Sunday, October 28, 2012

Jesus: The Truth Who Sets You Free

Painting of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach.

The text for this observation of Reformation Day is John 8:31-32: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Our text, like many other passages of Scripture, is often misused and taken out of context.  The words “the truth will set you free” are isolated, so that any learning that might help us to find “truth” (whatever that may be) is praised.  We see the words on libraries and as secular college mottoes.  We hear them on the lips of our post-modern intellectual and political leaders.  But we don’t hear Whose Word reveals the truth that sets us free.  We don’t hear Who is the Truth that sets us free.  We don’t hear about Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
And unfortunately this is not limited to the outside world.  This goes on in many a church body that calls itself Christian—even among some that claim to be spiritual descendants of Martin Luther.  In the name of tolerance, sin is recast as “choice” and “alternative lifestyle.”  Or morality is taught, but at the expense of the Gospel, as pastors preach principles of Christian living rather than Christ crucified for sinners.  Truth, it seems, is as difficult to nail to the wall as the Jell-O salad that Garrison Keillor claims so typifies us Lutherans.
Jesus originally spoke the words of our text to those whose belief in Him was superficial.  They were “hangers on,” but not really disciples.  And just as there’s no such thing as “almost pregnant,” there is no such thing as “almost a disciple.”  You either are or you are not.  There are no half measures.  Discipleship means accepting all of Jesus’ teaching and remaining faithful to it.  That’s what Jesus means when He says to “abide in My Word”—to hold to His teaching.
We still have Jesus’ Word today.  His Word leads us to Him and keeps us with Him.  Here we learn the truth that sets us free.  We learn that Jesus is God sent from God to save us from sin.  We learn that Jesus leads us to our heavenly Father.  We learn that the Holy Spirit calls us to faith through the Word.  This truth set us free—free from the curse of sin, free from death, free for eternal life. 
But we see from our Gospel it’s not just a recent phenomenon that people misunderstand and misapply Jesus’ words.  The unbelievers in the crowd challenged Jesus’ offer of freedom.  They claimed a freedom already that not even the occupational forces of Rome could harness.  They were children of Abraham.  That gave them special status with God.  They were not and never would be slaves to anyone.  Who was Jesus to tell them they needed to become free men?
Jesus explained where they were wrong.  Freedom is not a matter of being direct descendants of Abraham or defying earthly captors.  It is the universal truth that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Only those set free from sin are truly free.
Slaves become part of a household and even experience some of the benefits of the household.  But they can never be sure of their future status; they can be sent away because they have no lasting claims.  By contrast, a son belongs in the household forever.  He is family.  The Jews’ connections with Abraham brought them into the household, but their sinfulness made them slaves.  To be free, they needed the Son of the heavenly Father to set them free from their sins.  Then they could claim family privileges in the household.  Then they could be truly free. 
From 1st century Jerusalem, fast forward 1500 years to Wittenberg, Germany.  A young monk named Martin Luther was sure that God was angry with him.  He knew he didn’t measure up.  He was convinced he was going to hell.  In the Scriptures, there was the righteousness God required.  Luther knew he didn’t have it.  He’d go to Confession so often his father confessor told him to come back when he had real sins to confess.  But, there was no comfort.  No peace. 
Slavery.  That’s what that is.  Slavery to sin.  Slavery to not being able to live up to God’s Law.  Martin Luther was a slave, and he knew it because he took God’s Word and his own sin seriously, much more seriously than most of us from the baby boom, x or y generations.  Like Jesus’ Jewish opponents we refuse to acknowledge that we are slaves to anything, much less our own sin and shortcomings.  Even worse, heavily influenced by the moral relativism of our post-modern age we have a difficult time accepting anything as absolute truth.
We are all slaves to sin.  Don’t believe me?  Check yourself in the mirror of God’s Law.  Do you fear, love, and trust in God above all things?  Do you honor God’s name, calling upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks?  Do you hold God’s Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it?  Do you honor your parents and other authorities?  Do you help and support your neighbor in every physical need?  Do you lead a sexually pure and decent life in what you think, say, and do?  Do you help your neighbor improve and protect his possessions?  Do you defend your neighbor’s reputation, speak well of him, and explain his actions and words in the kindest way?  Are you satisfied with those people and things God has placed in your life?  Do you do all of these things perfectly?  Always?
An honest examination will show you your sin.  And the closer you look, the more you will see just how pervasive this sin is.  Sin is not like a pair of dirty socks—something on the outside that you can just cast off.  No, sin infects you to the core of your soul.  By nature, you are sinful—full of sin.  Completely saturated with sin.  In that utter sinfulness, you are so blinded that you cannot see the danger you are in.  You are so dead that there is no way you can make yourself free. 
You were born a slave to sin.  And deny it as you might, that is the reality of life apart from faith in Christ.  With slavery comes fear—for the slave isn’t part of the family.  Not a child of God.  And if you aren’t sons of God… if you aren’t part of God’s family… then you are lost.
The more Dr. Luther tried to get right with God, the worse he felt.  The more he read the Scriptures, the more they seemed closed to him.  The more God was unapproachable.  Then, he came to this verse: “The righteous shall live by faith.” 
 Is that true?  Could it be that easy?  Could it be that free?  Are you really made righteous not by what you do or don’t do, but by what Christ did for you on the cross?   Does His perfect life, death, and resurrection count for you?
Yes, it does!  For when the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.   Free from the slavery to your sins.  Free from a bad conscience.  Free from the slavish fear of God.  Free from hell.  Free from suffering.  Free from eternal death.
St. Paul says, “We maintain that a man is justified by grace apart from works of Law.”   We maintain that we are saved by Jesus, not by what we do, don’t do, have done, or try to do.  We maintain that what Christ did on the cross counts for you and me.  His righteousness is credited to us by faith.  That realization—that the righteous shall live by faith—opened the Scriptures for Dr. Luther!  He ran through the entire Bible and found the Gospel everywhere.   
Are we slaves to sin?  Yes, all who sin are slaves to sin. 
Are we free?  Also yes.  When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. 
That’s the proper distinction of Law and Gospel.  That’s justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  Once Dr. Luther understood this truth, everywhere he looked in the Scriptures, he found Jesus Christ crucified for him, for you, for me, for the world.  He found comfort for troubled consciences.  He found forgiveness of sins.  Heaven for free!  Free and for all!  Free on account of Christ. 
Free for you and me, that is.  But, that doesn’t mean it was easy.  It doesn’t mean that it was free.  This freedom came at great cost: the cost of the life of the Son of God.  He was treated as a slave.  He was stripped down.  He was beaten as if he had been unfaithful.  He was bruised for our iniquities, crushed for our transgressions, lifted up for our sins.  He died our death.  He suffered our hell.
Christ has set you free.  His death set you free.  It bought you back, redeemed you from slavery to sin, death, and the power of the devil.  You are saved not with gold or silver but with the Christ’s holy and precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.  You are not saved by anything that you do or don’t do.  The Son has set you free—you are free indeed! 
It’s not about you… it’s about Christ for you.  Only Jesus who lived a perfect life in your place.  Only Jesus crucified for the sins of the world.  Only Jesus risen from the dead for you.  Only Jesus ascended into heaven for you.  Only Jesus present for you in His means of grace.  That’s the Gospel.  Thank God!
Now, since we are observing Reformation Day I’d like to make one more point about truth and freedom and our status as Lutherans.  There seems to be a trend in Lutheranism today to be embarrassed about our faith.  To dodge it.  To run from the word “Lutheran.”  To cower from it. 
Don’t fret.  Luther didn’t like the term either.  Who wants to have a religion named after them?  It usually indicates a heresy or sect.  But, Luther came to treasure the term “Lutheran” for one reason: the term Lutheran means that we confess that a man is saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, with Scripture alone as our authority and guide.  Lutheran means that we accept the Word of God as being completely true and reliable, having the power of salvation. 
Dear saints of God, we aren’t Lutherans because most of us have ancestors who came from Europe.  There are Lutherans on every continent.  In fact, it may surprise you to learn that there are three times as many Lutherans living in Africa as North America.  The Gospel is for all.  We aren’t Lutherans because of our good hymns—we all know that there are a few clunkers in our hymnals!  We aren’t even Lutherans because of the potlucks—even though some of us might be bigger Lutherans thanks to our potlucks.  No, we are Lutherans because, by God’s grace, we have been led by the Holy Spirit to see and believe the truth that sets you free.  
If you think you are free because of who you are or what you have done, you are sadly mistaken.  If you think you are holy and have no need of forgiveness, then I have nothing for you today.  In fact, I can do you no good.  As Luther said many times, “God save me from a church of holy people.”  But, if you have a bad conscience… if you know that there is something that you have done that makes God angry…  if you know that you have no hope, no life, no salvation of yourself… then I have something for you—the truth that sets you free.
When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.  You are free.  Freed by the Son.  Free to repent of the evil things that you have done and be forgiven.  Free to care for those around you.  Free to forgive those who don’t deserve forgiveness.  Free to care for the weak.   Free to pass the faith on to the next generation.  And most importantly—free from sin, free from death, and free from hell. 
This is the truth that sets you free: Christ died for you on the cross and rose again on the third day, that you might have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. 
This is the truth that sets you free: He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.  Christ has set you free in the waters of your baptism, delivering His salvation to you in the font.  Other people say that nothing happens in that water—but you know that the Scriptures say that in that font Jesus saved you by delivering the cross to you, that God adopted you as His child there by that water and Word.
This is the truth that sets you free: Take eat, this is My body which is given for you.  Take drink, this is My blood shed for you for the remission of sins.  Jesus gives you His cross, His salvation, His forgiveness, His life—there in His very Body and Blood given for you to eat and drink.
This is the truth that sets you free: Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins.  As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Money: Your Idol or a Gift of God?

An audio version of this sermon is availabe at

The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
To their credit, Pastor Nix and lay leaders of this congregation have rightly made the point that Christian stewardship is not just about money or only about what happens in the Church, but that it is about the management of all of God’s resources in our whole lives.  So it’s somewhat unfortunate that today our message will be about money.  It could give the mistaken impression that regardless of what has been said, this stewardship emphasis is really about increasing offerings.    
That’s one of the advantages of being a liturgical church.  None of us picked our readings.  They are part of a three-year lectionary, a collection of Scripture readings arranged according to the Church’s calendar and used by churches all over the world.  This encourages pastors to not just ride their own hobbyhorse or avoid uncomfortable subjects, but to preach the full counsel of God.  And it’s not easy to faithfully preach on at least two of today’s readings without speaking about money.  Dare I say it?  Almost as difficult as a camel going through the eye of a needle.  For both texts teach specifically about money and its relationship to faith.
But let’s face it: Though there are some exceptions, most pastors don’t like to preach about money.  It feels a bit self-serving.  After all, your offerings are used to help pay their salary.  And certainly most lay people don’t like to hear sermons about money, either.  It makes them feel uncomfortable, perhaps manipulated, or maybe even guilty.  So, what should we do?  Should pastors teach what God’s Word says about money and how we use it to support His Church?  Should pastors preach about money and its relationship to faith?  Or should they just remain silent so as not to offend anyone or avoid talking about it because they don’t want to give the impression that “all the Church cares about is money”?
Well, suppose a pastor knew that about 80% of his parishioners were brazenly breaking the Sixth Commandment, that they were openly committing adultery.  Wouldn’t it be reasonable (even expected) that he would spend some time addressing that particular sin with God’s Word and insisting upon repentance? 
Of course he should speak up!  That is what he’s called to do. 
 And that applies to the First Commandment, too.  God’s called and ordained servant must teach and preach toward repentance when it comes to idolatry as well.  So today I’m going to give it to you with both barrels—God’s Law and Gospel, not just because it is “Stewardship Sunday”… nor with the goal that you would increase your offerings… but so that the Law of God might expose and convict you of sin.  So that you would repent, and receive the comforting Gospel of forgiveness won by Christ for all sins, including the idolatry of money. 
Toward this end, we will be looking at both our Old Testament reading, Ecclesiastes 5:10-20, and our Gospel, Mark 10:23-31.  We will do so under the theme: “Money: Your Idol or a Gift of God?” 
Imagine the shocked look on the disciples’ faces.  They’ve just watched an earnest, religious young man turn away with a long face on hearing Jesus answer his question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 
Amazingly, Jesus does not answer the young man’s question with the Gospel, but with the Law.  He tells the young man: “Sell everything, give the money to the poor, and then follow Me.”  And then the Lord lobs a theological hand grenade that shakes His disciples to the foundation of their faith: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 
The disciples are astonished at Jesus’ word.  It’s no wonder.  They’re in danger of losing their religion—or at least a major component of it.  They live in a culture where wealth is considered to be a sign of God’s blessing.  When you “count your blessings,” the more you can count, the more blessed by God you are. 
And there is an element of truth to this, isn’t there?  Money is a gift from God, right?  The book of Ecclesiastes says as much.  The Old Testament is chock full of the notion that if you play by God’s rules, you will generally prosper.  But such a view ignores another reality: sin.  When money falls from the good hand of a generously giving God into the hands of sinful men trouble begins. 
Ambrose Bierce called money, “The god of the world’s leading religion.”  Voltaire commented, “When it comes to the question of money, everyone has the same religion.”  The problem with money is that we, like the rich young man, get religious about it.  Then we’re dealing in the realm of idolatry.  And that’s why it is difficult for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God. 
Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.  And what is it you love?  What is it that you trust?  Is it money?  Is money what you look for all of your comfort, joy, and security?  To give you a sense of identity and status?  Then that’s idolatry.  And Money is such a seductive idol.  Sultry siren that she is, once she has you in her embrace as her lover she turns on you.  When she replaces Jesus as the center of your life she will destroy you.  Money is a liar and a tease.  She promises rest and pleasure.  Instead, she requires your undivided attention, devotion, and worship.  24/7/365.  There is no Sabbath Day with Money!  She’ll work you to death.  A death in which you will die apart from Jesus.     
Still, money itself is not the problem.  Money is an inanimate object.  What happens in the human heart determines whether money is your idol or a gift of God.  As a gift of God it is a great blessing, useful for caring for the bodily needs of yourself, your family, your neighbor, and the work of God’s kingdom—not to mention those little luxuries that bring a bit of joy in this world.  As your idol, money is a terrible curse, for it will never deliver all that it promises; it always leaves you longing for more.  No wonder the teacher says: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income.”
King Solomon speaks from personal experience.  He had been there and done that.  Not half-heartedly, but with all of his being, he tried to find the meaning of life with hundreds of the most beautiful women, in fancy mansions staffed by thousands of servants, extravagant gardens.  Name the toy.  Name the pleasure.  The biggest.  The littlest.  King Solomon had it all.  He denied himself nothing. 
When he worked, Solomon worked as hard as he could.  Always planning and plotting, building and developing, trading and conquering.  When he studied, he studied like no one else in history—botany, biology, philosophy, engineering, music, literature, theology—a true renaissance man over two thousand years before there was a Renaissance.   And when he played—boy, did he play!  He entertained and impressed royalty from all over the ancient world like the Queen of Sheba. 
The wealth that Solomon accumulated was more than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet could ever imagine.  And yet what did he discover?  What did he learn?  What did he write that should be required reading for every American?  Even all of us here today?  Whoever loves money never has enough money.  If you love money, you are like a person who drinks salt water to quench his thirst.  You’ll never be satisfied!  You must have more!  When you look to Money and what Money can buy for all your comfort, identity, and good, she will never let you rest. 
And what about you scrooges who hold on so tight to Money that the undertaker will have to pry her from your cold, dead hands?  You’re not immune from Money’s seduction, either.  Promising freedom, she’ll enslave you.  How?  You endlessly worry.  You’re constantly anxious.  You’re always thinking about how much you have and how much more you want.  Then there’s the fear that you’re just one bad investment, one stock market crash, or one mistaken business venture away from losing everything and leaving nothing for your children. 
And ultimately, for each of us, there is the inescapable fact that we will leave this world the very same way we entered it—with absolutely nothing! 
When Job lost all his wealth, he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).  Solomon is probably thinking of Job’s words here in Ecclesiastes.  But notice he does not add Job’s words of trust in the Lord, for the man living under the sun without God has no such comfort.
St. Paul probably had both Job and Ecclesiastes in mind when he wrote: “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.  But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.  It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:6-10).
Money, who promises you happiness and security, instead causes you anxiety, sickness, and anger.  Idols consume their worshipers.  And the greatest danger of all is that in attempting to cling to everything, you do not fit through the narrow door of the kingdom.  That revelation leaves Jesus’ disciples astonished.  And it should leave you just as astonished, if not somewhat shaken, when you realize that most of us here today would qualify under Jesus’ definition of “rich.” 
Now, does this mean that you need to divest yourself of every asset?  In our Gospel, Peter seems to think that.  He starts to say to Jesus: “Hey, look!  We’ve got it right.  We’re not rich.  We’ve left everything and followed You.” 
Jesus’ reply seems more confusing than clarifying: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for My sake and for the Gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
What He means is: “Peter, you think you’ve left everything and now have nothing; but you couldn’t be more wrong.  Already now, in this life, you have much more than you left behind, and there is much more to come.  But hear this, and don’t miss it: In this life it all comes with persecutions.  The cross hangs over everything.  It’s the narrow door through which you enter into eternal life.  So forget the bookkeeping and scorekeeping when it comes to the kingdom of God.  Remember this: ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last first.’  There are no transactions or scoreboards in the kingdom, only pure grace.”
No, your riches won’t save you, neither will your poverty, because the problem is not with money but with sin, which corrupts everything—including your enjoyment of the good things God gives you.  He wants to bless you and give you a little bit of joy, and you turn around and make that into some all-consuming idol that robs you of every last ounce of joy in your life.  No wonder it is easier for a camel to thread a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom!
Nevertheless, Jesus does the impossible thing, the thing only God can do—He saves you!  Not with silver or gold but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.  He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that in His poverty you become rich.  In His merciful Great Exchange, Christ takes on the debt of your sin, the poverty of your idolatry; and gives you the richness of His righteousness, His holiness, His peace, an eternal inheritance in His kingdom. 
That’s where Jesus wants your attention.  Not on your wallets, your bank account, your assets, your stuff (or lack of any of these), but on Him, on His kingdom, and His righteousness.  He’ll take care of the rest. 
 St. Paul shared this insight: “I’ve learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know what it is to be abased and to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).
With Christ in the center, money takes its proper place and perspective.  Do you have plenty?  Then rejoice, enjoy, share the joy with others.  Are you in need?  Then rejoice that your life is free from the clutter of wealth and that you will get to watch how the Lord keeps His promise to provide for your daily bread.
That’s the “secret” of contentment that Paul learned.  Hold everything with the dead hand of faith.  Live and work and play as free men and women in Christ.  Enjoy the food on your table, the wine in your glass, the work God has given you to do, and the opportunities that God gives you to share His blessings with others.  These are His gifts to you.  Hold them loosely and they won’t hold you. 
Remember: true meaning in life is not found in money or the things it can buy, but in knowing God and His goodness and grace, those gifts that keep you every day and fill your life with hope, peace, and joy that last to eternity.  Whether you have much or little of this world’s wealth, you have the treasure that endures forever, for you have God your Father embracing you through the love of His Son manifested by the Spirit in the means of grace—God’s Word and Sacrament.      
In Baptism, you are bound to the Son of God in all that He is.  You have an eternal inheritance in heaven.  You are a co-heir with Christ.  His selflessness and sacrifice replaces your greed and selfishness.  His perfect obedience replaces your idolatry.  His death on the cross is your death to sin and the payment of the penalty of the Law.  His resurrection is your resurrection of body and soul to eternal life.         
And the risen and ascended Lord continues to bless you, coming to you always just as He promises, even as He intercedes for you now as your great High Priest at the right hand of God the Father.  Calling you to repentance and faith through His Word.  Feeding you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  Speaking the sweetest words a sinful human being can ever hear: “You are forgiven for all of your sins.” 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Absolution: Blasphemy or Authority of God?

"Jesus Heals the Lame Man"  Used with permission of WorldMissionsClipart
The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 9:1-8, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
The house is packed, because Jesus is there.  Four men come to the house with their paralyzed friend because they believe the Word they’ve heard about Jesus and His miracles and believe He might help their friend.  The Savior, seeing their faith, says to the paralytic: “Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.”
“My son, your sins are forgiven”?  Now, what kind of a thing is that to say?  The teachers of the Law have a word for it: blasphemy.  “This man is blaspheming!” they say to themselves.  What they mean is: “This mere man is claiming divine authority.  We all know that only God can forgive sins.”    
Like all effective lies, there is an element of truth here.  Only God can forgive sins.  The teachers of the Law are sadly mistaken, thinking they’re upholding God’s honor.  But their real problem is deeper—unbelief.  They’re doing theology by their eyes and not their ears.  They see the lowly man named Jesus, and don’t realize this is the Lord God Incarnate.  Emmanuel.  God with us.  The idea that God is present with His people to forgive sins will always be an offense to many.
Of course, the more practical in the crowd might be offended for a different reason.  “These men brought a paralytic all this way to Jesus, and ‘all’ Jesus is going to do is forgive the man?  What kind of help is that?”  While we have no record of such naysayers in the text, we do know what Jesus says next to the scribes: “Why do you think evil in your hearts?  For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?”
Stop right there for a moment.  Which is easier to say?  In human terms, it’s a lot easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.”  How is anyone going to prove you wrong?  But if you say, “Rise and walk,” and he doesn’t, it’s blasphemy.  On the other hand, if you can make the paralytic walk by speaking, it follows that you can also forgive his sins.  And if you can heal him and forgive him… well, that means that you are, in fact, who you say you are.  Which is precisely what Jesus says to the paralytic: “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… Rise, pick up your bed and go home.”  And he rises and goes home.
Now, let’s move to another house, across the street about 7000 miles to the west, and nearly 2000 years later.  You come here, in this house, for the same reason that those people went to that house.  Jesus, the One to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given, promises to be with you always, present here by His means of grace.  He’s already gone to the cross.  He’s defeated sin, death, and the devil.  And He’s come here to share that victory with you.
The people in Capernaum went to that certain house because that’s where Jesus was present.  You come here for the same reason.  If the Lord promised to be present in lattes or espressos, we’d adjourn to the local coffee shop.  If He promised to be present in grain-decorated buildings, we’d make a pilgrimage to Mitchell and the world’s only Corn Palace.  But you’ve heard His Word that He is here, and like the Capernaites, you’ve come to the house where He is found. 
In the house in Capernaum, Jesus said to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.”  In this house, you hear very similar words.  The pastor stands before you and says, “I, by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
These words are designed to announce to you a great comfort.  However, they’re often met with a couple of unhappy reactions.  The first is similar to the teachers of the Law: “Who is the pastor to forgive my sins?  Who does he think he is to say, ‘I forgive you’?”  You should be aware that many in other church bodies have this reaction.  Some even maintain that your pastor’s soul is in jeopardy for saying such a blasphemous thing.  So it probably doesn’t hurt for us to answer the question: Who is the pastor to say, “I forgive you?”
The answer begins in John 20, where we hear of the risen Lord: He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”  Jesus said this to His apostles, the men that He was sending to preach the Gospel to all nations.  They were not going to go proclaim their word, but His Word.  They were not going on their own, but He was sent sending them.  When the apostles proclaimed Jesus’ Word, it had the same authority as if Jesus Himself were speaking it. 
Like the apostles, the pastor is called as God’s servant in this place.  He does not speak to you his words on his authority; he is called to speak God’s Word on His authority.  And first and foremost, the Lord declares to you the forgiveness of sins.  In the words of absolution, it is true that the pastor says, “I forgive you.”  But look at what else he says:
“By virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word.” 
“In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.” 
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Three times each absolution, the pastor makes it clear that he is simply the mouthpiece.  It is not that Tom Christopher or any other man says that he forgives your sins—that won’t do you any good.  What matters is the office he holds—the office of pastor, called to tell you what God says.  It is not the pastor who commands your sins to flee.  It is the command of Christ that the pastor repeats.
Again, you are not forgiven in the name of Tom, but in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  With these words, the pastor is saying, “As the one called by you to represent our Lord in this place, I announce to you what Jesus says.  And Jesus says, ‘I forgive you all of your sins.’”
This is not an unusual thing.  People often speak because of the authority given to them.  A purchasing agent for a corporation can say, “I’ll take a million dollars worth of that.”  Who is he to say that, to spend a million dollars that aren’t even his?  He’s a representative of his company, given the authority to buy things.
A justice of the peace says, “I pronounce you man and wife.”  Who is he to do that?  He is the representative of the state, and the state authorizes him to perform marriages.  In fact, if you look at a marriage license, you’ll find it does not authorize the couple to marry; it authorizes the officiant to perform the marriage. 
Or consider the Lord’s Prayer, where you pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  You forgive those who trespass against you—but who are you to forgive?  You are a Christian, one redeemed by the Lord and given the authority and command to forgive others privately. 
No, it’s not the pastor who is forgiving you.  He’s simply called by God through the congregation with the authority to repeat what Jesus says: “I, Jesus, forgive you, individual.”  This is not blasphemy.  This is the Lord’s announcement that you are not left out of salvation.  Christ has died for you, personally.
There is another unfortunate reaction to Absolution: indifference.  “We’re forgiven?  Big deal.  We’ve got real problems, and all you’re going to do is tell us that we’re forgiven?”  This is one of the greatest attacks upon the Church today.  A church that continues to remain faithful to the Lord’s message of sin and grace will be deemed irrelevant by the world.  That should come as no surprise.  The world rejects the Savior, so, of course it has no use for His salvation.
Still, let’s not stop there, because there’s more to be said.  Christians of all ages will come here with all sorts of troubles.  Anxiety, depression, ridicule at school, guilt, anger, illness, all sorts of things.  When you are the victim, these will dominate your thoughts and it can be easy to miss an important connection.  That’s why it’s so important to hear the words of absolution at such times. 
The connection is this: Why do we suffer anxiety, depression, ridicule, guilt, anger, illness, etc.?  At the root of it all, the reason is sin.  If there were no sin, there would be none of these fruits of sin.  All of these troubles announce to you the presence of sin in this world and in you.  Burdened by these troubles, you come here.  And “all” you hear about is forgiveness.  But forgiveness of what?  Forgiveness of sins!  Forgiveness of sinfulness, the root cause of anxiety, depression, disease, and death.  If sin is defeated and the root is cut, then a mortal blow is struck to all of these fruits of sin as well.    
Are you anxious?  The Lord declares, “Anxiety comes because the trials you face seem insurmountable; but I have beaten them.  I’ve borne your burdens to the cross and destroyed them.  And I share that victory with you, even though you must—for a little while—live in an anxiety-prone world.  How?  With these words: ‘I forgive you.’  Because you’re forgiven, you may trust that I’m working all things for your good.”
Are you ridiculed by others?  The Lord declares, “This is a sinful world where people seek power and they belittle others to exalt themselves.  They will especially mock my people for their faith.  I have been ridiculed to death, for those who crucified Me mocked Me to the end.  And I’ve risen from that cruel death to conquer My enemies.  The world, for a time, will call you names.  But do not fear: I call you names, too.  I call you ‘beloved.’  I call you ‘My child.’  I call you ‘heir of the kingdom of heaven.’  I call you these things—and make you these things—when I call you ‘forgiven,’ when I say to you, ‘I forgive you all of your sins.’”
Do you mourn the death of others—or are you facing death yourself?  The risen and ascended Lord proclaims, “Remember the paralytic.  First, I forgave his sins.  And because I came to redeem him from all the consequences of sin, I healed him of his paralysis.  Right now, I declare to you that I forgive you for all of your sins.  And because I have come to redeem you from all the curse of sin, I will heal you for eternity.  I will raise you from the dead to everlasting life, even as I raise from the dead My people whom you now mourn.  This life is yours because, even now, I declare to you, ‘I forgive you all of your sin.’”
Do you see?  All that you suffer in this world is a consequence of sin—your sin, the sins of others, and the collateral damage from living in a fallen world.  To hear that Jesus forgives you is not irrelevant to your troubles.  It is a promise that, while you suffer now for a time, He has redeemed you from sin and will deliver you from all its plagues to everlasting life. 
This is what we pastors announce with the words of Holy Absolution publicly in the worship service.  And this is what we are called to proclaim to you individually in time of trouble.  Should events find you confined to a hospital bed and one of us pastors visits you, we will tell you—in one way or another—that your sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus. 
In part, this is because it is the only message we are given to proclaim.  The Lord gives us no words to speak that will immediately heal you.  But more importantly, by this message, you are forgiven.  And if you are forgiven, you have the Lord’s favor.  You have the promise of His healing in His time.  You have the guarantee of eternal life.  All of this is given you in these little words of Jesus: “I forgive you all of your sins.”  With those words, you have a foretaste of glory. 
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus first forgives the paralytic’s sins.  He then heals the man by saying, “Rise, take up your bed and go home.”  So it is with you and me and all who believe in Christ our Redeemer.  On the Last Day, He will declare: “Rise, get up from your grave, come to the eternal home that I have prepared for you.”  This miracle is most certainly promised for you.  Why?  How do you know it?  Because even now, the Lord says to you, “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

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