7 July 2019 - Pentecost 4 - Galatians 6:1-10

St. Paul writes in today’s text from his Epistle to the Galatians:

“One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”

Paul does something here that Jesus used to do all the time, in his parables. He uses an analogy from a common earthly experience - in this case, sowing and reaping - to illustrate a deeper religious truth.

Planting a crop is a major undertaking. A farmer will need to make sure he has the right seed for the crop he wants, and he might have to go to some expense in order to get it.

Sowing the seed also requires a major investment of time and effort. This was especially true in the first century, before the days of automated planting equipment.

At the end of the growing season, the crop cannot be harvested unless it has germinated and developed properly. And the crop will germinate and develop properly only if it has been planted properly.

The farmer’s sowing of his seed, with all that this involves, is his investment for his future. His expectations for harvest time are directly reflected in what he does, and how he does it, at planting time. A farmer’s seriousness about his livelihood in general, can be measured by how serious he is about the task of sowing his crop.

St. Paul wants us to think about how serious we are, concerning the deeper issues of our life. And he wants us to think about these matters in terms of the seed that we are now sowing.

What you are planting now is your investment in the future. There is a direct connection between where you concentrate your time and effort now, and what it is that you think is truly important for your future.

St. Paul says, “the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption.” As we noted last week, the “flesh,” as Paul uses that word here, is not referring to the physical body. It is referring to the inherited corruption of our sinful nature.

It is referring to the self-centered and self-absorbed impulses of the old Adam within us. It is referring to the fallenness of human nature, which is hostile to God and to the things of God, and which seeks to find its fulfillment only in the material and emotional rewards of this world.

St. Paul warns us that if we sow to this flesh, then we will reap the only kind of harvest that such sowing can yield - a harvest of corruption; a harvest of continued alienation from God and from other people; a harvest of unfulfilled ambitions, stunted relationships, and ultimately of everlasting destruction.

If this is not what you want your life to turn out to be, in time and eternity, then don’t sow the seeds of such a harvest now!

Don’t invest your chief efforts and resources in the accumulation of earthly wealth or power. Don’t walk over other people and use them for your own advancement. Don’t think only of your own needs and desires, and bypass or ignore the needs of others.

Do not sow to your own flesh! Instead, sow to the Spirit! St. Paul writes that “the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”

The work of God’s Spirit in your life, and in the lives of others, is of supreme importance. And St. Paul wants you to recognize this. God wants your priorities to be arranged in such a way that you acknowledge the work of God’s Spirit to be the most significant thing that is going on in your life.

If you are someone who wants to remain in fellowship with God for the rest of your earthly days, and for an eternity after that, then it is only to be expected that you would be sowing the necessary seeds of faith now.

God wants you, according to the godly impulses of your new nature, to invest the resources of your life in what he is doing for your eternal salvation. If you’re serious about wanting to be a part of his kingdom, then you will be serious about planting the seeds of that kingdom - for yourself, and for others too.

In today’s text, Paul mentions a very specific and practical example of this kind of sowing to the Spirit. He writes: “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.”

The Holy Spirit works through the preaching and sacramental application of the Word of God, to create and strengthen the faith that prepares us for an eternity with God. He does not work through the personal charisma or personality of religious leaders.

But according to the process that God himself set in motion, this Word is delivered to people by other people - especially by the pastors and teachers whom God calls and sends.

If a man has been trained and called to be a minister of the gospel, and if he has dedicated his life to this work, his life is, by necessity, not dedicated to other pursuits by which he might otherwise be able to make a living.

So, the only way in which he will be able to support himself and his family, is if the people who value his work as a pastor are willing to pay for it. It’s really as simple as that.

If a pastor cannot afford to be a pastor, so that he needs to get a different job to pay the bills, he will therefore not be able to be a pastor. Or at least, he will not have the time or energy that are necessary to be the kind of pastor that God would want him to be.

St. Paul elaborates on this in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. He asks:

“Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? ...the plowman should plow in hope, and the thresher [should] thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? ...”

“Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”

St. Paul says elsewhere that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. But we’re not talking here about the love of money. We’re talking about the use of money to provide for the necessities of physical life in this world, so that a man who is called to the ministry can dedicate himself to the important work of that calling without worries or distractions. And in the eyes of God, and of his church, that work is indeed important.

The world, of course, and the sinful flesh, consider it a foolish waste of time for a man to go through eight years of study in college and seminary, and then to spend the rest of his life teaching, preaching, and counseling people from a collection of old religious writings.

The world and the sinful flesh also consider it to be waste of money when other people are willing to pay for this. “What difference does it all make?”, they ask. Well, it makes a big difference for people who are looking beyond the harvest times of this world and life, to the harvest of the Spirit for eternity.

St. Peter writes in his First Epistle:

“You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ... You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”

“For ‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”

And, this good news was preached to you by real, flesh-and-blood preachers, who - like you - need to be able to support themselves, and their families, in this life. That’s one of the points St. Paul wants to make in today’s text.

So, people who care about the preaching of the Word of God, and who believe that it is important, will figure out some way to “sow to the Spirit” for the support of that preaching, so that it will take place.

And as Christians, our concern is not only for the welfare of our own souls. We are to be concerned about the spiritual needs of others, too.

That’s why, in addition to supporting the ministry of our local congregation, we also support the work of missionaries and ministers in other places - especially in impoverished countries, where the believers have a difficult time supporting the work of their own churches.

And at the local level, we want the blessings of the gospel to be available not only to us, but also to other people in our community. We want them to spend eternity with us in the Lord’s presence.

We want there to be a church for them to go to - and for us to invite them to - where God’s Word can touch their hearts, and where they can grow with us as members of the body of Christ.

And so, we are willing to support a ministry that reaches out also to them, and that makes the blessings of God’s grace and forgiveness available also to them. In all of these ways, we “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” - to quote from today’s text.

But at the same time, as we consider our responsibility to be sowing seeds for this sacred work, and for these eternal benefits; and as we consider our duty and privilege of contributing time, talent, and treasure toward the fulfillment of our Lord’s Great Commission, we remember that St. Paul also tells us today that “each will have to bear his own load.”

This is not just the responsibility of other people. It is my responsibility, and yours, in accordance with how the Lord has blessed us: with faith, with gifts and abilities, and with material resources.

And when we consider the importance of the Word of God, and the value of the ministry of those who bring it to us, let’s make sure we are thinking about that ministry in its entirety. A pastor is not just a public performer, whose official role is limited to what happens in the worship service or in group settings.

As a teacher of the Word of God, his calling also involves private counseling and instruction, and individual confession and absolution, whenever these confidential services are needed or desired. His ministry is intended for those who need personal comfort and spiritual encouragement during times of testing, fear, or sadness.

Whenever you are in a situation in which you need guidance from God’s Word, call the pastor. He will keep in confidence those painful things that you share with him, that are particularly troubling or burdensome on your conscience, as he also applies the healing comfort of the gospel to those hurting places in your life.

And you can send to him others whom you know also need that kind of ministry, whether members or non-members.

You are not burdening the pastor by asking him to take some time to help you or your friends through a difficult trial. But you will be burdening him with disappointment, if you decline to give him an opportunity to fulfill the work that God has called him to do for you, so that he must watch - from a distance - as your life crumbles.

The Word of God has divine power to accomplish what God wants it to accomplish. As the epistle to the Hebrews tells us:

“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

And as the book of Proverbs also tells us: “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.”

The Spirit of God works through the Word of God. He works through the law to convict you of your sin, and to show you your need for Christ. He then works through the gospel to bring all the blessings of the cross to you, sealing Jesus’ forgiveness to your conscience, and filling your heart with his love.

A pastor or teacher, in his person, doesn’t do any of that. Only God can do these things. But a pastor is an instrument of God. He functions as a called and ordained servant of the Word in his preaching and teaching.

What Jesus said to the seventy-two in today’s Gospel from St. Luke, he says as well to all faithful pastors throughout history: “The one who hears you, hears me; and the one who rejects you, rejects me.”

Through the lips of the pastor, Jesus speaks his baptismal blessing upon you through the washing of water with the word, as you are claimed by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a member of God’s family and as a citizen of God’s kingdom. Through the lips of the pastor, Jesus absolves you, and lifts from you the guilt of all your transgressions, so that your peace with God is restored.

Through the lips of the pastor, Jesus speaks his own living presence into the bread and wine of his Holy Supper. And through the lips of the pastor, Jesus, in the words of this Supper, speaks pardon and life into your conscience, as he offers his true body and blood to you: to renew his mystical union with you, and your resurrection hope in him.

The individual minister adds nothing from within himself to the supernatural work that the Holy Spirit carries out through the message that he preaches. The pastor’s cleverness, or eloquence, or personal charm do not make the Word of God more effective than it otherwise would be.

Therefore if your own pastor is not very clever, or eloquent, or charming, you should still seek out his ministry for the various circumstances of life in which you need it. If, in spite of his limitations or shortcomings, he is nevertheless still able to apply God’s Word faithfully and accurately, then he is able to fulfill the role that God has given him to fulfill.

And God will bless you through his ministry - because his ministry is not actually his ministry, but is God’s ministry. God’s Word is the important thing. And as Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel:

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

Indeed, we think today not only of the ways in which we share “good things” with our pastors, for the sake of their earthly support; but also and especially do we ponder the ways in which our pastors share “good things” with us, in order to renew our heavenly hope.

In the message that the pastor proclaims, God thereby reminds us of his Son’s fulfillment of his eternal plan for our deliverance from sin and death. The Epistle to the Hebrews states that “when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come,” he “entered once for all into the holy means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”

And the joyous and expectant faith to which the Psalmist testifies, certainly also applies to our reception of the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, that God delivers to us, through our pastors, in sermon and Supper. Psalm 107 states:

“He satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”

“One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” Amen.

14 July 2019 - Pentecost 6 - Luke 10:25-37

When you look at a photograph that was taken of a group of people that included yourself, who is the first person you try to find in the picture? Yourself! You always look for yourself in a picture if you were there when the picture was taken.

I’m going to ask you to do something similar right now, as we reflect together on today’s Gospel text from St. Luke.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”

“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.”

If you can imagine the parable of the Good Samaritan to be a symbolic snapshot of a group of people that includes you, will you be able to find yourself in the picture? Where would you look in the story in order to find the character who matches you?

I suppose we would all like to think that we can perhaps find ourselves in the image of the Samaritan. The Samaritan was willing to help the man who had been severely injured by robbers, almost to the point of death.

Each of us would like to think of himself or herself as someone like that, wouldn’t we? We’d like to think that we would act in a similar way if confronted by similar circumstances.

We try to be good people. We are willing to help others, especially when their need is so obvious. Or, at least, we are usually willing to do so.

And, as we would hope to see ourselves in the person of the Samaritan, we at the same time would look disdainfully at the priest and the Levite in the story, who passed by the robbery victim on the other side of the road. How could they have been so heartless, we ask?

Well, there might be a reason. We can easily imagine that the man lying by the side of the road, who had been left “half dead” by his attackers, would have looked like he was fully dead.

And a concern that the Jewish priest and Levite would have had, was that if they were to come into contact with a dead body, they would, according to the Mosaic Law, become ceremonially “unclean” for a significant amount of time. This would mean being segregated from the community, and being forbidden to perform their temple duties.

Now, for a typical Jew, this ceremonial isolation would certainly be an inconvenience. But for a priest or a Levite, it would have a direct impact on his livelihood, and on his ability to fulfill the necessary public functions of his office.

If one of these men had stopped to try to help the man, and if he had found out - upon a closer inspection - that the man was already dead, he might not get paid for a couple weeks. His wife and children might not eat.

Was it worth the risk - especially since the man was probably going to die anyway, if he was not in fact already dead? What could a lone priest or Levite really do for someone who was so far gone?

So, as these men weighed all the factors, they decided that it would not be worth the risk. They did not stop.

Another thing they may have considered was the possibility of an ambush. The perpetrators of this attack might still be lurking just off the road, waiting to pounce on someone else.

The injured man may have been left on the road as “bait,” to lure other travelers into making themselves vulnerable to be attacked and robbed themselves. If the priest or the Levite had stopped and gone over next to the injured man, he might have been the next victim.

Again, was such a thing worth the risk - especially on such a deserted stretch of road, where there would be no one to come to the rescue if the robbers were still around? The priest and the Levite decided that they would not chance it. They passed by, on the other side of the road.

So, are you still not able to see yourself in the person of the priest or Levite? Haven’t you justified your inaction in similar ways, in similar situations?

Don’t you also engage in the same kind of pragmatic calculations, when making a decision whether or not to take a chance for someone else, or to put yourself at some risk in order to help someone else?

Will you take chances that might effect your own livelihood, and your ability to provide for your family? Will you put yourself in danger when you’re not completely sure that you can even be of help to an injured or troubled person?

Where do we honestly see ourselves in this picture, after all?

At a very basic level, the parable of the Good Samaritan serves as moral instruction to us. It teaches us the importance of helping others in need, even when providing that help can be risky or inconvenient.

And as a story about godly morality and ethics, this parable also convicts us of our failure to love our neighbors as ourselves. It makes us face up to the selfishness and fear that actually govern our actions - or our inactions - more than we might otherwise want to admit.

But there is another way to read this story. And there is another place, and another character, where we can perhaps find ourselves in the picture.

When we see the parable of the Good Samaritan as a story about Jesus - and not just as a story about us and how we should treat others - then, at a deeper level, we are invited by the Lord to see ourselves as the robbery victim, lying by the side of the road.

You, and all human beings, have been left “half dead” by the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the fall of Adam, the whole human race was robbed of the treasure that God had given to us when he made us in his own image.

Humanity lost its fellowship with God. Humanity lost its original righteousness. Humanity lost its immortality. Humanity lost its inner spiritual life. The spiritual “attack” that took place in the garden of Eden resulted in humanity’s spiritual death.

After this attack, our bodily life does, of course, remain. So, we are, in this sense, half dead. But in the natural condition in which we all come into the world, we are not alive to God.

The idea of a God remains in the conscience, and in the history of the world this idea has become the basis for a myriad of humanly-devised religions. But in our hearts we are distant from the true God who actually created us, and we are disconnected from him.

In thought, word, and deed, we are likewise disconnected from God’s law. And we are helpless - incapable of reconstituting our moral and spiritual character.

We are, by nature, lying along the side of a spiritual road on which we no longer have the strength to travel. We can go nowhere under our own power, because our power - in matters relating to God and the holiness of God - is gone.

But a Good Samaritan comes to us. By his own power he kneels beside us, treats our wounds, and saves us.

And this Good Samaritan loves us. He sees each of us as his neighbor, for whom he is willing to risk everything, and sacrifice even his own life, rather than to leave us in our desperate condition.

“A Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.”

Do you remember the Gospel from St. John that was read on Trinity Sunday? The Lord’s enemies said to him: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”

Jesus denied that he had a demon, but he let the association with the Samaritans stand. And now, perhaps, we are seeing a follow-up to this symbolic identification.

Jesus - the Son of God in human flesh - is the Good Samaritan. When he finds us, he pours his own divine Oil - that is, his own life-giving and faith-creating Spirit - onto our wounded soul.

He washes away the contamination of our guilt with the crimson wine of his own blood, which he shed for us on the cross. He carries us away on his own animal - baptizing us into his baptism, and speaking his own righteousness upon us.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul describes - in different words - the state in which the Good Samaritan from heaven finds us. He writes:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom 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.”

But then, St. Paul describes what the Good Samaritan from heaven has done for us:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

If you are tempted to think of yourself as a morally and spiritually self-sufficient person, and not as someone who is utterly and completely dependent on God for everything, Jesus wants you to see yourself - in the picture that his parable today pains in your mind’s eye - in the wounded man lying by the roadside.

You are not the Good Samaritan. You are the person who needs the Good Samaritan’s help.

And if you are tempted to think of yourself as a hopeless case, or as a spiritual “goner” - lost and unsalvageable - Jesus also wants you to see him in this picture, in the Samaritan who comes to where you are; who cares about you when others do not; and who lifts you up, and carries you to a place of safety and healing.

“Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”

The inn to which the Good Samaritan takes us is his holy church. In Christ, the church is a place of refuge in this world: where the people of God are fed and strengthened with the Lord’s Holy Word and Sacrament; and where they are entrusted to the care of the Lord’s pastoral inn-keepers until his return.

The church is not a place where good people come to show off, but where sick and wounded people come to be healed. It is not a place for excitement and agitation, but for rest and peace.

Every individual in the church - lay and clergy, men and women, adults and children - is “a work in progress.” But under the care of the ministers of the gospel, and in the strength of that gospel, God is bringing us along, and moving us forward, to where he wants us to be.

Elsewhere in his epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes:

“I bow my knees before the Father, ...that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith - that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus, throughout all generations, forever and ever.”

That’s what God is doing for you in the inn, as you wait for the return of the Good Samaritan - the bodily return of Christ on the Last Day. That’s what is happening to you as you are preserved among God’s people, nurtured by the gospel, and abiding in the Word of Christ as a disciple of Christ.

So, as you look for yourself in this picture - in this parable of the Good Samaritan - you can and should see yourself in the victimized man: not only in the first part of the parable, as he is lying helpless along the road; but also in the second part of the parable, as he is increasing in strength and health - in faith and in Christian virtues - under the care of the inn-keeper.

You can see yourself in this picture: not only as a person in desperate need of help from a Savior; but also as a person who is receiving that help, freely and without cost to you, in the fellowship of the church, through the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

And, you can see yourself as a person who is waiting with joyful expectation for the Good Samaritan to come back for you, to settle all your accounts, and to bring you to your eternal home. Amen.

21 July 2019 - Pentecost 7 - Luke 10:38-42

People often become so engrossed in what they are doing, that they are unaware of what other people around them are doing. I suppose It’s not always such a bad thing for someone to be able concentrate on his or her assigned task, and not to be distracted by the activities of others.

But sometimes this “tuning out” of what is going on around you is not so good - especially when what you are doing is not as important as what someone else is doing. Sometimes, instead of paying attention exclusively to what you are doing, you should take a break, lift up your head and look around, notice what others are doing, and consider whether you might want to pay attention to that for a while.

St Luke reports:

“Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving.”

Martha’s problem was that she was paying such close attention to what she was doing, that she failed to notice what Jesus was doing. And she failed properly to weight the significance of what he was doing.

Martha overestimated the importance of her work, and even tried to get Jesus to make her sister Mary help her with it. But Martha should actually have stopped what she was doing, at least for a time, in order to join her sister in paying attention to what Jesus was doing.

Jesus was personally present in her home, fulfilling - in her very presence - one of the important tasks for which he had come into the world. What an opportunity she had!

But Martha was oblivious to this. And in her obliviousness, she blurted out something that was stupid at best, and disrespectful toward Jesus at worst.

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

Was Martha actually the only person doing any serving? Well, it’s true that Mary was not serving anyone at that moment. But Jesus was.

Jesus was serving the Word of God to Mary. At another time and place, Jesus said, with respect to the spiritual power of his teaching: “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”

The teaching of Jesus, to which Mary was paying close and devout attention, was impacting her at the deepest level of her heart. She was no doubt learning some important things about herself and her need for a Savior. She was no doubt learning some important things about God’s sending of his only-begotten Son to be her Savior.

She knew that when Jesus had something to say, she should be quiet and listen: with open ears, an open mind, and an open heart. She knew that when Jesus wanted to serve her with his grace and forgiveness, she should stop whatever she might be doing, sit at his feet, and receive in faith the spiritual treasures that Jesus wanted to give her.

Mary was calm and at peace at the Lord’s feet. We can assume that his teaching gave her a new perspective on eternity, and on those things that will endure forever. But his teaching certainly also gave her a new perspective on this world, and on her life in this world.

We are not taught in today’s text that people like Mary should permanently set aside their earthly duties, and spend all of their time, from dawn to dusk, in religious activities. Mary did have an earthly vocation from God, according to which she was called to serve her sister Martha, by helping her with the housework; and to serve the family’s guests, by providing for their needs and making them comfortable.

But the duties of this calling were not the sum total of everything that Mary was ever supposed to think about. There were times - such as the time that is described in today’s Gospel - when those duties were to be set aside for a while, so that Mary could think about other, more important things; about eternally necessary things.

Mary’s deepest sense of who she was, and the ultimate meaning of her life, were not bound up - in the final analysis - in her earthly calling. The time for the fulfillment of that calling would come to an end, when her life in this world would come to an end.

But she would not come to an end. Mary’s standing before God, and her eternal hope, had their basis instead in the reconciliation with God that Jesus, the promised Messiah, would accomplish for her in his sacrificial death.

As she put her trust in God’s promises, even if she understood them only in a nascent form, Mary was already clothed in the righteousness of Christ. These were the things that Jesus no doubt recounted, explained, and applied to her personally, as she sat at his feet, and listened to his teaching.

Martha, in contrast to her sister Mary, was not availing herself of the teaching that Jesus was offering on this occasion. She was ignoring him in this respect, even as she was, in her own wisdom and strength, seeking to serve him.

Martha’s actions were, it seems, governed by a certain amount of pride and self-righteousness. She resented the fact that Mary had taken a break from the work. Mary was lazy and irresponsible, in the eyes of Martha.

But Martha was not able to find joy in her work. She was, as Jesus told her, “anxious and troubled” about all the things she was trying to accomplish.

In a sense, she was trying to prove her worth to Jesus, and earn his favor, by showing him the best hospitality she was able to show him. But she also knew, deep down, that it was not yet good enough. And so she was continuously “stressed out” and worried - striving always to do more, and to do it better.

Are you like Martha? I’m not talking now about blatantly godless and irreligious people, who don’t make any pretense of caring about Jesus or thinking about him. Martha was not like that.

I’m talking about people like us, here in church: where Jesus is present with us, and where we are glad that he is present. But do we, like Martha, think that we are here chiefly to serve him - to make a good impression on him, or to earn his approval?

What is your motivation for being here? And with what kind of attitude do you perform the duties that have been assigned to you in the church?

Pastors are particularly susceptible to the temptation of falling into the error of Martha - that is, of being so concerned about the service that we try to offer to Christ, or the work that we do for Christ, that we don’t pay as much attention as we should to the service that Christ wants to offer to us.

A pastor may labor and worry so much over the preparation and delivery of a sermon, that in the end, he does not listen, for his own spiritual benefit, to the Word of God that comes across through the sermon.

A pastor may be so concerned to make sure that his conducting of the service is proper and dignified, and that his chanting of the Lord’s Prayer and of the Words of Institution in the Lord’s Supper is on key, that he doesn’t pay proper attention to what those words are saying to him, for the sake of his own personal preparation for receiving the sacrament.

But pastors are not the only people who are liable to make the same kind of mistake that Martha made. After all, Martha was not a pastor. And none of the rest of you are, either.

And yet Martha, even in the presence of the Lord, was anxious and troubled about many things. She was not attentive to the one thing that was truly necessary, as her sister Mary was.

She was not listening in faith to the words of Jesus, so that those words could plant themselves in her mind and heart.

You, too, are in the presence of the Lord here, according to his promise that where two or three are gathered in his name, there he is in their midst. He is here in our midst right now, just as certainly as he was sitting in Mary and Martha’s home 2,000 years ago.

But as you come here into his presence, during this time of worship, is it for the sole purpose of sitting at his feet: to concentrate on what he is saying; and to receive, without any distractions, what he wants to give you?

Or as you sit here, are you perhaps planning out in your mind the chores that you need to take care of when you get home? Or might you be thinking about your duties here at church, and about what God and other people might be expecting of you this morning?

To the extent that you are thinking about, and worrying about, anything that you feel you need to be doing - instead of thinking about, and being thankful for, what Jesus is doing for you - you are like Martha, and not like Mary. And Jesus says to you, just as he said to Martha:

“You are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.”

One thing, my friends, is necessary. There is one reason why God has brought you here in this hour.

On other days, and at other times, God does want you to pursue your earthly calling, and to fulfill the duties that he has entrusted to you in your family and in your community. There are many times during the week when you should be concerned about serving God by serving others, and about being diligent and faithful in the tasks that have been assigned to you in this world, according to your vocation.

But this hour, in this place, is not one of them. Now is the time, not to work, but to rest - to rest in Christ, and in the work of salvation that he accomplished once and for all, for you, on the cross.

Now is the time, not to serve, but to be served, by the Son of God, who as the resurrected and living Lord of his church comes to you in his Word of forgiveness, and in the bread and wine of his Holy Supper that has been blessed with his Word.

The reason why we are here, is because Jesus teaches us here. And we listen. And in the power and grace of his teaching, we see everything else in life in a different light, and with a new perspective.

In our errors and missteps, we are corrected. In our fears and sadnesses, we are comforted and consoled. In our uncertainties and hesitations, we are encouraged and emboldened.

In our guilt and regret over our disobedience of God’s law, and our defiance of God’s will - for all those times when we did what we should not have done, and trespassed where we should not have gone - we are forgiven.

Our current earthly status as God’s beloved children, is confirmed. Our future heavenly hope as God’s children, is renewed.

Relatively unimportant things that we used to worry about, we entrust now to his care and protection. Important things - eternal things - that we didn’t used to think about as much as we should have, now take their proper place of priority in our lives.

We have been baptized into Christ. We belong to him. Our time, our labors, and everything that we are and do, belong to him.

And so, when - according to Jesus - it is time for you to work and serve, then it is time for you to work and serve, in the joy and confidence that come when you know that the Lord is with you, guiding and protecting you. But when, according to Jesus, it is time for you to stop your work, and be still and listen, then it is time for you to stop, and be still, and listen.

Now is that time. And so we are, as it were, sitting at the Lord’s feet now, where we have heard his voice in the absolution, in the Scripture readings, and in the preaching of his Word.

And we will still be sitting at his feet in a few minutes, when we will hear Jesus speak his body and blood into the bread and wine, and when Jesus will invite the communicants of his church to receive him as he comes to us, and serves us, in this Supper.

The Word of Christ - the living and abiding Word of Christ - is the one necessary thing. It is the good portion that God gives us for our salvation.

As we in faith receive his Word, and as we receive Christ himself through his Word, this good portion - this heavenly truth - will remain with us forever.

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Amen.

28 July 2019 - Pentecost 7 - Luke 11:1-13

In today’s text from St. Luke, Jesus teaches us some important things about praying to God.

It is true, of course, that God is all-knowing, and all-wise. He has eternal plans for what he will do in human history. And with him there is no variation or turning, as St. James writes.

So, our prayers do not inform God of things that he does not already know. And our prayers do not persuade him to do something that he does not already intend to do.

But in spite of these valid theological truths about God’s character, knowledge, and plans - which might easily cause us to conclude that praying to God would be pointless - God nevertheless does invite us, and command us, to pray.

Through his Son, who teaches his disciples what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” God gives us the very words we are to speak, and the very thoughts we are to express. And in today’s text, Jesus also tells us that we are to be persistent - and even, dare I say, impudent - in our prayers.

Jesus tells a parable about a man who goes to his friend’s home at midnight, to bang on the door and to keep calling out to him - asking for bread for an unexpected houseguest. In this way Jesus encourages us to pester God, as it were, with our persistence.

God wants to be pestered by our praying. He does not consider it to be a problem if we pray too much. What is more often the case, is that we do not pray enough. We do not pray often enough, or intensely enough.

Perhaps we are lazy or indifferent. Or perhaps, in our internal religious thinking, we rationalize that God already knows everything anyway, so why bother? But God wants us to bother.

Jesus says: “I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, it will be opened.”

An example of this kind of praying is the story of Abraham, conversing with the Lord, in today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Genesis, as God appears to him in the form of a desert traveler, accompanied by two fellow-travelers - who are actually angels.

Abraham was respectful and reverent as he addressed the Lord, as we also should be when we address the Lord in prayer. But Abraham was also persistent, as we likewise should be when we pray.

And the Lord was not at all displeased with these respectful yet persistent intercessions from his friend Abraham. He heard them all, and in this particular case, he granted them all.

We are told that in preparation for his second intercession, Abraham said: “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” That’s a humble thought. In preparation for his fourth intercession, Abraham said: “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak.”

And in preparation for his fifth intercession - with great humility, yet with an equally great confidence that God would hear him - he said: “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once.”

In today’s text from St. Luke, Jesus also tells a second parable or illustration, which adds necessary clarity regarding the content of our prayers.

We should be persistent in prayer - but only in praying for what is proper for us to be praying for. We should be confident that God will grant our requests, but only when we are praying for the kind of things he wants us to have. Jesus says:

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

What is left unsaid here, is that if your son asks you for a serpent, or for a scorpion, you - even though you are evil - will not give him what he asks for! Here in Arizona there is a real possibility that a small child will indeed come across a rattlesnake or a scorpion, and ask his father if it is OK to pick it up and take it home.

A good father will not give his son everything he asks for. But when a son asks for what he should ask for, his father will give it to him - if he is able to do so.

What Jesus tells us today, is that what we should be asking for from our Father in heaven - persistently and confidently - is the Holy Spirit. And when we ask for the Holy Spirit, we will receive the Holy Spirit.

We should not understand this too narrowly, to mean just the Holy Spirit strictly in his Person, and not also the various other spiritual gifts we need. We should understand this to mean the Holy Spirit as our Divine companion and counselor, who not only comes to us himself, but who also - with his coming - delivers all other good things to us; who teaches, protects, and guides us; who connects us to Christ by faith.

Remember that in today’s account, Jesus had just given his disciples an example of what they should be asking for in prayer. And so, in the context that Jesus establishes by his remarks, to pray for the Holy Spirit, means to pray in this way:

“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”

When you pray such a prayer, you are, in effect, praying for the Holy Spirit himself to come, and for the Holy Spirit’s sacred and saving work to be accomplished.

With the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God’s name is hallowed among us, and his kingdom comes among us. Through the influence of the Holy Spirit, our daily bread is received with thanks. By the operation of the Holy Spirit - through God’s Word - God’s forgiveness of our sins is carried to us, and impressed upon us; and a forgiving heart is birthed within us. And because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are supernaturally protected from the attacks and allurements of the evil one.

Jesus on another occasion told his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes, “he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” So, when you pray for the Holy Spirit to be given to you, you are thereby asking - among other things - to be convicted of your trespasses; and to be brought to an inner awareness of where you have failed to live up to God’s standards: in relation to him, in relation to other people, and within yourself.

You are asking God’s Spirit to come and do the painful work of showing you where and how you have sinned against God, against man, and against your own conscience.

When you ask for the Holy Spirit, God will give you the Holy Spirit. God will come to you to convict you, and to cause you to admit your faults - not because he enjoys making you miserable, but because he enjoys making you honest.

So, it is important that when we pray for the Holy Spirit to be sent to us in this way and for this purpose, we resolve, with the Lord’s help, to let him teach us what we are to do and not to do; how we are to think and not to think.

In our sinful weakness, we often have not only a troubled conscience, but also a confused conscience: so that we feel guilty for things that are not really wrong, or our fault; or we feel justified in thoughts and actions that are actually wrong and harmful, even if they seem to us to be good and beneficial.

The Holy Spirit - on the basis of the objective and unchanging standard of God’s inscripturated Word - impresses God’s righteousness upon us, and shows us that God’s ways are always better ways.

The Book of Proverbs gives us this sober warning: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”

The Lord also says this, in the Book of Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the Lord, search the heart, and test the mind.”

But Psalm 25 gives us the encouragement that it is possible to learn and know God’s will, and to measure and modify our lives according to this divine truth, when God’s Spirit works this understanding in us. With the Psalmist, we can pray:

“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.”

Psalm 19 elaborates on this heartfelt yearning for God’s instruction, in these words:

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.”

That’s the law of God - God’s wholesome precepts, and God’s holy commandments - which the Holy Spirit teaches us. But the Holy Spirit also teaches us the gospel of Christ, and instills within us a living faith in the gospel.

Jesus on another occasion said this, regarding the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, and in the lives of his disciples:

“He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God the Father, and he is the Spirit of Christ. He proceeds from the Father and the Son.

The Spirit is never separated from the Father and the Son. His oneness with the Father and the Son, within the unity of God’s mysterious Trinitarian existence, is eternal and indivisible.

So, wherever the Holy Spirit is present, the Triune God as a whole is present. And for the sake of our salvation, that means that wherever the Holy Spirit is present, all the benefits of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are present, and available, and declared, and applied.

This is so because in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” And, “you have been filled in him.” This is the way St. Paul expresses it in today’s Epistle, from his Letter to the Colossians.

Paul also reminds you that you have been “buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

And, God has made you “alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us, with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

All of this we receive, and the kingdom of Christ we receive, when we receive Christ. And we receive Christ, when we pray to receive the Spirit of Christ; and when God the Father does indeed always and fully give us the Spirit of Christ.

As one with whom God’s Spirit is present as your companion and protector, even In times of fear and loneliness, you can be comforted by the thoughts that comforted David, in Psalm 139:

“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”

In times of trial and temptation, too, Jesus would encourage you to pray - to pray earnestly and persistently - for the Holy Spirit, and for the help and strength of the Holy Spirit. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes:

“You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”

In that same epistle, the apostle also writes that

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. ... And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Paul is not talking here merely about an emotional boost, when we feel tired or worn out. This is something deeper than human emotions, and also deeper than human doubts and fears.

The Word of God is living and active, and probes us to the deepest recesses of our minds and souls. And St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Ephesians that the Word of God is “the sword of the Spirit.”

When you perceive yourself to be studying the Word of God, the Word of God is actually studying you. The Holy Spirit is studying you, and addressing you, with the redeeming and transforming message of Christ.

The forgiveness that God’s Spirit delivers to you from the cross of Christ, covers over the stain of your sin, and makes you to be clean in God’s eyes, and acceptable to him. But this forgiveness also gets inside of you.

It takes away your fear of God’s wrath. And it also liberates you from the heavy weight of bitterness, and the binding chains of resentment, toward those who have sinned against you: so that in Christ’s name you now forgive them, even as God has forgiven you.

As one in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells, you have not simply decided to transform yourself. You are continually being transformed, from the inside, by another - by the one whom you continually ask your Father in heaven to give you.

St. Paul writes that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” When you, in faith, pray for the Holy Spirit, you are praying for his fruit. And you will receive his fruit.

And finally, St. Paul, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, gives us this encouragement:

“It is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ - these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. ... Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”

“And we impart this in words, not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. .. But we have the mind of Christ.”

Indeed, if you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! And therefore, in confidence, you do ask him:

“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.” Amen.