2017 July 2 - The Visitation - Luke 1:39-56

Today is the Feast of the Visitation. Stated more fully, it is the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessèd Virgin Mary, to her relative Elizabeth - who also happened to be the mother of John the Baptist.

That phrase “Blessèd Virgin Mary” is commonly used among Christians to describe the mother of the Lord Jesus. You may recall that this phrase appears in the Augsburg Confession, which we recited last Sunday. We confessed:

“Our churches teach that the Word, that is, the Son of God, assumed the human nature in the womb of the Blessèd Virgin Mary.”

What is the origin of the custom of referring to Mary, in particular, as “blessèd”? And what does it mean to say that she was “blessèd”?

Those questions are answered in today’s text from St. Luke. And we can also learn from today’s text how we, too, can be “blessed” before God, and by God, in ways that are similar to the blessedness of our Lord’s mother.

After the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, Mary went to visit Elizabeth - who was at that time pregnant with John.

When Mary arrived, Elizabeth said to her: “Blessèd are you among women, and blessèd is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth also said, to and about Mary: “Blessèd is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

The English word “blessèd” that appears in these two statements by Elizabeth, actually translates two different words in the original Greek of those verses.

When Elizabeth said, “Blessèd are you among women,” the term for “blessèd” in the original of that verse is “eulogeoo.” This is the same Greek word that the English word “eulogy” is based on. It means receiving “good words,” or having “good words” spoken over you or about you.

This meaning of the word “blessèd” is evident also when a young man might ask for his parents’ “blessing” on some plan of his - to go to a certain college, to get married to a certain woman, or to engage in some new enterprise.

He wants his parents to tell him that they approve of his plan - and of him. He wants his parents to speak “good words” over him, with respect to his contemplated decision or action.

So, when Elizabeth says that Mary was “blessèd” in this sense, this means that “good words” had been spoken over her, to her, and into her. These good words were not merely the words of proud and approving earthly parents. They were the words of her good and gracious heavenly Father, as those words had been delivered to her - from God - by the angel Gabriel.

Gabriel had told Mary that she was highly favored by the Lord, and that the Lord was with her. He had told her that she would bear a son, Jesus, who would also be the Son of the Most High God. He had told her that her son Jesus would reign over his kingdom forever, from the throne of his forefather David.

These were indeed “good words.” They were marvelous and fantastic words. Mary had been blessed by them, as they were spoken over her.

But Mary had also been completely surprised by these good words. She never expected to be visited by an angel, or to hear a message like this.

She wasn’t even married yet. And she was going to have a baby? “How will this be, since I am a virgin?,” she asked.

And Gabriel answered her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God.” More “good words”!

You, too, have been “blessed” in a similar way, according to the will of God for your life. God has spoken “good words” over you - to you, and into you.

And he continues to speak good words over you. But as with Mary, when God does speak these words, or when he sends a messenger - a pastor - to speak such words to you on his behalf, you likewise might be surprised by what you are told.

When you were born, you were born in the “name” of your parents. You literally inherited their surname. You also inherited their sinful nature.

You, like them, came into this world as a member of a human race that is by nature sinful and unclean - that is, by nature alienated from God, ignorant of God, and hostile to God.

But then, in your baptism, God, and God’s minister, “blessed” you in an extraordinary and humanly-unexpected way. In Baptism, God shows an unexpected compassion to the fallen children of man. In your own baptism, “good words” from God were spoken over you personally.

Not in the name of your sinful human parents, but “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” you were baptized into a new beginning with your holy yet merciful God. You were baptized into the grace of God’s forgiveness in Christ his Son; and into the new birth, and the new supernatural life of faith, that God’s Spirit now works in you.

Through the good words that were spoken to Mary, God’s Son came into the world, and became a part of the human race, to be its Redeemer. Through the good words that were spoken to you - in conjunction with the sacramental washing of water - God’s Son came into your heart, mind, and soul, and became a part of your life, to be your Savior from sin and death.

In both of these comings, good words - marvelous and fabulous words - were spoken. And those good words, filled as they were with the power of God himself, made good things happen.

Mary was uniquely blessed by the words that were spoken to her, and she continued to be blessed by those words. And you are still blessed, today, by the baptismal words that were spoken over you.

As you daily turn to Jesus in humility, and in repentance of your sins, he remains as the center of your life, and as the focus of your eternal hope. And for the sake of his Son, God speaks even more good words over you, and blesses you with his pardon, telling you: “I forgive you all your sins.”

Returning to the story of Elizabeth and Mary, Elizabeth also said this to and about Mary: “Blessèd is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

This time, the word “blessèd” translates a different Greek word - “makarios.” “Makarios” means “fortunate” or “happy.”

In this sense, then, a “blessèd” person is a person who has experienced something beneficial, positive, and uplifting. Something good has happened to this person, or has been received by this person, resulting in joy and contentment.

When Gabriel told Mary all the wonderful things that Jesus would do and be, she believed what he said to her. Because Gabriel was God’s own spokesman, delivering God’s message to her, she did not have to wait for the temporal fulfillment of all those prophecies, before she was blessed through them.

In her God-given confidence that they would come to pass, she was filled with as much joy and excitement as she would have been, if all of these things had already happened. As she carried Jesus in her womb, and pondered the ways in which God’s loving plan would unfold into the future, her joy bubbled up and overflowed.

She knew who her son was. She knew what he would become. She knew what he would do for her, and for all people, as their king and Savior.

She knew it, because God had told her. She didn’t just think it, or wonder at it, or suppose that it might happen - or even that it would probably happen.

And she was not merely looking forward to a blessing that would come in the future. Rather, she was blessed, in her faith, already.

By the power of the “good words” that had been spoken over her, she had been given a sure and certain faith - even as she had been given a real live baby son; even as the world had been given its Savior from sin and death.

She rejoiced. And so do we, when we believe the promises that God makes to us through his Son. The promises that were made to Mary about who Jesus would be, and what he would do, were promises for us, too. He is your Savior, and mine.

With St. Paul, we all can and should say “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” As the “desire of nations,” he came to give you and me a new desire for him, and for fellowship with him; and then to fulfill that desire.

The promises that Mary heard - about Jesus’ divine glory, and about his eternal kingdom - were a great blessing to her, because she believed those promises. These promises are also a great blessing to you today, because you also believe those promises, today.

So many of the things that we celebrate as Christians, and in which we believe, are indeed in the realm of pledge and promise, and not in the realm of tangible experience here and now.

But our enjoyment of the blessings of our salvation does not have to wait until everything becomes tangible and visible. And that is because these blessings are enjoyed by us in faith - just as they were for Mary.

Remember who it is who has promised you salvation from sin and death through Mary’s son. A pastor may be an instrument in speaking the words from God that enshrine those promises - just as Gabriel was such an instrument for Mary - but the words of forgiveness and hope that he speaks to you are words that originate in God, and in God’s love for a fallen world.

And everything that God says about the future - and about your future in him - is so sure and certain, that it is as if it has all happened already. Blessèd are you - most blessed indeed, and filled with happiness and joy, are you, who believe that there will be a fulfillment of what is spoken to you from the Lord.

Mary was uniquely able to express her happiness and joy with Elizabeth, without fear of mockery or derision, because she knew that Elizabeth knew what she knew. It is easy to imagine the kind of gossip that had likely already begun to swirl around Mary back in Nazareth.

But Elizabeth knew that Mary’s baby really was conceived without a human father, as a miracle from God. Her own pregnancy with John, while not as miraculous as Mary’s pregnancy, was still a miracle.

Elizabeth understood who Jesus was, and what his conception and impending birth meant for Mary and her, for the nation of Israel, and for the whole human race. She understood Mary, and Mary’s blessedness, in a way that unbelievers and skeptics would never be able to understand.

And this is one of the reasons why the gathering of God’s people in the fellowship of his church, is so precious to us. It’s one of the reasons why Christians in countries where it is illegal to be a Christian, are willing to risk their very lives, in order to get together with each other around Word and sacrament.

We gather here - even with our human flaws and weaknesses - to receive together the blessing of the “good words” that are spoken over us by God in the means of grace. We gather here - even in the midst of our earthly trials and temptations - to celebrate together the blessing of true happiness that we experience, in the certainty of the forgiveness of our sins; and in the certainty of our eternal destiny with God, in and because of Christ.

Unbelievers and skeptics who mock and deride us and our faith, don’t understand this. And that’s why they don’t understand us. But we do understand each other. Together, we get this. And together we rejoice in this, as Mary and Elizabeth rejoiced together in the goodness of God that had touched each of them in special ways.

“Blessèd are you among women.” Blessèd are all of you, among women and men, among adults and children.

“Blessèd is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Blessèd are all of you, who believe that there will be a fulfillment of what is spoken to you from the Lord. Amen.

9 July 2017 - Romans 7:14-25a - Pentecost 5

C. S. Lewis once said: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

This sentiment might seem odd to us, especially when we remember these words of our Lord: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Isn’t Jesus speaking of comfort here? Don’t these soothing words of our Savior make us feel “really comfortable”?

Well, let’s remember what St. Paul writes, when he addresses the topic of Christian comfort and peace: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The world, with all of its allurements, cannot reconcile us to God, or provide an avenue to fellowship with God. Jesus alone can do this.

In regard to God, our hearts are indeed set at ease when we ponder his great mercy toward us in Christ. God’s judgment against our sin is lifted through the shedding of Christ’s blood.

God’s forgiveness is declared to us, and a new life of faith is bestowed upon us, through the resurrection of Christ.

And so, in that new life - in that new nature that we have in Christ - we do indeed enjoy the peace of God. That divine peace does dwell within us.

But what C. S. Lewis says is also still true. What St. Paul says in today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Romans is also still true.

A Christian, according to his new nature, does now have a peace and harmony with God that he didn’t used to have. But a Christian also now has a conflict - a conflict within himself - that he didn’t used to have.

Those who live in unbelief, without the Lord, and without the influence of God’s Word in their lives, may occasionally have a twinge of conscience that tells them that they probably should not do all the things they desire to do. But in spite of this, there is a fairly consistent correlation between an unbeliever’s will, and an unbeliever’s actions.

People usually do what they feel like doing. An inner feeling that a certain course of action would be O.K., is all most people need as the basis for taking that course of action.

Corrupt and wicked actions are the result of corrupt and wicked thinking, and corrupt and wicked desires. So, there is a certain inner harmony in the life of someone who feels like indulging in drunkenness and debauchery, and who then does indulge in drunkenness and debauchery.

It is true, of course, that all unbelievers do not desire to commit all the same sins. Humanly speaking, some are more civilized than others, and some have a greater sense of human decency than others.

So, the sins that more civilized or more decent people want to commit are perhaps not as blatantly destructive as the sins that less civilized and less decent people want to commit.

But in general, all unbelievers do what they want to do. There is a basic correspondence between their outward deeds and their inner thoughts.

But that all changes when the Holy Spirit does his regenerating work in the souls and minds of men. Through the Prophet Ezekiel, God himself has promised: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.”

This promise is fulfilled when God’s pardon and salvation come to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and when God - through the gospel - creates within us a new godly nature.

But the old nature remains. It is not obliterated. The old impulses, and the old temptations, are not eradicated.

By faith in the gospel we receive the forgiveness of sins, and we are now at peace with God. But we are no longer at peace with ourselves.

The beginning of faith in Christ, is also the beginning of a life-long struggle within each Christian. The desires of the new nature that God has given us, are now at odds with the harmful inclinations and obsessions of the old nature.

As we over time grow in faith, and in a knowledge of God’s ways, we also grow into an ever deeper awareness of how much difference there really is between God’s loving and life-giving will, which our new nature embraces; and the evil things that we continue to do, that are contrary to God’s will. And these sins are also contrary to our own new regenerated will, so that when we do sin, we are actually doing what we do not want to do.

The inner struggle between a mind that has been liberated by the gospel of Christ, and a carnal nature that remains bound to the power of sin, is great indeed. In a very personal way, St. Paul describes this struggle, and the anguish that comes along with it, in today’s text:

“We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. ...”

“So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. ...”

“Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”

“For I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!”

So far St. Paul.

As he is led by the Holy Spirit, Paul seems to be grappling to find the right words to describe this. He makes a distinction between that which is spiritual, and that which is of the flesh.

He compares the law of his mind - which agrees with God’s law - to the law of sin, which drives his “members” to sin. He contrasts the good that he wants to do with the evil that he does do.

Paul tells us that in his inner being - in his new nature - he delights in the law of God. But he also tells us - with great disappointment in himself - that according to his old nature, he is still a captive to forces that are antagonistic to God and his law.

The inner disharmony that afflicts Paul, as he experiences this struggle, is not a fun or comforting thing to experience. This is the kind of thing that C. S. Lewis was talking about when he said, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

The alternative to this struggle is even worse, of course. The alternative is to go back to a life where you would not only act wickedly, but also think wickedly, and desire wicked things; a life where you would have no more desire to suppress the destructive impulses of sin.

But for those who know the love that God has revealed in his Son; who have tasted of God’s forgiveness; and who have experienced the joy of fellowship with God, the struggle against sin that comes along with the gift of Christ, is something that we welcome.

If there is no such struggle within you, this doesn’t mean that you have successfully overcome all temptations, and are now free from all sin. In this life that will never happen.

What it means is that you have surrendered to the old nature, and no longer care that the corruption of sin is destroying you and degrading you.

If you love Christ, you must hate sin, and fight against it. If, however, you love your sin, and eagerly embrace it, then the love of Christ is not in you.

God does save us by grace, through faith, and not by works. Our works do not earn God’s favor. It is the redeeming work of Christ - in his life, death, and resurrection on our behalf - that has earned God’s favor toward us.

But when God does save us for the sake of Christ, he saves us from sin. He does not save us in sin, and certainly not for further sin.

Those who know Christ will therefore be different from those who do not. They will become increasingly aware of the fact that the will of God, and the impulses of the sinful flesh, are contradictory to each other.

As a Christian continually grows into an ever closer union with Christ by faith, and puts on the mind of Christ, his renewed mind will come into ever greater conflict with the ugliness of sin that remains within him. But this struggle is not a struggle that we fight in our own strength.

Christ is our champion. His Spirit within us strives against everything that opposes God. And his Spirit rejuvenates and strengthens our faith by the power of the gospel.

Over time, as you fight this good fight in the strength of the Lord, you will change. You will become more like Christ in how you act, and in how you react.

These improvements in character, modest though they may be, will be noticed by other people. But they will probably not be noticed by you.

A growth in Christian virtues comes as the result of greater spiritual maturity. But what also comes with greater spiritual maturity, is an ever greater sensitivity to how far from God’s perfect will we still are.

As we get closer to what we should be, we also become aware of how much further we actually have to go.

This keeps us humble, and prevents us from ever boasting in ourselves. This keeps us in the state of mind that Paul was in, when he cried out in anguish over the enduring presence of sin - and of the power of sin - within his flesh:

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

And that, my friends, is the key to coping with this struggle. That is the key to enjoying the goodness of God, the wonder of God’s grace, and the assurance of God’s love, even in the midst of this struggle.

When you become aware of your sin, don’t be complacent about it. Hate that sin, fight against it, and repent of it. But also don’t be discouraged when you see that sin lingers within you, in spite of your hatred of it.

Don’t just look at the sin, and sink into despair. Look at the cross of Jesus Christ, and be lifted up in hope. The blessings that Jesus won for you by his death and resurrection are always there for you in the gospel, to be received in faith.

In the Lord’s Supper, the glorified and sinless flesh of Christ enters into your flesh, to fortify you in this struggle. In his body and blood, Christ comes to your soul, to fill you with a renewed conviction that this struggle is indeed a struggle that should never be given up - because your resurrection victory, in Christ, is fully assured.

The message that is layered upon you over and over again in the gospel - in the preaching of Christ and in the sacraments of Christ - is simply this: Jesus died for your sins.

He died for the sins that may not seem to captivate you now as much as they once did. He died for the sins that you feel are still overwhelming you.

He died for all your sins. And he forgives all your sins.

His forgiveness covers you, and his shed blood cleanses you, as you come to him in faith every day - and many times in a day - for the heavenly rest that he promises to give to his people.

We heard the Lord’s invitation in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. And we hear it again now. Jesus says:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

As we are burdened by our struggle against the sin that remains within us, we do find rest and peace in Christ. As we are weighed down by our struggle against the dark side of ourselves, we find victory and life in Christ. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Amen.

16 July 2017 - Pentecost 6 - Romans 8:12-17

Many of us have experience with adoption - through having been adopted, through having children who are adopted, or through being aware of relatives or friends who have been adopted or who have adopted children. We know, therefore, that when a child is brought into a family by adoption, that child is given the same legal rights, and has the same emotional relationship with his or her adoptive parents, as any child who might have been born into the family biologically.

An adopted child is given a new birth certificate, with the names of the adoptive parents on it, as a formal testimony to his or her full membership in the new family. Perhaps family heirlooms are eventually passed on to the adopted child as well, as emblems of the child’s acceptance into the family, and as symbols of the fact that, by means of the adoption, the child had become a part of the ongoing story and legacy of that family.

But biologically, the adopted child is still connected to his or her birth parents. The most obvious evidence of this is seen in the fact that in the child’s physical appearance, he or she is likely to resemble the birth parents, and not the adoptive parents.

This continuing connection to the birth parents is also something that is taken into account when it comes to any genetically-related diseases that the child might come down with. The physicians who treat an adopted child for such an illness would want to know the medical history of the biological parents, and not of the adoptive parents.

But in every way that really counts - when the attitude of all concerned is what it should be - an adopted child is welcomed into his or her new family with unconditional love and full acceptance. When things are as they should be, an adopted child will never feel left out, or like a second-class citizen of the family.

These images of adoption are the images that God presents to us, through today’s lesson from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, to illustrate his unconditional love and full acceptance of us. We are adopted by God through the supernatural working of his Spirit who lives within us, and are welcomed into the household of faith.

In the state of nature in which we come into the world, there isn’t very much about us that would recommend us to God’s attention or sympathy. But God pays attention to us anyway.

He is deeply compassionate toward us, and loves us in a way that passes all human understanding. And he does not remain aloof from us.

In Christ he comes down to where we are. He forgives our sins through Christ’s absolution, and covers over those sins through Christ’s justification. And, as God regenerates us by his Spirit, he instills within us a new nature that is in the image of Christ, and causes us to become new creatures in Christ.

God fills us with his Holy Spirit - the Spirit of adoption. He thereby becomes for us an approachable and welcoming Divine Father.

Whatever fear of God’s disapproval and punishment of sin that our conscience may have instilled within us, before we knew God in this way, is now dissipated; and is replaced with the peace and joy that come with knowing that we are now forgiven and reconciled to God, and are even members now of God’s own family.

To you who believe in Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, as your Savior from sin and death, St. Paul gives the assurance that you have indeed received the Spirit of adoption, by whom you cry, “Abba! Father!” He writes: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”

Now, in the case of earthly adoptions into human families, adopted children often do develop a curiosity in later years about who their birth parents were and are. And so, with a little research, the biological parents are often identified and contacted - even as the adopted children continues to love and appreciate the adoptive mother and father who raised them.

I have a friend who was adopted and raised by a loving Christian couple, with whom she always had a very close relationship. But when she reached adulthood, she made the effort to search for her biological mother and father.

And she found them. They now play a role in her life as well, as close and supportive friends. This all worked out very well for her, and for all the members of both of her families.

Sometimes, though, people who were adopted suspect, or know, that the circumstances of their conception and birth were of such a nature that they don’t want to dig any of that up, or try to track down any of their biological relatives. I have a friend in that situation, too.

He strongly suspects that any effort on his part to identify and contact his birth family would bring an immense amount of pain to those people, and to himself.

This second scenario is similar to the situation we are in spiritually, in our adoptive relationship with God. It is never a good thing for us to try to find our way back to the spiritual condition that our souls were in, before God regenerated and adopted us.

We were by nature sinful and unclean, spiritually dead and even hostile to the God who had created us. And so, what waits for us back there, in our original state of being fallen members of Adam’s fallen family, is nothing but sin and separation from God; misery, despair, and death.

It’s true, of course, that we do still have certain “connections” with our “birth family” from the Garden of Eden, in the attitudes and actions that rise up from the darker side of what is inside of us. According to our old sinful nature, we do, as it were, “look like” our “birth mother” Eve.

She was a rebel against God and his Word. She was an idolater, for whom the proud desire to “be like God” was more important than her obligation to submit to God’s will.

According to our sinful flesh, we, too, are rebels against God, and idolaters. We are constantly tempted to live for ourselves, and for our own carnal ambitions, and not for God, and for those whom he has called us to serve.

Whenever God’s Word contradicts our personal agendas and schemes, there’s a part of us - an evil part of us - that wants to ignore and reject God’s Word, and to do as we please. In our sin we think that we should take our moral cues from the current standards of the godless world - standards which are actually always degenerating and getting worse, as the world continues to become more inhuman and more perverse.

And as far as the “medical history” of our birth family is concerned, the “disease” of spiritual death that originated with our birth father Adam, remains in our spiritual “DNA.” “In Adam all die,” as St. Paul soberly reminds us.

But these lingering “connections” to where you originally come from, as a natural child of Adam and Eve, must not be allowed to become the basis for a yearning or a desire on your part to return to that aimless and hopeless existence. You must never surrender to that inner, destructive “curiosity” about what it would be like to live as if God had never adopted you, or as if he had never rescued you from the spiritual and moral chaos into which you were originally born.

By the grace of God you have been baptized out of that chaos, and into the peace and life of Christ. In today’s lesson from Romans, St. Paul writes:

“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Paul hereby encourages us to turn away from whatever harmful temptation there may be inside of us, to renew our old “connections” to what we used to be. And he encourages us instead to desire to be deepened in the new “connections” that we have with our new heavenly Father - and with our new eternal family - which our adoption by God’s Spirit has established for us.

Your true identity is to be found in your status as a child of God - as a son and heir of your heavenly Father, and as a fellow heir with Christ. To confirm you in the assurance that he has indeed accepted you - and is still embracing you as his very own - God, in a sense, gives you an official “certificate” of your regeneration, which testifies to who you really are now.

This “certificate” is not a literal document. It is the living voice of the Spirit of God, speaking to your heart through the message of the Scriptures.

It is, of course, possible for someone to repel the testimony of the Holy Spirit, and to reject the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, through the hardening of the heart against him. We are saved by grace through faith.

If there is no faith, then there is no salvation. If faith is gone, so is the salvation.

But those who hear the voice of their shepherd in the Scriptures, and who in faith heed that voice, are - in that faith - given the assurance of their status as God’s own children. To have a God-given faith in his promise of adoption in Christ, is to be adopted in Christ.

The testimony of God’s Spirit that you are a child of God, is not something that comes to you outside the gospel, or apart from the gospel - as an inner mystical feeling disconnected from the means of grace.

This testimony comes in and through the gospel, as you believe the gospel when you hear it. The existence within you of a faith that desires to trust in God’s Word, and to receive the forgiveness, life, and salvation that God gives, is also a part of that testimony - because God is the author of that faith.

The Holy Spirit impresses the message of God’s peace and pardon in Christ upon your heart, and bestows upon you personally a certain confidence that everything God says is true. And therefore God’s adoption, and your membership in his family, is true.

The reality of our adoption as God’s children through his indwelling Spirit is proclaimed and sealed to us in his Word and in his sacraments. The sacraments in particular, as tangible testimonies from God of his love toward us, are in some ways like “family heirlooms” - which God “passes on” to us to demonstrate to our doubting conscience that he has truly adopted us, and that we are not second-class citizens of his household.

A difference, however, between these supernatural sacramental heirlooms, and literal earthly heirlooms in a human family, is that the Lords’s sacraments are not just symbols of our acceptance and inclusion into God’s family. They are means through which God actually makes that acceptance and inclusion happen.

In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

By the working of the Holy Spirit, you have been adopted into the one family of God. You have been incorporated into the one body of Christ.

In Christ, this is now who you really are. “God” is now your “real” Father, not Adam!

Your identity now is not oriented toward the past - toward who you were, before God intervened in your life. Your identity now is oriented toward the future - toward your destiny as an heir of heaven.

And so we live today, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. With confidence that he hears us and cares about us, we call out to God daily, in prayer, saying with love and affection, “Abba! Father!”

In repentance for all our sins, we die daily to the old nature, and to the old life from which God’s grace delivered us through the death of Christ.

And in faith we rise daily, in the power of Christ’s resurrection - in joyful gratitude to God for everything he has given us and made us to be; and with a God-given certainty that we will continue to be a part of his family forever.

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him, in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Amen.

23 July 2017 - Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - Pentecost 7

There is much corruption and wickedness in this world. Temptations and spiritual dangers are all around us in this life.

Injustices and suffering abound in the world. And all of this flows from two facts:

First, the ground which Adam and his descendants would till, and by extension the earth as a whole, has been cursed because of human sin. And second - and more significantly - Satan and his minions are in this world, fulfilling their desire, as much as they can, to hurt those whom God loves, to thwart God’s plans, and to oppose God’s will.

We are told in the Book of Revelation that “the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” Jesus accordingly describes the devil as “the ruler of this world.”

St. Paul calls him “the god of this world,” who “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” Through the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord warns: “I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity.”

But even with this corruption, and these evil influences that permeate everything, the world itself is not a materially evil thing. God is the creator of the world, and of all that is in it.

And everything that God created is, in its essence, good, even as God is good. He cannot be the source or the cause of evil.

In Psalm 24, King David declares the goodness and power of God in these words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.”

Another psalmist praises the Lord in this way, in Psalm 89:

“The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. The north and the south, you have created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.”

“You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.”

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the tares, or – as modern English puts it – the wheat and the weeds. This parable illustrates the reality of, and the interconnection between, these two truths: that the world and everything in it is God’s good creation; but that this created world has been invaded and corrupted by a foreign evil power. Jesus says:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.”

“And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’”

“So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

For the meaning of this parable, we have the advantage of an explanation offered by Jesus himself, in response to his disciples’ request for an explanation. Jesus began his explanation by saying:

“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom.”

We see here that Jesus says that the field, in his story, represents the world. But notice that he puts himself in the place of the owner of the field. That is, he identifies himself as the Lord and loving master of the world.

This is one of many places in the Gospels where Jesus hints at his divinity. Everyone knows that God is the ultimate owner of the world and of everything in it. The Lord says in Psalm 50:

“For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.”

But now Jesus says that the world is his. He thereby identifies himself with the God who speaks in this Psalm. St. Paul later wrote concerning Christ:

“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible... – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

In union with his eternal Father and his eternal Spirit, within the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the eternal Son of God participated directly in the creation of the heavens and the earth. And at the appointed time, this One by whom all things were created, became a part of his creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

God, in Christ, thereby renewed his rightful claim on a world that had always belonged to him, even if Satan had tried to highjack it for a time. And God in Christ remains as the ultimate Lord of this world, causing all things, in the final analysis, to work together for his good purposes, in spite of Satan’s usurpations.

This is the source of the confidence we have – as those who have been made to be children of God through Christ’s redemption and the Holy Spirit’s adoption; and as residents of the world that our God has made – that this world is indeed a good place for us to be.

We are not foreigners here. In this world of Christ’s, under his protective and benevolent reign, we as his people are able to experience and enjoy much that is good, pure, and wholesome, all to his glory.

Returning to the imagery of today’s parable, we are “the children of the kingdom” who have been planted by the Son of Man in his field. You have been planted in your community, to serve your needy neighbor with compassion, in God’s name.

You have been planted in your school, to receive an education with eagerness and studiousness. You have been planted in your job, to produce useful things for your customers, or to provide useful services to your clients.

You have been planted in your family, to love and take care of spouse and children, siblings and parents, with selfless devotion and affection.

And you have been planted in your church – in this church – to join your voice to the praises of God that your brothers and sisters in Christ offer; to build them up in the faith by a shared confession of Christ; to assist them in times of trial by helping to bear their burdens, even as they help to bear yours in your times of trial; and to forgive them, and accept them, as God in Christ has forgiven and accepted you.

But this does not go as smoothly and easily as we might wish. One reason is because of our own sinful nature, which opposes the new life, the new convictions, and the new commitments that the children of the kingdom seek, with the Lord’s help, to exhibit.

This is why we, even as God’s children, are still in need of daily repentance, and a daily appropriation of grace and pardon from our Savior – which he does daily give, and which faith receives.

But another reason why this does not go as smoothly as we might wish, is the reason Jesus gives in today’s parable, and in his explanation of it, when he says: “The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.”

Jesus is talking about real flesh-and-blood people, with twisted wills and darkened minds, who oppose God and his ways. They live in God’s world in ways that are antagonistic to God’s law of love, and try to coax others to do likewise.

They poison the world with wickedness, and bring distress and grief to communities, to places of study or labor, to families, and to Christian congregations. As weeds planted by the devil, they seek to choke out the wheat that the Son of Man planted in his own field.

Within God’s good creation, they create misery and sadness. They destroy harmony and peace among men. In callousness and cynicism regarding their fellows, they break hearts, and crush spirits.

They are all around us. And they will remain with us in this world, to vex us and oppose us, until this world comes to an end. While this world continues, the children of the kingdom absolutely may not seek to uproot them from this world.

Jesus absolutely will not countenance any kind of religious crusade, launched by his church, to destroy these sons of the evil one because of their spiritually misguided values, and their bad motives and actions. And before the end of this world comes on the last day, Jesus will not send his angels to do it, either.

Instead, in imitation of Christ, we are to bless those who curse us, and do good to those who abuse us. In patience, as the God of all love and patience strengthens us, we endure their attacks, and weather the storms that they stir up.

They may treat us as their enemies, but they are not our enemies. They are, rather, deluded slaves of our actual enemies – the spiritual forces of darkness in the supernatural realm.

The one who planted the weeds in God’s field is our enemy. The weeds, such as they are, are not.

We know that God’s Son died on the cross for all men, and therefore also for them. We know that our victorious Savior rose again also for them, to open also for them a way to freedom and life, rather than the damnation and death for which those who hate God are destined.

Now, if in this world they commit crimes or start wars, we would recognize that in the civil realm, the civil authorities do not bear the sword in vain. But the church, as the church, does not take up any sword against these weeds except for the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.

Until the day they die, or until the day we die, we as Christians will pray for their conversion, not for their destruction. We will pray that by a miracle of God, these weeds would be transformed into wheat.

This can occur in God’s spiritual kingdom, even if it would not happen in the literal world of botany. We so pray, and we preach the gospel to all nations, so that the undesirable plants that do not belong in God’s good earth might become, instead, a part of the much beloved and much desired crop of the Lord.

On judgment day – which is coming – the weeds that are still weeds, and the Lord’s own wheat, will both be gathered by the Lord’s angelic reapers. But on that day they will be separated. Jesus tells us, in his explanation of the parable:

“The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

There will be a day of cosmic justice, for all the injustices that have been perpetrated in human history. There will be a day of accounting, for all those who, in this life, never had to answer for their crimes.

There will be no atheists or agnostics on judgment day. And on judgment day there will be no claims that God is unfair.

Everyone will acknowledge that God is right and just in all his ways. And everyone who had rejected him, and hated him, will admit that they were and are without excuse.

The weeds will be burned. They will be permanently separated from the Lord’s crop, no more to pollute or distress his people.

And regarding the wheat that God brings in as his harvest – that is, the children of the kingdom – Jesus says this: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

That will be very nice.

And Jesus concludes his explanation with these sobering but hopeful words: “He who has ears, let him hear.”

If you are currently a weed – disconnected from God, hostile to his purposes, ignorant of his forgiveness in Christ, and devoid of the regeneration that his Spirit brings to the human heart – there is hope for you. If you are able to hear this sermon, and the words of Jesus that are embedded in this sermon, it is not too late for you.

If you have ears, listen. Botanically, weeds are always weeds, and wheat is always wheat. But again, in God’s kingdom miracles are possible.

A miracle for you is possible. Repent, and turn away from the death that now envelops you. Trust in God’s message of mercy and life in his Son. And you will be transformed.

And if you are among the wheat – if you are one of the children of the kingdom – do not lose heart, and do not lose faith. In this world you will experience a mixture of goodness and evil, of joy and sadness, of serenity and conflict.

And you should never have expected anything different. It is God’s world, but the devil is squatting in it, and is really messing it up before he is forced to leave. Your risen Savior tells you all this in John’s Gospel, where he says:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

And so, open your ears, and open your heart, to hear the words of your divine companion and heavenly protector Jesus, as he comforts you in your struggles. Someday these struggles will come to an end.

Someday the weeds will be uprooted, and will no more be a source of stress and pain to the plantings of the Lord. Someday the Lord will send his angels, and his harvest will be brought in. Amen.

30 July 2017 - Pentecost 8 - Matthew 13:44-52

The well-known hymn, “Jesus, Priceless Treasure,” draws on the imagery of one of the parables that Jesus told in today’s text from St. Matthew, to describe Jesus as, well, the “priceless treasure” to which the Christian clings, and which the believer values above all things in this world.

A less well-known hymn, “Jesus, Thou Art Mine Forever,” does the same thing with respect to one of the other parables in today’s text, as it describes Jesus as the “priceless pearl” that is possessed by a believer. One of the verses of that hymn says:

“Jesus, Thou art mine forever; Never suffer me to stray. Let me in my weakness never Cast my priceless pearl away.”

It is certainly true, that what Jesus demands of us, as his followers, is an unqualified commitment to him, an undistracted devotion to him, and a willingness to sacrifice all - even life itself - to remain faithful to him. There are many places in the Gospels where he teaches this.

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

“To another [Jesus] said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Yet another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’”

And in another place he also said: “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

This is a matter of the First Commandment. “You shall have no other gods before me,” the Lord declares. The idols that we are forbidden to value more than the Lord include material things, and people and relationships.

This is also a matter of the way of reconciliation that our holy God has prepared for the sinful human race. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all,” as St. Paul instructs us.

And therefore Jesus soberly proclaims this necessary truth: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

But we are not singing “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” or “Jesus, Thou Art Mine Forever” today, even though those hymns do borrow some of the imagery of today’s Gospel. And that’s because today’s Gospel is not primarily about how much God demands of you and expects from you, or about how valuable and important Jesus should be to you.

It is about how valuable you are to him, and about the extent to which God was willing to go, to redeem you, and to claim you as his own beloved possession. The thrust of these parables, which Jesus tells us today, is similar to the thrust of what the Lord had spoken to his chosen nation through the prophet Isaiah:

“For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. ... You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.”

And we read something very similar in today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses says to the children of Israel:

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

The first parable in today’s Gospel goes like this: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

This parable touches on two things: the universal redemption of Christ, and the personal salvation that is received individually, by God’s grace, by those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ. The field is the whole world of humanity. And God so loved this world that he gave his only-begotten Son.

St. John also writes in his First Epistle that “the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world,” and that this Son - “Jesus Christ the righteous” - is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

This does not mean that every individual in the world is personally saved and destined for heaven, since “without faith it is impossible to please God” - as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews. “For by grace you have been saved, through faith.” You are not saved just through existing as a human being.

But when you do have personal doubts about God’s love for you, and in a time of discouragement may begin to think that God is not interested in liberating you from the sin that separates you from him, and that brings so much misery to your life, then that is the time to recall that God, in Christ, has purchased the whole field, and has redeemed the whole of humanity.

This means that he has indeed purchased and redeemed also you. You are not excluded. God is not interested only in other people. He does not care only about other people.

And then, when the invitation of the gospel does touch your heart personally, and brings to you a God-given personal assurance that your own sins truly are forgiven, and that you have been adopted into God’s own family, you furthermore are comforted to know that you - you - were and are that treasure hidden in the field, which God so greatly loved, and so earnestly desired.

We are told that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Your troubled conscience - aware as it is of your continuing flaws and unworthiness of God’s favor - may wonder, “Can this really be true?” Yes, it can be true. God purchased the whole field.

But not only can it be true, it is true. For “you have received the Spirit of adoption,” by whom you cry, “Abba! Father!” You - each of you who clings to Christ, even in the midst of much weakness - are the treasure hidden in the field.

God purchased the field, with the price of his own Son’s blood, so that he could have this treasure. God purchased the field, so that he could have you.

Truly, “you were bought with a price” - a very valuable price. That’s how valuable you are to your Father in heaven. That’s how important your life, and his relationship with you, are to him.

The second parable in today’s text develops this theme. Jesus says: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Our Mormon friends describe one of their collections of purported Scripture as “The Pearl of Great Price.” But Scripture is not this valuable pearl. Not even the authentic Scriptures that God really gave to the church are this pearl.

You are this pearl. God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all.” He gave up his Son for you. He sold all that he had, to buy you, and thereby to liberate you from the slavery of sin and death in which you had been held captive.

He had created you - in and with his creation of humanity. And though he had lost you through your participation in humanity’s rebellion against him, he wanted you back. He paid the ultimate price to get you back.

Jesus once said: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends.”

Each of you, in your standing before Christ - clothed by faith in his righteousness - is his friend. Each of you is his precious pearl.

In this life, people sometimes have a poor self-image, and feel that no one wants to be with them or have them as a friend. It is very distressing to see the way in which young people especially do often ostracize certain individuals because those individuals are different from the perceived norm, in how they look or act.

But you don’t have to be a teenager in a cliquish high school to know this feeling. A painful feeling of rejection is often felt by people in strained marriages, in broken families, and in ruined friendships. When you are excluded, or when people you have cared about pull away from you, you feel terrible.

Now, in this sinful world, those kinds of disappointments and humiliations will often happen. People will be hurt by other people.

Certainly in the church, and in Christian homes, this way of treating other people is definitely not the norm. But since the flesh does still cling even to the Lord’s children, sins of this kind will occur even among the Lord’s children - requiring repentance and apologies.

In human relationships, sometimes you will be made to feel rejected, unwanted, and abandoned. But in your relationship with God, as you turn to him for help and strength - at times of loneliness, and also at other times - this is a feeling you need never have.

And that’s because God, in Christ, will never reject you. He always wants you. He always wants to be a part of your life - regenerating you and guiding you, forgiving you and teaching you - and he always wants you to be a part of what he is doing in his kingdom.

In his eyes, and in his heart, you are the pearl of great value for which he was willing to sell everything, and do everything, so that you could be with him. And also because you are this precious, beloved pearl, he will never discard you or want to be rid of you.

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

What the Lord said to Israel, as recorded in Isaiah, he also says to each one of you - who have been baptized into Christ; and who now live, by faith, in Christ: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

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