5 September 2021 - Pentecost 15 - Mark 9:14-29

Today’s text from St. Mark’s Gospel contains a lot of important information. It also contains some things that may not be easy for us to understand, or to apply to our own life of faith.

But it won’t hurt us to take a look at this passage, as we ask the Lord to teach us something through it.

We notice, first, that Jesus and three of his disciples - Peter, James, and John - come upon an argument between his other nine disciples and the scribes, with the crowd looking on.

Within the crowd was a man with a serious and tragic problem. His son was possessed by a demon, whose presence in the boy caused various horrible physical effects, namely deafness, muteness, and convulsive seizures.

Of course, not all instances of deafness or convulsions have a supernatural cause. Usually these maladies are natural in origin, to be treated medically. But sometimes, such as in this instance, a demonic possession results in such physical symptoms.

In any case, the man had brought his son to where he thought Jesus would be, so that Jesus could cast the demon out and heal his son. Jesus was not there when he arrived, so the disciples tried to cast it out themselves. But they failed.

And then an argument broke out between them and the scribes, who were probably taunting them over their lack of success. Each side was likely driven to this argument by pride.

We can imagine that the scribes, who for the most part opposed Jesus, welcomed an opportunity to make his followers look foolish and ineffective. For their part, the disciples didn’t like being treated in that way, and reacted with anger and defensiveness.

But what was quickly forgotten, it would seem, was the poor demon-possessed boy and his desperate father. It was now more important to win the argument, than to continue to try to do something to help someone in his deep spiritual need.

When Jesus arrived, the troubled father was glad to see him. And he was not disappointed in Jesus’ reaction to the situation. Jesus immediately started paying attention to the real issue.

He spoke with the father, and gave him some necessary religious instruction about faith and about his own divine power. And then he cast the evil spirit out of his son. He also gave some humbling instruction to the disciples, about their failure, and about the reasons for their failure.

Jesus does the same sort of thing today, when we have allowed ourselves to forget what is really important in life. We often lose our perspective, and begin “majoring in minors.”

We all too often get ourselves worked up over things that don’t really matter, and start to ignore those things that are supposed to be our primary concerns in life: namely, our relationship with God through faith in Christ, and the duty of love and service that we owe to others in accordance with our earthly calling.

But then Jesus breaks into that confusion with the convicting power of his Word, which jars us back to a realignment of our priorities. He calls us back to faith. He calls us back to the services of his house, and to his gospel.

He steps in where we have been negligent - or callous, or prideful, or selfish - and with his forgiveness sets things right again. According to our need, he teaches us the humbling lessons we need to learn - whatever they might be - and then sends us forth with better knowledge, and a renewed commitment to him.

Getting back to today’s lesson from St. Mark: In the context of the exorcism that Jesus performed, he also teaches us something timeless about faith, and about the lack of faith. And he teaches us that he - Jesus - is and must always be at the center of our faith.

We don’t just have “faith” as a thing unto itself, or consider the power of faith as a thing unto itself. We have faith in Christ, and we consider the power of Christ in faith.

Let’s listen in to the conversation Jesus had with the distressed father of the demon-possessed boy:

“And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

“And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”

“And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out...”

As the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith does, of course, begin with an assurance that what it desires is possible. But faith is also a conviction that certain things are so: not just a possibility but also an actuality.

Now, if someone we care about is suffering from a painful malady, which we really want the Lord to lift from that person, our wish that it be done, and our belief that God is able to bring it about, must not become - in our own minds - a certainty that God will do it.

For many people who lose their faith in God - because he did not do something they asked him to do - this loss of faith is not really a loss of faith, as much as it is loss of religious presumption.

Faith knows that miracles and extraordinary things are indeed possible, based on what God has revealed regarding his power and his general character.

But expecting God to do a specific thing, and believing that he has done it, must be based on more than an awareness of God’s ability and of our desire. A word or promise from God must also be there, to which faith can cling with unswerving certainty.

It is often the case, that God chooses not to do something he is capable of doing, for reasons beyond our knowledge or ability to understand.

When we ask for an illness or an affliction to be removed from someone we love, maybe God will not remove it, but let it remain. Maybe our loved one will die from this sickness.

But if that’s the way it goes, it will nevertheless be with the assurance that God has not abandoned us - or the people we love - and is not ignoring us. This he has told us, and therefore we can and should believe this, in spite of our disappointments otherwise. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“[God] has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”

And it will be with the confidence that God’s grace will sustain us - and will sustain the people we love who also look to him in hope - because God has made that promise, too. In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul quotes these comforting words of his Father in heaven, and ours:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

But you know, that’s not our usual problem. Our usual problem is not that we are too willing to believe in, or to expect from God, things that he has not actually revealed or promised.

Our usual problem is that we are unwilling to believe those things that God has made known to us, and has clearly revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

I’m not just thinking of those aspects of the Christian wordview that the society around us either ridicules or despises - such as the Biblical teaching on creation and the order of creation, or on marriage and sexuality. I’m thinking also about the work of salvation that God is always willing to perform - for us and in us - through the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.

In our weakness, and in the struggle between faith and unbelief that is always going on inside of us, we can identify with the demoniac’s father in today’s account. And we join him in his confession, and in his prayer: “I believe; help my unbelief!’”

According to the new nature that God’s Spirit has placed within me, as I reflect on God’s power and love, I do believe that all things are possible with God. But as the world, the fleshly old nature that remains in me, and the devil, all conspire to oppose this faith, and to destroy the comfort that it brings, I pray that God will help me to overcome my unbelief.

The words that Jesus spoke to the demon in today’s text, by which he cast him out of the boy, gave the boy’s father a firm basis for believing that what had been possible was now actually happening. So also do we have a firm basis for believing that some of the things which we know are possible in our lives, and in the lives of the people we care about, are actually happening.

We already believe that it is possible for Jesus to forgive sin. He died on the cross. That is something which actually happened.

And as he died, Jesus cried out, “It is finished.” That is something he actually said. The work of atonement was fully accomplished.

And Jesus rose from the dead, and was seen by many witnesses. The Son of God defeated Satan, and overcame the power of death in his victory over the grave.

So, all of this we do believe. It is possible for Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, crucified and resurrected, to forgive sin.

But what we sometimes have a hard time believing is that he forgives our sins specifically. Sometimes we are plagued by guilt over a particularly bad thing we have done.

Our accusing conscience tells us either that we are beyond hope, or that we need to suffer and atone for that sin ourselves. Or, according to the inborn natural religion of law and works that is common to all humanity, we think that we need to do something to earn God’s favor and pardon.

But all of that is just one version or another of unbelief. Unbelief is not just denying or ignoring God’s existence, but is also denying or ignoring God’s grace.

Yet God, through a gospel sermon by St. Peter recorded in the Book of Acts, breaks through this. He tells us something that we can believe with unswerving certainty:

“Let it be known to you...that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law.”

If God didn’t want you to believe in his forgiveness of your sins, he wouldn’t proclaim that forgiveness to you. But he does proclaim it. And therefore he wants you to believe it.

Robert Preus, the president of the seminary I attended, stated this logical syllogism in some of his chapel sermons:

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I am a sinner. Therefore, Christ Jesus came into the world to save me.”

It can’t get any more simple, any more profound, or any more wonderful than that. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.

When Jesus encouraged the man in today’s text to believe that he could and would heal his son, he gave him something on which that faith was to be focused: namely, his word of authority, directed to the demon, which did accomplish what the father believed could be accomplished.

Whenever the authoritative gospel of Christ crucified for sinners is proclaimed to you, Jesus is giving you something on which your faith is to be focused. When the forgiveness of your sins is directly announced to you in the absolution that Jesus authorized, Jesus is thereby, in effect, also saying to you:

“Believe this!” “This is the truth.” “This is now what your standing is, before God.”

When Jesus says in the Lord’s Supper, ‘This is my body, which is given for you,” and “This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins”; and when his body and blood are then placed in your own body, and touch your own soul, the faith with which you receive these salutary gifts is not only a belief that it is possible that your sins might thereby be forgiven.

It is, rather, a belief - a deep and profound certainty - that the body Jesus sacrificed, was sacrificed to atone for your transgressions; and that the blood he shed, was shed to reconcile you to God, and to wash away the stain of your guilt.

Your sins are atoned for. You are reconciled to God. You can, therefore - in the deepest and truest sense - depart in peace.

The way for your unbelief to give way to faith, and for your faith to be strong, is the way hearing the promises of God - as those promises are focused on you and on your spiritual need.

These encounters with God’s personalized words, spoken personally to you, are like exorcisms, which expel from you the faith-killing influence of the world, the flesh, and the devil; and which insert and renew in your hearts and minds Christ’s forgiveness, the life of the Holy Spirit, and salvation from God.

When God speaks to you in his means of grace, he always speaks truthfully. When God speaks truthfully, what he says is to be believed. And by the working of his Spirit, who is always present and active in the preaching of the gospel and in the administration of the sacraments, what God says is believed.

That’s why you are here today. Of course, even before you came to this sanctuary, you believed that your forgiveness was possible, and that God was able to save you from your sins.

But what is even more important, is that you are here because God’s Word, spoken for you and to you, is here. Not only can God forgive you, but God does forgive you. He says so, to you, personally.

You are here because the voice of Jesus can be heard and believed in this place. His voice, and his promises to you, overpower the most vile of demons, and calm the most troubled of consciences.

And so, as you are here - listening to him, and letting what he says sink into your minds and hearts - you now know that what was possible, is more than a possibility. It is real.

Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.

When Jesus speaks to you in the means of grace, the demons in your life - literal or figurative - are vanquished. When Jesus, in Word and Sacrament, declares that you are saved from the guilt and punishment of your sins, and that you will be his forever, you can declare in response: “This is most certainly true.”

You are saved. You are his.

Faith is a living power from heaven Which grasps the promise God has given;
A trust that cannot be overthrown, Fixed heartily on Christ alone.

We thank Thee, then, O God of heaven, That Thou, to us, this faith hast given
In Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who is Our only fount and source of bliss. Amen.

Mark 7:31-37
September 12, 2021
Guest Preacher: Rev. Dr. James Witt III

From the fullness of God's grace, we have received one blessing after another.

Text: 31) Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32) There some people brought Him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Him to place His hand on the man. 33) After He took him aside, away from the crowd; Jesus put His fingers into the man's ears. Then He spit and touched the man's tongue. 34) He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to Him, "Ephratha!" (which means, "Be opened.") 35) At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. 36) Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more He did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37) People were overwhelmed with amazement. "He has done everything well," they said. "He even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak."

"Jesus Christ has done everything well." This was the amazing confession of people who witnessed the astounding work of the Savior. In response to a group of people's fervent appeal, Jesus applied His healing power to a needy man's life and changed it dramatically. By doing this, Jesus has given surprising, significant hope to us all. As our Savior opened ears to hear and a tongue to speak many years ago, so may Jesus open our ears and minds to hear His Word today - and may He open our mouths to declare: "Our Savior has done all things well!"

See It In The Personal Concern He Shows Us.

As we observe Jesus in ministry action, there are a number of things we want to be sure to notice. One is the personal concern He shows a man in need. At this point of His ministry, Jesus had traveled from the Gentile area of Tyre and Sidon, northwest of the land of Israel, in a southeasterly direction to the area of the Decapolis, a league of 10 cities that were highly influenced by Greek culture and were situated east of the region of Galilee. This was an area where Jesus had not spent much time previously. However, many people in the Decapolis knew about Him. They had heard reports of His teaching and miracles. They were aware of His compassion and His abilities. So a group of the people in the region brought a severely afflicted man to Jesus and begged Jesus to help him. This man had a double affliction. He was deaf and could not hear. He also had a profound speech impediment. His ability to receive and share information was greatly impaired.

Jesus took a strong interest in the man and in the request made for him. Mark reports that "Jesus took the man aside away from the crowd. He then put His fingers in the man's ears. He spit into His own hand and touched the man's tongue with His hand. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and sighed deeply."

Note the personal concern that Jesus showed the man. He took an immediate interest in him. He took him away from the crowd to give them some privacy. He spared the afflicted man unnecessary attention and embarrassment from others. As Jesus applied His help, He used physical gestures to let the man know what He intended to do. He put His fingers in the man's ears and He touched the man's tongue to show him what parts of his body He was going to heal. In addition, Jesus sighed deeply as He prayed from the man. Jesus demonstrated His profound sympathy for this man and agonized over his impairments. He was focused on giving His assistance to this afflicted soul.

This caring Jesus also has a deep personal concern for each one of us. The Son of God who knows how we are formed and all that we experience cares deeply for us. He tenderly invites us to cast our cares on Him and assures us that He is deeply interested in helping us. He is concerned for our brokenness, for the things we suffer and struggle with because we are caught up in the dreadful curse on a sinful world. His devotion to our situation is personal and unwavering. His concern for us is sincere and springs up from the depths of His heart. His love for us compels Him to act to help us.

We all have a different situation in life. Often our individual situations in life challenge us deeply. They are filled with problems and burdens. Those situations are also prone to surprising and not-to pleasant changes, and sometimes, they change rather quickly. Jesus cares about you all the time through all the changes. He is concerned about what saddens and burdens you, what pains and troubles you. He knows well what is wrong in your life, and what is missing from it. He knows what irritates and frustrates you, what embarrasses and frightens you. Jesus knows it all and He knows it well. He loves us much and He cares so deeply. Addressing our needs is His great concern. This personal concern of Christ comforts our hearts. In this matter, "Jesus does everything well." We can and do see it in the personal concern He shows us.

View It In The Restoring Power He Wields.

We can also view it in the restoring power that Jesus wields. Jesus does more than show His concern for people in need. He also exercises His great power to undo and to restore what sin damages. Jesus spoke to the man in the Aramaic language he was familiar with. He spoke just one word, the word "Ephratha!" In English this is a word of command that means: "Be Opened" or "Open up." Jesus speaks a word of divine power. In response to this word, the man's ears were immediately opened and his tongue was instantly freed to speak clearly. All at once, Jesus reversed the evils that had been placed on the man's life. He gave him the ability to hear and to speak clearly.

Jesus' Word is the Word of God. As such, it has tremendous power. It has the power to give what a person never had or to restore what has been taken away or to make right what has gone wrong. Jesus has many powerful Words to say. He has spoken them also for us and to us. To our rebellious sin-closed hearts, He says: "Be opened." To our sin-burdened souls He says: "Your sins are forgiven. Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin." To our fear-filled doubting minds, He summons us: "Do not be afraid. I am here. Stop doubting and believe." One day He will say to our lifeless, decayed bodies: "I am the Resurrection and the Life. Wake up and come out of our grave." Then they will rise in spectacular glory.

Jesus' powerful words work wonderful things. Through His Words, Jesus reverses the damaging effects of sin. He restores what our sins have cost us. He renews our weak and weary hearts and lives so that they are returned to God and renewed in faith. We are wise and we will be blessed immeasurably as we continue to listen to His words and stay in the way and flow of His blessed power. In this matter also, "Jesus does everything well." We view it in the restoring power He wields.

Note It In The Promise-Filled Signals He Sends.

Jesus' miraculous healings were actions that contained great meaning. They were the fulfillment of centuries-old promises that God had made. Through the prophet Isaiah, over 700 years before Jesus was born, God said: "Say to those with fearful hearts: 'Be strong, do not fear; your God will come. He will come to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy."

Jesus fulfilled the signs of Isaiah. His works mark the age of the Messiah. Jesus’ works point to Him as our Savior. These miracles are the calling cards of the Christ. The performance of these miracles announced that God is here to visit His people and to save them. On a small scale and in part, Jesus reversed the effects of the fall into sin and restored paradise to people. These works of Jesus point to a greater future work. They point to the time when Jesus comes again at the end of time to judge the world, raise the dead, and take His glorified saints to heaven. Then He will make all things new as He creates the new heavens and the new earth and resurrects and perfects His believers. This miraculous healing of the man who could not hear and could not speak clearly is one of the main indicators of this great future. It assures us that we are on the right track by trusting in Jesus as our Savior and never letting go of Him. As we ponder the promises this miracle affirms, we rejoice to say: "Jesus does everything well." Because of Him, our lives are blessed now and will be blessed forever. Amen.

19 September 2021 - Pentecost 17 - James 3:13–4:10

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

Humility is not usually considered to be a very useful worldly virtue. The concept of “humility” is often associated with the concepts of weakness and fear. The world honors and rewards bold and assertive people, strong and ambitious people, and not humble people.

But the idea of humility does not need to be equated with weakness and fear. If someone is humble, what this means is that he knows what his true place is. And with a proper sense of obligation, he seeks to fulfil the duties of his station in this world.

A humble person understands and accepts the limitations that are placed upon him. He is aware of the legitimate authorities that are above him, and he willingly submits to those authorities - even as he is also aware of the responsibility that he bears, with respect to those who may be under his authority in some realm of life.

A humble person does not arrogantly challenge his superiors, or pridefully attempt to insert himself into a higher status than what properly belongs to him. If advancement is to come, it will come because those who have the power to bring it about see and reward his faithfulness in his current position, and not because he has pushed himself into a role or position that still rightfully belongs to someone else.

A helpful analogy to this true concept of humility is the attitude of a good soldier. A soldier who understands and accepts his place in the command structure is willing to take orders from his commander.

He doesn’t question or defy his orders, with the presumption that he is smarter, and knows better, than his officer. Rather, he submits to his orders, and does his duty according to them.

This is a description of a good soldier. This is a description of a “humble” soldier, in the proper sense of the term. This is definitely not a description of a weak or frightened soldier!

But in this world of sin, there are not as many “good soldiers” as there should be. Human nature being what it is, people are almost never satisfied with what they have, or with their current situation.

They always want more - more stuff, more power, more control. They - we - are arrogant and impatient, greedy and selfish. We are not humble.

And we are not at peace. Even with all our intrigues and schemes for self-advancement - even with all the using and abusing of others as we step on them, while climbing our way to the top - there is frustration and disappointment, because we never feel as if we really are at the top.

A compulsive craving for power and wealth is a hunger that is never satisfied. The more you try to fill yourself with it, the emptier you know yourself to be.

And this pathway - paved with betrayals and deceptions - is a very lonely road to travel. When you push others aside so that you can go to the front of the line, you end up being there all by yourself: alienated from others, antagonistic toward others, despised by others.

St. James, as it were, rubs our faces in these destructive realities of our sinful lives, in this sinful world, when he writes:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. ...”

“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

Jesus was not a friend of the world in this sense, but he was a friend of sinners in the world. And he was a humble friend of sinners.

In his prophecy of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, before his arrest and crucifixion, the Prophet Zechariah said: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

But Jesus, though he was humble, was not weak or afraid. He was strong, and determined, and focused on the fulfilling of his duty as the world’s Savior.

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, we read that Christ “was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’”

When Jesus also said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all,” he was not only admonishing them to live and serve humbly, but he was establishing the standard by which he would fulfill his calling as humanity’s Savior. Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” as the Epistle to the Philippians teaches.

Jesus did not wiggle himself out of the degrading things that he endured as the Lamb of God, suffering and dying as he took away the sins of the world. He faced these things head-on.

And he did not retaliate against those who inflicted such humiliating things upon him. He did not devote himself to scheming how to get even with them. Instead, he forgave them. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he prays from the cross.

As an anguished wretch of a man, dying for all other men, he cries out, “It is finished.” And with these words - which decree the completion of his atoning sacrifice - he also forgives you.

He forgives you, as the law of God makes you ashamed of your self-asserting arrogance. He extends to you the pardon that his suffering and death won for you, as you - in repentant honesty - see way too much of yourself in St. James’s description of those who love the world, and who love their status and power in the world, rather than loving God and his truth.

In his resurrection, Jesus was finally vindicated and exalted by God the Father. But it was done in God’s way, and not in the world’s way.

As the risen Lord - as the victor over sin and death, and over all his cosmic enemies - Jesus does not now “show off” before the world, boastful and proud. No. As the ascended Lord and master of the universe, he uses his unhindered divine power to present himself to all his people, all around the globe, in his Word and Sacraments.

Through the humble and unassuming outward forms of human speech, water, bread and wine, the glorious King of Kings comes among us as the living Savior, with a heart that is filled, not with greed and selfish ambition, but with love - love for a world of arrogant sinners; love for you and me.

And when this love does indeed touch us, cleanse us, and transform our hearts, St. James continues to speak to us, and in God’s name he sends us forth from this encounter with Christ in a new direction, with new motives and with new goals. He gives us these admonitions, with these promises embedded within them:

“Scripture...says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. ... Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

Through today’s Introit from Psalm 37, we encouraged each other in song with these words: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Faith in Christ is not a heavenly means to an earthly end. It is not the manipulative religious mechanism that we employ in order to flatter or cajole God into giving us the things of this world - the stuff, the power, and the control - that we desire.

The Christian religion is not a tool that we use for the fulfilling of our carnal ambitions, under a superficial cloak of sanctimonious piety. The Christian religion is, instead, the negation of all carnal ambition.

Faith in Christ is a humble thing, with a humbling effect. And it is the evidence that God has placed a new defining desire into your heart, mind, and will: namely, a desire for Christ.

You now delight in Christ, and in the earthly callings into which he places you. You delight in Christ, and in the eternal rewards that he promises you.

And when you delight in the Lord, and desire the Lord, the Lord will indeed give you the desires of your heart. Because the Lord will give you himself, when it is him that you desire.

A humble desire for Christ is not a consuming compulsion that can never be filled. By the grace of God, through the means of grace, God’s Spirit continually fills us with Christ: even to the overflowing of our delight in the salvation that Jesus bestows upon us, as we humbly and lovingly share the message of this hope with those around us.

And where there is this fulness - this fulness of Christ - there is peace and contentment. There is true wisdom from God, so that we learn how to navigate through the snares and perils of this world, without being entrapped and destroyed by them.

The prayer that the Spirit of Christ gives us - as we hear and believe the life-giving words of Christ in sermon and Supper - is the prayer of the Psalmist: O Lord, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

To be sure, whatever earthly blessings God wants to give his children in this life, they will receive and accept, with humble gratitude. The opportunities he gives us to serve him and our neighbor in fruitful employment, according to our vocations, we will take, in humble thanksgiving.

But whether we are given little or much, and whatever our standing in this world may be, we are satisfied. We have the risen Christ! And when we have him, we have everything we need.

In Christ, God also raises us up - up from the selfish passions, the self-serving ambitions, and the destructive cravings of this fallen world. St. Paul writes to the Colossians:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

And St. James adds these thoughts:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.”

“This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

In closing, we return to the words of today’s Introit:

“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!”

“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.”

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Amen.

26 September 2021 - Pentecost 18 - Mark 9:38-50

The apostle John said to Jesus, as recorded in Mark’s Gospel, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.”

What does it mean to cast out demons in the name of Jesus? What does it mean to do anything in the name of Jesus?

Many seem to have the idea that the act of saying “in the name of Jesus” is like an incantation, or a magic formula, so that if you articulate the sound of that phrase, you can make things happen - almost like a form of spell-casting. One of the main ways in which this misunderstanding is applied, is in the area of prayer.

It is though that if you tack the phrase “in Jesus’ name” on the end of any wish list that you present to God, God is somehow compelled to grant your requests. But if you omit that concluding phrase, then God will not listen to your petitions.

It’s almost like a children’s game of “Simon says.” “You didn’t say ‘Simon says.’” “You didn’t say ‘in Jesus’ name.’” So, the prayer doesn’t count!

But this is not a correct understanding of what it means to do something, or ask for something, “in Jesus’ name.” Listen with me to these words of the Lord, spoken to his disciples in St. John’s Gospel:

“You did not choose me, but I chose you; and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”

Asking God the Father for something in prayer - on the basis of having received from God the gracious gift of his Son; and the gracious bestowal of a new heart and new mind through the working of his Spirit - is asking God for something “in Jesus’ name.”

God puts into your regenerated heart and mind a desire for the things that please him. And when you then express that God-given desire to God, in a prayer that flows from your faith in Jesus and his Word, God grants that request, according to his wisdom and will.

To do something - anything - in Jesus’ name, is to do something on the basis of the gospel that the name “Jesus” embodies and proclaims.

Remember that “Jesus” literally means, “the Lord saves,” or “the Lord is salvation.” That’s why Joseph was told at the time of the Lord’s conception: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

When something is accomplished or done in the name of Jesus, it is because Jesus himself - as he makes himself known to his people through his name - has caused it, and brought it about.

In today’s text from St. Mark, we are told of the activities of a man who is not from among those who are closely following Jesus, and traveling in his company. But, this man is using the name of Jesus to cast out demons.

The closer disciples of Jesus don’t like this. But Jesus rebukes them for this parochialism.

Jesus actually has a relationship with that man, by means of his name, even if he does not have a close, interactive human relationship with him, as he does with Peter and Andrew, James and John. If Jesus’ name - with its supernatural grace and power - is a part of that outsider’s life, then Jesus is a part of that outsider’s life.

During Jesus’ state of humiliation, he walked the earth in “the form of a servant,” and appeared in “the likeness of men.” But he did not stop being God.

According to his divine nature, hidden though it was during those years, Jesus did not stop sustaining the universe together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And he did not stop working salvation within the larger nation of Israel, and forgiving sins, through the power of his name.

The Jews of the first century had access to the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament. They had access to the Messianic images, types, promises, and prophecies of the Old Testament.

And many of them believed in those images and types, and in those promises and prophecies - even if their faith was not fully formed, or was weak, or was partially misguided by the errors of the Pharisees and the scribes.

Many of those who were around when the Messiah walked the earth, and who experienced his gradual disclosing of himself to his people and to the world, were already believing in him for their salvation, by means of their faith in the prophecies of the Messiah - even if they did not yet fully grasp that it was to Jesus of Nazareth that those prophecies were pointing.

The “unaffiliated” man who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus, was already believing in Jesus, too. The full implications of this faith may not yet have been clear to him. But implicitly, he was a disciple of the Lord.

He had Jesus’ name. And Jesus’ name had him, and was working in and through him.

To be sure, the exorcist under the disciples’ suspicion had not yet arrived at the point of fully embracing everything that the life and ministry of Jesus stood for. But then again, those disciples who were following Jesus closely, and who were a part of his “inside group,” were themselves a long way from really understanding these things.

It was only after the resurrection that they could accurately be said finally to have grasped the full meaning of Jesus’ ministry, and of his life and death.

Again, the name of Jesus - broadly considered - embodies, and testifies to, the gospel of Jesus. His “name” is his revelation of his saving will and purpose, and of his divine person and redeeming work. There is power in that revelation.

And it is this name, and this gospel, that create the church. The church does not create the gospel.

Jesus does not establish his church on some basis other than the gospel, and then tell the church to figure out what the gospel is. Rather, Jesus establishes his church on the foundation of the gospel.

He preaches his church into existence. He puts his name out there in his preaching and teaching, and people are drawn to this preaching and teaching, so that the church then coalesces around his name and gospel.

The Lutheran doctrine of the church emphasizes that the marks of the church are the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. We do not latch onto any organizational or structural features of the external church as the essential mark of the church’s presence.

And so a true Lutheran - indeed, any Biblically-rooted Christian - cannot ever think or say that the essential message of the church may or should change, but that the church itself will remain. Rather, if you change the teaching - that is, if you proclaim a different gospel, other than the gospel that Jesus instituted, and that his name stands for - then the church of Jesus is no longer there.

Perhaps an empty shell of the church remains. But if the marks of the church are now gone, then the church is now gone as well.

Jesus says in John’s Gospel that those who abide in his word are truly his disciples. And Jesus teaches in Matthew’s Gospel that he is present wherever two or three are gathered together in his name: that is, around his gospel.

In today’s account, the closer disciples of Jesus were concerned that someone who was not a part of their group was using the name of Jesus; and was being blessed by that name, and was blessing others through that name. But they were thinking in a totally backwards way.

The presence of disciples of Jesus - in any particular time and place - is discerned on the basis of the presence and power of Jesus’ name. And so that other man, in a fundamental way, was also a disciple of Jesus.

The nascent church of Jesus, even during the time of the Lord’s earthly ministry, was bigger than the relatively small circle of chosen apostles. The church of Jesus was - and is - as big as the reach of the name of Jesus.

And so Jesus, in today’s text, had to tell John and his colleagues, “the one who is not against us is for us.” Those who believe in my name, who use my name, and who are blessed by my name, are for us, and with us - even if they are not, at the present time, walking in our circle of close association.

Jesus says, in effect, “If someone has my name, then he, too, has me. And I have him. And he is a part of my church, and is among my people.”

On and after the Day of Pentecost, thousands of people living in and near Jerusalem became visibly associated with the apostles, and outwardly united with the apostolic church in every sense of the term. I would be very surprised if the person about whom John complained, was not among them.

So, this did all get sorted out in the end - as all concerned grew in their faith and understanding.

We are committed to the congregation to which we belong, because we are persuaded that here the gospel of Jesus is proclaimed fully and faithfully. It is the name of Jesus - preached and at work for the deliverance of souls from demonic darkness - that draws us to our church, and that keeps us in our church.

Even if we are still in a learning and growing process - and who among us is not? - we are drawn to that name. And therefore we are drawn to this church - because where the name of Jesus is spoken, and where his gospel is unfolded and applied, we know that Jesus himself is there with his love and grace.

But in principle, we would recognize that this is so in any gathering of professing Christians around his name. We believe that wherever the gospel of Jesus is proclaimed - in some recognizable form - Jesus is there; and the love and grace of Jesus are there.

The forgiveness of sins that Jesus won on the cross is there. The hope of everlasting life that Jesus set in motion by his resurrection, is there.

If errors which contradict the gospel are there as well, threatening the faith of the Christians in that place, we still recognize that the truth of the gospel is, in itself, more powerful than the errors; and that a saving faith can still be created and sustained by the name of Jesus in that gathering.

If some of the channels that Jesus instituted for the distribution of his forgiveness and salvation are closed off or corrupted in a church - such as when the Biblical teaching on the purpose and power of the sacraments is rejected - then at the very least we believe that the channels that are left can still be effective conduits of blessing to Christians who have been misled or misinstructed in some ways.

Formal church fellowship involves a mutual recognition of, and agreement with, the totality of what is taught and practiced with respect to the preaching of the Word of Christ and the administration of his sacraments. And so from our perspective, the presence of error in a church, side-by-side with the truth of God; or a deliberate rejection of some of what Jesus wants for his church, would preclude such church fellowship.

But this would not preclude a belief on our part, that faith - though weakened and confused - can be present in the hearts and minds of anyone who has the name of Jesus in his life; who is learning from that name; and who is growing into that name.

We believe that we best honor the name of Jesus by remaining steadfast in the fullness of the faith that has been delivered to the church, once and for all time, by Jesus’ apostles. And as our consciences are captive to the Word of God, for us that means that we are committed to a Confessional Lutheran church.

But we do not think that salvation flows from our church. We believe - we know - that salvation flows from the name of Jesus, as that name is honored, proclaimed, and placed upon us in the means of grace.

If you would ever have an opportunity to speak with a dying person who may have a weak or confused faith, or who may have no faith at all, you would not try to comfort him with a message about the glories of your church. You would instead seek to comfort him - and prepare him for death - with a message about the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus.

And you would, in love, allow yourself to be God’s instrument, through whom the name of Jesus could once again - or for the first time - be placed upon him: with the forgiveness and justification before God that this name carries and bestows when it touches a troubled conscience or a fearful heart.

We do not resent it when mighty works are done in the name of Jesus for others and among others. Instead, we are happy for others, whenever and wherever the name of Jesus is among them - and to the extent that the name of Jesus is among them - because this means that Jesus is among them, showing his mercy; helping and healing; vanquishing evil, and promoting good.

Insofar as the gospel of Jesus is in this way at work in the lives of other people, we rejoice for them. And we rejoice with them, because we ourselves know what a wonderful thing it is, for the name of Jesus to be a part of our life; and for the mighty, saving works of Jesus to be performed in us.

You were baptized in the name of Jesus - that is, by his authorization, and according to his commission. And thereby you were united to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He did this for you, through the power of his name.

As you abide in your baptism - in daily repentance and faith - you daily die to sin and self, and daily rise in him. And, his name abides in you, always forgiving you, always renewing you, always sanctifying you.

In the name of Jesus - that is, in his stead and by his command - your pastor comforts you, in your repentance, with Jesus’ absolution. Everything that Jesus has done for you is poured over you, and into you, when his cleansing and refreshing words of forgiveness are spoken to you.

In the name of Jesus - that is, according to his Word and institution - you are catechetically prepared for, and are then invited to, the feast of redemption that Jesus ordained for his church. As you are drawn to Jesus’ name, so too are you drawn to his Supper - where he is present with his body and blood, to bestow upon you the eternal blessings that were won for you in the sacrificing of his body, and in the shedding of his blood.

And when you depart from this world, you will depart in Jesus’ name - clinging to his Word; and knowing that everything which his name did for you during your life on earth, was preparing you for this moment. When Jesus’ name remains upon you, his name carries you through all the trials of this life, and into the bliss of the next life.

These blessings are available to mankind, whenever and wherever the name of Jesus is at work - among people we know, and among people we do not know; in our church, and in other churches.

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” Amen.