4 July 2021 - Pentecost 6 - Mark 6:1-13

In the town of Nazareth - where Jesus had grown up, and where his closest relatives still lived - Jesus was a well-known and familiar figure. And Jesus was a non-threatening figure.

He was known as a son of the deceased town carpenter Joseph, and was now a carpenter himself. No one in Nazareth minded having Jesus the carpenter as a part of their community.

And they no doubt welcomed his presence especially when they needed a repair or an addition to their houses, some new wooden furniture, or something else that a carpenter could make for them. Not only was Jesus the carpenter seen as a harmless person, but he was seen as a beneficial person to have around.

But in the events in Nazareth that are described in today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus the carpenter became Jesus the teacher and prophet. And Jesus the teacher and prophet was, in an instant, no longer seen as a harmless person, or as a beneficial person to have around.

Jesus was now no longer looked upon as a non-threatening figure. St. Mark tells us that

“On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.”

The Nazarenes were not proud of the home-town boy, now grown up to a new and important calling. They were threatened by him, and angry at what seemed to them to be Jesus’ arrogant pretensions to be something other than what they were familiar with, and comfortable with.

They had been willing to recognize him as a carpenter. That was safe for them. But they refused to honor him as a prophet, even though that’s what he actually was.

They refused to accept his enlightened explanations of the Scriptures, his challenging descriptions of human sin and divine wrath, and his warm invitation to salvation by grace through faith in God’s Messianic promises.

And so Jesus says: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And St. Mark then makes this somewhat enigmatic comment:

“And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.”

Alienated people are reconciled to God, and guilty people are forgiven by God, by God’s grace alone. But God’s grace can be resisted by a hardened and unbelieving heart.

Faith, when it does exist in heart and mind, is a gift from God, and not a production of human reason and the human will. God gets the credit for man’s faith and conversion. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

But unbelief, and the rejection of God’s Word when God’s Word is indeed rejected, arise from the old fallen nature, and from fallen man’s sinful nature.

Man takes the blame for his unbelief, and for his stubborn recalcitrance in the face of God’s sincere invitation to all to believe and be saved. For example, Jesus later said with great grief, as he looked out over the city of Jerusalem:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

The people of Nazareth, with only a few exceptions, likewise refused to believe what Jesus was teaching, and they refused to believe in Jesus even as a prophet - let alone as the Son of God. And so they did not receive what God was offering through the words of Jesus: neither comfort for the soul, nor healing for the body. Without faith, they received nothing.

Our American society is a lot like Nazareth in the first century. Jesus is a familiar figure for most Americans.

For example, in spite of the huge efforts of flagrant secularists to turn Christmas into an annual “winter holiday,” and to make Santa Claus the major figure of that celebration, the baby Jesus remains in the carols that fill the air, and in the creches that dot the landscape, during that day and season.

And of course, the official legal name of this federal holiday remains as “Christmas” - that is, the Mass of Christ.

But the themes of the Christmas story that are most often accentuated by the larger society are non-threatening themes, like “peace on earth, good will to men.” The Christmas songs that are played on the radio tend to be the ones that are light on theology, and heavy on sentimentality.

There is some benefit in having the Jesus of the American Christmas holiday around. Once a year - and maybe at other times, too - he makes people feel good, and warms their hearts.

This Jesus is a meek and mild Jesus who judges and condemns no one, and who makes no one feel uncomfortable. He blesses everyone and approves of everything. And, he has no real impact on how people live or on what they believe.

This familiar and welcome Jesus is Jesus the carpenter. But when Jesus the teacher and prophet emerges and reveals himself, the welcome goes away fast, and he is rejected with great vehemence.

Americans in general - and Christians too, according to our old nature - don’t want to listen to him when he challenges us, and points out our errors. We are uncomfortable when Jesus presumes to speak with divine authority into our current cultural debates, and to say things like this:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...”

“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’?”

And the kind of exclusivity that Jesus claims for himself, is as shocking to twenty-first century Americans, as it is necessary in the realm of God’s will and ways - for anyone who wants to be saved from sin, death, and the devil. Jesus says:

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

The extraordinary claims that Jesus makes about himself as the only Son of God, and as humanity’s only Savior, are judged by many to be the most intolerant words ever spoken in this world. He declares:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. ... I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. ... Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

It doesn’t surprise us when unbelievers chafe at Jesus’ actual teaching, once they move beyond a shallow and sentimental way of thinking about Jesus and hear what he really has to say.

But for us, too, it can be confusing, when we want to believe in Jesus, and to honor him as a prophet - indeed, as the greatest and highest prophet who has ever lived! - but when we then hear from the voices that surround us that those who do believe what Jesus teaches, and who live as Jesus lived, are hateful and evil people.

Don’t believe this propaganda, my friends. Jesus will never tell you to hate anyone: in the sense of wishing harm to come to anyone, or in the sense of diminishing the human dignity and value of anyone in your thoughts and actions. Jesus wants you to love everyone, as he did.

But he wants you to love them in a way that also reflects the fact that your highest love is for God and his unchanging Word, and that you therefore will use the opportunities you are given to share God’s message of life and hope with people who are otherwise enshrouded by a fallen world filled with death and despair.

In Nazareth, most of the people who liked Jesus before, rejected him when he revealed who and what he really was. But some people were still open to his words, and to his power to heal and to save. St. Mark tells us that “he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.”

In today’s world, dear friends, be among those “few sick people” who do believe in Jesus, and who do honor him as he deserves to be honored. Let us all be among those few sick people who recognize in Jesus the authority to fill our minds with his truth, to re-form our hearts with his morals, and to re-shape our wills with his values.

Come to him, as the physician of your souls who has come to you, to heal you and to reconcile you to God. Jesus said:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Recognize Jesus to be more than a carpenter. Honor him as God’s supreme teacher and prophet for you and for his church.

Submit to him as God’s own living presence among men, who even now - in Word and Sacrament - continues to bestow his forgiveness on the penitent, and his justification on those who trust in him.

Do not project your assumptions onto Jesus; but let Jesus show you who he really is, what he really wants, and what he really gives, as he projects his Word and Spirit into you.

Listen to him today, when he - as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world - reminds you that on the cross his body was sacrificed, and his blood was shed, so that you could be at peace with God.

Listen to him today, when he - as the risen Lord - tells you that this body and this blood are now supernaturally bestowed upon you in his Supper: to draw you once again into the redemption of his cross, and to fill you once again with the hope and victory of his empty tomb.

A mere carpenter can’t tell you these things. But a man who speaks with the authority of God can tell you these things, and you can believe him. A man who has the power to heal you in body and in soul can say these things to you, and can give these things to you.

Don’t wait for others, in the world around you, to grow beyond their “Christmas carol” faith in Jesus, or their faith in Jesus the carpenter, and to be willing to honor Jesus for who he really is. Many never will.

You need to heed his voice as he speaks to you, and as he claims you as his own. Embrace him and his words with a true faith, a trusting faith, and a humble faith.

In his high priestly prayer, Jesus is talking about his disciples - and through them he is talking about you - when he prays to God the Father:

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. ... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”

Dear friends, please find your rest - your true and eternal rest - in the salvation that you could not obtain from anyone except Jesus; but that you have obtained from Jesus through his grace toward you.

We close with these words from John the apostle, concerning his friend and Savior Jesus; concerning our divine teacher and great prophet Jesus:

“This is the message we have heard from him, and proclaim to you: that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” Amen.

11 July 2021 - Pentecost 7 - Ephesians 1:3-14

Through the Prophet Isaiah, God says to us: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

That’s not easy for us to accept as sinful human beings, who all have a streak of arrogance and self-importance running through us. And in particular, that’s not easy for us to accept as Americans, who are immersed in a culture that is always emphasizing - at least in its rhetoric - the equality of everyone.

That American instinct for equality, and that American rejection of the notion that some people are above us or better than us, easily bleeds over into a subconscious assumption that God is somehow equal to us too.

Whenever we grumble to God, or complain about God, in regard to some perceived injustice in this world that we think he either perpetrated or allowed to be perpetrated, we are manifesting such an assumption.

He thinks and acts in the way we do. And therefore his thoughts and actions can be interpreted - and can be criticized - in the same way as human thoughts and actions can be interpreted and criticized.

The truth of the matter, however, is that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. His infinite mind, and the content of his infinite mind, are beyond the range of our probing curiosity.

And he does not allow us to pass judgment on him and his actions either. His ways are higher than our ways.

God is not our equal. He is above us, and always will be.

But God is not a complete mystery to us, because he has made himself known in some specific ways. He has given the world an explanation of the reasons for some of his actions.

And in times and places of his choosing, he has allowed us to know what some of his thoughts about us have been - not all of his thoughts, but those thoughts in particular that he wants us to be aware of.

In the midst of all the uncountable thoughts and plans that have existed in God’s mind from eternity, God reveals to you, in Christ, some of his thoughts as they pertain to you - concerning his grace in your life, and concerning your life in his kingdom.

In today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul humbly praises God for this. And he says that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”

“In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will.”

It is foolish for people to think that because they don’t understand everything about God’s thinking and planning, they are justified in not believing in him. What kind of God would you have, if you always understood him? Wouldn’t that make you God, rather than him?

But there are many people who insist that, before they are willing to acknowledge God’s existence, they themselves need to have a persuasive rational explanation of everything God is doing, and of why he is doing it. They think God owes them such an explanation.

Why did this person die, while that person lived? Why did this hurricane come ashore, and bring havoc and destruction, while that hurricane petered out without doing any damage? Why was conflict in one nation stirred up into a bloody civil war, while conflict in another nation was settled and resolved before anyone got hurt?

The assumptions behind this kind of practical atheism are basically this: “I won’t believe in God until and unless I am persuaded that God is my equal, and is accountable to me as far as his motives and plans are concerned.” This is nonsense.

But it is also foolish to refuse to learn what can be learned about the motives and plans of God, when God has actually told us where and how it is possible to know such things. And this knowledge - or at least as much of it as we are permitted to have - is available in Christ.

But before we get to that, we must recognize, first, that God also shows the world how a person can enter into Christ - so that he can gain access to this knowledge.

The Book of Acts records for us Paul’s speech to the Athenians, in which he says that “God...commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

And we read in the Gospel according to St. John that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The doorway into Christ is a doorway of repentance and faith. And this is a doorway through which all people are invited to walk.

Did Jesus live and die for me? Yes, because he lived and died for everyone. And that includes me.

Does God want me to turn away from the death and destruction of sin, and to put my trust in Christ and in his life-giving promises? Yes, because he wants everyone to do this.

Does God offer to me, through his Word, the gift of his Spirit, who has the power to bring me to repentance, and who is able to bestow upon me the gift of faith and the hope of everlasting life?

Yes, because God’s Spirit is always working through his Word of law and gospel. And that means that he will be working in me, when I admit my sin, and when I embrace my Savior.

Once you are in Christ - by repentance and faith - there are now certain things about you, and about his plans for you, that God wants you to know, and that he is ready to tell you. These are the things that he reveals through the Apostle Paul, in today’s Epistle.

God is in charge of this information, and God is in charge of the ongoing conversation he is having with you, through all the ups and downs of your life. He’s not going to tell you everything that you may wish to know. But he will tell what he knows you need to know.

He tells you what you need to know, in times of doubt or weakness, when you might begin to wonder if what you have believed is really true. He tells you what you need to know, when you might wonder if God is aware of your temptations and struggles, and if he really does care about you in the midst of those temptations and struggles.

St. Paul writes:

“In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will... In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

If those who are not in Christ try to probe the mysteries of God’s personal thoughts about them or anyone else - critically and judgmentally; or as a matter of idle curiosity - they will get nowhere fast.

To such people - and to you, if you are still such a person - the Lord simply repeats these familiar refrains: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

But once the Spirit of God has placed you into Christ by faith, and has opened your eyes to see who Jesus is, he will then also open your eyes to see who you are in Christ, and to see what God has been thinking about you in Christ, and planning for you in Christ, from eternity.

God did not roll the dice, or flip a coin, to determine your eternal destiny. In Christ he chose you - thoughtfully and lovingly - before the foundation of the world.

It was not just a matter of luck that you heard the warnings of God’s law, so that you could heed those warnings and turn away from your trespasses. It was not just a chance occurrence that you heard the invitation of the gospel, so that you could accept that invitation, be forgiven and justified, and be incorporated by God into his family and kingdom.

God, according to the mystery of his unmeasurable grace toward you in Christ your Redeemer, deliberately made all these things happen. And he predestined you for adoption through Jesus Christ.

When we say that we are saved by the grace of God, this means that our salvation is not earned by our own merits or works. It is a free gift.

To be sure, it is a profoundly transformative gift - making us to be new creatures in Christ, with new hopes and desires. But it is a pure gift.

And when we say that we are saved by the grace of God, this means that the gift of our salvation has been planned out for us from eternity, within the infinite mind of the almighty creator of all things. Nothing ever catches God by surprise.

And God is not indecisive. He is not making this up, or figuring this out, as he goes. St. James reminds us:

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”

God does not reveal things like this to those who still reject his grace in Christ. Unbelievers are not told that from eternity their unbelief has been foreordained and predetermined. It has not been.

And what God reveals to those who are in Christ by faith, is that he has determined that they should be holy and blameless before him, and not that they should be callous and presumptuous before him.

The revealed mysteries of God’s eternal election are not accessible to us, or comprehensible to us, apart from Christ. These mysteries are not intended to be heard and appropriated by us, apart from that faith which receives the righteousness of Jesus, and which bears fruit in good works in the name of Jesus.

The very narrow parameters of the Biblical doctrine of God’s election do not allow you to ignore the law of God, and its condemnation of your sins, with the excuse that whatever God has determined is going to happen, is going to happen anyway, whether you repent or don’t repent.

That is not something that God has said. And he has actually said things that are quite different from that.

What we believe, and how we live, are not to be determined by carnal logical deductions from what God has said. They are to be determined by what God has actually said.

But the Biblical doctrine of God’s election is a great comfort for you, when you contemplate it at those times when you are supposed to contemplate it.

God’s eternal grace toward you, in Christ your Savior, is a great comfort in the midst of your anguish over your sins, and in the midst of your yearning for forgiveness and a new start with God. It is a great comfort, when you are troubled in spirit due to attacks on your faith from the world, the flesh, and the devil, and when you need assurance that God is at hand to help and sustain you.

At such times, God does speak to you. And he speaks to you of his gracious will and plan to rescue you, and protect you, and claim you as his own forever - through the cross and empty tomb of his Son.

He assures you that as far as your salvation is concerned, all things are still in his hands, as they always have been.

Don’t try to figure all this out on the basis of human reason and logical deduction. It cannot be done.

But if you are in a place in your spiritual life where God wants to calm your troubled thoughts, or steady your flagging faith, with comforting words concerning his eternal grace toward you, and his eternal choice of you, in Christ, then do listen to him. And believe him. And rejoice in him.

From eternity, O God, In Thy Son Thou didst elect me;
Therefore, Father, on life’s road, Graciously to heaven direct me;
Send to me Thy Holy Spirit, That His gifts I may inherit.

Oh, create a heart in me That in Thee, my God, believeth;
And o’er the iniquity Of my sins most truly grieveth.
When dark hours of woe betide me, In the wounds of Jesus hide me.


18 July 2021 - Pentecost 8 - Jeremiah 23:1-6

One of the Sundays of our church year, during the Easter season, is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Jesus, of course, is the Good Shepherd, whose love and care for us is recounted in the lessons and hymns on that day.

In contrast, this Sunday - at least as far as the Old Testament lesson is concerned - might be called “Bad Shepherd Sunday.” Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord severely criticizes the shepherds of Israel:

“‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord.’”

In Israel, the divinely-appointed shepherds were the priests, whose duties included offering the sacrifices that pointed forward to Christ; and giving instruction from God’s Word to the people concerning God’s ways and God’s promises concerning the coming Christ.

The kings were also among the shepherds of Israel. In the theocratic system of the Old Testament era they played an important role in governing the religious life of the people, and in preserving the true faith for the nation.

But in the time of Jeremiah, these priests and kings - these shepherds - were bad shepherds. A primary focus of their bad shepherding, is that they had not kept the sheep together, but had instead scattered them.

Literal sheep remain safe when they remain together, under the protection of their shepherd. When a sheep is alone, he is vulnerable. And if he stays alone, all by himself in the wilderness, it is only a matter of time before he is found by a predator and devoured.

In ancient Israel, the priests and kings were neglecting their spiritual duties as defined by God. Instead of working to make sure that the people knew and believed the Word of God, they had led the people away from the Word of God by tolerating, and even promoting, idolatry.

The perversions of Baal worship and Molech worship replaced the solemnity of the worship of Jehovah. The profane liturgy of the pagan high places replaced the sacred liturgy of the Temple.

The people of Israel might have been with each other physically, as they engaged in their idolatry. But they were no longer with God. They were no longer a part of the Lord’s true flock.

In their hearts, they had been scattered. And so each of them, one by one, could now be picked off by the devil, who roams the earth looking for isolated and vulnerable souls to drag off to damnation.

And as a nation, they were also dragged off, by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, into slavery and exile. Their shepherds had not kept them together, around the Word of God, and under the protection of God.

Their shepherds had not paid attention to them. But God, in his wrath, was now going to pay attention to those shepherds:

“You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord.”

The spiritual shepherds of today will invite upon themselves the same kind of divine judgment, if they scatter the flocks entrusted to their care by teaching or tolerating the false doctrine of today’s paganisms and substitute gospels.

Anything that falls short of the preaching of the cross of the Christ who has come - and the preaching of the forgiveness, life, and salvation that God offers to fallen humanity through the cross of his Son - has no power to keep the Lord’s sheep within his flock.

Today’s popular gospels - gospels of self-indulgence and self-fulfillment, of material wealth and prosperity, of moral license and ethical indifference - attract many. Those who are drawn to these deceptions may physically gather in large numbers at those places where these things are preached.

But as far as the spiritual protection of the true God is concerned - and regarding the inner union with God and with God’s flock that come through faith in God’s Word - these false gospels are actually dispersing the people.

Those who - in their hearts - give themselves over to these modern-day idolatries, and depart from the cross of Christ, thereby depart from the flock of Christ. And they will be overcome and devoured by the world, the flesh, and the devil.

In the New Testament era, the civil authorities are not responsible for the outward maintenance of public worship and sound doctrine, as the kings of Israel were. But those who are responsible for this today, among the clergy and laity of the church, will also call God’s anger down upon themselves, if they ignore this responsibility.

Those whose duty it is to support and facilitate the preaching of the message of Jesus Christ and the administration of his sacraments, and the gathering together of God’s people around those means of grace, will be judged - as were the unbelieving kings of the past - if they, like those kings, allow the Lord’s Temple to become desolate.

An accounting will be demanded for the souls who are lost to the church, when the shepherds who were called to use God’s truth to draw them together and keep them together, pastured them instead on human and devilish lies: so that those souls scattered, to worship the gods of this world at the idolatrous altars of this world.

St. James writes: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

And we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “We know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

God’s judgment against the priests and kings of old was severe. But this severity was offset by the sweetness of his promise, concerning the way in which he himself would provide a remedy for the spiritual disaster that these bad shepherds’ sins had caused. Through Jeremiah, the Lord declares:

“Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.”

Because of their idolatry, the people of Israel were scattered to the idolatrous nations, and they were devoured by those nations. The northern kingdom of Israel was more evil, and more thoroughly apostate, than was the southern kingdom of Judah. And it was punished accordingly.

The people of Judah were able to retain their identity as children of Abraham during their exile in Babylon. For them, the hardships of their exile served to purge them of their outward idolatry, so that they were ready to return to the Holy Land, and to reestablish the worship of the Temple in Jerusalem, when God allowed this to happen after 70 years.

But the northern kingdom was totally sucked into the paganism of the Assyrians. They became completely blended into the larger world of the gentiles, and ceased to exist as a distinct, identifiable nation.

It would take a miracle to extract them from this. But a miracle is what God performed for them - for us - through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said in St. Matthew’s Gospel that before this world is brought to its end, the “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” And from those many nations who are hearing this gospel, the Lord’s people - his elect - are even now being called forth to rejoin his chosen flock.

There may not in every case be a specific genetic connection between those ancient Israelites who were sucked into the larger gentile world, and the elect from among the gentiles who are reclaimed by Christ and incorporated into his church - although some or many of us no doubt do have traces of Hebrew DNA.

But the deeper point remains. God never forgot those ancient exiles - those ancient scattered sheep - who once had been called by his name, even though they had forgotten him.

And the Lord always had a gracious, saving plan for the nations into which the northern tribes of Israel had been absorbed; and a gracious, saving plan for those tribes insofar as they were now within those nations.

God’s redeeming love for the world is now being manifested, and his plan for the world is now being implemented, as the Great Commission that Jesus entrusted to his disciples is being fulfilled.

Jesus told them - he told us: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

In the body of Christ - in the Holy Christian Church - Jews and gentiles are brought together, by faith in the one Redeemer of the world. Judah and Israel - the descendants of the southern kingdom, and the descendants of the dispersed northern kingdom - are, mystically, reunited.

The flock of God is restored. The wanderers are called back to their Lord and protector.

And the focus of this Great Commission also includes those individuals in our time who were formerly in the communion of the church, but who have been lost to it - at least for now.

By the power of the gospel, as this gospel may at some point re-engage them; and by the power of their baptism, which is continually calling them home; they, too, can be reclaimed.

We should not give up on people, on whom God has not given up. And God has not given up on them. The parable of the prodigal son reminds us of that, if nothing else does.

Sometimes, you might think that a profound miracle would be necessary to extract some of the former Christians you know, from the falsehood and godlessness into which they have enmeshed themselves, since their departure from the faith. But a miracle is exactly what Jesus offers them.

And if anyone who is listening to this is in this situation, a miracle of restoration and renewal is exactly what Jesus is offering you.

When a child of Adam is spiritually born again, and becomes a believer in Christ, that is a miracle. When one who had fallen away from Christ is restored to faith - and is spiritually resurrected - that, too, is a miracle. With God, all things - including miraculous things - are indeed possible.

And, if you sense in your conscience that your own sins may be partly responsible for having turned certain friends or family members away from the church, that certainly would be a great burden of guilt to bear. Know, therefore, that Jesus is here for you, and that his forgiveness is here for you.

Jesus died for all our offenses. He died for all our shortcomings and inconsistences, and for our many failures in how we have conducted ourselves as pastors, as church members, as neighbors, and as husbands, wives, and parents.

Christ’s complete faithfulness and perfect obedience as the ultimate king over God’s people, and as the ultimate priest for God’s people, are credited to us when we are justified before God, by faith in him. Before God, he takes away our sins, and places his righteousness upon us in the stead of those sins.

That’s what God is talking about when he says today, through Jeremiah, that the name by which the Savior will be called is: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

If it is possible, you might seek out those whom your conscience tells you you have let down or misled, and apologize for your failing. You can try, with the Lord’s help, to do better in your future relationship with them. And you can pray for them.

You can pray that they will accept Jesus’ admonition to them, to repent of their sins: for which they do bear the ultimate responsibility, and not you. And you can pray that by the working of the Holy Spirit, they will humbly accept Jesus’ invitation to them, to cling once again to his cross; and to walk once again in the newness of the life that he gives to those whom he owns.

Ultimately, it is the Good Shepherd himself on whom we must all rely.

God does give us pastors and teachers, parents and religious leaders, through whom he works, and through whom he blesses us. But all of these people, who are themselves still tainted by sin, will eventually disappoint us - sometimes in small ways; sometimes in big ways.

They will need our forgiveness for these failures, even as we each need the forgiveness of those whom we have hurt. Above all of this, however, is Jesus Christ the Lord. And he will never fail us.

To the confirmands who have confessed their faith in Jesus today, and who are looking forward to a lifetime of following him, I can say with all confidence: He will never fail you. He will never abandon you or forsake you.

And to everyone else who also looks to Jesus today - even to those whose faith may tremble with weakness or falter with doubt - I can also say that he will never fail you. He will never abandon you or forsake you.

Jesus’ words of hope and life are never stale or barren. No hypocrisy or insincerity ever attaches to anything he says or does.

Jesus is the “righteous Branch” whom God raised up for David. And “he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.” Amen.

25 July 2021 - St. James the Elder - Acts 11:27–12:5

St. James the Elder is called “the Elder” to distinguish him from other men named “James” in the New Testament. He was an apostle, as was St. James the Younger.

St. James of Jerusalem was not an apostle, but was a brother of Jesus, and became the chief pastor of the Jerusalem congregation around the time when the surviving apostles left the city to go and make disciples of all nations.

James the Elder, whom the church commemorates today, was a son of Zebedee, and was the older brother of the apostle John. He was a fisherman in Capernaum before Jesus called him to follow him as a disciple.

James was in the inner circle of disciples - which included also his brother John and Simon Peter. Jesus brought these three with him on certain occasions that were not considered to be public events, but for which Jesus wanted there to be witnesses who could later testify to what had happened.

I’m thinking of things like Jesus’ raising of Jairus’s daughter, Jesus’ transfiguration and conversation with Moses and Elijah, and Jesus’ prayerful agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

James saw what happened at those special times, and heard what was spoken at those special times. And of course, James participated in all the public events that involved all twelve of the apostles, as well.

We would expect, therefore, that James would have played a very prominent role in the early history of the church, as did the other disciples in that inner circle.

John and Peter eventually departed from Jerusalem and exercised important pastoral leadership in other places where the church was planted: John in the city of Ephesus, and Peter in Antioch and later in the imperial capital of Rome. John and Peter were also used by the Holy Spirit for the production of some of the writings of New Testament Scripture.

But James’s story did not track with their stories. Before he had had a chance to depart from Jerusalem, with the other apostles, he departed from this world. St. Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that

“Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword...”

James did not become the bishop or spiritual leader of a great city. He was not the human author of any text of Scripture. Before he could do any of those things - which we would have expected of someone in that special inner circle - his time on earth was brought to an end.

It reminds me a bit of the sad story I once heard about a young Lutheran seminary graduate who was robbed and murdered on his way to his first call. All of that preparation, and all of that training, was seemingly for nothing.

So too with James, it would seem to us that all of the special preparation Jesus had given him for leadership in the church, even above and beyond what the rest of the apostles were given, was for nothing.

But was it for nothing? Can we actually judge God, his ways, and his plans for his people, in that way? No, we can’t.

James, in his person and office, did not have a major impact on the larger world in the way that John and Peter did. But from God’s perspective, and according to God’s plan, we cannot underestimate or undervalue the impact that he no doubt did have on his fellow apostles, as he bore witness to them of the extraordinary things that he had seen and heard, but that they had not seen and heard.

The Gospels that were later penned by other disciples recall the fact that James was present at those special private events, together with John and Peter, so as to meet the ancient requirement of the Mosaic law that an event is established as having truly happened by the testimony of two or three witnesses, and not just on the say-so of a single individual.

So, for example, the apostles who were not personally present at the transfiguration later preached about it anyway, and they preached about what the transfiguration shows us regarding the divinity of Jesus and the saints in heaven.

They did not declare these things to be true because they had seen them, but because James, John, and Peter had seen them, and had given them a reliable and united account of what they had seen.

William Ross Wallace famously said, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” Most of us probably don’t know the name of George Washington’s mother. But would we say that her life was not important, just because she did not have direct influence over an entire nation?

The influence that she had behind the scenes over one person who did later have influence over an entire nation, and the beliefs and values that she instilled in that one person during his formative years, were no doubt much more important for American history than most would realize.

And in God’s kingdom, and in God’s church, it works in a similar way. There have been many Christians through the centuries who did not live very long lives, or very public lives, but who nevertheless fulfilled the modest and limited role that God had assigned to them, to the overall benefit of the ministry and mission of God’s church.

Such people, humble and unassuming during their lifetime, and quickly forgotten after their lifetime, are almost all anonymous to us. But they are never anonymous to God. They are never forgotten by God.

St. James the Elder is, of course, not anonymous to us. We know his name, and we know about a few of the ways in which God used him, before his relatively short life came to an end.

But we don’t know a lot about him. We don’t know about his relationship with the other apostles, or about all aspects of the positive impact he likely had on them.

And during the time when he was serving as a pastor in Jerusalem, his teaching and spiritual care may very well have had a huge affect on many people, with a saving benefit to them personally; and with a saving benefit to those whom they later influenced.

As a parish pastor, and as a missionary and theological professor, I personally have had an influence on many people - hopefully for the good more often than not. But as my calling has brought me, over the years, to sanctuaries and seminaries in several states and nations, I have carried with me the imprint of the pastors who confirmed and mentored me in my youth; and of the college and seminary teachers who taught and formed me in my early adulthood.

My students and my parishioners have benefitted from the ministries that those men carried out with me in earlier times, even if my students and parishioners knew and know nothing about who they were and what they did.

Human pride may wish for credit and praise for such contributions. Human pride wants to sing the theme song from the old TV series “Fame”:

I'm gonna live forever. I'm gonna learn how to fly.
I feel it coming together. People will see me and cry.
I'm gonna make it to heaven. Light up the sky like a flame.
I'm gonna live forever. Baby, remember my name.

But such is not the desire of the humility of the faith that God’s Spirit works in us through the gospel of Jesus. The humility of this faith is content to say instead, as Paul does say in his Epistle to the Galatians:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

All of us, in God’s kingdom and family, are links in a chain that spans the centuries, and that reaches behind us and ahead of us beyond our personal ability to see and know. Most of the links in this chain - that is, most of the saints of God who have lived out their faith among others, and confessed their Savior to others - are unknown.

But they are links in the chain of which we are a part. And we are links in that chain, too, even if we, and our work for God, are unknown to most people today, and will be unknown to everybody in the future.

Small and unnoticed things are important things, when those small and unnoticed things come from God, and are a part of the vocation we have received from God. A famous evangelist who preaches to thousands of people over a long lifespan, is not more important to God than a simple layman who confesses Christ to his neighbor, who prays with his wife and children and brings them to church, and who dies at a relatively young age.

In your baptism, God has claimed you for his purposes. His primary purposes for you, are to pour out upon you his gift of salvation, and the righteousness of his Son that makes you acceptable to him; and to fill you: to fill you with faith, as you trust in Jesus; and to fill you with his Spirit, as you bear the Spirit’s fruit in your life.

Every day, God calls you to repentance: and you acknowledge your faults and failures. Every day, God renews your hope in his mercy, and your joy in his forgiveness: and you believe his words of pardon and peace.

These things are very personal. No one else ever really knows what is going on in your conscience. This is between you and God.

But then, as an outgrowth of this faith - as God calls you to serve him according to the gifts that he bestows upon you, and according to the opportunities that he presents to you - you may become somewhat famous. You may become a widely-known person. Or maybe not. Ultimately, it’s up to God.

And what God does call you to do, he may call you to do for many years and decades. You might live a long and fruitful life. Or maybe not. Again, ultimately, it’s up to God.

Whether we live long on the earth, or whether our time here is cut short, our daily prayer is the prayer of Psalm 31: “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand...”

And when our times and days are completed, and we are departing from this world - whether we are old or young, famous or obscure - we are comforted in our resurrection hope, and are strengthened in our confidence in God, by the words of Psalm 116:

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call on the name of the Lord.”

There is no shame in a humble life, if it is a devout life. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you,” St. James of Jerusalem writes.

There is no shame in a short life, if it is a good life. “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith,” St. Paul writes.

The life of St. James the Elder was a humble life. He served his Savior in faith where he was, even if this was not an exciting or exotic place like Ephesus or Rome. And the life of St. James the Elder was a short life - at least in comparison to the lifespan and broader life mission of the other apostles.

But the life of St. James was a devout life and a good life - which honored God, and served God’s purposes - because it was a life lived out in a daily reliance upon Christ, and in a daily willingness to follow where Christ would lead. In James’s case, where Christ led was to the sword of King Herod’s executioner.

James’s earthly dreams and aspirations, such as they may have been, were gone in an instant. But James’s eternal, heavenly reward, as God’s servant, enveloped and transformed him in an instant!

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” These words from Job are sobering words.

“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.” “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” These words from St. Paul are calming and uplifting words.

St. James was an apostle, chosen by Christ for a special ministry that served the church in a special way. And James did not fail in his calling.

God was not caught off-guard or surprised by Herod’s murderous machinations. Even if James did not see it coming, God did, and God prepared him for it, through his faith in Christ.

According to God’s providential plan for James, he had done everything he was supposed to do. And then, in the sleep of death, he peacefully rested from his labors.

As you walk by faith in the Son of God - within the baptismal rhythm of daily dying to self, and daily rising in Christ - you can be confident that God will use you as his servant, for whatever it is that he wants you to do in his name and for his glory.

Others may or may not know about this calling, or about these works of love and loyalty. But God will know. And God will bless you in your service: for him, and for those to whom he sends you.

As you gather in the Lord’s house with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day - to hear the Lord’s words, to partake of the Lord’s Supper, and to confess Jesus as Lord - your Savior will truly be your Lord. He will renew your faith, enlighten your understanding, reshape your will, and purify your affections.

Each day that you have in this world, will be a day with Jesus as your companion and guide. And you will be content with however many days and years he gives you to have.

And the words of Psalm 84 will be your words of prayer and conviction: “Better is one day in your courts, than a thousand elsewhere.”

The will of God is always best, And shall be done forever;
And they who trust in Him are blest; He will forsake them never.
He helps indeed In time of need; He chastens with forbearing.
They who depend On God, their Friend, Shall not be left despairing.

When life's brief course on earth is run, And I this world am leaving,
Grant me to say: “Thy will be done,” By faith to Thee still cleaving.
My heavenly Friend, I now commend My soul into Thy keeping,
O’er sin and hell, And death as well, Through Thee the victory reaping.