7 June 2020 - Holy Trinity - Matthew 28:16-20

“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.”

So says our Lord, in St. Matthew’s Gospel.

According to the mystery of how God has revealed himself to the human race - in his words and in his actions - we believe and confess that the one God who exists is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From eternity - before all worlds and outside of all time - the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With our limited ability to grasp such things with our finite human reason, we often try to make it a bit easier to understand the doctrine of three persons within one Godhead, by conceptualizing the distinction of divine person in terms of the special work that is associated with each person. So the Father is the Creator, the Son is the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier.

Our catechism does this, and to a certain extent this can be a helpful way of teaching and explaining God’s triune existence. But we cannot forget that the Scriptures tell us that Father, Son, and Spirit are actually never divided, and that the works that they do as God, they always do together. To deny this, would be to deny that there is indeed only one God.

So, while we generally associate the work of creation, and the providential preservation of the created world, with God the Father, we also recall that the Book of Genesis tells us that In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

The Gospel of John, in speaking of the eternal divine Son, teaches that “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Likewise, in his Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul writes regarding the Lord Christ:

“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

The Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is, of course, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Only the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became incarnate as a human being, to bear the sins of humanity and to live and die as humanity’s substitute and Savior.

Yet when the miracle of the incarnation did happen, according to the angel Gabriel it was because the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and because the power of the Most High overshadowed Mary, so that the child born of her would be called holy - the Son of God.

The Epistle to the Hebrews - in commenting on Christ’s sacrificing of himself for the sins of the world - explains that “When Christ appeared as a high priest..., he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”

But this epistle goes on to say that “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God,” can and will “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

The special operations of the Holy Spirit are generally understood to be the activity of bringing conviction of sin to a person’s conscience; the activity of instilling the gift of faith within a penitent person, so that God’s forgiveness of sins can be received; and the activity of continually indwelling a Christian, whom he makes to be a new creature in Christ, and through whom he bears his fruit.

But when Jesus describes the Spirit’s unique role in our salvation, in John’s Gospel, he says important things about himself and about God the Father too:

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. ... If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

St. Paul also writes to the Romans that “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

So, the Holy Spirit does indeed dwell with us, and he renews and transforms us from the inside. But the Father and the Son also dwell within us, since the Holy Spirit is their Spirit, and they are where he is.

The Triune God is everywhere, doing all these things, all the time. And yet the atheists and agnostics tell us that they don’t believe in him, because they can’t see him.

But that’s a bit like saying that you don’t believe in air because you can’t see it - even though air surrounds everything all the time, giving life and breath to all; and filling your own lungs continually, keeping you alive in every moment.

In regard to the supernatural realm, St. Paul speaks in a similar way of the Triune God, in his Epistle to the Ephesians. He writes:

“There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call - one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

This is the Triune God in whom we believe. This is the Triune God by whom, and into whom, we have been baptized.

“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.”

From within our baptism, which marks us for life with the name of the Holy Trinity, we know by faith that God is always fulfilling his purposes, and accomplishing his will, in all the arenas of activity in which he does his work. We know that he is always doing something, even when we don’t know exactly what he is doing.

Still, it is an article of faith for us that God is always working in the realm of creation. In and through the laws of nature, as he uses all the biochemical and physical processes that he set in motion within the cosmos, God is working to preserve the cosmos, and to keep everything going and moving forward. And in this way he is manifesting his power.

It is likewise an article of faith for us that God is always working in human history. In his deliverance of Noah, in his call to Abraham, and in his establishment and preservation of the people of Israel as his chosen nation, God was unfolding his eternal plan for human redemption.

And in the person of Jesus Christ, God became a part of human history, and entered into the human race. Nothing has ever been the same since. The sins of the world were atoned for when Jesus died, and a portal to everlasting life was opened for humanity when Jesus rose from the dead.

Those historical events - those real, objective, historical events - cannot be undone. They remain engraved in the annals of human history regardless of whether people today know about them or care about them.

And God continues to act in human history - imperceptibly, yet with purpose and design - to advance the kingdom of Christ among men. He continues to work, molding and shaping the events of human history according to his will, even in the face of much diabolical opposition.

In his Epistle to the Colossians St. Paul speaks of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power toward us who believe, “according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion... And he put all things under his feet, and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

In and through the events of human history that he controls from behind the scenes, God often chastises humanity because of its sin and disobedience - sometimes severely so - to manifest his holiness, and his wrath against evil and wickedness.

In and through the events of human history that he controls from behind the scenes, God often blesses and prospers humanity - in undeserved ways - to manifest his love and goodwill toward his creatures.

God also uses the earthly vocations that he bestows upon people, by which they serve him and one another in this world. God raises up gifted people to accomplish important tasks - tasks that are important to him, even if they may not seem important to human eyes. He is at work through their work.

And finally, it is an article of faith for us that God is always working in the human conscience, in the human spirit, and in the human will, as his Word and Sacraments impact people and touch their souls. And in this way he is always manifesting his grace and mercy toward us, and his desire to heal and restore all who are broken and lost.

Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit convicts the world “concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” St. Paul writes to the Ephesians that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” And to the Philippians he writes this:

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.”

The Triune God - the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier - is doing all these things, all the time. As we learn and sing in Psalm 121:

“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. ... The Lord is your keeper... The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”

To say that I believe in the Triune God certainly does seem to be saying too little. God made me and formed me, and he has shaped my destiny.

When I sin against God, disobey him, and break his law - in thought, word, and deed - he crushes me, humbles me, and drives me to repentance. And then God raises me up in the forgiveness of Christ, restores my joy with the peace of Christ, refocuses my values according to the image of Christ, and reopens the world before me in the confidence of Christ.

In the life that he gives me on earth - with all of its fears, uncertainties, and disappointments - God teaches me, through the text of Scripture and the trial of suffering. He forms and reforms my conscience and character, through preaching and practice.

God pushes me and pulls me in the directions he wants me to go. God is behind me as my motivator, and in front of me as my goal. God is under me as my foundation, and over me as my protector. God is for me, and in me.

God is the God of the universe, and of the whole human race. And God - the Triune God - is my God. He is mine, and I am his. And, he gives to me - and to you - this prayer, from Psalm 139:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. ...”

“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. ...”

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. ... In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. ...”

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

“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.” Amen.

14 June 2020 - Pentecost 2 - Romans 6:12-23

For almost any Christian, one of our favorite Bible verses is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

St. John, in his First Epistle, even says this: “We have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love.”

God’s compassionate love for a hurting and lost humanity is a common theme of Scripture. This is reflected in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples:

“ the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”

There’s no denying that love is one of God’s defining attributes. And because of his love for humanity, he sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world, to save us from the pain and misery that our sin has brought upon us.

But love is not God’s only defining attribute. And the painful consequences of sin, in our life in this world, are not everything that Jesus saves us from.

In order to get as complete a picture of God’s character and ways as we can, we need to pay attention to some of the other things that the Bible tells us about God. And in order to get as complete a picture of redemption and salvation as we can, we need to pay attention to some of the other things that the Bible tells us about what Jesus has accomplished for us.

We read in today’s text from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. ... God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

So, here again we see a testimony to God’s love, as that which motivated him to save us, in our weakness, from ungodliness and sin. But listen to what Paul then immediately goes on to say:

“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by [Christ’s] blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

Saved from the wrath of God? Yeah, saved from the wrath of God!

The Christian gospel is a message of salvation from the power and pain of sin - a salvation that is accomplished by a loving and gracious God, in and through the person of his Son Jesus Christ.

But the Christian gospel is also a message of salvation from the wrath of a holy and righteous God - a God who is angered and offended by human rebellion against his authority, by human disobedience of his law, and by human blasphemies against the honor of his name.

Christians in earlier generations seem to have had a stronger sense of this aspect of God’s character. They were more Biblically literate than many today are, and took the teachings of the Bible more seriously than many today do.

They were familiar with the Old Testament story of the flood, through which God destroyed all human beings on the face of the earth because of their wickedness - with the exception of Noah and his family.

They were familiar with the Old Testament story of the fire and brimstone that rained down from heaven, through which God destroyed all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their perversion and evil - with the exception of Lot and his family.

And they were familiar with the Old Testament story of the ten plagues that afflicted Egypt - especially the last one, through which God punished Pharaoh and the people of Egypt by slaying all the firstborn in the land, because of Pharaoh’s refusal to do as the Lord had told him to do - with the exception of the firstborn among the Hebrews.

So, Christians in more religiously conservative times of the past, did not rule out the possibility that some or many of the calamities that befell the world in which they lived, could be divine judgments and divine punishments, and not just bad luck.

We do not have prophets living among us today, to give us precise information about what God is doing in our time to “shake up” and chastise people on account of their failures to honor him, or to care about others.

But we shouldn’t assume that God would never do something like this. He’s done it before. And for sure he will do it again, on the final judgment day.

When something unpleasant happens to a person today, his first response is often to offer a self-righteous prayer of exasperation: “Why me?” Wouldn’t it be something if just once, God answered such a prayer, by saying from heaven, “Do you want the whole list, or just the low points?”

Psalm 14 describes the human condition as it really is, and as God accurately sees it.:

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”

In his Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul warns us all: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”

“The wrath of God is coming.”

People today are often very presumptuous and self-assured, regarding the question of God’s existence and God’s activities. We, today, are probably more presumptuous than we should be.

People in our Biblically-ignorant era, if they still want to be religious, generally choose to believe in a non-threatening God who can be called upon for spiritual benefits when they are desired, and who can be asked to bless man’s projects and plans once they have been devised.

And so, almost every politician invokes the Lord at the end of a speech, with “God bless the United States of America.” I suppose that’s not such a bad thing. But when apostate Protestant clergy call down the blessing of their deity on the opening of a new abortion clinic, that is a very bad thing.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was once asked if God was on the side of the Union. He answered: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

A human being doesn’t get to have his own designer God, with the traits he likes, and without any traits he doesn’t like. There is only one God who actually exists, and that God defines himself. As we were reminded last week, this God is the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is the God who made us, and who holds us - as his creatures - accountable to him. This is the God who redeemed us by the shedding of Jesus’ blood on our behalf, and who - through Jesus - provides a way of reconciliation with him that will actually work.

This is the God who now sanctifies us, by leading each of us in a life of daily repentance, with fear and trembling before his law; and by leading each us in a life of daily trusting in Christ for the forgiveness and pardon that we do so desperately need.

Because God is God, and because his mind is the mind of God - infinite and unsearchable - it should not surprise us that we cannot fully understand how he thinks. He declares, through Isaiah:

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

We would assume that God is either filled with love for us, or is filled with wrath against us. Both things can’t be true, according to our puny human logic.

But both things are true. And both things are true together; and can be seen to be true together in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

The first thing to remember is that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” - as we read in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. And as the Epistle to the Romans elsewhere reminds us,

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

In all this, God is two things:

First, he is just, and cannot tolerate anything that is not just, and holy, and righteous. He is a God of wrath against injustice, corruption, and wickedness.

And second, God is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. He is a God of love, who loves and justifies even those whose sin had provoked him, and who wants to be at peace with them.

But, God’s justification of the penitent sinner, and his forgiveness of sins, do not take place because he has stopped being just. Rather, this justification and this forgiveness happen, because God - in the person of Christ - absorbed his own wrath against all human sin into himself, and thereby satisfied his justice.

God was in Christ - literally inside of Christ - reconciling the world to himself. God’s forgiveness of sin does not come about because sin does not really offend him after all. God does not say, “Oh, what the heck! Alright, I’ll forgive you. No big deal.”

Sin is a big deal. And the forgiveness of sin is a big deal, because a very big price had to be paid to earn that forgiveness, and to atone for that sin.

Jesus was the sacrifice for all human sin. He was the stand-in for all of us, who took our unrighteousness upon himself, and on the cross took the blame for all our sins.

God’s righteous wrath against us was, in that horrible hour - in that blessed hour - redirected away from us, and toward the one who had put himself in our place. And in an exchange that then goes also in the other direction, the righteousness of Christ is now credited to us, through faith, so that each of us becomes - in God’s sight - as righteous as his Son actually is.

As St. Paul summarizes it in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

And in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession - which is itself also one of the official Confessions of our church - we are taught that

“We have a gracious God because of Christ’s satisfaction, and not because of our fulfilling the Law. Paul teaches this in Galatians 3:13, when he says, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.’ This means that the Law condemns all people. But Christ - without sin - has borne the punishment of sin.”

“He has been made a victim for us, and has removed the right of the Law to accuse and condemn those who believe in Him. He Himself is the Atonement for them. For His sake they are now counted righteous. Since they are counted righteous, the Law cannot accuse or condemn them, even though they have not actually satisfied the Law.”

And so, as you stumble and fall, and as you from time to time disobey God’s law - perhaps testing the limits of his patience; doing things you know are wrong as you do them - don’t presume that you needn’t fear God’s wrath, since “God is love,” and therefore is not wrathful toward you or anyone else.

No. God’s wrath is real. And it can touch you, if you remove yourself from the covering of Christ. St. John’s Gospel says:

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

And yet, when you turn away from your sin and abhor your sin - in heart, mind, and soul - then you are set free from this fear. And as you hear and believe the absolution of Christ - spoken from his cross, through the lips of his called servant here and now - you can be confident that God’s wrath will not touch you: Not because it isn’t real, but because it already touched Christ your substitute, and has already been absorbed by Christ your Savior.

With such true repentance, and in such a true faith, you can also now join in the happy and hopeful confession that today’s text from the Epistle to the Romans provides for us:

“If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Indeed, God is a God of love, and he is also a God of wrath. This deep dual truth, as we ponder it, causes us to be serious about God, and about our relationship with him. This mysterious dual truth, as we ponder it, causes us to be humble before God.

God’s holiness is not a frivolous matter. God’s demands, and God’s threats, are not frivolous matters.

But this deep and mysterious dual truth also fills us with peace, when the eyes of our faith are turned once again to the cross of Christ: where these seemingly contradictory components of God’s character are resolved, and where everything that was accomplished for our salvation comes into sharp focus for us.

God, in his love for fallen humanity, needed to restore his relationship with us in a way that would at the same time not violate his holiness. The cross was the solution to this need.

God’s holiness, and the wrath against sin that flows out from his holiness, are evident in the suffering and death of the One who was in that moment clothed with all human sin, and who stood in the place of all sinners.

God’s love, and the saving grace toward humanity that flows out from his love, are evident in the fact that Christ’s suffering and death was for others - for all others - who are now forgiven in Christ. Their sins will not be held against them in Christ, because in Christ their sins have already been paid for.

Of course, the only way truly to know the forgiving and saving love of God, is to know Christ. God’s love for the world is channeled through Christ. And it always has been.

God forgave Adam and Eve because of Christ - the Seed of the woman. God forgave King David because of Christ - the Son of David.

Apart from Christ, there is only wrath. Yet as St. John writes in his First Epistle, “we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”

There is a very good reason - a necessary reason - why Jesus died on the cross. He died on the cross precisely because God is a God of love, and is also a God of wrath. And he died on the cross for us - for you, and for me - and there procured for us a complete salvation: from human sin and its consequences, and from divine wrath.

We close with these words from St. John’s First Epistle:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful, and just, to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”


21 June 2020 - Pentecost 3 - Matthew 10:5a, 21-33

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

When Jesus said this - as today’s Gospel from St. Matthew records him saying this - we might get the impression that he is getting ready to launch into a sermon about how and why people should tremble before God’s holiness, and shake in fear at God’s threat to damn all who are wicked and ungodly. But that’s not where Jesus goes. The very next thing he says is this:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

We see, then, that his primary point is not to emphasize how much we should fear God. Rather, it was to emphasize how little we should fear anyone or anything else.

Fear has the ability to impact and change the way a person looks at and thinks about all aspects of life. You can be paralyzed with fear. Your rational judgment and personal composure can be totally upset by fear.

Or, fear can make you more alert and more aware of what is happening around you. It can sharpen your perceptions.

When Jesus says that we should “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” - that is, God - a part of what he means is that we should be alert to, and aware of, God’s law, God’s judgments, and God’s displeasure at human sin and disobedience.

Even if you are a Christian - or maybe especially if you are a Christian - you must not become indifferent to the danger and faith-killing power of sin, or to the importance of renouncing and avoiding sin.

In daily repentance and faith, we daily battle against sin and its destructive effects. But if we waver in this battle, surrender to sin, and end up renouncing and avoiding God, that would change everything.

If you see yourself doing this, or being tempted to do this, then be afraid. Be very afraid. In the Smalcald Articles, we are taught and warned that certain sectarian groups may teach that

“those who had once received the Spirit or the forgiveness of sins or had become believers - even if they later sin - would still remain in the faith. Such sin, they think, would not harm them. They say, ‘Do whatever you please. If you believe, it all amounts to nothing...’”

“So it is necessary to know and to teach this: When holy people - still having and feeling original sin and daily repenting and striving against it - happen to fall into manifest sins (as David did into adultery, murder, and blasphemy), then faith and the Holy Spirit have left them.”

“The Holy Spirit does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so it can be carried out, but represses and restrains [sin] from doing what it wants. If sin does what it wants, the Holy Spirit and faith are not present. For St. John says, ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, ...and he cannot keep on sinning.’”

This warning is itself a preaching of the law. And as the Smalcald Articles go on to teach, “By the Law [God] strikes down both obvious sinners and false saints. He declares no one to be in the right, but drives them all together to terror and despair.”

“This is the hammer. As Jeremiah says, ‘Is not My word like...a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?’ This is not...manufactured repentance. It is...true sorrow of heart, suffering, and the sensation of death. ...”

So far the Smalcald Articles.

Again, Jesus says: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

But notice what Jesus also says. He tells us, with a gentle tone and a calming voice,

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

If we are enmeshed in sin and filled with rebellion against God, we should fear God and his wrath. But if we have turned away from sin in true repentance, and if we in faith know God as our Father - a Father who loves us, and whom we love - then we “fear not.”

A faith that knows God in this way, is a faith that God himself has bestowed upon us, through the cleansing and renewing words of forgiveness and life that are the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. St. Paul writes to the Galatians:

“God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”

To know Christ as redeemer and as the forgiver of our sins, is to be comforted with the love of God, which is revealed precisely in the sending of his Son to this lost and guilty world, to be its Savior.

To know Christ as redeemer and as the forgiver of our sins, is to be personally confident in the status that God has given us in his Son: a status of adoption into his family, and of citizenship in his kingdom. And this status remains with us as we pass into eternity. As St. John writes in his First Epistle:

“We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”

“By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

The gospel does not diminish, but actually increases, our respect for God, and our humility before God. So in that sense we still fear and love God. But as we rest in Christ by faith, and as we are led by his Spirit in the new way of living that he works in us, we do not fear hell and damnation.

And, we do not fear this corrupted world, or the forces of evil in this world that threaten and attack us. We “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”

God, as our Father through Christ, watches over us and protects us. Psalm 121 gives comfort and assurance to God’s people. And when we embrace Christ, we thereby embrace this comfort, and claim this assurance as our own:

“The your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”

The life that God promises to preserve is the spiritual life that is in you, because the Holy Spirit is in you. As far as your bodily life is concerned, your faith in God does not exempt you from the universal human condition to which the Epistle to the Hebrews testifies, when it says that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”

Jesus said, “do not fear those who kill the body.” Christians will be physically killed. They will be killed by the diseases and disasters that kill people generally. They will be killed by persecutions that are directed specifically at them.

Indeed, thousands of men, women, and children have been martyred over the centuries because of their confession of Christ. In places like North Korea and Nigeria, brutal communist officials, and Boko Haran Islamists, are still killing Christians because they are Christians.

Tyrants and terrorists have always been puzzled by the resilience of Christians as they faced suffering and death, when a simple renunciation of Jesus would have brought the agony that was being inflicted upon them to an end.

But that’s because tyrants and terrorists have always underestimated the supernatural power of these words of the Lord, in the conscience of those who know the Lord:

“Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

Christians, as their faith is bolstered by the Word and Spirit of Christ, will not fear the disease, the disaster, and the persecution that kills them. These enemies of our mortal life can kill only our mortal bodies. They “cannot kill the soul.”

And so we are not paralyzed, and do not lose our composure, in the face of their threats. Instead, in that moment, we take courage from the words of our Savior that we know from St. John’s Gospel:

“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.”

We likewise do not fear the judgment that will come at the last day, when all people of all nations will stand before the throne of Jesus to give an account of themselves. We do not fear, because we are justified before God by faith in Christ, who already bore all the judgment and punishment that our sins deserved on his cross, in our place.

The perfect love of God, which we know in Christ, has cast out the fear of God’s judgment. We are therefore no longer slaves of this fear, but are free in hope. In this hope, we declare with St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans:

“For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For 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. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”

As we live in this world - whether our life span is relatively short, or relatively long - Christ is with us, and we are with him. And when we die and depart from this world - whether we are relatively young, or relatively old - Christ is with us, and we are with him.

If we live in sad and discouraging circumstances in this life, we are joyful and optimistic about the next life, because Jesus our forerunner has gone before us in his resurrection; and because God’s Word makes these promises regarding those who die in Jesus:

“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

If we live in happy and fulfilling circumstances in this life, we still look forward to something that is much better in the next life. St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“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.”

None of this is based on wishful thinking. These expectations do not arise from the imagination of the human mind, or from the aspirations of the human spirit. God has spoken to us, and God has promised us these things through the gospel of his Son.

God has demonstrated his love for us by sending his Son Jesus Christ to us, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. And Jesus Christ has demonstrated that all of these things are indeed true, and that the salvation that he accomplished for us by his life and death is indeed real, by rising from the dead.

In St. Matthew’s account of the resurrection appearances of Christ, we are told that the women who had come to the tomb did not see the body of Jesus, but did see an angel, who told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. Matthew then continues the story:

“They departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.’”

A whole lot can be unpacked from that simple statement, “Do not be afraid”: Do not be afraid of me. Do not be afraid of my victory over death for you. Do not be afraid of your own future death.

We close with the prayer that we chanted together in today’s Introit, from Psalm 56:

“You have delivered my soul from death - yes, my feet from falling - that I may walk before God in the light of life. When I am afraid, I put my trust in you - in God, whose word I praise.”

“In God - whose word I praise - in God I trust. I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me? In God, whose word I praise - in the Lord, whose word I praise - in God I trust. I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Amen.

28 June 2020 - Pentecost 4 - Matthew 10:34-42

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

On its face, this statement by Jesus - recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel - seems odd and out of place, in comparison to the other things that Jesus said about peace. For example:

“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.”

These words of our Lord also seem to contradict the song of the angels, near Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

So what’s going on? Why would Jesus say in today’s text that he did not come to bring peace to the earth? Why would he say that he came to bring a sword instead, and that he came to set family members against each other?

That doesn’t sound like the Jesus we have come to know. But then again, since Jesus did in fact say it, maybe the Jesus we have come to know is not the whole Jesus. Maybe today we need to get to know that part of Jesus that would say this, and that did say this.

These words are actually a part of a larger commissioning speech by Jesus, delivered to his apostles as he sent them forth on a temporary preaching mission. He was, in a sense, giving them some supervised practice, to prepare them for the mission of making disciples of all nations that would become their lifework after the Day of Pentecost.

For now, though, they were to go only to Jewish towns and cities. At the beginning of this speech, Jesus told them:

“Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”

This mission would not always go smoothly. With their preaching, they were going to stir things up. They were going to stir people up. And so Jesus also gave this warning to the apostles:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. ...”

“Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Such violent reactions to a simple proclamation that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” might be hard to understand, until you realize that this message is a threatening message of an impending conquest of another kingdom.

To be sure, the kingdom of heaven is not a threat to any legitimate earthly kingdom. That’s not what Jesus is talking about.

The apostles would not be announcing that Jesus is going to push Caesar or Herod from their thrones, and become a political ruler in this world. There’s nothing here about military crusades or coercive inquisitions, either.

Rather, the kingdom that Christ will supplant - as his gospel goes forth in the land of Israel, and ultimately in every land - is a supernatural kingdom - just as God’s kingdom is a supernatural kingdom.

The soldiers of the kingdom of heaven - that is, those whom God sends to preach the gospel of his kingdom - will be launching a full-on frontal assault against the kingdom of hell, ruled over by the devil. These preachers’ only weapon will be the sword of the Spirit - that is, the Word of God.

And they will wield that sword to great affect as they battle for the souls of men, to liberate them from the chains of spiritual deception that enshroud and enslave them. On another occasion, Jesus said:

“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.”

And St. Paul, at a later time, wrote in his Epistle to the Ephesians:

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

So, as Jesus sent the twelve apostles “as sheep in the midst of wolves” - to preach that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” - there was a whole lot more going on than meets the eye. Their message about God’s reign, would be a threat to all who were deeply invested in the devil’s illegitimate reign among men.

God had created the human race for fellowship with him. And he is now reclaiming and rescuing the human race through his Son, and through his Son’s redemption of the human race.

This redemption was necessary, because the human race has alienated itself from God, rebelled against God, and defied the authority of God. The sinful human heart is now the dwelling place of corruption, not of godliness.

The Prophet Jeremiah bemoans the sad truth that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” And Jesus, elsewhere in St. Matthew’s Gospel, speaks very frankly regarding the human condition when he states:

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”

He adds that these things “defile a person.”

The message of the coming of God’s kingdom that God’s people now proclaim, is a message of God’s merciful forgiveness in his Son, and of salvation from sin and death through faith in Jesus Christ.

When this message is received by a humble heart that acknowledges its need for what God offers, then there is joy, and peace. The Christmas song of the angels is fulfilled. But when this message bumps up against a hardened and proud heart that refuses to admit its need for a Savior, there is anger and conflict.

Sometimes this calloused unbelief is cloaked under an outward veneer of religion. There were few if any Jews in Jesus’ time who overtly rejected God or the authority of God.

But God’s Word, as it was preached by Jesus and his disciples, often exposed this outward religiosity as superficial hypocrisy. And those who were thereby exposed, hated Jesus for it - so much so, that they conspired to kill him.

An honest repentance for sin, and a wholehearted reliance upon Jesus’ promises, are deeply personal things, which are rooted deep down in the new inner nature that God’s Spirit creates within those who believe in Christ. No one else can repent of your sins for you, or believe in Christ for you. Each of us receives his own baptism.

There have been many times in Christian history when whole families and even whole communities have converted to Christianity. But in each of those cases - if the conversions were genuine - it was each individual within that family, or within that community, who personally renounced and forsook sin, and who personally believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But sometimes - most of the time, actually - it has not happened that way. What usually occurs, when the gospel first impacts a family or a community, is that some repent and believe, and others do not. Some acknowledge the legitimacy of Christ’s Lordship over their thoughts, words, and deeds; while other rebel against him, defy his authority, and reject his claim on their lives.

And just as true faith in God is a deeply personal things, so too is this rebellion and hostility against God and his Word a deeply personal thing. This rebellion and hostility are not always directed toward the idea of God. Many believe in a fabricated safe God who requires nothing and is not a threat to anyone.

But when the real God speaks his piercing words of judgment against human pride and sin, rebellion and hostility is the natural reaction of a heart and mind that are naturally sinful.

And this rebellion and hostility toward God are often accompanied by a very personal anger at those from outside the family or community who have brought this disruptive message; and, at those from inside the family or community who have believed this disruptive message.

The insanity of unbelief is sometimes so strong and so powerful, that it overrides the natural affection that even unbelievers would be expected to have for their family members.

On one occasion, Jesus acknowledged that “you...who are evil” nevertheless “know how to give good gifts to your children.” Jesus also recognized that even the Gentiles greet their own brothers, and are kind toward them.

And St. Paul explicitly tells a Christian that he or she must not initiate a break-up of a marriage, even if a spouse is an unbeliever. He writes to the Corinthians that

“If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.”

According to God’s Word, a family that is part Christian and part non-Christian, will not be broken up by any deliberate action of its Christian element. But, sadly, such a family is often broken up by its non-Christian element.

When a man becomes a Christian but his wife and children do not, or when a woman becomes a Christian but her husband and parents do not, the Christian believer will nevertheless start to live within that family by a new and different set of values, according to a different set of priorities, and with a different set of ultimate loyalties.

For the unbelieving members of that family, this is often more than they can bear. They cannot accept this change in one who used to be like them, because they see this change as an ongoing indictment of their refusal to change, to repent, and to believe.

And so the natural love and patience that even unbelievers would be expected to have for their own flesh and blood, run cold, because of unnatural diabolical influences that drive people away from the life and light of Christ. And the warnings of Jesus come to fulfillment:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

Jesus immediately goes on to say:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

If you are considering the claims of Christ, and your family members warn you that if you convert to Christianity, you will be disowned - or worse! - that can have a very jarring affect. And this kind of thing does happen today, in orthodox Jewish families, in conservative Muslim families, and in traditional Hindu families.

It is a doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that if a family member leaves the Watchtower, and becomes a Christian - a real, Trinitarian Christ - his Jehovah’s Witnesses relatives must shun him, and have no contact with him ever. No phone calls, no cards or letters, no personal visits. Nothing.

St. Luke’s Gospel reports Jesus saying something very similar to what he says in today’s text from St. Matthew:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”

Indeed, you must “count the cost.” If your relatives give you an ultimatum, and say, “It’s either Jesus, or us,” then the loss of a relationship with your relatives will be the cost - not by your choice, but by theirs.

If your friends threaten to forsake you if you receive baptism and are united to Christ, then you will need to find new friends. And as a Christian you will find new friends, and a new family, in the fellowship of the church.

Sometimes this is the cost of being embraced by Christ, and of being lifted up by Christ into a new and eternal life. Those of us who have never had to pay this cost, or who haven’t had to pay it yet, might not appreciate this as much as those who are the first in their families to hear and believe the gospel.

Trusting in Christ, and being embraced by his love and filled with his grace, may come at a cost. It may cost you peace with your family members. It may cost you your popularity, and your reputation among those who think that only stupid or insecure people believe in Christ.

But the forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus gives, are profoundly great benefits that far outweigh the costs. And these benefits are accompanied by other benefits. We are able to sing with King David in Psalm 56:

“In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me? I must perform my vows to you, O God; I will render thank offerings to you. For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.”

King David, in Psalm 34, also instructs us:

“When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”

And in eternity, the benefits of the new faith, the new life, and the new family that God gives us in Christ, are uncountable. God’s Spirit revealed this to St. John:

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

If your earthly family members are with you in this multitude, that will be a wonderful thing. If those with whom you share a genetic connection, also share in the regeneration that you have received from God’s Spirit, this is certainly something for which you can thank your Father in heaven.

But if that’s not the case, you can and will still be included. From the perspective of eternity, you will be able to understand things that you cannot understand now, and you will be able to accept things that you now think you could never accept.

By faith we now know, and in eternity we will know fully, what David knows in Psalm 25:

“Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. ... All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.”

And in the words of the well-known versicle that is repeated in three different Psalms, we will always praise God for his kindness toward the world of sinners, and toward each of us personally:

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

What Jesus declares today is a hard saying, but we must accept it as a true saying and as a necessary saying. But this is also a true saying, from Psalm 68:

“Sing to God, sing praises to His name; lift up a song for Him who rides through the deserts, Whose name is the Lord, and exult before Him. A father of the fatherless, and a judge for the widows, is God in His holy habitation. God makes a home for the lonely; He leads out the prisoners into prosperity.” Amen.