SERMONS - JULY 2016
3 July 2016 - Pentecost 7 - Isaiah 66:10-14
When, during war time, a man joins, or is drafted into, the army, he undergoes a toughening-up process that is calculated to boost his courage and diminish his fear. But when a soldier is facing his own death on the battlefield, and knows that he has a mortal wound, the facade of that military toughness fades away very quickly.
In 2014, Tom Brokaw interviewed an aged D-Day veteran - Frank Devito - about what it was like to be surrounded by so much death, and by so many dying men, on that momentous day. With great emotion, the aged veteran recalled: “The last word they say before they die is ‘Momma.’”
Such stories have been told hundreds of times. And such experiences have haunted the memories of hundreds of surviving veterans, who heard this from their dying comrades.
Now, if battle-hardened soldiers, in the final and most vulnerable moments of their earthly life, drop the pretense of self-sufficient toughness, and at a deeply emotional level admit their anguished need for the soothing comfort of their mothers; then we, too, should be honest about the fact that - in the ups and downs of life in this world - we also need the love and succor of a mother.
And this is true for us, not only with respect to times of trial and insecurity in our earthly life, but also with respect to times of trial and insecurity in our spiritual life. Your soul, in bad times and in good times; in times of distress and in times of joy, yearns for the security and comfort - the nurture and sustenance - of your spiritual mother.
What am I talking about? I am talking about what Isaiah the prophet is talking about - in Old Testament terms and categories - in today’s first lesson:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.”
For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.”
The New Testament clarifies for us how this maternal imagery applies in our life of faith. In describing what it means for Christians to have been brought into the fellowship of their Savior and his church, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes:
“You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Note that the epistle is not describing only a future reality - something that will be so only in the next world, after we pass from this temporal life. It says that we “have been” brought to the city of the living God, and to the assembly of the firstborn.
The church of Jesus Christ - our spiritual home, Jerusalem - has a supernatural and heavenly character, but it is not something that exists only in heaven. It is here, for us, as an outpost of heaven in this perishing world, where we can dwell by faith in peace and security. And as St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Galatians, this “Jerusalem above...is our mother.”
The regenerating, baptismal gospel of the new covenant, which Jesus established by the shedding of his blood for us, draws us by his Spirit into the embrace and protection of this spiritual mother of Christians. The Large Catechism - one of the creedal statements of our Lutheran Church - accordingly teaches, in regard to the holy Christian church, that the Holy Spirit
“has His own congregation in the world, which is the mother that conceives and bears every Christian through God’s Word. Through the Word He reveals and preaches, He illumines and enkindles hearts, so that they understand, accept, cling to, and persevere in the Word.”
The Christian Church - the assembly of those who are gathered in faith around the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments - is indeed our mother, our Jerusalem. Within her warm and loving embrace, we are nurtured with the means of grace.
We are comforted in our affliction. We are sustained and strengthened in our weakness. We are taught and guided in the ways that we should go. All of this is done, as the Large Catechism affirms, through the Word of God, which continually sounds forth from within the church.
But it is done also in the context of the Christian love that Christians mutually bear toward one another, as God’s Spirit works that love into them by means of the transforming grace of the Word of God, as this Word is continually proclaimed to the people of God in sermon, and applied to them in sacrament. This is one of the reasons why we say this prayer, after our reception of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper:
“We give thanks to you, almighty God, that you have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore you that of your mercy you would strengthen us through the same, in faith toward you, and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.”
Fervent love... a nurturing and accepting love... a motherly love.
As far as our human mothers are concerned, people sometimes wish that they had an ideal mother like June Cleaver or Carole Brady - with few if any shortcomings or quirks, never disappointing, never failing. People would rather not have mothers like Edith Bunker or Marie Barone, who are either odd or annoying, or both; flawed, imperfect, and embarrassing; sometimes letting us down and hurting us.
But, people have, or had, the mothers God gave them. We don’t get to choose, or design, our mothers. And our duty to honor our mother - as the Fourth Commandment enjoins us to do - pertains to that real mother whom we actually do have, and not to a fantasy mother from television who doesn’t actually exist.
As each of us honors our actual human mother - in current acts of kindness, if she is still alive; or in fond, respectful memories, if she is not - we look beyond the flaws and imperfections, the disappointments and failures, and try as much as we can to appreciate, and be thankful for, the positive and loving traits that are or were a part of her life, and a part of her relationship with us.
And it is like this also when we consider our relationship with our spiritual mother, the church. The Christian church on earth, in the various institutional forms that it assumes, is marked by many human flaws. The church is people - although it is people who are gathered in the name of Christ, around the gospel and sacraments of Christ.
Now, insofar as the Spirit of Christ is animating this gathering of penitent sinners, the forgiving grace and perfect love of Christ are accessible to all who call upon him, and are received and enjoyed by all who trust in him.
But insofar as the church is still comprised of real flesh-and-blood people - people who, in themselves, are far from perfect, and whose sin still clings to them - then the church, in this human dimension, can, and often does, disappoint us, and fail us. And we, as human members of the church, often fail and disappoint those within the fellowship of the church who had counted on us for more than they got.
But we honor the church nevertheless, because we know by faith that the true inner character of the church, is more than the weak and frail humanity of the church’s weak and frail human members. The church, according to what she is in Christ, is the body of Christ, and the bride of Christ.
She is inhabited and animated by the Spirit of Christ. And within her, and from her, the saving Word of Christ sounds forth.
The real church, hidden under human weakness, is justified before God by the righteousness of God’s Son; is forgiven of all sin by God; and is reconciled and at peace with God.
And this real church - which exists in, with, and under the people we know - truly loves us. And we love this church - even as God loves us, and we love God in return.
The church helps us and comforts us, through the acts of kindness and compassion that God’s Spirit prompts our fellow believers to show toward us. And it is the church that is helping and comforting others, through the acts of kindness and compassion that God’s Spirit prompts us to show toward them.
We need the church, and the fellowship of the church. We cannot face the struggles and fears of this life, or the struggles and fears of the conscience, all alone.
Sometimes we might think that we are spiritually “tough enough” to get through these things by ourselves. But we are not.
Yet we don’t have to go through these things on our own, because we are members, one of another. We face life, and death, within the church, and as members of the church.
We are each united to Christ. And through that mystical union with him, we are therefore also united to each other. We have been adopted into one eternal family. And we pray together, “Our Father...”
Together we have one spiritual home and holy city - the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church - which is “the mother that conceives and bears every Christian through God’s Word.”
When two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, the church - our “Jerusalem” - is there. When a pastor offers the comfort of the Lord’s Supper to a shut-in, or when he speaks a final, soul-cleansing absolution to a dying person, the church - our spiritual “mother” - is there.
When Christian friends pray together or encourage one another with God’s Word, in a time of uncertainty or grief, God is thereby extending to his “holy city” peace like a river.
When someone who has drifted away from the services of God’s house cautiously becomes a worshiper once again, and is warmly welcomed home by the congregation, this beloved child of God is thereby able once again to drink deeply from the abundance of the life and joy that God makes available to his people, in and through his church.
And when you have blundered and sinned, and your conscience is troubled with doubts as to whether God really will forgive you, and give you a second chance, you will indeed still be welcome among God’s people. Within the fellowship of the church of Christ, you will be assured of God’s willingness always to pardon the penitent, and to renew the faith of those who humbly seek him.
You will be carried on the hip, and nursed at the breast, of your spiritual mother. You will be lovingly nurtured by the heavenly Jerusalem with the life-giving refreshment of Christ: his absolution, spoken over you by his authority; his body and blood, bestowed upon you according to his promise, for the remission of sins.
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.”
For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.” Amen.
10 July 2016 - Pentecost 7 - Leviticus 18:1-5;19:9-18
As a general rule, people like to “fit in” with others, and to conform to the general expectations of the people around them. Sometimes this is relatively innocent and harmless.
For example, I know of a certain woman whose daughters persuaded her, several years ago, to start watching the TV show “What Not To Wear,” in order to get some tips on how to dress according to current fashions. There’s nothing wrong with trying to “fit in” in that way, so that you don’t “stand out” in a crowd as weird or odd.
But at other times, the desire to “fit in” and conform can have harmful ramifications. Those who are baptized into Christ, and who belong to Christ, need to realize that it is often the case in this world, that if they conform to the expectations and wishes of the people around them, then they will not be conforming to God’s will for their lives.
Christians, with their unique, God-given values and standards, will and should “stand out” as different - at least from the point of view of those who do not share those God-given values and standards. If Jesus is the Lord of our lives, and if we follow his lead, we will often be going in a different direction from those who serve other gods.
Being different from others, and embracing an alternative way of thinking and living, is not easy. But it is what God’s people at all times and in all places have always been called to do, for as long as the world in which we live has been hostile to God and his ways.
Today’s Old Testament text, from the Book of Leviticus, presents us with one of many examples of the unique kind of calling that God has given to his people, as they live in this world, and among the other people of this world, but as they are guided by the conviction that their citizenship is in heaven, and that their God and master in the Lord. We read:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. 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.’”
In giving his newly liberated people this directive, God, as it were, covers all the bases. First, he warns them against imitating the practices of the Egyptians.
“You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived,” he said. This was a reference to ideas and practices with which the people of Israel were familiar.
Custom and habit are strong forces in our lives. When I look out over the sanctuary every Sunday, nine times out of ten I will see each of you sitting in the same pew you almost always sit in. It’s difficult to break out of the pattern of what is familiar to us.
But sometimes what is familiar is wrong. Sometimes God will tell you that you must stop doing the things that you have always done.
You must change the way you think and act, and think and act in a new and different way. And it doesn’t matter if this would mean going against the expectations and the norms of the society in which you live.
God’s law is always best. God’s gospel promises alone can save us from sin, and restore us to fellowship with him. If God’s statues and decrees are in conflict with what is familiar, then we must turn away from what is familiar, and believe and live as God commands.
We must honor God as he deserves to be honored. We must treat other people with the respect and honesty that God says they deserve from us.
God says, “I am the Lord your God.” If we claim to follow him, and to believe in him, we must acknowledge his authority, and his right to be in charge and to insist that we live in a different way from how the unbelievers live.
That’s what God did when he told the people of Israel not to follow the ways of Egypt - where they had lived for centuries. And that’s what God does when he impresses it upon your conscience, that your habitual, popular, and socially acceptable sins must stop.
It doesn’t matter how common those sins are among the people you know. If God says that it is going to be different from now on, then it is going to be different from now on.
In his message to Moses, the Lord also said this: “you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.”
Custom and habit are indeed a strong influence on us. But ironically, things that are perceived to be new and modern also have the ability to influence our actions, and to entice us away from good standards that are perceived to be old-fashioned and no-longer-relevant.
Every professional advertiser knows that if he markets his client’s product as “new and improved,” his client will get more customers. Our society is restless and fickle, always wanting to have the latest and most modern version of everything: the newest technology, the newest car model, the newest Microsoft Windows operating system.
There is a church several miles from here with a sign that says, “The New Church of Phoenix.” The actual religion of this church is Swedenborgianism. But I’m sure that over the years they have drawn more curious visitors through their doors by calling themselves “The New Church,” than they would have if they had called themselves “The Swedenborgian Church.”
And of course, the so-called “new age” religion that is so popular among so many, is really just the old Hindu religion, repackaged for American religious consumers whose ears are always tickled by something that they think is new, just because it is new to them.
For the people of Israel, the land of Canaan was going to be their new home. The beliefs and practices of the native Canaanites would therefore also have an alluring aura of “newness” about them.
But God warns the Israelites in advance, even before they started bumping up against these new heresies and immoralities, that they were not to allow themselves to be enticed into following the ways of the Canaanites. These new ways would be spiritually deadly ways. They must be avoided.
How often do your worldly friends describe the moral values that you have been taught from God’s Word as “old-fashioned”? The assumption is that if you can be persuaded that your present convictions are old-fashioned, that’s all that is necessary to get you to abandon them.
But so what if your beliefs and values are old fashioned? That’s not the important thing to consider. What you need to consider is whether your beliefs and values are godly, and true.
What the Lord in his Word commands and teaches is always godly and true. And this is so, regardless of whether or not the majority of people in 21st-century America agree.
God’s word to Israel, and God’s word to you, is this: In matters of the soul, don’t define and govern your life in terms of trying to “fit in.” Don’t try to fit in with whatever you think is old and familiar, and don’t try to fit in with whatever you think is new and modern.
Instead, remember that the Lord is your God. Remember his laws, his statutes, and his precepts. Walk in them, and live by them.
Even if those around you mock you, and make you feel that you are the only person who cares about what God says regarding the way people should believe and live, care anyway.
And remember that you’re not the only person who cares. When the Lord spoke to Moses the words that we have quoted, it was while he was in the process of establishing a whole new nation of people who would care about God, and what God has to say.
God had earned the right to establish this nation in this way, because he had miraculously delivered these people from an enslavement, from which they would never have been able to deliver themselves. God was going to establish them, by his power alone, also in their new home, in the land of promise.
And God has likewise earned the right to establish a fellowship of Christians on the face of the earth, from every nation and tribe, who also care about God and what God says.
God has delivered us from our slavery to the world, the flesh, and the devil - by the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. And he has transported us into the heavenly promised land of his church, where his Word governs and rules, and where his Word also forgives, restores, and heals.
Now, when you soberly reflect on God’s commandment to you, to believe and live as he teaches, and not as everyone around you believes and lives, you must admit that this, you have not fully done.
You have been afraid to “stand out” in the crowd as weird or odd. You have been silent when you should have spoken, and you have spoken when you should have been silent - because you were afraid of the disapproval of people whose opinion was more valuable to you than it should have been.
God has not been glorified in everything you have said and done. Your thoughts and attitudes have not been molded and shaped exclusively by the Word and Spirit of God.
Sometimes you have resisted the Lord’s promptings in your conscience, and have stuck with familiar old sins. Sometimes you have ignored the Lord’s warnings in your conscience, and have pursued fashionable new sins.
Seldom have you really heeded the Lord’s special request that you live in the special way that he has designated for his special people. And even when you have approached this, you have done so timidly and in weakness. Never have you followed God’s statutes with a completely pure heart, and with completely pure motives.
But Jesus, as he redeemed you from your previous spiritual slavery, and as he purchased your current freedom in God’s grace, was willing to walk his own, lonely pathway in life, in your place. For your sake he did not try to “fit in,” or to conform to the expectations of others.
Jesus did not set himself up as an earthly political dove, who would heal all the sick and feed all the hungry, as some wanted. And he did not set himself up as an earthly political hawk, who would militarily liberate the country from the Roman occupation, as others wanted.
He conformed himself instead to the will of his Father. And in his submission to the plan of God for humanity’s salvation, he ended up despised and rejected by virtually everyone. He was betrayed and abandoned by his nation and its leaders, and by his own friends.
As Jesus hung on the cross, waiting to die, he was, humanly speaking, the most unpopular person on the face of the earth. But from the perspective of heaven, what he was doing and allowing to be done - in his suffering and death - was more important than anything that had ever happened in human history.
And what is also important, is when Christ applies the benefits of his saving work specifically to you - when his forgiving and restoring Word is spoken over you and into you, and you stand forgiven and restored before God.
And what the Word of Christ also does is to carry you up and into a new heavenly nation. In Christ you are baptized into a new supernatural society, not of this world.
The royal priesthood of God’s church becomes for you a new and godly peer group. It is a holy community of saints in Christ who are called by God to believe in his promises, and to follow his ways.
The church is not Egypt, where you can “fit in” by continuing to think, say, and do the familiar wrong things of the past. Rather, in Christ, and in the church of Christ, all things are made new, and you become a new creature in Christ.
The church is also not the pagan land of the Canaanites, where you can “fit in” by experimenting with new and trendy varieties of rebellion and self-indulgence. Rather, in Christ, and in the church of Christ, you know and serve a Savior who is the same yesterday, today, and forever - unchanging in holiness; unchanging in love and mercy.
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. 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.’” Amen.
24 July 2016 - Pentecost 10 - Luke 11:1-13
“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray...’” Why did this disciple ask for such instruction? Why should people know how to pray, and why should they then pray?
Today we will seek God’s own answer to this question in Holy Scripture. We will also welcome some Biblical guidance in this matter from Luther’s Large Catechism, one of the official Confessions of our church.
To begin with, we can clear away some of the incorrect reasons why some people might be inclined to pray, and some of the misperceptions as to why praying people do in fact pray. We do not pray in order to persuade God to do things that he otherwise would not do. Likewise, we do not pray in order to inform him of our needs, or of the desires of our heart, which would otherwise be unknown to him.
God already knows everything. That means that he already knows what is best for you and others, and he already intends to do what is best.
St. John says in his First Epistle: “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” The Book of Proverbs says: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” And as we read in the Book of Job: “With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding.”
The Large Catechism points out that God “wants you to lament and express your needs and concerns, not because he is unaware of them, but in order that you may kindle your heart to stronger and greater desires, and open and spread your apron wide to receive many things.”
God already knows your problems. But he wants you to know them. He wants you, with honesty and humility, to acknowledge your problems to be the problems that they really are; and to acknowledge him as the God who alone can solve them. He wants you to wrestle with him in prayer, and to be ardent and persistent in your requests, not for his sake, but for yours.
As you think through how you will bring your concerns to the Lord in prayer, you will thereby come to a better understanding of what your concerns actually are. Praying about your problems causes you to think more seriously about those problems. And it causes you to think more seriously about the fact that only God can truly solve those problems.
Also, contrary to what some might imagine, our prayers are not meritorious works that we perform or offer to God, in order to earn his favor. God is the one who gives us the faith that inclines us to pray. And through his Word, he is also the one who guides and shapes the content of our prayer.
This is most evident when we consider the Lord’s Prayer. Today’s Gospel from St. Luke is one of two places in the New Testament where Jesus teaches this basic prayer to his disciples.
The version that Luke describes is slightly abbreviated, in comparison to the version that has become the standardized form we all memorize, which comes from St. Matthew’s Gospel. But the version in Luke contains the same essential points as the version in Matthew.
God himself, in the person of Christ, teaches this prayer to us. In the words of the Large Catechism, he thereby “takes the initiative and puts into our mouths the very words and approach we are to use. In this way we see how deeply concerned he is about our needs. And we should never doubt that such prayer pleases him and will assuredly be heard.”
When you in faith speak the Lord’s Prayer - or another prayer that is modeled after it, or based on it in its content - you can do so with confidence and certainty.
You are able to know that God is pleased with your prayer. You are able to know that you are asking for the kind of things that he wants you to ask for, because he himself has told you that this is how you should pray.
Through the proclamation of God’s Word, God’s Spirit also gives you the faith which prompts within you the desire to call upon him in prayer. In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul asks:
“But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ ... So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Your life of prayer is not something you do for God. It is something God does for you.
And what are the reasons why we should pray? Why should we, like the disciple in today’s Gospel, be eager to learn from Jesus how and why to speak to God? There are basically two reasons.
First, we should pray to God because God commands it. Now, from the perspective of the doctrine of God’s attributes, it might seem to us that there would be no logical reason to pray.
God is all-knowing and all-powerful, and is going to do whatever he wants anyway. But such human speculations cannot negate God’s clearly-revealed mandate that we come to him with our petitions and thanksgivings.
The Large Catechism again instructs us that, according to the Second Commandment, “we are required to praise the holy name and to pray or call upon it in every need. For calling upon it is nothing else than praying. Prayer, therefore, is...strictly and solemnly commanded...”
We are sinning against God if we refuse or neglect to call upon his name, and to acknowledge him alone as the source of all that is good. He alone is the almighty creator of all things.
No other being in the supernatural realm has the right to be the recipient of the devout pleadings of our heart. We have no right to ask any creature, whether saint or angel, for the kind of divine help that only God can give, or for the kind of divine favor that only God can show.
“You shall have no other gods before me” must mean, if it means anything, that we may not call upon any other entity, whether real or imagined, in the same way as we call upon the Triune God. It is he who has placed his name upon us in our baptism - as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier - and who has thereby staked his rightful claim on all of our worship and devotion.
But God does not only command us to pray. He also invites us to pray, with the sweetest and most comforting promises. That is the second reason why we should pray.
The Large Catechism quotes from one of the verses included in today’s Introit: “As he says in Psalm 50, ‘Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you.’ And Christ says in the Gospel, in Matthew 7, ‘Ask, and it will be given you.’ ... Such promises certainly ought to awaken and kindle in our hearts a longing and love for prayer.”
The prayers of a Christian are pleasing to our heavenly Father for one important reason: because they are offered through faith in his Son Jesus Christ.
Because of our human sin we would not otherwise be worthy to approach a holy God. St. Paul warns in his Epistle to the Romans that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
If an unbeliever would presume to approach God in prayer, in the arrogance of a self-righteous heart, and suppressing in his darkened mind the truth of his sin and need for a Savior, the best consequence for him would be for the Lord to ignore him. If such a person did get God’s attention, the result would be divine judgment, not divine blessing.
But in Christ, as we, in prayer, approach a holy God with repentance and faith, we do not fear this judgment. God is not only holy in himself, but in his Son he also credits his holiness to us, and covers our sin with it for the sake of Jesus Christ.
That’s what forgiveness means. When God forgives, he forgets. In Psalm 103 we praise God’s unmeasurable mercy toward us precisely for this reason:
“He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”
This is the loving God who invites us to pray to him in the name of Jesus, our Savior. This is the loving God who invites us to call upon him as children call upon their dear father.
Some may have the idea that God is more likely to hear the prayers of those whom he considers to be saints. Therefore, when they ponder their own weaknesses and imperfections, they hesitate to address the Lord themselves.
In a certain sense this supposition is correct. God does hear the prayers of his saints. But in Christ, God counts you to be one of his saints!
St. Paul addressed one of his epistles “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Another was addressed “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.” These letters were addressed to whole congregations of believing Christians, not only to a select few who had risen to a higher level of sinless spirituality.
In fact, no one on this side of the grave ever rises to such a level. But all of us, as we struggle against the ongoing temptations that we face every day, and as we repent of our daily failures, are also invited to believe that for Jesus’ sake we are forgiven; that we are declared to be saints; that we are justified by faith; and that we are helped and sustained by our Lord in all of our fears and trials.
Christ delivered us from sin and death by his sacrifice on the cross. And by his glorious resurrection, he opened up for us the pathway to eternal life with God. Through him, and in his name, we are therefore free to pray to our heavenly Father, without fear, and without ceasing.
To pray “in the name of Jesus” is not a mere formula. It is a faith - a faith that is shaped by the revelation of the Savior in whom we trust, and that accordingly guides and shapes the content and character of any prayer that is offered on the basis of that revelation.
St. John’s Gospel quotes Jesus as telling his disciples: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” But just a few verses later, Jesus also says this: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things.”
And so, the Holy Spirit, sent to us in Jesus’ name, and coming into our minds and hearts through the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, teaches us the meaning of the prayer that is then to be offered to God in Jesus’ name. We do not teach God the meaning of our prayer, by the demands that we make on him when we pray.
To pray in the name of Jesus is not to compel or cajole God to give us what we want, because we have “said the magic words,” as it were. It is, rather, to open ourselves up, in humility, to receive what Jesus wants for us, and to bring our wishes and desires into harmony with his.
As we pray, the perfect forgiveness of our Savior covers over all of our imperfections and flaws. His perfect forgiveness also covers over any imperfections and flaws that may be present in our words, thoughts, and motives.
Our prayers, flawed though they may be, are therefore not judged by God as inadequate and unacceptable. They are instead lovingly received and heard by God for the sake of the perfection of Christ, who prayed his high priestly prayer for us, and who even now intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father.
The Large Catechism speaks for us all when it summarizes the faith of a believing and praying Christian: “Here I come, dear Father, and pray not of my own accord, nor because of my own worthiness, but at your commandment and promise, which cannot fail or deceive me.”
“And [Jesus] said to them, ‘When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”’” Amen.
31 July 2016 - Pentecost 11 - Colossians 3:1-11
In today’s collect, we prayed: “O Lord, grant us wisdom to recognize the treasures You have stored up for us in heaven, that we may never despair, but always rejoice and be thankful for the riches of Your grace.”
Notice the connection in this prayer between the concept of “treasure,” and the feeling of despair. We prayed that God would help us recognize and remember the treasures that are stored up for us in heaven, so that we will not despair.
The connection between “treasure” and “despair” can be helpful to us, as we would evaluate our attitude toward the various things that we own, or that are a part of our life. If you would be thrown into a state of despair if something that you owned were taken away, or destroyed, it would indicate that this thing was something that you treasured.
When you treasure something - an object, or perhaps a relationship with a person - it means that you invest yourself in that thing to such a degree that it identifies who you are. Your “treasure” is not just something that you have. At an emotional level, it is something that has you.
When I was in India several years ago, I visited one of the orphanages that our sister church there operates. Each resident had a very small suitcase. In that suitcase were contained all of that child’s worldly possessions.
These children were thankful for what they had. For many of them, when they were living homeless on the street - before they entered the orphanage - they owned absolutely nothing. Now, at least, they had a couple changes of clothing, a Bible, and a Catechism.
But what they also now had, was the grace of Holy Baptism, the comfort of the gospel, and the promises of their Savior Jesus Christ. As they were taught by their pastor and teachers the message that is contained in their Bibles and Catechisms, they knew that their possessions - such as they were - were not their true treasure.
Their treasure was the salvation from sin and spiritual death that Jesus had won for them, and that Jesus had given to them personally in his Word and Sacrament.
Those of us who live in a more affluent society are perhaps tempted to a greater degree to see our possessions as our treasure, because we have so many possessions. I, too, own quite a few material objects. And I do value them.
I’m glad to have my books, my CDs, my DVDs, my car, my house. I’m thankful for these material things, and with the Lord’s help I try to make the best use of them.
But I wonder what my reaction would be if some or all of these material possessions would be taken away from me. Would I sink into a state of despair? Or would I have the attitude of Job:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
As a Christian, I am not to allow material objects - whether great or small - to become my treasure. According to the requirements of the First Commandment, the possessions that the Lord has allowed me to have in this lifetime are not to have such an influence over me, that I would feel that my life is over, or that my life no longer has any meaning, if they would be destroyed.
Of course, we also need to remember that when Job spoke his well-known words of faith, he was not reflecting only on the loss of his material possessions. All of his children had also been taken from him, and from this world.
We would all probably agree that focusing one’s ultimate affection on material things is extremely superficial and foolish. We would also probably agree that a deep love for one’s family members is very different from this, and is a noble and virtuous thing.
However, even such a love cannot become for us an all-consuming love, or an idolatrous love. Not even our relationships with spouse, children, or parents can be allowed to occupy the position of chief priority in our hearts.
That place belongs only to Christ, and the eternal hope that he offers in his Word. Jesus said: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
You cannot allow your love for those people who mean the most to you in this world, to become that which defines your existence, or your reason to live. Your dear ones must not become your true and ultimate treasure.
If you were to lose them, even that sadness and tragedy must not be allowed to become for you a cause for despair and hopelessness. Despair and hopelessness at the loss of anything in this life - anything besides Christ - testify to a sin of idolatry.
In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus warns us that we must not be like the foolish rich man, who put all his hope in his crops and earthly riches, and in his ability to hoard those resources for himself:
“God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
And as St. Paul writes in today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Colossians:
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
Of course, having our priorities straight in this way does not mean that we will not think about, or care about, the people who are around us here on earth. Knowing that our ultimate destiny is in God’s eternal kingdom does not mean that we will have a completely indifferent attitude toward the things of this world, for as long as we are still in it.
St. Paul goes on in this reading to describe the practical difference - in how we live, here and now - that will result from a proper focusing of our minds on the things that are above. The apostle forbids prejudice and discrimination against other people on the basis of ethnicity or social status.
He forbids sexual immorality and obscenity, lying and slander, in our human relationships. He enjoins upon us a respect for the property of others.
As Christians, we treat other people in an honorable way, in accordance with the honorable purposes for which God has brought them into our lives. We do not exploit others for carnal pleasure or material gain.
But in faith we also look beyond the specific people we know, to the divine Creator and Redeemer of us and them - who watches over our relationships, and who governs the way we think about others, and act toward others, within those relationships.
We are grateful to the Lord for the blessings that he bestows on us through the various people whose lives intersect with ours: in temporary and casual relationships, such as at school or work; and in relatively permanent and close caring relationships, such as in marriage and family.
And we are grateful to the Lord for the opportunities he gives us to be a conduit of blessing to them.
But when those people cease to be a part of our lives, according to the ebb and flow of how things often do go in this world, we do not despair. We continue in hope, even in the midst of grief and longing, because we still have God - the true source of everything good and pure that we had enjoyed, with and through those people.
We recognize as well that the material resources we have, do not ultimately define us, and are not what we live for. For the limited time when we are allowed to have these resources, we understand them to be temporary gifts from above.
Our property and wealth are to be enjoyed and used in ways that glorify God and help our neighbor, and in ways that serve to fulfill the obligations toward others that our earthly callings place upon us.
We do see evidence of God’s love and kindness toward us, in, with, and under these material gifts, for as long as they last. But when those material gifts are gone, or when they have run their course in our life, God’s love and kindness are still there.
In Christ, and with the comfort that Christ gives, the greatest of human losses will not throw us into a state of despair. The loss of all that we own, if that would ever happen, would likewise not change the fact of who we are in God’s kingdom.
Jesus Christ, and his salvation, are our treasure. As Christ clings to us in his Word and Sacrament, and as we cling to him in faith, this treasure will never depart. We will never lose it. It will never lose us.
As Christians, the only thing that might cause us to despair, would be the thought that Christ has abandoned us, or turned away from us. Sometimes we may feel that way, when we have sinned against God, and when our conscience tells us that we therefore do not deserve to be in the presence of God any longer.
At such times, when our hearts are weighed down with guilt, the devil also chimes in, and tries to persuade us that God has in fact turned away from us, and has given up on us. These deceptive emotions, and these satanic lies, might work for a time, in causing us to feel hopeless and lost - that is, until the message of the gospel is once again preached to us! And the message of the gospel includes this:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
That’s a direct quotation from the Lord’s apostle John. With his own eyes, John had seen Jesus die - for his sins, and for yours. And with his own eyes and hands, he had seen and touched the living Christ, after his resurrection, and was thereby assured that the sacrifice for all human sin that Jesus had offered to his Father’s justice on the cross, was acceptable, and was accepted.
The death of Jesus on the cross - for you - will never be undone. Your baptism, and the open invitation to return to Christ in repentance and faith that God issues to you through your baptism, will never dry up on this side of eternity.
And so, the only thing that might cause us to despair - if we were to lose it - we will not lose. There is always a pathway back to God, whenever we may wander from him, and as often as we wander from him. That pathway is never blocked, as far as God is concerned.
If, in faith, you yearn for God’s forgiveness for the sake of Christ, you have it! If, in your regenerated heart, you truly want to be at peace with God in Christ, you are! If, in your liberated will, you truly desire to have a clear conscience before God through the righteousness of Christ, you do!
If Christ - and his forgiveness, peace, and righteousness - are your treasure, you will keep your treasure. Other things, other relationships, may come and go. Other objects of value may be destroyed. Other people, whom you may love very much, may cease to be a part of your life.
But the greatest of treasures remains. Christ and his promises remain.
Right now, as you are seated in this sanctuary, you are where you would be expected to be, if you really believe this. And that’s because the Lord’s house, where the Word and Sacrament of Christ are made available to us, is the place where we can best enjoy our true treasure.
Jesus is in heaven, where we too will go when we die in the faith. But Jesus is not only in heaven. He is with us here too, according to his promise to be with his disciples always, even to the end of the age.
Some people put their most valuable possessions in a safe deposit box at the bank. When they want to be in the presence of those valuables - to handle them, and look them over - they go to the bank, and take out the secured box where they are kept.
That which is most valuable to us - our treasure - is not in the bank. It is here. And when we want to enjoy that treasure, we come here.
In the Lord’s Supper in particular, we, as it were, take our cherished treasure into our hands. We take it into our mouths.
We are reminded of who we really are, and of what the meaning of our life really is, when we receive the body and blood of Christ - which Christ miraculously places into the bread and wine of the sacrament by the power of his Word.
There is no time in your spiritual pilgrimage when there is less temptation to despair, or when there is a greater and more personal enjoyment of your true treasure, than in that moment when your Savior’s body and blood are placed on your tongue, and when his pardon and peace fill your soul.
At such a time you may have this thought:
Let me live to praise thee ever, Jesus, thou my heart’s delight, Thou who leadest me aright.
Let me cling to thee forever, all the fleshly lusts deny, And the devil’s hosts defy.
And at such a time we may whisper this prayer:
“O Lord, grant us wisdom to recognize the treasures You have stored up for us in heaven, that we may never despair, but always rejoice and be thankful for the riches of Your grace.” Amen.