual response to the message of Christ.

They don’t give it fair consideration. They don’t ponder it, or think about what things would be like for them - in time and in eternity - if it were actually true.

I wonder, though, if it’s only a hardened unbeliever who reacts in such a thoughtless way to something from God’s Word that goes against the grain of current opinion. Are there some things in Scripture that you have decided not to believe - maybe in regard to some matter on which our modern society has now committed itself to a very unbiblical viewpoint?

And you have accommodated yourself to what the society thinks, and not to what God thinks. So how do you react when you hear the Scriptural teaching on sexual purity and the life-long commitment of marriage; on the sacredness of human life, both born and unborn; on the order of creation, and the roles that God has assigned to men and women in family and church; on respect for parents, and for others in authority?

Do you instantly dismiss what God’s Word says, and close your minds to it? Or do you follow the advice of the inspired apostle in today’s text - even if that would mean being open to changing your current views, and correcting your current opinions? “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything,” Paul says.

Of course, some well-intentioned but misguided Christians may actually think that the measure of true faith, and of humble acceptance of God’s will, is that they are not in fact supposed to ponder what they read in Scripture, or to think about what they hear from the pulpit. But this is not the way God works with human beings.

We are not brutes, who live only by instinct and urges. Our religious life is not just a matter of the feelings of the moment, or emotional experiences.

We are people, created with minds, and with a capacity for thought and reflection. We think our way through life - or at least we’re supposed to. And God’s Word, when it impacts us and impresses itself upon us, also causes us to think - to make rational evaluations and practical applications.

According to the ability that God has given to each of us, as the Scriptures inspire us and instruct us, God wants us to think about what he is like - and about what we are really like as God sees us. We are to reflect on what God has done and continues to do, according to his promises.

We are to ponder what it means to be in Christ by faith, and to be justified in Christ by faith. Through the prophet Isaiah, man, as an intellectual being, hears these inviting divine words:

“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.”

In our minds, we are to reflect, carefully and soberly, on what the truth of the Gospel will now mean for how we pray and worship, how we live and treat each other, how we face trials and temptations. Our lives will be different from the lives of those who do not yet know their Savior: frighteningly different, from one perspective; wonderfully different, from another.

“Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything,” St. Paul says to Timothy. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything,” St. Paul says to you.

This does not mean that the infinite mysteries of God can ever be fully grasped by our limited and finite minds. And it is a sin to use our reason to sit in judgment on God’s Word, and to determine - critically and proudly - what we will accept as true, and what we will ignore or reject. The Prophet Isaiah tells us:

“let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

But at the same time, God does not tell us in Scripture to set aside the reasoning capacity that he has created within us, and to embrace what he says to us with an unthinking and unreflective faith. He does not tell us that Christians should not have a functioning mind.

Your mind is a “receiving organ,” by which the intelligible message that God brings to you concerning his Son and your salvation “percolates” into you and through you, with the supernatural enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.

By the transforming power of the message of Christ, you will learn how to think of Christ. You will learn how to think like Christ.

When God mystically puts you into Christ in Baptism, and when he mystically puts Christ into you in his Holy Supper, you will, by the Lord’s grace, be given the mind of Christ. St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.”

“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. ... But we have the mind of Christ.”

In today’s lesson, St. Paul seems to be quoting a hymn of some kind, that the apostolic church would have been singing in its worship:

“If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful.” And then Paul adds: “for he cannot deny himself.”

That’s something to think about, and to ponder - especially this part: “if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful.”

If you deny Christ - that is, if you harden your mind and heart to him and his Word; if you refuse to believe, and think about, what he wants you to believe, and think about - you have no continuing guarantee from the Lord that the blessings of the Gospel are still yours. In fact, you have a dire warning that they are not.

Those blessings - the forgiveness of sins, the new birth of the Spirit, the hope of everlasting life - are received in faith. If faith has been expelled, the blessings of faith are likewise expelled.

But, as this ancient hymn also says, even when we are faithless, he remains faithful. There is always a way back. At a certain point you may stop receiving the Gospel in faith. But Jesus never stops offering it.

And a closed mind can always be opened again by the Holy Spirit. An embittered heart can always be set free in Christ once again, by repentance, and trust in the cross of Jesus.

Our Savior is faithful to all, and he speaks his Word to all, through the means of grace. And as he speaks to our hearts and minds, he asks us to consider, and ponder, and believe what he says.

Even when what he says initially seems unusual or unexpected; or when his message threatens to overturn certain worldly and ungodly attitudes with which we have become comfortable; still, he asks us to use our minds, and to listen. He asks us to think about his teachings, and let them sink in.

We are human beings, after all, not animals. We are also not inanimate robots. God has given us souls and hearts, so that we can trust in the forgiveness and reconciliation that he has accomplished for us in the death and resurrection of Christ.

And God has given us our reason, so that we can think about all the ways in which the Gospel of Christ does make a difference in our lives. He has given us our minds, so that we can meditate on the meaning and purpose of things, and grow in our knowledge and appreciation of what God has revealed.

Dear friends, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” Amen.

17 October 2010 - Pentecost 21 - Luke 18:1-8

When the allied troops landed at Normandy in 1944, they were met and welcomed by many patriotic Frenchmen, who had been eagerly awaiting and expecting the liberation of their country.

France had been occupied by a foreign army for approximately four years. During that time, some Frenchmen had accommodated themselves to this occupation, and had accepted it as the way things were simply going to be from now on.

But others - such as the ones who enthusiastically welcomed the allied troops on D-Day - had never accommodated themselves to this occupation. They had listened to the many shortwave radio broadcasts from England that had preceded the invasion, and that had promised eventual deliverance.

And these broadcasts had encouraged them in their expectation that their deliverance would indeed eventually come. They had been longing for that day. And when it arrived, they were ready for it.

This aspect of World War II history is similar in some ways to the parable that Jesus tells us in today’s text from St. Luke’s Gospel. The parable speaks of persistence in prayer, and in the expectation that justice will come. It teaches that people like the widow in the story, who persist in their pleadings with God, will eventually get what they are asking for.

However, this parable should not be seen as giving us a formula for manipulating God, or for getting what we want from him. It does not teach us that if we pester God with our self-serving requests long enough, he will relent and give us what we want, just to shut us up.

The parable is very specific in telling us that the thing for which the widow was asking - over and over again - was her vindication before the court. She knew that the law was on her side in her dispute with her adversary. So, she was asking only for what the court system was supposed to be giving her anyway.

She was not asking for something arbitrary or selfish. She was asking for justice. She wanted the judge to declare publicly, on the basis of objective facts, that she had been in the right all along.

The widow did not allow the judge’s delay in ruling on her case to cause her to lose heart, and to give up seeking action from him. She did not accommodate herself to the temporary injustice of her opponent seeming to have gotten away with whatever unfair or illegal thing that he had done against her.

Now, when Jesus applies the parable to the life of his disciples, we can see what the parable is really talking out. Jesus says:

“And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The justice and vindication for which we are to be praying persistently to the Lord, is the justice and vindication that will come on judgment day, when Jesus returns visible to the earth to judge the living and the dead.

This parable is not talking about prayers for a new car or a new house, or for success in romance or in business. This parable is talking about our prayers for Jesus to return on the last day, and to usher in the end of the world.

When the eternal Son of the Father assumed an earthly life in the person of Jesus, and walked among us, he did this for the purpose of redeeming us - all of us - from the power of sin and death.

As the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, he humbled himself under the weight of all human transgression, disobedience, and rebellion. As humanity’s substitute, he humbled himself under the weight of the judgment of the cross, so that fallen humanity could be forgiven, and restored to fellowship with God.

When Jesus came to save us in this way, he basically came into hostile, enemy territory. More than once, Jesus refered to Satan as “the ruler of this world.”

But the devil’s reign over and within this world is really something akin to a foreign occupation of someone else’s world. “For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”

In the same way as France still rightfully belonged to the citizens of France, even during the foreign occupation of that country in the 1940s; so too does the world to which Christ came, and in which we still live, rightfully belong to the Lord who made it.

God has never relinquished his ownership of this world. And he has pledged, in the person of Christ, to come back on a day he has appointed, to reclaim the world; to purge it of all sin and corruption; and to destroy Satan’s illegitimate rule over it once and for all.

We are sustained by God’s promise that someday Christ will return, and set everything right again. But we are also oppressed by the devil’s constant lies - to us and to everyone else - that his control over the earth is permanent.

We are continually bombarded with the lie that the ungodly spirit of pride, greed, and lust that the serpent injected into the heart of man - and into the affairs of men - will always remain. We are continually ridiculed with the lie that those who struggle to think and live in a different way, are fools.

And sometimes, it is easy for weary souls to believe these lies. Everything we see around us would tend to make us think that these lies are true.

When the people of France were told by their occupiers in 1940 that they were in the vanguard of a new world order that would last for a thousand years, and when they were told that things would never go back to the way they were, it was easy for some of them to believe that too - especially when the occupation went on for months, and then for years.

But the patriotic Frenchmen, who did not lose their hope for the eventual liberation of their country, never believed this. They always believed instead that someday the allies would come, and that their loyalty and love of their country would be vindicated.

And so they never stopped thinking about their future liberation, and making plans for their future liberation, and working for their future liberation. And God’s faithful people, who languish now in this world under the oppression and deception of the devil, are still confident that God will indeed keep his promise to them.

When God’s elect are pressured to accommodate themselves to the devil’s reign, and when they are tempted to embrace his way of thinking and living, they push back against the pressure, and resist the temptation.

When everything they see around them would cause them to think that a day of judgment against all wickedness will actually never come, they still believe that what God says is true, and that he can be counted on to accomplish what he has said he will accomplish.

They pray unrelentingly to their Father in heaven: “thy kingdom come.” And when they say those words, they really believe that it will happen.

They stubbornly refuse to stop believing that it will happen. This is what Jesus is talking about in today’s parable:

“In a certain city there was a judge... And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘...because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’”

Of course, according to our Lord’s limited point of comparison in explaining this parable, he does not intend us to think of God as a procrastinator, or as one who will ignore our requests. But we are to see ourselves in the place of the widow in this parable, who never gives up is asking the judge to demonstrate and declare that she truly is in the right.

The Savior we embrace in faith is humanity’s genuine Savior. The godly changes that we undergo in how we think, and in how we live among others - because of our relationship with Christ - really are worth it. The living hope of those who believe in him - that they will not perish, but have eternal life - is legitimate and real.

God’s people suffer much in this world, as we find ourselves living between the Lord’s first coming, and his second coming. There are external persecutions and mockeries of various kinds, which can discourage us.

And there are also the more frightening inner trials and doubts that arise in our minds, when we become spiritually fatigued, as it were; and when it sometimes begins to seem that the values and convictions by which we live don’t really matter - or maybe even that these values and convictions could make things worse for us in this life.

But in such times, we still call out to our God. Ultimately we do not abandon our hope and expectation that someday, the Lord whom we confess in faith, will indeed be made manifest to all, and be acknowledged by all.

For at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth; and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

What is it that sustains this hope and conviction among us, while we wait now for the vindication of his people that God has promised?

The French people, during their time of occupation, were sustained in their hope of liberation by the messages of promise and encouragement that they received from England on their shortwave radios.

Here was proof that the allies were not just mythical figures, who would never actually come. They were real. And they were continually communicating with their French compatriots in such a way as to bolster them in their confidence that D-Day would indeed happen.

In a way that has much more faith-building power than radio broadcasts from England, our Savior also communicates with us, during our time of waiting: to bolster our confidence that he will return; and to assure us that our many prayers for the coming of his kingdom - in all its fullness - will indeed be answered.

Christ communicates with his people, as they yearn for his visible return, by means of his word. Christ himself lives and works among us by means of his word: to give us his Spirit, and to fill us with faith and love.

He doesn’t just send a detached message out from himself, while he personally remains far away from us in heaven - as with a radio broadcast from England to France. Rather, Jesus comes along in and with his message.

He fills his message with himself; and he fills us with himself, when his message is received by us. Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

According to the Lord’s will, as he has taught us, we offer our persistent prayers for Christ and his kingdom to come visibly, on the last day. And we offer these prayers in the supernatural strength that Christ himself gives to us, when he comes invisibly, even now, in the power of his Gospel.

In his hidden glory, he comes in his Gospel to forgive our sins, to instill in us a living hope for eternity, and to renew us in love for God and for our neighbor. Jesus comes to us mystically in his word, to give us a faith that will always accept as true everything that his word promises.

And this includes the promise that someday, when this world has run its course, he will come again in visible glory. “And every eye will see him, even those who pierced him,” as the Book of Revelation tells us.

When we pray that the Lord will come to the earth again to vindicate his people, we are also in a sense praying that he will continue to come between now and then too, in the means of grace: to get us ready for that final coming; to give us a foretaste of that final vindication; and to assure us that he will indeed acknowledge before his Father then, those who confess him before men now.

On those blessed occasions when the Gospel is present among us in its most deeply personal form - that is, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, where we encounter Christ most vividly - our continuing prayers for the Lord’s second coming are then especially intensified.

When we pray, in the context of the celebration of this sacrament, for the resurrected Lord to give us his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins; and when we humbly ask him to prepare our hearts to receive him rightly; in, with, and under such prayers, deep down, is a prayer also that Jesus our Savior will come again in glory on the last day: to judge the living and the dead; and to usher us, in the resurrection of our flesh, into the new heavens and the new earth.

This is a prayer that the Lord’s people, like the widow in today’s parable, will never cease to speak. It is something that we will never stop asking God to bring about, until he does in fact bring it about - according to his certain promise, and his unbreakable pledge.

Lord Jesus Christ, we humbly pray
That we may feed on Thee today;
Beneath these forms of bread and wine
Enrich us with Thy grace divine.

One bread, one cup, one body, we,
United by our life in Thee,
Thy love proclaim till Thou shalt come
To bring Thy scattered loved ones home. Amen.

24 October 2010 - Pentecost 22 - Luke 18:9-14

“People of faith” is a phrase that is often heard in our society. It is used to describe religious people, with the idea that people who engage in religious practices of one kind or another are in some significant way like each other, and unlike others, who are religiously hostile or indifferent.

I suppose there might be some degree of external commonality between a Christian who recites the Our Father, a Muslim who bows toward Mecca five times a day, and a Buddhist who spins prayer wheels. But I really do wonder if such similarities in outward religious practice, in and of themselves, establish a meaningful commonality between all religious people.

Today’s text from St. Luke would suggest that this is not the case. Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’”

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisee and the tax collector do, I suppose, have this in common - as far as their outward religious practice is concerned: They are both praying in the temple in Jerusalem. There are no overt atheists in this story. But the religion of the Pharisee and the religion of the tax collector are quite different.

In his prayer, the Pharisee begins by saying, “God, I thank you that...” So far, so good. We might expect him then to begin listing some of the virtues and blessings of God, for which all people should rightfully be thankful.

“God, I thank you that you are good, gracious, and forgiving.” “God, I thank you that you have given me all that I need for this body and life.”

But no, we hear no such prayer from the Pharisee’s lips. Instead of saying, “God, I thank you that you...,” he says, “God, I thank you that I...” The Pharisee hijacked a prayer that was supposed to be to and about God, and twisted it into a list of boasts about himself.

Those who believe in God, and trust in his mercy, will bear the fruits of faith in their lives. According to their new nature, as God gives them the strength, they will be honest, and respectful of the property of others.

With God’s help they will be fair and just in their dealings. With God’s help they will be chaste and sexually pure, and faithful to their marriage vows.

In their devotional life as God’s children they might adopt certain outward disciplines, like refraining from food for certain periods of time. Our Small Catechism describes such fasting as “a fine outward training.”

As good stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to them, they may choose to imitate the example of the patriarchs, and commit themselves to donating ten percent of their income to the Lord’s work.

All of these things can be, and in the life of a believer often are, the fruits of a true and living faith, which clings to God’s Gospel promises. All of these things can be, and often are, the joyful sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving that God’s people offer to him as free responses to his unmeasurable goodness.

But the Pharisee had hijacked all of that too. In the darkness and self-deception of his spiritually dead heart, he had turned those things in his life that were meant to be the fruits of a true faith, into the objects of an idolatrous faith.

In his case they were cheap and superficial imitations of the fruits of faith. They were, in reality, the damnable fruits of his own damnable moral and religious pride.

And he trusted in his outward morality, and in his religious activities. Because, ultimately, he trusted in himself.

If this parable were to be set in another time and place, the Pharisee might have been portrayed as boasting of other things. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men: Islamic terrorists, serial murderers, corrupt politicians. I go to church every Sunday. I always say Grace before I eat.

The Pharisees of the first century are not the only ones who are capable of turning what should be the fruits of a true faith into the objects of a false faith - that is, things that are trusted in for salvation, and boasted of before God.

The real, fundamental issue for the Pharisee - and the real, fundamental issue for us too - is not what is done or not done, or what kind of external moral code someone holds himself to. Instead, the most important question – truly the only question – is, “In whom did the Pharisee trust?”

In whom do we trust? In whom do you trust?

The tax collector, in his prayer, says something quite different from what the Pharisee had said. Our translation renders his words in this way: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” But the original Greek actually speaks more precisely than this, on two points.

Where he is quoted as saying “a sinner,” a more literal translation would be “the sinner.” Was the tax collector the only sinful person on the face of the earth? Of course not.

But, in the context of his repentance, and in his unpretentious honesty before the all-knowing God, he thought of himself as the only sinner. And he might as well have been.

The Pharisee, during his prayer, was looking around at others, noticing people like the tax collector, and congratulating himself that he was not like them. But the tax collector was comparing himself only to God’s law, and not to the actions of other people.

Through his divine law, God’s Spirit was addressing the tax collector’s conscience in regard to the tax collector’s sins, and not in regard to the sins of others. It didn’t matter, at that moment, that there were other people and other sinners in the temple, and in the city.

Also, where the tax collector is quoted as saying “be merciful to me,” a more literal translation would be, “may your wrath be turned away from me.” The tax collector was liturgically aware of what was going on around him, and what it meant. It was with purpose that our Lord set this parable in the temple in Jerusalem.

Here the sacrifices for sin that God mandated for the nation of Israel were regularly performed. Here the animals who were without sin were offered on God’s fiery altar in the stead of the people, whose sins had earned God’s wrath.

And so, when the tax collector pleaded for the Lord’s mercy on this day and in this place, he was not asking God to ignore his sin or to pretend that it wasn’t really there. He was not asking God to be indulgent or indifferent. That would be asking a holy God not to be who he is.

But, in heartfelt repentance, and in hopeful expectation, the tax collector was asking that the God who forgives, would forgive him: for the sake of the temple sacrifices, and ultimately for the sake of the true and eternally sufficient sacrifice of his own Son - toward which the temple sacrifices pointed.

Our gracious and loving God is always thoroughly delighted with a prayer like this, which asks him simply to be who he is, and to give what he is ever eager to give.

The tax collector could speak this prayer with confidence. Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord had promised, “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” The tax collector knew, therefore, that God would keep his promise, and would remember his sin no more.

The tax collector then “went down to his house justified.” The word “justified” is a forensic term. This means that it is an authoritative declaration, like the pronouncement of “not guilty” to a defendant in a court room.

The tax collector was “justified” in this way by God. For the sake of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin, God pronounced him to be pure in the purity of Christ; holy in the holiness of Christ; and righteous in the righteousness of Christ. God forgave him fully, and accepted him fully.

The relationship between God and man that had been severed by sin was fully restored for this man in his justification - in God’s pronouncement of “not guilty” to him. And what God declares to be so is undeniably true. When he declares the tax collector to be righteous in Christ, he is righteous in Christ.

And the tax collector “went down to his house.” He would now live as a justified person in his earthly vocations. His right standing with God would have an impact on how he would now see all of his human relationships and duties.

Nothing that he did, or refrained from doing, would now be imagined as earning something extra from God; because God, in giving him Christ, had already given him everything.

His justification in Christ had freed him from the desperate compulsion to see every relationship and domestic duty as an opportunity for self-serving works, which might be used to turn away God’s displeasure.

Instead, as a fully justified saint, he would now be able to see every relationship and domestic duty as an opportunity for genuinely good works - acts of selfless service to his neighbor, prompted by no motive other than Christ-like and Christ-given love.

The events of this parable took place in the Old Testament temple, located in the city of Jerusalem. But as Luther would remind us:

“The temple is now as wide as the world. For the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered everywhere; and wherever these are properly observed, whether it be in a ship on the sea, or in a house on land, there is God’s house, or the Church, and there God should be sought and found.”

Like the tax collector, we, too - who have repented of our sins, and who have believed what God tells us - go down from the temple of the church to our houses justified.

In the house of the Lord - that is, wherever the marks of his church are evident - God’s forgiveness is still and always available. And God’s forgiveness is still bestowed freely and fully on every single “tax collector” who enters and prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”; “God, may your wrath be turned away from me, the sinner.”

In Holy Absolution Christ speaks this pardon through the lips of his called servant. The body and blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, are likewise present in God’s temple for God’s people, to give us divine and heavenly peace.

The Pharisee and the tax collector were both religious, as far as their external practice was concerned. They were, together, “people of faith.”

But they represented two very different kinds of religious belief: one centered on the self, and on human works; the other centered on God, his forgiving grace, and the justification that he pronounces for the sake of Christ.

One of them represents each of you. The fact that you are here in this house of worship indicates that you, too, are a “person of faith.” You are religious. You are not an atheist. But are you right with God?

Are you the proud Pharisee, trusting in your own outward morality and religious activities to make you righteous before God? Or are you the humble tax collector, clinging with a God-given confidence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, covered with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ?

On this day, through the gift of his grace, may God grant you a faith that believes the pronouncement of “not guilty” that God speaks to you in Christ. As the supreme divine sacrifice, Jesus carried all of your sins to the altar of his cross, and offered himself there as an atoning sacrifice for those sins.

You are therefore pronounced as righteous and without sin for his sake, and are at peace with God. When you leave this place of worship, therefore, you, too, can and will go down to your house justified. Amen.

31 October 2010 - Reformation - Mark 13:31

Every edition of our Sunday bulletin includes this quotation from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe...”

It is a great comfort for us to know that the kingdom of God cannot be shaken, because when we look around us - in the world in which we live, with all of its uncertainties - we see a lot of shakiness. We see a lot of instability in earthly relationships, in earthly institutions, and even in our own earthly existence - as we deal with bodily weaknesses and illnesses that do indeed shake us up.

Of course, when we reflect on the kingdom of God, and our place in it; and when we ponder spiritual and religious matters in general, this will bring us pretty quickly to thoughts about the churches we have attended, the worship services in which we have participated, and the pastors whose sermons we have listened to.

Young children who are in the “concrete-operational” stage of cognitive development do not think in abstractions. So, when the subject of God, and of the kingdom of God, comes up, they especially think about those people who tell them about God, and who represent God to them. They think about those specific places which are closely associated with God in their experience.

But it’s not just kids who link together in their minds their conception of God, and their personal experience with religious institutions and religious people. It’s something we all do, to one extent or another.

And that can be dangerous to our faith, since it’s not just non-religious earthly institutions and non-spiritual earthly relationships that have a tendency to be shaky and unreliable. The institutions of the church, and the relationships that we have with people in church, can also be sources of disappointment and discouragement to us, when those institutions and relationships are shaken by one thing or another in this fallen world.

God’s Word does promise us that the kingdom of God itself cannot be shaken. But that does not mean that the human institutions and human relationships that are, as it were, built up around the kingdom of God in this world, will not often quiver, or occasionally even collapse.

To the extent that the kingdom of God intersects with this world, and takes on forms and structures that overlap with this world, then to that extent these forms and structures are, in a sense, of this world. And they are susceptible to the same kind of corruptions, and break-downs, and abuses to which purely secular forms and structures are susceptible.

In many places in his epistles, we can see St. Paul addressing all kinds of problems that had developed in the congregations to which he was writing: false doctrine; moral laxity; lack of love and consideration among the members; lack of respect for authority; neglect of duty.

It is certainly true that Christians do not check their sinful natures at the door when they enter the church. The world, the flesh, and the devil all conspire to destroy that which is good and pure and holy among God’s people; to replace our hope with cynicism, our joy with grief; and our faith with despair.

Before the Reformation of the sixteenth century, many of the institutions of Christendom had become twisted by corruption and infected with error. And God’s people were being spiritually harmed by this.

As a faithful pastor who also had teaching responsibilities at the university, Luther was already addressing some of these problems as well as he could. But it all came to a head when John Tetzel, under the authorization of the archbishop and the pope, began selling indulgences in the region where Luther was serving.

The hapless laity who came under the spell of Tetzel’s manipulative preaching were led to believe that with the payment of money they could acquire heaven, for themselves or their loved ones.

The selling of indulgences, especially in the way that Tetzel was doing it, was very harmful for those who had a troubled conscience on account of their sins, since it did not point them to the cross, where their sins were already paid for once and for all. The selling of indulgences was a damning error also for unrepentant hypocrites, since it appeared to be promising them a salvation that did not require heartfelt faith in Christ.

Luther, and others like him, were greatly disappointed that the pope and archbishop had allowed, and even set in motion, these horrible distortions. The institutions of the church, and the leaders of the church, had let God’s people down.

But Luther and his reform-minded colleagues did not use these human failings as an excuse to turn away from God, and abandon their faith. Instead, they remembered that the kingdom of God, in its true essence, is not to be equated with the outward institutions and hierarchy of the church.

When God promises that his kingdom will not be shaken, he is not referring to popes or bishops, professors or monks, church buildings or congregations of sinful people. He is referring to his own Word, and to what his Word does when it touches and transforms the human heart.

Jesus said before Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” If his kingdom were of this world, it would be susceptible to decay and dissolution - as is the case with everything that is of the world, and as is the case with the world itself.

But that will never happen to God’s true kingdom, because God’s true kingdom is based on something totally different - on the promises of Christ; and on the power of his gospel to forgive the guilty, to regenerate the spiritually dead, to lift the fallen, and to fill the discouraged with an ever-new confidence in God and in the faithfulness of God.

Luther did not lose his confidence in God because of the unreliability of individuals and institutions. His confidence in God was not based on the notion that the pope, or John Tetzel, or anyone else, would always do the right thing.

Rather, his confidence in God had its source in the Word of God - the eternal, unchanging, and truthful Word of God. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

As a called teacher of the church, Luther preached and taught the Word of God in its truth and purity, so that through this preaching the kingdom of God could be built up among God’s people. God’s Word, as it was proclaimed from the pulpit, from the university classroom, and from the writing desk, confronted the errors and corruptions of the time, and did indeed bring about necessary reforms.

And God’s Word, as it was proclaimed at font and altar, and in the confessional, gave renewed faith and hope to the Lord’s people. It brought peace to their troubled consciences, and lifted them out of their discouragement.

In his Word, God declared to them that their sins were forgiven for the sake of Christ, and that in Christ they had a place in his spiritual kingdom.

We can never rely ultimately on religious institutions, or on the individuals who are in those institutions, for our salvation. Even the best of pastors and church leaders will occasionally disappoint us, and let us down.

And each of us also, in our own moral frailty and sinfulness, will inevitably do and say things that will hurt and disappoint others as well. God’s kingdom is not built on the stability of religious institutions, or on the reliability of religious leaders. God’s kingdom is not built on us.

Therefore, when we fail each other in our weakness, this does not mean that God’s kingdom has failed. But as God himself comes to us in his Word, and in the sacraments that are instituted and made present for us by the power of his Word, God’s kingdom will always be built.

God’s Word - not individuals or institutions, but the pure and living message of a pure and living Savior - will always accomplish the purposes for which it was sent. If we have God’s Word, and if we cling to God’s Word, we will indeed receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Even if every institution around us is shaken and collapses, and even if every other person we have known falls away from the faith and turns from the Lord, what God has given to us in his Word will not fade away or decay.

Each of us should, of course, always pray that God would preserve us from such difficulties, and prevent us from being a cause of such difficulties. But if times of testing do come, we will not lose our faith.

We will not lose God’s kingdom, as long as we still have God’s Word. And even if heaven and earth pass away, the words of our Savior Jesus Christ will not pass away.

And that, my friends, is what we are celebrating today in our observance of the 25th anniversary of the original home mission effort that laid the groundwork for the founding of Redeemer Lutheran Church.

Over the years, some wonderful and exciting things have happened among those who have gathered in this house of worship. But also over the years, some disappointing and discouraging things have happened.

Yet through it all - the good and the bad, the times of happiness and the times of sadness - there has been one thing that could always be counted on, and trusted in. When we have been weak, God has been strong.

He has kept all his promises. Wherever and whenever his Word was proclaimed, his unshakable kingdom was brought to his people. And that kingdom remains forever.

Throughout your life of faith, even with all the ups and down of human grief, human disappointment, and your own human failures, if the Word of God has been a part of your life - calling you to repentance, and forming you in faith - God’s kingdom also has been a part of your life.

Indeed, your citizenship in God’s kingdom has been - and by the grace of God will continue to be - the one unchanging and unshakable foundation of your life. Jesus died for your sins, and rose again for your justification.

You were baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and by the power of his Word in baptism you died to sin, and were lifted up in heavenly life. His words of pardon have continually cleansed your conscience, as you have heard and believed his absolution.

And his words of sacramental blessing have mystically brought to you the heavenly banquet of his Holy Supper, whenever your body and soul have been nurtured by the body and blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

As God’s Word has come to you in these marvelous ways, it has renewed your trust in him, and him alone. He has kept faith with you, by delivering you from the oppression of sin, and by feeding your hungry soul.

By his Word he has set you free from the bondage of sin, and opened your spiritually blind eyes. He has given you strength in times of spiritual fatigue, and has watched over you and protected you in times of trial.

By his unchanging Word he had transported you into his unchanging kingdom, and by his unchanging Word he preserves you in that kingdom even now. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the words of Jesus will not pass away.

And so, on this joyous and hopeful occasion, as we remember these divine promises, let us in thanksgiving join our hearts and minds to the praises of Psalm 146:

“Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. ... Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.”

“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless... The Lord will reign forever; your God, O Zion, [will reign] to all generations. Praise the Lord!” Amen.