2 October 2016 - Pentecost 20 - Luke 17:1-10

“And [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!’”

There are a lot of things in this world that are inevitable and unavoidable. It’s often said that the two things you can’t avoid in this life are death and taxes. But here Jesus tells us that there is at least one more unavoidable thing: temptations to sin.

Temptations to sin are a much more serious problem than taxes. In a sense, they are more dangerous even than death, since death is sometimes a portal to heaven. But the kind of temptations Jesus is describing here are never that.

The Greek word translated as “temptations to sin” is “skandala.” Sometimes this is rendered in English as “stumbling block.” But the word doesn’t refer to an ordinary block or stone over which a person may trip as he walks.

In the common Greek usage of the day, this term would have been used to describe the equivalent of a trip wire in an ancient animal trap. When the animal stumbled over the skandalon, it thereby triggered the trap mechanism and made itself a captive.

Life is full of these trip wires. But the fact that they are all around us doesn’t mean that we should ignore them or think little of them.

If you find yourself in a desert that is filled with ornery rattlesnakes and aggressive scorpions, you will not ignore the danger they pose just because there are a lot of them all around you. Instead, your alertness will be intensified. And if you’re stung or bitten, you’ll still try to avoid getting stung or bitten a second or a third time.

That’s the way it is with the spiritual danger that surrounds us in this world. It’s easy to get bitten or stung by the devil and those who serve him. It’s easy to get stuck in the traps that God’s enemies set for God’s people.

But we should never lose our sense of horror and revulsion at the thought of offending and disobeying God. Even if we see a hundred other people doing so - with no apparent qualms of conscience - we must never become comfortable with the idea of following the lead of those who would draw us away from God and his goodness.

And may we never entertain the thought that there will be no serious consequences if we ourselves would be the ones who lead others away from God and his ways - through setting a bad example for others, or through coaxing others to sin.

As Jesus says, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”

And so, with an awareness of the danger that is all around us, we listen to our Lord as he goes on to say, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”

Note that Jesus doesn’t say, “pay attention to yourself,” in the singular. He says, “pay attention to yourselves,” collectively.

The church is a body of believers. We are united to each other in many ways. And one of the ways in which we are united is in our diligence and concern regarding each other’s spiritual safety.

Do you remember Cain’s response when God asked him where his brother Abel was? He snapped back, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, yes, he was his brother’s keeper! And you are your brother’s keeper, too.

If you saw your biological brother wandering toward the edge of a precipice, wouldn’t you call out to him to warn him? Or would you debate in your own mind whether you should really say anything, since he might resent it if you seemed to be telling him where to go or what to do?

If your biological sister had already fallen into a den of rattlesnakes, and had already been bitten by one of them, wouldn’t you rush over and pull her out as quickly as possible? Or would you hesitate to intervene, with the thought that she might not like it if you involved yourself in her personal affairs?

If your spiritual brother has sinned - if he has gotten himself caught in a trap that Satan laid for him - will you intervene, admonish him, and implore him to repent of his sin? Or will you be silent, and do and say nothing?

Perhaps you might think that if you in the past have been guilty of the same sin, or a similar sin, then you would have no right to criticize someone else for doing what you yourself previously did. But that’s ridiculous. Would a man who had been stung by a scorpion in the past refrain - for that reason - from telling his friend that he was about to step on a scorpion?

Actually, those who have previously had a bout with a certain sin may be the best people to warn others of the dangers of that sin. Men and women who had fornicated before marriage, and later repented of it, may be the best ones to warn teenagers that sexual intimacy without a marital commitment is not all it’s cracked up to be by the Hollywood culture.

People who have overcome a struggle with alcohol or drugs may be the best ones to approach those who are still trapped in the web of chemical dependency, and to impress upon them the physical and spiritual danger of their situation, and the need to call upon the Lord for help and deliverance.

A decision to remain silent or to do nothing when a brother or sister in Christ is in such spiritual jeopardy, would be just as wrong as a decision not to warn someone about the danger of falling off a cliff, and just as indefensible as a decision to allow a hapless person to remain trapped in a den of poisonous snakes.

I fear, though, that many of us - or maybe I should say all of us - have remained silent at times like this, when we should have said something. We have remained inactive, when we should have done something.

We have allowed our brothers and sisters in Christ to be led into temptation, and we have stood by while their faith was attacked and ravaged by the enemy of their souls.

We didn’t warn them about the trip wires. We didn’t try to rescue them from the traps into which they had fallen. We didn’t do what the members of the Christian church collectively are told to do by our loving Lord:

“Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”

You and I are often in need of being rebuked ourselves, not only for the personal sins into which we fall, but also for our loveless negligence in not rebuking and correcting those whom we have a duty to rebuke and correct.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are the goal of any rebuke. The goal is not to make ourselves feel superior by pointing out the shortcomings of others. Rather, we are genuinely grieved when a brother or sister strays from the safe pathways of Christ.

We want only good for them, when we warn them of spiritual danger, and when we speak to them of the judgment of God that will be visited upon those who make God their enemy.

The Christian Church is a community that is defined by forgiveness. We confess in the creeds that we believe in “the forgiveness of sins,” and that we acknowledge “one Baptism for the remission of sins.”

The first thing that these creedal phrases call to mind, of course, is the forgiveness of God. God’s forgiveness is his declaration of pardon and reconciliation, by which he makes it known to us that he will now treat us as if we had never done or said anything wrong.

In forgiving us, God declares that he will not count our sins against us. The reason why this is possible, is because he already counted our sins against his Son Jesus Christ, who in our stead carried them to the cross, and died for them there.

And, in forgiving us, God declares that he will credit to us the perfection and sinlessness of Jesus, and cover us with Jesus’ righteousness. That’s what our repentance prepares us for.

That’s what our faith receives, when we trust in the gracious promises that are announced and delivered to us by our Savior, in his Word and Sacraments.

And the forgiveness we have received from God bleeds over into our human relationships - even the ones that may be strained and tested by many difficulties. A forgiven heart is also a forgiving heart.

This is not a matter of coercion as far as the new spiritual nature of a Christian is concerned. In Christ we want to extend to others the joy that we have in our relationship with God.

We want to be at peace with others, as God is at peace with us. We want to share the life and love of God with all men.

When erring brothers and sisters have repented, and with the Lord’s help have turned away from the danger and destructiveness of sin, we joyfully embrace them in the love of Christ. In the strength of Christ we pardon their offense, and in the patience of Christ we overlook their weakness.

St. Paul has more to say about this in his epistle to the Colossians: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience - bearing with one another, and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other. As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.”

There is indeed a mutuality to these things, as we experience them time and time again within the “one body” of Jesus. As we forgive others, so we ask them to forgive us when we fail and hurt them.

As we prayerfully lift up others in their time of need, and help and encourage them in their struggles, so we in humility are willing to let them lift us up, and to encourage us when we have stumbled.

And in today’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to say this: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

Remember that stumbling blocks, and temptations to sin, are all around us. They are, in the end, impossible to avoid. But as often as a man falls into these traps and sins, that’s as often as we are to be willing to forgive him and give him yet another chance.

Repenting is not a matter of simply saying that you are sorry. It is a matter of truly being sorry - that is, hating the sin, and from the heart sincerely wanting to be delivered from it.

God will, of course, judge hypocrisy and secret unbelief. He knows the thoughts of man, and can see through any pretense. God is not mocked, and cannot be deceived by a feigned and merely verbal repentance.

But you and I cannot read hearts and minds. So, unless there is objective and compelling evidence of dishonesty and insincerity, if someone says that he is sorry, we are to believe him, and take him at his word that he really is sorry. And if that happens seven times in a day, so be it.

The model we follow as we bear with one another, and forgive one another, is the grace of Jesus Christ toward each of us. You and I each sin against God a lot more than seven times in a day.

Our thoughts, words, and deeds are contaminated by selfishness, laziness, pride, and a host of other vices. None of them are completely pure. And some of them are very impure.

But as often as we truly repent, and ask for God’s mercy, we receive that mercy. And even if we are not overtly conscious of all the sinful weaknesses that afflict us, God already forgives them for the sake of his Son, and inwardly strengthens us to overcome them by the indwelling of his Spirit.

The Lord’s Supper is perhaps one of the most vivid illustrations of God’s willingness in Christ to forgive us, repeatedly and continuously. This sacrament is not like Baptism, which is received only once.

Instead, it sustains the penitent faith of Christians throughout their lives. It is to be received often, as our conscience dictates to us our need for the blessings that it offers.

A healthy faith is a faith that craves what Jesus bestows on his disciples, when he says: “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. ... Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

We forgive our penitent brothers and sisters as often as they need forgiveness, because Jesus forgives us as often as we need forgiveness - in the Lord’s Supper, in Holy Absolution, and in the general comforts of the gospel, in whatever form those comforts come to us. And we are certainly not to be less patient, or more demanding, in dealing with our fellow Christians, than Jesus is when he deals with us.

“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”

“Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Amen.

9 October 2016 - Pentecost 21 - Luke 17:11-19

Leprosy was a horrible disease to have. The effects it had on a person’s body were bad enough, but according to the law of Moses the onset of leprosy also meant separation from society. A leper was a social outcast, cut off from all normal activities and relationships.

The New Testament scholar William Arndt describes this disease, and the life of those who were afflicted by it. This description is not for the squeamish. But we cannot fully understand the significance of what happened to the ten lepers in today’s Gospel from St. Luke, unless we know how serious their physical problem really was. Dr. Arndt writes:

“The people afflicted with this contagious plague were not permitted to mingle with the inhabitants of towns and villages, but had to live in lonely places, where they had contact with nobody except such as suffered from the same disease. The Old Testament Law, Leviticus 13, had so ordained. ...”

“Leprosy, said to be caused by a bacillus affecting, in the first place, the skin, produces ulcerations and deformations; the mucus membrane of the mouth and larynx are attacked, too. As the disease develops, the hair falls out, the nose and lips frequently are eaten away, and the bones and joints are dissolved.”

“Lepers had to warn healthy people against approaching them by uttering the cry ‘Unclean.’ No human cure was known at the time. If any leper thought he was healed, [according to Leviticus 14] he had to show himself to the priest to have the cure authenticated, and his mingling with healthy people officially permitted.”

So far Dr. Arndt.

The ten lepers who called out to Jesus believed that he had the power to heal them. In this respect they had a higher regard for Jesus than did most of the Jewish religious leadership.

The scribes and Pharisees considered Jesus to be a deceiver, a false prophet, and perhaps even a man in league with the devil. They weren’t inclined to come to Jesus for help with any problem, whether spiritual, emotional, or physical.

But the lepers did come to him, and ask for his help. And he did help them. Jesus did not let them down.

They had a need, and he met it. They had a problem, and he solved it. He showed himself to be an invaluable resource of supernatural power, and they were glad to have the chance to tap into that power for their personal benefit.

For nine of the lepers, that’s as far as this thing went. But for one of them, the importance of Jesus in his life went beyond this.

For this particular former leper - who happened to be a Samaritan - Jesus was more than a supernatural resource to be exploited. He was the living presence of God among men, to be worshiped and praised.

And so this leper “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.”

There are many examples of popular preaching today - especially on television, but not limited to television - that present Jesus in a way similar to how those nine ungrateful lepers saw him.

Jesus is portrayed as a supernatural resource - a heavenly problem-solver. We are encouraged to come to him with the problems in life that we have identified, and to seek his help with those problems.

If someone suffers from an addiction, or lacks a feeling of purpose in his life, or has a hard time controlling his temper or his libido, or is in financial or material need, or suffers from a bodily ailment of some kind, then he’s encouraged to call upon the Lord for help.

And that’s about it. This is the “therapeutic gospel” and the “prosperity gospel” that have replaced the genuine Biblical gospel in a lot of the popular religion of our age.

The genuine Biblical gospel does not deal only with these sorts of secondary human problems, but it deals also and chiefly with the deepest and most fundamental spiritual problem of humanity. Our most basic problem, is that we are by nature sinful and unclean - contaminated with a deep and disfiguring spiritual leprosy.

We are born into a state of spiritual death, and come into this world separated from God, and hostile to God. All the other problems we have - bodily illness and death, flaws in our personal character, emotional distress - flow from, and are based on, this most fundamental problem.

If we treat these secondary problems without treating the primary one, we are really treating only symptoms, and not the underlying spiritual disease.

But when the primary problem is dealt with - and when our relationship with God is restored in Christ - then the blessing of God begins to flow into our lives in many different ways. And God does then graciously work on the various things that trouble and hurt us personally, and that trouble and hurt our human relationships.

On his own initiative, God solved the most fundamental human problem - the sin problem - through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. In Christ, God provided a perfect substitute for fallen man, and a perfect sacrifice for man’s transgressions.

In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us. Those who in faith know the risen Christ as the victor over sin and death, and as the forgiver of sin, are therefore not consumed by divine wrath, but are enlivened by divine love.

The men who came to the Lord for help with their leprosy problem were told to go show themselves to a priest. This was in accord with the law of Moses.

The Aaronic priests were the ones who were authorized to make the judgment as to whether a leper had been healed, and if so, to readmit him to society.

Jesus miraculously caused these lepers to be healed while they were on their way to see the priests. The nine who did not return to give thanks continued on their way, satisfied that they had gotten from Jesus what they wanted.

They were looking forward to being pronounced “clean,” so that they could resume their earthly lives where they had left off, before they had been afflicted.

But the Samaritan among them was not interested only in going back to the way things used to be. He knew now that things were never going to be the same.

And he also knew that before going to a priest to be certified as healed, he should go back to Jesus - that he absolutely needed to go back to Jesus - and to thank him for the mercy he had shown.

Jesus was indeed the true high priest - the ultimate priest from God who would offer himself, on the altar of the cross, as the ultimate sacrifice for all human sin. And the Samaritan who had been healed - physically and now also spiritually - needed to go and show himself to this great, divine-human high priest.

He needed to hear the forgiving pronouncement of Jesus that he was now “clean” - that his sin had been washed away, and that his right standing before God had been established. And with joy the Samaritan listened to the life-giving words that his Lord spoke to him: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

This man’s life belonged to the Lord now, and he knew it. He owed Jesus everything.

He was no longer going to decide for himself what he wanted or needed in life, and then ask God to help him achieve or obtain it. Rather, from now on, God was going to set his agenda.

This man would now let God identify his needs: Needs that he may already be aware of, on his own; and needs of which he may not be cognizant, until God exposes them out by means of his Word’s probing and piercing of the conscience. And, this man would now let God meet those needs according to his own divine wisdom.

In contrast to the healed Samaritan man, the blessing that the other nine lepers had received from Jesus was, literally, only skin deep. Their souls remained in the same cancered and cankerous spiritual condition they had been in before.

And what about us? Might we actually be in the same spiritual condition as those nine ungrateful men?

Your belief in God’s power to accomplish good things in your life, in itself, does not make you any different from them. The nine ungrateful lepers believed that, too.

You also can’t assure yourself of a right standing with God simply because you seek the Lord’s help to achieve happiness in your family life, or success in your business, or stability in your emotions, or even healing from some physical malady. That’s what the nine ungrateful lepers also did.

But their hearts did not see Jesus for who he really was. He was embraced as an extraordinary man who could fix problems, but not as the Redeemer who has solved the deepest human problem - the problem of sin, and of the guilt of sin - by his death on the cross.

Jesus was accepted as a person who could give them a better life in this world, but not as the Person - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh - who could justify them before God, and make them fit for eternal life in the world to come.

Jesus doesn’t want you to be like the nine men who did not return to give thanks. He wants you to be like the one man who did.

And by the convicting power of his law, and the regenerating power of his gospel, Jesus can and will cause you to be like that one faithful, humble Samaritan, who knelt before the Lord, and praised God for what he had done in and through Jesus.

God’s Spirit can and will give you a faith that sees Jesus to be the great high priest, to whom you joyfully present yourself after your baptismal cleansing, and whom you acknowledge to be the Lord and master of all things.

By the blood of Jesus you have been made clean. The Word of God has declared you to be pure and holy in Christ, covered by his righteousness and healed by his wounds.

And you have been given a faith that looks up - beyond the horizons of this world and its troubles - to the heavenly home where all tears will be wiped away, and all diseases healed forever.

In response to what Jesus has done for you, you - like the Samaritan - are led by the Holy Spirit to turn back to the Lord, and to acknowledge him, before you move forward with the rest of your life.

In this very sanctuary, you praise God with a loud voice, for all that he has done for you. You fall on your face at Jesus’ feet - figuratively if not literally - giving him thanks.

In humility, under the sober diagnosis of God’s law, you acknowledge the lingering sickness of sin in your life, and ask for the Lord’s continuing mercy. And Jesus then declares to you, in his absolution and benediction, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

In Jesus, as you call out to him in faith, you have indeed been made well. In Jesus, as you kneel before him in faith, your sins are forgiven. In Jesus, as you cling to him in faith, you are cleansed from all spiritual leprosy, and restored to fellowship with your God.

“Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.” Amen.

16 October 2016 - Pentecost 22 - 2 Tim. 3:14-4:5

In today’s second lesson, St. Paul is writing to his young protégé and spiritual son Timothy. Timothy is a minister of the gospel. In the two epistles that Paul writes to him, Timothy’s mentor and spiritual father gives him guidance and encouragement for his public ministry.

In the particular passage that is appointed for today’s lesson, however, some of what St. Paul says applies to all Christians, not just to pastors. He tells Timothy - and all of us - some extremely important things about the Holy Scriptures, and about the role that God wants the Scriptures to play in our lives.

Paul reminds Timothy: “From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings.” The Greek term translated as “childhood” is actually the term that is used to describe the time of infancy, as compared to older children - for which there is a different Greek term. So, what Paul is saying here is that Timothy has been acquainted with the Scriptures since he was a baby.

Timothy’s mother Eunice, and his grandmother Lois, are referred to by Paul elsewhere as pious and faithful women. They were Jewish. When they heard Paul’s preaching about Jesus and his fulfillment of the Messianic promises, they believed this preaching, and became prominent members of the early church.

This is the family in which Timothy was raised. From the time of his birth, his mother and grandmother saw to it that he was brought to the synagogue, and later to the gatherings of the Christian congregation.

As he grew up, they taught him about God, about the Ten Commandments, and about the message of the prophets concerning the coming Messiah. They made sure that he knew about God’s saving acts in history, and about God’s grace and love in Timothy’s own life.

The message of the Scriptures - in his case the Old Testament Scriptures - was brought to Timothy in many ways. It is highly unlikely that Timothy’s family actually owned copies of the sacred texts.

This was before the advent of the printing press, and only in the rarest of cases did someone other than a rabbi or a religious scholar actually have copies of the Scriptures in his own possession. But these pious women brought Timothy to the services of God’s house, where the Scriptures were chanted aloud and expounded.

They also taught him at home about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; about Moses and the prophets; about Samuel and the judges; about David and the kings. They conveyed the saving message of the Bible to young Timothy, even though they were likely not able to read to him directly from the sacred scrolls.

What a wonderful blessing we have today, in comparison to the circumstances of Timothy’s family. I would venture to guess that every single family of our congregation owns several copies of the Bible, in perhaps two or three different translations. The Catechism, perhaps in more than one edition, is also easy to find on the bookshelves in many of our homes.

How easy it is for us to instruct our children and grandchildren in God’s Word as they are growing up - in addition to bringing them to church and Sunday School.

I wonder, though, if we are as diligent in these matters as Eunice and Lois were. I wonder if our children and grandchildren know as much about God’s Word as Timothy did. It’s never too early to start teaching them.

Now, Timothy was acquainted with the sacred writings from infancy. It’s a wonderful thing when someone who was raised in a Christian family is not able to remember a time when he or she was not in church on Sunday mornings.

It’s a wonderful thing when a child is not able to remember a time when he or she did not already know about Jesus and his love.

Young children learn a lot more from being in God’s house than we may realize. They are able to develop a healthy sense of feeling “at home” with the sounds and activities of church. And, of course, God’s Word has miraculous, supernatural power.

God’s Word fills and permeates everything that goes on in a proper worship service. Through his Word - as that Word is read, preached, sung, and prayed - God is able to touch the heart and mind of even the youngest baptized Christian. The assumption that this does not happen arises from rationalism, and not from the kind of faith that is able to prays the words of Psalm 22:

O Lord: “You are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”

I have known many people over the years, who neglected to bring their children to church during their kids’ growing-up years, and who later deeply regretted it. I have never known anyone who did raise his children in church, and who in later years regretted doing so.

The place for all of the Lord’s children, on the Lord’s Day, is in the Lord’s House. All of us, beginning in infancy and extending throughout life, are blessed by any opportunity we have to be exposed to the Scriptures and their message, so that we can become better and better acquainted with the Scriptures and their message.

And the reason why there is such blessing attached to this Biblical exposure, is because of what the Scriptures are able to do for us. St. Paul says: “From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is careful to say that the Scriptures are able to make a person wise for salvation - and not that they always will do so. People who read the Bible in order to find things to criticize or mock, and who harden their hearts against the testimony of the Holy Spirit that comes through Scripture, will not be benefitted by their reading.

The ability of the Scriptures to make us wise for salvation is its ability to impress its message upon our hearts and minds. The Holy Spirit works through this message, to show us our need for God, and to show us God’s fulfillment of that need in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son.

There’s something supernatural going on, when you read the Bible with an openness to what God would say to you. As you read the Bible, the Bible reads you.

Through it, God’s Spirit discerns the thoughts, hopes, and fears of your heart. Through it, God in his holiness judges your selfishness and pride, and humbles you before his majesty. The Bible then makes Christ known to you, revealing to your heart and mind who he is, what he did, and what he continues to do.

Notice that Paul uses the word “wise”: Scripture makes you wise for salvation through faith. The intellect of the thinking Christian certainty is engaged when the Bible is read and pondered. But the faith that is engendered in us by God’s Word and Spirit, and by which we are saved, is not limited to the knowledge of the intellect.

It is a matter of wisdom - holy, heavenly wisdom. Our salvation is not just about the facts of theology and religious history. It’s about how those facts all fit together, pointing to the deeper reality of Christ, and bringing Christ into our life.

God’s Word does not simply inform your mind. It suppresses and kills your old nature, and by the working of God’s Spirit it bestows on you a new, Christ-like nature.

And the salvation that the Scriptures bring to you, is a salvation that is received by faith in Christ Jesus.

God’s point of entry into your life is his Word of promise. He tells you things in Scripture.

He tells you that his Son Jesus died for you, so that you need not die forever, separated from him, on account of your sins. He tells you that Jesus rose again for you, so that you can live with him for eternity.

He tells you that your sins are forgiven. You are pardoned, reconciled, and adopted as God’s own dear child. These are all things that God tells you through the Bible.

The way to receive something that somebody tells you, is to believe it. Therefore, the way to receive these promises and pledges from God, and to benefit from them, is to believe them.

As often as God tells us these wonderful things, that’s as often as we believe them. And we live in that faith.

Our faith is not focused on things that we simply wish would be so. Our faith does not create a religion to believe in, based on our own imagination or sentimental guesses.

Rather, our faith is created by what God reveals to be so. It is built on his objective truth. And the Scriptures are objective truth, which has its origin in God himself.

St. Paul continues: “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” He’s not saying here merely that the human authors of the Bible were personally inspired. He’s telling us something about the Scriptures themselves.

The sacred texts are breathed out by God. They are more than simply the Biblical authors’ opinions about God, or their accounts of their experiences with God. Rather, these writings are God’s own message to us.

To be sure, they are brought to us through human beings, and in human form and language - reflecting the very human experiences and thought-processes of their earthly authors. This is why human beings like us can understand and grasp them, and relate to them.

But their origin is ultimately in God. Their existence in this world is a miracle.

Luther considered the two natures in Christ to be a good analogy to the divine and human natures in Scripture. He wrote that “Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written and, so to speak, lettered and put into the form of letters, just as Christ, the eternal Word of God, is clothed in humanity.”

Many theologians over the years have expanded on this. Elling Hove said it this way:

“Christ was God and man in one person. In the Holy Scriptures there is also a certain union of the divine and the human element. Christ was like us in all things, but He was altogether without sin. The Holy Scriptures resemble human writings in many respects, but they are without the human liability to err.”

“The human nature of Christ was permeated by His divine nature. The whole of the Holy Scripture, which is indeed not without its human element, is given by inspiration of God, and is the Word of God.” So far Professor Hove.

As the inspired Word of God, the Holy Scriptures are, as St. Paul writes, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

We live in a world of competing value systems, competing truth-claims, and competing moral codes. Without an anchor to stabilize us, we can easily be tossed to and fro by the shifting waves of popular opinion.

Without a reliable standard of truth, we can be easily confused and deceived - especially with our own sinful nature serving as a co-conspirator with the world and the devil against our soul’s salvation.

But when we have the Scriptures, we have the anchor and the standard that we need. We are able to know what is right and wrong, true and false.

We are able to distinguish between ideas and actions that would lead us away from God, and ideas and actions that God himself is instilling and working in us.

The Scriptures are profitable for teaching. This refers to the kind of instruction that takes place in a catechism class, a Bible Class, or a sermon.

The Scriptures are the source of our doctrine. The apostles and prophets are no longer living among us, but they continue to carry out their teaching ministry through the Scriptures that God led them to write.

The Scriptures are profitable for rebuke. It’s not popular today to tell someone that he is wrong or mistaken.

It’s O.K. for people to have opinions - even religious opinions - but convictions about what is true or false for everybody are now out of bounds. Tolerance is the new idol, to which all knees must bow.

But God does not see it this way. He didn’t get that memo. And he has given us the Scriptures so that we can be rebuked when we are in error.

In Christ we want to be told that we are wrong, when we are wrong, because we do not want to be led away from the Lord and his goodness. God has reasons for telling us what to believe and do, that are more compelling than the reasons we might come up with to believe and do differently.

If we are smart, we will listen to him. He knows a lot more about everything than you or I do.

The Scriptures are profitable for correction. Through his Word, God does not simply tell us that we are wrong, but he also straightens us out, and puts us back on the right pathway.

He takes no pleasure in our mistakes. Instead, he uses the Scriptures to help us to undo our mistakes, and to try again.

And the Scriptures are profitable for training in righteousness, that we may be competent in our calling, and equipped for every good work.

When you repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus, his perfect righteousness is credited to you as if it were your own. The righteousness of his Son, which God gives you, is the only righteousness that impresses and satisfies God.

Your own flawed and corrupted righteousness, if you were to present that to God, would only invite God’s judgment. But in Christ, your loving and forgiving God offers and gives to you, what he demands and expects from you.

He gives you his Son’s righteousness, which gets you an acquittal, before his bar of justice, of all your sins. Through faith in Christ you are justified. In Christ you have the righteousness before God that you need, and that makes you acceptable to him.

As a Christian who is justified by faith, and in whom the Spirit of God lives, you will now have a desire to become more and more like Christ in the way you think, speak, and act. You will put on the mind of Christ, and will bear the fruit of the Spirit of Christ.

God sanctifies you. According to the new nature that he has birthed within you through the gospel, he prompts you to follow the precepts of his Word in the way you live your life, and in the way you think about and serve others according to your vocations in this world.

You will never fully succeed in becoming a sinless person in this lifetime. Your good works will never be good enough, in and of themselves.

In your lifelong penitence, and in your lifelong reliance on God’s grace, you will always need to hear God’s Biblical Word of pardon for your failings. And for the sake of Christ you will always hear it.

But as God’s Spirit teaches you and leads you, you will not be discouraged. With God’s help, and with the guidance of his Scriptures, you will grow in your ability and willingness to love God and your neighbor in the way that God would want you to.

And the Scriptures instruct and train you to know what true love in this respect really is. As you live in Christ, clinging to him alone for salvation, you will grow in righteousness as far as your own behavior is concerned, even as you are continually covered with Christ’s perfect righteousness as far as your standing with God is concerned.

The Bible is a precious gift from God to his church. It is his precious gift to you, and to your children and grandchildren. Do not ignore, or underestimate, this great treasure.

May its message about Christ comfort you and save you. May its divine power fill you and transform you. May its teaching, rebukes, corrections, and training serve you and help you in your life of faith.

Make use of God’s Word, so that God’s Word can make use of you.

“...from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

30 October 2016 - Reformation Sunday - John 8:31-36

O God, our Lord, Thy Holy Word was long a hidden treasure
Til to its place it was, by grace, restored in fullest measure.
For this today our thanks we say, and gladly glorify Thee.
Thy mercy show, and grace bestow, on all who still deny Thee.

This opening verse from the hymn that we just sang - dating from the sixteenth century - reminds us of what the main theme and thrust of Reformation Sunday should be. Reformation Sunday is not a day for Lutherans to congratulate themselves that they are right and that everyone else is wrong.

It is not a day to glory is the greatness of Martin Luther or of any other hero of our church. It is a day, rather, to offer humble thanks to God for his saving Word, and for the proclamation of his Word - in its truth and purity - within his church.

Today’s Gospel from St. John speaks to this as well, which is why this text is appointed for our instruction today. Here Jesus, the Son of God, is speaking to a group of people described as “the Jews who had believed in him.”

But in the case of at least some of these people, we do have to wonder what “believing” in Jesus had meant for them. They resisted the Lord’s statement that, without him and his saving message, they would remain in spiritual slavery. And it got worse.

By the time we get to end of Jesus’ increasingly tense dialogue with them - several verses beyond the portion of it that is quoted in today’s reading - Jesus is telling them that their father is not God, but the devil. And they are calling Jesus a demon-possessed Samaritan.

It would seem, then, that for some if not most of the people to whom Jesus is speaking, their having “believed” in him did not mean that they had believed his Word. In their supposed “belief,” they were, instead, projecting onto him certain preconceived, erroneous expectations of what they thought the Messiah was supposed to be like.

Jesus, they imagined, had come to vindicate them, and to destroy their enemies. The Messiah they were expecting would - they thought - reward them for their faithfulness in obeying the law of God, and punish evil-doers.

But they didn’t get these ideas from anything that Jesus had actually said. They hadn’t listened to him very carefully.

And so, their supposed “belief” in him was really a belief in themselves - a belief in their own presumptions, illusions, and self-deceptions - and not a belief in the real Messiah who was actually there to save them from their slavery to sin.

As heirs of the Reformation, we’d probably like to think of ourselves as people who do listen to Jesus, and whose faith in him is in fact based on, and shaped by, his Word. Hopefully, among us, that’s more true than not true.

But I would venture to say that it is not as true as it should be. How often do we find ourselves feeling a little bit uncomfortable, as we listen to some of the things that Jesus has to say to us?

Perhaps we have created - in our minds - a “safe” Jesus who does not threaten the status quo in our lives, and who does not demand very much from us. And then, when we are forced to listen to what the real Jesus wants us to know about himself - and about our relationship with him - we hesitate to accept that genuine word from him, because it doesn’t match up with what we have come to expect.

On this Reformation Sunday, and on every Sunday, how do you evaluate and process the word of Jesus, when that word comes to you in statements like these?:

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

“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. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

The content of your “belief” in Jesus is not something that you get to make up, in whole or in part. You are not permitted to imagine what Jesus should be like, and then to put your faith in that imaginary Jesus.

Perhaps you wouldn’t call the real Jesus - with his real demands, and with his reals claims on you - a demon-possessed Samaritan. But if you are not willing to accept as true and bindng on your life, everything that he says; or if you have, in your mind, put some distance between yourself and his Word, or have constructed an artificial Jesus who is anything other than the Jesus who makes himself known in his Word in all of its parts, then that means that there is a part of you that is willing to treat him as if he were a demon-possessed Samaritan.

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

Note, too, that Jesus says that genuine discipleship comes in our abiding in his word. We are not simply to visit his Word, and to listen to him, only from time to time - say, on Sunday mornings for an hour or two - while our hearts actually live elsewhere, devoted to other priorities.

Jesus does not invite us to be an occasional guest in his Word. He invites us to live there: to abide there permanently, all the time; in everything that we thinks, say, and do.

Sometimes the Bible does speak of the Word of God being in us - in our hearts, and in our minds. That imagery is certainly true as far as it goes. But that imagery is not as strong and all-encompassing as is the imagery of our being in the Word of God.

If the Word of God is in you, then conceivably other things may also be in you, competing with it for your loyalty. But when you are said to be in the Word of God, that paints a picture of your being totally enveloped by his Word, and completely surrounded by it.

And that’s the picture that Jesus wants to paint in your mind and heart by his speaking in this way, in today’s Gospel.

The Word of Christ in Scripture does not tell us everything we need to know for our various callings in life. We use our God-given reason and ingenuity to figure out a lot of things about life in this world - both individually, and collectively as a human civilization.

So, the Word of Christ does not tell us everything about everything. But it does tell us something about everything.

For all the human relationships in which we may find ourselves, and for all the earthly duties for which we may find ourselves responsible, Jesus does speak to us concerning our inner character; concerning love and service to others; and concerning the necessity of a life lived without shame before a holy and perfect God.

God is angered by arrogance, malice, selfishness, abusiveness, and combativeness. He is pleased, however, by things like these, as Jesus elsewhere lists them:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit... Blessed are the meek... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... Blessed are the merciful... Blessed are the pure in heart... Blessed are the peacemakers...”

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

Abiding in the Word of Jesus does mean abiding in a continual acknowledgment of the rightness and fairness of all his demands upon us - in all aspects of life. It therefore means also abiding in a continual repentance of all our failures, and all our hypocrisies.

When Jesus says that if we abide in his Word, we will know the truth, that means - in part - that we will know, and admit, the painful truth of our sin, which we would probably never admit if God’s law - as Jesus preaches that law - didn’t rub our faces in it.

But that’s not the only truth that we will know, when we abide in the Word of Jesus. We will also know this truth, which Jesus speaks to you and to me:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned...”

And also this, likewise from the lips of our Savior:

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

This is that aspect of the Word of Jesus that shows us the truth of our justification before God, and of our acceptance by God. And this is a very real justification, and a very real acceptance.

God, in Christ, truly does count us as righteous. And that really does matter to a conscience that is deeply aware of its sin.

Jesus accomplished this for us by taking our sins upon himself, and carrying them to the cross. As St. Paul writes in today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Romans:

“There is no distinction: 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.”

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus says, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In his death, in his resurrection, and in his pledge always to remain with his church, and always to intercede for it, the Son has set you free. And therefore you are free indeed.

In Jesus’ cross, we are set free from the weight of our guilt before God. It is lifted off of us by the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and is replaced by the joyous reconciliation of God’s forgiveness.

In Jesus’ victory over the grave, our fear of death is removed, and is replaced by the peaceful hope that the living Christ now instills in us.

And in Jesus’ glorification and ascension, we are liberated from the devil’s power and deception through the enlightenment of Christ’s Spirit; and through the constant protection of the one who is the Lord of heaven and earth, and our closest friend.

Jesus speaks of all these things in his Word. Jesus speaks all these things into us, by the power of his Word.

As we abide in his Word - by faith - we abide in all these blessings of redemption. These blessings are with us on Reformation Sunday, and on every Sunday, and in every moment of every day.

As we abide in his Word, we know that these things are true - and will always be true - because the words of Jesus will never pass away, even if heaven and earth pass away.

And finally, as we abide in the Word of Jesus, throughout our pilgrimage in this world, we who have been admitted to the Lord’s altar abide most intimately, and most gratefully, in this particular Word of our Redeemer:

“Take, eat; this is my body.” ... “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

On this side of eternity, the Lord’s Supper gives his disciples a most vivid way of heeding his invitation: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

And as our Savior also declares: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

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

Thou, Lord, alone this work hast done, by Thy free grace and favor.
All who believe will grace receive through Jesus Christ, our Savior.
And though the Foe would overthrow Thy Word with grim endeavor,
All he hath wrought must come to naught, Thy Word will stand forever. Amen.