2 September 2018 - Pentecost 15 - Mark 7:14-23

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Mark addresses the attitude of the Pharisees, and other Jews of Jesus’ time, toward the various foods that they would or would not eat. Even today, our Orthodox Jewish friends are very careful to make sure they eat only “kosher” food.

No pork. No shellfish. These are forbidden by the Mosaic law, and so they do not consume them.

Perhaps some of these Old Testament dietary regulations reflected valid health concerns. It is possible to get very sick with trichinosis if you do not cook your pork well. Maybe the cooking techniques available to the ancient Hebrews would have left them vulnerable to this disease, so that God told them to stay away from pork altogether, for safety’s sake.

What is more certain is that these dietary restrictions had a symbolic value, and a teaching function through their symbolism. These regulations pointed to a deeper issue - namely, to the kind of spiritual “food” that God’s people were to receive, and not to receive.

Just as the Israelites, in their bodily life, were not to partake of the “unclean” foods that God had prohibited, so too in their spiritual life, they were not to partake of the religious “uncleanness” of Egyptian or Canaanite idolatry. Rather, their faith was to be focused and fixed only on the promises and precepts of the Lord - who had redeemed them from slavery and established them as a nation - so that their hearts and souls would not be defiled and polluted by paganism.

That was what God was always really concerned about: not external conformity to the ceremonial law, but the repentance and faith of the heart. Remember the Lord’s grief-filled exclamation in last week’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah: “This people draw near with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

In this week’s text from St. Mark, Jesus is still dealing with this problem. And he is dealing especially with the false notion that a person is defiled or polluted, before God, by eating the wrong kind of food.

Jesus points out that real defilement is something more serious, and more frightening, than that. Listen again to what he says: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?”

St. Mark then adds this significant editorial note: “Thus he declared all foods clean.” This means that, according to Jesus, the dietary rules of the Old Testament were not an end in themselves.

They pointed to something else - something deeper. All food, in and of itself - insofar as it is simply food - will not hurt you spiritually or morally. The food that you put into your body, as such, will not defile you - not even a pork roast or a shrimp cocktail.

But this does not mean that you don’t have to be concerned about defilement coming from another source. As Jesus goes on to explain, you do need to think very seriously and soberly about the true source of defilement in your life. He says:

“What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

There is a popular theory in modern psychology that each person at birth is, as it were, a “blank slate.” According to this theory, there is no inborn inclination toward sin or destructive behaviors. Everyone at birth is morally neutral.

What causes some to veer off into anti-social or criminal behavior, are the external influences that are brought to bear on them as they are growing up. But, if human nature is kept under the right kind of external educational and moral influences - especially in the earlier years of life - human nature is perfectible. Or so it is thought.

This theory stands behind many of the tactics employed by defense attorneys in today’s criminal justice system. The lawyers for people who are charged with committing crimes come up with all kinds of reasons why their clients are not ultimately responsible for their actions.

The way they were raised, or the experiences they had in childhood, made them the way they are. They, too, are victims - victims of a bad upbringing - and are not therefore responsible for the crimes they have committed.

There is, of course, some truth to the observation that people are often adversely affected by negative environmental factors, in their own moral development. For example, studies have shown that most criminals grew up without a father or a father figure in their lives.

To a degree, there is a cause-and-effect relationship there. But at the same time, most people who grow up without a father or a father figure do not become criminals.

A man’s moral behavior is not absolutely determined by the external circumstances of his upbringing. The moral decisions that he makes in life, and his attitude toward others and toward himself, are shaped by forces and influences that rise up from within him.

The Biblical doctrine of original sin is not popular today. People usually have an inaccurately high view of their own capacity for goodness, and they generally resent the suggestion that they are not completely free moral agents.

But Jesus - together with the prophets who came before him, and the apostles who came after him - disagrees.

Jeremiah 17: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Psalm 51: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Romans 5: “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned...”

Ephesians 2: “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

The Augsburg Confession ties all of this up in these words:

“since Adam’s fall into sin, all men who are fathered in the normal physical way are conceived and born with sin. This means that they are born without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with evil desires. This disease, or original sin, truly is sin. It condemns and brings eternal death to those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”

That’s what Jesus was talking about when he said that the defilement of the human race - the defilement of each individual person - comes from within.

To be sure, we do come into this world as creatures of God. And everything that God has made is good, because God is not the source or creator of evil.

Hence the human race - of which we are a part - was and is a good creation of God. But this good creation of God was corrupted by Adam’s sin. And this corruption has been passed down to all Adam’s descendants.

We were in Adam, and Adam is in us. Therefore, we come into this world not only as creatures of God, but also as rebels against God.

Fallen humanity is, by nature, separated and alienated from God. In this inborn state of separation and alienation, we turn on each other. And we turn on ourselves.

As far as our sinful nature is concerned, we defile ourselves and pollute ourselves with a compulsive yearning for that which is wrong and harmful, and with a pathological aversion to that which is right and beneficial.

The conscience of man - even in man’s natural, fallen state - retains a remnant of the knowledge of God’s original loving will for humanity, and it still tells us that these sinful thoughts and desires are wrong. But we have and entertain these thoughts and desires anyway - even against the voice of our conscience. And that makes our guilt even worse.

Even when people are able to contain these inner impulses, and to conform their public behavior to acceptable standards of civility and social decency, those destructive impulses are still there, hidden beneath the surface. And they are ready to be triggered into a full-blown explosion of pain and misery, in a time of weakness, temptation, or provocation.

Reason and self-discipline can indeed often suppress these impulses - at least as far as their outward manifestation is concerned. But the pure thoughts and honorable motives that are supposed to govern our minds and hearts are much more difficult to maintain.

By human effort, it is possible to act like a different person on the outside, than we really are on the inside. But by human effort, it is not possible - on the inside - to be a different person than we really are. By the use of reason and self-discipline we can never eradicate the impulses toward sin that lurk within our fallen natures.

Maybe those impulses can be channeled into less destructive expressions. Mouthing off at someone is, I suppose, less destructive than hauling off and belting someone. But that doesn’t make mouthing off a good thing.

Both the act of yelling at other people, and the act of using violence against other people, will defile and pollute you. And the pride, anger, and disrespect that are behind all of it, have already defiled your mind, and polluted your soul.

This defilement wells up from within you. It is, in a sense, a part of you. You came into the world with it. You have never been without this corruption.

And you’re not going to get ride of this defilement by changing your diet and going kosher. You’re also not going to get rid of it by resolving, in your own strength, to improve yourself.

The only solution to this problem - the only solution - is for God himself, the creator, to re-create you in the image of his Son Jesus Christ. The only way to be cleansed of this inborn defilement, is for the blood of Jesus - which was shed on the cross for you - to wash it away in forgiveness.

The only way for your sinful mind to be purged of the destructive and selfish thoughts that infect it, is for the Holy Spirit to put the mind of Christ in you instead.

These miraculous divine operations - these divine gifts - are what King David is praying for in today’s Introit, from Psalm 51. These are the things that you, too, are to pray for - that you absolutely must pray for.

And as we speak or sing the words of this Psalm, we can do so with complete confidence that God will, without any doubt, answer this prayer. When we call out to him in repentance and faith, he will grant us what we seek.

If he sent his Son to the cross to redeem us and to give us a new standing before him - and he did do this - he will also send his Son to us now, through the preaching of the gospel, to give us a new heart and a new will; new desires and aspirations, new commitments and values, new ways of acting and reacting.

Silently join me now, in once again praying these words, in the name of Christ; to a loving Father in heaven who has promised to hear us, and to do as we ask, for the sake of Christ:

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! ... Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. ...”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

For as long as you live on this earth, the old nature - together with the defiling thoughts and actions that flow from it - will still cling to you. And so, never let your guard down.

Practically speaking - with the Lord’s help and guidance - you can, more often than not, keep yourself from tempting situations where those destructive impulses will have an opportunity to leap into action, and cause overt harm to you and others.

And don’t rationalize and justify your small sins, and thereby make way for larger sins. Slam the door on temptation when it tries to sneak in, by remembering in faith the words of Psalm 51 once again; and by praying the words of Psalm 51 once again.

Expect God to help you in your moment of weakness. He will!

And remember, too, that God in Christ has created a new and clean heart within you. You do not have only the old sinful nature, with which you came into the world.

You now also have a new, Christlike nature - new and undefiled - instilled in you by God’s Word and Spirit in Holy Baptism; and sustained in you by God’s Word and Spirit in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

This new nature is united to Christ, and through the new nature Christ himself lives and works in you. And this new nature is taking your life in a totally different direction.

This nature - this clean and undefiled nature - is who you are now, in Christ. And as you cling to Christ - to his promises of grace and righteousness - this is who you will remain.

Jesus said: “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.”

When these things do arise in you, and spill over into your thoughts, words, and deeds, turn immediately to the Lord with a contrite heart, and implore his forgiveness. For the sake of Christ, and for the sake of the perfect life that Christ lived in your place, God will forgive, and God will cleanse. And then be who you really are once again.

From your new nature - and from Jesus Christ in you new nature - will come forth the opposite of these defiling and polluting things: honorable thoughts, chastity, respect for the property and life of others, marital faithfulness, contentment with your circumstances, goodness, honesty, acting on the basis of conviction, rejoicing in the blessings of others, defending the reputations of others, humility, and wisdom.

These are the fruits of a clean and undefiled heart. These are the fruits of Christ in your life.

When God gives you Christ, he gives you the character of Christ. And when God gives you the character of Christ, he causes you to grow into that character, and more and more to reflect that character in your own thoughts, words, and deeds.

St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself...”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Amen.

9 September 2018 - Pentecost 16 - James 2:1-10, 14-18

Your Christian faith is beneficial in two important ways. It is beneficial to you, because of what it receives. And it is beneficial to your neighbor, because of what it gives.

The law of God is a reflection of God’s own holiness. It conveys to us God’s expectations of us. And there is no compromise in those expectations.

Today’s text from the Epistle of St. James makes that clear: “For whoever keeps the whole law, but fails in one point, has become accountable for all of it.” And we human beings do often fail - not just in one point of the law, but in many.

Indeed, we fail in all points of the law, in that our love for God and for our neighbor is never as strong and selfless as it should be. Our obedience of the Ten Commandments is never as pure and complete as it should be. King David gives us the bad news in Psalm 53:

“God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”

And that’s why St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans, that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The divine law tests and measures the thoughts, words, and deeds of all of us, and finds those thoughts, words, and deed lacking. The divine law finds all of us lacking.

But there is also good news for the children of man. There is a way for each of us to be accounted as righteous, and to be at peace with God. This is the way of faith - faith in Christ, and in his saving work.

St. Paul writes elsewhere in his Epistle to the Romans that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Paul also asks the Galatians this rhetorical question: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” The implied answer is clear. The gift of the Holy Spirit - who always brings Christ and his benefits - is received, by hearing, with faith.

Jesus obeyed God’s law faithfully and completely. The law therefore does not accuse him - as it does us - but instead it vindicates him, and declares his life to be good, and acceptable and pleasing to God.

When the message of Christ crucified for sinners, and of God’s forgiveness in Christ, is proclaimed to you in the gospel, Jesus’ righteousness is thereby preached upon you.

As you repent of your disobedience of the law, and as you in faith acknowledge Christ and his obedience, that faith receives Christ. And it receives his obedience, his holiness, and his goodness - which are all now credited to your faith - and to you by faith.

The reason why faith is able to receive all this from God, in his Son, is because faith is a God-given confidence that what God says is true. God gives us all these things through his word of promise, which is announced to us.

A saving faith does not merely believe in God - that is, in his existence, and in the historicity of his actions. The demons, who hate God, have that kind of “faith.” They know that God is real - and is a real threat to them!

But a saving faith believes God. When God tells you something, you accept it as true. When God tells you that he forgives you, and is at peace with you, because of everything that Jesus has accomplished for you, you can believe that.

God never lies. His gospel is therefore not a lie. It can be believed, and accepted as true, by everyone who hears it.

Your faith - as it clings to Christ, trusts in Christ, and receives Christ - is indeed beneficial to you. As St. Paul writes to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

But your faith is also beneficial to your neighbor - although in a different way, and for a different reason. Hence the totality of Paul’s thought in his Epistle to the Ephesians is this:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

A faith that receives Christ, is a faith that is filled with the love and life of Christ. A faith that embraces the saving work that Jesus performed for our eternal benefit, is a faith that then performs its own works of love, for the earthly benefit of our neighbor in need.

A faith that is attached to Christ at one end, can never be barren and unfruitful at the other end. A so-called “faith” that is barren and unfruitful, is thereby shown to be a merely intellectual faith, and a false and presumptuous faith - not genuinely attached to Christ and his promises.

Such a faith is the faith of the old sinful nature. It is aware of God’s existence, but does not yearn to be filled with the grace of God, and does not desire to be led by the Spirit of God.

Such a faith, which is no true faith at all, is not the faith of the new man in Christ. It is the faith of demons.

And it is useless - both to you and to your neighbor. To the Romans, Paul writes that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”

In today’s text, St. James prompts all of us to examine ourselves, and to consider whether we do in fact believe the gospel, and really are God’s children through faith. He writes:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

So far St. James.

As far as the basis for your relationship with God is concerned, faith gives nothing. It is not a matter of “giving your heart to Jesus.” It is, rather, a matter of receiving the “heart” of Jesus - receiving from him his love, his grace, his pardon, his renewal.

But as far as your relationship with your neighbor is concerned, faith is always giving. The gospel has set you free from the deception that your good works serve you, by earning God’s favor. God’s favor toward you has been earned in full by Christ!

Good works, therefore - inspired by the Spirit of Christ, and guided by your faith in the Word of Christ - serve your neighbor. And don’t set your sights for who your neighbor is, too low.

The girls and women who are pregnant and frightened, and who are counseled and supported through the Alpha Center in Phoenix, are our neighbors. The orphans in India, and their impoverished pastors, are our neighbors.

The men in Kenya who dream of being pastors someday, but who struggle to come up with the funds they need to be able to attend seminary classes, are our neighbors. Even if your own hands cannot physically serve these needy brothers and sisters - and others like them - from a distance, your gifts can sustain those whose hands do serve them.

You do not use your neighbor, and his need, to earn a place for yourself in heaven. You love and serve your neighbor unselfishly, because you already have a place in heaven - by the mercy of God, because Jesus died and rose again for you.

The Formula of Concord - quoting Martin Luther - summarizes this principle very powerfully:

“ a divine work in us that changes us and makes us to be born anew of God. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly.”

“It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. ...”

“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace... This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all creatures.”

“And this is the work that the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.”

End quote.

The righteousness of Christ, which we receive by faith, and which makes us acceptable to God, is a perfect righteousness. It falls short in no respect, and therefore does not require - or allow - supplementation from us.

The righteousness of our Christian love, which flows out from our faith to other people, is, however, not perfect. To be sure, Christ, who is the object of our faith, does not waver. But our faith, such as it is, does often waver.

And the wavering weakness of our faith guarantees that there will be weaknesses and shortcomings also in the fruits of our faith - that is, in the works of service that we perform for others.

Our good works are never as good as they could be. There is always room for improvement in all our flawed human efforts. Even the best of intentions are not free from mixed motives.

The plea of the tax collector in the temple, in St. Luke’s Gospel, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” is, in truth, the constant refrain of all Christians: even the best of Christians; especially the best of Christians.

Now, if you think that perhaps you don’t have a true faith at all - or if you are not sure - look outside of yourself, in repentance and hope, to the giver of faith, as he speaks to you in his Word. When you join the man in St. Mark’s Gospel in calling out to the Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief!”, the Lord will always answer that prayer. He will always help.

St. John’s admonition from the law, and St. John’s gospel promise - in his First Epistle - are addressed to all of us. He writes:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

So far the apostle.

If the gospel of Christ is prompting and energizing the works that a Christian performs as the fruit of his faith - even when they are weak works, and are the fruit of a weak faith - then the gospel of Christ is also ennobling these works, imperfect though they may be in themselves.

They are beneficial to our neighbor in need. And under the forgiving patience of Christ, and under the justification of Christ, these works glorify and please our Father in heaven.

God helps you, in all your needs, by means of faith. God satisfies your deepest personal need - the need for reconciliation with him, for forgiveness of sins, and for eternal life - by giving you Christ, his Son and your Savior, whom your own faith receives.

And God helps you endure the difficulties and trials that you experience in this world, also by means of faith - that is, by means of the faith of others: the Christian brothers and sisters whom he brings into your life. Their faith bears its Christlike fruit in works of love that are directed toward you, in your need.

At such times, you are not a burden on your Christian friends. They rejoice in the opportunities that God gives them to show forth the love of Christ, and to provide you with companionship, encouragement, and material help as necessary.

And when you are in a position to help others in the same way, that’s what you also do - joyfully, and with thanksgiving to God for all the mercies he has bestowed upon you.

Truly, your Christian faith is beneficial in two important ways. It is beneficial to you, because of what it receives. And it is beneficial to your neighbor, because of what it gives. Amen.

16 September 2018 - Pentecost 17 - James 3:1-12

“Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

With these words from his Epistle, St. James brings to bear upon all of us, a very direct and very probing application of the Eighth Commandment. He reminds us of how much damage we do to people, and to our relationships with people, through the harmful words that we say.

Human beings are creatures of language. We do not communicate with each other by means of grunts and groans, but in words - words that are able to convey all the detail and intricacies of the thoughts that we want to share with others.

A lot of good can be done with our words. We can use our words to plan together, and work together, for the accomplishing of great projects.

We can use our words to create works of literature that inspire and entertain. We can use our words to establish and strengthen important personal relationships - such as with that special life-partner, through the things that we say over candlelight or on bended knee.

But in the same way as much good can be done with words, so too can much harm be done with words. I don’t know if kids still say this, but when I was a boy it used to be said: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

And yet, as St. James reminds us, that is not really true. To be sure, unkind and insulting words, in themselves, cannot hurt people in a physical way. But they can hurt.

And the pain that our hurtful words cause to others, is worse, when the people to whom we speak those words are the people who are closest to us, and who depend on us and trust us the most.

If a total stranger tells me that I am stupid, or incompetent, it won’t bother me that much. But if someone whom I had considered to be a close friend says something like that to me, it will hurt.

People are usually more reserved in public, or with people they don’t know very well. They won’t say everything that is on their minds. They keep their thoughts to themselves.

But behind the closed doors of our households, or within a close circle of friends, we let our guard down, and are less inhibited. In such settings, we are much more prone to say what we think, when we think it.

And if we are thinking angry and insulting thoughts in the midst of an argument or disagreement - with husband or wife, with parents or children, with siblings or friends - then we often blurt out those angry and insulting thoughts, in the form of angry and insulting words.

Our sharp tongue cuts deeply into the feelings of those whom we are in this way wounding with our words. But this, we should not do.

The eighth commandment directs us not to bear false witness. This means, most obviously, that we should tell the truth, and not tell lies. But we are also breaking this commandment when we tell the truth to the wrong person, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons.

As you would consider the harm that your tongue can cause to others, and the damage that it can do to your relationship with others, there are some practical things that you should consider before you open your mouth. As you reflect on the words that you are about to say, especially in an emotionally-charged situation, ask yourself these questions:

Are these words an expression of what is actually true, or are they a deliberate exaggeration or overstatement that I do not really believe? If these words do express the truth, will my speaking them here and now serve any constructive and godly purpose?

If I decide that I do need to speak these words, am I going to say them in a loving way, motivated by a desire for a positive outcome in the life of the person to whom I am speaking? Or am I going to be using these words as an attack - or counterattack - in an ongoing, unhealthy battle of words: motivated by my pride, or by a desire to punish the other person with my weaponized words?

Now, this does not mean that we should never speak hard and critical words. If someone is clearly in the wrong, and if you have the responsibility to address this, you should express your disagreement.

You should confront and rebuke someone who genuinely needs to be confronted and rebuked. If you care about a person who is doing or saying something that is clearly wrong - perhaps getting mixed up in criminal behavior, entering into an unwholesome relationship, or insulting and bullying another individual - you will warn him or her about the impropriety and dangerous consequences of these actions or words.

But there is a difference between this, and verbally kicking someone when he is already down. If someone has admitted that he was in the wrong, and is trying now to make amends for previous mistakes, you should not dredge up these embarrassing things from the past, but should offer positive encouragement toward personal improvement in the future.

We have all done a lot of harm with our tongues. Slandering others is one of the easiest sins to commit. And it is also one of the most harmful sins that we can commit - often harming many people, not just one.

As St. James also writes: “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

In some religions, the leaders, priests, or shamans of the religion are responsible primarily for the performance of rituals and the casting of spells. But God’s revealed religion - the Christian religion - is not like that.

The faith that has been revealed to us, and into which we have been baptized, is a religion that focuses on teaching - the teaching of God’s Word in the Scriptures; and the teaching that is carried out by our pastors and preachers, who are called to explain and apply God’s Word to us.

It is important for the church to make sure that the instruction it receives from its leaders is accurate, and faithful to the divine revelation. That’s why St. James tells us: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

And so, we do not have many teachers. But by the grace of God, we do have as many teachers as we need. We do have pastors in our congregations, who teach God’s Word to us.

And it is especially important for you to remember today, that you have a pastor or teacher, who is able to speak the healing words of the gospel to you, when you have been brought to a conviction in your conscience in regard to all the damaging words that you have spoken to others.

The teaching of the gospel is not just a matter of correct religious information that is accumulated in the human mind. This teaching gets very personal, very fast. St. Luke reports that Jesus said this to his disciples after his resurrection:

These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. ... Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name.”

In accordance with this commission of his Lord, St. James, in his Epistle, proclaims to all of Christendom the need for repentance. Through the words of today’s text, James, as a faithful teacher of God’s law, has proclaimed repentance to you, today, in Jesus’ name.

His warnings and accusations about our misusing of our tongues to tear others down, rather that to build others up, has hit home with all of us. He has exposed our sins.

As we are now repenting of these failings, we are also resolving that with God’s help we will do better in the future, and bear the proper fruits of repentance. With God’s help, we are committing ourselves even now to maintaining more control over our tongues, as we move forward in our relationships with those whom we have wounded with our words.

We are being prompted by God’s Spirit to think, even now, of the specific people to whom we owe apologies, for unkind things we have said to them in the past. If one of the persons to whom we owe such an apology is sitting next to us in the pew today - a husband or wife, a child or parent - perhaps we will whisper that necessary apology to him or her right here, before we go together to the Lord’s altar, today.

And in accordance with the commission of my Lord, I as your teacher also proclaim the forgiveness of sins to you, in Jesus’ name. In the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, God has put away your sin.

On one occasion, St. Peter said to our Savior: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Jesus never sinned with his tongue.

When he rebuked and declared God’s judgment to the impenitent and the unbelieving, it was because those to whom he spoke needed to hear what he said. When he spoke the words of eternal life to those who had been humbled before God, their sins were washed away by the power of those words, and they became heirs of heaven.

Jesus’ words of eternal life are proclaimed now to you - in absolution and preaching, and in the Words of Institution of his Holy Supper. And as they are spoken, they pardon you, and cleanse you, and cover you with your Savior’s righteousness.

In Christ, who lived for you, you are acquitted and declared to be “not guilty” before God. In Christ, who shed his blood for you, you are cleansed before God. In Christ, who was vindicated and justified for you in his resurrection, you are righteous before God - and spiritually alive in God.

Jesus’ words of eternal life - his words of reconciliation and renewal - are spoken to Christians by their called teachers, in the stead and by the command of the Lord. But in non-public and non-official ways, Jesus’ words of eternal life can and should be spoken also by ordinary Christians to each other.

Just think of what a difference it would make, if on those occasions when you might otherwise be tempted to speak cruel “retaliatory” words of death to someone close to you, you now speak words of life and hope from Christ instead.

Just imagine what it would be like, if instead of always or often using your words to remind others of their shortcomings and failures, you use your words to remind them of the never-failing mercy and love of God in Christ, and to assure them that their sins are forgiven.

St. James says that the tongue, when it is untamed and misused, is full of deadly poison. But the tongue of a Christian, when used properly in Christ’s name and for Christ’s purposes, is full of life-giving medicine: a medicine that heals relationships, rather than severing and destroying them; a medicine that heals hearts, rather than crushing and breaking them.

Oh, let me never speak What bounds of truth exceedeth;
Grant that no idle word From out my mouth proceedeth;
And then, when, in my place, I must and ought to speak,
My words grant power and grace, Lest I offend the weak. Amen.

23 September 2018 - Pentecost 18 - Psalm 37:4-7

The first line in today’s Introit, from the fourth verse of Psalm 37, says this: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Now, this isn’t referring to the various mundane desires that we might have in the course of a day. For example, when I get up in the morning, I “desire” a cup of coffee.

But my desire for a cup of coffee in the morning is not one of the “desires of my heart.” That more weighty phrase refers to the deep and serious goals and aspirations of my life, which are important components of my understanding of who I am as a person, and of what my purpose in this world is.

What are the desires of your heart? What are your fundamental goals, aspirations, and wishes?

For some people, the desires of their heart - their twisted and perverse heart - are godless and wicked things. Those who live to exploit others, or to steal from others, will not spend much time thinking about God, or about how God might help them in fulfilling their self-defined purpose in life.

But I’d like to think that most people are able to rise above such degrading and animalistic impulses, and to orient their lives toward more noble and worthy things. And when the goals of your life are not overtly evil or sinful, then you probably would consider how you might be able to get God to give you “the desires of your heart.”

At different stages of life, the desires of your heart may be different. Teenagers often consider it to be very important to be popular and well-liked among their peers.

And so, almost everything they do is oriented toward that goal. The way they dress, the activities in which they engage, and the kind of music to which they listen, are all calculated to help them “fit in” with the “cool” kids, whose approval and acceptance they seek. That is a desire of their hearts.

College students have largely grown out of this compelling need to be accepted by the group, and may instead be pursuing their individual dreams. The ones who are serious about their future will probably put a high value on good grades.

They know that this is the key to being able to get a lucrative job after graduation. That is a desire of their hearts.

People who are married and raising children have likely moved on to a different set of life-goals. What they live for is probably oriented around their family.

Their aspirations would now include things like wanting to provide for their children. More often than not, a wish for material prosperity and financial success is connected to this, with the thought that the things children need, are things that their parents can and should buy for them. So, for parents, that is a desire of their hearts.

And for those who are aging, and who are on the downward slope of life in this world, yet another set of wishes will probably begin to emerge. Older people tend to think, more than others, about their bodily health.

They want to remain physically strong and healthy for as long as possible. Their heart is set on staying independent, and not becoming infirm so that they would be a burden on others. That is a desire of their hearts.

Wherever you may see yourself on this time-line, and whatever the “desires of your heart” may be at this particular stage of your life, you would probably be pleased to think that God wants to be involved in helping you to achieve those wishes and dreams. God is almighty.

He is in control of everything. Wouldn’t it be great if God could be persuaded to pull the strings of human affairs, and to intervene in your life circumstances, in such a way as to bring about the things that you want to happen, in fulfillment of your goals?

So, we are very interested in what the Psalmist says to us today. “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

O.K. If delighting myself in the Lord is what I need to do, to get what I want, then delighting myself in the Lord is what I will do! But what does that mean?

What is “delighting” in the Lord? Is it a religious technique, or a method of praying or church attendance, by which we impress God and win him over? It is not!

The Hebrew word that stands behind the English phrase “delight yourself” has an interesting literal meaning. It means to be “soft” or “pliable.”

So, a precisely literal translation would go like this: “Be soft or pliable in regard to the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” That sheds a different light on this whole matter.

“Delighting in the Lord” is not something we do as part of a predetermined agenda to get what we want in life. It is a softening toward God; a surrendering to God’s will; a submission to the influence of God.

So, when you “delight yourself in the Lord” as you look to the future, the wishes or goals that you start out with, may not be the ones that you end up with. If your heart is pliable as far as God’s influence is concerned, then the desires of your heart may very well be altered and transformed by God.

Your priorities, and the things that are most important to you, may undergo a reformation and a reshaping. Or perhaps the things that you wish for will remain, but God will give you a deeper understanding of what the fulfillment of these wishes would really mean for you as a Christian.

So, a Christian teenager may still have a deep desire to “fit in” and be accepted by others. But the circle of friends that she seeks out will now be friends who share her beliefs and values, and whose influence will be a positive force for good in her life.

A Christian college student will still be eager to get good grades, to be able to get a good job after graduation. But he will not forget the spiritual education that he also needs to have in this formative period, so that the Lord’s house will not be a strange or unfamiliar place during his college years.

And as he considers what kind of job he someday wants to have, he will ponder this in terms of discerning what his unique vocation from God might be - in light of the gifts and abilities that God has given him - and not just in terms of what kind of job brings in the most money.

A Christian who has gotten married and started a family, and who is concerned about raising children, will remember that the highest calling of a parent is to train up a child in the way that he should go, according to God’s Word; and that God’s Word is to have pride of place in the home, not only on Sunday, but on every day of the week.

In Psalm 78, we are told that the Lord “established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children: that the next generation might know them - the children yet unborn - and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.”

Older Christians will still be concerned about their health. After all, our bodily life is a gift of God, and it is to be treasured and valued in gratitude toward God. But as the desires of their heart are molded and shaped by the Lord, a concern for spiritual health and well-being will be more important.

Life in this world cannot become an idol, which we value above all other things. We should certainly not hasten death unnecessarily by foolhardy antics or dangerous habits. But when death does come, we who know the risen Christ by faith, likewise know that eternal life in Christ is on the other side of death.

Indeed, for people of all ages and stages of life, our hope in Christ is, and must be, the chief desire of our hearts. And that causes us to think more carefully about what it truly does mean to “delight” in the Lord.

Again, the first line in today’s Introit, from the fourth verse of Psalm 37, says this: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

And the second line in the Introit - from the very next verse in that Psalm - adds this explanation: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.”

We are delighting ourselves in the Lord whenever we put our trust in the promises of the Lord. We are softened toward the Lord whenever we listen to his Word, meditate on his Word, and believe his Word: in public worship at church, or in private devotions at home.

We become pliable to the influence of the Lord, whenever we pay devout attention to the preaching of the gospel, and partake with reverence of the body and blood of Christ in his Holy Supper.

Indeed, at the deepest level, our delighting in the Lord is a gift from the Lord, worked in us by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace - which create the very faith that they call for.

For “the gospel... is the power of God for salvation, to everyone who believes,” as the Epistle to the Romans states. And “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” as the Epistle to the Philippians states.

In his law, the Lord sends his Spirit to convict us, and to work in us repentance of our sins - that is, a humble admission that we have been wrongfully “delighting” in our own ambitions, and not in him. But then, in Word and Sacrament, the Lord sends us his own beloved Son, whose forgiveness “softens us up” as far as God, and openness to God, are concerned.

For us and for our benefit, Jesus always believed, and conformed himself to, those words of the Psalmist: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

By his perfect life of love and service, Jesus genuinely and consistently “delighted” in the Lord. He complied with the will of his Father in heaven, and fulfilled the Messianic mission on earth that God the Father had entrusted to him. And God the Father gave Jesus the desire of his heart.

The desire of Christ’s heart was and is that you and I would be saved from our sins - and from all the pain and grief that sin brings. In fulfilment of the will of his Father, Jesus endured much suffering, and an agonizing death on the cross as our substitute under the judgment of the divine law, so that this driving desire of his would be fulfilled.

Everything that Jesus did and allowed to be done during his earthly ministry, he did and allowed with the fulfilment of this wish in view. Your salvation, and your reconciliation with God, was the goal of his life on earth.

And everything he does now - as he governs the world in resurrected glory from the right hand of the Father - he does, so that the mission of his church can be fulfilled among us today, and so that this desire of Jesus’ heart can be fulfilled among us today.

He is the one who is speaking to you here and now, in his Word. He is forgiving your sins, and is causing you to be at peace with God.

He is inviting you to be softened toward the Lord: so that he can teach you what your deepest goals and wishes in life should actually be; so that he can instill in you a godly desire for those things; and so that he can then grant these goals and wishes to you.

With high delight Let us unite In songs of sweet jubilation.
You pure in heart, Each take your part, Sing Jesus Christ, our salvation.
To set us free Forever, he Is ris’n and sends To all earth’s ends
Good news to save every nation.

Let praises ring; Give thanks, and bring To Christ our Lord adoration.
His honor speed By word and deed To every land, every nation.
So shall his love Give us above, From mis-e-ry And death set free,
All joy and full consolation.

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Amen.

30 September 2018 - Pentecost 19 - Mark 9:38-50

When someone warns you of danger, and tells you how to avoid that danger, do you listen? I suppose your answer would depend on who it is who is giving the warning, and whether or not you consider that person to be believable.

Some people are alarmists. They are almost always afraid of some impending catastrophe. But their fears are usually unfounded. They tend to exaggerate the level of danger that really exists.

Therefore, when someone whom you perceive to be an alarmist is warning you of danger, you probably won’t heed that particular warning. You will ignore it, and go about your business as usual.

At other times, though, you may get a warning of impending danger from a person whom you recognize to be reliable, and who is in a position to know what he is talking about. On such occasions, you would be inclined to heed such a warning, and to take it seriously.

But in such a case - when you believe that there really is something dangerous to be concerned about - it is important also to continue to listen to the person who is warning you of the danger, in order to find out from him what you need to do to avoid the danger.

And so, for example, if a wildfire or a flood is bearing down on your house, and the authorities inform you of this, your first reaction would be to believe what they are telling you, because it is coming from a reliable and trustworthy source. But the second reaction - immediately following the first one - would be to find out what you need to do, and where you need to go, in order to avoid being engulfed by the wildfire or the flood.

You will not be saved from a massive conflagration by staying at home and fighting it with your garden hose. You will not be saved from a massive deluge by staying at home and putting on a pair of waders. You need to evacuate.

On your own you cannot fight something like this. You do not have the ability or the resources to do so. If you try anyway, without considering the level of danger you are really in, the wildfire or the flood will swallow you up and destroy you.

So, when the proper officials tell you that danger is at hand, believe what they say. And when they tell you how to avoid that danger, follow their directions.

What are your reactions to the words of warning that Jesus speaks to you in today’s text, from St. Mark, about the danger of damnation? He speaks very starkly and very alarmingly about hell, as a very real possible destination for those who do not heed his warnings.

He also describes it in some frightening ways. According to Jesus, having a great millstone hung around your neck and being thrown into the sea, would be a far better fate and a less hopeless fate than the fate of those who are cast into the outer darkness of hell.

The word that Jesus actually used - “Gehenna,” which is rendered in English as “hell” - would have conjured up in the minds of his original listeners the thought of an ever-burning pile of stinking, rotting garbage. This imagery of what damnation is like was then accentuated by the other things Jesus said on this occasion: about the “unquenchable fire” of hell, and about hell as a situation “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”

At the deepest level, of course, the agonies of the damned are not simply in the realm of physical suffering. St. Paul speaks of the character of hell in a less figurative way in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. He writes there that the damned “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

And so, even if we conclude that Jesus is speaking metaphorically in his description of what it is like for a soul to be “away from the presence of the Lord,” and to be separated from the glory of God’s might in the next world, that doesn’t minimize the spiritual horror of what such an existence will be like.

But are you listening to these warnings? Do you take Jesus seriously when he speaks of these matters?

Or do you react to his warnings of this spiritual danger in the same way you would react to the warnings of someone whom you consider to be an unreliable alarmist, by ignoring him?

A belief in hell is not popular today. The main reason why people don’t believe in it, is because they don’t want to believe in it.

“I could never believe in a God who would condemn people to hell,” is often said. But what if the only God who really exists is willing to do this - or more precisely, is willing to allow people to condemn themselves through their own hardness of heart, pride, and rebellion?

God’s Word testifies to the reality of a hellish state of existence - a separation from presence of the Lord - as the eternal fate of those who, in their interior life, are separated from the presence of the Lord, even now; and who think, speak, and act accordingly, in this world, even now.

Dear friends: preaching about hell, and about the possibility of damnation for the souls of the wicked and unbelieving, is something I don’t enjoy doing. You probably notice that I don’t mention it in too many of my sermons.

I don’t enjoy personally believing in this, either. It is not a truth that I deeply relish, or that I embrace eagerly. But as your pastor, I am not called to preach only about the things I enjoy believing. I am called to preach “the whole counsel of God.”

For the sake of your spiritual life and full religious understanding - and for the sake of my own as well - I am called to preach about everything the Bible teaches to be so, even those things that you and I might struggle to accept.

And therefore today, I am telling you - and reminding myself - that if Jesus Christ says that damnation is a real possibility for human beings, then damnation is a real possibility for human beings!

He knows what he is talking about. He is not an irrational alarmist. He is to be believed.

There are, or course, many people who will refuse to believe this. It doesn’t matter that Jesus says it. They don’t want it to be so, and therefore, in their minds, it is not so.

There are probably some people in the path of a wildfire or a flood who also decide to believe what they wish would be true, and not what the authorities have told them actually is true. They, too, are quite convinced - in their own minds - that they are not actually in danger, and don’t need to evacuate: right up to the moment that they are consumed or washed away.

But once you realize that Jesus is to be believed when he warns you of the possibility of damnation, you then need to continue to listen to him. Don’t immediately start trying to figure out in your own mind how this real danger might be avoided.

Heed what Jesus says: not just about the reality of this threat, but also about the way to be delivered from this threat.

Many in this world do recognize the existence of hell. And when the time of their passing from this world comes, they want to avoid hell. But the methods by which a large number of these people think they can avoid hell will not work.

They try to avoid doing evil deeds, and they try to perform a greater number of good deeds. Their assumption is that on judgment day, their lives will be weighed in a giant set of scales.

All their bad deeds will be “piled up” in the pan on one side, and all their good deeds will be “piled up” in the pan on the other side. And then God will step back to see which pan goes up, and which pan goes down.

If their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds, then - it is thought - they will be admitted into heaven. But if the pan that is loaded down with their wicked and evil actions sinks lower than the other pan, they will be damned.

This kind of superficial expectation of what judgment day will be like is a figment of fallen humanity’s imagination. It severely underestimates the depth and seriousness of human sin; and it severely underestimates the depth and seriousness of God’s demand for, and expectation of, human holiness.

It is definitely not the way of avoiding damnation that Jesus presents to us. Listen again to what he says in today’s Gospel:

“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”

“And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.”

“And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell.”

Notice this significant repeated term: “If” your hand causes you to sin; “if” your foot causes you to sin; “if” your eye causes you to sin.” Jesus is not actually saying that your physical hand, your physical foot, or your physical eye, are the cause of sin.

They are instruments of sin to be sure - sins of thought, word, and deed. But they are not the underlying cause.

Jesus is, however, making a deeper point. These somewhat shocking expressions are serving as vivid illustrations of that point.

And the point is this: if one of these valued body parts were the actual cause of sin - sin which makes you morally unacceptable to a holy God - then you would need to do what was necessary to get rid of it, regardless of how extreme that might seem to be.

In the realm of our physical health, a gangrenous bodily appendage must be amputated, and a cancer-ridden bodily organ must be surgically removed. Otherwise, the gangrene and the cancer will spread to the whole body and cause death.

So, too, is this the case in the realm of sin and salvation. You must be willing to part with whatever it is in you that does cause sin, that alienates you from the goodness of God, and that would keep you out of fellowship with God in time and in eternity: regardless of how much you may otherwise value that thing; and regardless of the extent to which your current human identity is tied up with that aspect of your life.

If you don’t get rid of and destroy the true source of the problem, the problem will overtake and destroy you. And you will perish. You will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord.”

We mentioned before that it is a misguided delusion to think that a sinful person can earn his way to heaven, and avoid hell, if his good works outweigh his evil works. The good works of a sinful man can never be good enough - with a pure motive, or with a perfect execution - to match the purity and perfection of God’s standards.

That doesn’t mean, however, that good works, to the extent that they are present in the life of a Christian, are unimportant or unnecessary. They are important as a blessing to our neighbor, who is the beneficiary of them.

And they are necessary. They are not necessary for salvation, with the idea that there is a simple correlation between doing good works and being admitted to heaven. But good works are necessary as the evidence of a good heart.

And that, my friends, is what we do need to think about, when we consider what it is that we must get rid of, so to speak, in order to avoid hell. You and I don’t need to get rid of our arms, our legs, or our eyes.

We need to “get rid” of our sinful hearts. We need to get rid of our inner selfishness, our inner pride, our inner rebellion against God.

Jesus said on another occasion: “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

That’s our problem. But it is not just a problem that afflicts us. It is a problem that is us.

And in place of this evil heart, with which we are conceived and born, we need a new heart - a new inner nature - with new desires, new values, new priorities, and a new standing before God: forgiven in the blood of Christ; clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

This surgery of the soul, as we might call it - wherein the old sinful heart ceases to be the driving force of our life, and a new Godly heart is put in its place - is surgery that can be performed only by the Great Physician, Jesus Christ himself.

Jesus died to redeem us: to neutralize the power of sin that lurks within us, and to lift from us the guilt of sin that weighs upon us. And now, as our resurrected Lord, he applies his redemption to each of us personally in his gospel.

In this saving work, which he accomplishes in us by his grace, he saves us from hell, and sets us free from the fear of hell.

Through your baptism, which remains with you every day; and through the power of his Word, which you hear and meditate on every day, your divine-human Savior fulfills for each of you, what he had spoken of through the prophet Ezekiel:

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone... And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my just decrees.”

The Lord also expresses these thoughts in the form of an invitation, issued through Ezekiel, addressed to those whom he is calling to faith:

“Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!

In the mercy of Christ, and as a spiritual child of your Father in heaven, you are no longer separated from God, and destined for an eternity of such separation. Now you have eternal life in Christ, and in the world to come you are destined for an everlasting portion of what you already have. As quoted in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus said:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

And so, if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out.

But if your evil heart - your corrupted inner being - is what really causes you to sin, and to be placed on a pathway to hell, then cut it out; tear it out.

In Christ suppress it, through repentance of all your sins. In Christ remove it, through a trusting in the Lord’s forgiveness. And in Christ replace it, through a living faith in the God whose Spirit now graciously lives within you.

God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free Spirit. Amen.