1 October 2017 - Pentecost 17 - Matthew 21:23-32

Because of human pride, we tend to get our backs up when someone inserts himself into our lives, criticizes us, and presumes to tell us that what we are thinking, saying, or doing is wrong. We jealously guard our sense of control over our lives, and therefore resist when somebody tries to take charge of a situation in which we thought that we were in charge, and starts to tell us what to think, say, or do.

How often have you been in a situation like this, where you said, or thought about saying: “Who do you think you are, to be telling me what to do?” “You’re not the boss over me!”

There are times, however, when someone tells us what to do or what not to do, and we do not react in an angry or resentful way. In pride we may not like it, but we grudgingly have to admit that a police officer does have the right to pull us over; that the home owners’ association does have the right to tell us to spruce up our yard; and that our boss does have the right to tell us to work harder and better.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus ruffled a lot of feathers, and stirred up a lot of ill will on the part of the leaders of the Jewish religious establishment - the chief priests and the elders of Israel.

They were in charge - not only of their own faith, but of the faith of everyone else. They told people what to believe and what to do. No one was going to tell them what to believe and what to do.

No one was going to be allowed to challenge their doctrines and standards. They were not going to tolerate anyone telling them that they were wrong, and that they needed to change.

But then John the Baptist came along, with judgmental sermons that called everyone - including them - to repent of a whole array of sins - including pride, presumption, arrogance, and hypocrisy. And after John, Jesus came along - presenting an even bigger challenge to their control and influence.

His sermons were even more penetrating than John’s had been. He was challenging and questioning almost everything that had been taken for granted, in the religious sphere, for a long time - including much that the chief priests and elders had always taught.

Their resentment of his corrections and criticisms, and of his getting more respectful attention from the people than they were now getting, finally culminated in their confronting him. Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew recounts this.

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

The Jewish leaders did not want to admit it, but the point that comes across from this story, for us, is clear: The authority of John the Baptist and of his ministry, and even more so the authority of Jesus and of his ministry, was and is an authority that came from God.

Neither John nor Jesus preached human opinions. They were speaking on behalf of God.

When Jesus told the people, and their leaders, to repent of their sins, because the kingdom of heaven was at hand, God’s own authority was in that exhortation. When Jesus told the priests and elders, the scribes and Pharisees, that they had been misleading the people, and that they must change their way of thinking, teaching, and living, this was a divine rebuke, and a divine admonition.

On another occasion, we are told that the crowds that had been listening to Jesus “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”

And there was an obvious supernatural power at work in Jesus’ ministry. That’s why we read elsewhere that some people who had been listening to and watching Jesus were all amazed, and said to one another, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!”

The religious establishment of Israel did not accept Jesus’ authority, however. They did not recognize his right to instruct them.

And they did not acknowledge any obligation to submit to his correction, to believe what he preached, or to do as he said. In fact, their rejection of his message and ministry was so complete, and so severe, that they conspired to have him killed at the hands of the Romans.

Where would you have stood, on the question of whether a divine or a human authority was at work in the message and ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus, if you had been a Jewish resident of the Holy Land during the time when those men walked the earth?

Regarding Jesus in particular, would you have been like the crowds that were astonished and amazed at the divine authority of his teaching, and at the divine power of his ministry? Would you have repented of your sins, and humbled yourself before God, when Jesus preached to you that the kingdom of heaven was at hand?

Or would you have been like the priests and elders, who resented and rejected the challenge to their control that Jesus represented? Would you have joined them in responding to the admonitions of Jesus, by thinking, or saying, in effect: “Who do you think you are, to be telling me what to do?” “You’re not the boss over me!”

Well, how do you respond to what Jesus says today? That is probably a good way to gauge how you would have responded to what he said then.

Jesus is still speaking today. Through his Word - as recorded by the apostles for all time - Jesus is rebuking and admonishing, challenging and correcting.

Jesus is speaking in those ways to the religious leaders and teachers of our day, telling them what they should proclaim. Jesus is speaking in those ways to all of us, telling us what we should believe, what we should do, and what we should refrain from doing.

Jesus said this, in a prayer to his Father in heaven for his apostles and their ministry, that he spoke on the night of his betrayal:

“I have given them your word... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.”

Of course, their Word is his Word. And his Word is God’s Word.

Are we listening to the apostles of Christ - whom he sent to all nations, to teach them everything that he had commanded? Are you listening?

Or do you reject their God-given authority over you? Do you reject the authority of Christ that is brought to bear upon your mind and heart, your conscience and will, through the message of the apostolic Scriptures?

Sinful human nature being what it is, I would expect that your answer - if it is an honest answer - would be that you have often set limits in your own proud mind, and in your own stubborn will, to the amount of correction and instruction you have been willing to accept from the apostles, and from Jesus through the apostles.

You have gone your own way, and followed your own judgment, even in matters where their teaching is clear. This is not a good thing. This is a spiritually dangerous thing.

It is idolatry, since it places yourself in charge of your life, rather than your Creator and Redeemer. St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”

Through the Prophet Ezekiel, in today’s Old Testament lesson, the Lord likewise declares: “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father, as well as the soul of the son, is mine.” You have to listen to Him!

And as St. Paul also writes, in his Second Epistle to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” It is through the Scriptures that God teaches you, and exercises his authority as God, in your life.

The foolish heart of man always thinks, even if those thoughts remain unspoken: “The way of the Lord is not just.” But the Lord then responds, as we also read in Ezekiel: “Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?”

The authority of God by which Jesus, and the apostles of Jesus, correct us and rebuke us, is an authority that we must recognize. God has the right to judge and condemn us because of our sins, and he has the right to do this through the spokesmen he has chosen.

We have an obligation to listen to them, and to make the changes in our life that God demands we make, through their words.

But this is not the only way in which the authority of God is exercised through the words of Jesus and the apostles. In St. Luke’s Gospel we are told of an incident in which Jesus said to a certain man: “Your sins are forgiven you.”

Some scribes and Pharisees who saw and heard this said: “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” A part of what Jesus said in response to this, was this statement concerning himself: “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

In testifying here to his divinity, and to his identity as the eternal Son of the Father in human flesh, Jesus did not just speak of his existence as God; but he spoke of what he, as God, had the authority to do. And he did it. He forgave sins.

And this is connected also to what Jesus went on to say, to the chief priests and elders of Israel, in today’s Gospel:

“Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.”

Your past life doesn’t need to be as shameful and humiliating as the two examples Jesus describes. But even if it was, the kind of divine authority that was exercised in Israel by John the Baptist, through his preaching and baptizing; and the kind of divine authority that Jesus is still exercising in his church, through his Word and Sacrament, is an authority to forgive everything, to cleanse you of everything, and to restore everything that was lost because of your rebellion and unbelief.

The kind of lifestyle that was led by tax collectors and sinners in the first century, was a lifestyle of thoroughly rejecting God’s authority to govern their morals, to shape their values, and to form their faith. But when they were touched and healed by the authority of God that was so powerfully active in the ministry of John the Baptist - an authority by which God’s full and complete forgiveness was announced to them, and by which they were baptized into a new life with God - everything changed.

And everything can change for you, too. If you have also rejected some or all of what Jesus and his apostles would teach you about how you should think, speak, and live, you are in a similar situation as they were in before God.

But Jesus has the authority to forgive your sins. He has this authority, not only because of who sent him into the world, but also because of who he actually was in his own divine person, and because of what he did and allowed to be done for the salvation of humanity.

As St. Paul writes in the Epistle to the Romans, Jesus our Lord “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” And Jesus has the power to create in you a clean heart, and to renew a right spirit within you.

If your conscience is troubled by your past failures and rebellions, and by your current weaknesses and fears, your conscience can be comforted today by the absolution of Christ - which returns you to the regenerating power of your baptism, and to everything that your baptism means for time and eternity. Christ tells you personally - through the lips of his called servant - “I forgive you all your sins.”

By the divine authority with which Jesus came into this world - to deliver you from its death and darkness - Jesus also says this to you: “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled.”

And St. Paul - speaking in the divine authority of his apostolic ministry - adds this thought, which comes straight from God: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

The chief priests and the elders of the people came up to Jesus as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Today we might ask Jesus the same question, as we hear his words of judgment against our sin, and bristle at what we hear. Does he have the right to criticize us? Has God given him the authority to tell us what to do and what not to do?

The answer is that he does have this right, and this authority. And we need to listen to him.

Today we might also ask Jesus the same question, as we - with remorse - hear his words of pardon and peace, of reconciliation and acceptance. Does he have the right to tell us that all is forgiven, and that God is at peace with us? Has God given him the authority to assure us that our sins will not be held against us, and that instead we have a place, as God’s adopted children, in God’s family and kingdom?

The answer is that he does have this right, and this authority. And we have the joyful privilege of listening to him, and believing him. Amen.

8 October 2017 - Pentecost 18 - Matthew 21:33-46

According to the building techniques of the ancient world, the cornerstone of a new structure was by far the most important stone in the foundation - and, by extension, in the whole building. When the master builder was about to begin a building project, he would be very careful to find a solid stone with perfectly-cut right angles, and with perfectly planed flat surfaces, to serve as the cornerstone for the foundation of the structure he was about to erect.

The cornerstone was the first stone that he would put in place. The other stones of the foundation would then systematically be laid into place, beginning with stones that would be positioned tightly against the flat surfaces of the cornerstone, followed by additional stones that would then be positioned tightly against those stones, and so forth, all around the perimeter of the planned dimensions of the new building, until the whole foundation was in place.

And after that, the stones of the walls of the building would then systematically be positioned on top of the foundation, beginning with the cornerstone, and continuing around the rest of the foundation - as anchored by that cornerstone.

The proper positioning of all the stones of the entire building would depends on the proper shape and form of the cornerstone. To guarantee that the rest of the foundation stones will be in proper alignment, and to guarantee that the stones that comprise the walls of the structure will likewise be in proper alignment, the cornerstone, as the starting point of the whole building, must be square and even.

If the cornerstone would be flawed, and if its angles would be off by just a couple degrees, it would throw off the entire foundation. The foundation would be lopsided and uneven.

And if the foundation would be lopsided and uneven, the whole building would be lopsided and uneven, and would eventually collapse. The master builder who was responsible for such a failed effort would be disgraced.

In today’s text from St. Matthew, we hear Jesus say: “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’”?

Jesus is quoting from a Messianic prophecy from Psalm 118. And he is describing himself. At a later time, when St. Peter stood before the Jewish Sanhedrin, he also proclaimed:

“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

The chief priests and leading rabbis of Israel were, according to their public office, supposed to have been the master builders of God’s people and nation. They were called by the Lord to teach the Lord’s truth, and to refute error, so that the people under their authority and pastoral care would be built up into a true and living faith, within the spiritual temple and eternal dwelling-place of God.

But the leaders of the Jewish nation failed in this duty, when the Messiah did finally come among them. Instead of embracing him, and letting him be the new cornerstone of the new thing that God was now going to do in the earth, they rejected him.

They did not preach that Christ was the fulfillment of God’s promises, who would bring to Israel and to all other nations a new divine kingdom of grace, forgiveness, and peace - as they should have. Rather, they preached against Christ. And when they had the chance, they also acted against him.

The conversation that Jesus was having with them in today’s text was taking placing in Jerusalem, very likely in the vicinity of the physical temple that stood there. The major reconstruction of the temple that had been begun under King Herod the Great many years earlier, was actually still going on.

Some of the outer wings of the temple complex were still in the process of being erected. And the safety standards of the time were not like the safety standards that OSHA enforces on such work sites in our country, in our time.

From time to time, serious accidents would happen on this temple-building job site, resulting in crippling injuries and even in death. As Jesus continues to speak with the Jewish leaders, he uses imagery that likely would have called to their minds unpleasant memories of such accidents that they had probably heard about or even witnessed themselves.

On occasion, construction workers had no doubt fallen off the rickety scaffolding that would have been present on this site, and landed on a large stone, resulting in broken bones.

And at some point in the past, as a large stone was being lowered into place, a much more tragic incident may have occurred, involving a construction worker losing his footing, slipping down onto the place where the stone was about to be dropped, and being crushed to death by that stone. That kind of thing did happen back then.

Again, still speaking of himself, Jesus said: “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

These enemies of the Lord, seething in anger at him for challenging their authority and for disrupting the status quo, were plotting and planning how they would crush him. Indeed, we are told in today’s text that “they were seeking to arrest him.”

But Jesus speaks instead of how he is going to crush them. And they know that he is referring to them. We are also told that the chief priests and the Pharisees “perceived that he was speaking about them.”

God’s spiritual kingdom for all nations - his living temple, and his eternal dwelling place - was going to be built. And it was going to be built strong and straight, with the proper cornerstone being laid at the beginning.

God’s irrevocable promise to Abraham - that in his offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed - would be fulfilled. It would have been God’s wish that his chosen people - the physical and religious descendants of Abraham, to whom the oracles of God had been entrusted - would be the initial builders of this kingdom, through their preaching of the Messianic gospel among themselves and all around the world.

But if they wouldn’t do it, then others - even from among the gentiles - would be appointed to this task. As Jesus also said to the Jewish leaders: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.”

If the leaders of Israel, who definitely should have known better, would presume to try to block the erection of God’s spiritual temple, by standing in the way of its construction, they would not succeed in stopping it. They would be crushed by it.

The Lord’s severe judgment against their unbelief and hardness of heart, and against their willful opposition to him and his saving plans, would be felt by them. The horror that we feel as we ponder the mental picture of a massive stone coming down onto a hapless man, and smashing the life out of him in an instant, is intended.

Jesus wants us to be shocked by the prospect of God’s judgment descending upon those who shake their fists at him and hate him to the end. Jesus wants us to be frightened by the prospect of an eternal separation from all that is good and holy, for those who persist in defying the good that God wants to do in the world, and in their lives and relationships.

Jesus wants the prospect of our own eternal damnation, for these and other reasons, to scare us - not because he takes pleasure in seeing such fear in us, but because he wants to use that fear as a tool for his Spirit’s work of convicting and humbling us; and of prompting us to a turning away from our sin and rebellion, so that we will not be damned.

Of course, admitting your sin, and facing up to the harm you have caused to yourself and others through your transgressions, is not an easy thing to go through, either. This is not just a matter of rhetoric, where we externally say the perfunctory words that we think God wants to hear.

The remorse we feel when we admit to our holy and loving God that we have sinned against him, is a remorse that penetrates to the depths of our conscience. We are appalled at ourselves when we remember our wicked thoughts and selfish motives.

We are truly sorry for the hurtful things we have done, and for the evil words we have spoken. We are ashamed as we recall lost opportunities for loving deeds that we did not do, and for loving words that we did not speak.

And yet, when the law of the Lord in this way works a true repentance in us, this does not completely crush us. We will not “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord” - to quote St. Paul’s description of the sad fate of the damned.

As penitent sinners who yearn for the Lord’s forgiveness, and who receive that forgiveness, we will not be damned. But when the law drops us down onto the stone who is Christ, and causes us to fall off the rickety scaffolding of self-righteousness and spiritual indifference that we have slapped together for ourselves, this does break us.

It breaks our arrogance, and our pride. It breaks our false sense of independence from God.

And so, when we do then rise from such a fall, and resume walking, it is not a walking that we can do in our own strength. Before God, we walk only in the newness of life that Christ gives, and only by faith in the Word of Christ.

We who have in this way been crippled by the convicting work of God’s Spirit through his law - as far as our own sinful self-sufficiency is concerned - do now completely agree with what Jesus told his disciples in another time and place, when he said: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

We also agree with these words of our Savior, on the question of how frail humans like us can ever hope to enter the kingdom of God: “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

And so, with these comforting truths in mind, we can now shift our attention back to that other metaphor that Jesus uses in today’s text, when he says: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Jesus is indeed the cornerstone, for a beautiful and perfect building that will never collapse.

This building is his church and spiritual body, which exists here on earth even now. In the church, Jesus’ redeemed and restored people from all nations gather around his forgiving and cleansing Word, and are filled with his renewing presence.

The spiritual body of the Lord will endure into eternity, as a kingdom that will have no end. It will never die, even as Jesus, its resurrected founder and head, will never again die.

And you, my friends, are that church, and that body - in the righteousness of Christ which he has bestowed upon you, and that is yours by faith. In Christ you are that kingdom. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians:

“You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

God the Father accepted his Son Jesus Christ as the cornerstone - as he pure and perfect cornerstone - for all of this. And in Christ, God the Father - your loving Father in heaven - accepts you.

He includes you in what he is doing. He builds you in. And he unites you also to each other, in an eternal fellowship of justified and forgiven saints that continually hears and believes the saving message of the apostles and prophets, and that is continually grounded on the immovable rock of Christ.

Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ, the head and cornerstone,
Chosen of the Lord and precious, Binding all the Church in one,
Holy Zion’s help for ever, And her confidence alone. Amen.

15 October 2017 - Pentecost 19 - Matthew 22:1-14

The parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, is one of the more important mission texts of our faith. It is also an important text about God’s justification of sinners.

Through this parable, our Lord teaches us what the scope of the church’s outreach is to be - that is, to whom we should deliver the king’s invitation to the wedding feast of his son.

And he also teaches us about the basis upon which entry is granted to those who do heed this invitation - that is, what kind of garment is to be worn by those who are welcomed to this celebration as guests.

God, in his sovereign mercy, had - from very ancient times - entrusted his oracles to the children of Abraham: the chosen people of Israel.

Those sacred Scriptural oracles had embedded within them, from the very beginning, a “save the date” kind of message about the Lord’s plan someday to send into the world his only-begotten Son, to become a part of the chosen nation and of the human race; and to fulfill - on the cross and in the empty tomb - all that would be necessary for the salvation from sin and death that Israel, and humanity, needed.

The ancient Hebrews, throughout the centuries, were told by means of their Prophets that this day would come. And they were exhorted to remain always ready for that day, so that when the announcement would finally be issued that all was ready, and that the Messiah had come, they would embrace him and believe in him.

But as Jesus tells his story today, he points out, with sadness and disappointment, that this is not what was happening, and that this would not happen.

The king “sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.’”

“But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.”

When God’s Son did come among them, the Jewish people, by and large, rejected him. Most of them rejected the gospel of redemption in Christ, and of true reconciliation with God, that Jesus’ apostles also proclaimed to them.

Many of them chose instead to put their trust in the Zealots, and in the political salvation from Roman imperialism that the Zealots pledged to achieve for them by military means. But as Jesus says elsewhere, all who take the sword will perish by the sword.

The military uprising against Roman control that the Zealots stirred up did not result in national independence. It resulted in death and destruction. The temple, and the city of Jerusalem, were utterly destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. And Jewish national identity was thereby destroyed as well.

This was something that they brought upon themselves, by their decision to ignore God’s invitation to the banquet of spiritual salvation that he had prepared for them, and by their decision to set up for themselves their own banquet of political salvation.

But in the mystery of God’s invisible working behind the scenes of human history, as he always executes his just judgments in the earth, this was also a manifestation of divine punishment of unbelief and misbelief. That’s the hard truth that Jesus teaches us today.

Jewish people today, as individuals, are still invited to come to the banquet that the God of their ancestors prepared for them in Jesus. The people of Israel are not under a special ongoing curse of God in comparison to other nations, as misguided Christians in history have sometimes thought.

But the people of Israel do not have a special standing with God either, as they once did. In their place, God has cultivated and raised up a new Israel, and a new chosen nation - as drawn from all nations.

To recall a different parable of Jesus, the unfruitful branches of Israel were pruned off, leaving a thin remnant of this chosen planting of the Lord. Some of the Jewish people did embrace Christ, after all, and thereby became the legitimate continuation of the chosen nation of God, around whom the Christian church was then built.

Onto this remnant of true and believing Israel, new branches - from among the Gentiles - have been grafted by the master gardener, who is God.

Returning to today’s parable: Jesus tells us that after those who had been sent the “save the date” notice, refused to accept the actual invitation when it was issued, the king then widened the scope of his invitation.

“He said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

This is the great commission. And for most if not all of us who are sitting here right now, who are of Gentile and not Jewish ancestry, this is why we can be completely sure that we also have a place in God’s kingdom.

And this universal invitation - to come to where Christ is, and to receive and celebrate his needed forgiveness - is universal in more than one way. All nations are invited. All social classes are invited.

People who have lived - in their outward behavior - according to respectable standards of civil righteousness, are invited. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

And people who have disgraced themselves even according to the lax standards of our society, are invited. As Jesus elsewhere says: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

Whoever you are, whatever foolish mistakes you may have made, whatever shameful associations you may have gotten yourself mixed-up in, and whatever secret faults and sins you may harbor in a troubled conscience, please listen to me: You are invited.

In Jesus’ story, the king says: “Invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” This announcement of the Lord’s invitation to you, which I have just issued in his name today, has found you today. And, there is also noone you know, whom God is not also inviting to the wedding feast of his Son.

You should prayerfully consider if you may actually be the particular servant God has in mind, to be the messenger who delivers this invitation to someone you know, who has not yet received it; or who may have received it in the past from another of the Lord’s servants, but has not yet heeded it.

God’s invitation reaches us as we are, with all of our embarrassing failures and flaws still in place. God’s inviting hand reaches down as low as it needs to, into whatever hole of shame and despair we may have dug ourselves into, in order to pull us out and save us.

But the condition in which God’s invitation finds us, is not the condition in which that invitation leaves us, as it draws us into the celebratory banquet of God’s love in his Son. Our appearance before God - as we stand under the scrutiny of his pure standards - does not remain as it was.

If it did, we would, in the end, not be admitted to the feast to which God invites us and all people. And that’s because there is a dress code for a celebration like this - for a salvation like this.

Because Jesus cast his parable in terms of a royal wedding, his first-century audience would have understood, without the need of further explanation, that any people who would attend such a wedding, would not be able to wear their own clothes - not even their best clothes.

The extravagance and opulence of royal occasions in that era required attire of such high quality, for those who attended them, that this could be achieved only by the wearing of a garment that the royal host would himself provide for his guests.

This is similar to the practice of high-end restaurants in our day, that have a dress code requiring gentlemen to be dressed in neckties and jackets; but that also have a selection of restaurant-owned neckties and jackets available near the entrance, so that a male diner who may not have known of the dress code could borrow and put on what he needed before he entered the dining room.

It is also similar to the rules for female attire that were in place at certain Eastern Orthodox churches in Ukraine, when I lived there. These rules required women to wear a head covering, and a skirt or dress, to enter the church.

But those churches also offered an array of scarves and slip-on skirts at the door, which could be borrowed, so that any woman who showed up in slacks or without a hat could easily conform herself to the rule, and then be able to go inside.

Today’s parable teaches us about God’s dress code, by showing us what happened - in the story - when someone without the proper clothing presumed to try to finagle himself into the wedding celebration anyway.

“When the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless.”

“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

The imagery of a certain standard of attire being required for entrance into the wedding feast of the king’s son, has nothing to do with the literal clothing that people wear or don’t wear to church. It is not referring to suits and ties, to dresses and skirts, or to a pastor’s vestments.

It is also not referring to the way in which people may try to “clothe” themselves with a certain kind of sanctimony or ethical code, with the presumptuous thought that they might be able to make themselves acceptable to God by at least being better than other people.

This is about something so much deeper, and so much more profound. This is about how we, who are sinners, can now be brought into the presence of a holy God who hates sin. This is about how we, who have alienated ourselves from God because of our defiances against him, can now be reconciled to him.

This is about how we, who have isolated ourselves from God, and separated ourselves from his Fatherly love, in our rebellions against him, can now be adopted into his family.

Human “fashion-designing” efforts, calculated to create a line of self-righteous moral accessories that would be so impressive as to distract God from noticing the sin-stained rags we are also still wearing, will never work. God is annoyed by such manipulative attempts to trick him into not seeing what he does clearly see.

As we are told in Psalm 14: “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”

All such moralistic self-salvation schemes are like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, after their fall into sin, trying to hide their shame with skimpy coverings they had made for themselves from fig leaves. It was not enough.

Their shame before God was not truly covered until God covered it, with substantial garments of animal skins. These garments - which required the shedding of animal blood, and the sacrificing of the lives of animals for the benefit of Adam and Eve - were emblematic of the righteousness of Christ, our substitute and sacrifice, which is draped over all who repent of their sins, and in faith receive God’s forgiveness in Christ.

St. Paul draws upon this imagery in his Epistle to the Galatians, where he writes: “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

You gain entrance into the wedding feast, not on the basis of who you are or what you have made of yourself, but on the basis of who Christ is, and of what God now gives you in and through Christ.

You are also not welcome in God’s kingdom on the basis of your genealogy - whether your ancestry goes back to the Hebrew patriarchs, or is marked by a long Christian pedigree - but on the basis of Jesus’ eternal, divine pedigree.

The eternal Son of the Father - who is God himself - took on your flesh, lived perfectly in your place, atoned for your sins, and opened for you the gateway to eternal life.

God the Father now invites you - all of you and each of you - to receive upon yourself, by faith, the garment of his Son’s perfect righteousness, which completely covers your sin, and therefore makes you acceptable in his sight.

God the Father now invites you - all of you and each of you - to feast continuously on the riches of his grace and love that are served to you at the banquet of his Son. These are served here and now, in the preaching of the gospel, which feeds your soul; and in the administration of that sacramental meal which, more than anything else, connects you to the mysteries of heaven, and to Christ in heaven.

And as we are indeed welcomed into the fellowship of the church on earth, to begin our enjoyment of the wonders that God has prepared for us through his Son, we do also look to eternity. We think about eternity, and we think about what it will be like in eternity for the Lord’s redeemed and forgiven people - from all nations - to be clothed with Christ, and to be mystically united to God through Christ, forever, and ever, and ever.

The Book of Revelation gives us some words into which we can anchor those peaceful and comforting thoughts:

“I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

“And all the angels were standing around the throne..., and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’” Amen indeed!

22 October 2017 - Pentecost 20 - Isaiah 45:1-7

Ever since the so-called “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, there have been atheists, here and there, in various western countries.

Until recently, most of these atheists had a patronizing attitude toward Christians - or toward anyone else who acknowledge the existence of God - considering them to be gullible, uneducated, and unsophisticated. But for the most part, the atheists of the past also considered religious people in general to be a harmless presence in the world.

They thought that Christians, Jews, and others like them - as they would live out their religious convictions in practical ways - were probably exercising a benign or even a beneficial influence on the larger society. So, they didn’t expend a lot of effort in trying to convert religious people to atheism.

But during the past couple decades, a new type of atheism has arisen. The so-called “new atheists” not only reject belief in God for themselves, but also consider belief in God on the part of other people to be a harmful thing.

The new atheists actively try to persuade other people to become atheists. They really care about the question of whether people acknowledge the existence of God or not.

They get worked up and angry when someone defends or promotes a belief in God. They are committed to trying to talk as many people as they can into not believing in God. To them, this is important.

They are not just a-theists - that is, people who are without God. They are anti-theists - that is, people who are opposed to God.

I wonder, though, if the new atheists are overestimating the importance of this issue - of whether people do, or do not, consciously acknowledge God’s existence. God, of course, is fully aware of himself, and of his thoughts and plans.

He is not affected all that much by the denials of his existence that regularly flow from the pens of atheist writers. He doesn’t really feel the sting of the rebukes and mockery, of the insults and shaken fists, that are directed at him.

With respect to God’s providential operations in the world - as he shapes the course of history, and as he uses you and others for the fulfillment of his plans - maybe it’s not so important to consider whether or not you acknowledge God. Maybe what is more important is to consider whether or not God acknowledges you.

Listen to what the Lord of the universe says to King Cyrus of Persia, through the prophet Isaiah:

“For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

We can see here that God is not at all insecure about his own existence. He doesn’t need affirmation from others, in order to be confident in himself.

God enjoys being God. He doesn’t let the insignificant pokes and proddings of self-important human atheists distract him from what he is doing in the world that he made, and from fulfilling his purposes in that world.

And God has a purpose for King Cyrus. That purpose will be fulfilled whether or not Cyrus acknowledges him. He brings Cyrus into his plans, in spite of the fact that Cyrus does not know him.

The people of the kingdom of Judah had been carried away into captivity in Babylon, as a chastisement for their idolatry and other transgressions against the Law of God. They were carried away to Babylon to be humbled for their disobedience, to be brought to a state of national repentance, and to be purged of their sins.

But when the allotted time of their chastening was completed, God raised up King Cyrus to conquer Babylon from the east; and to institute the imperial policy that would allow a remnant of the people of Israel to return to their land, and to be restored to their national identity.

This was necessary, because the oracles of God had been entrusted to the nation of Israel. The promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were yet to be fulfilled through this nation. The Messiah - the world’s Savior from sin and death - was yet to come forth from this nation.

On the basis of ancient inscriptions from the time of Cyrus that have been found in archeological excavations in Iran, we know that Cyrus was a polytheist.

As a politician, he was certainly capable of using some of the terminology of Israel’s theology when he needed to. For political purposes he was, as a matter of rhetoric, willing to acknowledge the name of the God of the Jews. But he did the same thing with respect to the religions, and the names of the gods, of other subjugated nations, too.

Cyrus did not recognize the God of Jacob on God’s terms - as the only God there is. He did not fall down before the God who created him, and who would redeem him, in humble repentance - to seek the forgiveness and eternal salvation that only this God could deliver to a fallen and hurting humanity.

Cyrus was a superstitious man. Together with all pagans of his time, he thought and acted according to a worldview that assumed the existence of a pantheon of many gods and goddesses - who were ostensibly the supernatural patrons and tribal deities of many nations.

But as far as the true God was concerned, Cyrus was, in effect, an atheist. He did not, from the heart, acknowledge the God who says of himself: “There is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

But God - this God - acknowledged Cyrus! The God of Jacob acknowledged this pagan - this essentially atheistic man. And in spite of Cyrus’s personal unbelief, God used him.

The God who had promised to redeem Israel from all his iniquities, and eventually to bring people from all nations to his holy, messianic mountain - this God led Cyrus, and pushed Cyrus, and called Cyrus to do what God wanted to be done.

And in the hidden mystery of God’s sovereignty over the affairs of men and nations, any possible personal protests from the king would have been meaningless and pointless. We might imagine Cyrus crying out at some point: “But I don’t believe in you! I don’t think you really exist” - as if that would bring God’s actions in human history to an end.

God wouldn’t care about such protests - at least not in the sense of allowing them to have any effect on his plans to reestablish the people of Israel in the land that he had promised to their fathers.

God was going to be God. And as far as God’s perfect and overriding will for the direction of human history was concerned, Cyrus was going to be what God wanted him to be.

And what about you? The fact that you are here in a public worship service suggests that you do acknowledge God’s existence, and that you do believe in him.

But maybe you have your doubts. Maybe you don’t believe in him at all, and are here to please or appease loved ones, or to satisfy a curiosity.

But whatever the case may be, know this: God is real. He is more real than anything else. He is the eternal reality. Other things exist, and have a purpose in this vast universe, only because he made them, and gave them their purpose.

The existence of everything else besides God is more doubtful than is God’s existence. He defines the very concept of existence. The prophet Isaiah declares:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”

If we’re going to talk about what is or is not certain and sure, your existence is less certain than is God’s existence. On a scale of possibilities, it’s more likely that you are a figment of God’s imagination, than that he is a figment of yours! At least that’s the way God sees it.

You exist - if you do in fact exist - only because God has made you. You have a purpose in life only because God has given you this purpose.

None of this is really affected if you think that God doesn’t exist. He knows that you exist, and that’s what matters in terms of his sovereign use of your life for his purposes in this world.

In regard to God’s plan for the restoration of his chosen nation, it ultimately didn’t matter that King Cyrus did not acknowledge the God of Israel. The God of Israel acknowledged King Cyrus, and was going to use him for the accomplishing of his purposes.

But there’s another aspect of God thinking where it does matter to him what people believe or don’t believe, about him. God does indeed hold the reins of all human history, and he governs the ebbs and flows of all that happens.

But remember what we noted earlier, regarding the reason why God was pulling the strings that caused Cyrus to conquer Babylon. It was for the sake of his people Israel.

That nation had to be liberated, and to be restored to its land. And the reason why those things had to happen, was for the sake of the messianic promise.

The Savior of all men was going to be born of that nation. Cyrus’s Savior - your Savior - would come from this people, and would then go out from them, by means of the Lord’s apostolic gospel, to all other nations.

From this perspective, therefore, it does matter to God, whether or not you believe what he tells you about Christ. Jesus Christ, the Son of God in human flesh, is offered to you in his Word and Sacrament. And as he is offered, God deeply wants you to receive him in faith.

What St. Paul wrote by divine inspiration to the Thessalonians in today’s Epistle, he would want to be able to write to all churches and congregations, and to all people:

“We know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. ... You received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit. ... You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”

The role that you are going to play in the drama of human history, you are going to play - whether that role is a major lead character, or a bit part. God will do as he wishes.

But in matters of faith - in matters that pertain to your personal fellowship with God - God does not use coercion or external manipulation to make you do as he wishes. Instead, he comes to you in the power of his Word.

He addresses your heart and soul. He impresses his law upon you, to allow you to see how far short you have fallen, even of the demands of your own conscience.

Not only have you not lived up to God’s expectations, but you haven’t even lived up to your own. God wants you to be honest about that, and his law makes you honest about that.

And then God impresses his gospel upon you, to show you how much he was willing to do to win you back, and to redeem you from your captivity to sin and death. He sent his Son to suffer and die under the curse of the law, so that you wouldn’t have to.

He sends his Spirit to you now, in his Word and Sacrament, to cloak you with Christ’s righteousness, to wash away your sin, and to bring to you the joy and peace of a forgiven conscience.

The faith by which all of these blessings are made yours, is not merely an intellectual exercise. God does not call upon us simply to hold certain ideas in our head, and then to be saved.

It goes much deeper than that. Our faith saves us because of who our faith is connected to, and because of what our faith trusts.

Faith in the promises of Christ mystically unites us to Christ - and to God in Christ. Faith in the promises of Christ unites us to all the blessings that God in his love wants us to have.

In regard to the state of your soul, and your personal eternal destiny: to say that it doesn’t really matter whether or not you are connected to Christ, would be like telling a paratrooper who is jumping out of a plane that it doesn’t really matter whether or not he is connected to a parachute. It does matter - on both counts.

God is not so indecisive, and uncertain of himself, that he would let King Cyrus’s personal unbelief alter the course on which God had always intended to take human history. But God is not so callous and uncaring, that he would not be saddened by King Cyrus’s personal unbelief.

He was sending his Son to die for Cyrus, too. The message of the prophets concerning the coming Messiah was a message that King Cyrus could have believed, too.

God is not so indecisive, and uncertain of himself, that he would let your personal unbelief alter the course on which he intends to take human history. But God is not so callous and uncaring, that he would not be saddened by your personal unbelief.

He has sent his Son to die for you, too. The message of the apostles concerning the Savior who has come, and who comes even now in his gospel, is a message that you too can believe.

The only God that there is, who created and sustains all things, is a God whose plans and decrees for the world and for the universe cannot be brought to nothing. He is a God of unmeasurable power.

Whether or not you believe in him, or acknowledge him, he will remain who he is, and he will do what he intends to do.

But this God is also a God of unmeasurable compassion and mercy. It is his will also to draw you into his loving and forgiving embrace through the gospel of his Son.

It grieves him when a human heart - a heart like Cyrus’s - is hardened against him. It is a joy to him, however, when his Spirit works the miracle of faith, and when a soul that his Son redeemed, individually partakes of that redemption.

“I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, [Cyrus,] though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Amen.

29 October 2017 - Reformation Sunday - 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22

St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”

Throughout the history of the church, this apostolic admonition has sounded forth from the Scriptures, exhorting God’s people always to test everything - and to test everything by the measuring rod of the Scriptures themselves, which are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus; and which are profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

Jesus had commissioned his disciples to teach all nations everything that he had commanded. And the apostles fulfilled this task by proclaiming the whole counsel of God to those they encountered during their ministries.

This saving truth of Christ was permanently embodied for all future generations in the New Testament Scriptures, which the apostles penned by divine inspiration. And in the Scriptures, the church has continually had access to this fulness of apostolic truth.

But it is also the case, that Christians in their weakness have not always paid careful attention to everything that the Bible teaches. If the congregations to which St. Paul wrote his letters sometimes needed correction in various matters - and they did! - so too have Christians in later centuries often needed correction.

At various times in history, some segments of the church became sluggish and negligent, and did not pay proper attention to everything that the Scriptures teach. At various times in history, some segments of the church improperly elevated human opinions to the level of doctrine, in a way that confused and obscured what God had actually revealed.

And sometimes, during periods of weakness and distraction, overtly false teachings, that directly contradicted the apostolic gospel in some cardinal point, emerged in the church, to the great danger of souls.

But Jesus Christ, the Lord of his church, did not allow these times of severe decay and confusion to go on indefinitely. At pivotal times in history, when the very existence of the church was under threat because of such departures, Jesus intervened.

He providentially raised up faithful teachers, through whom he prompted his church to test everything, to hold fast what is good, and to abhor what is evil. He called these men, by his authority, to proclaim his Word with boldness and courage; and with the truth of the Scriptures to repudiate the faith-killing errors that had arisen.

The Good Shepherd sent these uniquely gifted undershepherds to his beloved and hurting sheep, to speak his words of strength into their weakness; to speak his words of clarity into their confusion; to speak his words of comfort into their fear; and to speak his words of hope into their despair.

Jesus had promised, “I will build my church.” By the power of his Word, Jesus did build his church, and turned those times of crisis into times of reformation and renewal.

Jesus had promised, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” As the loving head of his church, Jesus proved on these momentous occasions that he had not abandoned his body.

Today, we commemorate just such a period in church history, when the Lord providentially raised up Martin Luther to preach God’s truth in the midst of much error. But Luther was not the first great reformer whom Christ had sent to his people in a time of spiritual turmoil.

In the fourth century, the heretic Arius began to teach that Christ, even in his pre-incarnate state, was a creature of God, and not himself God. Arius denied that Jesus was God in human flesh. Accordingly, he denied that the works and actions of Jesus had been the works and actions of God.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria, still a young man at the time, knew how dangerous this teaching was. God alone is the creator, and so only God can make us to be new creatures. God alone is the giver of life, and so only God can regenerate us.

If Jesus is not of one substance with the Father, then we have no divine Savior. If Jesus is not very God of very God, who as God lived, died, and rose again for us, then we have no salvation. If Jesus is not the Son begotten of his Father before all worlds, who became man, then all men are lost forever.

Arius’s teaching seemed logical, easy to grasp, and philosophically satisfying. But Arius’s teaching was not true.

And so Jesus providentially raised up Athanasius to oppose this teaching, and to proclaim in its place, with precision, the Biblical mystery of the incarnation; and to proclaim in its place, with clarity, the Biblical message of what God, in Christ, did in fact accomplish for us men and for our salvation.

St. John’s Gospel describes the faith of St. Thomas - which was also the faith of Athanasius, and is the faith of all true Christians: Eight days after the resurrection of Jesus, “his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

And St. Paul teaches in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. ... All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself. ... In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”

Through Athanasius, who faithfully expounded and applied these and many other passages of Scripture, Christ preserved and renewed his church. And Athanasius is rightfully honored as a great teacher and reformer among God’s people.

In the fifth century, the heretic Pelagius began to teach that man is not born with the stain or corruption of sin, and therefore that anyone can, in principle, make himself acceptable to God, and worthy of heaven, through a life of obedience to the law of God.

Adam did not pass on to us a fallen nature, but merely set for us a bad example. And according to Pelagius, God’s “grace” toward us meant simply that God does not leave us in the dark as to what his will for us is, but gives us his law, so that by it we can know what kind of lifestyle will satisfy him.

St. Augustine of Hippo, who had spent many years in a state of spiritual rebellion against God, but whose life had been totally transformed by the powerful working of God’s grace, knew how dangerous this teaching was. If the acceptance of Arius’s teaching would have meant that man has no Savior from sin, the acceptance of Pelagius’s teaching would mean that man needs no Savior from sin.

But man does need a Savior. We all need a Savior. If God does not save us by his grace alone, but waits instead for us to save ourselves, he will wait forever, and we will be lost forever - because we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, or come to him.

We receive the forgiveness of our sins, not only when we admit in humble repentance that we have personally sinned against God by thought, word, and deed; but also when we acknowledge from the heart that we are by nature sinful and unclean. For our salvation we rely fully on the unearned and undeserved mercy of God - which is ours in Christ - and not on anything that is within us.

Pelagius’s teaching seemed logical, easy to grasp, and philosophically satisfying. But Pelagius’s teaching was not true.

And so Jesus providentially raised up Augustine to oppose this teaching, and to proclaim in its place, with precision, the Biblical truth of humanity’s inherited sinfulness and spiritual death; and to proclaim in its place, with clarity, the Biblical message of God’s gracious gift of salvation through his Son.

In Psalm 51, King David confesses, on behalf of Augustine and on behalf of all of us: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. ... Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

And in his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, ...and were by nature children of wrath... But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

Through Augustine, who faithfully expounded and applied these and many other passages of Scripture, Christ preserved and renewed his church. And Augustine is rightfully honored as a great teacher and reformer among God’s people.

And then, during the middle ages in western Europe, a purported way of salvation that jumbled together the grace of God and the merits of man, began to be taught. What emerged was a penitential “system” that pushed God’s gracious forgiveness of sins to the margins, and that put man’s works and penances in the center.

Within this tangled web of sacrifices and satisfactions, indulgences and purgatory, someone could never be sure in his conscience that God was truly at peace with him, and would not judge and condemn him. Someone could never really know that he was as good and righteous as he needed to be, to be acceptable to God.

These confusions came to a head in Germany in 1517, when Johann Tetzel, under the authorization of the pope, began hawking indulgences in a way that was completely lacking in subtlety and nuance. He was, quite simple, telling people that they could buy their way into heaven through the purchase of an indulgence - or that they could spring one of their loved ones from purgatory, and get that loved one into heaven, through buying an indulgence.

Martin Luther was both a professor and a preacher in Wittenberg, Germany. This obvious abuse prompted him, out of his concern for souls, to post 95 theses of protest on the door of the Castle Church, 500 years ago this coming Tuesday.

And thus was set in motion the Lutheran Reformation. As a called pastor and teacher of the church, whom God raised up for this momentous time, Luther led the church to test everything, to hold fast what is good, and to abstain from every form of evil.

Luther and his coworkers did not simply reject the brazenness of what Tetzel was doing, but they questioned, and then dismantled, the whole medieval penitential system. And in its place, they restored the message of God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ to its proper place, at the center of the preaching and pastoral ministry of the church.

After his resurrection Jesus did, after all, tell his disciples that they were to go forth from Jerusalem, proclaiming “repentance and forgiveness of sins” to all nations in his name. Luther and his coworkers also re-appropriated, from St. Paul’s writings in particular, the apostolic teaching that the righteousness that God in his holiness demands from us, is a righteousness that God in his love bestows upon us, and credits to us, through his Son.

Jesus lived a perfect life for us under the law, and then sacrificed himself in our place to atone for all our sins. As the risen Savior he now comes to us in his Word and Sacraments, and speaks words of pardon and justification that deliver to us everything that is necessary for us to have a right standing with God, and to be at peace with God and within ourselves.

We are justified, and are accounted as righteous before God, by faith, and not by works, because of what justification actually is. God’s justification in Christ is not a process, but a promise. It is something he graciously declares to us. And the way to receive a promise, and a declaration, is to believe it.

The story of Abraham - whom Luther knew to be his spiritual ancestor, and who is the spiritual ancestor of all believers - shows us this. With reference to the Book of Genesis, St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans:

“What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’”

And a little further on in this epistle, Paul also says: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

Good works certainly do flow forth in the life of a Christian, as the fruits of a living faith that trusts in the promises of God. We do serve our neighbor in love, with gratitude for the Lord’s mercy.

But it is the Lord’s mercy in Jesus that reconciles us to God, that covers over our guilt, and that gives us a clear conscience before God. Good works are a consequence of this, not a cause of this.

Through Luther, who faithfully expounded and applied these and many other passages of Scripture, Christ preserved and renewed his church. And Luther is rightfully honored as a great teacher and reformer among God’s people.

As the church of Jesus Christ moves forward into the future, it does so in a world that is increasingly hostile to the hope that we proclaim. But it also does so with an unswerving confidence that Jesus will always guard and keep his church, until the day he visibly returns.

We know that at various pivotal points in the past, when the church was weak and infected with error, Jesus intervened. Through those whom he raised up as his called servants, he preserved, cleansed, and reinvigorated his church. And therefore we know that in the future - with whatever challenges and temptations the future may bring - Jesus will not abandon us.

We pray that God will always help us to remember the admonition of the Scriptures: “Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” And we pray that God will give us the wisdom and the courage to do as we are directed.

Even in the midst of human doubt, God will give us a faith that reposes in the mystery of the incarnation of his eternal Son in Jesus. Even in the midst of human pride, God will give us a repentance that acknowledges our inherited sinfulness, and our complete need for God’s saving grace.

And even in the midst of human fear and uncertainty, God will give us a firm trust in his word of forgiveness and justification in his Son, our Savior. We close with these words from Psalm 34:

“I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. ... The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” Amen.