Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Producing Fruits of the Kingdom of God

The text for today is Matthew 21:42-43:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’  Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.”  Here ends the text.

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

He plants a vineyard.  Sets a fence around it.  Digs a winepress.  And builds a tower to watch for thieves and robbers.  So far so good.  Sounds like the song of the vineyard from Isaiah.  Then the owner makes his first mistake.  He leases it to tenants.  He’s asking for big trouble.  He should keep the vineyard for himself. 

Then the owner compounds his error.  He decides to go off to another country.  He takes a trip, an extended holiday.  Idiot.  Everyone knows that if you want things done right you’ve got to do them yourself.  You’d better watch over the tenants’ work otherwise they’ll take advantage of you.

What does this owner expect?  Is he crazy?  Must be!  After all, he expects the tenants to do their work well without direct supervision.  He expects them to give him his portion of the grapes. 

So the vineyard owner sends his servants to get his fruit.  “Scram.  Beat it!” is the tenants’ response.  They will not share any of the harvest with the owner.  That means less for them.  And why should they share?  Who’s going to make them?  An owner who takes vacations in another country isn’t much of a threat.  And so the tenants take his servants and beat one, kill another, and stone another.

You’d think the owner would get it by now.  Nope.  He sends other servants, more than the first.  And they [do] the same thing to them. 

And then the owner makes the most lame-brained move of all time.  “He sends his son to them saying, ‘They will respect my son.’”

Respect the son?  Not these tenants!  This is their big chance.  An absentee landowner is nobody to worry about.  And if they get rid of the son, then all their problems are solved.  The vineyard will be theirs for keeps.  So they do the unthinkable.  They take the son, throw him out of the vineyard, and murder him.

Then comes the big theological question: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give Him the fruits in their seasons,” is the chief priests’ and Pharisees’ answer.  And that reveals something about their mindset.  They expect God to act as they would.  Selfishly.  Harshly.  Tit for tat.  Quid pro quo. 

Luther puts it very well.  “As you believe, so you have.”  In other words, if you treat God as one who deprives you of what you believe you have coming, one who takes what is His and pays back evil for evil… then that’s the God you have.  If you treat God as one who can’t be trusted to care for your good, if you treat Him as a threat… then that’s the God you have.  The evil you think of God, you’ll receive from Him in judgment.  There’s nothing capricious about God’s judgment.  It acknowledges what is the fact with a man and deals with him accordingly. 

To bring this message home, the Lord asks: “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

Of course the chief priests and Pharisees had read this.  They were, after all, Israel’s leaders and teachers.  These verses are part of Psalm 118, the last psalm of the Passover collection, which spoke of the Messiah and His deliverance.  They would be singing this psalm in their observance of the Passover Supper in just a few days.  Of course they had read this passage—many times.  But what of it?

Jesus answers: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.  He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” 

Suddenly it clicks.  The chief priests and the Pharisees perceive that Jesus is speaking about them!  And they don’t like it one bit!  They plan on how to arrest Jesus, but they have to be careful about it because of the crowds who hold Him to be a prophet.  Imagine that!  They’re afraid of what the people will do.  They ought to be more afraid of the One who has the power to destroy sin and body in hell.

But that rejection and irrational behavior follows a long established pattern throughout history.  The Lord makes Israel His people.  By His power He leads them out of Egypt.  He makes a covenant with them.  He puts them in a vineyard called the Promised Land.  And He promises to send the Savior—His Son.  

Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord sends His prophets to Israel.  Time and time again, they will not listen to the call to return to the Lord.  By Isaiah’s day, this rebelliousness is so bad that the Lord calls Israel a vineyard of wild grapes, and warns of impending destruction for their sin.

Nevertheless God is faithful to His promise.  The Lord sends His Son.  Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus comes as Savior of the world.  He performs miracles and healings.  More than that, He speaks the truth, warning people of sin and announcing His forgiveness.  He admonishes them for false religion, and He urges them to repent before it is too late.

That very week, the chief priests will have the Son of God arrested.  Setting aside the Law of God, they’ll unjustly condemn Him to death.  Then they’ll take the Son outside the city walls and nail Him to a cross, in effect, boldly declaring: “We’re getting rid of the Son; but we’re still planning on keeping the vineyard.” 

The aftermath is a matter of history.  Having rejected the Son, the officials turn all the more zealously to trying to please God by their own efforts.  This leads, more and more, to an outright rejection of the Roman Empire as well.  Forty years later, Rome has enough and Jerusalem is leveled.  The walls are destroyed and the vineyard is no more.  The tenants reject the rules and the son, but want to keep the vineyard.  In their sinful rejection they lose both. 

The Pharisees foolishly believe that the Lord will not judge them for Jesus’ death.  In fact, so blind are they that they believe God will approve.  They think they’re doing God a favor.  This is how blinding sin is, how foolish unbelief becomes.  It calls right “wrong” and wrong “right,” evil “good” and good “evil.” 

But there will come a day of reckoning.  When you reject the Son, there is nothing else that the owner of the vineyard can do.  You’ve cut yourself off from your very means of salvation.  Jesus warns His opponents that they will only end up destroying themselves.  God’s judgment on them will be swift and terrible and final and inescapable.  As you believe so you have.

“Rotten Pharisees!  Serves them right!”  That could be our reaction to this text.  But then we would be missing the point.  While Jesus’ words were addressed to the Pharisees on that day, they no longer apply to that particular group.  They’ve been dead and gone for nearly two thousand years.  Their time for producing the fruits of the kingdom of God is long past.  Harvest time came and went the moment they drew their last earthly breath.  But this sermon is not addressed to the Pharisees.  It is addressed to you.  You must not focus on their sin, but yours.  The fruits of the kingdom of God that are being called for are yours!

What fruit?  Certainly not good works or the keeping of rules and regulations.  The Pharisees, for all their shortcomings, were experts in this area.  Humanly speaking they were paragons of virtue.  Good neighbors and upstanding citizens.  They’d put any one of us to shame.  But that would not save them.  God doesn’t grade on a curve.  Being better than the next person is not good enough.  The standard for a place in the kingdom of God is perfect righteousness.

What fruit, then is called for?   In a word… repentance.  Turning away from sin and back to God.  Turning away from insisting that God do things our way and instead, trusting in Him, and His grace and mercy, patience and steadfast love.  Repentance is contrition and faith.  Repentant believers are those who are sorry for their sin, and who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior.  

Repentant sinners believe that God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Law for them.  Christ has lived the perfect, righteous life that you could not live.  He suffered the rejection and pain that you deserved so that you might be reconciled to His heavenly Father.  On the cross, He exchanged His perfect righteousness and obedience for your sin and disobedience.  In the death of the Son, you have what the tenants sought, an inheritance, only this one is eternal, a place in God’s kingdom now and forever. 

Repentance is a matter of life or death.  A matter of heaven or hell!  Or, put another way, repentance is a matter of Law and Gospel.  Those who ignore the Law’s call to repent will suffer the full penalty of the Law’s condemnation.  Those hearing the call to repent, however, find refuge from its accusation and condemnation in the Gospel’s promise of forgiveness. 

In Proverbs we read: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find mercy” (28:13).  St. John writes: “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

That’s why repentance must not be seen as something done once or only occasionally when one experiences a spiritual crisis.  Repentance should be part of daily Christian life and prayer, for we sin daily and we sin much.  That’s why in his famous Ninety-five Theses, Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He wills the entire life of believers to one of repentance.”    

So you in the vineyard.  How goes the digging?  The watering?  The weeding?  What of the harvest?  Are you producing fruits of the kingdom of God?  Are you living in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance?  Are you receiving God’s grace through His Word and Sacrament?  Are you coming to the Lord’s Table regularly to receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith?  Are you hearing with the ears of faith the Absolution of Christ, through His called and ordained servant? 

If you are—keep it up!  Continue to share the Lord’s joy.  Revel in His marvelous grace.  Bask in His mercy.  Be covered with His righteousness.

If you’re not producing the fruits of the kingdom of God—repent.  It’s never too late.  That’s the great thing about repentance.  There is always the chance to repent as long as you live and breathe.  Even in the midst of rebellion, our loving Lord continues to reach out with His grace.  Even a sizeable number of Pharisees ended up repenting. 

You’ve already heard from one of them today in our Epistle.  By God’s grace, St. Paul—a Pharisee and persecutor of Christ—was led to contrition and faith.  He began to produce fruits of the kingdom of God.  Instead of trying to destroy the Church, he became a master builder of the Church, laying a foundation with his preaching of Jesus Christ, the stone the builders rejected.

We might marvel at the faithless rebellion of the chief priests and Pharisees.  “How could they be so foolish to reject their Savior?”  But we shouldn’t.  Our own lives, and the lives of those within our own fellowship, show we are capable of the same.  The refusal to repent, to admit one’s guilt, or accept another’s forgiveness leads to hardened hearts that commit the most heinous sins and justify them as necessary to serve God.  Characters will be assassinated, reputations ruined, the smoldering wick of faith snuffed out, all in an attempt to gain power, maintain the status quo, to have one’s own way, or to preserve one’s self-righteousness.

No, we shouldn’t marvel at the Pharisees failure to repent; we should repent of our own selfish ambition and greed.  We should repent of our own rejection of the Lord’s outreach to us, the times in which we’ve despised His means of grace in pursuit of our own plans or goals.  We should repent of the times we’ve pictured or portrayed God as a strict lawgiver and judge, rather than a gracious Lord.

What we should marvel at is God’s steadfast love and grace.  God is a generous giver.  His is an incredible again and again generosity.  Giving His vineyard, that is, His kingdom, over into our hands.  Sending His beloved Son Jesus Christ into death that we might have life. 

Call it crazy.  Call it reckless.  But that’s God’s way with sinners.  He won’t give you what you deserve as a sinner—unless, of course, you insist on it.  If you treat God as a threat or as an enemy, then that is what He will be to you.   But that is not what God wants.  In His marvelous grace and steadfast love, the Lord has brought you into His kingdom through the Word and water of Baptism that you might produce its fruits of repentance.  You are restored with the Lord at His table now and in the fullness of His kingdom.  Indeed, you are forgiven all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.           

Monday, September 12, 2011

He Makes the Deaf Hear and the Mute Speak

The text for this morning is our Gospel, Mark 7:31-37, which has already been read.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen

Jesus is in the Decapolis, the Ten Cities.  He’s just come from the region of Tyre and Sidon, where He healed the daughter of a faithful, Canaanite woman.  These locations are part of what make these miracle accounts important.  Jesus is healing and preaching to the Gentiles.  He’s not just the Savior of the Jews, but of all people.

Believing the Word they’ve heard about Jesus some people bring a man who is deaf and mute to Jesus that He would heal him.  The loss of any sense is terrible, but this is a dreadful combination.  The man is isolated, unable to hear the sounds of the environment around him, much less those who try to talk to him.  He can’t speak intelligibly, even if he is in dire need of assistance.  Jesus takes the man aside privately.  He puts His fingers in the man’s ears.  He spits, and He touches the man’s tongue.  Then, looking up to heaven, He says to the man, “Ephphatha,” the Aramaic word which means “be opened.”  Just like that, the man’s ears are opened; his tongue is loosed.  He is healed.

There are a few big things we learn about Jesus from this unusual miracle.

First off, the way He does it, teaches that the healing comes from His person.  The miracle comes from Him.  In other words, Jesus doesn’t produce a secret potion or bag of herbs.  He doesn’t wave a magic wand.  He heals the man with Himself—with His own fingers, His own spit, and His own voice.

Second, this miracle gives you a physical demonstration of Jesus’ righteousness and power.  Physical disabilities and illnesses are part of sin’s curse, and you really don’t have to try hard to become disabled or sick.  In fact, I would wage you spend a lot of your waking hours trying to avoid it. 

You make sure you stay in your lane while driving, and keep a sharp eye to make sure that everybody else does, too.  You look both ways before you cross the street.  You wash your hands with soap and water.  You put on sunscreen.  You exercise, watch your diet, and try to get enough rest.  You do all sorts of things to try to stay healthy and whole, because good health doesn’t naturally happen in a sinful world.  Death does, because the wages of sin is death.

Under normal circumstances, you also have to be careful to take care of your senses.  It’s very good advice not to put anything in your ears.  In fact, outside of toddlers and their fascination with small objects, the only time people usually put things in their ears is to keep from hearing the outside world—to block out noise with ear plugs, ear buds, or their own fingers.  Putting stuff in your ears tends to hurt them and keep you from hearing—that’s the way things go in a sinful world. 

But what happens when Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears?  The opposite happens.  Jesus’ fingers don’t add to the man’s deafness; instead, they cause the man to hear.  Why?  Because these fingers aren’t normal, sinful, dying flesh like those of everybody else around.  These fingers are the sinless flesh of the righteous Son of God.  God, who created all things to be good, touches the man to give him healing, to open his ears.  

Under normal circumstances, ever since the Fall into sin of Adam and Eve, sickness trumps health.  You don’t have to be a medical professional to know that if you put a sick person and a healthy person in the same room, the one who’s sick isn’t going to catch the other’s health.  It you have a sterile surgical room at the hospital and release a bunch of germs inside, the sterility doesn’t kill the germs—the germs destroy the sterile condition.  That’s how it goes in a sinful, dying world. 

In such a world, then, it is good advice not to go around letting strangers put their saliva in your mouth.  Human saliva is not known for its purity or cleanliness, but contains a host of germs.  Saliva has a lot of potential to make you quite ill.

But Jesus is not just another sinful human being.  He’s the righteous Son of God.  He puts His saliva on the man’s tongue—and He heals him!  He causes him to speak.  This is what the Son of God does.  He comes to reverse the curse brought by the first Adam and the fall into sin.  Sin brings deafness, so Jesus takes it away.  Sin brings darkness, so Jesus makes blind eyes see. 

This leads us to our third point about this miracle: it’s a fulfillment of prophecy, as you heard in our Old Testament lesson.  When the long-promised Messiah came, He would confirm His calling by performing miracles like these: “In that day the deaf shall hear… the eyes of the blind shall see.”  So as Jesus performs these miracles, He’s establishing His credentials.  He’s proving Himself to be the long-awaited Savior.  But those aren’t the only prophecies He fulfills.  There are others, including Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities… with His stripes we are healed.”  Being the Messiah is not all about the happy days of healing: it is most of all about the cross. 

Jesus isn’t staying in the region of the Decapolis, but He’s gradually making His way to a hill outside Jerusalem called Calvary.  On His way, He bears the sins of the world.  He bears the world’s infirmities, too.  He takes the man’s deafness and muteness away, and takes it on Himself.  It is part of the heavy load that He carries as the Redeemer.  On the cross, He fulfills the prophecy and is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and we are healed by His stripes. 

This is likely why Jesus tells the crowds to be quiet about this healing: they don’t have the full story yet.  They know about the miracles, but not about the cross.  Telling the half-story is likely to lead people astray.  It’s going to give them the wrong impression.  If they think that the Savior is all about—and only about— working miracles and healings, they’re going to look at Him on the cross and say, “That doesn’t fit—I guess He wasn’t the Savior after all.”  But the cross is Jesus’ victory over sin and death.  His resurrection is not only proof of all He claims, but is His greatest miracle. 

One who is able to raise Himself to life will certainly heal you as well.  In fact, this is your hope because the same Jesus who healed the deaf-mute man and rose from the dead is your Savior, too.  Do not forget the reasons for Jesus’ miracles: as we already mentioned, one reason was to establish His credentials, to fulfill prophecy, and prove He was the Savior.  But there is another reason: it was to give you a foretaste of what lies ahead.  In other words, the Lord will heal you of all your diseases and infirmities—on the Last Day, if not before.

You and I are especially attracted to instant miracles, when and where we want them to happen, so a word of caution is appropriate.  The Lord works according to His holy will and wisdom; and His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways.  When Isaiah declared, “In that day the deaf shall hear … the eyes of the blind shall see,” that day was still a long way away.  But it did come to pass.  The delay did not mean that God was unfaithful: He kept His promise.  Likewise, the man in our Gospel lesson was not healed the same day he became deaf and mute.  For all we know, he had been born that way.  He had a long wait, and difficult life, before Jesus healed Him.  But Jesus did heal him.

The Lord heals in His time, according to His plan.  This is important, because some have looked at the miracles of the New Testament and said, “As soon as people came to Jesus for healing, He healed them.  Therefore, if you come to Jesus in prayer for healing, He will heal you right away; and if He doesn’t, you must not have enough faith.”

This is simply false; it is a lie that slanders God and endangers faith.  The Lord doesn’t promise to heal you when you want, but when He wills for your good.  That may be in this life.  It may be on the Last Day, when you are raised from the dead.  But it will happen, for Jesus has died to make it so.  He has borne all your sicknesses and infirmities to the cross to make it so.  He has also borne your sins to the cross, that you might have faith and life in Him. 

Healing and forgiveness are both miracles brought about by the cross, and this is another reason to rejoice in our Gospel lesson.  Even if you were born with fully functional ears and tongue, you were still born deaf and mute before God.  You were born in sin.  You were born unable to hear His Word and keep it.  You were born unable to sing and speak His praise.

This is what David is getting at in Psalm 51 when he cries out the words we just sang to begin Matins: “O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth shall declare Your praise.”  David wasn’t mourning the loss of hearing and speech: he was grieving his sin.  He’d committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed.  He’d done great damage to his faith; and if he was to recover, it would have to be the Lord’s doing. 

The Lord would have to grant forgiveness—which He did.  God used the mouth of Nathan the prophet to say, “The Lord has taken away your sin.”  In other words, “Be forgiven.”  In other words, to David’s mouth, “Ephphatha: be opened.”

The Lord has done the same to you.  In the waters of Holy Baptism, He cleaned out your ears with His Word.  He gave you faith—ears to hear His Word.  By opening your ears, He also opened your mouth: for by giving you faith, He gave you the joy of declaring His praise. 

Now, here’s the part that most people don’t think about: This forgiveness—this healing from sin—is a far greater miracle than the one in our text.  If you are forgiven, you have the promise of eternal healing.  But if you are healthy in body but have no faith, only death and destruction await.

No wonder this text was taken up by the Church in the ancient baptismal liturgies.  Before entering the church, the pastor would take the candidate for baptism, baby or adult, touch his finger to his tongue and then his finger to the candidate’s ear and quote Jesus’ words.  Here’s how it says it in Luther’s Order of Baptism from 1523: “Then the priest shall take spittle with his finger, touch the right ear and therewith say: Ephphatha, that is, Be thou opened.”

Both Jesus’ healing of the deaf-mute and the ancient rite of baptism sound strange, don’t they?  But they remind us of an important point: The Lord uses means, physical elements, to do His work.

In the Old Testament, He uses the blood of the slaughtered lamb, spread over the doorposts, to save the children of Israel from the angel of death.  He uses Moses’ rod, lifted over the water, to part the Red Sea and make a path of dry ground for His Church to walk through.  He uses the pillar of cloud and fire to lead His people through the wilderness.  He uses the bronze serpent, lifted up on a pole by Moses, to heal the people.  He uses a coal, taken from the incense, to purge Isaiah’s sin.  He uses the humble Jordan River to wash away Naaman’s leprosy.  In the New Testament, He uses spit or mud or a well or the hem of His garment or His touch to do the work of healing. 

This is how the Lord chooses to deliver His gifts, His healing, His salvation—through means.  And it is no different today.  The same Lord, who speaks to the deaf-mute and heals him, also speaks His healing, life-giving Word to you.  In Baptism, the same Lord, who puts His fingers in that man’s ears and touches his tongue, uses the simple means of water connected to His Word to bring you forgiveness and make you His child.  In simple bread and wine, Christ gives you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen your faith.  Salvation is yours because of Jesus’ person and work—because He consented to have His blood shed and His body nailed to the cross for you; and because He still works to deliver His Word, body, and blood to you now.  

Through each of these means of grace, the Savior is with you.  He speaks to open your ears.  He speaks so that you might repeat His promises.  He does so even now as He speaks His “Ephphatha” to you and opens the gates of heaven with this Good News: “I forgive you for all of your sins.”  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Friday, September 9, 2011

Antidote for Self-centered Prayer

I enjoy all of the daily prayers in CPH's "Treasury of Daily Prayer," but perhaps my favorite is the Prayer on Friday. It begins by thanking Lord Jesus Christ for redeeming us poor and condemned creatures not by any of our works, merit, or worthiness, but by His holy suffering, death, and shedding of blood. It goes on to detail the depth of His passion and death so He could pay our debt and we could be healed by His wounds.

It concludes: "O Lord Jesus Christ, for this and all Your other suffering and pain, we give You thanks and praise. We pray You, let Your holy bitter suffering and death not be lost on us, but grant that all times this may be our comfort, and that we may boast in it; and that as we ponder it, all evil desires in us may be snuffed out and subdued, and all virtue may be implanted and increased, so that we, having died to sin, may live in righteousness, following the example You have left us, walking in Your footsteps, enduring evil with patience, and suffering injustice with a good conscience."

I don't know about you, but my prayers easily become too self-centered. Even when I'm asking for the right things like being comforted, having evil desires snuffed out and subdued, so that I may live in righteousness, I forget how those things are empowered in me. It is not by the frequency or fervency of my prayer, my earnestness or sincerity (thank the Lord) but for the sake of Jesus and His saving work that I am not only saved but am sanctified. This prayer helps to focus my attention properly on Jesus, His person and work, through whom my prayers are heard and answered by the heavenly Father, but in whom I live in faith and repentance and walk in the new life I have been given as a baptized child of God.

I am reminded again that as I pray, I come to God simply as a beggar. I have nothing to bring to Him to earn His attention or favor, but in His grace and mercy, He has made me one of His adopted children, and heir of His kingdom for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus has taken everything that is mine--my sin!, and exchanged it for His perfect righteousness. Everything that is His is mine! That includes a place in His Kingdom and position as God's son. Good fathers want to give their children everything that would be beneficial for them. This is even more true of our perfect heavenly Father.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Kingdom of Power and the Kingdom of Grace

The text for today is Matthew 18:15-20, which has already been read.

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

“Ours is a world that is governed by the aggressive use of force.”  That’s Rush Limbaugh’s Undeniable Truth of Life #6.  In Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky says power is derived from two sources—money and people.  “Have-Nots” build power from masses of people, corporations and governments use cash. 

Limbaugh and Alinsky, opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they agree on one thing: Kingdoms of this world are built and kept and defended by power.  It’s true.  Kingdoms are built by coercion, force, and leverage; by strength, battle, and bloodshed.  You have to have an awful lot of muscle if you’re going to make a kingdom.  

Furthermore, if you want to build a kingdom you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.  You must be willing to exploit your enemy’s weaknesses.  If your opponent stumbles in any way, use it against him.  Shame him into silence or make him the object of scorn in the court of public opinion. 

And whatever you do, invoke the name of God.  People don’t generally follow kings who say, “God’s not on my side”; therefore, tack His name onto whatever you do.  If you have to break the rules, piously make it clear that you are breaking the rules of man in order to follow the will of God.

And, of course, there’s no room for humility in kingdom building.  You have to have an incredible ego.  You have to be 100% committed to your cause.  And be aware that, in order to build a kingdom, you will often have to tear down another one to make room.  If people don’t agree and don’t want to do things your way, crush them, dehumanize them, demonize them if you have to.

This is how you build a kingdom—by power, by force, by assertion, by an act of will.  Look at the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus.  It wasn’t built by kindness and sensitivity.  It was built by violence, control, and a message of cooperation that said, “Do things our way or be destroyed.”

We saw an evil sort of worldly kingdom building about ten years ago: September 11, 2001.  A group of men examined American society and found that it did not agree with their ideals for a religious kingdom.  They divided into teams, exploited our nation’s freedoms, hijacked four airplanes, and proceeded to murder thousands of civilians—invoking the name of their god in the process.  

While these attacks could not destroy so great a nation as ours, they were meant as a good start, a strategy to silence and shame…and open the door for more.  And many would argue the ripple effects of the events of 9-11 are still being felt in our shaky economy and lost of civil liberties yet today.

It is simply a law of this world.  Kingdoms are destroyed and built and defended by power.  After September 11th, we saw our own government respond.  They exploited the enemy’s weaknesses, and made clear that this nation would not tolerate terrorist attacks.  Government agencies tracked terrorist funding to freeze those assets and cripple the enemy.  In keeping with their constitutional duties, our officials sent troops to Afghanistan to wage war at great cost of money and men. 

Throughout the centuries, some have proposed that Christians have no part in such a kingdom where power and violence are necessary to keep the borders secure.  However, our epistle for this day makes it clear that such power is necessary in this world.  It is God who appoints rulers, and He gives them the responsibility to bear the sword in defense of what is good.  A ruler is “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:4).  Rulers, be they kings or elected officials, are obligated by the Lord to rule justly, to punish the evildoer, and to wage war to protect their citizens from unjust attack.

Christians are therefore to support their rulers, provided their rulers are using such power righteously.  It is among the duties of the Christian as a citizen to pray for his leaders and nation, pray for the enemy as well, serve his neighbor, and even lay down his life in service to his country.

We live in a world where kingdoms are built and kept and defended by power.  You are therefore a citizen of a nation which relies on power to endure.  This is not a bad thing.  As long as there is evil in the world, evil must be curbed by law and force.  This is how the Lord has established things to be.

But for you, dear Christian, this is only half of the story.  You are also a citizen of another kingdom, because the Lord Jesus Christ has brought you into His kingdom.  But His kingdom is built on a different foundation.  It is not built upon money or power or number of followers.  In fact, when Jesus first sends out His disciple to proclaim the kingdom, there are only twelve of them.  And Jesus instructs them to take no money, no extra supplies, not even a staff. 

It’s a kingdom of grace.  In other words, Jesus does not add you to His kingdom by saying, “As long as you prove your worth with hard work I’ll make you Mine.”  He does not declare, “When you no longer aid and abet the enemy by sinning, then you have proven you have the loyalty to become My citizen.”  

And Christ most certainly does not say, “As soon as you go out and kill my enemies with the sword, then you belong in My paradise.”  He says none of these things, because this is not a kingdom of force.  Instead, He says things like, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made in perfect in weakness.”

The Lord makes you His by His work—by His work of taking away your sins.  He declares that you are forgiven because of what He has done.  And rather than a show of strength, He calls upon you to humbly confess your sins and repent.  He gathers a kingdom of the weak, the humble, the lowly, the penitent.  These are most certainly not the usual qualities that one desires in the citizens of a nation.

Furthermore, listen to how He commands His citizens to act:  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  If he hears you, you have gained your brother.  But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’  And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.  But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”

Remember, building a kingdom of power involves exploiting weakness and using it as a weapon.  But when a Christian sins against you, how are you to react?  As gently and discreetly as possible.  If it is a private sin between him and you, go and show him his sin privately.  If he doesn’t repent, take a witness or two along.  If the matter continues, it may be necessary to tell it to the church.  

What is the purpose of all of this—to shame and exploit his sin?  Not at all—the goal is to bring him to repentance, so that he might be forgiven.  In an army of a kingdom of power, such a rebellious soldier would be thrown in the guardhouse, dishonorably discharged, perhaps even placed before the firing squad.  But this is not a kingdom of power, but of grace; and Christians are thus to make all attempts to bring grace to the sinner.  

This is how the kingdom of grace operates.  The Lord Jesus gathers the lowly, weak types who confess their sin and inability to serve Him.  He forgives them and strengthens them through His means of grace, and then He calls for them to forgive and serve each other.  It’s a Church built on forgiveness, not force.  It’s a kingdom of grace, not power.

And it will never work… at least, that’s what the world claims.  In fact, it’s a mystery to the world that the Church has survived this long, and no surprise that it expects the demise of the Church to come soon.  This is for two reasons: The world is blinded by sin and thus cannot comprehend forgiveness, and the world is so accustomed to kingdoms of power that a kingdom of grace sounds like nonsense.

It doesn’t make sense, the world will tell you.  Forgiveness is nice and all, but it doesn’t get the job done.  The Church can’t survive by preaching the grace of Jesus.  It had better develop business savvy instead, and learn to use the powers of sociology and diversity to attract more people.  

Or it says a message of a cross and forgiveness isn’t going to go very far.  The Church won’t be relevant if it keeps speaking of a man who was last seen on earth 2000 years ago.  If the Church is going to have authority in this world, it had better refocus, repackage itself, and take up some social causes instead.  

Trust and forgiveness are no match for the sword or public opinion, the world insists.  The Church had better build an alliance with other religions and faiths in order to present a united front.  Otherwise, it won’t survive.  

It’s a terrible misunderstanding of the difference between the kingdom of grace and the kingdom of power.  But think about it.  Are we Christians any less guilty of confusing this kingdom of grace with a kingdom of power?  On a personal level, consider the Lord’s words about forgiveness, and how tempting it is for us to ignore them in favor of power: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”  This is the right thing to do, to respond to the brother’s waywardness as discreetly as possible, to gain the brother back by the forgiveness of sins.  

However, the right thing is not the easy thing.  It is far easier—and more natural—to gossip, to complain to others how you’ve been wronged.  Whatever else it may be, this gossip is a play for power—to exploit somebody’s weakness by spreading the news to others.  Perhaps you’ll maybe even embellish a bit, to make sure everyone knows what an injustice has been perpetrated.  This makes you superior to your brother, because he is the sinner and you are the victim.  But it’s not the way of the Lord.

Not all turn to gossip.  Some go to the sinner and tell him his fault—not for the purpose of forgiveness, but for revenge.  This isn’t an attempt at reconciliation; it is a play for power, to make someone else feel worse so that you feel better.

Of course, the brother who has sinned may also be guilty of going for power instead of grace.  When one Christian or a whole Church calls upon him to repent so that he might be forgiven, he may obstinately refuse.  Instead of confession, he may seek to hurt those who confront him.  He might go on the offensive and bring up past—forgiven—sins of others, or he might twist facts and slander those who seek his repentance.  This is not the way of grace.  This is trying to use power to get one’s way, to create one’s own little kingdom of authority.  

If the sinner so persists, the Church eventually must dismiss him from among the faithful.  This is not an act of vengeance.  It is recognition that the sinner has chosen his sin and his private kingdom of power over forgiveness and the kingdom of grace.  He has made himself an ex-member of the communion of saints; that is why this recognition is called excommunication.

Because the Church, this kingdom of grace, is made up of weak and lowly sinners, such sins are far too commonplace.  Each sin is a quest for personal power instead of service to God or neighbor.  We must agree with the world; it’s a wonder the Church has survived this long.  In fact, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

Remember, this is a world in which kingdoms are built, kept, and defended by power.  They remain because battles are fought and blood is shed.  They continue because rulers are present and accounted for, wielding the sword and using their authority to make sure the kingdom remains.

Ah, but here’s the thing—the wonderful miracle that tells us why the Church has survived.  The blood has already been shed to establish this kingdom.  The battle has already been fought.  And the outcome was so decisive that this kingdom of grace will remain forever.

To be sure, it didn’t look like much of a battle—it looked like one side had all the power.  A group of soldiers, an angry mob take a severely beaten man to a hilltop outside Jerusalem.  They crucified Him and watched Him die.  Some battle.  

But this was no ordinary man.  This was the Son of God become flesh, and His battle was not against the soldiers and the hecklers.  He was fighting against sin, death, and the devil.  By His death, He destroyed the power of sin to condemn, because He has died for all of the sins of the world.  His shed blood covers all of our sins.  By Christ’s resurrection, He has destroyed the power of death.  Death can no longer hold His people in the grave.  By defeating sin and death, He robbed the devil of his weapons of terror; and thus the devil was defeated forever.

The kingdom of grace stands forever, but there will be skirmishes as the devil seeks to destroy Christians before they reach heaven.  Therefore, the Lord Jesus Christ visits His people, gathers them in and continues to strengthen His kingdom.  How?  He promises, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).  

Christians are gathered in the name of Jesus when they gather according to His Word.  According to His Word, they hear the words of Holy Absolution: “I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  They are gathered and rejoice in Holy Baptism, where water is accompanied by the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  They are gathered to His holy Supper, where the Lord named Jesus gives them His body and blood “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  

Do you see? Your King of grace is not far away.  He is present with you, in His Word and in His Sacraments.  And by these means of grace, He forgives you your sin. He shares His victory with you and makes you part of His kingdom.  He gives you eternal life.  He is there when only a few, two or three, are gathered.

That doesn’t look like much of a power cell to the world; but the number of believers isn’t what matters.  What matters is that the Lord is present, forgiving sins and giving salvation.  He is with His people at the time of death, whether in a hospital bed or under crumbling towers or on the battlefield.  To the world, death signals the end of power and the loss of strength.  But the Lord declares that He has destroyed the sting of death, and that He uses this ultimate physical weakness to raise His people unto life everlasting.

He is present with His people in a Sunday school that struggles on a given Sunday to even gather two or three little ones in His name.  Again, such a scene is hardly a show of force to the world; but the Lord is there to work miracles of faith and salvation.  He is with His Church, and He is her life.  When opposed by kingdoms of power, the Church will suffer indignity and even bloodshed.  But she will endure: Christ has died to make her His, and He will deliver her to eternal life.

Today, you find yourself in two kingdoms—a kingdom of power and a kingdom of grace.  As citizens of this nation, we pray for our rulers and serve our nation, that peace may be established for the good of all.  As citizens of Christ’s kingdom of grace, we give thanks for His enduring victory, His forgiveness, and the freedom He gives us to serve and forgive one another.  When we fail to love the Lord with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves, we confess those sins and trust in His grace once again.

Long ago, the Lord declared, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). You are not His people by your strength or power, but by the work of His Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has gathered you into the kingdom of grace.  By the faith He gives, you believe and rejoice in Christ’s death on the cross, as well as His presence with you now.  As the Spirit continues to work through the means of grace—Word and Sacrament—you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Into the Wilderness

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