Sunday, October 23, 2011

David's Son Is David's Lord

The text for this morning is our Gospel, Matthew 22:34-46, which has already been read.

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

I’m sure you’ve heard speakers or teachers who are trying to encourage discussion say: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”  I must disagree.  Just try asking one of them a stupid question, and watch their reaction.  If not by their words, you’ll see by their facial expression or body language how even they don’t believe such nonsense.  No, not all questions are created equal. 

If you’ve sat in on enough question and answer sessions, you know this is true.  Most people won’t ask any questions in a large group setting for fear of looking foolish.  So when someone asks a good question, there is an almost audible sigh: “I was hoping someone would ask that question!”   Or “I’m glad they asked that question!  I had never considered that idea before.”   

But there’s often the negative side, too.  Someone asks a question where they already know the answer but just want to show how smart they are.  Then there are also those who will ask a question just to “stir the pot.”  And there are those who will ask a question just to test the speaker.  No, not all questions are created equal.  There are good questions, foolish questions, and trick questions. 

That’s certainly true with our text.  We have the third of three questions in Matthew 22—each intended to entangle Jesus in His own words.  The Pharisees and Herodians ask: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?  The Sadducees ask: If a woman has been married to seven brothers, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?  Each time, Jesus returns the question with some biblical backspin.  They’re caught in their own trap.  The foes marvel.  The crowd is astonished.

Today, another question:  One of the Pharisees—a teacher of the Law—asks: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 

It sounds like a reasonable question, doesn’t it?  How would you answer it?  Well, we’d probably start with the Ten Commandments, and figure that the first would be the most important since it’s the first, right?  “You shall have no other gods.”  That has to be the most important commandment, since it deals with God.  Certainly more important than the other commandments further down the list that deal with obeying parents or lying or gossiping or coveting.  Keep that one and you can slide a bit on the rest, right?

The Pharisees went a lot further than ten commandments.  They were connoisseurs of commandments.  Like stamp collectors, they went through the Law, the Torah, with a magnifying glass.  And when they had gone from Genesis to Deuteronomy, they collected 613 commandments.  613 biblical principals.  Six hundred and thirteen dos and don’ts to make you the apple of God’s eyes.  It’s bad enough having to learn ten commandments—much less keep them.  Can you imagine 613?  No wonder they were asking Jesus which was the most important.  When you have 613 you definitely need to prioritize.  So which one is the top dog?

As the question rolls over in your mind, you begin to see the problem with priorities.  By putting something first on a list, you diminish everything below it.  That’s why I frown on the idea of “putting God first” in your life.  You hear people say that sometimes, don’t you?  Very piously and religiously.  Perhaps you’ve even said something like this: “God first, family second, work third, and play fourth.”

The trouble with that kind of list is that it sets God over and against family and work and play, and you know deep down in your gut that that can’t be right.  A list like that also makes God one item among several on a list; and you know that that can’t be right either, because God shares a list with no one and nothing.  He wants to be your everything, not just your top priority. 

But to be totally honest, when you stop and do the math, God doesn’t actually even come in first; not if we measure it in how we expend our time and treasure.  Take time, for instance.  You have 24 times 7 equals 168 hours each week.  Let’s say work, getting ready for work, getting to and from work, take up twelve hours a day.  That’s 60 hours.  That leaves 108 hours.  Let’s say meals take another 2 hours a day.  You eat seven days a week.  That’s 14 hours.  94 left.  Sleep?  Probably should have about 8 a night.  That’s 56, so we’re down to 38. 

Now, of course, if your family is priority #2, you’ve got to spend some time with them.  Let’s say you’re above average and you spend an hour of uninterrupted quality family time a day.  That’s 7 hours.  Then there are chores, errands, and “honey-do” lists, perhaps 4 hours a week.  Now, we’re down to 27 hours.

And, if you’re like most people, you’ve got to have a little “me time” to work out or curl up with a good book or watch television.  Let’s say a couple of hours a day.  That leaves us with 13 hours still unaccounted for.  If you go to church to worship the Triune God and receive His gifts of salvation and you manage to stay for Bible study and a second cup of coffee that’s another 3 hours.  If you’re keeping track, that’s still about 10 hours a week left for everything else. 

The purpose of this little exercise is not to make you feel guilty about how you spend your time.  It’s simply to demonstrate you can’t say God is first when He ranks somewhere below your favorite book or this week’s American Idol.  And that’s what’s wrong with priorities.  God can’t be first among your priorities… another god among your pantheon of gods.  “You shall have no other gods.” 

Instead, God is in the center of every priority—family, work, play, whatever.  God is in the middle of it all, because your life, as you now have it, is hidden with Christ in God.  So every waking or sleeping hour of the day has God in the middle of it.  You can’t separate how you spend time, anymore than you can separate how you spend money, because all of it is God’s and He is hidden in the midst of it all.

That’s what’s ultimately wrong with the scribe’s question.  Which commandment is the greatest?  You can’t answer that.  They are all great, each in their own way, because each has God in it.  Each reveals God’s character.  Luther recognized this when he said that the first commandment was at the heart of all the commandments.  Fear, love, and trust in God above all things, and all the other commandments will flow quite naturally. 

Jesus said the great and first command is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  He wants you all to Himself.  He wants all of you to Himself.  Your heart.  Your soul.  Your mind.  Everything.  He doesn’t want to be a priority in your day planner.  He wants to be what He already is—your God.  And you can have only one of those. 

“And a second is like it,” Jesus says.  Hey, wait a minute.  Who said anything about a second commandment?  The question was, “Which is the great commandment?’ not “which two?”  That’s cheating.  But Jesus throws in a second or maybe a 1b to His 1a.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

You thought you could love God and forget about your deadbeat neighbor who gets on your nerves?  Wrong!  You thought you could be religious in your own little spiritual bubble and despise the people around you?  No way!  You thought you could keep the first commandment and blow off the rest and say, “That’s good enough?”  Well I’m sorry, but it’s not good enough.  Jesus won’t let you play priorities with your love.  Love God, love your neighbor. 

The Pharisees were experts at complicating the Law, spending hours disputing what is permissible and what is not.  Jesus is the exact opposite.  He cuts through all the complicated jargon and puts before us the central teaching of the Law: love.  What is the Lord’s will for my life?  Answer: that I love the Lord and my neighbor.  It’s so simple that no one can honestly say, “I didn’t understand what you wanted, Lord.”  The entire Law is summarized in one word: love. 

But do you do it?  Do you love God, not just a little bit, or an hour and a half on a Sunday morning’s worth?  Do you love God completely, or do you withhold parts of your being from God?  And what about that neighbor whom you are to love as yourself?  I’m not talking about the nice ones; I’m talking about the rude ones, the mean ones, the downright unlovable ones.  Do you love them? 

Please recognize this about the Law, dear people.  You must love perfectly if you want to save yourself.  You can’t slip up even once.  You must love God even when He doesn’t deliver what you ordered.  You must love your neighbor even when he doesn’t live up to your expectations.  And when the Law is finished with your loving, the only question left is this: “How then can anyone be saved?”

Which brings us to Jesus’ question: “What do you think about the Christ?  Whose Son is He?”  We miss the point if we see this as nothing more than tit for tat.  His is a serious question, and an honest answer would bring His opponents to a correct understanding of Him.  Jesus is reaching out to the Pharisees.  They come with malice and murder in their hearts.  Jesus loves them, and invites them in.  So don’t hate the Pharisees.  Jesus doesn’t.  And they’re a lot like you.  When He reaches out to them, He is inviting you into the mysteries of the Kingdom. 

“Who is the Christ?” Jesus asks.

“The son of David,” the Pharisees reply.  They learned that in Saturday school in the synagogue.  The Messiah would come from David’s line.

“Good,” says Jesus.  “So, now tell Me.  When David was speaking by the Holy Spirit in the Psalms, he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at My right hand, until I put Your enemies under Your feet.’  ‘If then David calls Him Lord, how can He be His son?”  Now there’s a great question!  How can the Christ be son of David and yet the Lord at the same time?  He can’t be.  Unless, of course, David’s son is also the Son of God.  And then there’s much more to this Jesus than a sharp rabbi who can’t be trapped by trick questions. 

How can David have the Messiah as both his son and his Lord?  The only answer that makes sense of the text is that the Messiah is both man and God.  And this teaching is at the very heart of the Christian confession.  Who is Jesus?  We rejoice this morning to be given this answer by the Lord Himself.

And so our Lord’s last words to the Pharisees, to the temple, to His enemies, is the word of His two natures.  Their rejection would become, only three days later, the fuel of Jesus’ passion, His arrest, His trials, and His death.

But what does this mean for us?  We, after all, have not rejected this sublime teaching of the two natures of Christ.  We confessed it earlier in the creed: “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…”  But what does this mean?” 

That Jesus has two natures is at the very heart of the Gospel.  If Jesus was not David’s Son and David’s Lord, then He could not be your Savior.  Christ had to be true man in order to fulfill the Law in your place.  He had to be fully human in order to suffer and die for your guilt because you have failed to keep the Law.  Christ had to be true God in order that His fulfilling of the Law, His life, suffering, and death might be sufficient for all people.  He had to be fully divine in order to overcome death and the devil for you. 

This Son of God was born Son of David for one purpose: To gather the whole world and all of loveless humanity into His death and to rescue it from its failure to love God and love neighbor.  Jesus loved perfectly.  He loved God with His whole heart, with His entire soul, with His whole mind.  He loved His neighbor as Himself.  Not just His favorite disciples, but also the crowds, the outcasts, the demonized, the diseased and despairing, and yes, even the religious types with their questions meant to trap Him.  He loved them, too.  And He loves each of you.

 Jesus loved His Father, and obedient to His will to save, He went to the cross to die.  He loved His neighbor, even to the point of praying for those who killed Him.  That perfect, holy love is yours, His gift to you.  It comes with His death for you and His life for you.  Jesus is God’s love for humanity, and He is humanity’s love for God.  In Jesus, you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  In Jesus, you love your neighbor as yourself.  And in Jesus—the One whose righteousness exceeds the scribes and Pharisees, the One who hung dead on the cross—all the Law, from the greatest to the least of the commandments, is fulfilled to the last jot and tittle.  The Law can no longer condemn you.  There is no condemnation for anyone in Christ Jesus.  No question about it.

So which is the greatest commandment?  Wrong question.  Who is the Christ?  That’s the question.  And you know the answer: His name is Jesus.  David’s Son, yet David’s Lord.    God Incarnate.  The Godhead veiled in flesh.

Which explains one more mystery—how Jesus is able to keep His promise to be with you always, how He is able to reign in heaven at the Father’s right hand and still be here with you, personally and intimately.

The risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human.  As such He is able to come to you in His means of grace.  In the water and Word of Holy Baptism, Christ has given you His Holy Spirit, who has created and sustains your faith.  In the bread and wine of His Supper, He feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  Through His called and ordained servant He speaks His own Word of absolution.

David’s Son is David’s Lord… and your Lord, too.  For His sake 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, October 15, 2011

The Things of God

The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 22:15-22, which has already been read.

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

They say that politics makes for strange bedfellows.  That’s certainly the case here.  The Pharisees—ardent nationalists who opposed Roman rule—team up with the Herodians whom they despised for their cooperation with the Roman government.  This would be kind of like the Tea Party movement suddenly aligning itself with the campaign to re-elect President Obama.  You know that something fishy is going on here.

The Pharisees try to trap Jesus between a political hard place and a religious rock.  “Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and You do not care about anyone’s opinion, for You are not swayed by appearance.”  Anyone who starts off a sentence like that can’t be trusted with the keys to the house, much less the tenets of theology. 

But here’s the kicker: “What do you think, Jesus, man of integrity and teacher of the truth?  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Great chess move.  They’ve got Jesus trapped.  If Jesus says “no,” He’s a traitor to Rome, an insurrectionist, a tax dodger, a threat to national security.  If He says, “yes,” He’s a traitor to His own people, a Roman loyalist, a supporter of the occupation government, an enemy of Israel, an enemy of God.”  They’ve got Him right where they want Him. 

Or has Jesus got them right where He wants them?  Don’t think you can trap the Divine Fox quite so easily.  Or you might get caught in your own trap. 

“Hypocrites,” Jesus says.  “Show Me the money.”  And so they bring Him a denarius.  “Whose likeness is this?  Whose inscription?”


“Well then, there you have your answer.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  With that, Jesus dodges the political bullet.  He’s no insurrectionist.  He has no interest in politics, per se.  His kingdom is not of this world.  He’s the King of kings, and the Lord of lords.  So never mind old Caesar.  Just give him his coin and don’t rile a sleeping bear. 

Jesus also dodges the religious bullet and turns the tables on those who’d test Him.  “Oh, by the way… give to God the things that are God’s.” 

“Give to God the things that are God’s.”  And what, pray tell, might that be?  Jesus doesn’t say.  And the Pharisees and the Herodians aren’t inclined to ask.  But let’s follow it through.  Caesar gets the coin.  That’s because it has his likeness and inscription on it.  But what does God get?  Well, what bears God’s image and likeness?  What has God’s inscription?

You!  In the very first chapter of Genesis we read of the creation of man.  “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness…’” (Genesis 1:26).  Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, that is, they truly knew God as He wishes to be known and were perfectly happy in Him.  They were righteous and holy, doing God’s will.  Unfortunately that perfect image was lost when our first parents disobeyed God and fell into sin.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which all mankind retains the image of God.  Two passages of Scripture make this clear.  Genesis 9:6 records God’s words to Noah after the flood: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”  In James 3:9, we read: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.”

God has begun to rebuild His image in mankind through His Son, Jesus Christ.  St. Paul tells us that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15).  Incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, the God-Man, Jesus Christ lived a perfect obedient life for you.   On the cross, Christ exchanges His perfect righteousness for your sin—that original sin that is part of who you are, and those actual sins that you have done or failed to do regarding God’s holy Law and will.  

Having risen from the dead, Jesus now leads His people into His kingdom one-by-one through the gracious water of Holy Baptism, inscribing on the foreheads of each one God’s holy name—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Consequently, St. Paul tells us that “Just as we have born the image of the man of dust [Adam], [you] shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49) and you are being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29).  In Christ you “have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:9-10).

Ultimately, that image will be restored to you fully in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting on the Last Day.  In the book of Revelation, St. John sees the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world, standing on Mount Zion and with Him, you among the multitude… you having His name and His Father’s name written on your forehead.

So, what are the things of God?

You, first and foremost… you are “the things of God.”  God has created you.  Christ has redeemed you, making you His own.  The Holy Spirit is at work sanctifying you, working a renewal of your whole life.  You bear His image and inscription.  And while you are not yet standing in Paradise, you stand here in anticipation of that joyful eternity.

So what does that mean for you today?  I’d like you to take a look at the cartoon in the bulletin.  It’s called Agnus Dei, a comic strip written by a Lutheran pastor that follows the regular Sunday readings.  These two sheep are Rick and Ted.  Rick is the sheep with the coffee.  He always has coffee.  He always has answers.  Ted is the guy with all the questions. 

No, you can’t blame the board of stewardship for this one.  I asked Pastor Nix to see that it was included in your bulletin.  But it sounds just like we expect a stewardship committee to be, doesn’t it?  And Ted’s response is just like you.  You don’t mind giving to the church, but you sure don’t want to be told what to give, how much to give, or when to give.  And this “giving yourself” idea sound just a bit cultish, a bit fundamental, doesn’t it?  And the truth be told, your Old Adam doesn’t want to belong to anyone.

But that’s what God wants from you… that’s what God demands of you… that’s what God commands you to render to Him… you!  God wants you, not your money.  You!  God doesn’t demand taxes; He wants you.  Your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength.  He wants your fear, your love, your trust.  He wants you.  All of you!

This is tricky business.  We’re inclined to withhold.  Pay the minimum tax possible.  Shelter income, divert investments, anything to give less to Caesar.  Render to Caesar what he asks for, but not a shiny penny more.  That’s how it works with the tax game, doesn’t it?

Can you imagine someone writing out their tax form and enclosing a check for an extra thousand dollars with a note?  “Dear Uncle Sam.  It’s been a good year and I thought you could use the extra cash.  Here’s a little deficit reduction.”  It’s never going to happen.  Even billionaires who say their taxes should be higher hire accountants to lower their tax bills.

I know of a congregation that has a school tuition discount for members.  The catch is that you have to show up to church at least twice a month in order to get the discount.  You wouldn’t believe the stories.  Or maybe you would.  People ask, “Do both parents have to come to church?”  “Do we have to bring the kids?”  “What if we dropped the kids off?” 

That’s the way the law works.  You’ll find the least you have to do to squeak by the bookkeepers.  If the law says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you’re going to ask things like “Who’s my neighbor?” and define it so narrowly that walking the little old lady next door across the street qualifies as a full quotient of neighborly love.

And we’ll do the same with God.  When we treat God as the government we start to wonder what’s the least we have to give Him to stay on His A-list.  Give to God the things that are God’s.  What does that mean?  Ten percent?  Give God His ten percent tax?  Ten percent of your time, your treasure, your talent?  Pay your religious tax and stay on God’s good side? 

It may be that way in Caesar’s realm, but not in God’s.  The kingdom of God is different, remember.  Upside down, inside out, and sometimes just plain weird.  It’s where the last are first, the first are last, the losers are winners, and the tax agents and prostitutes slip through the pearly gates ahead of the lifelong Lutherans.  This kingdom doesn’t just want a piece of you, it wants all of you.  And God is restless until He has all of you—your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength, your fear, your love, your trust. 

And you know what?  You won’t give it.  You can’t!  You are so wrapped up in yourself you simply won’t give to God the things that are God’s.  You’ll claim it as your own.  “It’s my time, my treasure, my talent, my life.  Mine, mine, mine.  And you can’t have it, God.  Oh, I’ll give you a Sunday or two, now and then, for no more than an hour or two.  But the rest of the day is mine.  And the rest of the week from Monday to Saturday, that’s mine too, and don’t You dare interfere with my plans.  I’ll pay my temple tax and put a few of Caesar’s coins into the offering plate.  But that’s as far as I’ll go.  Don’t ask me for more!”

Oh, you’ve maybe not been so bold as to say this aloud.  But you’ve thought it.  You’ve acted as if it is true.  And don’t think that God doesn’t know that.  He knows how it is.  He knows you’re not going to render to Him the things that are His.  Jesus knows that.  That’s why He says it.  He wants to trap them in their words, those religious hypocrites who look down their noses at others, who poke at the speck in their brother’s eye and can’t even fathom the two-by-four sticking out of their own.  Jesus knows, and He calls them on it. 

He calls us on it, too, when we feel oh-so-smug about all our “giving.”  Give to God what is God’s.  Everything… your whole life… is God’s.  He wants all of it, and you don’t want to part with it.  God knows that.  That’s why He sent His Son—to render to God the things that are God’s. 

Jesus is the image of God restored in humanity to its original luster.   He gave to God the things that are God’s.  His perfect obedience.  His innocent life.  His sacrificial death.  His holy, precious blood.  The image and likeness of God nailed to the cross—that’s the coin of the kingdom.  Jesus rendered to God what is God’s.  “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.”  He gave up everything for you.  He did it all for you. 

What can you do for Him in return?  The psalmist answers that same question: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; bring an offering, and come into His courts!  Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth!” (Psalm 96:8-9)

You can join your fellow Christians in worship, gladly receiving the Lord’s love and forgiveness in His Absolution, His very body and blood.  You can bring your offerings, not thinking of them as an obligation, but as privilege and honor afforded only those who bear the image of God.  You can leave this house of God, anxious to tell all your friends and neighbors the wonderful things that God has done for you in Christ. 

But really, rendering to God the things that are God’s isn’t necessarily about what happens with “church stuff.”  It’s also about you serving your neighbor in what you do every single day.  Moms and Dads change diapers and discipline their children.  Husbands and wives serve each other.  Teachers teach.  Students study.  Truck drivers drive.  Factory workers make things.  Farmers grow things.  Stockers fill the store shelves.  Each of these daily vocations is both rendering to Caesar and to God. 

And when that old sinful nature pops up again and again, changing your work for your neighbor to work for yourself, turning the things of God into “my things”?  What can you do with such a wretched man?  Drown him again in Baptism through contrition and repentance so that your new man should arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. 

Remember Jesus Christ died for that sin, too.  Indeed, for His sake, even now you are counted righteous and pure.  That is, 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, October 8, 2011

Prayer for Strength, Knowledge, and the Fullness of God

"Paul's Farewell to the Elders at Ephesus" a woodcut Biblical illustrations by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld, copied from the book "Das Buch der B├╝cher in Bilden" and made available by World Mission Collection: 
The text for today is our Epistle, Ephesians 3:13-20, which has already been read.

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

Here’s a key to properly interpreting passages of Scripture: context.  Look for what is happening and being said before and after the passage.  And consider the time in which it was originally written.  Understanding the literary, cultural, and historical contexts will help you to better understand the author’s intent. 

Permit me to illustrate.  Suppose your seven-year-old son walks up to you when your back is turned and asks, “Mom, can I kill this?”  What’s the first thing you must find out before you can answer him?  You can never answer the question “Can I kill this?” unless you’ve answered a prior question: What is it? 

This is the key question.  You see, if your son is holding a bug in his hand, you might say, “Go ahead.”  But if he’s carrying his new puppy, you’re going to freak out.  You might even have to consider seeking psychological counseling for him.  Context is king—in life and in biblical interpretation. 

This is particularly true in passages like our Epistle.  It begins: “So I ask you not to lose heart…” and “For this reason I bow my knees…” both phrases that beg the question: Why?  Why might the Ephesians lose heart?   And why is Paul bowing his knees before the Father on their behalf?

To answer that question we need to back up to the beginning of chapter 3 where Paul reveals “the mystery of Christ,” that is, the mystery that in the Christian Church God is pleased to have Jewish and Gentile believers stand as equals.  God’s undeserved gift to Paul was choosing him to be the revealer of this mystery, sending him out as the bearer of this good news, particularly to Gentiles.

Unfortunately not everyone approved of this mission to the Gentiles.  As Paul wrote this letter, he had spent the last 3 ½ years in prison and house arrest for the sake of the Gospel.  Nevertheless, Paul rejoiced in his suffering as fulfilling the Lord’s purposes for his life and others.  He uses this opportunity to pray for the Ephesians and to model faith and prayer, particularly in the midst of suffering. 

Paul begins: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named…”  In Christ, God is the Father of all believers.  All believers are united into one family, the holy Christian church—those already in heaven as well as those still on earth.  As a member of this family, Paul boldly prays to the heavenly Father.  In his first petition, Paul asks not just for enough strength to get by, but for strength according to the riches of God’s glory, that by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith. 

Second, Paul prays that they might have knowledge.  The Ephesians are believers because they have been rooted and grounded in God’s love for the sake of Jesus.  This is a love that surpasses knowledge—it’s beyond human abilities to comprehend.  Yet Paul prays that the Ephesians might grow to know it more. 

Third, Paul prays that the Ephesians might be filled with the fullness of God.  If the first two petitions sounded bold, the third might strike you as clearly over the top.  God is all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal, present everywhere; and Paul prays that the Ephesians might be filled with His fullness.  It sounds like outlandish hyperbole.  God has total “fullness.”  He created everything; He owns everything; He controls everything.  And yet, He allows us, His dear children, to come boldly to Him.  In fact, He invites us to pray confidently, assuring us that He will hear.

Paul’s prayer is bold.  There’s nothing bashful about his request.  He doesn’t ask for just a few crumbs; he asks for the whole loaf.  He asks that the Ephesians be filled with the blessings God dispenses through His Church, particularly strength, knowledge, and fullness. 

Your pastor prays this as he prays for this congregation.  He also prays this individually for you, because of trouble and afflictions from which you suffer.  He prays you might be strengthened in faith according to the riches of God’s glory, know His incomprehensible love, and be filled with the fullness of God.  These are not just high hopes or nice sounding words, but his sincere prayer for you.

But where is this to be found?  Where does God grant such enormous blessings?  Where does one go for this glorious strength, this knowledge of the incomprehensible, and to be filled with the fullness of God?  Dear friends, the answer to this is not far away.  And as I prepare to tell you what it is, I do so praying that the devil does not snatch away your joy because the answer is so near at hand.  Here it is: all of these blessings of God are as near to you as… His Word.

Consider that first petition, that God would strengthen your faith.  It is no mystery how the Lord gives and strengthens faith: Romans 10 declares, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”  The Word of God is not just informative, but powerful.  It doesn’t just tell things, but it does things.  The Lord—who spoke to create all things and to heal the sick—still speaks His Word to you, to forgive your sins and strengthen your faith.  By that Word, the Holy Spirit is at work so that Christ might dwell in you.  Where you are weak, He is strong—so strong He conquered death and grave for you.  In Him, you are blessed with strength according to the riches of God’s glory.

Consider that second petition, that God would grant you knowledge of His incomprehensible love for you.  Where does God tell you of His love?  In His Word.   Circumstances and events in life will sometimes echo the news of God’s love for you; but often they do not.  You know God’s love for you because He tells you about His love for you in His Word.  It is sure.  But there is more to it than just hearing about God’s love in His Word: Romans 5:8 declares, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

Consider that third petition: that the fullness of God would dwell in you.  Where might you find the fullness of God?  In the Word—in Christ, the eternal Word made flesh.  Colossians 1:19-20 declares, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross;” and again in 2:9, “For in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”  St. Paul tells us that by the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus dwells in you.  Therefore, you can be assured that in Jesus, the fullness of God dwells within you even now.

All three of these outlandish blessings are far beyond our ability to earn, attain, or grasp.  But the Lord brings them all to us—not in some out-of-body or mountaintop experience, not in “liver shivers” or “burning bosoms,” but always available, in His Word.  It’s right here on Sunday, in the hymns, liturgy, sermon, and in the Sacrament.  It’s right there in your Bible at home.  And therein lies the “problem” for us sinners: the Word is so readily available that you’ll be tempted to take it for granted.  It seems so common, that you won’t make it a priority. 

But this isn’t just a problem of the world and your sinful flesh: the devil doesn’t want you to hear the Word, either.  He wants you to keep the Bible next to your insurance policies—there if you really need it, but hoping that you’ll never have to use it.  He wants you to despise the Word because it is so easily at hand, and common.  But only by the Word is your faith strengthened, your sins forgiven. 

That’s why we pastors urge you be in the Word on a daily basis.  We encourage you to make weekly worship a priority, because here the Lord is at work to feed your faith and forgive your sins through His means of grace.  To deprive yourself of the Divine Service is to deprive yourself of grace.  And because we are the body of Christ, it deprives others as well: for as you sing and speak here, you put God’s Word into the ears of those around you.  When you are not here, your fellow Christians are deprived of your voice added to the faith we confess.

We encourage you to daily reading and meditation.  There are resources out there—The Treasury of Daily Prayer is one of them; but it may be as simple as opening your Bible and reading a psalm and a couple of other chapters.  Or taking the bulletin home and reading and reflecting on this week’s lessons.

If your concentration is frazzled as mine often is, read it out loud so that the words come out of your mouth and back into your ears.  Pick out a verse or two to memorize, to meditate upon.  Close the day with a passage, as your thoughts while asleep often dwell on your last waking thoughts.  If you have children, include them too.  Read Bible stories.  Memorize the Small Catechism bit by bit around the dinner table.  The Lord works through His Word to strengthen their faith, too. 

For this is true: God answers this threefold prayer—He strengthens your faith, imparts knowledge of His love, and dwells in you—by means of His Word.  If you are not hearing His Word, your faith is weakening.  It’s just that simple.

So we bid you to be in the Word at home and at church.  It’s not because we obsess on attendance numbers, or because you earn forgiveness every time you crack open a Bible.  It’s because the Word feeds your faith, like food feeds your body.  It’s a gift of God to keep you alive, especially in times of trial and suffering.

I already mentioned that your pastor prays for you because of the troubles you’ll encounter.  You know your pains far more than anyone else, so I need not enumerate them.  But let’s analyze what happens when it’s given you to suffer. 

When trouble strikes, you worry and dwell on it.  It occupies your thoughts.  This means that you’re already meditating—you’re meditating on the trouble.  The trouble with this kind of meditation is that we just fret about how troubling the trouble is.  We sinners don’t always think to pray or to hear the Word for help.  But the Lord has much to say to you in time of trouble.  Remember: by His Word, He forgives your sins, strengthens your faith, and makes you know His will. 

As you read God’s Word, the Spirit is at work to give you all of God’s blessings.  The Word becomes part of your meditation.  Along with the whispered fears in your mind, you will also hear, “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).  You hear, “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1 Corinthians 10:13).  You hear that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).  You hear Christ Jesus your Lord promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).  These are not pep-rally words to get back in the fight; these are the promises of God to grant you strength in trial, for you are one of His beloved children for Jesus’ sake. 

Strengthened and informed by God’s Word, you pray.  You know better what to pray, because you’ve heard the help that God promises.  Having heard Him speak to you, you now speak back to Him.  And you even have help in your praying.  The Spirit intercedes for you with groanings too deep for words, crafting your prayer into one worthy for God’s ears.  And you know that God hears your prayers, because Jesus intercedes for you with the Father, and for His sake the Father delights to hear your prayer.  He also delights to answer your prayer.

This brings us back to one more bit of good news in our text: verse 20 declares that God “is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.”  When God answers your prayers for Jesus’ sake, He does far more than all you ask or think. 

This is good to keep in mind.  When trouble strikes, you have no idea how much trouble you’re really in—for you fight against principalities and powers of darkness.  At the same time, when you pray, you don’t know how good your prayer is—for the Holy Spirit makes it far better than you can imagine.  And when God answers, you can’t comprehend how great His answer is—because He does far more abundantly than all you ask or think. 

That is why His Word is such a blessing in a time of trouble; and dear friends, as long as this world lasts, you are in trouble every day of your lives.  By means of God’s Word, you have all of these blessings.  Apart from it, you have none.  So be in the Word.  For there the Lord strengthens your faith through His Spirit in your inner being.  By means of that Word, Christ dwells in you.  By that Word, God grants that you might know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.  By means of that Word, you are filled with the fullness of God.  For by the means of His holy Word, 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, October 1, 2011

Rich in the Love, Mercy, and Grace of God

Here is the message I prepared for the opening devotions at our October 1, 2011 Lutherans For Life of SD board of directors meeting based upon Ephesians 2:1-10

There’s a very basic doctrine of Christianity that your sinful flesh wars against.  The truth is that God is merciful to you solely because of who He is, not because of who you are or what you do.  And that’s a good thing because you’ve done nothing to deserve God’s mercy, nor could you, because mercy is, by definition, not treating someone as harshly as they deserve. 

Spiritually speaking, you were a still birth.  You were born dead in your trespasses and sins.  You were sinful from the moment your mother conceived you.  You were unrighteous, an enemy of God, altogether worthless, unable to do good, unwilling to understand, unable to seek after God.  Such was your desperate plight, and really the universal plight of mankind.      

Whether they are open or secret, blatant or subtle, sinful actions, thoughts, and desires infect every man, woman, and child since the fall into sin.  Sin is an inherited condition.  We are conceived in it.  We bring it with us from birth.  And it justly earns us the anger of a holy and righteous God.  With Paul, we too, need to say, “We were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3).

St. Paul paints a grim, but realistic picture.  All of us are by nature spiritually dead.  Not only are we unable to improve our lot, but we are enemies, the objects of an offended God’s wrath.  We should expect nothing but the harshest of punishment—and that for all eternity.  This would be a terrifying thought, if not for the fact that Paul can continue with one little word: “but.”  I’ve heard it said that the word “but” is a verbal eraser; it automatically wipes out everything that was said previous to it.  You know, like: “I’m personally pro-life, but I believe that a woman should have the right to choose.” 

But: That three-letter conjunction is the pivotal point of this passage, yes of the whole epistle—in fact, of all Scripture.  Mankind as a group has made a terrible mess of things.  We are certainly—as we regularly confess—poor miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment.  But…  “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).

These verses contain three enormously important words that give us a look into the heart and mind of our God: mercy, love, and grace. 

The first great term describing our Savior-God is “mercy.”  Paul speaks of Him as “God, being rich in mercy.”  Mercy is a positive quality that certainly has much in common with love.  But it is also somewhat different.  Mercy is the attitude in the mind and heart of God that moves Him to take pity on us when He sees our lost and wretched state.  Mercy prompts Him to action.

Paul can speak of a momentous change in our situation.  Why?  “Because of the great love with which [God] loved us.”  The Greek term for love used here, agape, is not the word that speaks of friendship between two people—people who see endearing qualities in each other and on that basis like each other.  Instead, it speaks of a love and affection that is totally one way.  It all comes from God.  Nothing in man the sinner, the God-hater, the spiritual corpse, drew God to him.  Love resided only in the heart of God.  Love prompts Him to action.

And what did God’s love and mercy prompt Him to do?  We were rightly the objects of divine wrath, “but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

Earlier in his epistle, Paul tells us about the incomparably great power God used to raise Christ from the dead.  But that use of God’s power has far-reaching implications also for the whole human race.  Raising Christ from physical death signaled the completion of Christ’s saving work and sealed our redemption.  It made possible our resurrection from spiritual death.  Paul is referring to the miracle of conversion.  When we could not lift a finger to help ourselves, the Holy Spirit worked faith in us, creating life where formerly there had been none.  In this way God made us alive together in Christ even when we were dead in our trespasses.

This is such a marvelous and amazing thing that Paul spontaneously exclaims, “By grace you have been saved.”  Together with love and mercy, “grace” gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of God.  The essential aspect of God’s grace is that it speaks of a quality in God that makes Him willing—yes, even eager—to give us undeserving sinners great and precious gifts.  Substitute “undeserved gift” for the term “grace” and you catch the sense of what Paul is saying.  “It is an undeserved gift that through faith you have been saved, for God gave you even saving faith as a gift.” 

As a Lutheran For Life, you know all of this.  You have heard over and over again that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”  You know that salvation is an undeserved gift freely given by God without the contribution of any human works.  But I fear that we have too often left out the last part of Paul’s thought, the verse that follows immediately: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

No, we are not saved by our good works.  We are saved for good works.  A life of good works is what God has in mind for every Christian.  It is a part of that creative, life-giving process that God set in motion when, in His kindness, He called us to faith in His Son who redeemed us with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death on the cross, and who rose again on the third day.

With our new God-given spiritual life, we are now indeed able to respond to God’s will.  We are able, albeit imperfectly, to do what God wants.  It is not that we have to but, rather, that we want to, we get to, do God’s will.  The good works that flow from faith are simply an opportunity to show our appreciation for all that God in Christ has done for us.  

But even these good works are no basis for boasting.  Our works are not the cause of our salvation, but its result.  We cannot even lay claim to these, for God created them for us to do in Christ.  We’re simply being given the opportunity to do good things, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. 

It would be hard to improve on the apostle John’s concise analysis: “Beloved let us love on another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God… In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins… If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us… We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:7, 10, 12, 19).

Jesus said: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  That is addressed specifically and particularly only to Christians.  In God’s great love, mercy, and grace, He has adopted us as His children in the water and Word of Holy Baptism.  Christ invites us to join Him at His Table for the family meal where He gives us His very body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. 

What a privilege it is to be God’s child!  Only God’s children get to experience His love, mercy, and grace in it’s fullest in Jesus Christ.  Only God’s children get to do good works that are pleasing to God.  Only God’s children get to do acts of mercy that are done unto Christ when they are done for our needy neighbor.  Only God’s children get to reflect God’s love to others through our acts of love.  Only God’s children need not worry if we have done enough to please Him, but have the assurance that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. 

So go out in the world to serve your neighbor with acts of mercy and love. 

“How?” you might ask. 

As the Lord leads you through your daily vocations and as the opportunities present themselves.  Remember, God has already prepared those good works for you in advance.  You just need to keep your eyes open for the situations—simple and big—where you can share the mercy, love, and grace of God. 

As Lutherans For Life that might include things like volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center.  Visiting patients who are in hospice care.  Speaking up for those defenseless little ones who are in the womb.  Sharing the forgiveness of Christ with those women and men burdened by the guilt of an abortion.  Becoming educated and providing sound advice to those loved ones who are facing difficult end of life decisions.  Providing support and comfort for those who are barren and those who have lost little ones before birth.  Promoting the worth and sanctity of all human life through conferences and promotional activities like “Life: A Better Choice.” 

The more we do these kind of these things… the more we freely live in our baptismal grace… the more we will come to realize that the opportunity to share God’s mercy, love, and grace is not an onerous burden or thankless task, but a joyous privilege and undeserved honor.  

So, go “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  As you do, take comfort in knowing that your performance will not change God’s attitude toward you one bit.  God could not love you any more.  He will not love you any less.  When He looks at you, His baptized child, He sees His Son Jesus Christ—His perfect righteousness, His perfect works of mercy, His love, and His perfect sacrifice for your sins.  Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of 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 ...