3 August 2014 - Pentecost 8 - Isaiah 55:1-5

Imagine a scenario like this, here in southern Arizona, during the summer months. Someone is going on a long hike with a friend. During the hike, the friend says to him, “Remember to keep drinking water as you walk, so you don’t become dehydrated.”

But the response goes something like this: “That kind of thing is O.K. for those who need it, but I don’t need water. My hike is going fine without any re-hydration.”

How much time do you think it would take, before that person passes out, and perhaps even dies from heat stroke? Why is this?

Because in the Arizona heat, everyone needs an ongoing replenishing of their fluids, whether or not they realize it. In the Arizona heat, everyone is “thirsty,” whether or not they feel thirsty.

Many Christians have had the experience of sharing the message of Christ with someone, or inviting someone to church, and getting a response something like this: “That kind of thing is O.K. for those who need it, but I don’t need Jesus. My life is fine without religion.”

And so, with an undercurrent of patronizing arrogance, the invitation is rebuffed. The opportunity to receive Christ, and to believe in Christ, is cast aside - because the need for Christ, which is very real, is not perceived.

In today’s Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Isaiah, God issues this invitation: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

In other words, there is free water - and free wine and milk - for all who are thirsty. But what response does God get to this invitation?

Well, what response do you and I get, when we, on God’s behalf, offer the message of salvation in Christ to others? Quite often we are told, in effect, “I’m not thirsty. I don’t need the water. I don’t want the water.”

And why do people say this? Because they don’t feel thirsty.

But that doesn’t mean that they are not actually thirsty - just as people whose body fluids are being evaporated off of the top of their heads in the Arizona desert, often do not consciously notice that this is happening, even though, objectively, it is happening.

There is a deep “thirst” for God in every human soul, even when the person in question is unaware of this.

What I’m talking about is the fact that the human race was created in the image and likeness of God, and was created for fellowship with God. There is, we might say, a place inside all people where God is supposed to be, and where human beings are supposed to be connected to God, living in him and in his love.

But because of human sin - both the original sin that we inherit, and the particular sins we contribute ourselves - God is not where he is supposed to be. Or rather, we are not where we are supposed to be, in relation to our Creator.

In the state in which we come into this world, that place, within each of us, is empty. There is, instead, a huge spiritual void in fallen man.

For humanity as a whole, in its fallen condition, God’s indwelling Spirit has, as it were, evaporated out of us and off of us - in the “desert” of rebellion against God in which the children of Adam now sojourn.

Not only did the human race, in Adam, lose God; but it lost its ability to know what has been lost. In our fallen state - before God graciously enlightens our minds and opens our hearts - we don’t really know what is missing, and what needs to be restored.

St. Paul reminds Christians in his Epistle to the Ephesians of that former sad time when they were “separated from Christ” - “having no hope, and without God in the world.”

To be sure, people can often sense that there is a spiritual hole in their lives that needs to be filled in some way. But they inevitably try to fill it themselves, by their own religious or moral efforts.

They don’t grasp on their own - before God makes it known to them - that the only way for this hole on the inside to be filled, is for God to fill it - from outside of themselves - like the drinking of water from outside the body, quenches a thirst in the body, that otherwise will not be quenched.

Unregenerated man does not feel the thirst that is really there, deep down, for that divine “refreshment” that alone is able to restore him to his true humanity - and to the image and likeness of his Maker.

And so he continues on his hike, not drinking the water, and not thinking or feeling that he needs the water. He continues on his hike - inwardly dry and parched, but consciously oblivious to his true thirst - until he dies.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

This invitation is not issued only to those who feel thirsty. It is issued to everyone who actually is thirsty.

And that means that it is issued to everyone, period. This invitation is issued to you and me.

Are you consciously aware of your sin, and of your need for God? If so, then what God is offering, is being offered to you.

Or are you not conscious of your sin? Do you ignore your sin, or rationalize it, and explain it away? Are you just hopelessly confused - morally, ethically, and spiritually - not knowing what is really going on inside of you?

Well, whatever state you are in, or think you are in, God’s offer is for you. Whoever you are, if you are a human being, you are thirsty for God - whether or not you know that that is indeed your deepest need as a human being.

If God is not a part of your life at all, you need God. If God is a part of your life, but if you are also aware of the continuing failures and flaws that are also a part of your life, you also need God. You need him again.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

The “thirst” that God speaks of here is, of course, a metaphor for something deeper than bodily thirst. As we have already noted, it is a symbolic reference to a spiritual thirst, or an inner spiritual emptiness, in one’s soul, and not just to the thirst of one’s physical body.

The “drinking” that is referred to is also a symbolic way of speaking of something else - something more consequential than the mere physical imbibing of a beverage. And the references to water, wine, and milk, are likewise metaphorical expressions that point to something else - or to someone else.

The literal, saving reality which these metaphorical images illustrate, is expressed no better than in that well-known verse from the Gospel according to St. John: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The perishing world that God loves is those who are thirsty. And that’s the whole world, not just those who feel thirsty.

The Son that God gives - that is, Jesus, with the forgiveness, life, and salvation that he embodies and delivers - is, as it were, the water, the wine, and the milk. And the faith by which God’s gift of his Son is received, and taken in, is the drinking.

God gave his Son to the world to save the world - by living in it, and for it; and by dying to atone for its sins. And now, in his Word and sacraments, God gives his crucified and resurrected Son to the world for the regeneration and refreshment of all who receive him - who drink him in by faith.

The Lord’s Supper, with the eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ that it entails, is the most vivid example of how the means of grace do deliver Christ and his forgiveness to our thirsty souls. But remember what St. Paul explains in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: that those who partake of this sacrament in an “unworthy” manner, thereby eat and drink judgment upon themselves, and sin against the body and blood of the Lord.

And so, to receive this sacrament in a worthy manner, and to receive a spiritual benefit from the body and blood of Christ which are objectively in it, is to receive the sacrament in faith.

The physical eating and drinking, if it is not accompanied by a true repentance for sin, and by a true trusting in the words of Jesus, will not quench that inner thirst. In fact, because of God’s chastisement upon those who improperly partake - without discerning the real presence of the Lord’s body - that inner thirst and emptiness might get even worse.

But when the words of Christ are believed, then Christ is in every way received - not only by the body, but also by the soul. And he is received as Savior, not as judge.

Sin and guilt are cleansed from the conscience. The hope of eternal life is restored to the heart.

The human spirit’s intimate fellowship with God’s Spirit is renewed. And that thirst - that deep, yearning thirst - is satisfied and assuaged.

But it is not only in the Lord’s Supper that Jesus is given to us, to be “drunk in” by faith. Whenever God’s Word is heard, read, or meditated upon, the voice of repentance and faith is able to call out to him, in the words of the Psalmist:

“My soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Answer me quickly, O Lord!” And the Lord does answer.

Jesus said on another occasion, “My words are spirit, and they are life.” When you believe those words, and drink them in, you are drinking Jesus in.

God is giving his Son to you yet again. You are receiving, yet again, the free gift that God offers for your salvation.

And as Jesus also said: “whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Amen.

9 August 2014 - Daniel North Memorial Service

Dan North was a man with many friends. He knew how to be a friend to others - to show that he cared about them, and wanted only the best for them.

So many people, since his passing, have been commenting, in social media and elsewhere, on what a “kind soul” he was. He has been described as a good and kind man, with a generous and open heart.

And when he was in need, his friends showed him that they cared about him too. And Dan sometimes was in need of help from his friends.

I don’t mean just material help, but more importantly, things like encouragement, and companionship, during those times of trial and stress that Dan faced in life.

When Dan made mistakes of one kind or another, and might have felt a bit embarrassed by those mistakes, his friends stood by him, and assured him that nothing was held against him; and also that he could now move forward a bit wiser.

When Dan was feeling lonely, and needed to be reminded that he was not forgotten, his friends were there to talk with him, and to listen to his sharing of his dreams for the future - that better and happier future that he so earnestly wanted for himself and Erica, whom he loved more than anyone else, or anything else, in this world.

Dan was a good friend to many. And many were good friends to him.

But beyond all earthly and human friends, there was another friend in Dan’s life whom he never forgot, and who never forgot him. Most of us are probably familiar with the hymn that proclaims: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.”

And Jesus was Dan’s friend. In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus said to his disciples:

“I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide.”

In his Word, Jesus made known to Dan the message of the salvation from sin and death that God the Father has made available to the world, through the sending of his only-begotten Son into the world. Jesus made known to Dan the forgiveness of his sins, which had been atoned for by Christ’s death on the cross.

Jesus made known to Dan the reality of his new spiritual life, through the gift of Christ’s indwelling Spirit. And Jesus made known to Dan the hope of an eternal home in heaven that was now his, through Christ’s resurrection and victory over death.

And this forgiveness, life, and salvation, which is received by faith, was received by Dan, by faith. Jesus, as a friend in life and in death, was received by Dan, by faith.

Dan was baptized into Christ, and into a friendship with Christ, that sustained him more deeply, and more enduringly, than even the best of his earthly friendships could have done.

God does not guarantee to his children that they will be spared the difficulties that people in general experience in this fallen world. We, too, will experience them. As today’s lesson from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians reminds us,

“We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”

And Dan was not spared these kinds of difficulties. He did face them, and endure them. But he never faced them or endured them alone.

His human friends were with him, of course - just as he was with many of them in their times of trouble.

And his divine friend - the Son of God in human flesh - was also always with him, to sustain him supernaturally. His eternal friend, who died and rose again for him, had promised that he would never leave him or forsake him.

Jesus kept that promise. He kept it to the end. In the mystery of his grace, he had chosen Dan. And he did not let him go.

We who mourn Dan’s loss are filled with many difficult feelings right now. We see a life that to us was too troubled, and too short. We wish that Dan had had a more contented life, and a longer life.

We might also be regretting that we didn’t appreciate him more than we did; that we didn’t stay as close to him as we should have; or that we were not more encouraging to him than we were.

If Dan were able to speak to us right now, he, as the good friend that he was, would assure us that everything will be OK. He would thank us for our friendship.

He would comfort us with the thought that if we did fail him, he forgives us; and with the even more important thought that, in Christ, God forgives us.

And, he would want us to move forward in life now - even without him as an earthly companion - valuing the things that he valued. He valued us, as his friends. And so he would want us to continue to value each other as friends.

Of course, we can still be Dan’s friends, too - especially by using the opportunities we will have in the coming years, to remind Erica of what a dedicated and caring father she had, and still has; and to remind her of his love, of his desire to be a godly influence on her, and of his many prayers for her well-being and happiness.

Erica, you did have a good father. Even with his human weaknesses - such as we all have - his love for you was constant and overflowing.

And in some very important ways you still do have your father, and always will have him. The love that he imprinted on you will not be erased.

As those times come in future years, when you will need to make important decisions in life, remember what he taught you. And in the memory, he will still be teaching you.

Remember the good examples he tried to set for you. And in the memory, he will still be guiding you.

In these ways he will continue to be a part of your life - a loving presence in your life. Whenever you remember his great love for you, you will still be experiencing that love.

And of course, what Dan valued most of all, and what he would want all of us to value - not just for his sake, but for our own - is the friendship that he had with Jesus Christ - his Savior, and ours. If Dan could speak to us now, he would want us to find in Christ the peace that passes all human understanding - which he found.

He would want us to know the mercy of a God who in Christ saves us from our sins by his grace alone - as he knew this mercy, and this salvation. And, he would want us to join him in the hope of the resurrection through Christ - with the words of Jesus echoing in our ears and in our hearts, just as they always echoed in his:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going. ...”

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”


10 August 2014 - Pentecost 9 - Matthew 14:22-33

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, We heard this familiar story:

“And in the fourth watch of the night [Jesus] came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’”

Over the years skeptics of various sorts have tried to figure out how to explain - or explain away - this story.

In the eighteenth century, the Rationalists claimed that Jesus was not doing anything miraculous, but he was simply walking on some stones near the shore, which were sticking up near the surface of the water. So, while it looked like he was walking on the water, this was not what he was actually doing.

The Liberals of the nineteenth century - and right up to the present time - say that this event never happened at all. It is, rather, a myth, which originated in the pious imagination of the early church.

We don’t agree with either of these human explanations. Through our baptism, and through the gospel in general, God has given us a faith in a divine-human Savior who is certainly capable of doing something like this, exactly as the apostles saw it, and as the text describes it.

Jesus, according to his human nature, was and is a part of creation. But Jesus according to his divine nature, was and is the maker, preserver, and master of creation.

As we confess in the Nicene Creed, “By him all things were made.” The miracle of our Lord’s walking on water reminds us of this. He had supreme power over creation, and could make the laws of nature bend to his will whenever he wanted them to.

When the time would eventually come for Jesus to be arrested and tried, and to be executed at the hands of the Romans, Jesus would want his disciples to know that the reason why these things were happening was not because he was incapable of preventing these things from happening.

It was because he was willing for these things to happen. As he said on another occasion: “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

A man who could walk on water could also have walked out of the sham trials that he was put through, and he could have walked away from the cross of Calvary. But he didn’t.

And that’s because the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. As the almighty God in human flesh - as the Good Shepherd from heaven - he willingly and lovingly laid down his life for the sheep.

Notice, though, that it was not only Jesus who was doing something extraordinary in today’s account. Jesus was not the only person who walked on water that night. Listen again to what St. Matthew tells us:

“And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.”

Walking on water - a feat that defied the laws of physics - was done not only by Jesus, but also by Peter.

The act of walking on water was therefore more than a testimony to the ability of God’s Son in the flesh to do the impossible. It was also a testimony to the ability of Peter - or of any of us - likewise to do the impossible, if and when Jesus would call upon us to do the impossible.

Later on in his Gospel, Matthew recounts these comments by Jesus:

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

With God all things are possible. God - in the person of Christ - was walking on the water. And with God right there, calling Peter out onto the water, it became possible for Peter to heed this invitation, and through the power of God’s call to walk on the water as well.

But there’s something else that God wants people like us to do, and to be, that’s even more seemingly impossible than walking on water. Again, in that later account, the disciples asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved? And Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

A sinner, whose heart is set against God, and who is antagonistic toward God, cannot transform himself, by a decision of his own will, into a godly believer.

Jesus does say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But no one is able to come to him, by his own power. With man this is impossible.

But... but, with God, all things are possible. We acknowledge this in our Catechism:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

If you think that Peter walking on water was a great miracle, then how would you describe the miracle of your own faith? That is a much greater wonder than Peter’s momentary defiance of the laws of physics.

You have been sinful from the time of your conception: cut off from God by nature; disobeying God by nature; a captive of sin and death by nature. But Jesus changed you.

As far as your fallen sinful nature is concerned, Jesus has defied that law of nature as well. He has given you a new nature, as only God can do.

God alone is the creator of all things, and only God can recreate us. In Christ, that is exactly what God has done.

His life-giving Spirit has called us by the gospel. And in that call, he has bestowed on us the ability and the willingness to heed his voice, and to fear, love, and trust in him above all things.

God’s call comes to us in a deeply profound way in our baptism. In our baptism the power of God’s Word suppresses the old Adam - that part of us that hates God and runs away from God.

And in our baptism God’s Word also miraculously calls us forth to believe and live in Christ. As St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Romans:

“We were buried...with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

Our walking by faith in the newness of God’s life, as given in the sacred water of baptism, is a more marvelous experience than physically walking on the water of a lake would ever be. Hearing the invitation of Christ to come to him for forgiveness, and joyfully heeding that invitation, is a more thrilling experience than an invitation to come to him on the Sea of Galilee would ever be.

Notice, however, that Peter’s experience of walking on water was not without some problems:

“When he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’”

When Peter began to notice the wind, and when he started paying attention to the stormy waves crashing in around his feet - so that he took his eyes off of Christ - he began to sink.

He became afraid of the threatening elements that surrounded him. And he became afraid that Jesus would not keep him steady and safe in the midst of those threats.

That’s what so often happens to us, in the midst of the turmoil and trials of this life. In times of weakness, we too begin to notice all the forces of sin and evil that are arrayed against Christ, and against us, in this world.

Those wicked forces are, of course, always there. But when our faith is firmly focused on Jesus, and when our ears and hearts are attuned to his powerful voice, we don’t pay all that much attention to them. As we heed the call of Christ, we know that we are safe.

But at those times when we begin to falter in our faith; when we no longer hear his voice - or when we doubt it when we do hear it - then, like Peter, we are afraid.

As we get caught in a whirlpool of fear and discouragement that begins to suck us down to despair, and as we pay less and less attention to what Jesus is saying, and calling out to us in the gospel, he begins to seem very distant from us.

We become increasingly aware of our human weakness and vulnerability. And we start to sink. Maybe some of us today are at such a point in our relationship with Christ.

We can remember a time when the Word of Christ was very dear to us, and when we boldly and enthusiastically believed everything that Jesus said to us. But maybe now we’re not listening to him as we should be.

Maybe now we have taken the eyes of our faith off of him, and are gazing instead upon the storms of life that are lapping up around us. Maybe now we have begun to sink down - down to something dark and scary.

We fear that we might perish. The saving grace of God seems to be slipping away from us, and we seem to be slipping away from the power and protection of Christ.

But if that’s what is going on - and to the extent that it is going on in all of us - do not be afraid! Jesus has not abandoned you. And he will not let you slip away under the violent waves that are crashing in around you.

St. Matthew reports that when Peter cried out to him, “Lord, save me,” Jesus “immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’”

As with Peter on the sea, your Lord is stretching out his hand to you, and taking hold of you. And as with Peter, he is doing this immediately, at this very moment, without any delay, and without requiring anything from you as a precondition.

There is not a microsecond of time between your need for Christ, and Christ’s offering of himself to you, to help you in your need, and to save you.

St. Paul tells us in today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Romans: “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

Your faith would not have anything to cling to, if you were not able to hear the voice of Christ. But Christ makes sure that you can indeed hear his voice - even over all the distracting noises of this world; and even in the midst of all the storms that may be raging in your troubled conscience.

His word cuts through all that static, and comes to you - in sermon and sacrament - with all of its power to forgive, to renew, and to lift you up out of the crashing waves of human fear and uncertainty. His word comes to you like an outstretched hand, so that your faith can wrap itself around that word, and hold on to that word.

His word seeks you out, takes hold of you, and pulls you to the safety of God’s heavenly protection. Jesus is preaching his word to you right now, and he is reaching his hand out to you right now. Through the apostle Paul he says:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. ... For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ ... For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

In Christ you are saved. You have been pulled out of the water, and placed safely in the boat. Even if your faith at this point is a “little faith” - a struggling faith, and a weak faith - if your faith is attached to Christ, you have Christ. And Christ has you. Amen.

17 August 2014 - Pentecost 10 - Matthew 15:21-28

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” These words of our Lord, as recorded in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, might seem harsh and cruel, especially in the context in which he spoke them. But he was simply stating the truth, as far as his vocation as a preacher and teacher was concerned.

We do remember that God gave his only-begotten Son because of his love for the world, and not just because of his love for Israel. Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for the sins of all people, and not just for the sins of the Jewish people.

But insofar as he was a rabbi - called to preach and teach during his earthly ministry, before his death - Jesus was not given to all people. He was given and sent only to his own people - that is, to the people of Israel.

Those few occasions when he did interact with non-Jews - such as in the land of the Gerasenes; and such as in the district of Tyre and Sidon in today’s text - were incidental to his prophetic and rabbinic calling, to let it be known in the land of Israel that the kingdom of God was at hand.

With his apostles, however, it would be different. Jesus always planned to send them forth into the world - after his crucifixion and resurrection - to make disciples of all nations.

During the three years when Jesus was fulfilling his own preaching and teaching ministry, he was also serving, in effect, as a seminary professor for the apostles, getting them ready for their future ministry. And what happened in today’s text was, we might say, an example of “field work” in this seminary program.

People often notice Jesus’ seeming disdain for the Canaanite woman in today’s account. They wonder why he seems not to care about her and her daughter’s demonic oppression.

Jesus appears to be acting as if he is annoyed by her petitions, and as if he wished she would not be there, bothering him. But remember that Jesus did make a point of going to this non-Jewish region.

Why did he do this? It wasn’t on the way to anywhere he needed to be for his ministry to the Jews.

By crossing the border into this pagan territory, he had every reason to expect that he and his disciples - who were with him - would sooner or later start bumping into the pagan inhabitants of that territory. And that’s what he wanted to happen.

He was there, in this Gentile land, to give his disciples - his students - some supervised, practical experience in interacting with the kind of people they would spend the rest of their lives interacting with, once they had left the land of Israel to go to the ends of the earth with the gospel of human salvation.

This was not Jesus’ mission, but it was going to be theirs. Through the experience they had with the Canaanite woman, they were being introduced to their own vocational future.

Note, too, that the woman who came up to Jesus - somehow having heard of his supernatural power - was asking him to help her daughter, who was, as she said, “severely oppressed by a demon.”

There was demonic activity among the Jews, and Jesus sometimes cast demons out of possessed Jewish people. As Jesus himself pointed out, the “power of darkness” was at work, especially among those Jewish leaders who hated Christ, and were plotting to kill him.

But the most extreme example of demonic possession that Jesus encountered, was not among the Jews, but among the Gerasenes. You remember that story - about how the “legion” of evil spirits were cast out of a possessed man, and entered into a herd of pigs - which then proceeded to hurl themselves over a cliff.

The severe demonic oppression of the daughter of the Canaanite woman was no doubt like this too.

Among the Jews of Jesus’ time, there was a restraining influence over against Satan and his minions, due to the prominence of God’s Word - and the presence of many people who believed that Word - in Jewish society. But in the pagan nations, with their idolatry and spiritual lostness, there was no such restraining influence.

Demonic possession was much more common, and much more severe, in those lands. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul describes the condition of these unbelieving, benighted peoples, as those who are “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.”

Those were the kind of people the apostles would someday preach to, teach, and baptize, so that they would no longer be separated from Christ. On a smaller scale, those were the kind of people Jesus was interacting with in today’s text.

The plight of the Canaanite woman’s daughter was emblematic of the plight of all people who are, as St. Paul says, “without God in the world.” Even though all unbelievers are not directly possessed by the devil, they are nevertheless captive to his will, deceived by his lies, and unwitting servants of his purposes.

And many of them are not all that unwitting either. I used to know a Christian minister who formerly had been a missionary in a remote region of South America.

He was the first Christian missionary to reach a particular tribe that had never before heard the Christian gospel. He told me about how his first convert was the village witch doctor. After that, the rest of the villagers were willing to listen to him, so that they all became Christians too.

He also described for me the depressing and frightening religious worldview that this tribe had formerly lived under, before their liberation and enlightenment by Christ. They had believed that there had originally been a good God, who created everything; but that this good God was then chased away and supplanted by the evil spirits who were now dominating their lives.

Their tribal religion consisted in rituals and sacrifices that were calculated to appease these evil spirits, and to persuade them not to harm the people. They were very much aware of the demonic world. They were immersed in it - and in the fear, the dread, the hopelessness, and the despair that these demons produced in them.

In this context, my friend announced to these people that through the sending of his Son into the world - to vanquish the devil, and to re-establish his kingdom among men - that good God who created them, is now reclaiming them; and is putting them under the protection of his Spirit.

He announced to them that God, in Christ, is now calling them to himself; and that he is now the one who is chasing the evil spirits away, and is supplanting them. They don’t have to be scared any more, because Jesus is now with them, saying to them in his gospel: “Do not be afraid.”

Concerning God, my friend proclaimed to them the words that St. Paul had proclaimed to the Colossians:

“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

If people in more sophisticated societies think that there is no supernatural world, and no devil, this doesn’t make it to be so. The primary evidence of Satan’s presence and influence in a society, or in an individual’s life, is not a conscious belief in Satan; but is, rather, a lack of belief in God, and in his Son Jesus Christ.

As our society is becoming less and less Christian, it is becoming more and more demonic. A decreasing interest in the Christian religion, is being matched by increased involvement with occultism and spiritism on the part of many.

And Confessional Lutherans are waking up to this reality. For the first time in over a century, there is now a Lutheran pastoral care handbook available - published in 2007 - that includes resources for ministering to those who are, or might be, demonically possessed.

When we step away from God’s Word in order to indulge our carnal passions, and fulfill our selfish ambitions, we are not thereby empowering ourselves. We are, instead, surrendering ourselves to the power of the devil.

The devil is, as it were, the “silent partner” of our sinful flesh, who cooperates with our own darker side in pulling us away from God - even as he then overwhelms us, and envelops us in his own grasp, before we know what is happening.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and not to our Gentile ancestors. But Jesus’ earthly ministry, with its vocational limitations, is now over.

Since the Day of Pentecost, Jesus does come to people like us in his Word and Sacrament - as administered by his command, by the apostles and preachers he has called and sent in every generation. He comes to us, to rescue us from the power of sin and Satan, and to restore us to his kingdom of grace and truth.

Don’t underestimate the demonic aspects of the evil, the suffering, and the perverseness that is increasingly surrounding us in this world. Not being able to see something with your physical eyes, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

But don’t underestimate the grace and power of Christ either. Trust in him, and remain in him, and you will be safe.

When Jesus, through his apostles, warns you to flee sexual immorality, and to flee idolatry - with all that that encompasses - then flee! Run fast and far, in the opposite direction.

Jesus knows what he is talking about, and he knows that there is a lot more going on, in the shadows of such sins, than meets the eye.

And, when Jesus invites you to come to him for safety and peace, heed that invitation, and come. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” he says.

If need be, leave all, and forsake all, to come to him, and to follow him. He also says:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

You will never regret giving up anything of this world that you need to give up, to have all of Christ, all of his love, all of his gifts, all of his salvation.

Demons may still be hovering around the perimeter of your life. And it’s inevitable that from time to time they will succeed in finding a chink in your armor, and piercing through to you with a sin that wounds your conscience.

But the forgiveness of Christ is a balm for that wound. For all people in all nations - with everything that the devil and his minions have done to wound people, and to destroy them - the forgiveness of Christ has the power to heal all, and spiritually to resurrect all.

And there is a demon-free zone for you, where you can know that you are safe, and free. There are no demons in the gospel of your Lord and Savior Jesus, who tramples all his enemies under his feet.

They may be hovering around the gospel, trying to distract you from hearing it or believing it. But they are not in the gospel.

It is God who is present and speaking, when Jesus absolves you of all your sins; and when he, by the power of his consecrating Word, feeds your penitent soul, and your body, with his own body and blood.

As the daughter of the Canaanite woman was healed and delivered from the devil’s grip through the intervention of Christ, so too are you healed, and delivered, here and now. In whatever country of which you are a resident, whatever your ancestry is, and whatever your national or ethnic heritage may be, the healing of Christ is available to you. And it is for you.

Jesus is now sent to you, in Word and Sacrament, whether you are a Jew or a Gentile. Now he does come to you, in Word and Sacrament.

And now the devil flees from you, as he is compelled by your new Master - through the reclaiming and protective power of his Word - to surrender you and your soul to him. You do now belong to Christ. You have been bought with the price of his blood.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him. Amen.

24 August 2014 - St. Bartholomew - John 1:43-51

“Seeing is believing.” “What you see is what you get.” These commonly-expressed sentiments illustrate how much value we do put on the ability to see things, with our eyes, in our determination of what is true and real.

Today is the feast day of Nathanael Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles. His name literally means “Nathanael, the son of Tolmai.”

Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to him by his patronymic name, Bartholomew. John’s Gospel refers to him by his given name, Nathanael. But they are all talking about the same person.

Church tradition tells us that as an apostle, Nathanael Bartholomew’s ministry took him eventually to Armenia, where he converted the king, but where the king’s brother then had him killed in a most cruel fashion, by ordering that he be flayed alive and then crucified.

But before all that - as demonstrated in today’s text from St. John’s Gospel - Nathanael was someone who originally attributed great importance to his ability to see things for himself, in his determination of what he would accept as true and real. And he was impressed by the extraordinary ability of Jesus also to see things that he would not have expected him to be able to see.

We are told in our text that Bartholomew was willing to believe in Jesus, because of what Bartholomew saw; and, that Bartholomew was willing to believe in Jesus because of what Jesus saw. But should he have been so willing to believe, just on this basis?

Nathanael’s friend Philip - who had himself very recently become a disciple of Jesus - invited Nathanael likewise to become a follower of the Lord, saying, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Nathanael’s somewhat haughty and dismissive response was, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip then said to him, “Come and see.”

That appealed to Nathanael. He would go and see for himself whether Jesus is, or might be, the Messiah.

The idea of seeing Jesus, and of being an eyewitness to his life both before and after the resurrection, was and is an important component of what it means for the apostles to be apostles. Unlike other pastors and preachers who would come later in the history of the church, the apostles uniquely laid the foundation of the Christian church, by their proclamation of what they had seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears.

But as a general principle, it would be a dangerous and discouraging idea, if we were to think that we should not acknowledge the truthfulness of anything that we have not seen with our own eyes. In reference to the faith and hope of Christians, St. Paul writes that “we walk by faith, not by sight.”

The faith by which we know that Jesus lived, died, and rose again for our salvation, is not based on our having seen these things, but it is based on the apostles’ having seen these things. And this saving faith is based on the supernatural testimony of the Holy Spirit - in, with, and under the apostles’ testimony - that these things really did happen, and really do matter for us.

But back to the story of Nathanael: We are told that as he approached Jesus - with Philip - Jesus said of him - loudly enough to be heard by Nathanael - “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”

Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

One can almost imagine the teasing glint in Jesus’ eye as he talked with Nathanael. When Jesus was not around, Nathanael had expressed to Philip his unvarnished low opinion of Jesus’ hometown - and, by extension, his skepticism that the Messiah could come from that town.

So, Jesus’ seeming compliment - that he was an Israelite in whom there is no deceit - was referring to his having told Philip what he really thought of Nazareth and of Nazarenes.

But this didn’t get Jesus angry. More than likely it made him chuckle, as he let it be known to Nathanael that he had seen him - and heard him - at the time when he had spoken these uncomplimentary words.

How often have you been willing to express gratuitous, unkind thoughts about someone to a third party, when you believed that the person you were criticizing could not hear you? And how embarrassed have you been on those occasions when the person you were “running down” walked up behind you - without your knowing it - so that he could hear your back-stabbing insults?

This is not just a laughing matter. Jobs have been lost, and friendships have been fractured, through such offensive behavior, and through such hurtful words.

According to the Eighth Commandment, we should speak well of others as far as truth permits; and put the best interpretation - and not the worst interpretation - on every situation. This commandment teaches that it is better to avoid the sin of slander in the first place, than to regret the sin of slander after it has come back to bite us.

Some forms of honesty and sincerity are not virtuous - such as when the honest and sincerely-held opinion which we hold, is a proud, arrogant, and judgmental opinion. Such opinions should not be held. And they should definitely not be expressed.

So, Nathanael was likely embarrassed and ashamed of what he had said - even though it was his honest opinion - once he realized that Jesus had heard him, and seen him. Jesus was accurately describing where he was, and what he was doing, at the time when his now regretted conversation with Philip took place.

This was one of those occasions during his earthly ministry when Jesus knew things that he could not have known by ordinary, natural means. It was an indication that Jesus was not an ordinary man - evidence either of his divinity, or of his special anointing with the Holy Spirit, or of both.

But by itself, this example of extrasensory perception on Jesus’ part was not enough of a reason for Nathanael to say what he then said: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” And so Jesus - likely with another chuckle - responded:

“Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these. ... Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

If Jesus’ ability to see Nathanael sitting under a tree marks him as the Son of God, what will Nathaniael’s ability someday to see angels all around Jesus, mark him to be?

Many people who were aware of so much more than this regarding Jesus - his teaching, and his miraculous power - refused to believe in him. Some of them attributed to the devil things that only God could and would do, and that God was actually doing in and through Jesus.

This was not Nathanael’s problem. He was not being stubborn in willful unbelief. But he was being a bit gullible.

When Jesus’ opponents claimed that his forgiving of sins, and his preaching of the love and grace of God, was really of the devil, this was blasphemy. The devil does not do these things, and he does not inspire people to do these things.

But an instance of extra-sensory perception, in itself, does not prove that God is present, or is exercising influence, in the life of the person who has this extraordinary ability and knowledge.

The devil also knows a lot of things about a lot of people. He and his minions are all over the place, eavesdropping on conversations, and watching what people do.

Satan is a fallen angel, with great powers of perception, and with much knowledge about many things in human affairs. And he is able to convey to people who are in his service - or who are unwittingly under his deception - a knowledge of the things that he knows, about other people in other places.

People in general today are so deficient in spiritual discernment - and so lacking in a knowledge of what the Scriptures teach about the evil powers and principalities that exist in the supernatural realm - that as soon as they conclude that something in the supernatural realm is real, they automatically assume that it is good and harmless.

So, for example, when they participate in a seance, and are spoken to through the medium by an entity that knows things about their departed loved one that they think only that departed loved one would know, they conclude without hesitation that the spirit of their departed loved one is reaching out to them.

It never enters their minds that this could be a deception. They never consider the possibility that there are intelligent and malevolent spirits in this universe who would eagerly welcome any opportunity to deceive the spiritually naive, and to give them a false hope for a blessed afterlife that does not depend on faith in Christ - who alone is the way, the truth, and the life.

Now, in today’s text, Nathanael was correct that Jesus was the Son of God, and the King of Israel. But he was not correct for the right reasons.

Based only on the evidence that turned Nathanael to this conclusion - that is, Jesus’ knowledge of where he had been, and what he had been doing - Jesus could have been in league with the devil, and could have known what he knew because the devil had revealed it to him.

If you’re going to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, and as the King of Israel, you’d better have a better reason than the reason Nathanael had for this belief. If every being that has an extra-sensory knowledge of persons and events is the Son of God, and the King of Israel, then you’re going to be worshiping and bowing down to a lot of demons.

But there are better reasons to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that do not depend on what you can see, or even on what he can see. Bartholomew and the other apostles - in time - came to understand those reasons.

As the apostles - through the New Testament - bear witness, and as the Holy Spirit confirms their testimony in the minds and hearts of those who read and hear their words, Jesus has earned your faith, and your confidence, by doing things for you that only God could do, and that only God would want to do.

Jesus carried all your sins to the cross, and as your substitute and Savior he absorbed into himself the just judgment of his own divine law against your sins. And God the Father vindicated his Son, and declared his acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice for your sins once and for all time, by raising him from the dead on the third day.

Now, in his glorified state, Jesus governs his church through his Word; and in his divine wisdom he governs the world for the benefit of his church and its mission. Jesus governs you, who know him by faith, as he comes to you again and again in Word and Sacrament: to wash away your sin, to renew your hope, and to enlighten you ever more in his truth.

Until the end of this world, Jesus will continually come to his people in these hidden and invisible ways - ways that cannot be seen, but that are very real. But on the last day, he will return visibly, with his angels, to raise - and to judge - all the dead.

All eyes will then see him in his glory. They will see his angels ascending and descending on him. Nathanael will see this. You will see this.

But as you then stand before the judgment seat of Christ, giving an account of yourself and of your deeds, there is something that Jesus will not see. He will not see your sins.

In the Book of Revelation - in anticipation of the final judgment - Jesus is quoted to say these words, of each of those who trust in him, and endure in faith until the end:

“The one who conquers will be white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”

The white garments are the garments of Christ’s own righteousness, which cover over our sin, and which make us - in God’s eyes - to be as righteousness as his Son is. As St. Paul also says in his Epistle to the Galatians:

“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

Our recognition of who Jesus is - as our justifier, and as our Savior - is not based on an ability now to see him - although we will someday see him. And in the final analysis, our recognition of who Jesus is to us, is not based on what he is able to see either. It is based on what he is able not to see.

As far as the east is from the west, God, in Christ, has removed our sins from us. God, in Christ, remembers our sins no more. God, in Christ, does not see our sins.

Nathanael Bartholomew - with the teaching of his Master, and the leading of the Holy Spirit - eventually did live, and die, in this faith. Eventually he did walk by this faith, and not by sight.

And you, too, are invited to join him in walking, not by sight, but by faith - faith in a God who makes and keeps promises, who forgives sin, and who does and gives what only God can do and give. Amen.

31 August 2014 - Pentecost 12 - Romans 12:9-21

During his earthly ministry, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus said this to his disciples:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The kind of love that Jesus is talking about here is not just an inner feeling or thought of love. He is teaching his disciples - and us - also to “live out” our love for each other, and to demonstrate that love in concrete and visible ways.

It is only on the basis of this kind of observable love that the world would be able to know something about us - namely that we are disciples of Jesus. The world cannot know this by peering into our hearts and minds, to see mere feelings or thoughts of love.

In today’s text from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the apostle applies these words of Jesus in some very practical ways. It will serve us well to listen carefully to what he says, and to learn together how to implement among ourselves the kind of love of which our Savior has spoken.

Paul begins by stating: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” The genuineness of Christian love is tested in this way: One who is motivated by it abhors evil, and clings to good.

We must not dare ourselves to try get as close to the fire of evil as we can, yet without getting burned by it. The forces of evil in this universe are very powerful and very deceptive.

In our human frailty we simply cannot play these sorts of games. This is why Jesus teaches us to pray that we would be led away from temptation, and not just that we would be led away from sin.

The best way to avoid sin, is to avoid a temptation to sin. Once someone has foolishly placed himself into a tempting situation, it is much easier for him to get sucked into the sin itself.

So, we are to run as fast and as far as we can, from what we know to be evil. A true love for others abhors what is evil.

And, a true love for others clings to what is good. We should not just give lip-service to the preferability of wholesome relationships, wholesome activities, and wholesome ways of thinking and living.

We should actively and wholeheartedly embrace godly things and godly thoughts. We should actively pursue them, and cultivate them.

Having established this as the general framework for identifying a genuine love, St. Paul then begins to explain how such a genuine love is demonstrated, in deeds and relationships. He writes: “Love one another with brotherly affection.”

In our increasingly decadent society, almost everything has been sexualized. Children and young people in particular are taught by popular music, by movies and TV, and by the youth culture in general, to make themselves sexually alluring in appearance and behavior; and to look at and evaluate members of the opposite sex with these same things in mind.

There are few if any influences in the youth culture that encourage young people to care about each other as human beings, with dignity and respect. But among Christians, there has to be a completely different culture - a culture of “brotherly affection” - governing all relationships: between people of the opposite sex, and between people of the same sex.

Even married couples are taught by the Lord, that their special marital love is a blessing that will be enjoyed only in this world; while their deeper love for each other - as brother and sister in Christ - is the love that will last forever.

So, that deeper kind of love is what we are to cultivate in our life together as Christians: through mutual sympathy in sad times, mutual concern in trying times, and mutual rejoicing in happy times.

We truly are brothers and sisters - children together of our heavenly Father, through the adoption that is ours by the indwelling of Christ’s Spirit. The way we think about each other, and treat each other, will be shaped by this truth.

And Paul goes on to say: “Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”

There is a general tendency among people to compete with one another. That’s why people in every culture enjoy sports.

But this drive to compete more often than not manifests itself in sinful and selfish ways, as we so often pursue our personal ambitions to the detriment of others. Sinners in a sinful world lie, cheat, and steal: to get an advantage for themselves, and to bring disadvantage to their competitors.

But St. Paul calls upon us as Christians to redirect this inclination toward competition, and to compete with each other in a totally different way. We are not to “outdo” one another in puffing ourselves up, and in advancing ourselves, but in showing honor to others - lifting others up, and exalting others.

We are actively to think about ways to make other people feel special. We are to plan out ways to show other people that we appreciate them, and are grateful for what they do for us.

And when we see fellow Christians demonstrating this kind of respect for other people, we are not to feel jealous or envious - wishing that we would be shown more of this kind of respect. Rather, we are to be prompted by the good example of our fellows, to redouble our own efforts in showing respect for other people.

And we can set good examples for each other also in serving the Lord together in general; in showing forth a godly cheerfulness in all situations; in patiently bearing with difficulties and challenges; and in faithfulness in our life of prayer:

continually praising God for his goodness in establishing his church; continually petitioning God for the well-being of his church; and continually thanking God for the other members of his church, with whom he has united us in a shared faith, and in a shared love.

And, as Paul indicates, it is our responsibility - as we are able - to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to be hospitable. One small aspect of that among us, is the benevolence fund that our church maintains, which is used for the relief of needy people, who often have nowhere else to turn.

We can’t help everyone with everything, but we can help some with something - insofar as that fund is kept up through the designated contributions that keep it in existence.

As you become aware of a need in the life of a disadvantaged brother or sister, you should consider how you might help satisfy that need, out of the abundance with which the Lord has blessed you.

And quite often it’s not your money that would be helpful to someone, as much as your time and talent. Can you give someone a ride to church, or to the Doctor, or to the store? Can you babysit?

Or can you “eldersit,” to give someone who cares for a disabled adult a little time off? And if someone is literally without a place to stay, can you, literally, open up your home - your spare bedroom or your sofa - to that person?

These are all very concrete ways in which we show forth the genuine love that we have for each other, within the fellowship of the church. And when the world sees this - as Jesus tells us - they will know that we are his disciples.

But does the world actually see this in us, to the degree that Jesus would want the world to be able to see this? Do you see this in yourself?

Do we love one another as Christ loves us, not only in thought but also in action? I dare say that we do not even come close!

Maybe in a relative sense, we love each other more than many unbelievers love each other. I suppose that’s worth something, humanly speaking.

But our “norm” is to love each other as Jesus loves us. And we do not measure up to that norm.

But as we look at how and when Jesus loves us, we are not just seeing an example that we should follow - an example that actually shames us, in our failure to follow it. We also notice that he loved us - that he redeemed us and saved us - before we loved him.

He loved us before we deserved to be loved. He loved the human race as a whole, and died for the human race as a whole, while the human race as a whole was still hating him, and killing him.

As St. Paul writes elsewhere in Romans, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Jesus did not die for the godly, for the spiritually successful, and for the morally obedient.

He died for the ungodly, for the failures, and for the sinners. He died for you and me. Again, the apostle states:

“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.”

God does save us through Christ. Even now, he forgives us, and justifies us, through Christ.

He invites us - as we are - to repent of our failure to love each other as we ought, and to do for each other the works of love that he has commanded. And he invites us - as we are - to receive his forgiveness and justification, by faith.

Yet again, St. Paul writes: “To the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”

Jesus loves us - as we are - in these remarkable ways. The reconciliation with God that Jesus won for us by his innocent suffering and death, is renewed and reestablished for us in his gospel and absolution.

The body and blood of Jesus that were sacrificed and shed for us on the cross, are supernaturally given to us, for the remission of sins.

And in the peace of this pardon - a pardon to which we have access as often as it is needed - Jesus then says, once again: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

And so, in the grace of him who first loved us, we love even the unlovable. We feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

We are friends to the friendless, and companions to the lonely. We are, in Christ, brothers and sisters to those who once were alienated, but who are now, by faith, members with us of the family and household of God.

You don’t wait for the other person to deserve this - just as Christ doesn’t wait for you to deserve his love. He loves you first, before you love him or others.

And so you compete with everyone else, to see who can love the other first - rejoicing all the while in the love of your Savior, whose love motivates you in this, precisely because his love for you is free and unconditional, gracious and liberating, cleansing and restoring.

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” Amen.