SERMONS - FEBRUARY 2021
7 February 2021 - Epiphany 5 - 1 Corinthians 9:16-27
In today’s lesson from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, we heard these words from the apostle Paul:
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
Paul’s statement, that he has become all things to all people, has been quoted often over the past few decades, by those who think that the key to drawing people to church, is to change the worship of the church into something that is more entertaining and less serious - since unbelievers in the world like to be entertained, and therefore will be attracted to this. Or so they think.
So, to them, becoming all things to all people, means that a pastor should become a stage show performer. Becoming all things to all people, in America, means becoming irreverent and frivolous, to get the attention of irreverent and frivolous people.
But Paul did not have anything like this in mind when he wrote those oft-quoted words. He was speaking more of the necessity of being willing to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone, and beyond what is familiar to you, for the sake of reaching people who live beyond the frontiers of your current circle of association.
None of the pastors who think that they should have a rock and roll worship service, personally dislike rock and roll music. These pastors are not changing themselves for the sake of the gospel, but they are changing their churches for the sake of what they like.
All true applications of what Paul says, regarding the need to become all things to all people, take place in the context of what Paul also says, when he declares that he is always “under the law of Christ” as he carries out his ministry. We, too, are to remain “under the law of Christ” as we learn and grow, and as we make ourselves familiar with new and different things for the sake of sharing the gospel with new and different people.
Remaining under the law of Christ means, among other things, that we remain in the conviction that a true saving faith comes from the preaching of the word of Christ, as the Epistle to the Romans teaches; and not from scratching the ears of those who itch for teachers who suit their passions, against which the Second Epistle to Timothy warns.
Remaining under the law of Christ means, among other things, that we remain in the conviction that we are to worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, since our God is a consuming fire, as the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches; and that the worship of the true God does not involve the kind of rising up to play that took place before the golden calf, against which the Book of Exodus warns.
Every culture has certain symbols and ceremonies that are used when people are engaged in something that they consider to be serious and important, as compared to when they are engaged in something that is unimportant and unserious. But of course, those symbols and ceremonies often differ from culture to culture.
In India, taking your shoes off shows reverence for what is considered to be a sacred space. So, Indian Christians remove their shoes when they enter a church.
In Korea, wearing white gloves is a sign of respect for what you are doing, when what you are doing is understood to be something deserving of special honor. So, Korean Lutheran ministers wear white gloves when they celebrate and distribute Holy Communion.
For an American missionary who is new in an unfamiliar culture, learning these kinds of things, and putting them into practice, would be a part of being all things to all people. Trying to draw a crowd through American-style gimmickry - with indifference to the offense he is giving, and with insensitivity to how his actions are being interpreted - would not be.
As we carry out the duties of a public calling “under the law of Christ,” or as we simply live out our lives in this world “under the law of Christ,” we want to know which gestures and behaviors denote reverence and seriousness in the culture in which we are working and living: so that we can use and follow those gestures and behaviors in our preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, and in our adoration of the God who saves us in Christ.
We do not simply notice that unbelievers in that culture don’t want to be serious and reverent, and then pragmatically degrade and disfigure our preaching and worship so that they become unserious and irreverent.
I’ve always been interested in church history. I think most of you know that. So, when I was serving as a pastor on Cape Cod, in the 1990s, I was interested in learning about the history of Christianity in that part of New England, beginning in early colonial times.
This interest led me to read up on the ministry of Pastor Samuel Treat, a Congregational minister who, as a new Harvard graduate, was called in 1673 to the Congregational Church in Eastham, Massachusetts - just a few miles from where I lived.
He was called to be the pastor of the town church. But as soon as he got to Eastham, he became aware of the hundreds of Nauset Indians who were still in the town, in relative isolation from the Englishmen who had settled there, and with little if any exposure to the Christian gospel.
What follows is a description of the missionary work he did among these indigenous people, in addition to his ministry within the established congregation:
“Treat set about learning the Indian language soon after his arrival in Eastham, and came eventually to preach to the Indians in it. In...1693, Treat noted [that] there were 505 adult Indians in Eastham and that he did not know of any who purposefully rejected Christianity. He mentioned that his charges not only attended regular services but also kept the colony’s special days of fast and thanksgiving. ...”
“[The] Indians lived in four villages, each with its own schoolmaster and religious teacher. The schoolmaster taught reading and writing in the Indian language, and the teacher preached to the Indians from sermons prepared by Treat, with whom they met regularly for instruction. ... Treat had great praise for the Indians he supervised, and maintained [that] many of them desired baptism and the formation of a congregation.”
“Once in a month he preached in the several villages. ... In addition..., he was at...pains to translate the Confession of Faith into the Nauset language, for the edification of his converts. ...”
“As he conceived that it would not be in his power to make much impression on the minds of the Indians, unless he gained their good will, he exerted himself to secure their affections. Beside treating them on all occasions with affability and kindness, he frequently visited them at their wigwams, and with cheerfulness joined in their festivals. The consequence was, that the Indians, won by his engaging manners, venerated him as a pastor, and loved him as a father.”
There was a temptation among Puritan missionaries in these earlier years to think that the only way to convert the Indians to the Christian faith, was to convert them also to English cultural and social norms. The historic customs of the Indians were understood little, and respected even less.
But Pastor Samuel Treat took a totally different approach. He learned the culture of the Nausets, and he participated with them in their community celebrations. He spent time with them and showed his affection for them over many years, without an attitude of feeling superior to them.
Yet he did not compromise the content of his faith, as he understood it from Scripture. Not only did he preach to them in their own language, but he also translated theological material for them - as we are told, “the Confession of Faith” of the church at that time - so that they could hear and read this for themselves.
When Treat arrived in Eastham, the Indians there had not been Christianized. By the time he died, after a 44-year-long ministry, not one Indian in that town stood in opposition to the Christian faith; and many if not most of the Indians positively confessed that faith as their own.
Pastor Treat died at his home in March of 1717, soon after a huge blizzard. We are told that
“The snow was heaped up in the road to an uncommon height. It was in vain to attempt making a path. His body therefore was kept several days, till an arch could be dug, through which he was borne to the grave, the Indians, at their earnest request, being permitted in turn to carry the corpse, and thus to pay the last tribute of respect to the remains of their beloved pastor.”
Through this poignant gesture, the Nauset Indians made it clear that they believed that, for the sake of their salvation, Samuel Treat had indeed become all things for all people.
He had become all things for them - a strange nation, with strange customs and a strange language, at least from Pastor Treat’s perspective. But it was a nation that he loved, and for which he was willing to learn and do new and different things.
St. Paul had said:
“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
Pastor Treat did indeed share with the Nausets in the blessings of the gospel, in their homes and villages. And they shared in the blessings of the gospel with him, and testified also to the faith, hope, and love that they shared with him, by insisting that they be his bearers in the burial procession that started from his home.
I mentioned that I am interested in church history. I’m also interested in genealogy. Most of you know that, too. And so, what a delight it was, when I found out that my pastor son-in-law, and accordingly two of my grandchildren, are descendants of Pastor Samuel Treat.
But Pastor Treat sets an example not only for his family members and descendants. He sets an example of how St. Paul’s principles can be applied in the national and international mission work of our church body, and of all church bodies; and in the community outreach of our congregation, and of all congregations.
And, Pastor Treat sets an example for all of us to follow in our personal interactions with the people we see every day: people whose backgrounds may differ from ours; but with whom we share a common humanity, and a common need for the forgiveness, life, and salvation that God provides only through the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. This Jesus - the world’s Savior from sin, death, and the devil - once said:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
He doesn’t say that no one comes to the Father except through the English language, or except through the culture with which we are familiar. Jesus can be translated into all human languages, and Jesus can be integrated into all human cultures.
If Jesus, with his saving grace, has touched your heart and soul, and filled you with his life and peace, then you will have a God-given wish to see him touch the hearts and souls of all people.
Maybe he will use you, and your love for others, as his instruments for this. Maybe he will give you the wisdom and the discernment you need to become all things to all people.
Maybe he will give you the confidence and the sensitivity you need, to become the thing that a specific neighbor or coworker needs you to be to him, so that you can share with that unusual and strange person - that special person loved by God - the message, and the blessings, of the gospel.
For us men and for our salvation, our Lord became everything that he needed to be, so that the light of his truth could overcome the darkness of our sin, and so that his liberating redemption could rescue us from the slavery of our sin.
To be the Savior of humanity, God’s Son - God’s eternal Word - did not need to become all things. But he did need to become a specific thing. He needed to become a human being. St. John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... In him was life, and the life was the light of men. ...”
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. ... For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
And, to be the Savior of humanity, God’s Son in human flesh also needed to become another specific thing. He needed to set aside his use of the power of his divine majesty, and become the substitute for sinners under the judgment of the divine law: so that on the cross he could deflect from us the punishment for sin that we deserve; and so that on the cross he could absorb that punishment into himself in our place.
St. Paul tells us in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
St. Paul talks about the things that God’s Son became for us, and about the changes that he was willing to undergo for us, also in his Epistle to the Philippians, where he encourages us with these words:
“Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death - even to death on a cross.”
“For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow - in heaven and on earth and under the earth - and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
God in Christ became these things for everyone, so that some would repent of their sins, and believe in him and be saved, before Judgment Day comes. God in Christ became these things for you.
He became what he needed to be to you, so that through him, you could become what you needed to be - and what you now are - so that you can live forever: a child of God and a new creation in Christ who is regenerated by his Spirit, forgiven through his shed blood, clothed in his righteousness, and filled with the hope of the resurrection by the living reality of his resurrection.
As we still live in this world, we live in love: love for Christ, because of what he became to us and did for us; and love for all people, whom God also wants to hear the message of salvation, and to whom we are willing to become all things, as God calls us, helps us, and shows us the way.
And so we close with this prayerful poem by Gillian Hutchinson:
Give me a heart that will love the unlovely, open my eyes to the needy and lost,
help me, O Lord, to show Your love in action, give, without counting the cost.
Help me remember I’m empty without You, help me to find my strength only in You.
I can give nothing unless You first fill me, Your love alone must shine through.
Make me be willing to go where You send me, make me be ready to answer Your call.
Give me a heart that rejoices to serve You, sharing the best love of all. Amen.
14 February 2021 - Transfiguration - Mark 9:2-9
During his life on earth, Jesus’ divine nature was always a defining component of who and what he was. But the glory of his divine nature remained cloaked and hidden under the limitations of his human nature.
To all who knew him, Jesus seemed to be a remarkable man - but a man nevertheless. His disciples were beginning to understand that Jesus was more than this - that he was God’s Son in human flesh.
And they had seen some very unusual things, such as Jesus walking on water, calming a storm, raising the dead, and healing the sick. But they had never before seen anything even close to what Peter, James, and John saw on the mount of transfiguration.
Jesus - according to his divine nature, and as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - had never stopped living and reigning with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In a well-known Christmas hymn by St. Germanus, we sing:
The Word becomes incarnate, and yet remains on high;
And cherubim sing anthems, to shepherds, from the sky.
Jesus himself speaks to this mystery in St. John’s Gospel, when he says:
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
During the time of his humiliation, Jesus was visibly on earth, with his disciples and the crowds that followed him. But he was invisibly in heaven, with all the saints and angels of the Lord.
In the transfiguration, what was previously cloaked and hidden was now revealed. What was previously invisible became visible, even if only briefly. The glory of his divinity shone out from Jesus. And two of the saints of old, who dwell with God in heaven, appeared with Jesus.
Seeing and hearing all of this was an overwhelming experience for the three disciples who were there. St. Mark reports that
“He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”
Peter, in his impetuousness, would often blurt out things that were not the right thing to say. We recall the occasion when Jesus told the disciples what would happen to him in Jerusalem. Peter immediately contradicted his Lord. This, then, required a sharp rebuke from Jesus. We read in St. Matthew’s Gospel:
“Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’”
We are also familiar with the time when Peter bragged that he would never deny Christ - and in the process put down and insulted the other disciples. Again, St. Matthew writes:
“Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away because of me this night. ... But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter answered him, ‘Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.’”
We all know what happened.
Peter was going to have to learn not to do this. He was going to have to learn not to speak about God and the things of God, before he knew what he was talking about.
He needed to learn how to be humble before Christ and his authority, and before Christ’s teaching about various subjects, before he would venture to say anything about those subjects.
After St. Mark tells us in today’s text that Peter did not know what to say, because he and the others were terrified, Mark tells us what God then said to them:
“And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’ And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.”
If Peter didn’t know what to say, then he probably shouldn’t have said anything. But God certainly knew what to say to him, and to the other disciples. God knows what to say to all of us, who want to be followers and disciples of Christ: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
Whether it’s in presumptuous Facebook or blog posts, or in presumptuous sermons and religious books, people are way too willing to assert things about Jesus, and about what Jesus would or would not approve of, that are not based in anything that God’s Word actually tells us.
We need to listen to Jesus, before we presume to speak about Jesus or on his behalf. Otherwise we will be like Peter, not knowing what to say, but saying useless or harmful things anyway.
The world in which we live is very chaotic and confused. And God and Jesus are often invoked in the controversies and arguments that are swirling around us. But is it the Biblical God who is being invoked? Is it the real Jesus who is being invoked?
Are we listening to what Jesus says about the issues of our time, and are we then repeating and applying his words? Or are we in ignorance merely guessing at what we think he would have said?
Are we bearing false witness against his actual words, by attributing to him what we wish he would have said, rather than what he did say?
For example, it is often said today that Jesus never criticized homosexuality. The implication is that he would approve of it, and therefore so should we. But is it true that Jesus never said anything pertinent to this issue?
Jesus said this, as recorded by St. Matthew:
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh.”
God made humanity as male and female. And it is a male and a female, in marriage, who are allowed to become one flesh.
What Jesus teaches regarding God’s creation and God’s institution is so clear, that it is not necessary for him to list all the possible deviations from this that confused and sinful man might come up with, or be afflicted by.
Those who are not able or willing to embrace for themselves what Jesus describes here, are not thereby authorized to invent their own kind of intimacy, contrary to what God has established, with the assumption that Jesus will bless this. Again, we need to listen to what Jesus actually says:
“Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this, receive it.”
A life of godly celibacy is God’s will and calling for people who are not called to marriage, or who are not able to enter into a marriage as God instituted it.
Now, God certainly does not hate people who have an unnatural attraction toward others, or who have unnatural feelings about themselves. God’s people do not hate them, either. Indeed, among God’s people are many who struggle against such temptations themselves.
But Jesus does have something to say to them, even as he has something to say to all people, in all conditions and circumstances. And God the Father wants all people to pay attention to what Jesus has to say: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
Much confusion, and much unbridled passion, are also very much in evidence in the toxic political environment in which we find ourselves today. Jesus has something to say to us regarding these things, too.
Jesus and all the Jews in Palestine, during the first century, were living under a government that they found to be very distasteful. A pagan Italian emperor was ruling over them, through appointed Roman governors and Herodian client kings.
St. Matthew tells us of a time when some of Jesus’ opponents tried to trap him. They asked: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”
Jesus, knowing what they were up to, replied:
“‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ And they brought one. And he said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they marveled at him.”
Do we marvel at him, when he tries to set us straight on what our attitude should be toward the civil authorities? Do we listen to him?
Or do we decide on our own which laws and regulations we will obey, and which ones we will ignore? Do we decide which presidents or governors we will respect, and which ones we will disrespect; and do we then put these subjective opinions into practice in how we speak of our elected officials?
Remember also the exchange that took place between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, while Jesus was on trial. St. John’s Gospel reports that Pilate asked Jesus,
“‘Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all, unless it had been given you from above.’”
Jesus was reminding Pilate that he was accountable to God for how he administered justice. But Jesus was also indicating why he was willing to submit to this proceeding, with a view to how God’s ultimate purpose for him and for the human race would be unfolded through that submission.
In the United States, we have constitutional procedures for elections, which objectively determine for us who our Caesars and Pilates are, to whom we will render due honor and obedience. The exception, of course, is that no earthly government has the authority to compel us to sin.
If we are ever forced to make such a choice, “we must obey God rather than men,” as the Book of Acts instructs us. But when a matter of conscience is not involved, then we must obey men - that is, the duly-elected men who govern us - and not our own opinions.
That’s what Jesus would tell us. And as God the Father says: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
Christians speak on matters of marriage and morality, on the basis of what Jesus has first spoken to us. And Christians speak on matters of civil authority and public order, likewise on the basis of what Jesus has first spoken to us.
What is much more important, however, is to remember that Christians speak on matters relating to God grace and redemption in Christ, and on matters relating to Jesus’ forgiveness of sins and his gift of eternal life, only on the basis of what Jesus has first spoken to us.
We must take to heart God’s declaration, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him,” when our failures to listen to Jesus regarding the other things he has said, are called to mind. Sins against the sixth commandment or the fourth commandment, or against any other commandment, are indeed sins against what Jesus has taught us.
We are obligated to listen to him, but often we have not. We are obligated to confess, and live out, the truth of what Jesus has said to us, but often we have contradicted him in word and deed, and invited his judgment upon us.
Indeed, our conscience may be telling us that we are judged, and will be punished in time and in eternity for our sins. And so, now is a time to make sure that we really do listen to what Jesus is telling us instead. Now is a time to make sure that we believe what Jesus is telling us.
St. Luke recounts these words of our Lord, spoken to his disciples soon before his ascension:
“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
Jesus wants his message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed to you. And he himself - in his own words, from the pages of Scripture - proclaims that message to you.
What Jesus said to the paralytic, he says also to you: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” What Jesus said to the woman who had anointed his feet, he says also to you: “Your sins are forgiven. ... Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
What Jesus said of the children who were brought to him, he says also of your children and grandchildren. And if you are young, Jesus says this of you: “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”
If you, as a communicant at the Lord’s table, have examined yourself, and yearn to receive what Jesus promises to give in his sacrament, Jesus has some very special things to say to you:
“This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Listen to him. Believe what he tells you.
And finally, to every member of the human race - to everyone who regrets the transgressions of the past, who struggles with the temptations and doubts of the present, and who wonders what will happen in the future and after death - Jesus has something to say.
He has something to say to you and to all people: something that is full of life and light, that is full of grace and peace, and that is full of pardon and hope. Jesus says this, as John’s Gospel records it:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
These are the things that Jesus tells us for our salvation. And we listen to him, as God bids us to do.
These are the things Jesus says to us about our life with God, through faith in his word. We therefore believe these things for ourselves, and we speak these things to others - knowing that what we believe, and what we say, is true.
St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus; and bring us, with you, into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people, it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’” Amen.
17 February 2021 - Ash Wednesday Vespers
God makes himself known to man in more than one way. What is usually emphasized among Christians is that God makes himself known to us in the Scriptures, and that is certainly true.
It is through the Holy Scriptures that we have the fullest revelation of God’s law, and of his condemnation of sin; and also the fullest revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, through which God forgives sin and bestows eternal life on those who repent and believe.
Indeed, the gospel of humanity’s salvation is made known to us only through the message of the Scriptures, on the basis of the saving works of Christ that he performed in real history, which those who were eyewitnesses to these works have recorded for us. St. John the apostle writes in his First Epistle:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands..., we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are not written in the stars, and the forces of nature do not bear witness to these sacred events.
What Jesus did for us in Jerusalem, to atone for our sins and reconcile us to God, is not written on the human heart by nature, either. These events from 2,000 years ago are not a part of the natural knowledge of God, with which all people are born.
You will never learn of these historical occurrences through meditation, introspection, or mystical experiences. You will learn of them - if you do learn of them - only from the pages of Holy Scripture: as you read those pages yourself, or as others explain and apply to you what the Bible says about Jesus.
Of course, the Scriptures also reveal to us the law of God, in its purest form. The specific and concrete demands of the Ten Commandments, and the explanations and applications of these commandments that Jesus and the prophets unfold for us, are available to us in the Bible.
But reading or listening to the Bible is not the only way through which the demands and judgments of God’s law can impact a person. In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul describes something that all people - believer and unbeliever alike - do sense to be true deep down in their consciences. He writes that
“The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men... For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
Paul goes on to write that
“When Gentiles, who do not have the [written] law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the [written] law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”
As Paul says, God’s eternal power and divine nature can be perceived in the things that God has made in this world. But this is a knowledge of God according to the law, and not according to the gospel.
God’s wrath against sin and sinners can be felt through this natural knowledge of God, but not God’s forgiveness of sin, and God’s justification of sinners in Christ. God’s power in nature can be experienced as God’s power to judge and to punish, by those whose conscience is telling them that have done what they should not do, and that they have not done what they should do.
God’s displeasure with Jonah, when Jonah disobeyed him, was manifested in a storm at sea that even the pagan sailors were able to perceive as a divine judgment of some kind. We read in the Book of Jonah that Jonah went to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, and got onboard:
“But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god.”
The Book of Deuteronomy describes how the Lord’s anger would be manifested - in and through the destructive forces of the natural world - if the people of Israel would turn away from him, and turn to idols. God himself speaks as follows:
“A fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains. And I will heap disasters upon them; I will spend my arrows on them; they shall be wasted with hunger, and devoured by plague and poisonous pestilence; I will send the teeth of beasts against them, with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.”
Volcanic eruptions, famine, plague and pestilence, and attacks by vicious animals and poisonous serpents. It’s all there. And behind all of it is the wrath of God, which is impressed upon the consciences of those who know that they have sinned, and have deserved these punishments.
During the past year we have experienced upheavals that are not quite as severe as what is described here, but that may have been severe enough to serve as instruments in God’s hands, for impressing upon our consciences a heightened awareness of his holiness, and of his displeasure at our sins: our sins as a world of fallen humanity, our sins as a boastful nation, and our sins as proud individuals.
The world around us has been stirred up. So many things that previously seemed to be stable and permanent have crumbled. Our hearts and minds have also been stirred up, and we have been prompted to ask important questions.
What are the priorities of my life? In what do I place my trust? Where is my hope? Do I love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength? Do I love my neighbor as myself?
The coronavirus pandemic, the social and political chaos, and the death and the fear of death that we have seen and experienced, may very well have revealed something of God’s law to us.
Without an inspired prophet to tell us if it is so, we cannot make an exact correlation between a particular bad experience, and a particular sin that offends God. But more broadly, these bad experiences do prompt us reflect on what may be offending God in the times in which we live.
We have been reminded of humanity’s need for God. And yet, we have been forced to face up to the reality of humanity’s rejection of God, and to ponder the harmful consequences of this.
And in very personal terms, as each of us has wondered, “would I be ready to die if this virus were to take me?,” our individual failings, and the things in our own lives that are out of harmony with God’s will, have perhaps been brought more clearly into focus for us.
In the church year, we are now entering the season of Lent, with its many symbols and customs that serve to remind us both of the righteous demands of God’s law, and of our failure to comply with those demands. But in a certain sense, we have been in a very real “Lent” for almost a year now.
As the natural law of God has pressed itself into our thoughts and emotions, we know that everything is not right in the world. We know that everything is not right in humanity’s standing before God. And we know that everything is not right in our thoughts, words, and deeds, or in our commitments and values.
But as this experiential “Lent” blends into the ceremonial and ecclesiastical Lent that begins today, something new and important is getting mixed in. As we gather in the Lord’s house and around his Word, today and for the next several weeks, it’s not just the natural law of God that is doing its work.
God’s revealed law in Scripture - with its greater clarity and greater precision - will be convicting us. And, most important of all, the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, which is accessible to the human race only from the Scriptures, will be a central component of what we will be listening to, thinking about, and taking in.
The gospel is indeed gospel - that is, good news - because it demands nothing from us, but gives us all that is needed. It announces to us that all of our sins were lifted from us and placed upon the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
The gospel announces to us that what God had demanded from us in his law, God himself now fulfills for us in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. The gospel announces the complete remission of all our sins, for the sake of Christ.
Storms and earthquakes, pandemics and pestilences, might impress upon our conscience something of God’s law and judgment. But never will these forces of nature tell us anything about the cross and empty tomb of Christ.
For that message - that life-giving and saving message - we need the Scriptures. And we need the church of Christ on earth, to which Jesus has given the commission to preach the doctrine of the Scriptures, and to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.
By the grace of God, we have the Scriptures, and so we have the gospel. The church and its ministry are open to us.
So, the churchly Lent that we are entering today will be different from the natural “Lent” that we have been experiencing in the world for almost a year. Not only will we be alarmed and humbled by the law, but we will be calmed and uplifted by the gospel.
Not only will we sense God’s displeasure at us on account of our transgressions, but we will be filled and renewed by God’s unswerving love for us, on account of Christ.
The fearful forces of nature, and the natural voice of the human conscience, give us this message of the law: “Humble yourselves...under the mighty hand of God.”
But the broader and deeper voice of Holy Scripture - with both law and gospel - gives us this broader and deeper message: “Humble yourselves...under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” This is from St. Peter’s First Epistle.
Elsewhere in that epistle, St. Peter unfolds for us what the gospel is able to do when it touches the human heart and then takes up residence in the human heart. The weight of the law, in its natural and Biblical forms, cannot do what the gospel does.
The law exposes spiritual death. The light of the gospel, in Word and Sacrament, bestows life, and everything that flows out of the life that God gives and preserves.
Peter’s words speak to us of such things especially in the midst of trials and times of testing. Peter’s words speak to us especially in Lenten times: in times of Lent in the church, such as we are beginning today; and in times of “Lent” in the world, such as we have been enduring for many months. This is what he says:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith - more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire - may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
May this be the outcome of our faith in the Lenten seasons in which we now find ourselves. May this be the outcome of our faith in time and in eternity. Amen.
17 February 2021 - Ash Wednesday Divine Service
St. Matthew’s Gospel reports that at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus said: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Can people change? It is often said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and that a leopard cannot change its spots. So, there is a common sentiment that people cannot change.
But the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, and similar twelve-step programs that help people overcome addictions, are premised on the belief that people can change. And the fairly high success rate for these groups proves that this belief is valid.
At Christmas time, many of us are drawn to the famous Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol,” which has been adapted to television several times. We all want to believe that Ebenezer Scrooge, and people like him, can indeed change.
In our English New Testament, the word translated from Greek as “repentance” literally means “a change of mind.” So, when Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” what he is actually telling you is to change: to change your mind and your way of thinking.
He is not just telling you to change your behavior, or to modify your habits, but he is telling you to change yourself on the inside, in the realm of your thoughts, values, motivations, and desires. He certainly believes that such a change is possible. And, he believes that such a change is necessary.
Jesus is also not talking merely of a temporary change in feelings or emotions, with all of their fluctuations. He is talking about an enduring repentance and transformation; a real and deep change in mind and thought.
St. Paul tells the Corinthians in his First Epistle to them: “We have the mind of Christ.” But do we? Or do we have the same mind, and the same way of thinking and making decisions, that we have always had, without change; without repentance.
On one occasion, as recorded in St. Luke, people were talking with Jesus about an atrocity that had been committed by Pontius Pilate, wherein he had mingled the blood of some Galileans into the sacrifices of the Jews in Jerusalem. Also in the news at that time was a recent natural disaster, probably due to a small earthquake - a tower falling on some people in the city.
People were wondering about the significance of these events, and were speculating that the people whose lives were snuffed out through these tragedies were somehow getting what they deserved, in the broader scheme of things. In this context, Jesus said this:
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
“Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
This is serious business. As a sinner, with a sinful nature that spawns within your life all manner of specific sins - in thought, word, and deed - you need to change, on the inside, if you want to have a place in God’s eternal kingdom.
Jesus is not asking you to have occasional feelings of regret that come and go. He is asking you to become a different kind of person. He is asking you - he is commanding you - to become someone who lives for the fulfillment of the will of God and not for the indulgence of the self; who seeks to honor God in your life and not to exalt the self.
If you do change - that is, if you do change your mind and your thinking about God and about the meaning of your own existence - God promises that he will relent from the punishment of your sins that he has threatened and that you deserve, and will instead welcome you into his embrace and heavenly fellowship. In today’s lesson from the Prophet Joel, God, through Joel, makes the following offer:
“‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
So, that’s the deal. If you do not repent - if you do not make a fundamental change in your thinking and in your mind - you will perish. If you do repent - if, on the inside, you become a new person, who thinks in new and godly ways - you will be saved.
But there’s a problem. It’s actually a pretty big problem. Because of our inborn sin, we, in our natural condition, are incapable of repenting, and are even incapable of wanting to repent in the true sense of the word.
Our minds are set on the flesh, not on the things of God’s Spirit. And as St. Paul teaches in his Epistle to the Romans, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”
Jesus commands us to repent. But of ourselves we cannot repent. Jesus commands us to change, and to turn away from sin and toward him. But in our own strength we are unwilling to do this, and cannot make ourselves willing. What is the solution, if there even is a solution?
God’s grace is the solution. God gives you the repentance that he demands. God’s Spirit causes the change in your mind that he requires. Paul told the Philippians, and he tells us, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
On one occasion, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was laying down the law to his disciples, regarding what God’s holiness truly does require. We are told: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”
With the tribe of Ephraim serving as a stand-in for God’s people in general, the Lord spoke to and about Ephraim in these words from the Book of Jeremiah:
“Your future is filled with hope, declares the Lord. Your children will return to their own territory. I have certainly heard Ephraim mourn and say, ‘You disciplined me, and I was disciplined. I was like a young, untrained calf. Turn me, and I will be turned, because you are the Lord my God. After I was turned around, I changed the way I thought and acted.’”
The people of Ephraim say to the Lord, “Turn me, and I will be turned, because you are the Lord my God.” The Hebrew word used here is the same word as is used in the text from the Prophet Joel: “Return to me with all your heart... Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
And as the people go on to say in the Jeremiah text: “After I was turned around, I changed the way I thought and acted.”
God requires that you turn your mind toward him and his truth, and away from your own pride, greed, and selfishness. He requires that you repent. But he, in his grace, for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ, gets deep down inside of you, and does the turning.
You do turn - you do repent, and change your thinking - because God turns you. This is his gift to you, coming as a prelude to his greater gifts: the gift of his Son; and the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, which his Son brings and bestows upon you when he comes, through his Word and Sacrament.
Lent is a special season of repentance. This means that it is, or is supposed to be, a special season of changes: real changes, not fleeting changes; changes on the inside of you, and not just in your external behavior; substantial and far-reaching changes; daily changes and enduring changes; changes in your mind and will, in your heart and soul.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The Formula of Concord teaches us:
“It is correctly said that in conversion, God - through the drawing of the Holy Spirit - makes willing people out of stubborn and unwilling ones. And after such conversion, in the daily exercise of repentance, the regenerate will of a person is not idle, but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit, which He performs through us.”
This is what God is asking of you. And this is what God is giving you, through Christ, and for the sake of Christ.
The devil is a furious enemy of God’s forgiven and regenerated saints. He doesn’t want them to change. He wants them to stay the same.
But God works against his schemes. God works for change in the minds and hearts of his children. God works for a lifetime of repentance in the thinking and decision-making of those who belong to his Son, and who are indwelt by his Spirit.
In its discussion of the ongoing blessings of the Lord’s Supper for the Lord’s people, as they partake of this mystery often and with due preparation, the Large Catechism encourages us with these words:
“The Sacrament...is indeed called a food of souls, which nourishes and strengthens the new man. For by Baptism we are first born anew. But, ...there still remains the old vicious nature of flesh and blood in mankind. There are so many hindrances and temptations of the devil and of the world that we often become weary and faint, and sometimes we also stumble.”
“Therefore, the Sacrament is given as a daily pasture and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself so that it will not fall back in such a battle, but become ever stronger and stronger. The new life must be guided, so that it continually increases and progresses. But it must suffer much opposition. For the devil is such a furious enemy.”
Receiving the Lord’s Supper, in repentance, and for a deeper repentance, is a good way to begin the season of Lent. Receiving the Lord’s Supper throughout the season of Lent, will be a good way to be sustained and renewed by God himself: in your repentance; and in the changes that you make in your life by his grace, and according to his will.
God wants the new life of repentance and faith that he has begun in you to continue. He wants the changes that he has wrought in your mind and heart to remain and to deepen. He wants you to repent and to repent again; and to repent with seriousness and conviction, with sobriety and commitment.
And, he wants you to trust in his Son, your Savior, for eternal life. Jesus wants you to turn away from sin, and toward him. Jesus turns you away from sin, and toward himself.
We close with these words from the hymnist Joseph Hart:
Jesus gives us true repentance By His Spirit sent from heaven;
Whispers this transporting sentence, “Son, thy sins are all forgiven.”
Jesus gives us pure affections, Wills to do what He requires,
Makes us follow His directions, And what He commands, inspires. Amen.
21 February 2021 - Lent 1 - James 1:12-18
“Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creation.”
It is often observed, as a general rule, that wives want their husbands to change, while husbands want their wives to stay the same. It is said that wives don’t like it if their husbands don’t improve in their habits. And it is said that husbands don’t like it if their wives start doing new and different things.
I’m not sure how true any of this really is, but these thoughts do prompt us to ask a deeper question. What about God? Do we want God always to stay the same? Or do we want God to change?
Well, in all the ways that really count, God does not change. As today’s lesson from the Epistle of St. James expresses it, with respect to “the Father of lights” who created all the stars and planets, “there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
The times and seasons change. The weather and the temperature change, as the earth cycles through spring, summer, fall, and winter each year. But God, who stands above all this, and who controls it, does not change. He is always the same.
Do people here below tend to think that it is a good thing, that God does not change? Well, it depends. Farmers, and those who consume the food they produce, don’t mind having predictable planting, growing, and harvesting seasons each year.
In St. Matthew, Jesus tells us that our Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Nobody minds that, and everybody would like those unchanging blessings from an unchanging God, for all who live upon the face of the earth, to continue in perpetuity.
But in some ways, people often think that they would like God to change. People often think that God should change the requirements of his law. They want him to lower his standards, and to ease up on what he demands of human beings, because what he requires and demands is too severe, and too hard.
God’s moral standards for us are pretty strict. As Jesus explained the full meaning of the law of God and of what it demands, in his sermon on the mount, he concludes with this statement: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
St. James, in his Epistle, adds this thought: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”
And so, a common objection arising from fallen men, who are stung by these requirements for perfection and complete obedience, is that these requirements are impossible to fulfill. And our common human sinfulness is often pointed to, as an excuse for our lack of perfection.
After all, as St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” And by nature we are all in the flesh.
Paul also writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” How is it fair, then, that God demands from us what we are not able to fulfill?
He seems to be setting us up for failure, by saying, “be perfect,” when he knows that we cannot be perfect. So, how can it be a good thing that God does not change, and that there is no variation with him?
Well, when God first created man and woman, he created them in his own image and likeness, with pure hearts, uncorrupted minds, and obedient wills. In the Garden of Eden, when the Lord said to Adam, “do this,” and “don’t do that,” this was not burdensome on Adam at all.
Adam and Eve were without sin. They were able to be perfect, and to do everything God told them to do. And they were perfect.
They cheerfully complied with God’s directives to them; and they cheerfully complied with God’s one prohibition: that is, his command that they not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
They didn’t think that they were missing out on anything, or that they knew better than God, but they honored God’s good and gracious will. In their original state of innocence - as God created them - they obeyed God’s unchanging law: without failure, and without complaint.
Our first parents received God’s gifts to them with thanksgiving, and they joyfully lived out God’s purposes for them. They were happy that God was good, holy, and righteous. And they were grateful that he had created them to be like him in those ways.
This is the way things originally were in Eden. This was the way things originally were with the human race that God created, and with which he established a relationship of love and fellowship. And this is what God had a right to expect would always be the case, in his relationship with humanity, and in humanity’s relationship with him.
There was nothing unfair about how he made man, and there was nothing unfair in what he expected from man. All was harmonious and full of life. That is, all was harmonious and full of life, until Adam and Eve changed.
God didn’t change, but they did. Humanity changed. We changed. “In Adam all die,” as St. Paul states in First Corinthians.
And Paul writes to the Ephesians that all who are sons of Adam are, by nature, “sons of disobedience,” who live in the passions of their flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and are “by nature children of wrath.”
Why does God need to lower himself and his standards to where we are now, in our sin and degradation? He didn’t compel us to sin, and he doesn’t compel us to sin now.
This was and is our choice: our collective human choice, in Adam and Eve; and our individual personal choice, every time each of us decides to do or say the wrong thing, rather than what our conscience tells us would be the right thing.
St. James speaks to this in today’s text:
“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death.”
God doesn’t need to change in order to accommodate this. Indeed, as the holy and righteous Lord of all that is good and pure, he cannot change. He cannot go back on his word. He cannot compromise with sin and evil. He cannot tolerate it or embrace it.
So, the expectations of his law remain what they have always been. The bar that he set for Adam - which Adam in his original righteousness could easily negotiate - is the same bar that he sets for us. God, in regard to these things, does not change - even if we, in our sin, might think that we want him to.
But God also does not change in his enduring love for his creation. And in his love, God found a way to be reconciled to fallen humanity without violating or compromising his holiness and righteousness.
In Christ Jesus, God’s Son became a man. And according to God’s plan for the redemption of the human race, the man Christ Jesus, who was without sin in his own person, became - by imputation - the worst of sinners, and the stand-in and the representative of all sinners.
God, of course, had always planned to do this. And the Prophet Isaiah had already described it, several centuries before it happened in human history:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows... ...he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned - every one - to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. ...”
“By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? ...he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.”
In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul explains that “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,” God “condemned sin in the flesh” - when he condemned his Son in sinful humanity’s stead.
And because God has already condemned sin - our sin - in Christ, and in Christ’s death, God will therefore not condemn that sin again, by damning us personally for it as our disobedience and imperfection deserve. Instead, he will forgive us, and will accept us and embrace us, as we come to him in Christ, by repentance and faith.
As this gospel invitation is held out to God’s beloved creatures, we can be confident that God will not change his plan or break his promise. We can be confident that God will give what he has pledged to give, by grace, through his Son.
The death and resurrection of Jesus cannot be undone. And therefore God’s redemption of humanity and his reconciliation with humanity cannot be undone.
God will impute his Son’s righteousness to you, and will clothe you in it - even as he imputed your sin to Jesus on the cross. God will bestow the Spirit of his Son upon you, and cause you to become a new creature in Christ.
God will call you back to the fellowship with him from which humanity turned away in Eden, but which God - in his unchanging love - has always wanted to restore. In you, he has restored it. That’s what St. James is talking about in his Epistle, when he writes:
“Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creation.”
God in general does not change. And God, especially in the Person of his Son in human flesh - the Lord and Teacher of the church - does not change. The Epistle to the Hebrews states:
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.”
Jesus teaches his disciples that they should always be willing to forgive one another, especially when there is repentance, even if - in human weakness - the sins and the repentance are often repeated. St. Matthew tells us of a time when
“Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”
In saying this to Peter, Jesus was also saying something about himself. Jesus was telling Peter - he was telling us - about his willingness always to forgive, whenever forgiveness is needed.
When your conscience, perhaps overcome with guilt and remorse, tells you that God is tired of forgiving you, and has given up on you, don’t believe it. That is not coming from God’s Word.
You may think - in fear - that God has changed, and has lost his patience with you. But he has not changed. He will forgive, and he will heal.
Whenever the absolution of Christ is spoken, you can believe it. That absolution is true for everyone, since it comes from the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And therefore it is true for you. It is always true for you.
Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” has not been rescinded. The authority of the loosing key that Jesus entrusted to his church and its ministers, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” has not been taken back.
According to Psalm 145,
“The Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works. The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.”
The Lord is always like this for you, in Christ. The Lord always does this for you, in Christ.
“Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creation.” Amen.
27 February 2021- Lent 2 - Mark 8:27-38
When you are ashamed of something in your life, you may try to hide that shameful thing, so that others will not find out about it. When you are ashamed of a person - perhaps a relative who has behaved in an embarrassing manner - you may try to dissociate yourself from that person, so that others will not make a connection between the two of you.
In general, do you think that people in our society are ashamed of Jesus? Do they avoid talking about him, or referring to him? Are they embarrassed when someone brings him up in a conversation?
Well, insofar as Jesus is a historical figure, it would seem that most people are not really ashamed of him. Every time someone refers to an event that happened in the ancient world, and says that this historical occurrence was in a certain year “B.C.,” that person is unselfconsciously recognizing Jesus Christ as a historical figure. As we all know, “B.C.” means “before Christ.”
People are also usually not ashamed of Jesus as a moral teacher. Jesus certainly did have a way with words, and he was able to articulate his ethical beliefs in memorable ways.
In the days before the Civil War, with the tension that then existed between free states and slave states, Abraham Lincoln said in a famous speech: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was quoting Jesus.
Another example of this sort of thing was when President Jimmy Carter brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt back in 1978. In commending the leaders of the two countries for their willingness to establish friendly relations with each other, President Carter, in a speech that I heard at the time, quoted Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
People are also not ashamed to quote other things that Jesus said, such as the Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” No one is afraid to cite such wise expressions of Jesus, and to state that such expressions come from Jesus.
So, when Jesus warns us in today’s text from St. Mark’s Gospel about being ashamed of him, and about being ashamed of his words, we and most other people might think that we have nothing to worry about. We’re not ashamed of Jesus.
We still measure ancient history in terms of that which happened “before Christ.” We don’t mind it when people quote some pithy statement from one of Jesus’ sermons.
But let’s look more closely at how Jesus phrases his warning. He says:
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. ... For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Jesus does not speak his warning with respect to those who might hesitate to acknowledge him as a historical figure, or with respect to those who might be opposed to quoting his proverbs and moral tales. Rather, Jesus’ warning is directed toward those who might be or become ashamed specifically of the gospel that he was preaching. And Jesus commends those who would be willing even to forfeit their lives, if need be, for his and the gospel’s sake.
It is the words of the gospel of Jesus that our adulterous and sinful generation cannot tolerate. The term “gospel” means good news, or glad tidings. That wouldn’t seem like such an offensive concept. But remember that the good news of Christ presupposes certain things that our generation does find threatening and offensive.
The good news of Jesus Christ is good news only to people who are in a bad situation. Yet the sinful world won’t admit that it is in a bad situation. And therefore it has no use for the gospel, and actually feels insulted and threatened by the gospel.
The unbelieving children of this world will, in fact, get angry with you if you try to preach the Christian gospel to them, because this gospel, before it does anything else, would make them face up to the reality of certain fearful and dangerous things that they absolutely do not want to face up to.
In our society, people greatly value their homes, and take much pride in them. Our homes mean a lot to us, and we accordingly tend to invest ourselves in them, both financially and emotionally.
So, a family that is enjoying the familiar comforts of their home might not be willing to listen to a police officer or a firefighter, who unexpectedly comes to their door to tell them that he is there to lead them to safety, and that they need to get out of their home because a flood, a fire, a hurricane, or some other destructive force is bearing down on it.
People inside their house, in such a situation, might go into a state of denial, and refuse to leave. They might even get angry at the officer who is there to bring them the good news of their deliverance from danger - because they don’t want to be in danger, and so they refuse to believe that they are in danger.
If you were such a police officer or firefighter, dealing with a stubborn and misguided household, would you then become “ashamed” of the message of rescue that you were sent to bring to them, and to others like them? Would you stop trying to persuade them of their need to go with you to safety?
And would you give up on going to the other houses in that neighborhood, to warn those people of the danger and to rescue them, because of the discouraging response you encountered at the first house? I think we would all agree that this would be a very irresponsible reaction on the part of an emergency services officer.
If you were such an officer, you would not be quiet. You would not be so easily silenced, even if some of the people who needed to listen to you didn’t want to listen to you.
You would continue to tell the “glad tidings” of rescue to all the endangered people to whom you had been sent. You would not abandon your responsibility of proclaiming that message. You would not be “ashamed” of that message.
But what about the good news of Jesus Christ? Will we be silent, and not speak that message to an endangered world? Will we be ashamed of Jesus, and of his words of rescue and hope, so that we will not speak those words to people who mistakenly feel safe and at home in their isolation from God?
The adulterous and sinful generation among whom we live does not want to hear about the rescue that Jesus offers, because this generation - this deceived and irrational generation - refuses to admit that it is headed for destruction without that rescue. The unrepentant world in which we live does not want to hear about the forgiveness of sins, because it refuses to admit that its desires and actions are sinful and in need of forgiveness.
Fallen humanity is so corrupted by its sin, that its ability to perceive its own corruption is itself corrupted. Apart from Christ and the enlightening power of his gospel, humanity is blind to how desperately it needs the mercy of God, and a relationship with God.
But one thing that the old sinful nature does seem to know, is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a threat to it. It knows that in Christian baptism the old Adam is drowned, and a new man of faith arises to suppress and supplant the old nature and its ways.
The old sinful nature has a “survival instinct” of sorts, and does not want to be suppressed and killed. And so anyone who might challenge the status quo of an unbeliever’s life, and of an unbeliever’s separation from God, can expect to be met with hostility - arising from the sinful nature within that person.
Humanly speaking, it is easy for you to become “ashamed” of the gospel that Jesus has told you to speak, when you are in an environment where that gospel is so strongly despised, and where it is so adamantly rejected by many who hear it.
It is easy to remain silent when you should say something, or to speak in vague and general terms when you should speak clearly and precisely about humanity’s need for salvation, and about God’s free offer of that needed salvation through Christ.
“I don’t want to create an awkward situation,” you might say. “I don’t want people to think I’m some kind of religious nut,” you might think. But Jesus says this in response:
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. ... For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Even with the human weakness in us that might cause us to be afraid, and to come close to being ashamed of Jesus, we can certainly thank God that Jesus is not ashamed of his own words. We can certainly thank God that Jesus was willing to lose his life for the sake of the gospel: so that this gospel could be preached to the world; so that this gospel could be preached to you.
God always finds a way to get his word out, even when human beings - in their weakness and fear - fail him. We, in our weakness and fear, have failed him. But God, in his mercy, has not failed us. And God has found a way to get his word to you - right here and right now!
The gospel, or the good news of Christ, does not merely tell us about the forgiveness of sin that God has provided through the death and resurrection of his Son. The gospel actually imparts that forgiveness to the consciences of those who hear it in repentance, and who then believe what they have heard.
The gospel does not merely inform us of the need for faith, so that the blessings of forgiveness and reconciliation with God can be received. It actually bestows that faith, and works it in us by the miraculous operation of God’s Spirit.
Through the gospel, God’s Spirit transforms the minds of those whom he saves, and makes those who are unwilling to believe, willing. He heals their spiritual sickness. He opens their closed hearts. And with the enlightenment of his eternal truth, he lifts from them the curse of their spiritual blindness.
As we heard in last week’s lesson from the epistle of St. James, God brought us forth - meaning that he gave us a new spiritual birth - by his word of truth. The words of Jesus carry within them the power of God to save you.
His words are a lifeline, which he throws out to you, and to which you cling with every fiber of your being. His words do not simply tell you of the Lord’s salvation from the adulterous and sinful generation in which you live, but his words accomplish that salvation. They save you.
When you believe those words, you are justified in Christ. Your are pure. You are clean. You are rescued.
Jesus is not ashamed of his words. Through the ministry of his church, in the public administration of the means of grace, he is continually bringing his gospel to the highways of all the world.
And in the private sharing of his word around a million kitchen tables and in a million living rooms, in all the byways of our personal relationships with other people, Jesus is likewise bringing his gospel to a perishing world - one soul at a time.
In this way, through your loving testimony to your friends and relatives, your coworkers and acquaintances - stammering and halting thought it may be - Jesus is working miracles.
As you are refreshed and restored by the Lord’s free forgiveness of your previous silence, your mouths are now opened. In the Lord’s strength, you are sent out with a renewed assurance that God will work through the things that you are now eager to say.
You are not ashamed of your Savior, or of his words. And so you sing and pray:
Jesus! and shall it ever be, A mortal man ashamed of Thee?
Ashamed of Thee whom angels praise, Whose glories shine through endless days?
Never! For Jesus is my Friend, On whom my hopes of heaven depend.
He sheds the beams of light divine Over this benighted soul of mine.
Jesus! May this my glory be: That He is not ashamed of me!
The Lamb of God, my Savior slain, Has washed me clean from sin’s dark stain.
“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” Amen.