SERMONS - AUGUST 2020
2 August 2020 - Pentecost 9 - Isaiah 55:1-5
If you are alive, you are going to get thirsty. Now, people who are out in the hot sun, and who need to replenish the water in their bodies, often don’t feel thirsty. But they are thirsty: that is, they need to drink water.
That’s why those who work or hike outside, in the Arizona desert heat, are often reminded to keep drinking water, whether or not they feel like drinking water. The Arizona sun evaporates water out of their bodies so quickly that they may not realize it is happening.
Through Isaiah the Prophet, in today’s Old Testament lesson, the Lord invites everyone who is spiritually thirsty to drink in the refreshment for the soul that he provides for free, by his grace alone. God says:
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Through us as well - as we bear witness to Christ among our friends, and invite our neighbors to come to church with us - the Lord is inviting our friends and neighbors to drink of the spiritual nourishment that is available to them in the gospel: to quench the deep thirst for God and his salvation that is in their souls.
But how often do those to whom we speak of such matters, respond with an eagerness to receive what God gives? Too often, they don’t feel thirsty for these things, even though they really are.
And so, as relatives and friends of mine have sometimes said, we hear things like this: “Christianity is okey for those who need it, but I don’t.”
But that’s like a hiker who has been out in the Arizona desert for several hours, responding to his hiking partner’s offer of water in this way: “Water is okay for those who need it, but I don’t.”
Oh yes you do need it, whether or not your body feels thirsty for the water. And you also need the water of life that God offers in the gospel of Jesus Christ, whether or not your soul feels thirsty for God’s grace.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
There is a deep “thirst” for God inside everyone, even when the person in question is unaware of this. King David speaks for everyone, when he prays in Psalm 42:
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
The human race - which was created in the image and likeness of God - was created for fellowship with God. There is, we might say, a place inside all people where God is supposed to be, and where human beings are supposed to be able to enjoy a connection with God, living in him and in his love.
But because of human sin - both the original sin that we inherit, and the particular sins that we contribute ourselves - God is not where he is supposed to be. Or rather, we are not where we are supposed to be, in relation to our Creator.
In the state in which we come into this world, that place within each of us where God is supposed to be, is empty: empty, dry, and parched. There is a huge spiritual void in fallen man.
For humanity as a whole, in its fallen condition, God’s indwelling Spirit has, as it were, “evaporated” out of us, in the “desert” of human rebellion against God in which the children of Adam now wander.
St. Paul reminds Christians in his Epistle to the Ephesians of that former sad time when they were “separated from Christ” - “having no hope, and without God in the world.”
To be sure, people can often sense that there is a spiritual hole in their lives that needs to be filled in some way. And they try to fill that hole in various ways, which they hope will allow them to feel that their life has been elevated to a higher meaning and purpose.
Sometimes people invent for themselves a moralistic religion, whereby they try to fill that inner void with good works. Sometimes they invent for themselves a political religion, whereby they try to fill that inner void with social activism.
But it never really works. We cannot truly grasp on our own - before God makes it known to us in his Word - that the only way for this empty space on the inside to be filled, is for God to fill it.
He fills it from the outside - as he comes to us and into us through the means of grace - just as the drinking of water from outside the body, is able to quench a thirst within a parched body that the body, in its dried-out condition, cannot quench on its own.
Unregenerated man does not feel his need for the God who created him. Unbelieving man does not thirst for the uniquely real and satisfying divine “refreshment” that only this God can give, and that alone is able to restore him to his true humanity, and to the image and likeness of his Maker.
He senses that he needs something, but he doesn’t know what he needs. And so he continues on his hike through the desert of a life without God in this world, not drinking the water, and not thinking or feeling that he needs the water. He continues on his hike, consciously oblivious to his true thirst, until he dies.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
This invitation is not issued only to those who feel thirsty. It is issued to everyone who actually is thirsty. And that means that this invitation is issued to everyone, period. This invitation is issued to you, and to me.
Are you consciously aware of your sin, and of your need for God? If so, then what God is offering, is being offered to you.
Or are you not conscious of your sin? Do you ignore your sin, or rationalize it and explain it away?
Are you just hopelessly confused - morally and spiritually - not knowing what is really going on inside of you? Even if that is the case, what God is offering, is being offered to you, too.
Whatever state you are in, or think you are in, God’s offer is for you. Whoever you are, if you are a human being, you are thirsty for God - whether or not you know that this is indeed your deepest need as a human being.
If God is not a part of your life at all, you need God. If God is a part of your life, but if you are aware of the continuing failures and flaws that are also a part of your life, you need God. You need him again.
Everyone can and should join King David, in what he says in Psalm 62:
“For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”
The “thirst” that God speaks of here is, of course, a metaphor for something deeper than bodily thirst. As I have already noted, it is a symbolic reference to an inner spiritual emptiness and yearning in one’s soul.
The references to water, wine, and milk, are likewise metaphorical expressions that point to something else - or rather, to someone else. And the “drinking” that is implicit in God’s invitation, is also symbolic of something else - something more consequential than the mere physical imbibing of a beverage.
John’s Gospel reports this declaration by Jesus:
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
And John adds this comment: “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive.”
Jesus himself as the Son of God in human flesh - and the forgiveness, life, and salvation that his Spirit bestows upon us in the means of grace - quench the thirst of the human soul. The blessings that flow out from what God had done for all of us through his Son’s life, death, and resurrection, are made available to all of us in his Word and Sacraments.
And so, with a deep sense of our spiritual need, and with a deep confidence that God always keeps his promises, we turn to God as he comes to us in Christ. And in the words of Psalm 143, we call out to God as we see him in Christ:
“I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands. I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Answer me quickly, O Lord!”
“My spirit fails! Hide not your face from me, lest I be like those who go down to the pit. Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust.”
God gave his Son to the world to save the world - by living in it, and for it; and by dying to atone for its sins. And now, in his Word and sacraments, God gives his crucified and resurrected Son to the world for the regeneration and refreshment of all who receive him - who drink him in, by faith.
The Lord’s Supper, with the eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ that it entails, is the most vivid example of how the means of grace do deliver Christ and his forgiveness to our thirsty souls.
But remember what St. Paul explains in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: that those who partake of this sacrament in an “unworthy” manner, thereby eat and drink judgment upon themselves, and sin against the body and blood of the Lord.
And so, to receive this sacrament in a worthy manner, and to receive a spiritual benefit from the body and blood of Christ which are objectively in it, is to receive the sacrament in faith.
The physical drinking will not quench that inner thirst, if it is not accompanied by a true spiritual drinking: that is, a repentance for sin, and a trusting in the words of Jesus.
But when the words of Christ are believed, then Christ is in every way received - not only by the body, but also by the soul. And he is received as Savior, not as judge.
Sin and guilt are cleansed from the conscience. The hope of eternal life is restored to the heart. The human spirit’s intimate fellowship with God’s Spirit is renewed. And that thirst - that deep, yearning thirst - is satisfied.
It is not only in the Lord’s Supper that Jesus is given to us, to be received by faith. Whenever God’s Word is heard, read, or meditated upon, and whenever you believe his Word and drink it in, you are drinking Jesus in.
God is giving his Son to you yet again. God is filling you with his Son’s Spirit yet again. He is sustaining you in your journey through this life, and is preparing you for the next life.
We close with these words from the hymnist Horatius Bonar:
I heard the voice of Jesus say, "Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one, stoop down and drink, and live."
I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in him. Amen.
9 August 2020 - Pentecost 10 - Matthew 14:22-33
Early on in the ministry of Jesus, based on his miracles, our Lord’s disciples, and the crowds in general, came to the conclusion that Jesus was a prophet. This was because his miracles were in many ways like the miracles of the prophets of the Old Testament.
For example, Elijah was given the power to miraculously multiply a small supply of flour and oil for the widow at Zarephath and her son. This was similar to Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes with a small supply of bread and fish.
Elisha, with the power God have him, healed Naaman of leprosy. Jesus often performed such healings.
Elisha also resuscitated the Shunammite’s son from bodily death. So, even Jesus’ raising of Jairus’s daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus, as extraordinary as these miracles were, were not without precedent.
But there is a difference between recognizing a man as a prophet, endowed with power and knowledge from God, and recognizing a man as being God himself in human flesh - that is, as the very Son of God.
During his earthly ministry, many people thought that Jesus was a prophet. Not many people thought that he was the Son of God. But a few eventually did. His disciples eventually did.
It is often thought that the first time his disciples recognized and confessed Jesus to be the Son of God, was on the occasion when Jesus solemnly asked them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
After some of the common opinions of the masses were recounted, Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
That was a momentous and important event, as recorded by St. Matthew in chapter 16 of his Gospel. But it was not actually the first time when Jesus’ disciples recognized him to be more than a prophet. At the conclusion of today’s Gospel reading, from chapter 14 of Matthew’s Gospel, we read:
“And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
What had transpired, to cause the disciples to reach this profound conclusion? How had God’s Spirit worked in the hearts of the apostles on this occasion, and what had he revealed to them about Jesus, to elicit from them such a life-altering confession?
Matthew reports in today’s text that the disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, and were “a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.” But then,
“in the fourth watch of the night [Jesus] came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!,’ and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’”
Was the miracle of Jesus walking on the water enough to convince them that he was not merely a prophet, but was God in human flesh? I don’t think so, because that kind of miracle also had a precedent in the Old Testament.
The natural laws of gravity had been suspended during the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, when God - through Moses - made the waters of the Red Sea part. The natural laws of gravity and buoyancy had been suspended also during the time of the Prophet Elisha. We read in the Second Book of Kings that on one occasion, when Elisha and the sons of the prophets
“came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. But as one was felling a log, his axe head fell into the water, and he cried out, ‘Alas, my master! It was borrowed.’ Then the man of God said, ‘Where did it fall?’ When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick and threw it in there and made the iron float. And he said, ‘Take it up.’ So he reached out his hand and took it.”
Elisha caused an iron axe head to float. If the circumstances had required it, he could have caused his own body, in an erect posture, also to float. But Elisha, while he was recognized as a “man of God,” was not thought to be divine in his person because of this miracle.
And therefore there must have been something else in the events that took place on the Sea of Galilee, besides Jesus’ defying the laws of gravity and buoyancy, that God’s Spirit used to show the disciples that Jesus was the Son of God, and was worthy not only of their respect but also of their worship.
What was it? Well, let’s continue in our reading of this account:
“And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’”
“Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
“Lord, save me.” It will not surprise anyone to know that the Greek word that stands behind Peter’s cry for help - when he thought he was about to drown - is the same word that is used throughout the New Testament to describe the salvation from sin, death, and the devil that Jesus provides in his gospel.
Peter’s stepping out on the water was certainly a miracle in its own right: a miracle that Jesus made possible through his command and presence. Peter had no power within himself to do this. He did it because God enabled him to do it, as he heeded Jesus’ invitation to “come” to him.
But Peter soon faltered. He took his eyes off of Jesus. In fear he noticed the waves lapping up around his legs.
He ceased to believe in the power of Christ’s word to enable him to do things that he could not do in his own strength. And he began to sink.
Now what? Does Jesus become Peter’s life coach, urging him on from a distance with a motivational speech, or reminding him of some self-help techniques that he could use to pull himself up from the water - “by his own boot straps,” as it were?
No. Jesus becomes Peter’s Savior. Jesus reaches down and takes hold of Peter, and he pulls him up. And Jesus’ rescuing of Peter from the water is not a divine reward because of Peter’s strong faith. It is an act of divine mercy in spite of Peter’s weak faith.
What Jesus gave to the disciples in these extraordinary events, was not merely a miraculous display of divine power. He gave them a vivid picture of divine grace.
It was a picture of an almighty God who does not simply exist, but who exerts his power to seek and to save the lost, in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. It was a picture of a holy God who does not simply tell people what to do, but who forgives them when they fail to do what they are told, and who loves them no matter what.
This, my friends, is what the Holy Spirit used, to instill in the hearts of the disciples the conviction that Jesus was not merely a prophet, but was and is the very Son of God. This is what drove them to their knees in worship, as they now saw in Jesus not a mere man - and not even a divinely-inspired and divinely-empowered man - but a man who was and is divine in his person.
Jesus is God come to earth, to save his people from their sins. Jesus is God come to earth, to save you from your sins.
As we live in this fallen and stormy world, Jesus calls us to walk the pathway of our vocation - believing his gospel, and obeying his commandments. Even with the worldly obstacles that we must avoid, and even with the devilish attacks that we must repel, each of us is invited to rely daily on the promises that God makes to his people through the Prophet Isaiah:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
And, each of us is invited to trust in this gracious God in such a way that we can join in the confession of faith that we are given in Psalm 34:
“Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.”
When we falter and sink - and we will all falter and sink - God, in Christ, does not simply give us a pep talk, and cheer us on. He reaches out to us, and takes hold of us himself.
When we become deeply aware of our own human frailty, and when it seems that we will in any moment be swamped, and overtaken by fear and doubt, God, in Christ, does not simply admonish us to try harder. He lifts us up into the security of his embrace.
And when we sin, and bring shame upon ourselves, God, in Christ, does not disown us and abandon us. His forgiveness carries us back into the safety of his “boat” - that is, the fellowship of his church.
St. John reminds us in his First Epistle:
“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.”
We cannot criticize Peter today, because he took his eyes off of Jesus, and began to sink. We cannot look down on Peter, because he showed himself in that moment to be a man of little faith. We are Peter. Each of us is Peter.
But we are Peter also in our enjoyment of the comfort and protection that Jesus provides for us, as he remains as our companion and teacher in the storms of life.
He reaches out to us with his own hand. He takes hold of us. He pulls us out of the mess we’re in, whatever that moral and spiritual mess may be.
We believe that the true body and blood of Christ are present in the Lord’s Supper. Through the wine that we receive, the blood of Jesus, which he shed for us on the cross, cleanses us from all sin. Through the bread that we receive, the body of Jesus, which he sacrificed on the cross, once again applies to us all the blessings of our Lord’s atonement for our sins.
And today, in view of the lesson that Jesus would teach us in today’s Gospel, ponder also this: the body of Christ, even in his ascended glory, still includes the hands of Christ - the nail-scarred hands of Christ.
When Jesus comes to you today in his body, through the mystery of his sacrament, consider that his hands are reaching out to you, taking hold of you, and pulling you out of whatever is frightening you today, and whatever seems to be overwhelming you today.
If the Lord’s Supper means anything, it means that Jesus, as God and man, is not far from us, barking out orders from a distance. He is right here with us, up close, saving us.
And because he has saved us, we also know who he is. We know that he is more than a prophet. He is the Son of God. He is God our Savior, whom we worship.
We close with this poetic prayer from Charles Wesley, including an unfamiliar verse from an otherwise familiar hymn:
Wilt Thou not regard my call? Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall - Lo! on Thee I cast my care.
Reach me out Thy gracious hand! While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand, Dying, and behold, I live.
Plenteous grace with Thee is found, Grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound; Make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art, Freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart; Rise to all eternity. Amen.
16 August 2020 - Pentecost 11 - Matthew 15:21-28
We think of Jesus as a Savior who loves us and accepts us, and who takes a very personal interest in each one of us. And we think of him as a Savior who treats everyone in this way - without the bigotries that so often taint us, and the way we feel about and treat others.
It might surprise us, then, to hear what we hear in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. Jesus seems to be treating the woman who approached him in an uncaring and unkind manner - not as we would expect from a loving and compassionate Savior. We read:
“And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word.”
“And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’”
What are we to make of this? Well, Jesus does explain why he hesitated to involve himself in this woman’s problem. He told her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
What we see here is his recognition of what his unique calling was, at this time in his life. Our calling, or our vocation, is the duty or set of duties that God has entrusted to us, for a specific period of time, within certain parameters, and for the fulfilling of certain purposes.
We are often tempted to overstep the lines of our vocation, and in so doing not to pay adequate attention to what God has actually called us to do. Jesus shows here that he was not prepared to do that.
During the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry, while he was living in the land of Israel - under the law of God and in the form of a servant - certain parameters had been established for his work, by the heavenly Father who had sent him to do this work.
Jesus was a Jew. He was, in fact, the epitome of what it meant, or should have meant, to be a Jew. And as the Jewish Messiah, he embodied the fulfillment of all the dreams and hopes of all the faithful men and women of Israel, of all preceding generations.
He was the true teacher and spokesman for God, toward whom Moses and all the prophets had pointed. He was the true Lamb of God, toward whom all of the temple sacrifices had pointed.
He was the true King of God’s people, toward whom David and all of his royal progeny had pointed. Jesus was, quite simply, the apex and the culmination of all of Hebrew history.
Everything that had gone before was a preparation for him. All that had transpired among God’s Old Testament people through the centuries, now found its true meaning and ultimate purpose in him.
This was the context in which those who knew Jesus according to the flesh did in fact know him. He walked the earth, preached to the crowds, performed his miracles, and did everything that he did, precisely as Israel’s Messiah: the true successor of Moses, the great high priest, and the ultimate royal son of David.
Before his death and resurrection, Jesus did not have a calling from his Father to be anything else, or to do anything else. It was therefore important for him not to be distracted from the singular pathway that the Hebrew Scriptures had laid out for him to follow.
He was a part of that one special nation on earth to which the oracles of God had been entrusted. For the Jews, therefore, what Jesus did and said would have made sense - or at least it was supposed to make sense. But within the unbelieving pagan nations of the world, nothing about Jesus would have made sense.
At best, he would have intrigued them as a mysterious wonder-worker. At worst, he would have frightened them - which is in fact what happened on another occasion when Jesus paid a visit to a largely Gentile area.
In the country of the Gadarenes, after a dramatic exorcism - when Jesus sent a legion of demons into a herd of pigs that then stampeded off a cliff - we are told that “all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region.”
The Gentile nations were, quite simply, not ready for Jesus. And Jesus, during the time of his earthly ministry, was not sent to them.
This doesn’t mean that he had no concern for people who were not a part of Israel. He knew that the time would come when his calling would in fact bring him into regular contact with all the nations of the earth.
But that time had not yet come. That was not yet his calling. And this, my friends, is the meaning of the point he is making in today’s text, when he tells the Canaanite woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Jesus was not pleased that this woman’s daughter was oppressed by a demon. He was not happy to think about how the whole Canaanite nation was under the domination of the devil - the “ruler of this world” - in any number of ways.
And someday he was going to do something about that. But not yet.
Some of us are no doubt troubled also by the comment that Jesus made in this text, describing Gentiles such as the Canaanite woman as the equivalent of dogs - to whom a father will not throw his children’s bread. This seemingly disparaging remark would suggest that even the long-term benefits of Jesus’ ministry were intended exclusively for the people of Israel - the children of God - and not for the Canaanites or any other un-chosen nation.
But let’s not take too much offense at his use of the word “dogs” to describe the non-Jewish peoples. He uses the diminutive form of the word, which we could more precisely translate as “little dogs” or “puppies.”
The image that would be conjured up in his listeners’ minds would not be of large, threatening and growling dogs. Instead, their thoughts would be directed to cute yappy dogs - the kind that we wouldn’t mind having around the house, and that we might in fact be tempted to feed from the table.
And the analogy from the animal world that he uses to describe his own people wasn’t really much of a compliment to them, either. Not only does he refer to the nation of Israel, as a whole, as “sheep” - animals well-known for their lack of intelligence - but he calls the ones that he is particularly concerned about, “lost sheep.”
Sheep who are lost are the least intelligent sheep of all! Even with their general lack of intelligence, most sheep usually do at least know how to stay in the flock where they belong, heeding and following the voice of their shepherd.
In contrast, many of the people of Israel at this time in history didn’t know where they belonged. In their hearts they had wandered away from God and from the true meaning of his Word.
One of the tasks that Jesus was fulfilling during his earthly ministry was to call this nation to repentance, and to a renewed faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And he certainly had enough work to do in that respect, in the three years that elapsed between his baptism and his crucifixion.
Of course, we can’t fail to notice that in the end, Jesus did decide to help the woman in today’s story. She was a Canaanite - a descendant of the historic enemies of Jesus’ human ancestors. She certainly was not one of his “parishioners,” as it were.
But even so, in his compassion he finally did address her need, and by his power brought deliverance to her daughter. In mercy he made an exception for her - similar to the exception he also made for another Gentile, the Roman centurion, when he healed his servant.
The woman in today’s text said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
I mentioned Christ’s crucifixion a minute ago. His crucifixion - and the resurrection that followed - certainly were pivotal events. In dying, he destroyed the power of death; and in rising again on the third day, he opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
The preaching and miracle-working that Jesus did during his earthly ministry, were not intended for everyone in every nation. These pastoral activities were directed to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
But, the atoning sacrifice that Jesus offered on the cross, at the end of his earthly ministry, was offered not only for the sins of Israel, but for the sins of the whole world.
As Jesus died, his forgiving and redeeming love embraced all people of all nations: Israelites and Canaanites, Africans and Europeans, Asians and Americans. In that time of agony, as he bore the weight of all human sin on behalf of all humanity, he was beginning the fulfillment of this pledge and promise, which Jesus had made in another time and place, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel:
“‘Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”
The death of Christ brought to an end the specific and limited calling that God the Father had given him for the time of his earthly ministry. And the death of Christ ushered in the beginning of a new calling - a calling that had, and still has, all the peoples of the world in view.
The resurrected and ascended Lord will now never bypass a Gentile simply because she is a Gentile. In his Word and sacraments - to which he has mystically united himself - he now makes himself available to everyone.
And Jesus fulfills his new calling through the instrumentality of his church, and through the instrumentality of the ministers of his church, as he sends them - as he sends us - to people like the Canaanite woman.
Previously, under his former calling, Jesus had said this to the Canaanite woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Now, under his new calling, he says this to us:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
All nations are now the “lost sheep” that Jesus seeks. All nations are now the “little dogs” to which he is willing to give the children’s bread.
Those of us who are of non-Jewish, Gentile ancestry, need to realize that if Jesus had had occasion to meet any of us during the time of his earthly ministry, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been willing to have very much to do with us. He certainly would not have been willing to take us into the circle of his disciples.
If you want to have the assurance that Jesus does in fact want to be a part of your life, and to embrace you with his saving grace, you should not imagine yourself sentimentally to be transported back in time to the days when Jesus was visibly walking this earth. If you could somehow go to him, in the first century, by means of some kind of time machine, the Christ you would find would be the Christ that the Canaanite woman found.
Instead, the focus of your faith - especially if your faith is a struggling and doubting faith - needs to be on Christ as he comes to you now: in the gospel that is preached in our midst, and in the sacraments that are administered in our midst.
Just before his ascension, the risen Christ promised his disciples that he would be with them always, even to the end of the age, as they bring his Word and sacraments to the nations. That’s a promise to which the Canaanite woman could later cling. That’s a promise to which we can cling.
The Biblical revelation of the many things that Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry, as recorded in the Four Gospels, is certainly intended for us, and for the strengthening of our Christian hope. But this revelation, and the blessings of Christ to which it testifies, are funneled to us across time through the means of grace.
We were not, and could not have been, among Jesus’ original audience, on the hillsides and seashore of first-century Galilee, or in the upper rooms and gardens of first-century Jerusalem.
We encounter this revelation - and are impacted by the love and acceptance of Christ through this revelation - in the fellowship of his church, where Jesus has promised to be present for us whenever two or three are gathered together in his name.
To call the church of Jesus “international,” is not to say enough. The church absorbs and transcends all nations of this earth. It is itself a new, holy nation. Within this church there is no room for the ethnic bigotries and racial prejudices that so often afflict people in this fallen world.
And, we have been made a part of this new nation, and this new people of God, by the new birth that God’s Spirit has worked in us. Believers from all nations are now invited to sit at the Lord’s eucharistic table, where we are fed with God’s grace and life as full members of his household, and not merely as pets within his household.
When we plead for Jesus’ help, we will receive it. When we trust in him, he will comfort and heal us - not because he is making an exception, but because we have become heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, through faith in his gospel.
Jesus loved the Canaanite woman, her daughter, and her whole nation. Even when he hesitated to overstep the boundaries of his calling at that time of his life, and to provide the miracle that had been asked of him, it was not because of a lack of love.
God’s plan of redemption for the Canaanites - and for all the benighted pagan nations - was a plan conceived in nothing but love. God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.
And since the Day of Pentecost, that loving divine plan is now fully operative: among us, and among every people to whom the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins is being preached. The resurrected and ascended Jesus is in that preaching. He is in his church. He is in us.
When the message of Christ crucified is proclaimed now, we do not, in that proclamation, hear Jesus mutter softly that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. That limitation no longer applies to the calling under which he now operates.
Instead, we hear him say boldly and loudly, that when he is lifted up on the cross - and when the message of the cross is lifted up before men - he will draw all people to himself. He will draw the Canaanite woman, and those like her.
And whoever you are - regardless of where you come from, or who your ancestors were - he will draw you. Amen.
23 August 2020 - Pentecost 12 - Romans 11:33-12:8
In the Old Testament, when an Israelite family went to the Temple to offer an animal sacrifice to the Lord, they were fully relinquishing their ownership of that goat, or their control over that bull. It didn’t belong to this family any more.
They had no more claim on it. It was sacrificed to the God to whom they owed everything, and from whom they had received everything.
We who live in the New Testament era do not bring such sacrifices to the Lord. God no longer asks his people to slay animals in this manner, because his own Son has now been offered on the altar of the cross. Jesus’ body was sacrificed, and his blood was shed, to win an eternal reconciliation between God and man.
The death of animals in Old Testament times pictured and prefigured this ultimate sacrificial death, through which humanity’s sins were atoned for once and for all. And after our Savior died, he rose again, as a testimony that his sacrifice was accepted by God the Father.
The Epistle to the Hebrews makes it clear that the time of animal sacrifices is now over. We are told that
“When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God... For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Our peace with God has been established through Christ. Our guilt is covered, and God’s wrath is satisfied, through Christ.
No additional sacrifices of this kind are necessary, and we are therefore not saved by more sacrifices of this kind. We are saved by faith in the complete and finished sacrifice that Jesus Christ offered on our behalf, on the cross.
But while the time for atoning sacrifices, and propitiatory sacrifices, is over, the time for a different kind of sacrifice - sacrifices of thanksgiving - is not over. In today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul writes:
“I appeal to you..., brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Jesus sacrificed his body into death, in order to redeem you from your slavery to sin and Satan. And because he has done this for you, St. Paul explains in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that now, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”
When Paul appeals to you in today’s lesson to present your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, he is showing you what it means to belong to God.
When a Hebrew believer in former times sacrificed an animal from his flock or herd, he was giving up all claims of ownership of that animal. You, too, when you confess and embrace the redemption of Christ, thereby confess and acknowledge that your life does not belong to you any more.
Your life belongs to God. Please ponder this. Ponder it deeply and soberly.
What you believe is now shaped by his revelation. What you do is now shaped by his vocation. In your thinking, you put on the mind of his Son. In your character, you show forth the fruit of his Spirit.
His will shapes your priorities. His Word shapes your convictions. For as long as you live, you live for him. And when you die, you die in him.
“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s,” as we also read in the Epistle to the Romans.
According to St. Paul, the antithesis of offering yourself as a living sacrifice to God, is conforming yourself to this world. The spirit of this fallen world is not a spirit of sacrifice, but is a spirit of selfishness and pride. The way of this world is the way of taking, not giving.
The impulses of worldly thinking do not prompt you to give up valuable things to One whom you consider to be higher than yourself. Those impulses prompt you instead to try continuously to acquire and accumulate valuable things, and to bring other people into your service rather than looking for opportunities to serve them.
In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul asks the rhetorical question: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” The answer, of course, is that our loving heavenly Father will indeed graciously give us all things.
In Christ, he gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation. By faith, we received what he gives - and what he continues to give. In thanksgiving, we then give ourselves back to him, in worship and praise, and in grateful service. And we continue to do so.
None of this is transactional. That is, we’re not making deals with God, so that if we give him something, he will give us something. It’s not that way at all.
According to his infinite grace; through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son; and by means of his gospel and sacraments, God gives us everything.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father - representing God - says to his son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” And that’s what God says to us for real.
And we in return - as we are led by God, inspired by God, and taught by God - give everything to him. Every day we want God to help us pray these words, from a well-known hymn:
Take my life and let it be Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my will and make it Thine; It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; It shall be Thy royal throne.
When you give yourself to God as a living sacrifice, this does not mean that you lay down on an altar somewhere, and wait for something for happen. Remember that what St. Paul exhorts us to offer to God, is a living sacrifice.
It’s something that is always happening, by faith and in love, as we live and breath; as we act, and interact with others. And therefore it is something that is always happening, by faith and in love, for the benefit of God’s church: to promote the mission of God’s church, and to contribute toward the fellowship and well-being of the members of God’s church.
In the spirit of the Savior who came into this world not to be served but to serve, we don’t contend for a higher status or for personal advancement in the church, or in its institutions. That would be conforming to the world, and inserting the attitudes of the world into a place where they do not belong.
What we care about, as we sacrifice ourselves to the God whose Son was sacrificed for us, is the church of God itself; the children of God within his church; and those whom God’s church touches in Christ’s name with its ministry and charity. Whatever gifts and abilities we have, are dedicated to this.
Our divine vocations do, of course, pull and push us in other directions, too.
We have an earthly occupation in which we work diligently, to serve our neighbors in the larger economy and to support our families. We have an earthly family, in which we lovingly serve, and care for, spouse, parents, and children.
The duties of our earthly citizenship in civil society are likewise duties that we seek to fulfill, in love for community and country.
But our primary identity - our eternal identity - is defined by our baptism into Christ, and into his body the church. In regard to this identity, and this calling, we are “all in” in our commitment to be what God has made us to be, in and for his church.
This is why St. Paul also gives us this exhortation in today’s text, as he unfolds and applies the full significance of the “living sacrifice” that we are called upon continuously to offer to God:
“By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.”
The complete offering of ourselves to God that God requires of us, is, however, never actually fulfilled by us. Even if we sincerely want to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice - giving all to God - we always hold something back. We falter. We compromise.
Elsewhere in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul speaks on behalf of each of us, as he and we struggle with the lingering sinfulness that coexists and competes with our good intentions. He writes:
“I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. ... Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Indeed: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” He does deliver us.
Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross - by which our reconciliation with God was accomplished, and our forgiveness before God was won - did take place in the past. It is not ongoing.
The sacrifices of thanksgiving that we are called upon to offer to God are ongoing, but Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins is finished. In fact, that’s a direct quotation from Jesus on the cross: “It is finished.”
But the saving power and blessings of Jesus’ one atoning sacrifice are most definitely not in the past. Jesus’ compassionate help for us in our struggles and failures is not finished.
He is with his church always, to the end of the age. He is with each of us always, to the end of our lives in this world.
And he is with us to justify us: that is, to cover our unrighteousness with his righteousness, and to cover our disobedience with his obedience. He is with us also to cover our weak and faltering sacrifices with the perfection of his atoning sacrifice.
Where our sacrifices of thanksgiving fall short in selfish ingratitude, his grace does not fall short. Where our living sacrifices are incomplete and insincere, his forgiveness and renewal are complete and true.
St. Paul continually speaks these words to you: “I appeal to you..., brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Every time you hear this, you know that God has the right to expect this of you. Yet you also know and admit that you have fallen short of this expectation.
But then, you are also always able to hear these words, from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:
“Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival.”
When you hear this, your hope is renewed. These words lift you out of your sorrow. Your regret, and your disappointment with yourself, are replaced by the renewed joy that comes when you know that you are forgiven once again, and that God is giving you another chance yet again.
And Jesus himself, the Passover lamb who was sacrificed for us, speaks of his sacrifice, and bestows upon you the benefits of his sacrifice, when he solemnly says this:
“Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.” “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you - and for many - for the remission of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
We refer to this Holy Supper as the Sacrament of the Altar for a reason. An altar is a place of sacrifice.
Now, the one sacrifice of Christ for our sins is not repeated on our altar. It’s not repeated on any altar. But the forgiving and healing fruit of that one sacrifice is distributed to us from our altar, by the power and promise of Jesus’ words.
Truly here, at our altar - which is really our Savior’s altar - we “celebrate the festival” of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. We “celebrate the festival” of the sacrifice of his body, and the shedding of his blood, for the sins of the world.
We “celebrate the festival” in remembrance of him - as our remembrance of the cross of Christ is renewed and refocused by the presence of Christ himself.
And as we “celebrate the festival” of the Passover Lamb who was sacrificed for us, we commit ourselves once again, in his strength and by his help, to heed St. Paul’s directive: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them through his blood. Amen.
30 August 2020 - Pentecost 13 - Romans 12:9-21
Our sinful nature blinds us to a lot of things. Selfishness and pride are earmarks of that sinful nature, so that we are particularly sensitive to offenses that are directed toward us - or that we think are directed toward us.
But, we often have no idea how the things we say and do are hurting other people. Sin makes us capable of doing a lot of harm in the lives of others: not just deliberate harm, when we intentionally try to hurt others by insulting or critical words; but also when we are oblivious to how our words an actions are affecting someone else.
And sometimes, our words hurt others when we say something that we mistakenly think would be the right thing to say - but it is not. An example of that sort of thing is in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew.
Jesus solemnly explained to his disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Jesus was opening up to his closest friends about the suffering and death that he would need to experience, in order to redeem fallen humanity from the guilt and power of sin. He should have been able to expect his disciples to listen carefully to what he was telling them, and to accept it, even if they did not fully understand at that time why these things needed to happen.
But instead of showing Jesus this respect, Peter - out of a misplaced affection for Jesus, and from a human desire for Jesus to stay health and happy - did not react in this way. We are told that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’”
But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Peter meant well. But in rebuking the Son of God, even with these good intentions, he did not say a good thing. And he elicited a severe rebuke from Jesus in response.
It is a sad and tragic thing to see, or to experience: when relationships in a family, or in another association, are spiraling; when mutual trust has collapsed, and mutual goodwill has broken down. Everything that another person says is now interpreted as an attack or a criticism.
The individuals involved have withdraw into their own self-righteousness, or into their own pain over what others have said. Yet the individuals involved also have a remarkable inability - or unwillingness - to see and admit the destructive affect that their words are having, in furthering the loss of trust and goodwill in the relationship.
A vicious, destructive cycle has set in, and is pulling everyone down ever further into sadness, disappointment, anger, resentment, and despair. A darkness has shrouded the hearts and minds of people who previously had cared about each other - so that they can now see no pathway forward, that can be a pathway they can take together.
In situations like this, there seems to be no way out, except for breaking up the family, or ending the association. But is there a way out, and a way forward? A forgiving and reconciling way? A healing and cleansing way? A divine way? Yes, there is.
In the Book of Isaiah, the people of God offer God this prayer of hope and thanksgiving: “O Lord, you will ordain peace for us, for you have indeed done for us all our works.”
Through the Prophet Malachi, the Lord prophesied of the Messiah whom he would someday send to this dark and sin-sick world: “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”
And when that Messiah did come, he spoke to his disciples, and he speaks to us, in these ways:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
"Take heart, ...your sins are forgiven."
Jesus was not functioning at these times as a motivational speaker, or even as a psychological counselor. He was talking about what he would do for his people, and what he would give to his people, as their Savior.
And he was preparing his disciples to be able to understand, and in faith to grasp, what he was going to accomplish on his cross and in his empty tomb, to deal concretely with sin: to deal with the divine judgment that sin deserves; the hostility and fear that sin triggers; and the brokenness and alienation that sin produces.
And sin, with all of its destructive power, also has a powerful supernatural ally: a being whose agenda is to manipulate situations, to deceive minds, and to poison hearts, in order to get people to turn away from God, and to turn on each other. Jesus would also vanquish that enemy of God and man, in his death and resurrection.
In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks some sober and sobering words, when he says that
“the devil...was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
But then, Jesus says this: “I tell the truth.”
On the cross, Jesus absorbed into himself the judgment, the hostility, the fear, the brokenness, and the alienation of sin. He endured the full weight, the full destructive force, and the full pain of all of this: for us, and as our substitute.
Jesus, as it were, pulled all of these things out of us, and pulled them into himself. And now, as the risen victor over the guilt and power of sin, he puts his pardon and peace into our troubled consciences, and into our troubled relationships.
And this Jesus - this healing, uplifting, and life-giving Savior Jesus - says something else in John’s Gospel. He says something we can apply to ourselves.
He says something we can apply to the anguish and enmity in which sin and Satan have trapped us, and by which sin and Satan have separated us from the people God calls us to love and serve. Jesus says:
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Pleased absorb this, my friends. Trust in what Jesus does for you. Receive what Jesus gives to you. Believe what Jesus says to you. Let his words get into you, and into your relationships.
And when that has happened, then these words from Jesus - recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel - will not just crush you, but will guide you:
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
All of this - these words of Jesus; the goodness and grace of Jesus - all of this now prepares you for the loving exhortations, the Christlike aspirations, and the practical changes, that we hear and hear about in today’s lesson from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
What St. Paul writes reaches so far and so deep, that it touches not only the strained and breaking relationships we may have with relatives and friends, church members and neighbors, coworkers and classmates; but also touches even our lack of any relationship with those who until now have been thought of as enemies and opponents.
You who are loved by Christ: please listen to what Paul says. You who are indwelt by Christ: please do what Paul says.
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
So far St. Paul.
God will help you to let your guard down, and to swallow your pride, so that defending yourself, and proving that you are right, will no longer be the most important thing. Ask him to help you.
God will help you to lay to rest your anger at others, and to empathize with the experience of others; to see things as they see things, and to feel things as they feel things. Ask him to help you.
God will help you to apologize to others, and to love others, before they apologize to and love you, so that you can be the one to set in motion a new pattern, and a new pathway forward. Ask him to help you.
And, God will forgive you for your sinful and hurtful words: both the ones you spoke on purpose, and the ones you didn’t even know were causing pain.
For everyone in a strained and breaking relationship, and for the hurting people on all sides of a distressing conflict: Let the prayer of Psalm 19 be your prayer:
“Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!”
God will hear this prayer. God does hear this prayer.
“From sorrow, toil, and pain, and sin, we shall be free;
and perfect love and friendship reign through all eternity. Amen.