6 September 2020 - Pentecost 14 - Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:1-20

All of us live under two governments. As Americans, and as citizens of the United States, we live under the civil government of our earthly country, as regulated by the Constitution and by the duly-passed laws of the land. As Christians, and as citizens of God’s spiritual kingdom, we live under the spiritual government of the church of Jesus Christ, as regulated by the Holy Scriptures and by the Confessions of the church.

Both of these governments are instruments that God uses, for the fulfilling of his purposes in these two realms. The agents and officials within each government speak and act with God’s authority, when they speak and act in ways that are in accordance with God’s will and purpose.

Today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Romans instructs us in the attitude we should have toward the civil government under which we live. St. Paul writes:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.”

“Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”

“For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

When Paul said this, he was not speaking of governing officials who were devout Christians. He was speaking of the emperor and regional rulers of the Roman Empire, who at that time in history were all pagans, and who had the capacity to be very brutal and wicked. But even though they were not among God’s people as far as their souls were concerned, they were God’s ministers as far as their public office was concerned.

What civil rulers administer, however, is not Word and Sacrament, as the ministers of the church are authorized to do. Civil rulers administer justice. And unlike the ministry of the church, the civil government has coercive police power, as it “bears the sword” to protect the innocent and to punish the evil-doer.

As long as the legislative and executive branches of our government make and enforce laws that do not contradict God’s revealed law in Scripture, we respect and obey those laws - recognizing that God is working through them for the maintenance of order in our society.

Our obligation to obey the law and to respect those who hold public office is not negated if we personally disagree with the law, or if we don’t like the personality of the official. The flaws of those who govern us do not justify our withdrawing respect from them, just as the flaws of our parents would not excuse our not honoring them.

When civil officials act for the public good, and for the sake of public safety, God is acting through them, for our benefit. God is protecting and blessing us through them. When we honor them, we are honoring God, because they represent God - whether they realize that or not.

And their faithfulness to their civil duties is an answer to our prayers. Remember how the Small Catechism reminds us that when we pray for daily bread, that petition encompasses everything needed for this life, including “good government” and “order.”

As citizens who are also Christians, however, our obedience is qualified by our higher loyalty. In the Book Acts, on an occasion when the apostles had been brought before the Jewish council in Jerusalem,

“the high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’”

Martin Luther, in his Treatise on Good Works, explains what this means:

“It is the duty of subjects to obey. ... But if, as often happens, the temporal power and authorities...would compel a subject to do something contrary to the command of God, or hinder him from doing what God commands, obedience ends and the obligation ceases. In such a case a man has to say what St. Peter said to the rulers of the Jews, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ He did not say, ‘We must not obey men,’ for that would be wrong. He said, ‘God rather than men.’”

“[It is] as if a prince desired to go to war, and his cause was clearly unrighteous; we should neither follow nor help such a prince, because God has commanded us not to kill our neighbor or do him a wrong. Likewise, if the prince were to order us to bear false witness, steal, lie or deceive, and the like, [we should refuse]. In such cases we should indeed give up our property and honor, our life and limb, so that God’s commandments remain.”

So far Luther.

We are citizens of a free republic, in which our civil rulers are placed in office through a democratic election process. But with this blessing also come obligations and responsibilities.

At the time of the Reformation, most people lived under the government of hereditary kings and princes. But some people, in the imperial free cities, were governed by a mayor and a city council that were chosen through election by the burghers of the city. And Luther was of the opinion that this way of selecting government officials is the best way.

The Book of Deuteronomy tells us that Moses gave this directive to the Israelites: “Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.” In commenting on this verse, Luther expressed the opinion that this was the best mechanism by which civil leaders could be chosen:

“Beasts are managed by power and skill. Men should be ruled by wisdom and understanding, since man thrives on reason... ...the magistrates should be chosen by the votes of the people, as reason also demands. ... For to thrust government upon a people against its will is dangerous or destructive.”

We in America live under such a system. Our elected leaders are still to be seen as having been placed in office by God, and are to be respected and obeyed accordingly. Yet the mechanism by which God places them into office is a mechanism that involves each of us, and our vote.

Those whom we collectively elect to public office are - for our country as a whole, and for each of us - “ministers of God,” to quote St. Paul. And so we are obligated to take our voting rights seriously, and to vote responsibly.

And as we vote, we are to consider what the proper purposes of civil government are according to God’s Word, and to consider which candidates would govern in a way that more faithfully accords with these divine purposes.

We don’t expect unbelievers or non-Christians to be guided by St. Paul’s teaching about government and citizenship, or by the other passages of Scripture that speak to these matters, as they vote. But we should expect ourselves to be guided by these teachings.

We allow the moral voice of our conscience - which we do share with all other people - to be amplified and clarified by the influence of God’s written law: regarding the difference between right and wrong; regarding the difference between what is just and what is unjust; and regarding the difference between those things that are properly under the jurisdiction of civil government, and those things that are instituted by God and unalterable.

And in this world, the most important thing that God has instituted - over which civil government has no proper jurisdiction - is the church of Jesus Christ.

Now, insofar as the institutions of the church exist in the civil realm, the church does recognize the jurisdiction of the state in certain areas. So, we comply with city safety regulations that pertain to all places of public accommodation, regarding things like having marked exits and fully-charged fire-extinguishers in our church building.

What I am talking about, though, is not the earthly institutions of the church. I am referring to the church itself: the spiritual body of Christ, which is an eternal and heavenly reality.

The marks of this church are nevertheless evident in this world; and those who gather around those marks - the Word and sacraments of Christ - are thereby gathering around Christ, in the name of Christ. They are confessing themselves to be members of his church, to be believers in his gospel, and to be under his divine authority.

Indeed, Jesus is the Lord of his church, and he governs the church by means of his Word - through the ministry of those whom he calls to preach, teach, and apply his Word. The Augsburg Confession uses this expression:

“Concerning church government it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call.”

When pastors, ministers, or bishops are faithful in their admonitions and exhortations, and when they rightly divide God’s law and God’s gospel in sermons, classes, and private counsel, they are to be listened to. God is speaking through their speaking.

The Holy Spirit is baptizing through their baptizing. Jesus Christ is consecrating and distributing his body and blood for the remission of sins, through the minister’s consecration and distribution.

But a limitation applies with respect to our recognition of the authority of pastors, that is very similar to the limitation that applies to our recognition of the authority of civil officials. If they depart from the rule and norm of Holy Scripture by telling you that what is actually true is false, or that what is actually false is true, then you are not to believe them - as you compare what they say to Scripture.

The Augsburg Confession also says that

“According to divine right it is the office of the bishop to preach the gospel, to forgive sin, to judge doctrine and reject doctrine that is contrary to the gospel, and to exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose ungodly life is manifest - not with human power but with God’s Word alone. That is why parishioners and churches owe obedience to bishops, according to this saying of Christ: ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me.’”

“But whenever they teach, institute, or introduce something contrary to the gospel, we have God’s command in such a case not to be obedient: ‘Beware of false prophets.’ And St. Paul in Galatians: ‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!’”

And in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus spells out a method by which the church is governed, in particular circumstances, that involves its members generally and not only its ministers. The Lord says to his disciples:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

With respect to sins of weakness that our Christian brothers and sisters may commit, and that may irritate us or test our patience, St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Colossians, tells us that the best way to deal with those small offenses is just to overlook them and forgive them. He writes:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

However, when the offense is a brazen, deliberate, and faith-killing sin - not a sin of weakness but a willful defiance of God’s commandments - then God’s Word directs the church to deal with that kind of sin in a very different way.

Jesus lays out a three-step process whereby someone who is involved with such a sin is to be called to repentance and amendment. First, an individual who has a personal knowledge of the situation speaks to him about it.

Then, one or two others also try to persuade the offender to see the error of his ways, and to seek God’s forgiveness and God’s help in overcoming the sin. The pastor usually participates in either the first or the second step, depending on the circumstance.

But finally, if these efforts do not succeed in bringing about the repentance of the offender, the issue is brought to the church as a whole: which issues a decisive rebuke and condemnation of the sin; and which cuts off the perpetrator from the communion of the church until such time as he turns his heart back to God and acknowledges his fault. This excommunication is then implemented by the pastor.

As long as the offense truly was an offense against God’s revealed law, the person who is being admonished at every step of this process needs to understand that it is God who is calling him to account. This is not just the human opinion of the members and minister of the church. It is the divine warning of the Lord of the church.

God is imploring him, through those who are approaching him, to save his soul from damnation by repentance and faith. God is thereby governing his church, through the instruments and agencies that he has designated for this purpose.

God is speaking and acting, through the speaking and acting of those who apply the judgments of his law to an individual who no longer wants to live within God’s grace and according to his will. Jesus tells his disciples, and through them he tells his church and its ministers of all times: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.”

But Jesus also says this: “Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

You don’t need to be a flagrant public sinner who has turned away from his crimes, in order to have this apply to you. Whenever your conscience bothers you about the sins you have committed - as you admit that you have not done what you should have done, or have done what you should have done - God gives you a way of knowing that he has washed away your sins and is at peace with you.

In its teaching concerning confession and absolution, the Small Catechism declares:

“Confession has two parts: the one is that we confess our sins; the other is that we receive Absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no way doubt, but firmly believe that our sins are forgiven before God in heaven by this.”

The Small Catechism also states that “for those who have great burdens on their consciences, or are distressed and tempted, the confessor will know how to comfort and to encourage them to believe with more passages of Scripture.”

The confessor, or the pastor, is God’s minister. He publicly administers the keys of Christ’s kingdom among Christ’s people. That’s a reference to what Jesus had told St. Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

And so the Apology of the Augsburg Confession teaches that

“when the gospel is heard, when absolution is heard, the conscience is uplifted and receives consolation. Because God truly makes alive through the Word, the keys truly forgive sins before God according to [Jesus’ words], ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me.’ Therefore we must believe the voice of the one absolving no less than we would believe a voice from heaven.”

When God’s ministers in the realm of civil government speak to us concerning our outward behavior, and compel us to comply with the law, we are to recognize that it is God who is speaking and acting through his representatives, for the sake of our bodily life and well-being.

When God’s ministers in the realm of spiritual government - within the church - speak to us concerning our sins of thought, word, and deed; and warn us of God’s judgment on account of those sins, we are, again, to recognize that it is God who is speaking and acting through his representatives: but in this case it is for the sake of our spiritual life and well-being.

And what is most important of all: when the ministers of God’s church comfort us with God’s message that he has removed our sins from us as far as the east is from the west, we can embrace this comfort, and believe this promise, with absolute certainty - even if our conscience is still telling us that we are too guilty, and too undeserving of God’s mercy.

Through the voice of the pastor, whom God has called to speak to us on his behalf, God is saying otherwise. And God must always be believed.

The devil, of course, will always tell you that you are the foremost of sinners. Your empty repentance will accomplish nothing. The pastor’s empty words will accomplish nothing. A sinner you have always been, and a sinner you will always be.

Satan wants to drive you to despair, and not into the forgiving embrace of Christ. But you are able to say in response - in the words of St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy - that “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

And through the ministry of your pastor, you am able to know that you are saved; that you are a child and heir of God’s family; that you are a citizen of God’s kingdom; and that you are destined for God’s heaven.

You are able to know that Jesus died for your sins, and that Jesus was raised for your justification. You are able to know all this - not just think it, or wish for it, but truly and deeply to know it - because the pastor’s words are God’s words. To all his faithful ministers, Jesus says, “The one who listens to you, listens to me.”

God is taking care of you and protecting you through these words. God is governing you and teaching you through these words.

We close with a few lines from Psalm 92, which we also sang in the Introit:

“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night... For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.” Amen.

13 September 2020 - Pentecost 15 - Matthew 18:21-35

“I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget.” Have you ever heard someone say that? Have you ever heard yourself say that?

This sentiment is, to be frank, meaningless and self-contradicting. It is operating with a completely unbiblical definition of the word “forgive.”

The Greek word for “forgive” that is used most often in the New Testament is a word that carries the thought of sending something away, or of leaving something behind. If you “forgive” something, you let it go. You don’t keep it as a part of your life, or as a component of your thoughts, as you go into the future.

In regard to sin, therefore, when you forgive the sin that a person has committed against you, you thereby release that sin from your own mind and heart. You send it away, or walk away from it.

And, an active memory of the sin will likewise no longer be included among your thoughts about the person who had committed the sin. As far as you are concerned, when you look at that person now, you will no longer see that sin. You will no longer hold it against him.

God himself illustrates what forgiveness means when he describes his removing of our sins from us, and when he describes his forgetting of our sins. Listen to the words of King David in Psalm 103:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity... The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. ...”

“He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”

The distance between north and south, in the ultimate sense, is a finite, measurable distance. There are exactly 12,436 miles between the north pole and the south pole.

If you start out at the south pole and go in any direction, you are going north. But you can go north for only 12,436 miles. After that you will have arrived at the north pole, and then, if you keep going on the same trajectory, you will start going south.

It’s important to take note of this, because God does not remove our sins from us only as far as the north is from the south. He does not try to comfort us with the idea that, in his thoughts about us, he considers our sins to be 12,436 miles away from us.

From God’s perspective, that’s not very far at all. And therefore that wouldn’t really be a very comforting thing to say to a troubled conscience that fears God’s anger and punishment.

Rather, we are genuinely comforted to be told by the Psalmist that when God forgives us, he removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. That is an infinite distance - just as infinite as is God’s love toward us in Christ.

If you start out at any point on the equator and head toward the east, how long will you have to go until you arrive at east? Well, obviously, you will keep going and going and going forever.

There is no such thing as the east pole or the west pole. As a concept, the distance between east and west is not a measurable distance.

But that’s the distance God describes when he says that he has removed our sin from us. In other words, sins that have been forgiven are sins that have been absolutely banished and sent away from us.

In God’s thoughts about us, as he considers our standing before him in Christ, our sins have been banished and sent away from his own mind.

That’s what God is also saying through the prophet Jeremiah, when he declares: “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Can you imagine God, with his infinite knowledge of everything, making himself “forget” something? How can he do it?

As we’ve already noted, God forgives us, removes our sins from us, and removed our sins from his own memory, for the sake of Christ. The perfect law of a perfect God demands perfection from the human race.

In the fall of Adam, the human race corrupted itself, and threw itself into a state of not being able to obey God’s law as it should be obeyed. But this doesn’t mean that God has to lower his standards.

He cannot, in fact, lower them, without ceasing to be the perfect and holy God that he is. So, our sins - all of them collectively, and each one in particular - invite the curse of God upon us.

God’s curse is what we deserve, and it’s what we would get, without Christ. But with Christ, and because of Christ, we will not get what we deserve.

Jesus did obey the law of God perfectly - the first man to do so since the Garden of Eden. But instead of accepting divine and heavenly adulation for this success - which is what he deserved - he took the sins of the world upon himself, and as the representative of the human race carried those sins to the cross.

As St. Paul writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us - for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” The tree of the cross on which Christ suffered and died for us, is where God dismisses our sins from us.

In the cross, God removes his anger against human sin from his own mind, and buries that anger deep in the wounds of his Son. And for those who are in Christ, that’s where his anger against their sin remains.

Apart from the cross, however, God’s wrath still burns against man’s wickedness and rebellion. Apart from the cross, man’s sin remain upon him, and the wrath of God remains upon the sons of disobedience. It’s the cross, therefore, that makes the difference.

We are obviously speaking here of mysteries that are too deep for us fully to fathom. As finite creatures, we cannot grasp how God’s infinite mind works.

How can God be angry about sin and not angry about sin at the same time? How can he simultaneously punish sin and forgive sin?

Our thoughts, on their own, take us to such questions. But God’s Word takes every such thought captive.

When God promises that in Christ, he is reconciled to the world, and is not angry at us any longer, we can believe that promise.

When God tells us in the Gospel, that when he looks at us through the lense of his Son’s atoning sacrifice, he sees no sin, and punishes no sin, we would be fools to stand still in perplexity, wondering how this can be so. In faith we will run, not walk, to get ourselves connected to that atoning sacrifice, and to place ourselves under its protection.

Those who would stand before God without Christ are not forgiven. If a man presumes to present himself before the tribunal of God’s judgment apart from faith in Christ, his sin will not be sent away from him. His failures remain wrapped tightly around him, and strangle him.

But those who stand before God in Christ, and who approach God through faith in the merits of Christ, are able to know and experience the forgiveness that Christ won for them. In Christ, the gracious heart of God is revealed to them, and God’s judgment departs from them.

In Christ their sins are sent away, and banished. And when the sin is sent away, the forgiven sinner is instantly drawn close to the embrace of a loving heavenly Father.

When God causes himself to forget the misdeeds of the past, he fills his own mind instead with the thought that those who are in Christ are righteous in Christ, and for eternity will receive everything that Christ deserves.

That’s what God really thinks of you now, when he forgives your sins for the sake of Christ. He would never say, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget.” Forgiving is forgetting.

When God forgets your sin, and draws you into his intimate embrace, he also fills you with his Spirit. And when that happens, you become a new creature in Christ.

God gives you a new nature - a nature that reflects the character of God, and that loves the things that God loves. God gives you a new nature that is shaped into the image of Christ, and that loves and forgives the people whom Christ loves and forgives.

With great poetic grandeur, St. John, in his First Epistle, describes this change, and the evidence of whether or not this change has actually taken place, in these words:

“the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

And, in a more frank and forthright way, John also says this: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

That’s what Jesus is getting at in today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel, at the conclusion of the parable of the unforgiving servant. In the parable, the master - who stands for God - says this to the servant to whom he had offered forgiveness of an astronomical debt, but who had then refused to forgive his fellow servant a minuscule debt:

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

Jesus then adds this closing commentary: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

God’s forgiveness is established as an objective reality in the crucifixion of Jesus. St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians that in Christ “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” God has been reconciled to the world in Christ. Christ has atoned for the sins of the world.

Your repentance and faith do not cause God’s forgiveness of your sins to come into existence. God’s forgiveness of your sins - and of everyone’s sins - has already been brought into existence through the suffering and death of Jesus on your behalf.

But your repentance and faith - worked in you by the Holy Spirit - make it possible for you to receive the forgiveness of your sins. Your faith connects you to Christ, and to the benefits of Christ’s saving work.

One of the key indicators that you have received forgiveness for the sake of Christ; and that you have received a new nature that is in the image of Christ, is that you are now able, with his help, to forgive others as you have been forgiven by Christ. In the famous “love” chapter of First Corinthians, St. Paul says that love “is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.”

Your forgiveness toward those who have sinned against you is not a good work that you perform, so as to earn forgiveness from God. But by withholding forgiveness from others, and by keeping a record of the wrongs that others have done to you, you thereby make yourself to be the kind of person who is incapable of receiving forgiveness from God.

Your faith does not create God’s desire to forgive you in Christ, and your unbelief does not destroy God’s desire to forgive you in Christ. But what unbelief does is to disconnect you from Christ. It thereby disconnects you from all those divine blessings that are available to you only in Christ.

A refusal to forgive others is evidence of unbelief. If you yourself truly know the joy of God’s forgiveness of your many sins, you cannot withhold forgiveness of a few sins from your fellow men.

In Christ, God has forgotten your sins. If you are in Christ, you cannot continue to remember the sins of others, cling to those sins in your own mind, and hold those sins against them.

It’s important to forgive the sins of all who have offended you and hurt you: even if they never repent, apologize, or ask for your forgiveness. That’s because of what a lack of forgiveness does to you, on the inside.

Your withholding of forgiveness from others does not hurt them. It hurts you. It compounds and deepens whatever pain their sin had inflicted upon you.

Remember that God’s desire to be at peace with the world is an objective reality that shines forth from Calvary’s cross. It has been established once and for all by the death of Christ on that cross.

Those who die in unbelief do die without having received God’s forgiveness. But they do not die without God’s forgiveness having been intended for them.

As far as God is concerned, in Christ, their sins were forgiven. God is not to blame if they never sought to receive that forgiveness in faith, so that they could personally benefit from it.

That forgiveness was there for them. It was there for the asking. But in unbelief, they never asked for it.

Those who have offended you, and who never seek to be reconciled with you, will likewise die without having received your forgiveness. But for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of your own salvation, may it never be that such people would die without your forgiveness having been intended for them.

As far as you are concerned, God wants you to be free from the shackles of hatred, resentment, and anger that will weigh you down, and destroy you, if you do not in your own heart forgive those who have hurt you. Such bitterness is actually a form of pride, and a form of idolatry.

It is evidence of an unspoken belief that you and your rights are more important than God and his rights. He, after all, was willing to be reconciled to a wicked world that had sinned grievously against him in every way.

Are you more deserving of obedience and respect than God is, so that you feel that you do not have the obligation to follow God’s example, when other people fail to obey and respect you?

It’s a wonderful thing when those who have offended you come to you with sorrow for what they have done, and ask for forgiveness. It’s a wonderful thing when they ask you to send their sins away from your memory, and not to hold their sins against them.

But when that happens, make sure that the forgiveness that they request already exists in your own heart, so that it can be instantly dispensed to them, for their comfort, and for the restoration of the broken relationship.

And be willing to forgive them over and over again. Be willing to forgive, if they sin against you seven times. Be willing to forgive, if the number of their offenses is seventy times seven.

Hard to do, isn’t it? Impossible to do, isn’t it? Isn’t it great to know, then, that the sin of withholding forgiveness from others is itself a sin that God forgives, even if the number of times we commit that sin is seventy times seven?

When you struggle in your human weakness to release and leave behind the grudges and animosities toward others that weigh you down, and to let go of the pain that others have inflicted upon you, know that God’s strength is at hand for you.

God will rejuvenate your new nature with his forgiveness. He will renew your mind, and transform your will.

There’s a reason why the cross and the crucifix have become the chief symbol of the Christian religion. We hang crosses and crucifixes on the walls of our homes.

We adorn our churches and altars with them. We bless ourselves with the sign of the cross. We wear crosses around our necks as jewelry. It’s a good thing to see and feel the image of the Lord’s crucifixion as often as possible.

Whenever you do see or feel that image, let it remind you of what the real cross means for your salvation. Let it remind you that you are forgiven, and are at peace with God in Christ.

As you cling to Christ in faith, he will shape and mold you ever more into the image of Christ. He will conform your heart ever more to the image of Christ’s heart - a heart that forgives and forgets sin.

“I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget.” Let’s make a pledge that, with God’s help, we will never say or think these words again, for as long as we live.

And let’s be thankful to the Lord that in his infinite mercy, for the sake of Christ, he has already forgotten all the times we have ever said or thought this in the past. Let’s be thankful to the Savior who died for us on Calvary’s cross, for the forgiveness of all our sins, and to establish for us a righteousness that makes us pure and clean in God’s sight, and in God’s mind, forever. Amen.

20 September 2020 - Pentecost 16 - Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30

The coronavirus pandemic that has swept over the world, and that is still with us, has caused people the world over to think about death - more often and more deeply than is usually the case. This doesn’t mean that the possibility of death has not always been with us. Obviously, it has been.

Every time you leave your driveway and go out on the road in your car, you are at risk of getting into an accident and losing your life. Every year, when the regular flu goes around, you are at risk of catching it and dying from that disease.

But the coronavirus, media reports about the coronavirus, and governmental policies reacting to the coronavirus, are making us think about the possibility of death - from the coronavirus! - more intensely than we otherwise do, when we drive or get our flu shot.

One suspects that there is some hype and sensationalism at work in all this. And this pandemic, which should be a strictly non-partisan public health matter, has been wildly politicized.

But the fact remains, that we are all thinking about death now in ways that we weren’t just a few months ago. And maybe there’s a sense in which that is a good thing.

Maybe we should be thinking about death, and preparing for death, more than we normally do. Maybe the coronavoris pandemic has triggered the kind of sober and serious reflections on the temporary character of temporal life that should always be a part of our thinking.

This doesn’t mean that we should obsess over death, or always live in fear of death. But we should be realistic about it. No one is immortal. Unless the Lord returns first, you and I will die.

On the basis of God’s Word, we should consider what awaits us on the other side of death. And we should allow those thoughts - as shaped by God’s Word - to give shape, in turn, to our understanding of the meaning of life, here and now, as we await death.

A consciousness of the inevitability of death does not mean that we will not live now - with gusto and purpose. But it does mean that we will not waste the time we have.

We will live according to what is important, and not frivolous. We will live fruitful lives, and not meaningless lives. And we will live always with a desire to please God, and not to satisfy our own pride and avarice.

In the parable of the rich man in St. Luke’s Gospel, the subject of that parable, after storing away all his grain and goods, said: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

But then, as Jesus continues the story, we read that “God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

As Christians, our perspective on life, and on death, is not shaped by our love for money and earthly wealth. And it is not shaped, most fundamentally, even by our love for God.

Our perspective on life and death - and on how we live our life, and face our death - is shaped by God’s love for us. That divine love - revealed especially in the saving work of Christ on his cross and in his empty tomb - does then bleed over into how we think about and treat those with whom we share this globe, during the short time we are here.

St. John explains all this in his First Epistle:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. ... In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul also teaches that the meaning of your life as a Christian is a meaning that God defines. But God does not do this from a distance.

In the person of his Son Jesus Christ, God became a part of the human race; lived in this world with us, and died in this world for us. And in the mystery of Holy Baptism, God defines your life personally, and your own death, according to the contours of Jesus’ life and death.

Because you have been sacramentally united to Christ’s death - a death by which he atoned for your sins, and won for you the forgiveness of your sins - you are therefore also sacramentally united to his life.

The way Christ lived while he walked the earth gives you an example and a guide for your life on earth.

And the way Christ lives now - in resurrected glory - gives you a certain hope of what your destiny in him will be when your life on earth is over: as you cling to Jesus in faith; and as Jesus’ righteousness clings to you in your justification before God.

So, this is what Paul writes:

“How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him, in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. ... Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

We don’t live for ourselves. We live for God, for as long as we do live. And when we die, we die in God and in his peace - for “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

But living for God really means living for others: loving those whom God loves in his redeeming love; and serving those whom God calls us to serve in our vocations in life. This is why the apostle Paul writes, in today’s text from his Epistle to the Philippians:

“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two.”

My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.”

And living for God also means living in God, and rejoicing that God lives in us. When you live for God, you embrace every day as a day that God has given you, so that you see and taste of his goodness in that day.

Think, each day, of St. Paul’s exhortation in First Thessalonians:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Even when the circumstances of our earthly life are scary or painful, there is also always something in those difficult circumstances to be thankful for - because God and his grace are with us in all circumstances.

God’s goodness toward you in Christ is known and experienced especially in his forgiveness. We rest in this forgiveness, which delivers us from the fear of God’s judgment, and which also delivers us from the delusion that God’s favor needs to be earned by our self-justifying works.

Christ earned God’s favor for us. And we have been baptized into Christ. Therefore we are free each day to enjoy God’s favor, by sharing our life and its blessings with others: for the sheer joy of it, and not to earn merit.

And the wonder and beauty of God’s creation are also enjoyed, as we remember, each day, the words of our catechism:

“I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them; that He richly and daily provides me with food and clothing, home and family, property and goods, and all that I need to support this body and life; that He protects me from all danger, guards and keeps me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.”

These are not just abstract words on a page. Rather, they include the real joys and godly delights of life in this world.

For example, when we acknowledge that God richly provides us with home and family, that’s talking about things like a young man and a young woman gazing at each other with dream-filled eyes, as they exchange their vows of life-long fidelity.

That’s talking about things like the coo and smile of a first-born baby. That’s talking about things like the excitement of owning a first house.

And these things are a source of happiness for us, not only when we experience them ourselves, but also when we - as members of the larger human family - see others experience them.

And God in his mercy allows us to enjoy not only the necessities of life, but also the many little wholesome luxuries that enrich our lives: the arts and the sciences, music and literature, history and genealogy. You know that I had to include that on this list!

Every day might be your last day in this world. But every last day, for a child of God, can and will be a good day - because it will have been be a day spent with God, with his Word and promises, and with his grace.

But in the final analysis, regarding the blessings of this life, and regarding life itself, we confess with Job:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

And that’s why we are able to join St. Paul in his confident confession, that

“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.”

And so, as we face the uncertainties of life in this world - whether this involves the threat of the coronavirus, or of some other sickness; or any other danger that crosses our path and reminds us of our mortality - we face these uncertainties with the certainty of heaven.

For “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself,” as we read in the Epistle to the Philippians.

While we wait, we live. While we live, we rejoice. While we rejoice, we serve. And while we serve, we praise God from whom all blessings flow. Amen.

27 September 2020 - St. Michael (transferred) - Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3

In the verses that immediately precede the sections of the Book of Daniel that were read as today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Daniel had described this extraordinary experience:

“As I was standing on the bank of the great river... I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude. ... Then I heard the sound of his words, and as I heard the sound of his words, I fell on my face in deep sleep with my face to the ground.”

This was a vision of the pre-incarnate Christ - the eternal Logos, or the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - who in this way appeared to Daniel: to comfort him in his captivity, to give him some glimpses into the events of the future, and to show him how God will keep his promises, and save and preserve his people.

And then, the story continues with the verses that we heard read several minutes ago. Daniel writes:

“And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. And he said to me, ‘O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.’ And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, ‘Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.’”

God the Father sent his Son to Daniel, as a prelude to how he would eventually send Jesus into the world as a whole, in the incarnation. He sent him to Daniel - as the text tells us - to make him understand what would happen to his people “in the latter days.” He adds: “For the vision is for days yet to come.”

In regard to these latter days, which the pre-incarnate Christ is describing for Daniel, we are then told that

“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.”

Daniel describe angels – both good and evil – as “princes” that rule in hidden ways over various nations. Michael is the prince, or guardian, over God’s chosen nation.

We interpret and apply this according to St. Paul’s commentary in his Epistle to the Romans concerning his “kinsmen according to the flesh” - that is, the Jewish people. It was very sad for Paul to see that most of them were rejecting their Messiah, and in so doing were, at the deepest level, thereby rejecting their God. He writes:

“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”

This patriarchal promise funnels down to Christ. Paul writes to the Galatians that “the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.”

And from Christ the promise fans out again, into all and including all who are baptized into Christ. Again, we read in the Epistle to the Galatians that

“in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

So, Michael the archangel, as the prince of Daniel’s people, is therefore today the prince of the church on earth. We are Daniel’s people today. The church is the people of promise today, in Christ and because of Christ.

Michael is, of course, not the church’s Savior. But under the direction of its Savior he is its protector and guardian, and does battle with “the prince of this world” in the name of Christ, and on behalf of Christ’s church.

In the history of the church, as the church has existed in this world since the first Christian Pentecost, Michael is a major figure. But he is a major figure behind the scenes.

In the midst of all the upheavals and tribulations that the church endures, we are comforted to know that Jesus is keeping his promise to be with us always, even to the end of the age. But Michael - the powerful servant of God and of Christ - is also with us, battling for us under the command of our king and his, Jesus.

Through the supernatural efforts of Michael and his cohort of righteous angels, the elect people of God - that is, “everyone whose name shall be found written in the book” - are preserved and delivered.

God works through means. The angels are means or instruments through which God keeps us physically and spiritually safe, even as the Word and Sacraments of Christ are the means through which God delivers to us his forgiveness, life, and salvation - under the canopy of that safety.

It is, however, not the calling of Michael and the other angels to preach the gospel to all nations. We see an illustration of this vocational limitation in the Book of Acts, where an angel miraculously brings the Roman centurion Cornelius and the apostle Peter together, so that Peter can preach to, and baptize, Cornelius and his household.

The angel does not preach the gospel to Cornelius himself, but honors the fact that God has entrusted the Great Commission to the church and its human ministers. But Michael and the angels do clear a path for the gospel and for the mission of the church.

As the devil attacks the church and its ministers, Michael protects them, and counterattacks. Under God’s direction, as Jesus exercises his hidden kingly authority in this world for the benefit of his church, Michael pulls the strings of human history, and as the Lord’s agent makes thing happen in ways that people generally don’t see.

Angels are spirit creatures of the Lord - without sex or procreation. Each one is an independent, immortal being. They are not the souls of departed loved ones - which is a common popular superstition.

Approximately one-third of them rebelled against their creator under the leadership of Satan, and became fallen angels, or demons. The good angels - who are now confirmed in their righteousness - under the leadership of the archangel Michael, battle against these evil spirits.

The 16th-century Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz wrote a “Treatise on Angels” in which he explained a lot of these things, and in which he also explained why the church has a St. Michael’s Day on its calendar. This is from that treatise:

“Because Scripture has spoken of certain angels by name, such as Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, we have a feast called the feast of the angel Michael, in order that by this very name itself we should be instructed in the most important things to be learned in this life about angels and what we ought to believe and know about them.”

“For example, in regard to Michael the Scriptures tell how he fought against the dragon and his angels on behalf of the church, Revelation 12 and Jude 9, and how he was sent to minister in the affairs of the government in Daniel. Thus the festival of Michael instructs us to teach about evil and good angels. We should also teach how Satan ‘walks about as a roaring lion,’ First Peter, and how the good angels ‘encamp around them that fear the Lord,’ Psalm 34.”

There are no doubt many, many times when angels have shielded us from harm, but we were not aware of it. Occasionally, though, one hears plausible stories of special angelic interventions in times of spiritual or physical danger, when the angel was seen, or when his presence in a particular time and place was in some other way known. Yet even when angels are not seen - which is most of the time - we know they are there.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, St. Michael’s Day was, in practice, a major festival. Special music was composed for St. Michael’s Day, since it was such an important day for the church.

The Reformers were very much aware of the reality of the demonic world. They soberly pondered how in and what ways the devil was actively working in the world to destroy souls and to silence the gospel. And this often came out in their hymns.

The old evil foe Now means deadly woe;
Deep guile and great might Are his dread arms in fight;
On earth is not his equal.

But Luther and his colleagues did not live in fear. Far from it. They knew that Christ would protect them. And they knew that Michael and the angels of the Lord, who work under the direction of Christ, are just as much a reality in the supernatural realm as are Satan and the demons.

Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpower us. This world's prince may still Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none, He's judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.

This changed, however, with the advent of Rationalism in the 18th century, when many in the institutional church stopped believing in the power of that “little word” from God. And St. Michael’s Day also fell by the wayside. The effects of Rationalism, and of the so-called Enlightenment, are still very much with us.

One of the chief bits of evidence that this is so, is that St. Michael’s Day has not been restored to prominence among Christians in the 21st century. The physical and psychological sciences were and still are believed to be able to explain all or most of those phenomena that Luther’s generation believed were explained best by the actions of hidden supernatural intelligences.

But as our own society is becoming ever more a post-Christian society, it’s interesting to see that people are not becoming full-blown materialists, but instead are becoming increasingly interested in the supernatural realm and in paranormal experiences. Look at the proliferation of ghost story and ghost hunting shows on television.

But most of this modern interest takes its interpretive cues from spiritism. Psychics and mediums are usually seen as the experts, not pastors and priests.

The Christian explanation of the supernatural realm seems almost unknown, largely because institutional Christianity - under the continuing influence of Biblical skepticism and theological liberalism - has muted its own witness to the reality of the world of angels and demons, as Holy Scripture defines and describes this reality.

This needs to change. And this change needs to begin with us.

But not only do we need to understand the serious reality of the dark and deceptive forces of the supernatural realm - so that we will not play with Ouija boards or participate in seances. We need to appreciate the serious reality of angels: mighty ones who do the Lord’s word and who obey the voice of his word; ministers of the Lord who do his will - as we confessed in today’s Introit from Psalm 103.

The righteous angels have never known the tragedy of sin in their own hearts. They therefore do not know - for themselves - the unique joy of the forgiveness of sins that Jesus won for humanity on the cross.

But the angels take a great interest in Christ’s atonement for the sins of humanity. And they take a great interest in your forgiveness in Christ.

When the Holy Spirit brought you to repentance and faith, and thereby reconciled you to God and restored you to his fellowship, the angels rejoiced. “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” - to quote Jesus.

St. Peter writes in his First Epistle - regarding “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” and the salvation of souls by Jesus Christ - that the prophets of old did not see, during their lifetimes, the fulfillment of their prophecies concerning Christ’s suffering and glorification. But, as Peter explains,

“It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”

Angels are active witnesses of the life and discipline of the church. After exhorting his young colleague Timothy to maintain proper order and sound doctrine in the church, and after giving him some specific directives to that end, St. Paul writes:

“In the presence of God, and of Christ Jesus, and of the elect angels, I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.”

The angels take a special interest in the baptized children of the church, who are uniquely vulnerable to demonic attacks, and who are therefore uniquely protected by the angelic guardians whom God has assigned to them. In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus reminds us of how important these little ones, and their growing faith, should be to us as well:

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

The angels watch and worship with us also when we partake of the sacramental feast of the new covenant that Jesus has established for us, in which he nourishes us with his body and cleanses us with his blood.

Christ reigns in glory at the right hand of the Father, but at the same time he is also truly present in his Holy Supper, among and for his people. As you together reverently approach Christ - with faith in his word and promise - ponder what the Epistle to the Hebrews tells you:

“You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

St. Michael and the angels whom he leads are a part of everything that is going on in your life of faith. They are with Christ, and so they are also with you when Christ is with you. They watch over you; and they watch out for you.

St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness.” And in a cosmic tag-team match, the angels help us, and wrestle against these supernatural enemies right alongside of us.

I close this sermon with the words with which all of us should close each day, from the Small Catechism:

“I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have graciously kept me this day. And I pray, forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me.” Amen.