3 September 2017 - Pentecost 13 - Matthew 16:21-28

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” What did Peter say to prompt that?

In last week’s reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel - which quoted the first part of the conversation that continues in today’s reading - Jesus had commended Peter for his confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus had told Peter then that his Father in heaven, and not human flesh and blood, had revealed this to him.

But now, just a few minutes later in that conversation, Peter is given the most severe rebuke imaginable. And a completely different supernatural personage is now identified as being the inspiration behind his thoughts and words.

What had he said? Well, in response to the Lord’s description of the suffering, death, and resurrection that awaited him in Jerusalem, Peter had said this: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

Our translation does not render Peter’s words as literally as it could. Where Peter is quoted as saying, “Far be it from you, Lord,” a more literal rendering of the Greek would actually go something like this: “Merciful to you, Lord.” That is, “may God be merciful to you, Lord, and prevent these things from happening.”

The term used here is the same term that is used in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where God is quoted to say: “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” But Peter’s perception of what the evidence of God’s mercy in a person’s life would be - at least as we see it in this conversation - is different from what the epistle to the Hebrews tells us.

It is not the forgiveness of sins that shows the presence of God’s mercy with us. In Peter’s mind, God’s mercy is evident when we survive and prevail in this world. Peter’s assumptions about what God’s people can expect from him, were close to Mr. Spock’s Vulcan greeting from the old Star Trek TV show: “Live long and prosper.”

When Jesus indicated that, as far as his earthly life was concerned, he would not survive and prevail, and that he would not live long and prosper, Peter immediately responded with an invocation of God’s mercy and protection upon him.

And it was this invocation of God’s mercy, to prevent painful and distressing things from happening to Jesus, that Jesus then identified as having come from Satan. And he warned Peter that under Satan’s subtle and hidden influence, he was setting his mind on the things of man, and not on the things of God.

When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, just a few minutes earlier in this conversation, flesh and blood had not revealed that saving truth to him. But flesh and blood - well-intentioned yet sinful human flesh and blood - was very much involved in what Peter was now saying.

Peter’s sin was not that he was an irreligious man. Peter’s problem was not that he didn’t believe in God. His problem was that he believed wrongly about God.

He projected up onto God, and into God’s mind, the wishes and aspirations of sinful man - the desire to survive and prevail, to live long and prosper. He simply assumed that what he would want for himself - and for Jesus - is what God would want for them.

But whenever you assume anything about God - apart from his Word, and apart from what he has actually revealed about himself and his will - you are putting yourself in grave spiritual danger. You are treading into the domain of Satanic deception.

Satan doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to get people to deny the existence of God. He knows that even unregenerated people have the natural knowledge of God embedded in their conscience - although unregenerated people know virtually nothing about the God whose existence they intuitively acknowledge.

But Satan has had quite a bit of success over the centuries in getting people, like Peter, to believe things about God that are not true. Peter believed in a God whose purpose was to protect Jesus from all physical and emotional harm.

But such a God simply doesn’t exist. In his rebuke of Peter - and as a warning to the other disciples, and also to each of us - Jesus went on to say this:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?”

If you are a religious person who believes in the existence of God, and who even believes in the mercy of God, this is not a guarantee that you are a Christian, or that you understand the way of salvation that God has prepared for humanity.

Peter was gravely mistaken about what the proof of God’s mercy in someone’s life would be. The false belief in this regard, to which he then held, earned him the sharp rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!”

What would Jesus say to us today, if he were to appear bodily among us, and talk to us directly? Might he say the same thing to us?

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

In view of whatever carnal attitudes and false assumptions about God that may lurk in your minds and hearts, is that something you might need to hear?

If you, like Peter, believe that the evidence of God’s mercy in your life can be seen when you survive and prevail in various earthly situations, that is going to have an effect on the decisions you make every day. If the most important thing to you is that you would live long and prosper in this world, that will have a direct impact on how you live, on how you treat people, and on how you establish your priorities.

And if you assume that, as a believer in God, you will be preserved from all painful and distressing experiences, and be protected from all physical and emotional harm, you will not be able to handle the shocks and the trials that inevitably will come your way in this world.

Within the past week, a friend of mine learned that his beloved son, after a troubled life and at the age of 43, had died. And also within the past week, that same friend was diagnosed with lymphoma, and is already in the hospital for treatment.

Are the tragedies that were piled by a cruel world onto my friend last week, evidence that God’s mercy is not with him? Peter - in the state of mind he was in in today’s text - would probably think so. But would Jesus think so?

Jesus says that the one who would come after him and be his disciple must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow him. A Christian is therefore called to live in a way that follows the example of Christ, and that emulates Christ’s commitment to fulfilling the vocation that his Father in heaven had given him, come what may.

Of course, we have not been called to lay down our lives to atone for the sins of the world. That was the unique calling of Jesus as humanity’s Redeemer.

But we have been called to be willing to lay down our lives as a testimony to our faith in our crucified Savior, if the circumstances of life would demand it. At the very least, we are often called to make sacrifices, and to stretch ourselves in a selfless devotion to the will of God and to the needs of others, for the sake of honoring God and submitting to his authority.

No one is immortal as far as our bodily life is concerned. A Christian knows this. A Christian knows that he will have to die someday anyway. But in his faith, and in his resurrection hope, a Christian is not afraid to die.

Therefore a Christian is not willing to do whatever it takes, to extend his earthly existence for a few more years, if that would mean denying his Lord in his words or in his behavior.

Every day we are faced with decisions - some of them small, and some of them momentous - in which we have the opportunity to live out, and give expression to, what it is that we really believe in. The way that we act in each instance will be a testimony to others of what we really believe: about the role of God in our lives, and about our role in God’s kingdom.

What is your calling from God - which you can expect God to help you fulfill? Is it to serve, and preserve, yourself? No, it is not.

Your calling is to serve others, in the work that God has given you to perform, and in the relationships into which God has placed you. And you are to carry out this work, and conduct yourself in these relationships, according to the values and priorities that Jesus teaches and shows you, by word and example.

There are many things in this life that are more important than worldly success and material rewards. A Christian knows that.

Of course, Christians who have taken up their cross to follow Christ in this world do sometimes prosper and succeed, too. Not all of the godly people in the Bible were poor, or in a continual state of suffering.

But these blessings, when we do enjoy them, are due to God’s providential love, which often overrides the desire of the devil to destroy us.

A Christian whose thoughts and actions are properly governed by the Word of God, does not have the option of trying to achieve success and prosperity by following the corrupted methods of the corrupted world: deceptions and dishonesty, betrayals and negligence of duty, greed and selfishness.

If he tries to press a “mute” button on the voice of his conscience, and goes down that path anyway, he will lose too much. From the perspective of eternity, he will lose, and forfeit, everything.

Jesus warns: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” Jesus is not speaking here only to atheists and mockers of religion.

He is also speaking to religious people like Peter, who in today’s text had invoked God’s intervention to keep Jesus from experiencing suffering and death - as if suffering and death, for Jesus or for anyone else, could not possibly be a part of God’s will.

Maybe Jesus is also speaking to you. Indeed, the Lord’s warning is addressed to people of all times and places, who presume to invent a religion for themselves that does not require the bearing of a cross in this sinful world, but that accommodates itself to the norms and standards of this sinful world.

This is not the religion of the Savior who tells us: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

And Jesus gives another warning to those who set their minds on the things of man and not on the things of God, and who live for the sake of surviving and prevailing, and not for the sake of loving and serving. He says:

“For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”

If you have not taken up your cross to follow Christ in humility, but are instead following your own ambitions in pride - in an effort to extend your bodily life, and increase your creature comforts, for a few more years - you will still die. Life in this world does not last forever for anybody.

And you will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The one you had refused to know as Savior and as example, you will someday know anyway. But you will know him as judge.

Those who have not known Christ or his ways in life, will, in death, stand before the Lord’s tribunal. But they will do so without the righteousness of Christ covering them and their sins. Their sins - every shameful sin - will therefore be exposed for all to see.

But if that’s not the fate you want, it doesn’t have to be your fate. If that’s not the way you want to live now, you don’t have to live that way now.

In repentance, and in faith, you can take up your cross, and follow Christ. If you have laid down that cross, in the misguided pursuit of worldly happiness and just a bit more longevity, you can take up that cross again - right here, right now.

Jesus is holding your cross out to you - even as he sacramentally holds out to you his body and blood, which he sacrificed and shed for you on his cross. And Jesus offers to place your cross once again on your shoulders, as he forgives you for all of the mistakes and missteps of your past - including the mistake and misstep of laying down that cross, if that is what you have done.

And if you stumble under the weight of your cross - in weakness, fear, or doubt - Jesus will help you with that as well. he will be your Simon of Cyrene, for as long as you need him to be.

In fact, he will always help you bear your cross. He is with you and in you, helping you, right now.

In his Holy Absolution, as he speaks his words of pardon to you, Jesus washes away all your sins, creates in you a clean heart, and renews your strength. And simultaneously he also renews to you the gentle yet serious calling that he issued to you in your baptism, to deny yourself, and come after him.

In spite of Peter’s misguided protest, Jesus took up his cross, and faithfully carried it for you all the way to Calvary. He took up his cross, and lovingly carried it for you all the way into the jaws of hell.

On his cross, he, according to his human nature, experienced a real forsakenness by God - on account of the sins of the world that had been imputed to him, and that he was bearing - so that you need never experience that forsakenness. Instead, through him, you can and will know that God, in his forgiving mercy, is with you in all trials.

God, in his forgiving mercy, is with you in all suffering. And God, in his forgiving mercy, is with you in death - and on the other side of death, when you will see his resurrected and now-glorified Son; and when you will come to know Christ as Christ already knows you.

In time, Peter also came to know all this. After the rebuke that he received in today’s text, and after a lot of other blunders, Peter’s sins were fully forgiven by his Friend and Savior.

And when the time of his earthly pilgrimage and calling was at an end, he literally took up his cross, and was crucified outside the city of Rome. But now he lives in Christ. In the resurrection he will live forever in Christ. And so will you!

Jesus, I my cross have taken, All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken, Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition, All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition! God and heaven are still my own. Amen.

10 September 2017 - Pentecost 14 - Romans 13:1-10

“His authority is from God, and has been instituted by God.” “He is God’s servant, for your good.” “He is a minister of God.”

Those statements sound like descriptions of a pastor, don’t they? But in today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Romans, where St. Paul says these things, he is not talking about pastors or church leaders. He is talking about the civil authorities.

When Jesus told his disciples to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s, he was teaching them - and us - that there is a necessary distinction to be made between civil, political authority, and spiritual, churchly authority.

In the church - that is, the spiritual fellowship of those who believe in his Son - God rules and governs by means of the power and authority of his Word. And those who are in this church and fellowship, owe God their obedience and worship.

But God does also rule and govern in the civil and political realm - although here he does so less directly, and in a different way.

God’s own authority is hidden within, and stands behind, the authority of statesmen, magistrates, and rulers who govern the nations of the earth. He works through them, for the accomplishing of his purposes.

This is what St. Paul teaches us today. What God’s purposes are, as far as civil authority is concerned, is outward order, and the bodily well-being of his creatures.

Because of the fallen state of this world, there are many wicked influences - both natural and supernatural - that work against God’s will for law and justice in the earth. We don’t live in the Garden of Eden any more!

And so, in order to preserve the life and safety of people in general, God authorizes civil rulers, in his name, to use coercion, and even deadly force when necessary, against dangerous individuals. The one in authority “does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.”

The legitimate reach of civil government, as God designed it, extends only to our bodily actions. When a government is set up in the way it should be, it does not have jurisdiction over your thoughts, or your beliefs.

You may not murder your neighbor, or rob your neighbor. God forbids it. And God backs up his words with actions.

He authorizes the civil government to prevent you from harming your neighbor’s person or property. And if you have already violated God’s prohibition in this respect, he authorizes the civil government to punish you for harming your neighbor’s person or property.

What you think about your neighbor is another matter. Now, this, too, is important to God. He does care about the attitude and motivations of your heart and mind. But the civil government is not the institution that he uses in addressing that with you.

The realm of the civil government’s authority is your bodily actions, and not your conscience. But as a Christian, your conscience is impacted by your knowledge of the fact that civil government is a divine institution.

Legitimate government leaders exercise a proper “parental” office, under the general umbrella of the Fourth Commandment, which says: “Honor your father and your mother.” And therefore, as a Christian citizen, your proper attitude toward the leaders whom God has placed over you - through the electoral mechanisms that are in place in our country - is an attitude of honor.

In many cases, unbelievers obey the civil law because they want to avoid the punishment that will come upon them, if they get caught breaking the law. Maybe that’s the way you think sometimes, as well.

But when we Christians are called upon by God to obey the law, he wants us to want to obey it: in love for our neighbor, and for him.

“Therefore one must be in subjection,” St. Paul tells us, “not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.” We are to obey the law even when there is no police officer around, to notice if we don’t obey it.

We are to respect the civil authorities cheerfully and eagerly, knowing that God himself is hidden in and behind their authority; and knowing that they are ministers and servants of God for our benefit.

God inscribes his moral standards for the human race, not only on the stone tablets of Mount Sinai; but also on each human heart, in the form of natural law, and of the natural knowledge of God and of his law. St. Paul writes elsewhere in his Epistle to the Romans:

“When nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” - that is, the Law of Moses. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness...”

That’s why it’s possible for a human society - with the use of it’s collective capacity for moral reasoning - to discern the difference between right and wrong, even apart from an inscripturated revelation. That’s why it’s not only possible, but also imperative, that a secular government enact just and equitable laws for the welfare of its citizenry, which reflect this supreme natural law.

When the civil authorities do not fulfill their duties as well as they should, that doesn’t give us the right to ridicule them or disregard them. Rather, it gives us an opportunity to pray for them, and for their improvement.

The only time when disobedience to civil authority is permissible - and even required - is when civil authority commands what God explicitly forbids, or forbids what God explicitly commands.

When that happens, the political rulers have trespassed beyond the limits of their legitimate God-given authority. And in such a case, we are to heed the words of St. Peter: “We must obey God rather than men.”

A refusal to obey an overtly sinful law often requires much prayerful discernment - especially when the consequences of disobeying an arrogant government that presumes to command us to sin, can be severe indeed. Sometimes it’s hard to know what the right thing to do is.

Sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing even when we know what it would be, if it seems as if we are the only ones willing to do the right thing. But we are obligated by God always to do the right thing - even if it gets us in trouble; even if it gets us killed.

The particular civil government under which we live is not our only citizenship, or our only loyalty. In fact, it is not even our chief citizenship, or our primary loyalty.

In today’s Gospel, from St. Matthew, Jesus speaks of a different citizenship, and of a different kingdom - and not just of a different kingdom, but of a different kind of kingdom. He teaches us about a strange, other-worldly kingdom, with its own set of unique values, and with its own unique identifying features.

For example, Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

And he also says: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

The kingdoms of this world have authority chiefly over the actions of the body. But the kingdom of Christ has authority, not only over the body, but also over the faith and spiritual life that dwell in the soul of man.

Like civil government, Christ as Lord does claim authority over our bodily life - over our labors and loves in this world. In childlike humility we submit to his will in these matters, and with his help suppress the sinful impulse to do what human pride dictates rather than what he dictates.

Unlike civil government, however, Christ in his heavenly kingdom does not exercise his authority over the bodily actions of man by means of outward coercion.

Rather, our Savior uniquely governs and guides our works and deeds by the power and authority of his Word: as that Word is embraced by us in faith, and as that Word is thereby imbedded in us, and in the new nature within us that his Word creates.

And so, when we do sin, the law of God does not only make us fearful of divine punishment. In our conscience, it also convicts us of the harm we have done, to ourselves and others.

God’s law does not merely cause us to be sorry that we got caught in our sin. It causes us to be sorry that we committed the sin, and shows us our need for divine forgiveness and cleansing.

All people, on the basis of their inborn knowledge of natural law, have the capacity to feel remorse over things that they know they should not have done. But it is only the inner working of the Holy Spirit that gives Christians a true repentance for their sins.

Unlike mere remorse, repentance does not carry us into a bottomless pit of despair. It carries us instead to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Christ’s cross, and the benefits of his cross, are carried to us in his Holy Absolution, where - with a childlike trust in his mercy - we believe him, when he tells us that he forgives our sins.

And when forgiveness from Christ is received by a penitent and believing heart, the fruits of repentance naturally arise, in the gratitude of those who have tasted the wonderful grace of God’s love in this way. The Spirit of Christ within us guides that, too, as we with the Lord’s help amend our lives, and as we perform works of love freely and joyfully.

The kingdom of Christ is indeed “not of this world,” as Jesus told Pilate when he stood before him. Christ’s kingdom doesn’t follow the means or methods of earthly kingdoms.

But the kingdom of Christ does intersect with this world, in visible gatherings of the baptized around the concrete and physical marks of the church.

We can all remember from our catechism days, that according to the Biblical definition of the word “name,” the “name” of God includes all those things by which God makes himself known to us. And so, when Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them,” he means gatherings where his Word and Sacraments are in use.

These gatherings are important. It’s true that the kingdom of Christ is, in its essence, a spiritual kingdom, and not a physical kingdom. But it is a kingdom to which we belong together.

During our time on earth, we experience this “togetherness” in Christ, not just by thinking private spiritual thoughts about it, but by actually getting together: around the preaching of the gospel, which we receive and believe together; and around the Lord’s Supper, which Jesus has specifically told us to do together, in remembrance of him.

Through his Word and Sacrament - which are administered among you by the ministers of his spiritual kingdom - Jesus preserves that kingdom in your midst. And he preserves each of you within that kingdom.

He cleanses your conscience of all sin, by his blood. He removes your sin from you as far as the east is from the west. He fills you again and again with life and hope.

In his Word and Sacrament, Jesus knits you together with one another, in love and godly affection. And he exercises his loving royal authority - over you, within you, and through you.

As God’s people, we are indeed members of two kingdoms. We are citizens of two realms. God is working through each of them, but for different purposes.

Through civil government, and through the work of civil rulers and other government officials, God works to create and preserve outward order, and peace on this earth. We honor God, therefore, by honoring, and obeying, those who in these ways serve him - and us.

Through spiritual government, and through the work of pastors and other teachers of the church, God works to create and preserve inner peace, and the hope of everlasting life. We honor God, therefore, by honoring, and believing, the message of forgiveness, life, and salvation that is in these ways preached to us, in Jesus’ name.

And as children of our Father in heaven through the adoption of his Spirit, we are like children in our enjoyment of these wonders. And we pray:

The powers ordained by Thee, With heavenly wisdom bless;
May they Thy servants be, And rule in righteousness!

The Church of Thy dear Son, Inflame with love’s pure fire;
Bind her once more in one, And life and truth inspire. Amen.

17 September 2017 - Pentecost 15 - Matthew 18:21-35

Because my wife Carol has a full-time job outside the home, she and I have divided up the domestic chores between us. One of my jobs is vacuuming.

Something about vacuuming - which Carol often reminds me of - is that vacuuming needs to be done over and over again. You cannot get rid of the dust just once and have a perpetually clean house from then on.

New dust continues to settle. And so the vacuuming needs to be repeated. Especially when company is coming over, I am reminded that it is time to vacuum once again.

Carol does not want to see accumulated dust all around the house. And she certainly does not want guests to see accumulated dust. She wants the dust to be removed, and sent away from the floors of the house, so that it will not be seen.

The literal meaning of the word “forgive” in New Testament Greek is “send off” or “send away.” When I forgive someone who has offended me, this means that in my own mind and thinking about that person, his sin against me is no longer upon him.

I have sent it away. I no longer see it. It has been vacuumed off of the person, so that, as far as I am concerned, he is clean.

And if I have been forgiven for an offense that I committed, this means that I am no longer burdened by having the weight of that sin, or the dusty stain of that sin, on my conscience.

I am now clean in the eyes of the person who forgave me. I am no longer ashamed or embarrassed to be in his presence, and I am no longer afraid of his anger and disapproval.

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus teaches us some important things about forgiveness: forgiveness sought, forgiveness offered, forgiveness received, and forgiveness lived. He tells us today about the culture of forgiveness in which his people are called and invited to make their home - and about the reconciliation, the peace, and the love which flow out of forgiveness, and which beautify that culture.

Peter came up and said to Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

In this sinful world, inhabited as it is by people who all have a sinful nature, sins continually accumulate in human lives and in human relationships, like dust in an Arizona house. Now, the sad constancy of sin’s recurrence should never cause us to get used to sin, or to be dissuaded from our desire to get rid of sin whenever and wherever it does appear.

Like the ongoing task of vacuuming dust out of our houses, every time a new layer of sin settles into our lives and relationships - where we do not want it to be - we should never stop doing what is necessary to get rid of it, and to get rid of the alienation, the fear, and the pain that sin causes. We should never stop sending that sin away.

What this means, is that when we have committed the sin, we must repent of it - every time. And I mean really repent - hating the sin and the harm it has caused - and not just saying that we repent.

When we have been injured by the sin, we must forgive it - every time. And I mean really forgive - loving the person whom we forgive, and rejoicing in the reconciliation - and not just saying that we forgive.

There is indeed a close connection between the kind of ongoing and persistent forgiveness that Jesus describes in his response to Peter, and the kind of love that St. Paul describes in his famous “love chapter” in First Corinthians. Here is a part of what Paul says: “Love is patient and kind... it is not irritable or resentful...”

Another way of translating that could be: “Love is patient, love is kind... it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

The parable that Jesus goes on to tell in today’s text makes it clear that the culture of forgiveness that Jesus calls for in his church, is not merely a matter of rhetoric and verbiage. We don’t pretend to be sorry for our sins, saying the right words, so that words of forgiveness which we think will be practically useful to us and our agenda, will be spoken over us.

Instead, we are genuinely sorry. We really wish that we had not blundered in the way that we did blunder.

If we had it to do all over again, we would do things differently. We empty ourselves of all pride and self-justification when we seek the mercy of the one we have offended.

And this parable also makes it clear that the culture of forgiveness that Jesus calls for in his church, has its beginning and culmination in God: in repentance before God, for the sins we have committed against God; and in forgiveness from God that is intended to permeate us, and then flow out through us to others.

We are told that “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.”

“So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”

The king, or master, of course, represents God. God in his holiness is genuinely offended by humanity’s failure to live up to what we were created to be, and by humanity’s arrogant defiances against God’s standards of righteousness and goodness. God’s sentence of judgment in the parable is fair and just, according to what the unfaithful and negligent servant deserved.

God’s pardon in the parable, therefore, is an act of pure grace. The man did not deserve a second chance. God gave it to him because of who God was, and not because of anything in the man that had earned God’s favor.

And the forgiveness that the king - that is, God - spoke over the servant, had the power to penetrate him, and transform him. But the man in the story did not appreciate the forgiveness.

Ultimately he did not actually want it, even though he pretended that he did. He did not welcome the master’s words into his conscience.

In his love of self, and in his love of pleasure and comfort, he certainly did want to avoid the punishment that he knew he deserved. But there was no love in him for the merciful king and master who had been willing to forgive him, or for anyone else. And so this is what happened next:

“When that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. ...”

“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.”

When God’s words of forgiveness are spoken over you, those words not only heal the breach that your sin had opened up in your relationship with him, but they do also get inside of you, and at the deepest level heal you - and transform you.

If there has been no such transformation - no changing of the heart, no opening of the eyes, no humbling of the ego - then that means that those words did not get inside. They were blocked by unbelief.

You can’t trick God into forgiving you by reciting a prayer of confession that you don’t mean. He knows what is going on inside of you. And he knows what is not going on inside of you.

Some people refuse to repent, because they love their sins. And some people refuse to forgive, because they love and cultivate their desire for vengeance and for getting even.

They cling to their anger and resentment. They do not cling to the cross of Christ, where their freedom from such a bitter and destructive slavery of the heart was won for them.

God’s forgiveness supernaturally gives you the ability truly to forgive others. It slays your self-serving pride in yourself, and it quickens your self-giving love for others - including others who have hurt you.

And it does this over and over again, whenever you need to receive forgiveness from God and from other people. It does this over and over again, whenever other people need the comfort and peace of knowing that you forgive them - and whenever you need that comfort and peace for yourself, rather than the anger and resentment that otherwise eat away at you from the inside.

Whenever sin accumulates once again - on us, and on others - God vacuums that sin away once again, and makes everything clean once again. God gives us the faith and the love to vacuum that sin away: in our own repentance; and in our joyful forgiveness of others, as the natural and living fruit of that repentance.

Is there sin in your life right now that needs to be forgiven? How about the sin of not willingly forgiving those who have humiliated you, or insulted you, or betrayed you?

Jesus does soberly warn you, in the last sentence of today’s text: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” - that is, he will delivered you to the jailers, until you pay all your debt of pure righteousness and perfect obedience, unless you forgive your brother.

Do you forgive your brother - or your sister, your spouse or former spouse, your parent or your child, your friend or former friend, your neighbor, your coworker?”

And even if they have not asked for forgiveness, or have not yet asked for it, are you willing to forgive? Is there forgiveness for them in your heart, ready to be dispensed if and when they do seek it?

Do you pity them because of what they have done to themselves, rather than resenting them because of what they have done to you? Do you, in the name of Christ, forgive them, every time they sin against you - seventy times seven times?

Whenever you sense sin in your life - including also this lingering sin of not forgiving the sin of others, which may very well seem impossible to get rid of - know that Jesus himself does what he told Peter to do, and what he tells you to do.

Jesus does not forgive you only once. Jesus does not forgive you only seven times. Jesus forgives you seventy times seven times.

What this really means is that Jesus forgives you as often as you need forgiveness. He vacuums you off, and cleans you up, over and over again.

Ultimately, he calls and invites you to live in his forgiveness, every moment of every day - to let that forgiveness flow into you, and then to flow out of you, like a constant stream.

For as long as you live in this sinful world, and contribute toward its sinfulness with your own sins, you can never get too much forgiveness from Jesus. And he will never run out of it for you. His well of love and mercy toward his chosen ones, even with all of their weaknesses, is infinitely deep, and will never dry up.

It’s significant that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper and explicitly connected a specific spiritual blessing to that sacrament, as recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel, that blessing was the forgiveness of sins - for which his blood would be shed.

It’s significant that when the resurrected Jesus told his disciples what to proclaim to all nations, in St. Luke’s Gospel, he said that they should preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins.”

And it’s significant that when St. Peter introduced Christian Baptism to the crowd on Pentecost, as the Book of Acts reports it, he said: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

The forgiveness of sins permeates everything that Jesus did for you, and gives to you, so that the forgiveness of sins will permeate you and everything about you: Your standing with him and with his Father, who is also your Father; your own inner peace of mind; your sense of what he calls you to be and to do in this world; and all the relationships into which he places you according to your vocations.

God’s abundant and oft-repeated forgiveness in Christ does not diminish your sensitivity to how bad sin really is. It increases your sensitivity to how good reconciliation - with God and man - really is.

And God’s abundant and oft-repeated forgiveness in Christ keeps your Christian love - your Christian love for each other - alive and strong. We love because he first loved us. We forgive because he first forgave us.

This is why we confess our sins together every Sunday, and are assured of God’s forgiveness in Christ every Sunday.

This is why, when we are preparing to receive our Savior’s body and blood together every Sunday, we pray to him specifically as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world - remembering that the “taking away” of sin, or the sending away of sin, is what the forgiveness of sins means!

Redeemed, restored, forgiven, Through Jesus’ precious blood,
Heirs of His home in heaven, Oh, praise our pardoning God!
Praise Him in tuneful measures Who gave His Son to die;
Praise Him whose sevenfold treasures Enrich and sanctify.

Dear Master, Yours the glory Of each recovered soul.
Ah, who can tell the story Of love that made us whole?
Not ours, not ours the merit; To You alone the praise!
Give us a thankful spirit To serve You all our days. Amen.

24 September 2017 - Pentecost 16 - Isaiah 55:6-9

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

These words, which God himself spoke through the Prophet Isaiah, are often quoted by Christian teachers and apologists as they interact with people who are troubled or confused by things of a spiritual nature that they do not like, or that they cannot understand. Those confusions often involve situations where someone has a hard time accepting, and submitting to, some of the moral teachings of the Bible.

Our society is continually moving farther and father away from the ethical code that Jesus and the apostles taught as God’s unchanging standard for human attitudes and actions. It is, for example, increasingly difficult for people in our time to see marriage as a life-long union between a man and a woman, and as the only proper setting in which people are to engage in sexual intimacy.

The world in which we live embraces a culture of easy divorce, even for frivolous reasons. The world in which we live is thoroughly infected with a culture of fornication and sexual license. The world in which we live not only tolerates, but celebrates homosexuality and other kinds of unnatural relationships.

The New Testament is not in any way ambiguous in its teaching on these subjects, however. Jesus says:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

And St. Paul writes:

“Claiming to be wise, they became fools... Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie. ...”

“God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men.”

These standards, and these judgments, run contrary to contemporary opinions and modern attitudes. They don’t match the way people think today.

Of course, common sense and human reason would confirm that these standards and these judgments are valid. But people today do not base their morality on common sense and reason - let alone on divine revelation. Humanity, in its sinful condition, is, instead, foolish and irrational.

And so these standards - these unrealistic standards - and these judgments - these intolerant judgments - cannot be accepted. If there is a God, he certainly does not expect us, in our day and age, to live according to these backward notions.

That’s what the darkened mind and corrupted will of fallen humanity says. But that’s not what God says.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The confusion that often afflicts people, with respect to spiritual matters, also involves situations in which someone has a hard time reconciling a belief that God is good and powerful, with the presence of injustice and suffering in this world.

People who are more selfish, tend to question God’s goodness or power when they themselves, or close friends or family members, experience some kind of hardship or trial. People who are less selfish and more altruistic, tend to question God’s goodness or power on the basis of the hardships and trials that are endured by humanity as a whole.

But in either case, God is being put on trial and judged by frail and feeble mortals. And demands are, in effect, being made of God, that he either defend and justify his actions or inactions, or face the consequences.

And what often happens, is that when God seems not to have defended himself to the satisfaction of human arrogance, he is then punished by the withholding of faith - which, it is supposed, is something that God wants or needs from people. That’s where a lot of the so-called “new atheism” is coming from - not from a real conviction that there is no God, but from grievances against God.

Of course, God is very much aware of the injustice and suffering that are present in this world. God is not the source of evil, but he does allow it - just as he allows people to make bad decisions, without externally coercing their minds and wills.

People were not made to be mechanical, thoughtless creatures, but were created by God to be his image-bearers - that is, to be like him. And that is still what God wants - even though the human race has hurled itself into a state of hostility and enmity against its maker.

The presence of injustice and suffering in this world does not disprove the existence of God. Rather, it proves the existence of human sin. And it proves our need for the God who does most definitely exist.

This God - this loving and forgiving God - sent his only-begotten Son into the very jaws of injustice and suffering, in its severest form. And that Son - as he contemplated his impending crucifixion for the sins of the world - told his disciples:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

St. Paul also comforts us with these words:

“We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. ... If God is for us, who can be against us? ...”

“I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Our hardships and trials are not in any way evidence that God has abandoned us. Just the opposite is the case.

God, in the person of his Son, is with us in those hardships and trials, as the companion and protector of our souls. And as Jesus abides with us, he also tells us:

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

People who assume that God is a cosmic referee who should be expected always to make things go well for “good people” who have earned his favor, and to bring calamity only on “bad people” who have irked him, cannot understand why things in this world are the way they actually are.

But people should not expect to be able to understand this. And that’s because God himself tells us:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

These words can indeed be applied to situations in which people are rebelling against the morality of God, because they think their own morality is better; and to situations in which people are resenting God, because he is not behaving as they think a divine being should behave.

But in the original context of these words - as we find them in the Book of Isaiah - they are addressed to a different kind of human weakness, and to a different kind of human confusion. Listen to that larger context:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.”

Someone who is aware and ashamed of the failures of his life - as the voice of his conscience convicts him of those failures - cannot, according to his human wisdom, also know that God is willing to pardon those failures. That’s not the way things work in this world.

In this world, you reap what you sew. When you make your bed, you have to lie in it. If you do the crime, you have to do the time. What goes around, comes around.

It goes against everything we have ever experienced in the dog-eat-dog world in which we live, to think that God has opened a way of redemption and reconciliation for sinners like us.

But even though this contradicts everything we would assume, according to our human understanding, about our sin and its inevitable consequences - about our guilt and God’s inescapable wrath - God’s grace in Christ is real. Even though it is above our human way of thinking, God’s promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation - through the death and resurrection of his Son - is true.

We would never believe it, if God had not revealed it. But God has revealed it. And through the Prophet Ezekiel he announces:

“As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

St. Paul explains how it is possible for a holy God to be at peace with sinners like us, when he writes that “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

On the cross, our sins were placed upon Jesus, so that he could die for them, and fully atone for them on our behalf. Now, through the gift of the gospel, Jesus’ righteousness is placed upon us, so that in faith we are acceptable to God for Jesus’ sake, and look forward to living with him forever.

Paul also explains that “God our Savior...desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 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.”

And Jesus himself, directly and personally, issues this invitation to you - whoever you are, and whatever you have been: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Nothing can exclude you from this invitation - this invitation to turn away from your sin, and to be turned toward your risen Savior. You can be confident that the gospel is for you, because it is for everyone.

And if your conscience is telling you that your unrighteous life has made you unworthy of God’s love, then listen as well to what Jesus is telling you, when he says: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

So, do not invent your own morality, and your own rules for how you should act in this world. Do not invent your own theology, and your own rules for how God should act in this world.

And do not sink into despair, when you realize that God’s morality marks you as a transgressor, and that God’s holiness marks you as one who does not deserve his grace. In regard to all these things, remember what God tells you:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Be humbled by this. Be instructed by this. And be comforted by this. Return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on you, and to your God, for he will abundantly pardon. Amen.