1 September 2013 - Pentecost 15 - Hebrews 13:1-17

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” These words of our Lord, as recorded in today’s Gospel from St. Luke, reflect the importance of the Christian virtue of humility.

Humility does not, however, come easily to sinful human beings. And it does not come naturally either.

Those who have not placed themselves under the moral guidance or moral example of Jesus generally do not even pretend that humility is a good thing, or that they are trying to be humble. Humility is weakness, they would say.

A lust for power is what energizes life, and makes life worth living, not humility. Assertiveness and pride are the virtues to which they aspire, and by which they govern their actions and attitudes.

Just think of some of the world’s dictators and despots. Think of some of the high-power business tycoons you know, or know about. And, think of yourself.

Those of us who do outwardly acknowledge that humility is a good thing, fight against a genuine spirit of humility in our hearts, more often than we care to admit.

How often do we cloak our inner pride and self-will under a deceptive veneer of humble-sounding platitudes and slogans? But all the while, we are relentless in our pursuit of our own ambitions.

We think that our opinions should be agreed to by others, simply because they are our opinions. We think that our needs are the ones that should be met, simply because they are our needs.

We want to be in charge of every situation, and we want people always to submit to our direction, and follow our lead. We assume that the only things that are important are the things that we consider to be important.

Boy, do we ever need to hear the words of Jesus today: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.”

Even if you do not humble yourself, God will humble you. Sooner or later, God humbles all people through circumstances of life, or circumstances of death, that are beyond their control, whether they like it or not.

When Jesus teaches us to be humble, it is not a “do as I say and not as I do” kind of thing. Jesus was humble.

He was perfectly humble in letting go of the full use of his divine power - and becoming like us, as he walked the earth among us. And he was perfectly humble in what he did then do, and allowed to be done, for the accomplishing of our salvation.

In the Proper Preface for Holy Communion, later in today’s service, we will pray:

“It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who, out of love for his fallen creation, humbled himself by taking on the form of a servant, becoming obedient unto death, even death upon a cross. Risen from the dead, he has freed us from eternal death and given us life everlasting.”

But this is something you need to notice about Jesus’ humility, so that you can better gauge what it would mean for you to be humble in a Christ-like way. For Jesus, his humility did not mean that he was always quiet, always withdrawing from public view, or always deferring to the views of others.

His humility took the form of a humble acceptance of the calling that God the Father had placed upon him, and a faithful fulfilling of that calling. And because he always did the will of his Father, when his Father wanted him to rebuke error, and castigate the religious leaders of Israel for their lack of faithfulness, that is what he did.

When his Father wanted him to invite all people to look to him, to put their trust in him, and to believe in him, then that is what he preached.

When a traveling rabbi preaches sermons about himself in this way - declaring, “I and the Father are one”; saying, “Come to me, and I will give you rest” - most people would get the impression that such behavior is not humble.

When a private individual speaks harshly to the leaders of his nation - calling them hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, sons of the devil, and blind leaders of the blind - the impression that would surely be left on most people, is that this is not a humble person, but an arrogant and disrespectful person.

But Jesus was humble. From within the state of humility in which he lived on this earth, he said things like this:

“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

That, my friends, is humility. That is true humility - humility before God; humility in following the will of God; and humility within the vocation that has been received from God.

God the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Jesus humbled himself under this call, and became obedient in his preaching, in his rebuking, and in his comforting. Jesus humbled himself under this call, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

And that is the kind of humility that you and I are called upon to emulate, when St. Peter tells us: “Humble yourselves...under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”

In today’s Epistle to the Hebrews, several examples are presented to us, of the sort of things that we are called to, and that we are called upon to fulfill in humility: submitting our pride and selfishness, our ambition and self-will, to the will of God for us.

God tells us: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” We often have a hard enough time showing hospitality to people we know. But strangers, too, are to be an object of our concern.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to invite people we do not know into our homes. But we can provide for them in other ways.

If a homeless person needs a place to stay for the night, we can pay to put him up in a hotel. If a hungry person needs a meal, we can buy him some food. Today’s text says: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

Our congregation has a special benevolence fund, that exists for this very purpose. Our synod manages a similar fund for world needs. You are welcome to contribute to these funds.

God also tells us: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” A humble attitude toward the honorable institution of marriage, on the part of a married person, would be evident in a lifelong gratitude for the spouse that God gave you; and in being satisfied with that spouse.

For one who is not married, humility in regard to this institution would be evident in patience and moral discipline: when one does not brazenly take what has not yet been given; and when one waits until God has publicly made him a married person, before he acts like a married person.

Again, God tells us: “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”

A lack of humility in the affairs of this world very often manifests itself in avarice. We want to prosper financially, and so, we are callously willing to step on anyone who seems to be in our way, as we climb to the top of the ladder of success.

And in a spirit of greed and self-importance, we want to keep what we accumulate, for ourselves, not sharing our material wealth with others in their need; not investing our material wealth in the lives of those who are disadvantaged.

In comparison, a humble approach toward matters of finance and earthly prosperity, will see that we are all actually stewards of God’s wealth. Whatever we do with the means that we have, we need to be able to do with a clear conscience before God.

And God tells us: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.”

These words command us to have a humble attitude toward the orthodox Christina teachers of the past, and toward the unchanging message of the unchanging Christ that they proclaimed.

This is not an uncritical traditionalism, since the content of their teaching was and is the Word of God. The Word of God in Scripture remains as the standard by which their teaching is measured and evaluated, even today.

But when the faith of these revered spiritual fathers passes that test, then that faith is to be embraced by us.

This remains so, even when the wise spirits of our age would mock us for our beliefs and morals; and would claim that it is old-fashioned, irrelevant, and even hateful for us to submit our minds and hearts to the apostolic truth that has been passed down in the historic Confessions of our church, and in the classic hymns of our worship.

It is certainly not a sign of humility, to follow the example of those who are always inventing something new to believe in, to match the fickle opinions of the day - contrary to the faith that was once and for all time delivered to the saints. And it is certainly not a humble thing to ask - with the serpent of old; and with a desire to wiggle out from under the authority of divine truth, “Did God really say...?”

But when God speaks to a humble heart, that humble heart says “amen” to everything that God says.

Or, as one of those memorable leaders of the past has taught us, when God shows us the sad reality of human sin, and the joyful reality of deliverance from sin in Christ, a humble heart says: “This is most certainly true.”

When God promises that those who repent, and believe in Christ, are forgiven, and will be saved for eternity - a humble heart says: “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

For all those times - those many times - when we have not been humble in our thoughts, in our words, or in our deeds, we are called then to the humility of repentance. Repenting of your sins is not just a matter of saying that you are sorry for what you have done.

It is really being sorry. It is wishing that you could go back and undo what you have done. It is resolving, with God’s help, that you will never do it again.

That is humility. It is a humility that God’s Spirit alone can work in us - in the deepest sense - through the conviction of God’s moral law.

And, it is a humility that then prepares us to receive, over and over again, all the benefits of the humility of our Savior. The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that he “suffered outside the gate, in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”

In his humility, through the shedding of his blood, he sanctifies you in your humility. And then he lifts you up, in the exalting power of his resurrection. For “he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

And please pay attention also to these words from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.”

The disciples of Christ have continual access to Christ, for the grace that we need as a remedy to our arrogance, and pride, and callousness.

And the disciples of Christ - who have been taught the fullness of his truth, and who confess the fullness of his truth - have the right to approach his altar of grace. This is not a right that is shared by everyone in this world.

The practice of “closed communion” is often criticized by those who do not understand it, as a man-made custom of religious pride and judgmental arrogance. But this practice is actually one of the most vivid examples of religious humility.

It recognizes that the Lord’s Supper is indeed the Lord’s Supper, not ours. And it recognizes that what prepares us for admission to the altar of the Lord, comes from the hand of the Lord.

In his Word, he teaches us how to repent, how to believe, and how to confess. He gives us our repentance. He gives us our belief. He gives us our confession. And we, in humility, receive what he gives.

The Lord’s Supper is not open to all. That’s not the way Jesus instituted it, and we have to be humble in our recognition of that fact.

But the pathway that leads to the Lord’s Supper is open to all. And all along that pathway - that pathway of learning and reflection, of discipleship and growth, of divine forgiveness and reconciliation - the love and grace of Christ are already and abundantly available to those who, in the humility of faith, are traversing that pathway.

“It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace”: to be lifted up, and carried forward, not by human arrogance, but by grace.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Amen.

8 September 2013 - Pentecost 16 - Deuteronomy 30:15-20

In the era of the Old Testament, a sharp distinction between church and state was not made. According to the way things were set up back then, the people of Israel were governed by God’s Scriptural revelation both in their religious life and in their political life.

This means, therefore, that many of the statement of the Old Testament - regarding the way God wants things to be - cannot be applied without qualification to the situation in which we live, in the New Testament era.

The New Testament does make a distinction between the spiritual authority of the church, and the government of the church by the revealed Word of Christ; and the worldly authority of the various civil governments under which Christians live, which are to be guided by the natural knowledge of God, and natural law.

St. Paul speaks of this in his Epistle to the Romans. The Declaration of Independence of the United States also speaks of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” as that which should govern and guide our nation, and any nation.

Many of the specific regulations of the Mosaic Law were applicable only to the Hebrew people in the past, and are not applicable to us. But some of the statements of the Old Testament do indeed apply to us - not only as Christians, but also as citizens of our country.

As citizens, we are inspired by the ethical principles of our faith in our desire to be good citizens. And we use the power of our vote, and other avenues of influence, to promote causes that would make our nation to be a better nation, and a more ethical and just nation.

A very well-known Proverb is often cited in this respect, and properly so: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” This is true of any nation, and any people, not just the ancient kingdom of Israel.

In today’s text from the Book of Deuteronomy, there is another passage that is also often applied to the civil realm, and to the ethical standards to which any country should adhere. Moses declares:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”

“But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.”

This passage cannot be directly applied to a society that is not overtly governed by the revealed Scriptures - or indeed to any society that is a society other than the ancient nation of Israel. But the underlying principles that are set forth in this passage are valid for all times and places - especially when we consider that the fundamental moral content of the revealed Ten Commandments, and the fundamental moral content of natural law, are the same.

The universal applicability of the underlying principles of today’s text is brought out even more clearly in these powerful and conscience-grabbing words. Again, Moses declares:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.”

A society that recognizes its obligation to treat all human beings according to the dignity that their status as special creatures of God has bestowed upon them, will be a society that embodies a culture of life. But a society that turns away from God, and that ignores the voice of conscience in deciding how certain people will be treated - especially weak and vulnerable people - is a society that embodies a culture of death.

An earthly culture of life fosters and promotes the joys of life in this world, for Christians and non-Christians alike. And as far as heaven and salvation are concerned, an earthly culture of life certainly does provide a friendly environment for the church, with its unique mission of bringing spiritual life to people through the gospel.

In contrast, a culture of death leads to death, and to the degradation and destruction of human existence, both spiritually and physically.

Marriage and family, as God ordained these institutions for human beings in this world, are life-affirming institutions. But in a culture of death, these institutions are attacked and undermined, and eventually destroyed.

Children are seen as the greatest of gifts in a culture of life. But in a culture of death, they are often seen as an inconvenience, so that their lives can be snuffed out before they are even born.

And if they make it to being born, they are still not safe from exploitation and abuse, or from being treated as human commodities. The prevalence of abortion and human trafficking in a society are two tell-take marks of a culture of death in that society.

A human existence marked by an unbridled craving for self-gratification, self-fulfillment, and self-aggrandizement, without regard for the weaker members of the human family, is a death-filled existence.

This is the way of those who are trapped in the darkness of death. They are without hope, and are without God in the world, to quote St. Paul.

And such were we. Indeed, all humanity, conceived and born in the corruption of sin and death, is by nature destined for a culture of death, and for death - for bodily and spiritual death.

Natural law, and humanity’s limited capacity to discern and apply natural law, do have a restraining influence on our race’s inborn destructive impulses. But those impulses, within fallen man, are never eradicated.

And over time, as civilizations decay, those impulses tend to get the upper hand - in human behavior, and in human relationships. And they then bring the whole house of civilization crashing down, to the rubble of ethical anarchy and moral chaos.

But because of Christ, this is no longer our reality. In Christ, this is no longer the world to which we ultimately belong.

Even if we outwardly live in a culture of death - which to an alarming degree is what our society is becoming - a culture of death does not live in us.

At one time it did, of course. Even if you were baptized as an infant, and have remained true to your baptism since then, you were conceived with the seeds of the culture of death already inside of you. And that’s what you were a part of, by nature, until God pulled you out, and washed you clean.

And maybe some of us bear deep scars - from a more prolonged time in the culture of death - before the light and life of Christ came to us. But the gospel has now come to us!

The Word of Christ has touched us, and entered into us, and transformed us. And things have never been the same since.

The sins of our old deathly existence are forgiven, and are swallowed up in the death of Christ - which was the death of death. And God’s vindication and approval of Christ, which was declared to him in his being raised from death, becomes God’s approval and justification of us - for whom Jesus died and rose again - when we believe in him, and are united to him by faith.

St. Paul writes to the Romans: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

There is a deep delusion in the minds and hearts of those who are still caught up in the culture of death. Those who are spiritually dead cannot even imagine what being spiritually alive would be like.

They cannot imagine how they could ever give up their fornication, their intoxication, their pride, and their greed. This is what life is about!

But when Christ comes, their eyes are opened, and their will is liberated. When his Spirit - who is the Lord, and the Giver of life - gives his life to them, the scales fall from their eyes.

They now see that these things are not what life is about, but are what death is about. And they now desire what is truly good, and genuinely satisfying.

They now heed the words of today’s text: “Choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.”

We now heed these words. And as we do choose the life that has chosen us, the death-filled world sees us as a threat. And, on that point, the world is correct.

Life is a threat to death - just as healing is a threat to disease, and peace is a threat to conflict. And the power of life - God’s power to give life - can and does overthrow those demonic forces that still hold, in the captivity of death, souls for whom Christ died.

The culture of life, that flows out of the life of God - in human beings, and in human relationships - is the culture that will ultimately prevail. On the Last Day, death will be swallowed up by life, in our resurrection from the dead.

But in the meantime, the culture of death is desperately trying to survive as long as it can. And the culture of death is elated whenever it can reabsorb into itself one who had been rescued from its clutches.

It is indeed the saddest of tragedies to see a Christian who had tasted of God’s life, get sucked into death once again: by surrendering to temptation, by falling away from the faith, by turning his back on God, and by expelling the Holy Spirit through willful and damning sin. The influence is supposed to go in the other direction.

There are plenty of injustices and destructive influences in the world in which we live, that are antithetical to a culture of life, and that cause misery and grief among those who are entrapped by them. As Christian citizens, we are concerned about these injustices and destructive influences, because we are concerned about their victims.

We care about unborn children - whose lives are threatened by legalized abortion; and by a culture of death that drives their frightened and desperate mothers to perpetrate, on their own offspring, the most unnatural of crimes.

We care about those mothers, too. We care about them very deeply.

We hold out to them the life and love of Christ, in the midst of their shame and despair. We hold out to them a message of hope for the future - a life-filled future for them and for their children.

And, when the wounds of the culture of death have already been slashed deeply into their consciences, so that we find them staggering away in guilt from a sin already committed, we hold out to them the absolution of Christ, the regeneration of Christ, and the fellowship of fellow forgiven sinners in the church of Christ.

Through the loving eyes of Christ, we can also see how a culture of death is exploiting the unnatural sexual attractions that sadly afflict many. We can see how a culture of death is driving and enticing them to indulge their troubled passions - and to be dissipated by those passions.

An animal with a thorn stuck in its flesh will, in its agony, often snap at those who seek to alleviate that pain by pulling the thorn out. Likewise, when the church offers the liberating gift of God’s peace - and of a Spirit-wrought contentment in God’s grace - to those who are still enthralled by the culture of death, we will be snapped at, and attacked.

But we will not stop issuing the heartfelt warnings that Jesus wants us to issue. We will not stop performing the deeds of love that Jesus wants us to perform.

We will not stop forgiving the penitent, helping the weak, and restoring the lost, through the sharing of that same heavenly gospel that has forgiven, helped, and restored us.

We will obey God, rather than man. We will not be quiet, when God tells us to speak light into the darkness, and to speak life into death.

Slurs and slanders will abound. Our love will be called hate. Our desire for the temporal and eternal well-being of all, without distinction, will be called intolerance and bigotry.

The culture of death will hate the culture of life. But we will not be surprised by this. And in the grace of Christ - as he keeps us faithful to him, and as he keeps us strong for each other - we will not be moved by this, either.

St. John writes: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”

The words of Moses invite all citizens of a civil society to use their reason, and to follow their conscience, in discerning what is right and good for their society according to the natural knowledge of God. Moses invites all citizens of a country to work toward the establishing of an earthly culture of life in their country, and not a culture of death.

And at a deeper level, the words of Moses invite every human being on the face of the earth, to turn away from the death of sin, and to hear and believe the words of eternal life that Jesus speaks. Moses invites all regenerated hearts actively to want the life that God gives - for themselves, and for everyone.

There is an eternal culture of an eternal life that all God’s people do enjoy with each other, within the mystical fellowship of the church, whether or not the human society in which they now live is friendly, or hostile, to the church.

In Christ, and as members of the body of Christ, we have passed from death, to life. And in Christ, as we are gathered in his name, around his Word and Sacraments, we are sustained in this life.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” Amen.

15 September 2013 - Pentecost 17 - Luke 15:1-10

Today Jesus tells a parable to the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes who had been muttering among themselves over the fact that he was willing to spend time with notorious sinners. He asks, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?”

Jesus paints a verbal picture of a shepherd, who owns a flock of 100 sheep. Sheep are of value to a shepherd.

Therefore, when one wanders off, or is frightened away by a storm or an attack of predators, a shepherd would be willing to expend a lot of time and effort in looking for it. He won’t give up until he finds it.

Now, if a shepherd - or anyone else - were to lose something of little value, he would not be expected to take much time to carry out a search for it. I can’t tell you how many pens I’ve lost over the years.

But when I lose one, I don’t spend a lot of time or energy looking for it. I just get another one out of the pen-holder on my desk, or out of the package of new pens that my wife brings home from the store on a regular basis.

The way that Jesus thinks about you, as a redeemed and baptized member of his church, is the way a responsible shepherd thinks about his sheep. Jesus does not think about you in the way that an absent-minded person thinks about his pens.

You are of great value to God. Your spiritual safety, under his protection, is important to him.

And when you wander off from the flock, or are drawn away from the fellowship of the church by some deceptive allurement, it is of great concern to him.

If you become lost because of sin, and are separated from the shepherd and the other sheep, Jesus does not just write you off and go on without you.

He notices that you’re gone, and he searches for you. He searches for you, to forgive you, and to bring you back to where you belong.

If you are going through a time of struggle in your faith, that makes you feel that Christ has perhaps forgotten about you and abandoned you, that feeling is deceptive. That is not what is really going on.

If that’s the emotional state that you’re in right now, be assured that Jesus your Savior - your true shepherd - is coming for you, to find you and restore you. He has not forgotten about you or abandoned you.

You are not like a pen, easy to replace and of no significant value. You are a sheep. You are one of his sheep.

The context of the story Jesus told about a shepherd looking for his lost sheep, was the context of Jesus’ spending time with tax collectors and sinners, and even eating with them.

He associated with these people in this way, and, as it were, rubbed up against them, not to condone their sin, but, in a mystical sense, to take their sin upon himself - to let it “rub off” on him - so that he could carry it to the cross, and atone for it at the cross.

Jesus spent time with these outcasts, so that he could teach them about repentance and faith, and so that he could forgive their sin.

These individuals may have perceived themselves to have been searching for a better life, and trying to find a way to get out of the self-destructive lifestyles in which they were stuck. They were likely troubled in their consciences by how they were living.

And, when Jesus came along, they were likely wondering if they had found, in him, someone who could help them.

That’s what seemed to be happening. But what was really happening, was that in Christ, God was searching for them, and finding them.

I’ve been acquainted with lots of people over the years, who were on what they might have described as a “spiritual quest.” They were looking for something to believe in, that would bring meaning and purpose to their lives.

At a certain point many of these people found their way into a Christian church, and, as they might say, discovered there the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There used to be a popular bumper sticker that a lot of evangelical Christians would put on their cars, which said, “I found it!” And maybe it seemed to the people who ornamented their cars in this way that they had “found” Jesus, and salvation in Jesus.

But if their religious pilgrimage, such as it was, had actually been resolved by their becoming genuine believers in the Lord, they had not really found him. He had found them.

And, he has found you. As Christ’s Word and sacrament have come to you, to reawaken and renew your faith, Christ himself has thereby come to you - just as he came to the tax collectors and sinners with whom he interacted during his earthly ministry, and found them.

And listen now to more of the parable: “And when [the shepherd] has found [the sheep], he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”

When Jesus finds the lost sheep, he doesn’t just beckon it to come - under its own power - to where he is standing; and then to follow him back to the rest of the flock, running along at his side. He picks up the lost sheep, and bears the lost sheep on his own shoulders.

When a sheep wanders away from the flock, it does so under its own power. So, too, are you responsible for the bad decisions you make in your life, that involve your stepping away from the Lord’s Word and will, and from the Lord’s flock.

It’s nobody’s fault but your own, when you stop believing what Jesus tells you, and when you get yourself in trouble because you have ceased to follow his voice.

But when Jesus then seeks you out and finds you, so that you can once again be brought back to where you belong, he picks you up and carries you there.

Jesus does not merely coax you back to the flock, or lure you, or bait you. By the working of his divine grace, he reaches down to you, lifts you, and carries you back into the fellowship of his church.

Your renewed faith is not something that you contribute to this process. Your faith is his gift to you.

The parable then concludes: “And when [the shepherd] comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

It’s a happy day when a lost and wandering sheep is delivered from danger, and when it is carried back to the fold and restored to its proper place. The hosts of heaven rejoice with the Triune God, when they see that the devil has not prevailed in his deceptions, but that a troubled soul has come home to the family of Christ.

Notice the phrase, “I have found my sheep that was lost.” Even when you’ve wandered into sin, Jesus has not given up his claim on you. He still says, “my sheep.”

The devil may tell you that you are a hopeless case, and that God has given up on you. But he has not.

Through your baptism he pursues you. And when your heart has been turned, he invites you to join in the heavenly celebration that is bursting out, over your return to the fold.

The Lord’s Supper will be celebrated in our midst in a few minutes. In this sacrament the heavenly rejoicing of which Jesus speaks miraculously “breaks in” to our earthly experience, here and now.

This heavenly supper is not a dreary, mournful ritual. By the power of His Word, the living Christ - in his victory over death and the grave - is present among us with his body and blood.

He brings to us from heaven the joy of forgiveness, and the gladness of reconciliation.

The Lord’s Supper is not a reward for the spiritual achievements of exemplary communicants, or a “coronation” of the perfectly pious who have never faltered or failed.

It is, instead, a meal of sustenance for penitent sinners, who have been carried home by their Lord on his shoulders. It is a meal of refreshment for famished sheep, who were rescued by the shepherd, and who now know that they are always in need of the nourishment and protection that only Christ can give.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”

“And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Amen.

22 September 2013 - Pentecost 18 - 1 Timothy 2:1-15

According to the philosophy of Postmodernism, there is no universal truth that everyone would be expected to agree to and embrace, about the meaning of life, or about the fundamental purpose of human existence, or about why things are the way they are in this world and universe.

You’ve heard the platitudes that arise from this philosophy. Maybe you’ve even repeated some of them yourself.

“Truth is relative. What’s true and right for you is not true and right for everyone. Each person has to find his own pathway to his own truth. Everyone must be tolerant of other people’s beliefs.”

It’s easy to mouth these slogans, when you want to avoid an argument or disagreement.

But in reality, saying this sort of thing to someone, is just another way of saying to that person, “I don’t care what you believe.”

And saying “I don’t care what you believe,” is just another way of saying “I don’t care about you.”

Postmodernism is a reaction to Modernism, which reigned in the intellectual circles of western civilization, approximately from the time of the French Revolution in 1789, to the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Modernism had claimed that there is a universal truth, which explains everything, and which everyone should accept.

Of course, different modernists had different ideas of what this all-encompassing truth actually is. The most assertive and strident version of Modernism was Marxist, atheistic, materialistic Communism.

Communism was, supposedly, the ultimate explanation of everything. Those who had embraced Communist ideas were supremely confident that these ideas would eventually be embraced by all people in the world, and that the whole world would eventually become communist.

Postmodernism rejects this kind of confidence as arrogant and hypocritical - and sees it simply as a cloak for the desire of the powerful to suppress the powerless.

And Postmodernism also ostensibly rejects the coercion that is implicit in a Modernist worldview, when Modernists who think they have a universal truth, feel it to be their duty to force that truth on those who do not yet have it - for their own good, of course.

Communists and other Modernists do not believe that they should just leave other people alone, to believe what they want to believe. All people need to be shown what they should believe, because all people should believe in the same thing.

But of course, Postmodernism so easily slips into a coercion of its own, when it seeks to enforce its ideology of “tolerance” on those who are perceived to be intolerant.

In a fanatically “tolerant” Postmodern world, don’t expect your beliefs to be tolerated, if those beliefs are perceived to be “intolerant” by the power brokers of Postmodern tolerance!

The Christian faith actually has a lot in common with Modernism. We believe that there is one truth, which is intended for all people.

But Christians also respect that aspect of theoretical Postmodernism which would reject any and all coercive methods of spreading this universal truth to all people.

We do not think that Christian beliefs can be forced on anyone, or that a true inner conviction that the claims of Christ are true, can ever be brought about through external compulsion.

Today’s text from First Timothy teaches us that it is indeed the will of God that the truth of Christ be believed by all people. But today’s text also teaches us that God alone can bring his truth into the minds and hearts of the people for whom that truth is intended.

We therefore pray to him for the conversion of the world, and for the conversion of each individual in it.

We pray to our Father in heaven that his kingdom would come, and that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. We don’t try to make that happen through our own human strength, or our own human wisdom.

St. Paul writes: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

The church may not operate any totalitarian “reeducation camps” as it fulfills its calling in this world. The church may not use any psychological “brainwashing” methods as it carries out its unique divine commission.

And the church may not use even subtle manipulative techniques, in trying to trick people into believing in Christ.

We are not to employ “bait and switch” trickery to get people into church - pretending that God will be useful to them as a divine “resource” who will solve their problems as they define them; so that once they have come for such self-serving reasons, we can then try to “sneak in” the real gospel.

When churches do follow this method - which is inherently dishonest and phoney - the real gospel seems never to get preached and heard.

The way that God miraculously does draw people into his universal truth is actually a very up-front and honest way. He arranges for his universal truth to be proclaimed to people - out loud, out in the open.

And through the hearing of the Word of Christ, faith in Christ is birthed.

When you are sharing the message of Christ with an unbelieving friend, he may very well say, in anger or annoyance, “Are you trying to convert me?” You can respond, in all honesty, that you are not.

You are simply testifying to those things that God had impressed upon your heart and mind as true and real. Only God can convert someone - just as it was only God who converted you.

But God impresses his truth on human hearts and minds - his universal, all-encompassing truth - through means. St. Paul speaks of this when he writes: “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle..., a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.”

That divine message that you share with your unbelieving friend, is not a tool or mechanism through which you are asserting your will over against his - to overpower him with the force of your will. You are not a Communist, or any other kind of Modernist.

Rather, that message - that Christ-centered and Christ-filled message - is the tool or mechanism through which God is working.

Our speaking of the gospel can therefore be a very gentle and unassuming kind of speaking. In fact, it probably should be, most of the time.

The power of what we say is not in the method and manner of our speaking. This power is in the content of what is said - when what is said is what God has said.

Sadly, what God offers to all, is not received by all. Those who do place their faith in the testimony of God, however, are transformed by that faith, and by the Holy Spirit who works that faith.

Today’s text explains why the Christian message is uniquely true, in a world of competing messages - all of which do claim likewise to be true. St. Paul says:

“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

“There is one God.” This is the first and most basic point of the Christian message.

If there were more than one god, it would be reasonable to expect that each of these gods would determine, and reveal, the pathway that his particular devotees need to follow as they worship and serve him.

This is exactly what we see in Hinduism. The followers of Krishna - believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu supreme being Vishnu - have their own happy and peaceful way of serving him, which they believe is Krishna’s way.

And if you have ever seen the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” you know that the followers of Kali - the Hindu goddess of destruction - likewise have their own dark way of serving their favored deity, which they believe is Kali’s way.

But what if there is actually only one God? Wouldn’t that God get to determine how he is worshiped and served?

Wouldn’t that God have the right to teach all humanity how to know him, and how to follow him?

The idea that there are many pathways to God would make sense in Hinduism, where the term “God” is a “fill-in-the-blank” concept. But it doesn’t make any sense at all in a context where the one and only true God is being talked about.

And we are indeed talking about the one God who created all people. We are talking about the one God, whose only-begotten Son became a man, to redeem all people by the shedding of his blood.

We are talking about the one God, whose Spirit is working even now, through the gospel, to call all people to a saving faith.

And there is indeed “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” This naturally follows from the recognition that there is only one God.

If there were some people for whom Jesus did not die, and if there were some people whom Jesus does not love even now - with a saving and redeeming love - then there might conceivably be another way to God the Father, apart from Jesus.

But there actually is no other way, because there is no need for another way. The way of Christ is open to all.

And the way of Christ is the only way that would work anyway. That’s because of human sin, which erects a barrier and a wall between us and God that cannot be breached, or broken down, from our side of the wall.

Only God can break through that wall, from his side of it, to create an opening through which we may pass, to have fellowship with him. The sinless righteousness of the man Christ Jesus, the innocent death of the man Christ Jesus, and the glorious resurrection of the man Christ Jesus, is that opening.

As the Son of God in human flesh - God and man in one person - the Lord Jesus is the mediator between God and men. No one else could be such a mediator. Because no one else has ever risen from the dead.

Only Jesus was seen alive - in real history, by real historical people - on the third day after his death. In particular, he was seen alive by twelve men who were willing to die for the sake of proclaiming to all nations what they had seen.

In the Old Testament, it is taught that something is to be accepted as legally and judicially true on the basis of the reliable testimony of two or three witnesses. For the resurrection of Jesus, that requirement is quadrupled, so that there will be no doubt.

Jesus’ resurrection proves that he was who he said he was. And one of the things that he had said, is that he was and is the Son of the only God who really exists.

Jesus’ resurrection proves that what he did for the salvation of all people really does count, and really is offered to all people.

The one God who exists has put the forgiveness won by his Son into the gospel, which in word and sacrament is now being disseminated to the whole world. The gospel is being disseminated to all nations in the world.

The gospel has been disseminated to you: for you to believe, for your eternal salvation from sin and death; and for you to believe, for an eternal fellowship with God and all his saints.

Because God our Savior “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” you can know that he desires you to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Not just my truth, or your truth, but his truth. The truth.

This truth - this universal truth - does not coerce. It transforms, from the inside out.

This truth - this truth that is for all to believe - does not oppress. It liberates.

This truth does not push people away. It draws people near: near to the mercy of God; near to the love of God; near to God.

And the truth of God - the one God - is intended for all people, and invites the attention and the faith of all people. Every time you tell a friend - any friend - that Jesus died for him, and wants him to be saved from his sins, what you are saying is true.

Every time you share with your neighbor - any neighbor - the reasons why you go to church, you are thereby sharing with him the reasons why he, too, may and should go to church: to receive what God offers, and then to abide in what has been received.

We close with this prayer to the Lord, from Psalm 119, and from today’s Introit:

“Your promise is well tried, and your servant loves it. Your righteousness is righteous forever, and your law is true. Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding, that I may live.” Amen.

29 September 2013 - St. Michael and All Angels - Daniel 12:1-3

The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan describe themselves as “the invisible empire.” What they mean by this, is that they carry out their activities behind the scenes, in hidden ways, and in disguise.

As Christians, we do not believe in this “hidden empire,” and we do not agree with its purposes. But there is a true and genuine “hidden empire” in which we do believe. This is the “hidden empire” of the angels of God.

Since the so-called “Enlightenment,” it has become increasing popular for people to believe that invisible things are not real things. If something cannot be experienced on the basis of our physical senses, then it doesn’t exist.

The general cultural influence of this kind of thinking may help to explain why St. Michael’s Day has become an almost unnoticed festival in the church year, for most Lutheran churches. I myself never really gave much thought to the importance of it until recent years.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, St. Michael’s Day was a major annual event in the religious life of a Lutheran congregation. There are two reasons for this.

First, the Lutherans of that era were quite convinced that the devil is real. And they were vividly aware of the fact that the demons who are in league with the devil are real.

Even though these evil beings usually operated in a realm that was beyond the perception of humanity’s physical senses, our fathers in the faith could see many of the effects of Satan’s efforts to destroy and undermine the church, and to silence the gospel - so that he could steal away from Christ as many souls as possible.

This is why references to the devil appear so prominently in the hymns of that era:

The old evil Foe Now means deadly woe;
Deep guile and great might Are his dread arms in fight;
On Earth is not his equal.

Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpower us.

O little flock, fear not the Foe
Who madly seeks your overthrow;
Dread not his rage and power.

As true as God’s own Word is true,
Not earth nor hell with all their crew
Against us shall prevail.

A sober awareness of these things did not lead the Christians of the past into despair or discouragement, however - because they knew that God sends St. Michael the archangel, and all his other holy angels, to protect his church, and to defend and protect his children from demonic attacks.

Luther’s much beloved evening and morning prayers reflect this confidence, when they each conclude with these words: “Let Your holy angel be with me, that the wicked foe may have no power over me.”

And the second reason why St. Michael’s Day was such a prominent observance in the church of that time, was as a corrective to many of the superstitions and misunderstanding that had prevailed up until then - regarding the saints in heaven; and regarding the notion that these deceased Christians now serve as special guardians and patrons for various people and places on earth.

The Scriptures tell us that those Christians who have departed in the Lord now rest from their labors. But the Scriptures also tell us that the angels of God do serve as special guardians and protectors of the Lord’s people, collectively and individually.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, in regard to little children who believe in him: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

And in today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Daniel, we are told that Michael in particular has charge of the people of God as a whole.

Michael was the special protector of the nation of Israel, even when it was in exile in Babylon. And he is now the special protector of the new Israel - the one holy catholic and apostolic church, as drawn from all nations.

And God’s angels are not only our companions in life. They are also our companions in death.

In his story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus says that when poor Lazarus died, he “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side,” in Paradise.

Even if we someday may die alone, humanly speaking, without friends or relatives to be there with us; we will not die alone in the true sense.

Jesus, of course, will be with us. But his angels will also be with us, and will escort us to our heavenly home.

As we speak of such guardian angels, and the role they play for the people of God on earth, let’s not forget Jesus, and the role the angels played in his life on earth.

During the period when Jesus had assumed “the form of a servant,” he too - according to his humanity - was protected and helped by angels.

Angels guarded and encouraged him on various occasions when something pivotal for our salvation was taking place - when human salvation would have become impossible, if the thing Jesus was at that time doing or experiencing had not been done or experienced.

An angel announced to Mary his miraculous conception, and his entrance into the human race. An angel announced his birth to the shepherds near Bethlehem.

An angel warned Joseph to take Jesus to a place of safety, when King Herod was seeking to kill him. Angels ministered to Jesus when he had fasted for 40 days in the wilderness - and when he had successfully resisted the devil’s temptations.

An angel strengthened Jesus when he was undergoing his great agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, in preparation for the much greater agony that was to come.

The physical suffering that Jesus knew he would face - in being nailed to a cross - would have been bad enough. But he knew that according to the Father’s will - which must be fulfilled - he would also experience, in sinful humanity’s place, the pain of hell itself.

As he prayed in Gethsemane, he knew that, on the cross, he was going to feel the spiritual suffering of being forsaken by God. But he needed to endure this, in order to redeem us from ever having to undergo such a damnation ourselves, on account of our damnable sins.

It was not possible that this cup could pass from him. As the substitute and Savior of us all, he must drink into himself the cup of divine wrath, to the very bottom.

But before all this happened, in that desperate and lonely hour in Gethsemane, Jesus - in his humbled humanity - needed the encouragement and companionship of an angel.

And through the loving provision of his Father in heaven, he was granted that encouragement and companionship. Luke’s account tells us that an angel came, and strengthened him.

And who could ever forget that the resurrection of Jesus was announced by an angel, to the women who visited the tomb. “He is not here,” the angel said. “He is risen!”

All that was necessary for our salvation from the guilt and power of sin, had been accomplished. The atoning sacrifice of Jesus had been accepted.

The living Christ would now build a living church by his Word and Sacraments - a church of redeemed and forgiven saints that will endure for eternity - beginning in Jerusalem, and extending to the ends of the earth. It was an angel who first announced this.

The ongoing announcement and proclamation of this message - and the invitation to all men to repent of their sins, and to believe in this message for the forgiveness of sins - is, however, generally no longer carried out by angels. This task has now been entrusted to the church, and especially to the preachers and ministers of the church.

But as we bring the gospel to our fellow men; and as we, through the gospel, bring our fellow men to Christ - and to his righteousness - we do so under the protection of angels.

The demons do not want this message of salvation and victory in Christ to get out. This message of victory for fallen humanity, is a message of defeat for them.

So, with diabolical cleverness, they work to silence that message. But the angels of God do not let them silence it.

The angels stand between us and them, keeping them at bay, so that the mission and message of God can go forward to all nations, and to all individuals in all nations.

Based on what the Bible does tell us, it is easy to imagine than when a baptism is performed, there may very well be a host of unseen angels with interlocked arms, circling the font - and the baby at the font - keeping Satan out and away.

It is easy to imagine ranks of unseen angels bowing down and kneeling with great reverence, when their Lord Christ - in the Sacrament of the Altar - comes to us, in his body and blood. This is a unique gift and blessing for the human brethren of Jesus, which the angels only witness, and do not receive themselves.

As we ponder this mystery, we are reminded of the words of St. Peter in his First Epistle:

“It was revealed to [the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours] that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven - things into which angels long to look.”

Today’s text from Daniel doesn’t only tell us that Michael protects the people of God. It also describes the goal and purpose of that protection - a goal and purpose that will be fully manifest at the end of this world, on the day of the general resurrection. We read:

“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered - everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.”

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

For those who do now belong to the Lord’s church - and who in this life patiently await the life of the world to come - our struggle against all evil and unbelief is not a human struggle. It is a supernatural struggle.

And the source of our strength in this struggle, is a supernatural source - the living and powerful Word of God: which has captivated our conscience, and in which we place our trust.

St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.”

In this wrestling of faith, the angels of the Lord are our allies. They are our comrades in this battle. Indeed, when we are feeble and weak in this struggle, they are still strong.

They are strong, in the might of the Lord whom they serve. They are strong for us, whom they also serve in the Lord’s name, and at his command.

This truly is an “invisible empire.”

Jesus is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. As our divine-human Master and “Emperor” - the Son of God and the son of David - he reigns over the universe.

And behind the scenes - at least as far as what we can see, hear, and touch is concerned - St. Michael and all the angels serve this king, and fight for him, and do his will.

Everlasting God, You have ordained and constituted the service of angels and men in a wonderful order. Mercifully grant that, as Your holy angels always serve and worship You in heaven, so by Your appointment they may also help and defend us here on earth; through Your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.