4 October 2015 - Pentecost 18 - Mark 10:2-16

“What did Moses command you?” With that question, Jesus replies to a question that has been posed to him, by some Pharisees, concerning marriage and divorce.

St. Mark, in today’s text, quotes their question to Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Basically this is what is happening:

These Pharisees are trying to draw Jesus into a dispute that had been raging among the rabbis for a long time, concerning the circumstances under which the dissolution of a marriage would be justified. There were two schools of thought, oriented around the teaching of two famous rabbis of the past.

The followers of Shammai held that divorce was permissible only in the case of adultery, or something similarly serious. The followers of Hillel, in contrast, held that divorce was permissible for virtually any reason that the husband considered to be good enough, such as if his wife burned his dinner, or if he was attracted to another woman who was better looking than his current wife. Yes, they actually used these as examples!

Jesus replied to this query in a way that was consistent with his overall ministry. He asked them what Moses - that is, the inspired Scripture - had said about this matter.

Jesus himself, in all of his own preaching, consistently based everything that he said on Holy Scripture. He didn’t introduce any doctrine above and beyond what could be found in the Hebrew Scriptures - when those Scriptures were read and interpreted correctly.

He was, accordingly, very severe in his criticism of those teachers of Israel who distorted Scripture by quoting certain passages out of context, to make them seem to say things they didn’t really say; or who ignored important passages in constructing their theology; or who mixed into their teaching human traditions that contradicted what the Bible actually says.

In today’s Gospel, we see that Jesus wants to draw the Pharisees into a careful study of all the pertinent passages of Scripture that speak to the issue they are raising. He doesn’t ask, “What does Shammai say?,” or “What does Hillel say?”

He asks, “What does Moses say?” And to ask what Moses - the prophet of the Lord - says, is to ask what God says.

Now, even when they would look to the Scriptures, to see what Moses said, their tendency - and ours - would probably be to try to find a verse somewhere that could be construed to support what they already wanted to believe.

But Jesus won’t let them do that. And in a similar circumstance, he won’t let us do it either. Let’s listen in to the conversation:

“And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.’”

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’”

The passage to which the Pharisees had referred was from the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses is laying down civil regulations for the orderly governance of the nation. We read in Deuteronomy:

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife...”

It is significant that in this passage, Moses is not saying that in certain circumstances divorce is a good thing, or is pleasing to God. Instead, this passage simply starts out with the assumption that people, because of their sinfulness, will sometimes get divorced.

What he tells them is designed to regulate divorce in such a way as to minimize the social upheaval it would cause. He is especially concerned to prevent something akin to “wife-swapping” or “wife-sharing” among the Israelites.

This was not beyond the imagination of the pagans of that day, whose perverse example the Hebrews might have been tempted to follow. And of course, such behavior is not beyond the wicked imagination of certain “pagans” in our own time either.

But under the provisions of this civil regulation, a man who would divorce his wife without justification could not do so with a clear conscience before God.

The external civil law of the society may have permitted it. But Moses was not thereby saying that a frivolous or unnecessary divorce would ever be the right thing to do, for any man who truly desired to live as God would want him to live - according to God’s unchanging moral law.

That was Jesus’ point. And it was a valid point.

How do we know that this was a valid point? Because the Book of Deuteronomy is not the only place in the writings of Moses where the topic of marriage, and the permanence of marriage, is discussed.

What Moses permitted as a matter of civil law in the Book of Deuteronomy - because of the hardness of men’s hearts - must be read in the larger context of what he had also written in the Book of Genesis. We read there:

“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ ... So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.”

“Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’”

But then comes the line to which Jesus refers in today’s text, which is not just about Adam and Eve, but about all married couples: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

This is the “commandment of Moses” that Jesus wanted the Pharisees to take into account. The divorce and remarriage policy that Moses set up later on - in terms of what the civil law of Israel would tolerate - does not trump or overturn this older and more fundamental Mosaic teaching.

What Jesus wanted the Pharisees to understand - and what he wants us to understand - is that divorce, and the things that lead up to divorce, all have their origin in human sin, and not in God’s good and gracious will. Every divorce involves sin on the part of at least one of the parties - and often both.

The end of a marriage, which according to God’s will was supposed to endure for life, is never something to be celebrated - not even by those who were betrayed by a spouse’s infidelity or violence, or who had an unjust divorce imposed on them by a hard-hearted spouse. Divorce is always something to be mourned and regretted.

And for the person whose actions are the cause of the divorce, he or she can never stand before God with a clear conscience, until and unless the sins that led to the divorce are sincerely repented of; and reconciliation - if it is still possible - is sincerely attempted.

Our consciences cannot take refuge in what the civil law of our society may allow us to get away with. And this is true of a lot of things, not just divorce. God allows and tolerates many things in the arena of civil law that are not in accord with his moral law.

Conformity to God’s moral law - to his perfect will, as recorded in the Book of Genesis and elsewhere in Scripture - is what we must always strive for.

But, conformity to God’s perfect will is something we never do - not in regard to marriage, and the duties we owe to a spouse within marriage; and not in regard to our other God-given relationships either - such as that of parents and children, or of brothers and sisters.

What God has joined together in the family as a whole, man likewise may not separate - through sinful words or actions that alienate parents from their children; that alienate children from their parents; or that alienate siblings from each other.

These relationships, too, are brought about by God through the fruitfulness of a marriage - either by natural procreation or by adoption. These relationships are gifts of God, and are not to be discarded or despised in a way that shows a lack of respect or appreciation for God’s goodness and love.

But, as we are reminded by the apostle Paul, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We all do our part to strain and damage our marriages and other family relationships, even if we do not completely destroy these relationships. This is a consequence of our fallen condition.

What are we to do? Are we to make excuses, or try to find loop-holes in the law of God, so that we can pretend that what is wrong is really right?

Do we feel the need always to justify before others, our divorces, or our other morally messy actions - in such a way as to suggest that our own consciences are still accusing us, and that we are still not convinced that we did the right thing, or are free from blame?

Those are the kinds of things that the Pharisees wanted to do - that is, find loop-holes, and justify themselves. But that’s not really an option for us. We know better. Or at least we should know better, as Jesus and his apostles teach us.

St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, comforts us with the assurance that Jesus is a faithful and caring bridegroom to his beloved bride, the church. Jesus does not accentuate his bride’s faults, but he washes them away with his forgiving love.

He does not draw attention to his bride’s stains and blemishes - the evidence of past transgressions and current weaknesses - but he covers them up with his own perfect and pure righteousness.

In the context of encouraging Christian husbands to love their own wives in a Christlike way, Paul writes:

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.”

Jesus loves his wife. Sacramentally he has become one flesh with her. And he will never, ever divorce her.

The symbolic imagery of the Book of Revelation portrays the Christian church as the glistening, heavenly city in which God dwells. And the Book of Revelation shows that at the end of this world, Jesus will still be married to his church, and will still be deeply in love with her.

St. John reports his vision in this way: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

If you are a member of Christ’s church, then you are included in his bride. And you are a beneficiary of Jesus’ unswerving devotion to his church.

As a member of Christ’s church, united to Christ, your sins are forgiven and washed away in Christ. Your sins against marriage and family in general will not be held against you.

Your sins against your own marriage and family, whatever those sins may have been, are forgotten by God. All your other sins, both great and small, are covered over by the righteousness of Christ.

There need be no continuing compulsion to justify yourself, in order to mute the accusations of your troubled conscience. Jesus justifies you, and by his righteousness gives you a clear conscience before God.

And for you who have been victimized and hurt by those in your family whom you thought you could trust, there is healing for you in Christ, and a new beginning for you in Christ. The description of that holy city in the Book of Revelation continues with these words:

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. ... He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

At the end of the world as we know it - when the new Jerusalem descends from heaven, bright and holy in God’s sight - that city will include you. You will be a part of all this, if you are a member of the Lord’s church and holy bride.

But these words of comfort leave one question unanswered. How can you know that you are a member of Christ’s bride, and therefore can be confident that Jesus will embrace you forever, and not divorce you?

Jesus answers that question, too. He says, to you, and to everyone in every generation:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” If you have turned away from your sin in shame and regret, and if you yearn in faith for God’s forgiveness in Christ, you are in. You belong to Christ. You are a part of his bride.

And Jesus also says: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”

As you come to Jesus in humility, admitting your faults and acknowledging your need for his grace; and allowing yourself to be embraced by his promise and invitation - with a faith that his Spirit works in you - you can know that you will not be cast out.

You are a citizen of the new Jerusalem, which at the last will be prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. God, by grace alone, has joined you - as a part of the church - to your heavenly spouse. And what God has joined together no man or angel will separate.

As a member of his church, Jesus is faithful to you. He will always be faithful to you, and to all your brothers and sisters in Christ, who with you have been baptized into his body, and are preserved in their baptismal grace.

And the Spirit of Christ will teach you and lead you, in mind and heart, how to be like him in your earthly marriage, and in your earthly family. By his strength and guidance, through mutual forgiveness, weakened relationships can be renewed.

In his wisdom, strained and tense relationships can be set at peace. According to his will and the healing power of the gospel, broken relationships can be restored - as the faith of all concerned is restored by that gospel, and the reconciliation that we have with God through Christ, becomes also the reconciliation that we have with each other through Christ.

“‘A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Amen.

11 October 2015 - Pentecost 20 - Mark 10:17-22

We commonly say things like this about people we admire: She is a good mother. He is a good husband. That employee is a good worker. That pastor is a good preacher.

But when we describe these various kinds of people as being “good” at what they do, we are speaking only in a relative sense.

The child of a relatively good mother will tell you that she does not always handle situation in the best way. The wife of a relatively good husband will be able to point out his flaws and shortcomings.

The boss of a relatively good employee is aware of the mistakes that his worker sometimes makes. And the members of a congregation whose pastor is a relatively good preacher know that his sermons occasionally leave something to be desired.

None of us - in our actions, or in our persons - is fully and completely good.

These words are repeated several times in the Psalms: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” But with respect to human beings, this is what Psalm 14 says:

“The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”

This is the context for what might at first seem to be the overly-picky response that Jesus gave to a young man who came up to him, with an important question, in today’s text from St. Mark:

“And as [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’”

This man’s question was premised on certain erroneous assumptions that needed to be challenged.

The first assumption, was that inheriting eternal life comes as a consequence of what someone does. All that remains to be answered, then, is what needs to be done.

And the second assumption was that Jesus, if he could be helpful to people in their inheriting of eternal life, would provide such help by means of answering that question. “Good Teacher, what must I do.”

Before answering the question that had been posed to him, Jesus challenged the problematic assumptions that lay behind the question. “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

Now, at another time and place, Jesus did not hesitate to describe himself as the Good Shepherd. A shepherd is not a teacher to his sheep, who instructs them in how to protect themselves from the wolf, or in how to locate green grass and clean water.

He protects them, and saves them from their enemies. He leads them to lush fields and sparkling brooks, and feeds them.

And in identifying himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus was also connecting himself to the imagery of Psalm 23, in which King David confessed that Yahweh - the Lord Jehovah - was his shepherd.

Returning to today’s text: Jesus, in his initial response to the man’s question, was - in essence - presenting to the man a choice. Will he continue the conversation in such a way as to recognize that Jesus really is good, and therefore is the divine Savior, and not merely a teacher?

Or will he continue the conversation in such a way as to continue to treat Jesus as a mere teacher, from whom he will still seek guidance on the methods by which he can save himself?

After Jesus recounted for the man several commandments of the Law, the man demonstrated his decision on how the conversation was going to go.

He did not say, “Good Savior, forgive my failure truly to obey these commandments.” Instead, he said: “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”

He had backed away from addressing Jesus as “good,” but he did still address him as “teacher.” The young man did not know to whom he was speaking.

Now, the Law does promise life to anyone who would obey it completely, from the heart. In the Book of Leviticus, the Lord declares:

“You shall follow my precepts and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my precepts; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.”

But we do not do them. Oh, maybe in a superficial way, we might think that we obey the commandments. That’s what the man in today’s story thought.

But neither he nor we obey God’s Law from the heart, always with true and pure motives, and always with true and pure thoughts. But with God, that counts.

God declares through the Prophet Jeremiah: “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”

And what, according to Jeremiah, does the Lord find when he searches the fallen human heart? “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”

Because of the sin that infects the human race, the only human being in this world who is without sin, is that one human being who is also more than a human being. The only man who is truly “good” is the Son of Man, who is the Son of God.

The individual who approached Jesus in today’s text understood himself always to have obeyed the Lord’s prohibitions of adultery, false witness, stealing and fraud. He understood himself always to have obeyed the Lord’s directive to honor his parents.

Jesus did not probe him with respect to these commandments. But he did then probe him with respect to the First Commandment - which had not yet been mentioned; and which forbids loving and valuing anything more than God.

Jesus probed him on this point by applying the First Commandment to him in a very personal way: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

The man no doubt had obeyed the First Commandment according to its external requirements. In his outward religious practice, he had never spoken or chanted a prayer to any false deity, or physically bowed down to any pagan idol.

But in his heart, he loved his earthly wealth more than he loved his heavenly Father. He valued those objects of God’s creation that he owned, more than he valued the creator who had made them.

And so we are told: “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

If Jesus were to have this conversation with any of us - especially including the challenge with respect to the essence of the First Commandment - the result would be the same. And that’s because none of us, in our fallen human condition, have kept God’s Law in heart, mind, and will either.

We have all fallen short. The promise of the Law - that those who obey it will live - is indeed a hollow promise, as far as all of us are concerned. Because we do not truly obey it.

And so, by the Law we shall not live. By the Law, and its just judgments against our sins, we shall die.

Or at least we should die. But there is a way for us not to die. There was a way also for the young man in today’s text not to die, if he had opened the eyes of his heart to see that way - standing right there in front of him.

In order for your hypothetical conversation with Jesus to have a good outcome, as far as your inheriting of eternal life is concerned, such a conversation would need to be substantially different from the conversation that the young man in today’s text had with him. Such a different comversation would need to go something like this:

“Good Savior, I have not kept God’s commandments as I should. I have not loved the Lord with all my heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself.”

“Since I have failed to do what I would need to do, in order to live by my works, and earn eternal life by my works, can I inherit eternal life in some other way? Even though I have sinned, and stand under divine condemnation because of my sins, is there still a way for me to live? Is there hope for me?

And Jesus, looking at you, and loving you, would say - as he does say - “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

And he would say - as he does say - “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

And he would also say - as he does always say to all who come to him in humility and repentance - “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” Take heart, my daughter; your sins are forgiven.

How can this be so? If my disobeying of the commandments of God, especially in my mind and heart, has earned God’s condemnation - and it has! - how can I avoid that condemnation?

Is God not really righteous and holy, offended by all human rebellion and corruption? Can God ignore and tolerate sin? Doesn’t sin need to be atoned for in some way, and neutralized in some way, in order for a sinner to be able to approach God?

Jesus answers that question, too. For “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

On the tree of the cross, the innocent One bore the iniquities of all the guilty. The obedient One bore the transgressions of all the rebellious.

Our sins have therefore been atoned for, and have been taken away from before God’s eyes. And when Jesus was raised from the dead, our sins were left in his grave, never to rise up and accuse us again.

And this is why we are comforted to know - in the words of St. John’s Gospel - that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Indeed, as John also explains, “whoever does not believe is condemned already” - for all the reasons we have given. But “Whoever believes in him is not condemned” - because to believe in Christ is to be embraced by Christ, cleansed by Christ, and forgiven by Christ.

To believe in Christ is to receive the benefits of everything that he accomplished for us in his death and resurrection.

The man in today’s text “went away sorrowful.” But it would be nice to think that in time, as God’s Word worked on his conscience, and as God’s Spirit enlightened his mind, he came back again - not to his “teacher,” but to his “good Savior.”

Perhaps after the Day of Pentecost, he was drawn back to the crucified and risen Savior, who is still alive in the fellowship of his church, and is still reaching out to those whom he calls to faith and discipleship.

Jesus is reaching out to you, today, in his gospel and sacraments. He is having that blessed conversation with you, today, through his gospel and sacraments.

As you acknowledge your many failures to obey, Jesus acknowledges you as one of his own. And he bestows upon you the reconciliation with God that he has acquired by his perfect obedience – in the place of all men, and on behalf of all men.

The Law discovers guilt and sin And shows how vile our hearts have been;
The Gospel only can express Forgiving love and cleansing grace.

My soul, no more attempt to draw Thy life and comfort from the Law
Fly to the hope the Gospel gives; The man that trusts the promise lives. Amen.

18 October 2015 - Pentecost 21 - Mark 10:23-31

The portion of St. Mark’s Gospel that was read last Sunday, concluded with these words from Jesus, spoken to a man who had come up to him to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

In this way, the Lord tested the man’s heart, with respect to his submission to the First Commandment, which forbids us to love anything more than God. And he failed the test.

“Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

But neither the disciples of Jesus, nor we today, should see this as an occasion for boasting - as if we would have passed this test. We would not have passed this text. We do not pass this test.

In today’s appointed reading from Mark - which picks up where last week’s reading left off - we learn that Jesus then reflected on this exchange with that man, and discussed it with his disciples. He said to them:

“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus was challenging some basic assumptions that were held to by the disciples, and by most Jews in this era, concerning the relationship between one’s standing with God, and one’s material prosperity. With a typical theology of glory, it was thought that success and earthly prosperity were sure signs of God’s favor and approval - and therefore indicated the likelihood of a future welcome into God’s kingdom.

If God liked you, he would cause things to go well for you in this world. And that, in turn, would give you a pretty reliable indicator of what your destiny would be in the next world.

Now, they didn’t think that getting rich, in itself, would get you to heaven. But they did think that being rich was a sign that God’s favor and approval rested upon you. And if God’s favor was still resting upon you when you died - that is, if you were still rich - then your chances were pretty good for eternity as well.

But now Jesus is saying that success and prosperity make it hard for someone to enter in to God’s kingdom, or to have the assurance that this is where he is headed when he dies. That doesn’t make any sense to them. And so they are “amazed at his words,” as St. Mark reports.

But another thing that was probably eating at them, was what Jesus had said to that man: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

The disciples were not rich men. But they did value the things that they did have. Peter and Andrew, James and John, were not prepared to give away their family fishing boats, for example.

And Jesus had shifted the focus also onto people like them, when he repeated his statement without reference to riches per se: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!”

You don’t have to be rich in a material sense, to be unwilling to give away everything that you do own in this world. And the reason for this attachment to our stuff, is because we are lacking in an attachment to God.

Consider the relationship that Adam and Eve had with God in the Garden of Eden, before their fall into sin. God was a vivid and obvious reality to them. We are told in the Book of Genesis that in the cool of the day, the Lord walked in the garden.

God had, we might say, on ongoing “sacramental” kind of presence in the daily lives of Adam and Eve. In his love he was attached to them, and they were attached to him.

This all changed, of course, when Eve and then Adam rebelled against God, violated his word, asserted their will over his, and ate the forbidden fruit. They had now made God their enemy.

In the cool of the day they now hid from him. Their attachment to him was gone.

God did forgive Adam and Eve personally, and promised them a Messiah and a Savior, in the future coming of the Seed of the woman. But what they had set in motion for the human race as a whole, remained in effect for the human race as a whole.

In our natural human condition, you and I are now conceived and born in a state of alienation from God. For all of us, in our inherited sinful condition, we enter this world detached from God.

He is not a vivid and obvious reality to us. Humanity’s natural awareness of God - to the extent that we have a natural knowledge of him - included an awareness of how far away he is.

And so, because we, by nature, are no longer attached to him, we - by default - become attached instead to our stuff. We can see and touch our stuff. It is real to us.

The rich have a lot of stuff, the poor not so much. But whatever we have, we love, and serve, and want to keep.

The disciples could see this among all the people with whom they lived. They could see this in the man who had come up to Jesus, asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life.

And they could see this in themselves. And so, in hopeless bewilderment, they asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”

Salvation will be difficult if not impossible for the rich. Salvation will be difficult if not impossible for anyone who is attached to his earthly possessions - whether great or small.

Can anyone be saved? Is there anyone for whom God can once again become the defining reality in life, so that the human soul can become reattached to him - as Adam and Eve were attached to him in the beginning?

Can you be detached from your possessions - which really possess you - and be reattached to God? Can you be disentangled and liberated from your earthly idolatries, so that your heart can be turned once again to God, and to the eternal life that he promises to those who fear and love him?

Can God become a vivid and obvious reality to you, so that you would know him as one who truly does walk with you, and who is your companion in all that you do? Can God have an ongoing “sacramental” kind of presence in your daily life, so that he becomes more real to you than the stuff that surrounds you, and that captivates you?

The answer to all these questions is Jesus’ answer. He looked at the disciples, and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

Who can be saved?” In Christ, you can be saved! Who can inherit eternal life? In Christ, you can inherit eternal life.

In the gospel of his Son, delivered to you in Word and Sacrament, God creates in you a clean heart. By the regenerating power of the message of Jesus, who was born of a virgin to be our friend and brother, you are born from above by his Spirit.

In the justification that is announced to you and draped over you - flowing out from the cross and empty tomb of your substitute and Savior - you become righteous in Christ, and a new creature in Christ. You have a new standing before God, and are reconciled and acceptable to God.

As you now struggle, in daily repentance and faith, against the sin of still loving your possessions more than God, God forgives your failings within that struggle. And God credits to you the resurrection victory of his Son over that struggle - and over all the struggles of his weak yet beloved children in this world.

By changing your heart, God continually impoverishes you as far as the things of this world are concerned. But he does this, not because he takes pleasure in making you feel bereft, but because he wants to enrich you with Christ, and with everything that Christ brings. He gives you Christ, who now fills you, and is real to you.

In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”

In the gospel - as it is continually brought to you, and as you continually believe it - God ever more detaches you from your stuff, so that he can ever more reattach you to Jesus. And through Jesus, God makes himself known to you - just as he did in Eden, before the fall - as one who is sacramentally present with you, and who walks with you in the cool of the day.

God, in Christ, enriches those who commune in his Son’s Sacred Supper precisely in this way. The enrichment that all believers have as they trust in Jesus, is intensified when Jesus supernaturally attaches himself to us by the divine power of these words:

“Take, eat; this is my body.” “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood.”

And with a feeble yet grateful faith, we respond to this enriching gift - Christ’s gift of himself:

O Jesus, blessed Lord, to Thee My heartfelt thanks forever be,
Who hast so lovingly bestowed On me Thy body and Thy blood.

Break forth, my soul, for joy and say What wealth is come to me this day!
My Savior dwells within my heart: How blest am I! How good Thou art! Amen.

25 October 2015 - Reformation Sunday - Psalm 34:11, 22; Psalm 48:12-14a

When we commemorate the Reformation of the sixteenth century, we usually think about the important things that people like Martin Luther did back then, to restore to the church a purer and clearer proclamation of the gospel, and to purge the institutional church of many moral and doctrinal corruptions.

We have a tendency to look to the past, with admiration for the courage and conviction of the Reformers, and with gratitude for the things they accomplished. We know that we benefit from the things they did almost 400 years ago.

But on Reformation Sunday, we should not look only to the past, and to the events of the past. We should look also to the future.

Consider not only what you as a Christian and as a Lutheran have received from previous generations of faithful preachers and teachers, but also what God wants you to pass on to your children and grandchildren - and to the next generation in general.

Listen again to these lines from Psalm 34, which we sang in today’s Introit: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. ... The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”

The Reformation did indeed clarify for the church what God’s message concerning his redemption in Christ actually is, in the face of the confusion and ignorance under which the souls of people in medieval Europe had been languishing. The Smalcald Articles, in beautiful simplicity, summarizes the Biblical preaching of the Reformers in these words:

“Here is the first and chief article: That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, ‘was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification’; ...he alone is ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’; and ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’; furthermore, ‘All have sinned,’ and ‘they are now his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ his blood.’”

“Now because this must be believed and may not be obtained or grasped otherwise with any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us, as St. Paul says in Romans 3: ‘For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law’; and also, ‘that God alone is righteous and justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.’”

“Nothing in this article can be conceded or given up, even if heaven and earth, or whatever is transitory, passed away. As St. Peter says in Acts 4: ‘There is no other name...given among men by which we must be saved.’ ‘And by his bruises we are healed.’”

So far the Smalcald Articles.

This is the Scriptural message that God has brought to us, to comfort us in our sorrow, and to strengthen us in our weakness. Our sin alienates us from God. This message, concerning Christ and his atonement, brings reconciliation.

Our sin makes us guilty before God, and calls down his judgment. This message, concerning Christ and his justification, brings forgiveness.

God’s law, proclaimed to us in all its accuracy and severity, has shattered for us the myth that humanity’s deepest problem - our sin problem - can be solved by human self-improvement efforts, human mental adjustment efforts, or even by human religious efforts.

It is the cleansing power of God’s gospel, applied to us with all of its healing gentleness in Word and Sacrament, that has lifted us up into a living hope, founded upon the love and mercy of Christ. He and he alone has done everything that needed to be done, for our reconciliation with God, and for our forgiveness before God.

And as St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans: “For 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 message - this Christ-centered and grace-filled message - is the message that the Lutheran Reformers proclaimed. It is the message that the genuine Lutheran Church of today still proclaims, and that we believe.

It is the message that liberates us from our guilt and fear, for a life of joyful service in Christ’s name, to our neighbor in need. It is the message that brings a heavenly light to the moral and spiritual darkness that otherwise would enshroud us.

But will our children and grandchildren also believe this message, and partake of all its benefits - both in this life and in the life to come? Will the next generation know and experience the comfort that we know and experience through faith is these divine promises?

This is to be a concern for all of us - not only parents, but all members of the Lord’s church. God would guide all of us, through the words of Psalm 34, to do and say what the psalmist did and said: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”

This is a sacred duty that God has entrusted to his whole church - to his new Jerusalem, the spiritual Zion to which all nations are invited. The words of Psalm 48 - as they appear in today’s Gradual - are words that are therefore addressed to all of us:

“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 read in Psalm 119: “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.” And as the Book of Revelation teaches, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed an “eternal” gospel.

The gospel of Jesus Christ will never cease to be true. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is of no personal saving benefit to anyone who does not believe it.

“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” But if Abraham had not believed God, he would not have been accounted as righteous before God. He would have been lost.

The fact that Abraham was a descendant of Noah, and of other men of faith in earlier generations, would not have saved him. By faith, Abraham himself was an adopted child of God - as are all who trust in the Lord, and are indwelt by his Spirit. But God does not have any grandchildren.

In a certain sense we could say that we who believe in the pure gospel of divine grace, as it was restored to the church by God’s providence in the Reformation, are children of the Reformation. But just as there are no grandchildren of God, so too is it the case, that there are no grandchildren of the Reformation.

Each generation must claim the evangelical catholic spirit of the Reformation, and the Biblical gospel that was proclaimed by the Reformation, as its own.

If not, the spirit of the Reformation will die. And the souls of those who do not trust in Christ for their salvation, will likewise die.

If you are a child of God, born again by his Word and Spirit, this in itself is no guarantee that the generation that comes after you will likewise be filled with the life of God’s Spirit. If you are justified by your faith in Christ, and if you have the hope of eternal life through the resurrection of Christ, this in itself is no guarantee that your children will share in this salvation.

They cannot believe in Christ unless they hear about Christ. And they cannot hear about Christ unless they are taught. If God’s Word of forgiveness in Christ is not brought to them, they will not know this forgiveness.

And in the post-Christian world in which we live, those who embrace and promote false ideologies that are hostile to the gospel, will certainly not be silent in their attempts to lure the children and youth of the church away from the safety of God’s truth - through all the mechanisms of the popular culture that are permeated with their destructive errors.

The legacy of the Reformation, which is so important to us, must not be a legacy that finds its end in us, and in our generation. It is, rather, a legacy that we receive for ourselves, only as it then passes through us to others.

We are, of course, not responsible for things that God has not commanded us to do. You are not to blame if your child - or anyone else with whom you have shared the gospel - refuses to believe it, or ceases to believe it.

Someone who rejects the gospel will have to give an account of himself before God. You can’t make someone believe in Christ.

God will not call you to account for the unbelief of someone who had a chance to believe - perhaps through your influence and words - but who refused to do so. But God has commanded us - according to our respective vocations - to participate in bringing his Word to all nations, so that all nations will have an opportunity to believe it.

“All nations” includes your nation. And your nation includes your family and friends.

Today - Reformation Sunday - is a good day for all of us to admit before God that we have not taught the fear of the Lord to our children - and to the church’s children - as we ought to have done.

The day on which we all remember the restoration of the pure Gospel of God’s forgiveness in Christ, is a good day to acknowledge that we need that forgiveness. We have not been as diligent as we have been called to be, in telling the next generation about the glorious Zion of God, where all penitent sinners find a home with their Lord forever.

And then, on this Reformation Sunday, also be the Lutheran that you claim to be. Repent of your failures - these and all others.

And believe the promise of Christ, that all of your sins are forgiven and washed away for his sake, because they are. Be justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

And for those of you who are communicants at the Lord’s altar, in this faith partake as well of the body and blood of Christ, by which all of this was accomplished for you once and for all time, and through which all of this is delivered to you now.

In Christ you are not condemned: not because of your success in living up to your calling; but because of Jesus’ success in living up to his - his calling to be your Redeemer and Savior; his calling to be your companion, your protector, and the forgiver of your sins.

And as a justified saint of the Lord, who is saved by faith and not by works, seek with the Lord’s help to bear the living fruits of your living faith, as would be pleasing to him.

Ask him to open your eyes to see with greater clarity how and where you can speak his Word to the younger generation. Ask him to fill your heart with courage and wisdom, so that you will fulfill this duty joyfully and faithfully.

As the Lord gives you the opportunity, bring your children and grandchildren to church. Bring them to Sunday School. Encourage all your friends to do the same.

Pray with your children and grandchildren at home, and read the Bible to them in the family circle. Talk with them about the things of the Lord.

In your own life set an example for them, that they may see your humility before the Lord. Show them what the priorities of their life should be, by letting them see what your priorities are.

As a testimony to our children and all people, and for the sake of our own souls, let us by faith, and in the strength of Christ, live in the peace and confidence of which today’s Introit speaks: “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” Amen.