2 February 2014 - Presentation of Our Lord - Luke 2:22-40

“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, [Joseph and Mary] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’”

What we have here, from St. Luke’s Gospel, is a description of the Holy Family’s fulfilment of two distinct requirements of the Old Testament ritual law, as this law would apply to people in their circumstances. The first is the requirement for purification, which a new mother - accompanied by her husband - would have to undergo after a certain prescribed period of time following the birth of any child.

The book of Leviticus explains that a woman was to be considered “unclean” for one week following the birth of a son, and for two weeks following the birth of a daughter. In addition to that, in the case of a son, she was to be confined for an additional 33 days, and in the case of a daughter, for an additional 66 days.

Following that, a woman was to bring to the entrance of the tent - or, in later times, the entrance of the temple - a lamb for a burnt offering, and a turtledove or a pigeon for a sin offering.

There is also the following provision: “And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.” This shows, then, that Mary and Joseph were not very well off at this point in their lives.

These regulations certainly did have a practical, hygienic purpose. They also gave a new mother the time she would need to take care of her newborn baby.

A husband would not be allowed to pressure her into a resumption of her regular activities before the prescribed period of time. Among the Jews, therefore, we would not hear the kind of stories that are often told of Mongolian women of the past, who were said to give birth while on horseback, and never to have dismounted during the whole process.

We would also not have instances of women giving birth while out in the field at work, and resuming their work as soon as the child had been delivered - as reported in historical accounts from various agrarian cultures. Among God’s Old Testament people, there would have been a greater level of concern for the welfare of both mother and child at this important time in their lives.

But at a deeper level, this time of being ceremonially unclean, and this time of purification, was a reminder of the moral imperfection of humanity at all times of life. These particular instances would serve as a reminder of the deeper, continuing reality of our need for God’s forgiving mercy, all the time.

King David’s confession in Psalm 51 of his specific sins, and of his lifelong sinfulness, comes readily to mind:

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Today, in the age of the New Testament, we can still benefit from the practical lessons that are taught through these Old Testament directives.

Not that we would necessarily be tempted to be this way, but husbands in our day should not do the equivalent of making their wives give birth on horseback, or the equivalent of expecting them to keep working out in the fields after having a baby. New mothers and their newborn children need time to rest, and they should be given that time.

But we should also recognize why it is that purification rituals and temple sacrifices are no longer binding on us. It is because the ultimate sacrifice for sin has now been offered.

Not a turtledove, and not a literal lamb either, but the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, has been offered up for us. His righteousness covers over our imperfections. His blood washes away the stain of our guilt.

And it is not through the ritual of an external purification, but through faith in the heart, that the purity and righteousness of Jesus are credited to each of us. “Therefore,” in the words of St. Paul, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The ceremonies that God enjoined on the people of Israel pointed forward to Christ. We know that now, of course. But the people who lived before Christ were also expected to know that.

They, too, were called by the Lord to lift up the eyes of their faith, and to look beyond the external performance of the ritual to see it’s true, spiritual meaning. A penitent King David, also in Psalm 51, recognized this, as he prayed to the Lord for forgiveness:

“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

The second requirement of the Old Testament ritual law that the Holy Family is fulfilling in today’s text, is the command for the presentation to God of every firstborn son. We read in the Book of Exodus:

“When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s. ... Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.”

This command was given in the context of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, and in the context of the last plague that the Lord had brought upon the people of Egypt: the death of all their firstborn. The Lord had claimed these firstborn in judgment.

This limited act of divine justice represented God’s wrath against human sin and rebellion in general. To those who would object that it was not fair for the Lord to kill so many people, we might respond that it was actually a sign of God’s mercy and patience that he did not kill all the people of Egypt, on account of their sins.

Remember that cruel Egypt has enslaved God’s chosen people, and in its idolatry and arrogance had defied God’s Word. But instead of killing all of the Egyptians, the Lord poured out this severe judgment only on the firstborn of the land - as a vivid token and testimony of his displeasure with the wickedness of this society as a whole.

The firstborn of Israel, however, were spared - not because the Hebrews were inherently more righteous than the Egyptians, and less deserving of God’s judgment; but because the blood of the Passover lamb had been smeared on their doorposts.

This bloody evidence of the death of a substitute creature on their behalf, provided a covering of atonement, which diverted away from them the Lord’s angel of death, as he carried out his somber mission that night.

But the God of Israel did make a special claim on the firstborn sons of Israel nevertheless - among both men and beasts. All firstborn males belonged to him. This symbolized the fact that actually all things belong to the Lord.

He is the creator and the true Master of all the living. And the lives of all creatures, human and otherwise, are properly to be dedicated to the Lord, and to the fulfillment of his purposes.

And so, to illustrate this fact, all firstborn male animals were to be sacrificed as an offering to the Lord, in death. All firstborn male children, in comparison, were to be sacrificed as an offering to the Lord, in life.

They were to be redeemed, meaning that an animal sacrifice was to be offered in the place of these children, by which their fathers would, as it were, “buy them back” from God.

Firstborn human sons were not to be killed. This would be an abomination to the Lord. But even after their redemption, they still, in a unique sense, belonged to the Lord, and owed service to him.

Practically speaking, the way in which this was set up, involved yet another kind of substitution. We read in the book of Numbers that the tribe of Levites was designated to stand in the place of the firstborn of Israel as a whole.

As the representatives of the firstborn of all the other tribes, the Levites were to provide special service to the Lord in the tabernacle, and, later, in the temple. In other words, the firstborn of Israel, who owed special service to the Lord, performed that service by proxy, through the Levites.

But now we come to Jesus, the firstborn son of Mary. Even if Mary never had other sons or daughters, Jesus was still designated deliberately as the “firstborn,” in order to make a connection between him and these Old Testament references.

In fact, all the things that were said in various places of the Old Testament about the special status of the “firstborn,” ultimately pointed to Jesus.

Jesus - the Son of God and the son of Mary - was and is the true and ultimate firstborn of the Lord. The epistle to the Colossians says that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”

The firstborn of Egypt had been killed by God, and had received into themselves the judgment that all the people of Egypt actually deserved. Jesus, as the Firstborn of the Lord - and as the substitute for all of sinful humanity - was, as the Book of Acts tells us, “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.”

In his death on the cross, Jesus received into himself the judgment of his own divine law against the sins of all the world. He received into himself the judgment of God’s law against your sins.

That’s why God forgives you now. It’s not because your sins haven’t offended him, and it’s not because you don’t deserve his punishment.

It’s because God’s Son - his Firstborn - has died in your place. God sent the Firstborn to your cross, so that his shed blood could cover you, and divert God’s damnation away from you.

Jesus belonged to God in the most profound way. And he served God, and fulfilled God’s will for the salvation of the world, in the most profound way.

The salvation from sin and judgment that he willingly accomplished for the whole world, is now offered to the whole world. It is offered to you - whether you are the equivalent of an ancient Israelite, or the equivalent of an ancient Egyptian.

Jesus is - as Simeon declares in today’s text - a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to God’s people Israel.

As the resurrected Savior, Jesus continues to show that he is the firstborn of the Lord. He takes care of God’s church - God’s living temple - every moment of every day.

Within his living temple, he purifies his people from their sin before God; and bestows upon them - in its place - his perfect righteousness. And he will continue to show his redeeming love for this living temple, and for those who are a part of it, into eternity.

The Book of Revelation describes Jesus as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth,” who “loves us, and has freed us from our sins by his blood.”

In the Epistle to the Colossians, he is described as “the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”

As a member of God’s church, united to Christ the Head by faith, your true needs will never go unmet. You will be comforted in every trial.

When you are lacking in the knowledge of God, you will be instructed. When you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you will be protected from evil.

You will be sustained, and carried through, in every weakness. You will be forgiven for every failure.

All of these things are so, because the Firstborn is still serving God, on your behalf and for your benefit. He is serving God by serving you in all your needs, according to God’s gracious will, through his Word and Sacraments.

As he himself said on another occasion: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus the Firstborn is washing away your sins through Baptism, and through the remembrance of Baptism in his Absolution. He is feeding your faith and hope with his own body and blood, in his Holy Supper.

Today’s New Testament text from St. Luke is about a specific historical application of the Old Testament passages that speak of the purification of new mothers, and that speak of the dedication of the firstborn sons of Israel to the Lord.

But at a deeper level, those Old Testament passages that speak of these things, are actually about the events in today’s text.

These Old Testament passages are about Jesus. They find their meaning ultimately in Jesus, and in everything that he has done and continues to do - to purify us from sin, and to serve us as the Firstborn of the Lord. Amen.

9 February 2014 - Epiphany 5 - Matthew 5:13-20

As we heard in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus says to his followers - and to us - “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

What does it mean to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees? Answering this question is not just a matter of idle curiosity.

According to Jesus, our entrance into the kingdom of heaven is at stake here. We need to get this right!

I think that this question can be answered in three ways, with three different levels of applying what Jesus says, to our lives as Christians. First, our righteousness is to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees in terms of the form and scope of the good works that we perform.

In today’s Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord criticizes the kind of superficial good works that the Pharisees were also later known for - and for which Jesus also often criticized them. On another occasion, Jesus said:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.”

Today’s Isaiah text starts out with a quotation that represents the sinfully presumptuous sentiments of the people - as they remind the Lord of their external fasting; and as they express their annoyance that he seems not to have noticed it, or to have rewarded them for it:

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”

And God then tells them:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”

We Lutherans are sometimes so concerned to emphasize that our justification before God is not based on our good works, that we might tend to ignore or undervalue the importance of our good works for the benefit of our neighbor, and of the world.

It is true, of course, that alleviating the suffering of people in this life, in itself, has no bearing on anyone’s eternal destiny. But alleviating suffering is alleviating suffering!

Loving and serving our neighbor at the point of his bodily need is not the supremely good thing. But it is a good thing, and not a bad thing.

On the question of the scope of good works, and regarding the range of people who should be the beneficiaries of good works, the Pharisees cared about their fellow Jews - and even more precisely, about observant and religious Jews like themselves.

But Jesus tells us that the scope of our good works involves all people and all nations, everywhere. He says: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.”

Remember what Jesus taught the lawyer in St. Luke’s Gospel, when he asked him, “And who is my neighbor?” The parable of the Good Samaritan was the answer.

Your neighbor is everyone - including those who are ethnically, culturally, and even religiously different from you. You are to love all of them, and serve all of them, and care about all of them, according to your vocation, and according to their need.

You are to be salt and light for all of them - not just for people who are like you, or with whom you feel comfortable. Truly, that universal scope of our human concern and compassion - as we perform real and beneficial good works for real people in need - is a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees.

Again, what does it mean to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees? The second way of answering this question, is that the motive that impels us toward the good works that we do, is to be a righteous motive - a selfless and faith-driven motive.

A Christian is someone who has faith in Christ. As a Christian, St. James writes: “I will show you my faith by my works.”

We do not perform good works because we hope to earn God’s favor by means of them. If that were the case, the people for whom we would do nice things, would thereby be people whom we are using, for our own selfish ends.

Those who believe that they can be justified before God by their own good works, are, in effect, saying to those people in this world for whom these good works are performed:

“I’m not doing this because I love you. I’m doing this because I love myself.”

“In order to get myself into heaven, I need to do this - so that God will notice it, and credit it to me, and reward me for it. So, I’m not doing this for your benefit. I’m doing this for my benefit.”

For a Christian, however, the works of righteousness that we do, are works of righteousness that flow from a heart that has been transformed by the love of Christ. We perform acts of love for other people because we really do love other people.

In today’s lesson from his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul teaches that “we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”

God’s Spirit indwells our hearts, and bears his fruit in our lives. And as St. Paul states in his Epistle to the Galatians: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

There are a lot of potential good works bundled up in those Christ-like character traits that grow organically out of a Christian’s life of faith.

These godly gifts of Christian character naturally unfold into the lives of others - by means of the good works for others that Christians perform - unselfconsciously and reflexively - when they see a need.

Elsewhere in St. Matthew’s Gospel, however, Jesus points out a very different dynamic and motive, for the outward works of those whom he calls “the hypocrites.” He tells his disciples:

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

Performing good works because we love God and our neighbor - and not because we love ourselves - is indeed yet another example of a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees.

But there is still a problem.

We may indeed try to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees, by seeking to perform useful and practical good works that really do help other people; and by seeking to perform such good works for all others.

But we don’t actually succeed in this. There have been lots of people whom we were able to help, and who could have benefitted from our help, but who did not receive our help.

There have been lonely people we could have visited, whom we did not visit. There have been hungry and naked people whom we could have fed and clothed, whom we did not feed and clothe.

And I’m not just talking about people we know. We are the salt of the earth, not just of Arizona. We are the light of the world, not just of the Valley of the Sun.

There are places in the world - such as India and Peru - where the mission agencies of our church body give us real and workable connections with needy people, so that we can indeed help them with a portion of our bounty, even though they live far from us. But how often have those connections gone un-utilized by us?

Again, we may indeed try to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees, by having purer and more righteous motives for what we do. But our motives are not completely pure, and they are not completely righteous.

Jesus says in today’s text from St. Matthew: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

But how often do we, in pride, want others to give glory to us; to notice us and our noble deeds; and to tell us how great we are for doing this or that good thing? Our motives are always mixed.

What does it mean to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees? From the point of view of these two ways of answering that question, our righteousness does not, in the final analysis, really exceed their righteousness.

There might be a difference in degree between us and them, but not a fundamental difference in kind - at least not before the holy and righteous God! Jesus’ criticisms of them, ultimately land on us as well.

There has to be something more, or else we are lost. And there is something more. There is much more.

For the third answer to the question - the answer that really counts - we look, not to what is said in today’s text, but to the one who says it. We look to Jesus.

St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle lesson: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

St. Paul digs more deeply into the meaning of this in his Epistle to the Romans, when he writes that

“all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

“This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

The righteousness that counts before God can only be the righteousness of Christ, since Christ’s righteousness is the only righteousness that really is fully everything it is cracked up to be.

Jesus faithfully fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. He was and is perfect in obedience, perfect in love, and perfect in service to others.

He was and is all of those things for us. He suffered and died for us, to atone for our sins.

He now gives his perfection to us in the gospel of forgiveness, received through faith in his name. He now gives us his righteousness.

And when Christ gives this to you, and you receive it by faith, it really is yours now. God does not just pretend that you are as righteous as his Son - with a wink and a nod.

In his eyes, you really are as righteous as his Son - because you are in his Son, and his Son is in you, and upon you. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed your transgressions from you.

By his gospel in Word and Sacrament, God declares you to be righteous - by grace, through faith. And what God declares to be so is never a fiction.

God creates new realities by the power of his Word. By the power of his Word, he re-creates you.

He makes you to be acceptable to him, by what he gives you. He causes you, in Christ, to have a righteousness before him - a perfect and invincible righteousness - that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees.

Whenever you become aware of your sins, and your conscience tells you that you do not deserve God’s favor, then remember - in repentance and humility - that, in Christ, God does not give you what you deserve. Remember, in joy and peace, that He gives you what Jesus deserves - because he has given you Jesus himself.

In his Word of forgiveness today, he gives you Jesus once again, today. In his Word of absolution, he gives you, once again, the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees.

And because this righteousness is yours - really and truly yours in Christ, by faith in Christ - you will enter the kingdom of heaven.

You will rise in Christ on the last day. And you will live forever in Christ, with all the forgiven - and righteous - saints of God. Amen.

13 February 2014 - Memorial Service for Helen Macholl

The Bible gives us a variety of images and metaphors to describe and illustrate what it means to be a Christian, and to have a relationship with God. Examples would be that those who, without Christ, were in darkness, have now been enlightened.

Those who were foreigners to God and his people are now citizens of his kingdom through Christ. Those who were spiritually dead before the time of faith, are now alive in Jesus.

All of these descriptions, and many more like them, convey and embody important aspects of what it means to be a Christian. But it is probably true for most of us, that one particular image or metaphor is more personally meaningful to us than others.

I think that was true for Helen. And I think that for her, the metaphor that was most meaningful and beneficial for her faith, was the teaching of Scripture that those who trust in Christ, and who find their hope in him, are now members of the family of God.

The background for this would be the way in which Helen valued her earthly family, and her relationships with the members of her earthly family. She was affectionate, devoted, and protective of them, in her own unique ways.

I’m told of a time many years ago, when Helen was a young girl, and some boys were picking on her sister - her older sister. She intervened, and beat up those boys, to protect Charlotte.

This kind of protectiveness was reflected also in her desire to keep her daughters Andrea and Janice safe from the dangers of the world. Nighttime curfews for them even when they were already young adults, but still living at home, were emblematic of this.

During the relatively short time I knew Helen, and served as her pastor, I saw firsthand how deeply grieved she was at the loss of Charlotte and Andrea. She loved them so deeply. And after they were gone, she continued to love her memory of them so deeply.

I also saw how happy she was to mark the birth of her great-grandson Lincoln, and to be able to meet him and visit with him. And no one could fail to see her deep affection for her husband Roger, on whom she depended for so much.

She told me more than once - including mere hours before she departed from this world, during my last hospital visit with her - how grateful she was for all the blessings she had received in life.

As she reflected on her long life, she said that her life had been filled with blessings from God. The love that she had known in these important family relationships through the years, was at the top of the list of the good gifts from her Lord that she had in mind as she said this.

Her life was not without its times of grief, and disappointment, and regret. But in the bigger picture, as she looked at her life through the lens of her Christian faith, she knew that God had been good to her in so many ways - especially in the people that he had given to her, and brought to her, in her family.

The words of the Song of Solomon, “his banner over me was love,” could be, and were, her own words of faith and thanksgiving.

And this spilled over also into her thoughts about her church family. She valued the relationships she had with her Christian friends. She told me more than once that one of the things she really appreciated about our congregation was that it was like a family.

As a congregation, we do not gather specifically for the purpose of cultivating these human relationships. We are called together as a gathering of Christians, to be instructed in the Scriptures, to be nurtured in our faith in God’s Word, and to be comforted by the message of Christ crucified for sinners.

Our relationship with God, in Christ, is the defining relationship, and the most fundamental relationship, for all of us. That is also the most basic reason why Helen came to church: to be nurtured in this faith - a faith that she had known since her own childhood.

The words of St. Paul as written to Timothy, could just as well have been written to her personally: “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

But the gospel of God’s love for the world in the person of his Son, when it is embraced by the members of a congregation, will naturally and inevitably result in an overflow of that love among those who do together embrace this faith.

Helen saw and appreciated the way in which the love of God that we know through his Word and promises, was reflected in the love that the members of our church do show for each other, and in the way that they care about each other, support and encourage each other, pray for and with each other, and forgiver each other - as God, in Christ has forgiven us.

But Helen was not a mere observer of this love, or only a recipient of it. She was, I dare say, one of the primary instigators of the spirit of Christian love and affection that permeates the family of our church.

No one else has been more welcoming to others than Helen. New people, young people, everyone - was made to feel at home at Redeemer by her warm embrace and kind words. Pretty much everyone got a hug, every week.

We are told in Psalm 68: “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home.” Through Helen, God assured lots of people in our congregation, that Redeemer was indeed their spiritual home.

At the center of all this is, of course, Jesus Christ. He is the head of his church, and he is also the heart of his church.

It is within an earthly family that we find those whom we know best, and with whom we are most familiar in this life. In the family of the church, it is Jesus whom we know best.

And our relationship with him is of such importance to us as Christians - reaching into the deepest recesses of our life, and reaching out into eternity - that we can scarcely describe its importance.

But St. John does speak for all of us - as members of the family of God - in attempting to describe it. He writes in his First Epistle:

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. ... Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

Through Christ we receive the forgiveness of our sins - which would otherwise cause us to be at enmity with God, and isolate us from knowing and experiencing his love.

But by the gift of his Spirit, we are made to be new creatures in Christ. We are clothed in his righteousness, so that in him we now stand without fear before God. By faith, as we abide in his Word, we also put on the mind of Christ, and become more and more like him.

During his time on earth, Jesus was an alien in this world - which did not understand him, and which still does not understand him. We, too, as his people - as his family - are largely not understood by this world.

We are citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world. And when we depart from this world, we depart in confidence and hope, not in fear. Jesus does that for us.

Perfect love casts out all fear. The love that we know now, as members of the fellowship of his family on earth, is a love that eases us gently and peacefully into the fellowship of his family in heaven - when that time comes.

The one whom we know now, as the victor over death and the grave for us, is the one who ushers us, ultimately, to our own resurrection.

His is the familiar, familial voice that gently speaks these words to us:

“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.”

This is the voice of Christ that Helen heard, and heeded. From that which is unseen, on the other side of death, a familiar voice assured her, as she departed: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Helen, full of years as she was, was from a generation that is quickly passing off the scene in this world. Many of us today may perceive that for people of her time, it was easier to believe these things; but that now, with all that we know today, this kind of faith no longer seems relevant to our human existence.

As an advanced society, we have, it is often thought, outgrown this kind of simple and naive Christian outlook on life. But regardless of how sophisticated we may perceive ourselves to be in the twenty-first century, we have not in fact outgrown our need for the stability and compassion of a human family.

And, we have not outgrown our need for what God offers to humanity in his family - his eternal family - as he invites us all to be baptized into that family; to live within that family; and to know the joy of being a part of that family.

Helen knew this joy. Helen did what she could to encourage those whom she loved in this world also to embrace and know that joy.

In life, and in death, Helen would want all of us to know what she knew - and what she now knows, in the heavenly light of Christ, and as a member of the heavenly family of Christ.

For those who miss Helen, and who will continue to miss her, the place to feel close to her, is the place where she felt close to God - and where she was close to God - that is, in the fellowship of God’s church, which is the family of God.

As you receive the same Word and Sacrament that she received, and as you are thereby drawn closer to the Savior whose pure embrace she now experiences, the line between life and death - or rather, the line between earthly life and heavenly life - will, in a sense, vanish.

God’s family on this side of the grave, and God’s family on the other side of the grave, are one - with one heavenly Father; with one Savior Jesus Christ; and with one Spirit, by whom we have been adopted into one family.

At the end of today’s service we will be dismissed from this sanctuary. But we will not be dismissed from the merciful love of God our Father, or from the forgiving grace of Christ our brother, or from the faith-giving presence of their Spirit.

As members of God’s family, and as children of God, we will hear these words, penned by the hymnist Jaroslav Vajda, but as spoken by the Lord himself:

Go, my children, with my blessing, Never alone.
Waking, sleeping, I am with you; You are my own.
In my love’s baptismal river I have made you mine forever.
Go, my children, with my blessing - You are my own. Amen.

16 February 2014 - Epiphany 6 - 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Christians who are influenced by the Pentecostal or charismatic movement, and by the idea that extraordinary miracles, healings, prophecies, and speaking in tongues should be a normal part of church life today, will generally point us to the First Epistle to the Corinthians, and to St. Paul’s descriptions there of the exuberant and free-wheeling practices of the Corinthian congregation.

This is the guide and the pattern, they would want us to think, of how the Holy Spirit wishes to work also among us today. We should not be so sure, however, that the practices of the Corinthian congregation really are to be taken as a norm for regular church life now.

In today’s text from that epistle, St. Paul writes this to the Corinthian Christians:

“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.”

The Corinthian congregation, while a Christian congregation, was not as spiritual as they might have thought themselves to be. And their example in general is perhaps not as worthy of emulation as is often thought.

We, and all believers of our time, would be better served by the example of the first Christian congregation - the congregation in Jerusalem, where the original pastors were the twelve apostles. We are told in the Book of Acts, regarding the ministry and outreach of that congregation:

“Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.’” ...

“Those who accepted his message were baptized... They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”

The liturgical chaos and confusion of the Corinthian congregation was not their only problem, however. Another problem that infected them - because of their spiritual immaturity - was the personality-based factionalism that St. Paul addresses in the portion of his First Epistle to them that was read as today’s second lesson.

Again, he writes:

“For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?”

The cult of the charismatic individual is not a new problem in the history of religion.

A leader with a mesmerizing voice, penetrating eyes, smooth words and reassuring mannerisms, is often able to gain a following among those who are looking for something to believe in - but who don’t have the discernment to know where they should be looking - namely, in God’s Word.

The story of Joseph Smith, and of the founding of Mormonism in the nineteenth century, is a prime example of this.

And even Christians, whose faith may be weak and undeveloped, can be tempted to become too humanly attached to a particular preacher or teacher - often the one through whom they were brought to faith, or who helped them through a particularly difficult or important time in their Christian pilgrimage.

This is a potential problem for a Christian, who subconsciously may not be willing to accept instruction in God’s Word when it is delivered by other faithful preachers and teachers; or who may never be willing to admit, in hindsight - on the basis of better knowledge - that a respected minister of the past might have been mistaken on some point.

And - as an aside - this is a potential problem for the preacher and teacher in question as well, who in pride might be tempted improperly to take advantage of the perception that he “can do no wrong” in the eyes of those who are overly devoted to him.

What happens in a congregation when a popular pastor retires, or takes another call, or passes away? How is his successor greeted?

Is he seen as one who is likewise a servant of Christ and of Christ’s church - even if his style and personality are different from that of his predecessor? Is there an attempt to honor and love him too, because of his office?

Or is he looked upon with suspicion, or treated disdainfully and disrespectfully? Might some people even leave the church, rather than accept the fact that - under God’s overall plan and design - a new minister is now taking his turn in leading the congregation, according to his gifts and abilities?

In a congregation that is served by two or more pastors, this sort of thing can be a real problem.

It is to be expected that in such a congregation, some members will have an easier time relating to one of the pastors, and that they will be inclined to turn to that pastor for counsel or help when it is needed.

But this must never become something that is disruptive of the unity and harmony of the church; or something that would prevent such members also from accepting spiritual care from the other pastor - when he is the one who happens to be available.

St. Paul criticizes and rebukes the immaturity of the Corinthian congregation in regard to its failures and shortcomings in this respect. And a part of their problem may very well have been their imbalanced, overly “charismatic” understanding of the Christian faith as a whole.

This is what I mean: If the saving activity of the Holy Spirit is not fundamentally connected, in our religious understanding, to the external ordinary means of grace that Jesus has instituted for his church, then that activity will be connected to other things: inner feelings and religious emotions; or extraordinary miracles and visions - both real and imagined.

If the faith-creating and faith-preserving work of the Holy Spirit is not linked to the objective gospel that is preached, and to the objective sacraments that are administered - as it should be - then it will likely be linked to the preacher of the gospel, and to the administrant of the sacraments.

Spiritual power will be attached, in the religious imagination, to certain people - to gifted and charismatic people - and not to the Word that is proclaimed by such people, according to their calling.

With a distorted, overly-experiential way of looking at this, there will be a search for an anointed messenger, rather than for an anointed message. And the misguided criteria for determining who is anointed, will add to the confusion - and to the danger.

A preacher who is rhetorically persuasive in how he says things will be latched onto, rather than a preacher who is objectively correct in what he says. A teacher who draws a large crowd will be embraced, rather than a teacher who is faithful in the Biblical content of his teaching - even when there are few who are willing to listen to him.

And this is dangerous, even if the “anointed” preacher is, for now, teaching the truth - because the truth that he is preaching would not be understood to be self-validating, but to be validated by the charisma of the person who is preaching it.

And if that person ever does veer off from the pathway of orthodoxy, and begins to teach error instead, it may not be noticed. His loyal followers may be misled to a false gospel, and a false hope, by the wrong assumption that whatever this “anointed” man says must be true.

Jesus said: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” St. Paul says elsewhere that the gospel is the power of salvation for everyone who believes.

And Paul also says: “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” The apostle does not even exempt himself from the principle, that no mortal man is automatically and always to be believed in the church, regardless of what it is that he may be saying.

What then is to be our attitude toward the pastors and ministers whom the Lord has brought into our lives? Is it wrong to be thankful for faithful pastors, and to admire them and be fond of them?

If God says that we should love one another in general, how could that not mean that we can and should have a special love for a special pastor, through whom the Lord has brought us much needed - and much appreciated - blessings?

Well, St. Paul does address this in today’s text, from his First Epistle to the Corinthians. He asks:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

Apollos, and Paul, and all true ministers of Christ throughout history, are servants of the Lord. They are gifts of God to his church, for the benefit of the church - and are to be appreciated as that.

But whatever it is in them, and in their lives, that has been of spiritual benefit to us, is always to be traced back to the God who gave them to us - to serve him by serving us, with his saving truth.

God, as God, does a lot of giving. And he works through that which he gives, to accomplish great and marvelous things for us.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

After the saving death and glorious resurrection of God’s divine Son - when Jesus was preparing the apostles for the unique ministry that would now define the rest of their lives - he said to them: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

As Jesus was sent, so are his ministers now sent. One major difference, however, is that while there is only one Savior - who alone died for our sins, and who alone gives us eternal life by faith - there are many ministers.

At the beginning, there were already twelve. And the number of preachers of Christ has only gotten bigger since then.

If you emotionally latch onto one of them, to the exclusion of the others, you are cutting yourself off from the full enjoyment of the full range of blessings that God would want you to have as a Christian.

As I look back on my 52-year-long pilgrimage of faith, I can see that the pastors and teachers who baptized me, who confirmed me, who guided me in my teen years, who corrected some theological misunderstandings on my part during college, who instructed and formed me for the pastoral office, who ordained me to that office, and who since then have provided encouragement and advice, have all been different men!

They each did something important for me and for my faith, at various stages of my life. But they also each did something different.

I am taught by God to be thankful for all of them, and for each of them. And through them - through each of them - I am called to be thankful to the Savior who - in his wisdom and providence - brought each of them into my life exactly when I needed what they, in his name, gave.

They each planted, or watered, according to their calling and gifts. And God brought about an increase in my faith, and in my capacity to be of service to him and his people, by means of what those men planted and watered.

What is true for me, is also true for you. You have had Apolloses in your life. You have had Pauls in your life.

You can’t choose just one of them, as the one and only pastor you will ever truly admire, or respect, or be attached to. God calls you to love them all, and to honor them all - either in life or in memory.

And the reason why God calls you to do this, is because the gospel that they taught to you, and proclaimed to you - if they were faithful to their calling - was one and the same gospel.

There may be many apostles; and many, many more ordinary preachers and teachers. But there is one Lord, one faith, and one Baptism.

And today - whoever your pastor is now; or whoever he may be in the future - you still have access, and will have access, to the blessings that come through the public ministry of that one saving gospel.

You have equal access to that gospel through the ministry of all who - as with one voice - preach the whole counsel of God, as they and we know it in Holy Scripture.

The Biblical instruction that I share with you - the unsettling warnings of the law; and the comforting promises of the gospel - is the same instruction that all other orthodox teachers would share with you.

The absolution that I speak to your sorrowful heart, in the stead and by the command of Christ, is the same absolution you would hear from any of my brother pastors. Jesus speaks through all of us.

The body and blood of our Lord that Jesus offers to his penitent and prepared people through my ministry, is the same body and blood - given and shed for forgiveness and life - that Jesus offers through the ministry of any called public servant, who celebrates the sacrament according to his Word and institution.

This is the way God takes care of you - wherever you may be in this world, and at whatever stage of life you may be in. This is the way God takes care of his church, at all times and places. And so St. Paul concludes:

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who gives the growth.”

“He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.” Amen.

23 February 2014 - Epiphany 7 - 1 Corinthians 3:10-23

At the very end of last week’s reading from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle said to the church: “You are God’s field, God’s building.” Today’s epistle lesson picks up where last week’s lesson left off, beginning with the very next verse:

“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

Paul’s words create in our minds a mental image of the process by which a building is constructed. This is an illustration of how the work of the Lord’s ministers, in building up the church of Jesus Christ, is properly to be understood.

The first thing that is done, in such a construction project, is the laying of a proper foundation. This is not a job that can be done by anyone.

Only a “skilled master builder” is entrusted with this responsibility, because if the foundation is not stable and level, any building that is erected upon it will collapse. St. Paul, and all the other apostles with him, are the master builders of the Christian church.

They were uniquely trained and taught by Christ for this work, and were uniquely guided in their work by Christ’s Spirit. Through the inspired New Testament Scriptures that they penned, they still carry out their work as the master builders of the church.

St. Paul had described the Christians in Corinth not only as “God’s building,” which is erected on the foundation of Christ; but also as “God’s field,” in which the foundation itself is laid.

When you are brought to faith in Christ, you are, as it were, built upon the foundation of the Lord’s temple. You are made a member of the church.

But it is also proper to say that the foundation of the Lord’s temple is, in a sense, placed within you - because Jesus Christ is placed within you. The truth of Christ that you confess is also the foundation of the church.

Whether you are a pastor or a layman, when you present Christ to your neighbor, and tell your neighbor that Jesus died for his sins; and when your neighbor believes what you tell him, the temple of the Lord has thereby been built up. The church has thereby been increased.

Another important truth regarding the relationship between a foundation, and the building that is erected upon it, is that the dimensions of that building cannot exceed the dimensions of the foundation.

As a general principle, the building cannot hang over the edge of the foundation, in such a way that it will have no support beneath it. Such a building cannot stand. It will fall apart.

As far as the Christian faith is concerned, nothing of that faith can legitimately be built beyond the parameters that have been established by the foundation of Jesus Christ.

That faith - as it exists in the church, and as it exists in you - is not an ever-expanding collection of ever-new and ever-different ideas and beliefs, spreading out beyond the limits of the apostolic revelation of Christ.

We are not permitted - in view of the established parameters of the foundation upon which we are built - to seek after new and evolving doctrines, that have no basis in the divine Scriptures.

And no one is permitted to lay a different foundation either, upon which to build up new doctrines, or a new moral code. Or at least no one is permitted to lay a different foundation, and still call it the foundation of Christ and of the Christian faith.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. We do not believe in one holy catholic and charismatic church.

Whatever supernatural gifts the church has, have been given to it for the preservation and extension of its unchanging, historically-revealed faith; and not for the development of that faith into new ideas that were not known and taught by St. Paul and the other apostles.

The church cannot change the foundation upon which it has been built - because that foundation did not come from the church, but from God.

And that foundation - the foundation of Jesus Christ - has been laid down by God, through the apostles, so that his living temple can be built upon it. The truth of who Jesus is, what Jesus had done, and what he does now, is a truth that does not exist for its own sake; but for the sake of those whom the Lord carries to the foundation, and who are positioned together on it.

The eternal Son of God came from heaven to become a man. As humanity’s Redeemer, he lived and died for the sins of man. And as the risen Savior, in his gospel, he gives himself to men.

In this timeless and unalterable message, there is something mysterious - something divine, and powerful, and mysterious - that touches hearts, that transforms hearts, and that lovingly draws hearts, through Christ, to a forgiving God - a God who would otherwise be known only as a severe judge.

But when we are supernaturally built into the temple of God, his love and forgiveness in Christ are like the mortar that holds us in - and that holds us tightly together with all the other pardoned sinners who have been called to this new life with God.

And the new life to which we are called, is indeed a new life. We are not talking here just about conversions.

Conversion - from unbelief to faith, from spiritual death to spiritual life, from alienation and isolation to being built into God’s temple - is just the beginning.

It is the beginning of a totally new kind of existence: filled with the grace of God, motivated by the purposes of God, and guided and formed - in mind and conscience - by the Word of God.

The forgiveness of sins that we know in Christ, does not just “get us started” in this new life with God. It is the continual and ongoing source of the life and peace that we know as Christians.

We never outgrow this forgiveness, or move beyond it in our walk of faith. This forgiveness is, rather, the overarching umbrella that covers everything, and it becomes the pathway and portal through which we receive from God all the good things that we do receive from him.

Returning to the image of the temple of God, of which we are a part, there is a continual building up of that temple, which involves not only the adding in of new components - that is, new believing souls - but also an ongoing reenforcement of the faith of those who are already a part of it.

And this building up of the temple of Christ, in all generations, involves the work of the ministers of Christ in all generations. These ministers are, in a sense, successors to the apostles.

They are not apostles themselves. They are not among the original master builders of Christ’s church.

But in their ministry, they do build - by the power of the Word of God that they proclaim and teach: in public preaching, and in private counsel. St. Paul warns and admonishes such ministers that what they build on the foundation - what they build up in the life of the church they serve, and in the lives of its individual members - needs to be congruent with the foundation upon which they build.

Frail and temporary human empires, constructed by means of frail and temporary human opinions, may not be built on this foundation. And believers in Christ must not let themselves be built up into something other than the church of their Savior.

They belong to him. They have been bought with a price.

The pastors whose ministry they accept, and under which they place themselves, need to be faithful servants of Christ. They must be faithful successors to the original, apostolic master builders, through whom the New Testament Scriptures have come to us.

As we consider these things, we all need to be weighing our religious choices, with an awareness that we are making these choices in the sight of God. We are not to be governed in our decisions by what might seem - for now - to be the easier-to-accept opinions of the fallen human heart.

We need to think of what is pleasing to God, and of what will pass muster with God on judgment day, and not base our religious notions - or our religious pronouncements - on the passing fads of this world. And so St. Paul goes on to say this in today’s text:

“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”

Gold, silver, and precious stones should be built on the solid foundation of Christ. The foundational message of Christ crucified for sinners is to be “unfolded” and organically fleshed out into an entire Biblical worldview that is in harmony with the grace and redemption of God in his Son.

Such teaching will pass the final test. It will endure the flames of God’s judgment.

But if flimsy and ultimately meaningless things are built on this foundation - wood, hay, and straw - the flames of God’s testing will consume those things. Religious guesses and theological speculation, presumptuous assertions and baseless sentimentalism - if we fill up our faith or our preaching with such things - will not endure, but will be turned to ashes.

The Lord’s warnings are not motivated by any vindictiveness or anger on his part, or by a desire to “trip you up” or “get” you. His warnings are, rather, motivated by his desire for what is genuinely best for you.

He does not want you to be misled or deceived. He does not want your faith to be always in jeopardy - weak and wavering, immature and fragile. He wants you to be firmly grounded in his grace.

In Christ, God does not look down on you, looking for something to criticize. Instead, he surrounds you with the protection of his Spirit, and fills you with his Spirit - as he places you in his temple, and makes you to be a part of his temple - the temple of his Spirit. Paul writes:

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

The importance of a pastor preaching only what he has been given to preach - and building Christians up in the truth of the apostolic revelation and not in his own opinions - is not a matter to be taken lightly.

Knowing what God wants you to be taught and to believe, and seeing to it that you are taught this, and that you do believe this, is likewise a serious matter.

But it is a matter that God takes into his own hands for you, as his Spirit teaches you and shapes your faith; as his Spirit draws you to the foundation which is Jesus Christ, and builds you up upon that foundation.

Your conscience can be clear and confident, as you listen to the apostolic Scriptures, confess the apostolic Scriptures, and receive the comfort of the apostolic Scriptures. When that happens, it is glistening gold, shining silver, and precious stones that are being put in their proper place - within the church, and within you.

And these will endure. Your faith, in Christ, will endure. Your place in his temple - in his church - will endure. Amen.