5 October 2014 - Pentecost 17 - Matthew 21:33-46

In today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about evil and murderous tenant farmers, who have no regard for the owner of the vineyard they have leased, or for those who represent him. The point of comparison for this parable is the history of Israel, and Israel’s frequent rejection of the ministry of the prophets sent to them by God. Our Lord says:

“There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard, and put a fence around it, and dug a winepress in it, and built a tower, and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.”

“And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.”

Over the centuries, God was very patient with Israel - for the sake of his promise to Abraham concerning his Seed, through whom all nations would be blessed; and for the sake of his pledge to David, that his Son would sit on his throne forever. But God’s patience was tried over and over again, as the Hebrew people - and especially their leaders - continually ignored him and rebelled against him.

The chastisement that the Jews experienced through their seventy-year exile in Babylon did finally eliminate from them the overt and flagrant idolatry that had so frequently afflicted their ancestors. But this was replaced with a tendency to believe that salvation comes through obedience to the law, in its many layers and nuances, and not through trusting in the mercy of God - something that Abraham and David definitely did understand.

The preaching of the prophets, who were sent by the Lord to call his people back to the faith of Abraham and David, went mostly unheeded. And when God at last sent his only begotten Son, this old pattern was not altered. Again, we hear our Lord’s words:

“Finally [the master] sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”

Jesus is here predicting his own fate, at the hands of his own people. There were certainly many individual Jews who saw with the eyes of faith who Jesus was.

But the religious leadership - and the people as a whole, who followed their lead - rejected Jesus. They thereby removed themselves from God’s favor, and from the continuation of the spiritual Israel that was now to be found within the fellowship of the church.

The Church of Jesus Christ is described in very Jewish terms by St. Peter in his First Epistle:

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

But it would be the gentiles who, after a generation or two, would now chiefly comprise the membership of God’s new spiritual nation.

Jesus told his original Jewish disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. And they did. Jesus predicts this in today’s parable, too. He asks those to whom he had just told his story:

“When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

In the year 70 A.D., the Romans destroyed the physical temple in Jerusalem - and much of the city of Jerusalem along with it. Many Jews were also killed or enslaved, when the Jewish rebellion against Rome was harshly crushed in that year.

This was a profoundly significant watershed event. It was more than the destruction of a historic building, and more than the cruel slaying of many of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. In the deepest sense, it was the eschatological end of Israel as Israel.

And it was the eschatological beginning of the “end times” during which the church has been functioning in this world ever since, awaiting the second coming and final judgment of Jesus Christ.

And now the vineyard of the Lord has indeed been entrusted to other tenants. We do not own the vineyard. We are tenants, entrusted with the stewardship of something that belongs to God.

We do not own the church. We do not control its doctrine, with the right to change it according to our wishes.

We teach and believe what has been given to us. In Sermon and Sacrament, we present and embrace Christ crucified for sinners, as humanity’s only hope.

Baptism offers to us, and bestows upon us, a saving relationship with the Triune God. Baptism calls us to lifelong repentance of sin, and to lifelong faith in the merits of Christ. It unites us to his death and resurrection, and to his body the church.

But baptism, and the faith of baptism, can be forsaken. This is the sin of apostasy - a falling away from the grace of God through deliberate unbelief and rejection of Christ.

When this happens in the life of one who had known Christ, but knows him no longer, it is a recapitulation - on an individual level - of what happened in history to the nation of Israel as a whole.

In regard to “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,” but who then “fall away”: the Epistle to the Hebrews solemnly declares that “they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”

If you through unbelief renounce your baptism - in effect, even if not in so many words - you are, in your own heart, thereby crucifying Christ all over again. In your reclaimed sin and death, you are, as it were, putting him back on the cross - as if his resurrection victory over sin and death for you never happened, as far as you are concerned.

And if you depart from this world still abiding in that hardness of heart, these words of the parable will apply to you, at your final judgment before Christ: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” The almighty and righteous Lord Jesus will put you to a miserable death, everlastingly, in the lake of fire.

We do not enjoy thinking about this. But this is a real danger, and is the real destiny for unbelieving souls that have willfully made themselves to be God’s enemies.

But before this point of no return is reached, there is a way back. Even when stewardship of the vineyard has been taken away from those to whom it had been entrusted because of sin and unbelief, a remnant can and will return, and will be readmitted to that stewardship.

This is true of the remnant of the people of Israel according to the flesh - those in every generation who return to the God of their fathers, through the way of Christ.

In the traditional form of the general prayer that was used for many generations, the church prayed: “Send forth laborers into Thy harvest, and open the door of faith unto all the heathen and unto the people of Israel.”

Our Jewish friends and neighbors were never considered to be the same as the heathen nations. What St. Paul said in his Epistle to the Romans is still true of the synagogue:

“Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”

The oracles of God continually sound forth among the Jewish people. Even when God’s Word is not believed or understood correctly, it is still always there - chanted into their ears; knocking at the door of their hearts.

And in every generation, there are some who are truly touched by the Word of the Lord; who are brought to see that it is indeed Jesus of Nazareth who is revealed in the Scriptures as their divine Savior; who are justified by a penitent faith in him; and who are baptized into his body - that is, into the true continuing Israel, to which God’s Spirit had been beckoning them through their hearing of Moses and the Prophets.

I had a seminary classmate and friend who was a convert to the Christian faith, and to Lutheranism, from Orthodox Judaism. He was able to recognize in the historic Christian liturgy, and in many of the ceremonies of the liturgy, the familiar ritual of the synagogue - from which the church’s liturgy developed in the apostolic era.

As a Christian, of course, he now understood the deeper meaning of much that was a part of that synagogue service. In the light of the fulfilling gospel of Christ, he had come to appreciate his Jewish heritage in ways that would be difficult for many of us to understand.

He now understood that, through the Hebrew Scriptures, God had always been calling him - and all the Jewish people - to Jesus Christ.

The scroll of the Torah - the first five books of the Bible - is an object of very special reverence in the synagogue. At a certain point in the service, this scroll is carried about in procession.

For a Jew this can be a very emotional experience. Imagine, then, what this sort of thing would mean to my seminary friend, with the knowledge he now had of who was really speaking through that scroll, and what he was saying.

There was a special service in the seminary chapel on one occasion which included a gospel procession. An ornamented book of the Four Gospels was carried in procession at the opening of the service.

And then, for the reading of the Gospel text, another shorter procession would bring this book to the middle of the center aisle of the chapel, where the minister would read the text in the midst of God’s people. A seminary student had been appointed to carry the Gospel book in these processions.

It was my Orthodox Jewish, Christian Lutheran, classmate. Just before the service began, as I was entering to take my seat, and he was holding the book of the Gospels - getting read to carry it in during the first hymn - I noticed that his eyes were moistening, and maybe a small tear was already trickling down one or the other cheek.

My friend’s memory of the almost identical synagogue ceremony, and his deep and moving knowledge now of what it all really meant, was - emotionally - almost overwhelming him.

As St. Paul also writes to the Romans, in regard to Jewish believers in Jesus: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” This applies as well to our present time.

Don’t ever pass up an opportunity to tell a Jewish friend or neighbor what the Jewish apostles told our gentile ancestors, about the way of everlasting salvation that has been provided by the God of Abraham and the God of David. This God is merciful to all nations through his Son Jesus Christ.

The blood of Jesus Christ - the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world - will wash away their sins. And your sins.

There is a way back into the vineyard also for apostate former Christians. Some of these former Christians may still be sitting in the pews of a church on Sunday morning - out of habit, or to please a spouse - even though, on the inside, they no longer believe what is preached.

But they can once again believe it. You can once again believe it, if this is you.

If you have rejected the truth of Christ, in order to embrace a plausible lie of the devil, God has, as it were, taken the vineyard away from you on that account, and cast you out of it. In your heart, you are no longer a part of Christ’s body.

But God is still calling to you, through the Scriptures, and through your baptism. He is calling you back to the vineyard.

The Prophet Joel writes: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” You can be among those who do return.

Maybe your eyes will moisten, when Jesus comes to you now, in his Word and Sacraments, to give you the opportunity to receive him once again, rather than to crucify him once again.

But even if there is no outward emotional reaction, know this: Holy Absolution in particular - which flows out from baptism - applies to a baptized Christian the enduring blessings of his baptism.

In the name of the Triune God, your sins are forgiven - just as in baptism. Your mystical union with Christ is made very real - just as in baptism.

And if this is what you need, Holy Absolution can reconnect you to a baptism from which you may have become detached, through unbelief. If you have turned your heart away from God, Absolution can turn your heart back to God - because Absolution is God’s own restoring and healing Word to you in Christ, spoken in his name and by his authority, as if he himself were speaking it.

For the sake of Christ, the pronouncement of God’s forgiveness to your penitent mind and heart liberates you from the fear of divine judgment. It lifts from you the weight of guilt before God, and reconciles you to God.

If you have been expelled from the vineyard, absolution can and will let you back in. If God’s law has threatened you with damnation, God’s forgiveness cancels that threat, and replaces it with God’s embrace.

And so, to you who have confessed your sins to the Lord, and have prayed for his mercy and forgiveness, I say:

Lift up your hearts! By the authority of God and of my holy office, I forgive you all your sins: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

12 October 2014 - Pentecost 19 - Philippians 4:4-13

In the stress-filled world in which we live, feelings of anxiety are a common problem. We are anxious about the unstable economy, and worry about whether we will be able to keep our jobs, and have enough money to pay our bills.

We are anxious about the decline of our civilization and culture, with the increasing immorality and violence that are the marks of this decline.

We are anxious about the insecurity of our personal relationships, in view of the strains that are placed on families by a society that is increasingly hostile to the institution of marriage, to the authority of parents, and to the values that keep families strong and healthy.

We are anxious about the changes that inevitably come in life, as we age, or as we are forced by new circumstances to take on new and sometimes unwelcome responsibilities.

For all of these reasons, St. Paul’s words about anxiety in today’s text, from his Epistle to the Philippians, get our attention:

“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

First of all, we need to say that anxiety, or worrying, is a sin. Perhaps it’s not the worst of sins; but it is a sin, and not a virtue or a harmless thing.

Anxiety is a failure to trust in God, and therefore it violates the First Commandment. And anxiety has a darker side, too.

Worrying about the things in our present life - or in our future - that we cannot control, is a manifestation of our inborn sinful presumption that we should be able to be in control of everything.

This goes back to when our primal ancestors succumbed, in Eden, to the temptation that if they ate of the forbidden fruit, they would be like God - that they would know what God knows, and thereby be in control of their own existence, and of their own destiny.

Of course, Adam and Eve did not become like God. In their fall they actually became like the devil - rebelling against God, and rejecting God’s rightful authority in their lives.

But the desire to be like God - to be in control as God is in control - has dogged humanity for as long as sin in general has dogged humanity. Our anxiety over uncontrollable situations is a symptom of the fact that we have not overcome this profoundly selfish and proud desire.

When you are anxious, therefore, and are not submitting your fears and uncertainties to a confidence that a wise and loving God is in control - as he alone should be - you are back in Eden all over again.

You are listening to the serpent’s lies all over again. You are eating the forbidden fruit all over again.

As a part of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonishes us:

“I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

After giving some examples of God’s care for the creatures in nature - who are less valuable to him than we are - the Lord continues:

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ ... Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”

So, the first thing to do, when you find yourself being anxious, or worried, is to repent. Repent of your lack of faith. Ask for God’s forgiveness that you have not feared, loved, and trusted in him above all things.

And God will forgive you. God does forgive you, through the merits of Jesus Christ your Savior, who did love and trust his Father fully, and submit fully to the will of his Father, for you.

Even Jesus’ enemies, with all their lies and calumnies against him, did at least admit that he trusted in God. While he was hanging on the cross, suffering under the weight of our sins - including the sin of being anxious - they said, mockingly:

“He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

Of course, God the Father did not deliver his Son at that moment, because Jesus was in that moment paying the price of humanity’s redemption - by the shedding of his own blood.

But in the resurrection, after Jesus’ sacrifice had been fully paid and fully accepted, God did deliver his Son from the chains of death. And the resurrected Christ does declare to you his forgiveness, and his peace.

And the resurrected Lord is indeed “at hand” for you, as St. Paul says in today’s text. His forgiveness is ever close and available, because he is ever close and available.

And he is at hand also to help you in your weakness, to build you up in your faith, and to deliver you from a faithless anxiety. Wherever and whenever his Word is proclaimed, heard, and meditated upon, Jesus is at hand - in and through his Word - to comfort you, and to guide you.

He is at hand, through the agony of his cross, to remove from you the guilt of sin. And, he is at hand, through the victory of his resurrection, to remove from you the power of sin.

Remember what Paul had written to the Philippians - and to us - earlier in this epistle: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

As God is now working in you - in your divinely-enlightened mind, and in your divinely-liberated will - Paul therefore now writes:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Praying to God - in the midst of anxiety and worry, or at any other time - is not informing God of things that he doesn’t already know. God, who knows all things, certainly is already aware of the trying circumstances that have driven you to prayer.

But praying to God in such circumstances, and bringing to God your requests about whatever it is that is frightening or unsettling you, is an acknowledgment that God is in control, and not you. Such a prayer is itself an act of submission to the plan and purpose of God, whatever that plan and purpose may be.

It is an admission that if something can be done about the troubling situation at hand, God alone is the one who can do it. Implicit in any request for help, is the belief that the one you are asking is able and willing to provide help.

And this is a well-founded belief, when the one who is being addressed is the almighty creator and preserver of the universe; and the loving Father of his children, who has demonstrated his love for them in the sending of his only begotten Son to be their Savior.

In answer to the prayer, God might change the trying situation, or deliver you from it. Or he might change you: granting you the patience to endure this trial with a renewed confidence in his goodness; and granting you the opportunity to learn something about him - or about yourself - that will be beneficial to your faith, in the midst of this trial.

But while prayer is always to be offered in a spirit of humility and ultimate resignation to the will of God, God does want us - in our prayer - to come right out and tell him what we want. Paul speaks of the “supplications” that we are to bring before the Lord.

A supplication is an earnest request. A nuance in the Greek word that is translated as “supplication,” is that this is a request for something that is really needed, and not just for something that is wished for as a desired, but ultimately unnecessary, benefit.

Quite often, as a way of accentuating the valid point that God answers prayer according to his will, and not necessarily according to our will, prayers are worded in a conditional way - so that a praying person will say something like: “O God, if it is your will, heal so and so of his illness.”

But that doesn’t really have the ring of an earnest supplication about it. Maybe it would be better to say: “O God, I pray that it would be your will to heal so and so”; or even, “O God, I ask that you heal so and so. Amen.”

Tell God what you want his will to be. If what you request is not his will, then it won’t happen. But he doesn’t need your permission to do something other than what you are asking for, if he so chooses. So, just tell him what you want.

In our own minds, our prayers are indeed offered conditionally. That is, as we speak our prayer, we are always willing for God’s answer to be No. But we don’t have to use conditional wording in the prayer itself.

Your prayers should not sound like theological treatises on the doctrine of prayer. Your prayers should sound like prayers - like real supplications.

Think of the parable about the unjust judge, who gave justice to a persistent widow only after she went to him repeatedly, demanding his attention. Think of the parable about the man continually knocking on the door of his neighbor, until his neighbor got out of bed and gave him what he wanted.

Think of those parables. And pray like the people in those parables.

The more you pray like this, and from the heart offer your supplications to the Lord, the more you will be trusting in the Lord, and recognizing that he is in control. And the less anxious you will be, because you are not in control.

And when you pray, pray “with thanksgiving.” When God grants your request, thank him. When he denies your request, and gives you something else that he knows is better, thank him.

And, when he seems not to be listening at all, and not to be answering your prayer in one way or the other, thank him then too. Thank him even at those times, because he is thereby teaching you how to trust in him over the long haul.

He is teaching you how to walk by faith, and not by sight. He is teaching you that the gift of Christ, in the gospel, is the one necessary thing; so that if God never gave you anything else, other than Jesus - and the forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus brings and delivers - you would still have enough to thank him for throughout all eternity.

Paul concludes this section of his Epistle with these words: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

There is a peace to be received and enjoyed - a divine and heavenly peace - when you learn how to trust in God, in prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving.

As you, with trust in God, face your fears, and the things that are causing you to be afraid, your heart and mind will be guarded, protected, and kept safe, by this peace.

Notice that Paul says “your hearts and your minds.” When you call upon the Lord for help in a time of bodily danger, he may respond by protecting your body too. But maybe he won’t.

Everybody has to die someday. And, there is also no guarantee that your death - when it does come - will not be a relatively early death, or a physically painful death.

But even if your death is early, or painful, or both, your death will be a peaceful death, if you find your rest in Christ as you die. Your heart and mind will be kept safe and protected by the forgiveness of Christ, and by the promises of Christ, even as your bodily life ebbs away into the mortality that is the lot of all children of Adam.

In this world, death is the most fearsome enemy. The inevitability of death represents the ultimate failure of humanity’s delusion of being in control. Death feeds and fuels human anxiety at the deepest level.

But even death has been overcome by our Savior. Through him, we will also overcome death, and will emerge from death in the resurrection on the last day.

As our trust in God gives us this confidence for our future death; so too does our trust in God give us this confidence for our present life. Because our trust in God is worked in us by God - by the Lord Jesus Christ, who is always “at hand” to help us, and to teach us - this divinely-wrought trust overcomes the anxiety that is our own human creation.

You do not keep your own heart and mind strong and safe by trying to stay in control. In prayer, you relinquish your illegitimate pretensions of control to God, who really is in control.

You do not guard your own heart and mind, by erecting a wall of anxious worrying around yourself. In trust, you open your heart and mind to the peace of God.

This is a peace with God, and within yourself, that comes from God, for the sake of Christ; that has been won for you by God, in the saving work accomplished by Christ; and that has been bestowed upon you by God, through the forgiving and faith-building gospel of Christ.

“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

19 October 2014 - Pentecost 19 - Matthew 22:15-22

“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

These words of our Lord, in today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, have always been seen as one of the chief proof passages in Scripture that teach the distinction between the spiritual and civil kingdoms; and that teach that a Christian is a citizen not only of God’s realm, but also of the civil realm in which he lives - with an obligation to respect and obey the civil authorities.

Christian moral teaching has, of course, always qualified this duty of obedience, on the basis of what the apostles told the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, after they were ordered by them to stop preaching: “We must obey God rather than men.” So, when the civil authorities would presume to command something that God’s Word forbids, or to forbid something that God’s Word commands, a Christian will not obey.

But otherwise - such as in the matter of paying or not paying taxes to Caesar - a believer will comply with the legal mandates of the earthly government under which he lives. Our citizenship in heaven is a higher citizenship, but it is not our only citizenship.

It is no doubt easier for people to obey their government when the structure of that government is built on the principle of “government by the consent of the governed.”

When a country’s lawmakers are in power by virtue having won fair and free elections, there would be few if any excuses for disobeying the laws that they pass - except, of course, if those laws are inherently sinful. It’s interesting to see that in the sixteenth century - long before the time of Thomas Jefferson or James Madison - Martin Luther already saw this.

During the time of the Exodus, when Moses felt overwhelmed by all the responsibilities that were placed upon him as the leader of the people of Israel, he arranged for the election of elders in every tribe, to carry out some of the governmental duties that he had been carrying out by himself. Luther commented on this:

“Beasts are managed by power and skill. Men should be ruled by wisdom and understanding, since man thrives on reason... Here you see that the magistrates should be chosen by the votes of the people, as reason also demands. ... For to thrust government upon a people against its will is dangerous or destructive.”

It is a great blessing for us in America to be able to live under a government that receives its authorization to rule through the democratic system that we have. But this democratic system - which involves all of us - also lays a great responsibility upon all of us.

The citizens of the United States are themselves ultimately responsible for the actions - or inactions - of the government of the United States. Each of us has the ongoing opportunity - and duty - to work toward making our government to be more efficient, and making our laws to be more just: by what we advocate, and by how we vote.

For us, this is also a part of what we are to render to Caesar. But even when the government of a country lacks this kind of direct accountability to those who are governed, and even when a government is deeply flawed in many ways, its authority is still to be respected, and its laws are still to be obeyed.

The Jews of Palestine had certainly not elected the pagan Tiberius Caesar to be their emperor. But Jesus still told them, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

But all of this represents only half of Jesus’ teaching today. Some men who had been sent from the Pharisees, and some Herodians, had asked him this question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

In response, he did not only tell his listeners to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but he also told them to render to God the things that are God’s.

There are a lot more people in this world who pay their taxes, than who honor and trust in God as they should. So, this second aspect of what Jesus teaches should certainly be noted, and listened to.

The specific coin that was being talked about in today’s account was a denarius. It was the most common Roman coin of that time.

On one side was the portrait of the Emperor. And on the other side was this inscription, in Latin: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.”

This coin was a testimony to the idolatry of the Romans, and was itself an idol. On the coin was an image of a mere man, who was insolently declared to be a divine son of a divine father.

The Herodians - who openly collaborated with the Romans - did not mind this. Their answer to the question that was posed to Jesus - Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? - would have been an unqualified Yes.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, certainly did mind the idolatry that was concretely embodied in the coin. They would no doubt have preferred never to have to use such a coin - for paying taxes, or for any other purpose.

So, their honest answer to the question would have been No - it is not in keeping with God’s law - especially the First Commandment - to associate yourself with Roman idolatry, and to make personal use of a Roman idol - which is what handling such a coin would be.

But, the Pharisees generally kept this scruple to themselves, and did not openly criticize the Romans in this respect. They knew that if they expressed this conviction, they would get in big trouble with the Romans.

Most of the common people agreed with the Pharisees on this point. They really did not like having to use these coins.

But, most of the people also agreed with the Pharisees that being open and honest about their views was not worth the grief that would come as a result.

The Pharisees and the Herodians generally had very little in common with each other. But in their temporary collaboration, in trying to trick Jesus into saying something that would get him in trouble - either with the authorities, or with the crowd - they told Jesus this:

“Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully.”

They were hypocrites in saying this. They were not expressing their honest convictions. But because what they said about Jesus was true, they were - with their own words - condemning their actual refusal to believe what Jesus was teaching.

The First Commandment, with its “You shall have no other gods before me” prohibition, does indeed condemn idolatry - whether it is the flagrant idolatry of the Romans, or the hidden idolatry that resides in the hearts of all sinful people. But implicit in this prohibition, is also a positive requirement: “You shall have me as your only God.”

The denarius that Jesus and the others were discussing, falsely claimed that Tiberius was divine. But the true Son of God - through whom the God of the Old Testament could be truly known - was right there, speaking to them, and inviting them to faith.

And according to their own words, the Pharisees and the Herodians should have been willing to heed that invitation. If they really did think that Jesus was “true” - in his person and in his words - they would have accepted his teaching, when he later said:

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

If they really did think that Jesus taught “the way of God truthfully,” they would have accepted the validity of his assurance that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” And they would have staked everything on his words: everything in time, and in eternity.

But is that what happened? This is what we are told:

“They brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.”

They marveled. But they didn’t marvel, and then stay to hear more. They marveled, and then they left him, and went away.

I suppose it can be assumed that all of us are here - in this Christian sanctuary - because we “marvel” at Jesus and his words. And we might say to someone who asks why we come to church, that it is because we know that Jesus is “true,” and teaches “the way of God truthfully.”

But does this translate into a life of rendering to God the things that are God’s - all the things that are God’s - once we leave this place of worship? Or, when we leave this building, and go away from this building, do we also leave him, and go away from him?

We sing in the familiar hymn: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a tribute far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

But is that what God gets from us? Is that even a fraction of what he gets?

Hear again what our Lord’s inquisitors said to him: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully.”

Now, they were not sincere when they said this. But they were right. They should have listened to themselves, and so listened to Jesus.

And as you listen today to their correct description of Jesus and of his teaching, God will help you to listen to your Savior.

When I am tempted to leave Christ, and go away from him, he pulls me in. And if I have left, he calls me back. Jesus teaches me: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

I often feel polluted and contaminated by my sins. I know myself to be spiritually sick. And I fear that God is disgusted with me - and may want to isolate me from himself, and from the holiness of heaven. But Jesus teaches me:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the presence and power of sin in my life. I sometimes feel trapped, like there is no escape from the devil’s clutches. Is there a way for me to be liberated from this?

Jesus teaches me: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I know that there is forgiveness for people in general, in the cross, and in God. But can I be assured that God is willing to forgive me personally?

Is Jesus really here, for me? In his Holy Supper, Jesus teaches me: “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

But it is sometimes hard to believe this. In my weakness, I struggle to trust in something that I cannot see with my own eyes.

Does the Lord notice me in this struggle? Will he help me in my weakness? Jesus teaches me: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Jesus - who literally, word-for-word, said all these things - is indeed “true.” Jesus, who says all these things to you, is to be believed, because he teaches “the way of God truthfully.”

And as Jesus teaches the way of God truthfully to you, you learn from him how to render to Caesar, and to God, what is due to them.

All of these things are now possible for us, because Jesus himself - in the profoundest of ways - truly did render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s, on our behalf, and for our salvation.

He paid his taxes, to be sure. But he also obeyed the Jewish and Roman civil authorities, even to the point of paying with his own blood, for his “crime” of being the Son of God, and the ruler of God’s kingdom.

And in the process, he was - at a deeper level - obeying his Father in heaven, who had actually set all this in motion, so that the sins of the world would thereby be atoned for.

In the sermon that St. Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, he explained to them that “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Under the decree both of Caesar’s court and of God’s, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Therefore, as a grateful citizen of your country, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. And, as a grateful child of God, and a citizen of his kingdom under Christ - to whom you now belong - render to God the things that are God’s. Amen.

26 October 2014 - Reformation - Psalm 34

The focus of Reformation Sunday, when it is observed in the Lutheran Church, is usually on the important clarification and reiteration of the apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ, that occurred through the ministry of Martin Luther, and the many other teachers and pastors who came to his side as Reformers of the church.

Troubled consciences needed to know that God’s justification and acceptance of sinners is a gift of his grace, offered in and through Christ, and received by faith alone. In today’s second lesson from his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul summarizes this saving and peace-filled message from God, to people like you and me:

“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.”

A sinner who repents of his sins is justified before God - that is, is declared to be righteous, is made to be acceptable to God, and is in fact accepted by God - because of the merits of Christ, God’s Son and his Savior.

This salvation, and this reconciliation with God, are continually applied through the means of grace. And they are continually received - as Jesus himself is received - by faith alone, and not by any human works.

This is not to denigrate the importance of works of love in the life of a Christian. But it is to say that, with respect to his standing with God, and his membership in the kingdom and family of God, it is the work of Christ - on the cross and in the empty tomb - that accomplishes this, and not his own works.

A Christian’s works are for his neighbor in need. They are not for himself, for the purpose of earning a place for himself in heaven.

God’s forgiveness and acceptance in Christ does not come to us in the form of a process to be experienced. It comes to us, through Word and Sacrament, as a promise to be believed.

Unfortunately, in the Middle Ages, this was not very well understood.

To be sure, there were voices in the church - such as that of St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century - that did teach the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith. For example, in one of his sermons, St. Bernard said this:

“It is necessary...for everyone to believe that you cannot have forgiveness of sins except through the forbearance of God; but add further that you also believe that through him your sins are forgiven. This is the testimony that the Holy Spirit gives in your heart, saying, ‘your sins are forgiven to you.’ For in this way the apostle [Paul] concludes that a person is justified freely through faith.”

So far St. Bernard.

But for so many more people, for whom the apostolic message of God’s grace in Christ was obscured or misunderstood, their fear of damnation, and their desire for heaven, drove them to the human works that they believed would make them acceptable to God. And the more explicitly religious these human works were, the better.

So, the works that would be carried out in a normal earthly life - in the context of a normal family and community - were seen as inferior, in comparison to the religious works of renouncing marriage and family for the sake of a monastic vow, and for the sake of performing all the special religious activities associated with monasticism.

In the Middle Ages, the austerity of life in a monastery was understood to be the Christian ideal, and to be the kind of life that would be likely to merit a place in heaven. Life in a family - as husband, wife, parent, or child - was seen as second-rate.

According to these medieval exaggerations and confusions, marriage and child-rearing were of the earth, and not of heaven, and so could not possibly be as useful for meriting a place for a person’s soul in God’s kingdom. Or so the thinking went.

The Reformers pointed out, however, that God had not instituted a vow of lifelong celibacy, or attached any specific blessings to such a vow; but that he had instituted marriage, and the vows that go along with marriage.

Celibacy is, of course, the proper state for any unmarried person. But there is no divinely-instituted vow of celibacy, comparable to a vow of marriage, which would then make it to be a sin for a celibate person someday to get married.

And not only is marriage not sinful, but it is also an institution to which God has attached many and great blessings.

Married people do not earn a place in heaven by means of the activities of their family life, or by means of bringing children into the world. But within their families, Christians are able to know that God has indeed called them to this life.

And they are accordingly able to find comfort and confidence in the promises that God makes to them, that he will be their companion, their helper, and their protector.

A man and a woman who have been wed according to the Lord’s institution, have been joined together by God, as our Lord teaches us. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” This means that God is personally interested in the success and well-being of a marriage.

And, God commissions a married couple, in all ordinary circumstances, to be fruitful and multiply. With respect to any children who are born to such a divinely-blessed union, God furthermore directs parents: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

The Reformation of the sixteenth century resulted in many beneficial fruits for the church, and for society as a whole. A clearer proclamation of the undiluted comfort of the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, was the chief fruit.

This fundamental reformation in preaching and teaching had ramifications also in many other areas of church life and worship - such as a better understanding of the nature and purpose of the church’s public ministry; of the nature and purpose of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and of the nature and purpose of the church’s song. These things were more clearly understood now to be servants of the gospel, and conveyors of the gospel.

This benefited people in all stations of life - married and single; lay and clergy - because it showed everyone God’s way to have peace with him, in time and in eternity, through the mercy and pardon of Christ. But the restoration of a proper respect for the family, was another fruit of the Reformation.

Luther and his wife Katie are often called the founders of the modern Christian home - at least as far as the western church is concerned - since they demonstrated by their example, as well as by Scriptural teaching, that marriage and the rearing of children are the normal thing for Christians, and for Christian pastors, to aspire to, as far as life in this world is concerned.

There is certainly no sin involved in a life of chaste singleness. And married people who are not able to have children are certainly not condemned for this.

Life in a orderly community, like a monastery - if it is entered into in freedom, with the understanding that it can also be departed from in freedom without recriminations - was also not in principle rejected by the Reformers. It was acknowledged that some good work could be done by disciplined communities like this, especially in the area of education.

But the point is, that there is no special spiritual advantage for someone - as far as his righteousness before God is concerned - in deliberately forsaking the divine institutions of marriage and parenthood, in favor of something like this. Marriage and family are not second-rate and inferior institutions. They are the usual human condition, and will be = or should be - for as long as this world endures.

For those who know that they are justified by faith; and who are assured by the gospel that they are acceptable to God because of Christ and his promises - which they personally believe - marriage is actually an ideal context for bearing and living out the fruits of faith, through loving and serving others. One’s spouse, children, or parents are one’s closest neighbors.

In view of the huge shift in thinking that the Reformation brought about, it is not a coincidence that the verses from Psalm 34, that are appointed for the Introit for the festival of the Reformation, include this warm invitation to children: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”

And the section of Psalm 48 that is appointed as the Gradual for the Reformation festival, says this: “Walk about Zion, go around her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever.”

Faithfully caring for and serving the children God gives us, begins with teaching those children about God, and his love for them. In his Second Epistle to Timothy, St. Paul reminded his young protege:

“From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

The word translated as “childhood” here is, in the original Greek, literally the word for “infancy.” From infancy, Timothy was around the Scriptures, and was learning the Scriptures.

Humanly-contrived religious works do not justify us, or anyone. But God’s Word does justify us, as its message of law drives us to a sincere repentance for all of our pride and selfishness; and as its message of grace delivers Christ and his forgiveness to us.

Believers in Christ share a common salvation, by grace through faith. Believers in Christ also share a common Christian priesthood and calling - to share God’s Word with one another, and with the world, according to all the various circumstances of life in which we may find ourselves.

And for Christian parents, this calling is amplified and focused, in a special way, in their duty to teach God’s Word to their children - so that those children can also be justified by faith in Jesus, and know Jesus as their Savior throughout their lives.

And it’s not just parents who value the spiritual lives of the youngest baptized members of God’s church. We all welcome them into God’s family.

And we all encourage them in their maturing and growing faith - even as we encourage their parents, and look for ways to help their parents, as they fulfill the important calling that God has given them.

As we have opportunity, we also teach the fear of the Lord to the church’s children, that they may always know both that they are accountable to God, and can always rely on God. We also tell the next generation about the God who has brought us into the safety of his heavenly Zion, and who will be our God forever and ever.

It’s interesting to note that the hymn, “Lord, keep us steadfast in thy word,” was originally written to be a children’s hymn - to teach children how to pray to the Triune God for the things that are most important to a Christian.

Whenever we sing this hymn here, and are joined in this singing by the youngest members of our congregation - who express in their own way their glee and delight to be praising God in God’s house - we are teaching them this hymn, and this faith.

The renewal and clarification of the Biblical gospel that took place through the Reformation was a great and momentous event in the history of the church. And it is also a legacy - a living, divine legacy - for all people in all times and places.

For many of us, this legacy was passed down to us in our childhood, by parents and others in the generation that preceded ours. And for all of us - whether or not we are married or have our own children - it is our privilege to pass on this legacy to the youngest members of the Christian fellowship to which we belong today.

“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”

“Walk about Zion, go around her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever.”

We close with these appropriate words, from a hymn that was originally intended by its author to be an additional verse to “A mighty fortress is our God”:

God's Word is our great heritage And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way, In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure, We keep its teachings pure.
Throughout all generations. Amen.