6 July 2014 - Pentecost 4 - Romans 7:14-25a

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The section of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that was read as today’s second lesson, is the most psychological and introspective section of any of Paul’s writings. Most of the time in his epistles, the apostle concentrated on the objective components of the message that he preached:

The coming of God’s Son to this world, to live and die under the Law of God; the “great exchange,” whereby the sins of humanity were placed upon Christ, so that the righteousness of Christ can now be placed upon penitent sinners; the suffering and death of Jesus, as the propitiation for the sins of the world; and the resurrection of our Lord, which demonstrates God’s acceptance of his Son’s sacrifice on our behalf.

Paul also spent quite a bit of time in his epistles talking about faith, as that which receives God’s forgiveness and justification through Christ; and talking about the Holy Spirit, who is given to the children of God to dwell within them.

All of these topics, which recur in St. Paul’s various writings, deal with objectively true things - objectively valid saving acts of Christ; objectively true gifts of God.

In today’s text, however, the apostle is talking about some very subjective and personal things. But they are not just personal and subjective for him. The things he is talking about now are personal and subjective things that we have all dealt with, and still deal with.

He describes the inner moral struggle that takes place within someone whose mind and conscience know what is morally right, but whose impulses and actual actions do not conform to this.

Paul uses the word “law” in more than one way in this section of his epistle. He begins by stating that the law of God - the Ten Commandments - is spiritual; whereas he, as a human being, is of flesh and sold under sin. So, there is that contrast.

And then he sets forth another contrast, between the “law” that is in his mind, which agrees with the law of God; and the “law” of sin that is in his flesh, which wages war against the law in his mind, and which prompts him to do what he in his mind does not want to do. It can be confusing, but Paul’s basic point is this:

God’s revealed law is the standard for what is good and wholesome and righteous. A person with a sensitive conscience, and with a rational mind, will understand this, and will acknowledge God’s law as good and wholesome and righteous.

He will sincerely desire to conform his thoughts, words, and actions to God’s law, and will want to be a moral and ethical person, living a life that is in harmony with that divine law. But there is a problem.

Within the totality of my existence as a human being, there is not just one driving force in regard to my ethical thoughts and my ethical actions. There are two.

In the higher realm of conscience and reason, the driving force is a belief that God’s law is good, and that obeying it is desirable and beneficial - for the integrity of my personal life, and for the harmony of my relationships with others.

But in the lower realm of the flesh - the realm of base passions and spontaneous impulses - I am urged and pulled toward thoughts, words, and actions that are the exact opposite of the objective moral code that I know, in my mind, is correct.

Paul describes this deep inner conflict in these words:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. ... I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”

Paul is not here making excuses for his ethical failures. He is, rather, judging and accusing himself, for not doing what he knows he should be doing. He is acknowledging his sin before God.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Paul has good intentions.

But when what he actually does is evil, and not good - which he here admits - then he is indeed paving for himself a pathway to eternal judgment. Unless someone rescues him from this pathway, and takes him off of it, damnation will be his deserved destiny.

Paul is being very autobiographical in how he presents this. An old debate among interpreters of this section of his Epistle to the Romans, is the question of whether Paul is talking about a past struggle that was resolved and brought to an end when he was converted; or if he is talking about a current, ongoing struggle within himself as a Christian, between his old nature and his new nature.

The best way to look at this is probably to see that Paul is talking about both realities.

He is talking about the consuming struggle of his interior life before his encounter with Christ, when he - as a committed Pharisee - was seeking to be righteous before God on the basis of the law.

And he is talking also about the ongoing clashes that are still taking place, between that insidious force within him that is always pulling him back to what he used to be, and that grace-filled force within him that is always pulling him forward to what he now is, and will be, in Christ.

When someone becomes a Christian; when all the objective truths of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are embraced in faith; when Jesus himself is embraced by faith, that is not the end of that person’s moral struggles. That is, in fact, the beginning of at least one new struggle - the struggle between the old nature of death and sin, with which all human beings come into this world; and the new nature of life and righteousness, that has been implanted by God’s Spirit only in Christians.

In today’s text, Paul says: “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.” When he was a Pharisee, he delighted in the law of God in his inner being, because he saw the law as a “tool” or “instrument” that could be used by him in making himself acceptable to God.

As a Christian, Paul still delights in the law of God in his inner man - but in a different way, and at a deeper level. He now has a new godly nature, according to which he is thankful for his salvation by God’s grace.

According to this new nature, a Christian wants to express his gratitude to God by serving his neighbor in love. The law of God shows a Christian what that would mean - what is in fact pleasing to God, and what is the right thing to do, say, or think in any given situation.

But none of that takes place in a vacuum. There is constant opposition from the flesh - from the old Adam, who lingers in the darker recesses of our existence; and who will afflict and torment us - from the inside - until the day we die.

An unbeliever with a sensitive conscience and a rational mind can discern the basic difference between right and wrong, according to natural law, most of the time. He can use his human will power, such as it is, to try to discipline himself in his outward behavior, in accordance with natural law.

And as far as his external actions are concerned, he may be able to succeed most of the time, in being a law-abiding citizen, a diligent worker, a devoted spouse or parent.

But in spite of his best human efforts - assuming he even gives it his best effort - he does not have the ability to transform himself into a truly righteous person at all levels; or to achieve acceptance by God, and peace with God, by his own moral strength. Ultimately he will either be puffed up by pride and self-righteousness, or be crushed by guilt and despair.

His darker inner passions and impulses will, in the final analysis, govern his life, shape his motives, and color his deeds. And eventually those passions and impulses, which keep him trapped in his inherited sinfulness, will destroy him.

The only way out, is Christ. That is both a simple solution, and a deeply profound solution.

St. Paul writes: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And as he says in the very next verse - not included in today’s appointed reading: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Earlier in the epistle, Paul had also said: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The cosmic struggle that takes place inside of us - the struggle between heaven and hell, salvation and damnation - is, in a very important sense, over, when Christ converts us and regenerates us; and when he forgives, and washes away, all sins of the past: all failures, all bad motives, all evil actions, all sins of any kind.

To be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into a new beginning with God, to be given a new standing of acceptance by God, and to be granted a new spiritual life that comes from God.

But then, a new Christian turns the page, to “chapter two” of the story of his inner, moral struggle. In “chapter two” - after conversion and saving faith - this earlier, cosmic struggle is reprised and reenacted, on a smaller scale, on every succeeding day of his life in this world.

Everything that Paul says in today’s text continues to apply also to the continuing battle, that is now within the Christian. A difference, however, is that at the end of each specific clash and skirmish of this new battle, Jesus will prevail.

He never leaves or forsakes his people. He does not abandon us on the battlefield, but fights by our side. When we are wounded, he carries us to safety.

He arms us for the fight, with the sword of his Spirit - that is, the Word of God. And he does expect us to use this weapon - not just against external enemies of the church, but also and chiefly against the enemy within.

When an impulse to do or say something arises within you, immediately ask yourself what God’s Word has to say about it. Is it an impulse toward godliness - an impulse arising from God’s Spirit, to serve another in love and honor?

Or is it an impulse that would feed and strengthen the monster within, and that arises from that monster, as it attempts to trick and cajole you into feeding it with more of the sin on which it thrives?

When God’s Word tells you what you need to know, embrace or flee the impulse accordingly. If temptations to sin pursue you, run faster. And if such temptations catch up to you and seem on the verge of catching you and enveloping you, hide.

Hide in the wounds of Christ. Hide under his divine wings of protection and strength. And confess what you know to be true:

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

He will deliver you. He will deliver you every time.

When you do slip and fall, he will pick you up and carry you forward. If your fall is long and deep, he will reach down as far as he needs to, to pull you out of whatever it is that you have fallen into, and set your feet back on the solid ground of his grace and life.

When inner doubts assail you, listen to his restoring voice - in his absolution, in his Supper, and in his gospel in general.

When you are not sure if he hears your prayer for forgiveness and help, listen to him when he says: “I forgive you all your sins.” When you begin to wonder, “Is Jesus really here for me?,” listen to him when he says: “Take, eat, this is my body, which is given for you.”

The presence of the struggle, and the conflict between the law of your mind and the law of your flesh, do not mark you as one who is not really a Christian. In fact, that struggle marks you as one in whom the Lord is contending, for your soul; and as one whom the Lord has claimed for his very own.

But, if you do not fight against the temptations, but surrender to them - and “switch sides,” as it were, by going over to the enemy - that would be a sign that repentance and faith, and Christ, are no longer there.

A theoretical recognition that something is wrong, accompanied by a continual active embracing of it anyway, puts you in the same state you were in before you knew Christ. It puts you in the state Paul was in before the Damascus Road.

Blindness has returned. Defeat has been accepted. The freedom that is in Christ has been forfeited, and slavery to the devil has been re-established.

Please don’t let that happen. Turn to Christ, and believe in Christ, and he will not let it happen.

Don’t pretend that the struggle is not there. Acknowledge the struggle, and become fully dependent on Christ in the midst of the struggle.

Die to self daily by repentance, and with ardent prayers for help. God will not ignore such prayers, and he will not refuse to heed them and answer them.

And rise in Christ daily, by hearing and believing his words of promise and hope - with the rejoicing that comes from God’s free gift of salvation. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “and I will give you rest.”

That rest is available to you every moment of every day. Even in the midst of struggle and temptation, there is rest - because there is Christ, who gives it.

There is continual rest in Christ, who has given to us an eternal Sabbath in his resurrection. And because he has been raised from the dead, we know that in him, we, too, will rise, and live.

When life in this world is over, then there will be no more struggle. Then there will be no more temptation. The rest in Christ that we taste now in snippets, and know by faith, will, in the next world, permeate everything, all the time.

This was St. Paul’s hope and confidence in the midst of his struggles here on earth. This is our hope and confidence, as we endure, and fight, and resist - and sometimes do not resist as we should.

Even so, God’s forgiveness in Christ is always at hand. God’s victory in Christ is always on the horizon. God’s promise in Christ, that someday it will all be over, is ever true.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Amen.

13 July 2014 - Pentecost 9 - Matthew 13:1-9;18-23; Isaiah 55:10-13

Those who practice sorcery believe that the incantations they speak, in casting spells, have the power to produce the effect that they want. It is believed that if the sorcerer says the right words, in the right way, those words will make something happen.

It doesn’t matter if the person or people who are affected by this spell believe in what is happening, or understand what is happening, or even know what is happening. The incantation itself has the power to bring either a curse or a blessing to them.

And the words of the spell are believed to have this power even if those words don’t have a particular meaning, as a part of a specific language. Linguistic scholars and historians are still trying to figure out the original source and meaning of the word “abracadabra.”

An incantation retains its power even if no one understands what it means. It is not necessary for people to reflect on the words, or to ponder them. All that is necessary is for a sorcerer to speak them.

Christians believe that the Word of God also has power. It has power in itself to accomplish what God wants it to accomplish.

We do not believe that God’s Word is merely a collection of interesting but lifeless religious information. Rather, when God’s message of law and gospel comes into contact with people, it is able to change them and their whole existence.

That’s the point of the passage from the prophet Isaiah that was read a few minutes ago as today’s first lesson. God himself speaks through the prophet, and says:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

God’s Word shall accomplish its purpose - somewhere, somehow. God’s Word shall succeed and not fail, somewhere, somehow.

God’s Word has within it a supernatural, active power. It does not go out from him empty, and it will not return to him empty.

But the way in which the power of God’s Word operates in a person’s life is very, very different from the way in which a sorcerer’s incantation operates. An incantation does not require, or stimulate, any conscious interaction or thoughtful deliberation on the part of the person whom it affects.

An incantation works externally. It forces its power onto the person on whom a spell has been cast.

But God’s Word does its work precisely in the heart and mind of the person with whom it comes into contact. That’s where its power is unfolded and made known. And that’s one of the main points of the parable of the sower, which we heard in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew.

In this parable, Jesus speaks of a sower who spreads his seed around in a way that seems a bit haphazard. The seed - like the Word of God - goes everywhere.

It does not get planted or germinate in every place where it lands, although there is always someplace where it does get planted and germinate. In spite of the power of life and growth that is inherent in the seed, sometimes that power does not get released, or bear its fruit.

Remember this, dear friends, if you are ever tempted to think of the Word of God as if it were the same as an incantation, which has the desired effect regardless of the state of mind of the people who are involved. God’s Word is not like that.

Jesus teaches us that some people who are exposed to God’s Word immediately harden their hearts against it. We might say that when God’s Word comes to them, they immediately push it back in unbelief.

He explains: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.” The people Jesus is describing here are those who do not understand God’s Word.

Actually they refuse to understand it. They refuse to listen to it. The devil has his way with them instead, keeping them in a state of spiritual ignorance.

They do not believe what God tells them about the danger and destructiveness of their sin, and about his remedy for their sin. Consequently they receive no benefit from their outward exposure to this message.

If a man’s wife drags him to church every week, and he is willing to go to please her, but if he is not willing to listen to, and understand, the message of the sermon and the hymns, his physical attendance at church will do him no good.

If a woman by force of habit goes to church, and thinks somehow that a spiritual benefit will come to her simply because she is in the presence of preaching and singing, this is nothing more than superstition.

If through unbelief you keep the Word of God on the outside of your life - even if you are externally religious in your habits - you will not know the power of God’s Word to save you.

God’s Word does not work like an incantation, only on the outside. It works, and accomplishes its saving purposes for you, on the inside - in your heart and mind - just like a seed works and germinates only when it is planted in the soil.

In the parable of the sower Jesus also teaches that there are cases when the Word of God is believed or acknowledged only temporarily, or only superficially. He explains:

“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”

You cannot comfort yourself with the memory of a faith that you no longer have. Of course, it is a good thing if you have been baptized - that is, if you were given the washing of water with the Word at some point in the past. It is a good thing, too, if you attended Sunday School as a child, and believed then what you were taught.

But if you are not living in your baptism right now, in daily repentance and faith, God’s Word is no longer benefiting you. If you do not believe at the present time what you were previously taught from the Bible, then as far as your current state of salvation is concerned, you might as well have never believed these things.

The power of God’s Word in your life cannot be limited to the realm of sentiment and memory. It is either a contemporary and vibrant power - impacting, shaping, and directing your mind and heart right now - or it is not a power in your life at all.

God’s Word does have within it a supernatural power that can indeed drive us to our knees in humility when we have sinned, and when God’s law makes us admit that we have sinned.

And it has within it a power that can lift us up in Christ - up to the glory and peace of heaven itself - when the gospel lays upon us the pure garment of Christ’s righteousness, to cover over all our sins.

The power of God’s Word is a power that can permeate all aspects of our life with the life of God himself, so that we bear the fruit of the Spirit in what we think, say, and do.

God’s Word confronts and subdues the sinful impulses that still reside in us. It shines brightly to dispel the darkness that lurks in the corners of our old nature. It brings understanding to our confused and frightened minds.

God’s Word makes us truly alive in Christ. Jesus describes all of this in this way:

“As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

What is the basic difference between those who respond positively to the Word of God, and those who reject it, either immediately or eventually? Why are some saved and not others?

This is a question that ultimately cannot be answered, because Scripture does not answer it.

The point of comparison of the parable is also limited in what it is attempting to teach us. The imagery of the parable doesn’t raise or answer this question.

We cannot say that God does not earnestly intend to plant the seed of his Word in the lives of those who end up not believing. This would violate the Bible’s teaching that God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

We also cannot say that those who have the “good soil” of faith were by nature more receptive to the gospel than others. This would violate the Bible’s teaching that we are all by nature sinful and unclean.

This would also violate the Bible’s teaching that those who are saved are saved by grace alone, through a faith that is a gift of God. We are not saved through a faith that arises from the unregenerated heart and mind of man, since the unregenerated heart and mind are hostile to God.

We are saved by a faith that God gives us, miraculously, through the power of his Word, when he engenders within us a new nature, and a new way of being and living.

If you are resisting the operation of God’s Word, and are closing yourself off to what God wants to do for you and in you through his Word, then be warned that the power of God’s Word will not benefit you. If you are trying to find some kind of assurance for eternity on the basis of a past faith, or on the basis of a former relationship with Christ that does not exist any more, do not deceive yourself.

But, if you today do repent of your sins - if you acknowledge, today, that what God says to you about those sins is true - then know that God in his love for you is making you to be a person of “good soil.”

If you today do trust in your crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ for forgiveness - if you stake everything, today, on him and his promises - then know that Christ, your true hope, is planting the Word of his kingdom in you.

And remember what the Lord says in today’s lesson from Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth...”

In the parable from St. Matthew, Jesus compares the seed that is planted in the good soil to his Word. But in the prophet Isaiah, God reminds us that his Word is what makes the good soil to be good.

God’s Word, as it were, “waters” you, and makes the “soil” of your heart and mind to be receptive to the gospel. God’s Word does everything.

As a seed that is planted, it offers forgiveness and life to those who will receive these heavenly blessings in faith. As a refreshing rain that invigorates the soil of the heart, it creates the very faith that it calls for.

The power of God’s Word is not like the power of a sorcerer’s incantation. God’s Word addresses your mind. It plants itself in your heart. It transforms you internally. It changes your way of thinking, and your way of living.

And God’s Word brings to you a faith that is centered on Christ, to receive from him his pardon and all his mercies; and that is alive in Christ, bearing the fruit of good works.

Almighty God, Thy Word is cast Like seed into the ground;
Now let the dew of heaven descend, And righteous fruits abound. ...
Oft as the precious seed is sown, Thy quickening grace bestow,
That all whose souls the truth receive, Its saving power may know. Amen.

20 July 2014 - Pentecost 6 - Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The parable of the wheat and the weeds, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, teaches us some important things about this world, about ourselves in this world, and about the future end of this world.

Based on the parable itself, and on Jesus’ explanation of its meaning, we can see that our Lord is teaching us that within this world, two kinds of “seed” have been planted: good seed, for wheat, which represents the children of the kingdom of heaven; and bad seed, for weeds, which represents the children of the evil one.

It might seem kind of stark to our sensibilities, but the parable plainly teaches that there are only these two categories of men in this world: those who belong to God, believing in him and serving him; and those who belong to the devil, believing his lies, and serving his purposes. There is no category of neutral people.

Internally and spiritually, you are either one or the other. You are either among the wheat, or you are among the weeds.

Some sections of the Bible teach about the ongoing, inner struggle between the old sinful nature, and the new godly nature, that reside within each Christian. When that is the topic of discussion, we would all recognize that there is still a part of the unbelieving world inside of us, that must be subdued.

But today’s text is talking about something else, and sheds light on a different conflict. It is the conflict, and the competition, between lives that have been dedicated to God, and are shaped by God’s love; and lives that are characterized, at the deepest level, by a hatred for the true God, and by a rejection of his love.

Growing side by side in this world, are good plants, from good seed, who in the end will be revealed to have been righteous before God; and bad plants, from bad seed, who in the end will be revealed to have been causes of sin and law-breakers.

The kind of weed that Jesus very likely has in mind in his telling of this parable, is Darnel. Darnel grows in the same regions of the world where wheat is produced, and historically it has presented a problem to wheat farmers - since in its early stages of growth it looks almost just like wheat.

It is only when the ear of the plant finally emerges, that the real difference can be seen. The ear of a genuine wheat plant is brown, while the ear of a darnel plant is black.

It’s interesting to note that Roman law prohibited an individual from sowing darnel in the wheat fields of his enemy. So, there must have been at least some people who were tempted to do this - when they wanted to sabotage the crop of a competitor or rival. Hence the law against it.

The parable that Jesus told, as an illustration of what is happening in the world on a spiritual plane, had a basis in real human experience.

When he spoke of an enemy sowing weeds among the wheat, while the farm workers were not noticing, this made sense. Literally, this might even have happened to the wheat fields of some of the people in his audience.

But in this world, it has definitely happened. The devil has planted his seed in God’s world, and his plants are growing in God’s world.

In our understanding and application of this parable, we do need to keep ourselves limited to the relatively narrow point that it seeks to make. For one thing, our understanding of ourselves as children of the kingdom should not in any way cultivate within us a spirit of pride.

If you are, as it were, a wheat plant, growing in God’s field, you are what you are by God’s grace alone. You have sprouted from the seed that Christ planted. You have been sustained and nurtured in your growth by the Holy Spirit.

You did not plant yourself, or grow yourself. God is the one who made all of this happen.

And within the storyline of the parable, the wheat and the weeds are not really the “actors” in this drama. It is the farmer’s “servants” - more than likely corresponding to the Lord’s angels - who are able to see the deeper significance of what is going on, in a field where undesirable weeds are crowding out and pinching the plants that are supposed to be there.

And it is these selfsame angels who will be sent out by the Lord on the day of judgment as his reapers, when all the plants will be cut down. The “weeds” will be consigned to the fire of destruction, and the “wheat” will be gathered into the Lord’s barn.

So, in the struggle that is now taking place in this world, between the children of the kingdom, and the children of the evil one, we are not fighting against the devil’s “children” directly.

Christians preach and pray against the sin of those who oppose God, even as they preach and pray against the sin that lingers in their own hearts and minds.

But Christians, as Christians, do not literally raise their hand against wicked men - even when wicked men raise their hand against Christians. The sword of the Spirit - the Word of God - is our only weapon.

Literal plants growing together in a field do not engage in wrestling matches or fistfights with each other. But, their roots and leaves do push against each other as they compete for the light and water that they need to survive.

The main point of the parable, however, is not to explore the contours and characteristics of this plant-like struggle between the wheat and the weeds, as much as it is to explain that this struggle will continue until the time of harvest - that is, until judgment day.

Before its end, this world will never be purged of sin and evil. Cruelty and injustice will remain as ongoing afflictions that humanity must endure in this world, for as long as this world lasts.

Atheists often claim that the reason why they don’t believe in God, is because of the evil that exists in the world. But if you pay attention to the Lord’s parable today, you would never expect this world to be free of evil.

A literal farmer will not pull up the weeds that are growing in his field, because he knows that he would also, in the process, pull up the intended crop along with them - since the roots are all intertwined. So too, God will not root out from this world the devil’s servants, whose lives are intertwined with the lives of his own people, until judgment day.

Admittedly we do not fully understand why this has to be so. But this is what Jesus teaches us today. And so in faith we accept this, and do our best, with his help, to endure - until the time of harvest.

So many children in our country are killed by abortion before birth, and are emotionally and psychologically wounded by abuse and neglect after birth. We cannot ponder this without being affected by it. Our hearts are deeply grieved at this wickedness.

This does not prove that there is no God. But in the midst of our grief, we are reminded by today’s parable that the judgment of God will indeed catch up with those who perpetrate these evils against the weakest and most vulnerable members of our human family.

When we hear of Christians in other places on earth being victimized and oppressed by fanatical Muslims and Communists, even to the point of death, this likewise is not a reason to question the existence of God. This is, rather, a confirmation of what today’s parable soberly tells us to expect.

And when we see many who outwardly bear the name of Christ actually participating in, and giving their approval to, the moral depredations of our society that harm so many confused and weak souls, this does not mean that there is no true church, planted by Christ.

We do cry out in anguish when we see these things happening. Yet we also remember our Savior’s promises. And we sing:

The Church shall never perish! Her dear Lord - to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish - Is with her to the end.
Though there be those that hate her, false sons within her pale,
Against both foe and traitor She ever shall prevail.

The true church of Jesus Christ ever shall prevail. The wheat will endure until the harvest.

As thick as the weeds seem to be getting, they will never choke out the good plants that sprouted from the good seed, which Jesus himself planted in this world.

Again, remember that the point of comparison of the parable is limited. The parable talks about the children of the kingdom, and the children of the evil one.

God and his angels know who is who. They can see the difference between the brown ear on the wheat, and the black ear on the darnel.

But you and I do not know. In an absolute sense, before the end of this world, you and I do not know who the Lord’s elect truly are.

You and I do not know who the hypocrites are. You and I do not know who, among the unbelievers, will repent and believe before they die.

Remember what the parable says: that it is the servants or workers - that is, the angels - who point out the weeds to the farmer. It is not the wheat that points them out.

In the parable, the role and purpose of the wheat is to grow, and to be as healthy as it can be - even when the weeds are trying to squeeze it out.

In your existence as children of the kingdom of heaven, your role and purpose in this world is to grow in faith, and to be as spiritually healthy as you can be - even when you are assaulted and pressured by those in this world who are the causes of sin, and who are law-breakers.

And in Christ you will grow, and you will survive; because God will cause you to grow, and he will preserve you by his Word and Sacrament.

We’re not talking about the symbolic imagery of the parable any more, but about the reality of who and what you are in Christ - living now in this world, with its many trials; but looking forward to the next world, where God and his people will be vindicated and blessed forever.

As Jesus has purchased and redeemed you to be his own people, by the shedding of his blood; as he has forgiven all your sins, and continually forgives them; and as he has bestowed upon you a new life, and a new hope, you will be kept strong - in his strength.

As you abide in Christ, the frightening things that come at you from this world will ultimately not unsettle your confidence in God’s goodness. The discouraging things that surround you in this world will ultimately not destroy your faith.

The sufferings of this world will ultimately not harm your soul. And the deceptions that have deluded so much of this world will ultimately not rob you of your salvation.

God’s purposes are still being carried out - through his people. God’s love is still being shown - through his people. God’s truth is still being proclaimed - through his people.

The people of God - the children of his kingdom - are still here. And they are still alive and growing.

Until the end of the world, they will be here. The wheat will be here.

Someday, the struggles and conflicts, the persecutions and martyrdoms, will be over. Someday, the injustice and the evil will be brought to an end. Someday the harvest will come.

God will reveal himself to all, as the righteous judge. His wrath will be poured out on the wicked. His approval and justification of his believing saints will be confirmed to them forever.

“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” Amen.

27 July 2014 - Pentecost 7- Matthew 13:44-52

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells three parables. The one to which I would like to draw your attention is this one. Our Lord says:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

We can appreciate the idea that some things are more valuable than other things. And we can understand a person’s desire to have something that is of great value - even if it means that he will have to make a great financial sacrifice, to obtain it.

In his parable, Jesus picks up on this common human frame of reference, in order to illustrate the desire of God to obtain and to possess that which is of great value to him.

The parable of the pearl of great price, or of the pearl of great value, has often been interpreted to be teaching that you and I should put a high value on Christ, and on the eternal life that he gives, so that we would be willing to sacrifice everything else in this world in order to have him and it.

According to this interpretation, you and I are the merchant. God and his Word are the pearl. But remember that Jesus tells us that this parable is about the kingdom of heaven, and about what is going on in the kingdom of heaven.

In the kingdom of heaven, which is another way of saying the kingdom of God, God is the primary actor. So, when Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven or of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, he means to say that God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.

It is certainly true that you and I should put the highest value on God and on our relationship with him. We should be willing, as it were, to sell all that we have - that is, to set aside and repudiate all of our worldly idols and mammon - in order to have him.

But that’s not really the point of the parable. Before you consider how valuable God is to you, you need to consider how valuable you are to God.

But here is where there might be a problem. When you look at yourself, as a member of the sinful human race, and as a sinful individual, you would probably begin to wonder pretty quickly if God actually sees much value in you.

And when you compare yourself to others, you can probably think of quite a few people you either know, or know about, who seem to be less sinful, and more valuable, than you are.

I know men who I sincerely think are better husbands, better fathers, and better pastors than I am. I know lots of people who I think are better human beings than I am - more patient, more industrious, more brave, more selfless.

So, a parable about the lengths to which God is willing to go, to procure the pearl that is of greatest value to him, may not be such a comforting parable to you and me. When I look at my failures and flaws, it’s pretty easy for me to conclude that if I were the merchant - if I were God - I would not set my heart on possessing such a one as myself.

Of all the pearls that are out there, I am not, in myself, of great value. I am of hardly any value at all.

Of all the nations of the ancient world, the people of Israel would not seem to have been of much value either. In the days of Moses, the Hebrews were not a highly sophisticated people, or a militarily powerful people.

They hadn’t establish great empires. In fact, they were slaves, living at the lowest level of degradation and humiliation, under the control of the Egyptians.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, were a great nation. They had one of the grandest empires of the ancient world. Their architectural monuments are with us to this day.

They were really something. But the Hebrews? They were nothing.

It would make a lot of sense to us if God would have perceived the Egyptians to be the most valuable and desirable nation to have as his own special people, and if he would have chosen them. As far as earthly nations go, they were the most impressive of all, at that time in history.

But is that what happened? Among the peoples of the ancient world, was Egypt the singular pearl of great value in God’s eyes, and in God’s heart?

In today’s first lesson from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses, by divine inspiration, says this to Israel:

“You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”

“It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it is because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

So, Israel was the chosen nation after all. In that time and place, Israel was the pearl of great value after all.

Why was this? Because of the grace of God, and because of the promises of God.

God had promised Abraham that he would make of him a great nation - a nation great in the eyes of the Lord even if not in the eyes of the world. He promised him that he would give this nation its own land.

And he promised that he would bless all other peoples through this nation - and in particular through the promised Messianic Seed of Abraham.

This Seed - Jesus - would be brought forth from Israel to redeem Israel and all other nations from sin and death. All other nations would be blessed through him, because he would unite people from all nations into a new spiritual Israel - whose dwelling place, with God, would be a heavenly promised land.

So, God had a reason, and God had a plan, when he chose the Hebrews - the most unassuming and most inglorious of peoples - to be his own people.

God’s gracious choice of Israel in the time of Moses sets the context for understanding today’s parable. But this choice of Israel was itself only a prelude to what today’s parable is really about.

When God chose the physical nation of Israel, liberated Israel, and established Israel in its own land, he didn’t really have to pay very much of a price. He made the Egyptians pay, and he made the Canaanites pay, but God himself did not pay.

In today’s parable, however, the merchant - that is, God - sells all that he has, and he makes a great sacrifice, in order to purchase the most valuable pearl. And in his establishment of the new Israel through Jesus, God did indeed pay a great price.

God’s liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery required an exertion of miraculous power - in the ten plagues that he unleashed on the land. But it did not really cost God very much personally. God’s liberation of the church from its slavery to sin, however, cost him everything.

The most perfect of human lives was sacrificed. The most loving and obedient of men was killed. God’s own Son, in human flesh, was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” to be crucified.

The redemption price was the life of his own Son - actually God’s own life, insofar as God himself was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. As St. Paul tells us in the Book of Acts, God purchased the church with his own blood.

God spent all he had, and gave up everything, to obtain his church. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

So, the church as a whole is the pearl of great value. This is so by God’s grace alone; and because of his promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him and his Seed.

Those who are in Christ, are in this promise, and are beneficiaries of it. St. Paul explains 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. ... And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

In your own person, and in your own thoughts, words, and deeds, you fall far short of God’s standard - and your own standard - of righteousness. In your own person, according to your own merits, you are not valuable. You are not a pearl of great value.

But in Christ, whose body was given into death to redeem you, and whose blood was shed to atone for your sin, you too are the pearl of great value.

In Christ, each and every one of you is that pearl. You are a member of the church, baptized into Christ, and baptized into the promise of Abraham.

Millennia ago, God chose Abraham because of who God was, not because of who Abraham was. In Christ, God chooses you as well, because of who he is, and not because of who you are.

He considers you to be valuable, whether you consider yourself to be valuable or not. And because God considers it to be so, it is, eternally, so.

He was willing to give up his own Son to purchase you. He sold everything, in order to have you.

When you admit and confess your sins, this penitence will inevitably be accompanied by the fear that, because of those sins, you have made yourself to be of no value to God - so that he might now cast you away in his pursuit of better and more reliable pearls.

If God had not made his promise to Abraham, and if he had not made his promise to you in your baptism, this would be a legitimate and valid fear. But God has made such promises.

And God therefore sees you as a part of his church: justified and forgiven in his Son, sacramentally nurtured by the body and blood of his Son, and an heir of eternal life together with his Son.

You he did purchase. You he does claim. You he does value.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Amen.