Sunday, August 28, 2011

What Have I Done?

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

The other morning as I was working in Wal-Mart, I saw a young woman with a puzzled look on her face.  Ever since a major remodeling of our store this spring I’ve seen that look regularly.  People want to know where the product they are looking for was moved.  So I was not surprised to find this young woman was in need of directions.  I was surprised at what she wanted to find.  She sheepishly asked me: “Can you tell me where I would find the checkout counters?”

I thought to myself a little bit later: “You’d never find a man asking that question.”  Now, before you start calling me a male chauvinist let me explain.  I say this, not because it is only women who are directionally challenged.  There are more than a few of us men who can manage to get as lost as anyone.  We just seem to have a harder time asking for directions.  And so I definitely can’t imagine too many men willing to admit they couldn’t find their way around something that is laid out as simply as a Wal-Mart superstore.  We would rather wander around aimlessly for a couple of hours than to ask that question.   

When it comes down to it, there are only two reasons not to ask for directions.  (1) You don’t know you are lost.  (2) You don’t want to admit you are lost.  The first is a matter of ignorance; the second a matter of pride.  Either by itself is a problem; both of them together are downright dangerous, even deadly.      

Ignorance and pride.  That describes the spiritual condition of the people of Judah to whom the prophet Jeremiah was called to speak the Word of the Lord.  They were lost.  But they didn’t know it.  And even if they would’ve known, they certainly had no intention of asking for directions.  Their minds were so clouded over with unbelief they didn’t even have enough sense to ask the right question. 

What question is that?  Well, it is part of the Old Testament reading for today and it’s…“The Question That Too Few Ask.” 

Listen again to our text from Jeremiah 8:4-7, and see if you can hear it.

“You shall say to them, Thus says the Lord: When men fall, do they not rise

again?  If one turns away, does he not return?  Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding?  They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return.  I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’  Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.  Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but My people know not the rules of the Lord.”

“What have I done?”  That’s the question God’s people failed to ask in repentance in Jeremiah’s day.  The reason was that these people to whom the Word was being directed didn’t care about the living God, or about God’s Word of Law and Gospel, or about what was right and wrong.  They were willing to know and to have and to bow down to other gods, the false gods of their neighbors, and the imaginary gods of their own sinful minds.  They were lost in unbelief!

 The Lord uses an example from nature to make the point of how this unbelief is a strange phenomenon.  It is contrary to the nature of what you would expect of God’s people.  Nature moves according to the universal laws laid down by God at creation.  In a way unknown to us or them, the birds carry out their annual migrations with amazing precision.  Think of how, for centuries, the legendary swallows have arrived at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano every March 19th and departed on October 23rd.  Yet the people of Judah, with the Lord’s Word to guide them on their way, were lost.  Lost because they would not entertain any thought of guilt.  Lost because they had turned to other gods.  Lost because they no longer understood God’s Word.

Although Israel had been the direct recipient of God’s revelation through Moses and the prophets, there was abysmal scriptural ignorance, even among its teachers.  The scribes were the professional interpreters of the Law of Moses.  They had memorized, studied, and expounded it at great length.  But they did not know anything, because they had thrown away the key to understanding.  Sin and grace, repentance and faith—the heart of God’s message in the Bible—was a mystery to them.  Since they had rejected the kernel of scriptural truth, they were left with only the shell.  Thinking themselves wise, they became fools.  Being fools, they entangled the people with their folly.

What a lesson for us!  Mere knowledge of Scripture—however great it might be—is not wisdom.  Wisdom begins when the sinner trembles before the righteous God.  Wisdom flowers when the forgiven sinner lives by the grace of the Lord.  Without this wisdom, no matter how much a person knows the Bible, he remains in darkness.  In darkness there is no hope.

God’s chosen people, the very same people to whom the promise of the Messiah was to be given, and from whom the Messiah was to be born, were lost.  They were shrouded in the darkness of unbelief.  So dire was their spiritual condition, they didn’t bother to ask themselves, “Is what I’m doing right or wrong?  Is this a sin?  Is that a sin?”  They didn’t care.  They had become a congregation who no longer fully walked together in doctrine and practice, whose individual members continued to drift away from the truth.  And as a result, “each one turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.”

But this is a course that has departed from the Way of Life.  And it is a path plunging into a battlefield of death.  They have taken to the worship of other gods and now engage in syncretism, that is, an activity whereby other gods are acknowledged, accepted, invoked, and/or worshiped as valid alternatives. 

Such a man might worship this god for a while and that god for a bit.  Consult the astrologer’s charts.  Seek deep secrets in the entrails of animals.  Burn a bit of incense to Baal.  Offer a firstborn son on Molech’s altar.  Consort with a temple prostitute by the Asherah pole.  And then, at his leisure, stride on into the house of the Lord in the imagined fulfillment of a sort of spiritual insurance policy.  Doing so as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  Indeed, these people have fallen so far from the truth they are no longer capable of being convicted by God’s Law.  Of such people, the Lord says: “They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return.  I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’” 

But there comes a day… and it is only by the mercy of God that the day comes… there comes the day when you realize what has happened.  It’s the morning after and you finally wake up to what you have done.  Whether it was physical adultery with some other person, or spiritual adultery with some other god, you finally ask yourself, “What have I done?”

Maybe you’ve neglected your family for the sake of personal gain at work.  Or you’ve been enabling your children and grandchildren to stay away from the Lord and His Church.  Or you’ve been cheating at school.  Or you’ve betrayed someone who trusted you.  Or you’ve let petty disagreements cause disunity.  Or you’ve not walked together with your brothers in the truth.  The day arrives when you come to your senses, and you finally ask, “What have I done?”

Maybe you were causing problems in a congregation.  Or using excuse after excuse to keep from serving the Lord in His Church.  Perhaps the fear of financial insecurity has been holding you back from giving your first and best back to the Lord for the work of His ministry.  Maybe you have foolishly taken the Lord’s means of grace for granted.  Whatever it was—and the transgressions are legion—you wake up the morning after and you ask yourself, “What have I done?”

Do you realize what you’ve done in asking the question, “What have I done?”?  (Pause)  You’ve recognized that there is a standard that you haven’t achieved.  It’s the Law of God, and you’ve broken it, and you are the guilty party.  You did this and you didn’t do that.  You said this and you didn’t say that.  You thought this and you didn’t think that.  To compound your sin, you had not… that is, until this particular morning after… you had not admitted that it even was a sin. 

You’ve transgressed the Lord God Almighty’s commandments and you’ve sinned against Him.  Then, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit works through the Law, granting you a guilty conscience.  Realizing the consequences of your sin (which can be quite terrible), you recognize your utter failure and you finally acknowledge your sin.  In this way, does the soul that has sinned look to the Lord God and cry out for deliverance: “What have I done?” 

And what is the Lord’s reply?  Well certainly, and first of all, He is not angry with those who look to Him and ask, “What have I done?”  The sermon text informs us of that.  Part of the Lord’s criticism was that these people “hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return.  I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’  Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.”

So the person who asks the question is being put into a position where the Law is doing its job of accusing the old Adam.  And, as such, he is being put into a posture where the Good News of God’s forgiveness may be announced.

With this in mind, let’s then consider the Lord’s answer to the penitent who asks, “What have I done?”  When the child of God repents; that is, when he confesses his sin and looks to the Lord for forgiveness, what is the Lord’s reply?

The reply is also in the Word of God and it is Good News.   Throughout Scripture to those who feel the burden of their sin, who confess their sin, and who look to Him for forgiveness, the Lord says this most wonderful Gospel: 

“Yes, this is what you have done.  But my dear child, I want you to listen to what I have done!  I have given you My Word and promised the Savior.  As I promised to Abraham, so I promise you: ‘I AM your shield, your very great reward.’  And this is in spite of what you have done, and this is not because of anything that you could do.  Your hope is because of what I have done and what I will do.  Even though you’ve sinned greatly and grievously, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine” (Isaiah 43:1). 

“Yes, you’ve been in bondage and, because of your many transgressions, you deserve to die fettered in the chains that are linked from the prison in this world to hell in eternity.  But I AM the perfect Passover Lamb whose death has given you life, whose body is food for your soul, and whose shed blood stained the wooden portal and covered you in the household of the faithful. 

“Fear not, for the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world lives.  And you may join Job in confessing the truth of the resurrection ... that you know that your Redeemer lives.  Indeed, ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise.’”

Yes, you, who once followed the natural inclinations of your sinful heart and the ways of the world, are sons of God the Father.  And through His Son, you have a re-created heart and the Lord dwells within you.  It is no longer you who lives but the Redeemer who lives with you and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit. 

What does this mean?  Well, consider a couple examples that take place every day in this world.  Sometimes, as people walk about, they fall down.  What do they do then?  Well, they get back up and continue on their way.  And when someone goes out the door to go to the store or even off to war, it is generally with the intention of returning to the house.  So it is also for the Lord’s people in the Church… they stumble and they get up… they walk out and they return.

What happens when they don’t do this?  Listen to a portion of the text once more: “When men fall, do they not rise again?  If one turns away, does he not return?  Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding?” 

The child of God, though he stumbles daily in his old sinful nature and falls to sin, yet through holy Baptism will he, “by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and, that a new man should daily arise, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Small Catechism).

The child of God, though he walks out of the house of the Lord having heard the Benediction, and walks into the world where the inevitable happens sooner rather than later, will he not one day return to the house.  That is, will he not repent and make confession? 

Certainly, for “confession has two parts.  First that we confess our sins, and second that we receive absolution, that is forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven” (Small Catechism).

This Good News ought to produce in us a habitual hunger and a recurring thirst that draws us back each week to the Lord’s Table similar to the way that migratory birds return to their place each year.  But all too often, even with those who claim to be the children of God, this does not happen.  As God proclaims through Jeremiah in our text, “Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep their time of coming, but My people do not know the rules of the Lord.”

In the Large Catechism, Luther puts it this way: “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament?  To such a person no better advice can be given than this!  First, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood.  Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it.  Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say.  Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace within or without.”

So today, the Lord waits to hear the question that too few ask.  He waits for His people who have fallen to get back up, to ask the question, “What have I done?”, and to return once more to His holy house, to receive His means of grace. 

And then, when these penitents enter the gracious presence of the Lord, they hear the Word of Good News… that they have eternal life and salvation.  And they hear God speak through the voice of His called and ordained servant: You are forgiven all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Merciful Lord

The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 16:1-13, which has already been read.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I’m on Facebook.  My wife says it’s a waste of time.  I think she’s worried that I might reveal too many details about our life to the whole world.  I justify my use of this media with the fact that I am able to keep up with friends and family members, many of whom I haven’t seen for years.  And because a great deal of my “friends” are fellow pastors, I also get a chance to sharpen my pastoral skills by engaging in theological discussions.

Last week I responded to a posting of an article from Christianity Today, entitled “What Makes a Good Bible Study?”  The author concludes: “Remember that the point of all Bible study should not be to simply impart knowledge.  It should produce change.”  Therefore, one should “look for a Bible study that digs into the meaning of the text but also provides a way to apply it.  We can study the Ten Commandments until we’ve completely dissected them, but if we don’t figure out how to obey them, that will be meaningless.”

Fuddy duddy Lutheran that I am, I disagreed.  I responded: “I need a Bible study that shows me Christ as He is revealed in all of Scripture.”  That, to me, is what makes a good Bible study.  It has to show me Christ.  It has to teach Law that shows me my sin, and it has to teach the Gospel, showing me how Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who comes to save with His perfect life and atoning death.  That is the main purpose of all of Scripture.

Jesus told the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39). 

The Pharisees took God’s Word very seriously; they just misunderstood it.  They thought it could bring them eternal life, if only they could learn to keep it good enough.  And to an extent, they were right.  God’s Law can bring eternal life—if you keep it perfectly.  But there’s one big problem with that.  None of us can keep the Law perfectly.  So the Law ends up condemning us, killing us.    

This misapplication of Law and Gospel describes much of the teaching that you will hear today.  It’s all Law—“Law-lite,” if you will.  Do this and you will find your life’s purpose.  Do that and you will have a perfect marriage and well-behaved children.  Too often the Bible is used simply as a handbook for morality and virtue.  That’s dangerous!  For those who come to realize the futility of ever reaching perfection, it leads to hopelessness and despair.  For those who think they’re somehow pulling themselves up by their own spiritual bootstraps, it leads to false security and smug self-righteousness.  Both paths lead to hell.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Bible does teach morality.  That’s what the Law is—the holy will of God, how to live a God-pleasing life.  But the primary purpose of God’s Word is not to make you a better person, but to save you.  St. John’s summary of his Gospel applies to all Scripture: “These things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing you might have life in His name.”  God’s Word is not about what you must do to be reconciled to God; it’s about what Christ has done to reconcile you and the world to God. 

Our text for today is a perfect example of what happens when you put the emphasis on the wrong thing.  It is often called “The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward,” but that misses the main point.  If you think this parable is about the steward, you’re going to get it all wrong.  After all, what sorts of lessons are there to learn from the steward?  If you slack off or waste your boss’s goods, don’t get caught?  If you do get caught, decide you’re too proud to beg, too weak to work?  Use your boss’s business to gain friends by losing more of your boss’s money?

Do any of these lessons sound like something you want to teach your child?  Are these three habits of highly effective people?  Hardly.  This guy is the reason that when someone gets fired, they hand him a box with his personal effects and the security guard escorts him straight out the door.  He’s the role model for the unrighteous sons of the world who know how to look out for themselves. 

No, if you think this parable is about the doings of an unrighteous steward, you’re in for a bumpy ride.  There’s one thing to learn from the steward.  There’s one thing that the steward does that all of us ought to do; but we’ll get to that later on.  Right now, let’s get to what the parable is really about: the steward’s lord.

The steward’s lord is a just man who runs a good business, and he employs the steward to look after things.  When he finds that the steward is wasting his goods, he tells him that he’s fired and the day of reckoning is coming for his abuses.  That only makes sense.  But here’s the part that doesn’t: the lord leaves the steward in charge of his business until that future day of reckoning.  Donald Trump certainly isn’t going to approve of this one. 

The steward makes the most of his time before the day of reckoning by taking the lord’s profits and giving them to others.  And then the lord commends the unrighteous steward for his shrewdness.  Kind of a strange story from our Lord, yes?  This obviously isn’t meant to teach a moral lesson.  Neither is it a real-deal message about how to succeed in business.  Nope.  This is a parable about mercy. 

To understand what the lord in the parable is doing, we need to first talk some about stewardship.  Relax, I’m not going to preach about increasing your offerings, although that could certainly be relevant.  Toward the end of our Gospel Jesus speaks of using money wisely for His kingdom.  No, I’m specifically talking about the man who is left in charge of his lord’s business affairs.  He is a steward.  Our text uses the word “manager.”  But a steward had a great deal more authority than a manager of a business.  He was like a regent, ruling on behalf of the king. 

This is important because the lord in the parable will and must honor the deals that the steward makes.  If the steward says, “Take your bill and write fifty,” then it’s fifty.  He has the authority, the power of attorney, if you will.  To renege on the new bill would be like the lord going back on his own word.

So far, so good.  The lord might do that simply out of honor or to uphold the law out of fear of punishment.  But here, the lord commends the steward for what he has done.  He praises him!  That’s the real surprise.  This lord wants to forgive debts.  He wants to give away his kingdom.  He was displeased before because the servant was wasting his possessions.  How so?  We’re not explicitly told, but we are given an important clue: The ESV calls this steward “dishonest.”  The Greek says “unrighteous,” which tips us off that this is a lesson about sin and forgiveness.

In our daily lives, possessions are wasted by spending them frivolously, by throwing good money after bad, by not paying attention.  But if giving away the lord’s possessions for free pleases the lord, then how were they wasted before?  By keeping them… by holding debtors to their debts… by trying to make a profit.

This is good news for you.  You have debts you can never repay.  If you had to deal with a just steward, you would be in a world of trouble.  No, when it comes to your debts before the Lord, you don’t want justice—you need mercy.  Justice demands repayment.  Justice demands punishment.  Mercy withholds punishment that is deserved.  Mercy cancels the debt that has legitimately accrued.

This parable should be shocking to your sensibilities.  Jesus means it to be.  Because your vanity is forever thinking God is like you.  But His ways are not your ways; His thoughts are much higher than your thoughts.  Your old Adam is small and petty, incapable of separating temptation from sin.  You can’t and don’t love your neighbor as yourself.  But you most assuredly love yourself, and from early childhood on, covet being treated fairly above all else.  That part of you notices this isn’t right, that you don’t deserve this. 

Your Lord has created you and all creatures.  He has given you your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still preserves them.  That makes you the steward to whom the Lord has entrusted His “business” of loving Him above all things and your neighbor as yourself.

You know what comes next: all that you are and do by nature is tainted by sin, and none of you or what you do is righteous before God.  Your Lord gives you possessions with which to serve others, and instead you want more for yourself.  The Lord gives you a mouth to sing His praise, but you’ve put it to use for gossip, deceit, or malice.  The Lord gives you eyes to see the beauty of His creation, but you’ve used them to indulge your fleshly lust.  The Lord gives you ears to hear His Word, but you’ve let them be filled coarse words and crude jokes.  The Lord gives health and fitness and you’re tempted to vanity.  You are the unrighteous steward, wasting the things your Lord has entrusted to you.  So the Lord declares that the day of reckoning is coming.  It’s only fair.  It’s only just.

But the Lord isn’t just just.  He’s also merciful, and here’s the part of the story that doesn’t get mentioned in the parable: The Lord has sent His Son to be your Savior.  From conception on and throughout His life, Jesus went about His Father’s business.  He kept the Law perfectly, fulfilling every requirement without sin.  He loved His neighbor and served His Father in heaven.  In other words, Jesus was the perfect, righteous steward as He went about His Father’s business.  He showed mercy to the needy.  He proclaimed God’s Word. 

And then what?  He was crucified in your place.  He gave up His sinless body to death for you.  He shed His holy, precious blood for the remission of your sins.  He was made to be sin for you, in order to suffer the just judgment for your sin.   In other words, at the cross, Jesus was accounted as the unrighteous steward of the world.  Good Friday was the day of reckoning where the Lord condemned His Son for the sin of all His stewards—you, me, and all the world.

Christ is risen from the dead!  And risen, He continues to be of service to you.  In fact, since you are now His people by His grace, He entrusts you with His most precious treasures, the means of grace.  The Lord has placed His name upon you in Holy Baptism, giving you His kingdom forever.  He continues to speak His forgiving Word of Holy Absolution to you, to cleanse you of your sin.  He gives you His body and blood to strengthen and preserve you in the one true faith unto life everlasting.  By these means, He strengthens your faith and sets you free with all that He has given you.

So now, as His gathered and forgiven stewards, how are you doing?  Our Lord gives you a few statements against which to measure your stewardship.  He says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal dwellings.” 

Money is unrighteous because it has no forgiveness to give.  It’s only for this world.  Do you make use of what you have in service to others, particularly for the spread of the Gospel so that others might be friends in an everlasting home of heaven for the sake of Jesus?  Or do you find yourself hoarding it all, still using what you have in service to you?  The Lord says, “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”  

How well do you make use of true, everlasting riches?  Do you begin each day remembering your Baptism, giving thanks to the Lord that you’ve already died the second death and have eternal life?  Or do you regard it as just a point of history that has little relevance for you now? 

Do you eagerly desire to hear the Absolution, knowing that it is only by the Lord’s forgiveness that you have the hope of salvation?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps you regard His grace as a safety net, as you decide which sins will be useful to you in the coming week.  Or perhaps you think that you’ve heard enough of forgiveness to last a while, and no longer desire to hear of the Lord’s love for you. 

Do you take the time to prepare for the Lord’s Supper, marveling that the Lord God of Sabaoth visits you, to serve you, to give you His very own body and blood?  Do you take seriously the truth that those who are unprepared will receive this Communion to their judgment, or do you set aside that Word of God for the sake of appearing more agreeable to the world?

An honest examination in the mirror of God’s Law will shows you that you are far from a faithful steward of the riches the Lord entrusts to you.  And sadly, you are probably more careful with gifts of unrighteous wealth that provide for this body and life than you are with the gift of Word and Sacraments that bestow righteousness and eternal life.  Even now, as a baptized child of God, you are still an unrighteous steward who wastes what the Lord commends to your use.  The day of reckoning is still deserved.

But once again, look how your merciful Lord treats you.  Although you often take His means of grace for granted, He does not relieve you of your stewardship.  From now until the Last Day of reckoning, He keeps you as His steward.  He wills that you continue to make use of His means of grace, so that through them He might forgive you for the sake of Jesus. 

Furthermore, He wills that you use them to erase the debt of others.  As you encounter sinners who are burdened with a load of killing sin, you do not tell them to erase half the debt and go from there.  No, you confess to them the Word.  You tell them that Christ has died for all of their sins—not 20%, not 50%, not most of them, but all of them.  You share God’s grace with everyone who will receive it.

Does our Lord grow angry that you give out His grace so freely?  No, not at all!  He commends this as the mission of the Church.  “Freely you have received,” He declares; “freely give” (Matthew 10:8).  The Lord has more mercy than you could ever give away.  His supply is inexhaustible.  It is infinite!

How abundant and excessive is the Lord’s mercy for you!  Because His Law demanded a level of righteousness you could not muster, He became flesh, gave the accounting, and suffered the judgment for your sin.  So that you might be forgiven, He continues to pour out His grace upon you by His Word and Sacrament, proclaiming you righteous for His sake—by His work, not your own.

His work, not your own.  I mentioned a while back that, while this parable is about the lord and his mercy, there is one thing to learn from the steward.  Here it is: the steward’s entire scheme rested on his lord’s mercy.  If the lord was not merciful, he would have the steward thrown out right away, imprisoned or killed for using his goods to his own advantage.  But the steward used the lord’s things to make friends, trusting that the lord would commend, not punish, him.   

By the grace of God, you trust in the Lord’s mercy.  You confess your sin and unrighteousness to Him, trusting that He who gave His own life to redeem you will continue to save you now.  You pray that He would forgive your trespasses as you forgive those who trespass against you for His sake. 

And so He does.  Your Lord commends you today with these words, “You are saved by My mercy this day, not because of what you have done or haven’t done, but because your sin was accounted to Me at the cross.  So I declare you righteous.  I declare you holy and clean.  I declare you pure and blameless.  Indeed, I declare: You are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Amen.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lead Us Not into Temptation

The text for today is Luke 22:39-46:

And [Jesus] came out and went, as was His custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed Him.  And when He came to the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from Me.   Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.”

And there appeared to Him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him.  And being in an agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.  And when He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and He said to them, “Why are you sleeping?  Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

On the night when He was betrayed the Lord institutes the Holy Sacrament of His Body and His Blood.  His Supper.  His last will and testament.  A pure gift from Him.  He promises that it is for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. 

And then, He’s off to Gethsemane.  A garden.  A place of temptation.  You remember Eden, don’t you?  Another garden.  Where Satan tempted Adam and Eve, and mankind gave in to the temptation and fell into sin.  And now the Second Adam, Jesus, is in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Tempted to not drink from the cup His Father has set before Him.  The cup of bearing the world’s sin.  The cup of bearing God’s wrath against the world’s sin.  The cup of offering Himself as the all-sufficient atoning sacrifice. 

In the Garden of Gethsemane your salvation is at stake.  And Satan knows it.  So does Jesus.  And the temptation to avoid Good Friday is immense.  “Father, if it is Your will, remove this cup from Me,” Jesus prays.  But He adds this important caveat: “Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.”   

If there is no Good Friday, there is no salvation.  There is no forgiveness—for you or for anyone!  So Satan’s been working overtime to lead Jesus off the road to Good Friday.  To avoid the cross at all costs.  To stop God’s kingdom from coming.  To halt God’s will from being done.  To stifle the hallowing of His name. 

But let’s back up about 3 years to right after Jesus’ baptism, where, as we just heard in our Gospel reading, Jesus is led into the wilderness.  After fasting for forty days and forty nights, Jesus is hungry, and, no doubt, and at His most vulnerable.  Then the tempter comes, drawing from the same old time-tested playbook, the same basic sources of temptation that have worked ever sin the Fall: of the flesh, of the world, and of the devil.  “Go ahead Jesus,” he says.  “If You’re the Son of God, feed Yourself, satisfy Your hunger.  If You’re the Son of God, throw Yourself down from the temple and the whole world will see how special You are.  Bow down to me, Jesus, and I will give You all the kingdoms and their glory, without the pain and suffering of the cross.” 

All three of those temptations are intended to knock Jesus off the path to Good Friday.  But Jesus replies with the correctly interpreted Word of God.  Satan fails.  And so the old serpent leaves Jesus alone for a more opportune time.

At Caesarea Philippi, the devil goes back to work as Jesus foretells His suffering, death, and resurrection.  Wanting to derail Jesus from going to the cross, Satan uses Peter as his mouth.  Peter takes Jesus aside and reads Him the riot act:  “All that suffering and dying talk is nonsense, Jesus!  We won’t be having any of that!  No way will we allow you to be a dead christ.  Dead christs won’t do us any good!”  And Jesus has to rebuke Peter:  “Get behind me Satan!”

The pressure builds as Jesus draws near to His cross.  The disciples argue about who will be the greatest on the very night at the table where Jesus is among them as Servant of all.  Peter’s idealistic claim of loyalty is met by a dose of Jesus’ reality.  In the garden, Peter, James, and John can’t stay awake and watch with Jesus for even one hour.  Judas arrives with soldiers to give Jesus the kiss of betrayal for some quick cash.  The time has come to drink the cup. 

And then as Jesus hangs on that cross on Good Friday, Satan viciously attacks again!  With a huge temptation.  A delicious temptation offered through the two robbers and the chief priests and scribes.  Through them Satan hides and yet speaks:  “Come down.  Get off the cross.  Save yourself!”  “Let this Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe!” 

Wow!  Brilliant temptation!  After all, Jesus came down from heaven so that sinners would believe in Him.  And now, if He will just show some divine power.  Gloriously descend from the cross.  Miraculously hop right off and save Himself.  “Do that Jesus and we promise—we’ll believe in You!”  

In that temptation your salvation is at stake.  For if Jesus will come down from that cross alive, your sin will not be atoned for.  But Jesus will not give in.  He stays put.  He hangs fast.  Until He dies and atonement is made.  Salvation is achieved.  Death is put to death.  There is now no condemnation for you.  Jesus delivers you from all that.  He drinks the cup of the Father’s wrath to its dregs. 

Jesus is your Great High Priest, tempted in every way as you are, but without sin.  Whereas the first man and woman sought to be like God and fell into sin, Jesus, being in nature, eternal God Himself, humbled Himself to born a mortal man.  Whereas David gave in to the temptation to abuse his position of authority, the Son of David, set aside the use of His full divine power and submitted Himself even to earthly authorities.  All of this, that you might live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. 

Whereas God’s children Israel rebelled in the wilderness, grumbled against God, turned to idolatry, indulged their flesh, and were destroyed by serpents, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, remained faithful, trusting in the power of God’s Word.  “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” He said.  “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.  You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”  Armed solely with God’s Word, Christ overcomes temptation, resolutely setting His face to Jerusalem, where He would crush the serpent’s head.   There, at Calvary, Jesus exchanges His perfect obedience and righteousness for your disobedience and sin. 

Christ’s resistance to temptation is your salvation.  Therefore He teaches you to pray: “And lead us not into temptation.”

Throughout this series on the Lord’s Prayer, you have heard about what toil and labor is needed to keep all that you pray for and to persevere.  This, however, is not done without weakness and stumbling.  Although you have received forgiveness and a good conscience and are entirely acquitted, yet your life is of such a nature that you stand one day and fall the next. 

Therefore, you must continue praying that God would not allow you to fall and yield to trials and temptations.  When you pray, say: “Lead us not into temptation.”  Jesus is your help in times of temptation.  And believe me, you need His help.  For Satan and his allies have turned their attention to you!  To deceive you.  Into false belief especially after you’ve prayed: “forgive us our trespasses.” 

Although you have been born again and are accounted as righteous for the sake of Christ and His work of redemption, you are not free from temptation.  You dwell in the flesh and carry the old Adam with you like an ugly, malignant, conjoined twin.  Your sinful nature exerts himself and encourages you daily to unchastity, laziness, intemperance, greed and deception, to all kinds of evil lusts, making you more susceptible to the pressures of society and other people.

This opens the door to the world, which drives you to anger and impatience, competition and covetousness, unfaithfulness and slander.  No one is willing to be the least.  Everyone desires to sit at the head of the group and to be seen by all.

Along comes the devil, pushing and provoking in all directions.  But he especially agitates matters that concern the conscience and spiritual affairs.  He leads you to despise and disregard both God’s Word and works.  He tears you away from faith, hope, and love, and he brings you into misbelief, false security, and stubbornness.  Or, he leads you to despair, denial of God, and blasphemy.  All so that you despair of Jesus and His salvation for you.  So that you might despise God’s Word.  Turn to yourself or other false gods.  Great and grievous, indeed, are these dangers and temptations, which every Christian must bear.  You bear them even if you could somehow isolate yourself from outside contact.  Every hour that you are in this vile life, you are attacked on all sides, chased and hunted down. 

By God’s grace, you are moved to cry out and to pray that God would not allow you to become weary and faint and to fall again into sin, shame, and unbelief.  For otherwise it is impossible to overcome even the least temptation.

This, then, is what “lead us not into temptation” means.  It refers to times when God gives you power and strength to resist the temptation.  However, the temptation is not taken away or removed.  While you live in the flesh and have the devil around you, no one can escape this temptation and lure.  But we say this prayer so that you may not fall and be drowned in them.

To feel temptation is, therefore, a far different thing from consenting or yielding to it.  We must all feel it, although not all in the same way.  Some feel it in a greater degree and more severely than others.  In general, the young most often suffer from temptations of the flesh.  Afterward, when they reach mid-life and old age they feel it from the world.  Those who are occupied with spiritual matters, that is, strong Christians, feel it from the devil. 

Such feeling, as long as it is against your will and you would rather be rid of it, can harm no one.  For if you did not feel it, it could not be called a temptation.  Temptation itself is not sin.  But it becomes sin when you consent to it, when you give it the reins and do not resist or pray against it.

Therefore, you must be armed and daily expect to be constantly attacked.  Do not go in security and carelessly, as though the devil were far away from you.  At all times you must expect and block his blows.  Though you are now chaste, patient, kind, and in firm faith, the devil will this very hour send such an arrow into your heart that you can scarcely stand.  For he is an enemy that never stops or becomes tired.  When one temptation stops, there always arise others. 

It’s a battle that you cannot win on your own!  But that does not mean you are without hope or help.  As St. Paul writes in our Epistle for today: “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”  Toward this end Christ has given you His very own Word, His own prayer. 

You must take hold of the Lord’s Prayer, and speak to God from the heart like this: “Dear Father, You have asked me to pray.  Don’t let me fall because of temptations.”  Then you will see that the temptations must stop and finally confess themselves conquered.  If you try to help yourself by your own thoughts and counsel, you will only make the matter worse and give the devil more space.  For he has a serpent’s head.  If it finds an opening into which it can slip, the whole body will follow without stopping.  But prayer can prevent him and drive him back.  So pray!

And, when you pray, say: “Lead us not into temptation.”  This is how faith talks.  Especially when the temptations come pouring in.  Come bombarding in.   For these words are your ammunition.  Your missiles against Satan’s assaults.  Against the world’s charms.  Against the seductions of your own flesh. 

All the temptations drive you to Jesus.  The flesh and blood Jesus of the wilderness, Gethsemane, and Golgotha, who withstood all temptations and gave Himself up on the cross to pay for your sin.  The very same Jesus who gives you His Body and Blood in the Sacrament as the very promise of His victory over all your sin and the wicked powers of the world and Satan. 

The very same Jesus who teaches you to pray as a baptized child of God to your loving heavenly Father.  The very same Jesus who sends His Spirit to help you in your weakness, who intercedes for you according to the will of God.  The very same Jesus who speaks to you week after week through His called and ordained servant, your pastor, lavishing you with these words of pure grace and mercy, love and absolution: “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...