Saturday, October 26, 2013

Really, Truly Free

Click here to listen to this sermon. An mp3 file is available upon request.

The text for today 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 and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord 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.   And we don’t hear what it means to be really, truly free.
And unfortunately this redefining of truth and freedom 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” or “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, to trust His promises.
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 the Son of God sent from God to save us from sin, taking on our mortal flesh and our sin and suffering God’s righteous wrath and condemnation for our sin on the cross.  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.  They supposed 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 be freed?
Jesus explained where they were wrong.  Not only were they ignoring a bit of inconvenient truth concerning their history (Egyptian bondage and Babylonian captivity) and their present circumstances (Roman rule), they also misunderstood freedom.  True 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 really, 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 at any time 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 really, 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.  But it certainly wasn’t from lack of trying.  Luther was serious about his faith.  He fasted and prayed for days on end.  He went on pilgrimages and did penance.  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 that might point out sin in our lives.  We are really, truly slaves.
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?  All the time?  Freely, without ulterior motives?
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.  It touches everything you do, influences every thought you think, every word you say, every emotion you feel.  By nature, you are sinful—full of 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.  Really, truly 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.  The more God seemed only to be a wrathful judge.  Then, he came to this verse: “The righteous shall live by faith.” 
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?   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.  Really, truly free!
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 not saved by anything that you do or don’t do, but by Christ’s holy and precious blood.  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 your sins.  Only Jesus risen from the dead for you.  Only Jesus ascended into heaven interceding for you at the right hand of the Father.  Only Jesus present for you now in His means of grace—His Word and Sacrament.  That’s the Gospel.  Thank God!
If you think you are free because of whom 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 really, truly free.  Free to repent of the evil things that you have done.  Free to care for those around you.  Free to love those who are unloving, unlovable!  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.  Free to live in the Gospel, knowing you are forgiven for all your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sound Teaching for Timid Tongues and Itchy Ears

Click here to listen to this sermon. An mp3 file is available upon request.

The text for today is our Epistle lesson, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5. 
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Convictions—those things that we have learned and firmly believe in—are important and formative.  Some are very helpful because they’re based in truth.  But sometimes we must give up long cherished convictions because we find out that the things that we were convinced are facts are not actually true.
For instance: There was a time in my life when I was convinced that you could pop popcorn in water.  I argued forcefully with my first grade teacher, Miss Winter when she tried to set me straight.  It was about that same time, I believed that you put salt and pepper on your food to cool it off.  On the theological side, I also remember a few years later believing the six days of creation were not literal twenty-four hour days, but longer periods of time; and that in the end times, believers would be “raptured” up to heaven, while unbelievers would be left behind for a time of tribulation, which would be followed by a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth. 
Now, I have to take the blame for the misunderstanding on the effects of salt and pepper on a plateful of food.  Chalk it up to my limited skills of observation and critical reasoning.  After all, I was only in the first grade when I came up with that theory.  And though I never passed on that bit of “wisdom” to anyone else, I know at least one of my children came up with the same conclusion on her own.   Like many other lessons, it was experience that taught me differently.  Scorched taste buds and a blistered palate have a way of straightening out faulty thinking! 
I’ve never asked him, but my best guess is that it was my Dad, who substituted popped corn for the kernels of corn we left in the water glass overnight, who got me into my heated debate with Miss Winter.  Well… that, and the stubborn conviction that anyone who disagrees with me has to be wrong. 
But it was my pastor, trained in higher criticism and heavily influenced by Hal Lindsey’s “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” that gave me the most harmful convictions.  Bearing the authority of the pastoral office and the prestige of theological education, he quickly undid many hours of sound teaching I had received from dedicated Sunday School teachers.  He turned the historical stories of the Bible into mere myths and twisted the comforting message of Revelation to the uncertainties of dispensational millennialism. 
I don’t know if my pastor ever realized the potential damage caused by his false teaching.  I pray that he has!  I pray that he has come to know the truth.  And I thank God for leading me by His Holy Spirit to recognize the harmful errors he taught and keeping me in the true faith and trust in Jesus Christ as my Savior despite the heterodox teaching (mixed message) that I was hearing
Convictions are powerful things.  Some can prove embarrassing; others are dangerous to life and faith.  But true convictions are able to make you wise for salvation.  That’s why St. Paul admonishes Timothy to continue in the things he has learned from holy Scriptures since childhood: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 14-16).
Every word of the Bible is the inspired Word of God.  Therefore, it is absolutely true, reliable, and powerful.  The Bible teaches people all that they need to know about the way of salvation.  It shows us what things to avoid as dangerous to our souls.  It helps us to turn away from sin, and enables us to live holy lives.  It equips us to serve our neighbor with good works, and share the Gospel with others. 
Having established the importance of the faithful teaching of God’s Word, Paul gives Timothy a solemn charge as one of Christ’s undershepherds: “I charge you in presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word, be ready in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” 
What Paul means is that Timothy should serve as a herald of the Word, publicly proclaiming only the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ.  He is to stick to that message, and only that message, whether he or his hearers feel like it or not, for that is the only message that brings forgiveness, salvation, and life.  As he preaches the Word, Timothy must preach both Law and Gospel—the Law to show the damage sin has done to his hearers and the Gospel to build them up with the love and mercy of a gracious God in Christ. 
Paul goes on to explain why this is so important: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but have itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.  As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
Paul here distinguishes between what people need to hear and what they want to hear.  What people need to hear is “sound teaching.”  It is sound or healthy in that it says what God wants said.  It comes from Him, and it produces spiritual health.  Unfortunately, many people “will not endure sound teaching” because it does not say what they want to hear.  It exposes their sin and proclaims condemnation.  It does not flatter them with a recital of their great deeds and potential.  And when it proclaims deliverance from sin in the Gospel, it does not make sense to human reason.  In the face of such opposition, Timothy must stand firm.  He must not give in to the temptation to adapt his preaching to what people want to hear, but give them sound teaching according to God’s revealed truth. 
Our text certainly applies to our day.  We live in a time of itchy ears, where timid-tongued preachers fail to preach the full counsel of God’s Word—the Law in all of its sternness and Gospel in all its sweetness.  So for the next few minutes, we’ll be applying our text to you and me—to pastor and parishioners.
Pastors are to preach the Word.  Pastors are to apply God’s Law and Gospel from the Biblical text for that week, and administer Baptism and the Lord’s Supper according to Christ’s command, Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year.  After hammering out the sinfulness of all persons, they are to announce what Christ’s death and resurrection have done to meet this particular aspect of God’s Law.  A pastor is to preach as central the forgiveness of sins wrought by Christ on our behalf.  If he does anything else, he is guilty of forsaking his call. 
If, for example, he uses the Bible text only for a call to deeper Christian living, he has forsaken his call.  If he only holds up Christ as an example of what we Christians are to emulate, he has forsaken his call.  If he only preaches Christ as an answer to some perceived need we may have, he has forsaken his call.  If he preaches only some laudable social or political action the congregation should take, he has forsaken his call. 
A pastor is to preach the Word.  This means preaching Christ and Him crucified.  Preaching only Christ means there is only one genuine and saving Christ.  He is not only sufficient in His bleeding and dying to save us; He is the only Christ.  But beware: Many churches and their pastors offer “Christs” who are not really Christ at all.  Here are a few to look out for.
The first is Christ the psychotherapist.  This is an extremely popular position in today’s evangelicalism.  This very practical “Christ” is preached as one who can heal our inner psychological wounds.  He can help us overcome our addictions, heal our broken marriages, aid us in communication with our children, and deal with other dysfunctional situations.
Then there’s Christ our example.  Far too often Christ is preached as a moral example whom we are to emulate.  The idea lying behind this view is that our sin is little more than confusion and that we have within us the moral ability to do whatever should be done, once we are taught it.  The “gospel” of this particular “Christ” is actually Law, though few who preach it seem to recognize this fact.
We also see Christ who gives health and wealth.  Surprisingly common, especially in America, is the preaching of a “Christ” who always grants health or wealth to those whose faith in Him reaches the proper level.  
Preaching the Word and listening to sound doctrine means rejecting such false “Christs.”  It means sticking to that message of Christ crucified for sinners, and only that message, whether the timid-tongued preacher in the pulpit or the itchy-eared parishioner in the pew feels like it or not.  A pastor is called to preach Christ crucified and to administer the sacraments to the congregation.  These are the means through which God’s distributes His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  This is what it means to “do the work of an evangelist.” 
Someone says, “But surely you don’t mean that the pastor should be evangelizing believers from the pulpit?  Aren’t they already saved?”  The sad fact is that most so-called “evangelical” churches have no category for preaching Christ to a congregation of believers.  Their only category for preaching the Gospel is the conversion of unbelievers.  But important as the latter is, the former is no less important.  Christians need to hear the Gospel, too.  For we also are poor miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment.  We also are sinners in need of the forgiveness won by Jesus Christ on the cross.
What exactly does this involve?  It involves what we have already described.  Pastors are called week-by-week to preach Christ in His saving office to their congregations and to administer the sacraments to their congregations.  While we might be attracted to something else, this is the message we all really need to hear.
Think of the inner self-conversation many Christians experience week by week.  “There may have been grace for me when, as a sinner, I was initially converted.  But now I fear that things have gotten worse in me rather better.  I have horribly abused all of God’s good gifts to me.  I was so optimistic in the beginning, when the pastor told me that Christ freely saved me by His death, and the Holy Spirit would aid me in following Christ.  I looked forward to so much.  But it has all gone so badly.  I have used God’s grace and Christ’s shed blood as an excuse for doing things I probably wouldn’t have done even as an unbeliever.
“I guess maybe I never was a Christian in the first place, because if I had been, I would have made some progress in the Christian life.  Maybe I was never part of the elect.  If I wasn’t, there’s nothing I can do about that.  Anyway, I'm losing hope.  I’ll try going to church for a while longer, but I think I’ve tried every possible thing the church has told me to do.  After that, I guess I’ll just go back to what I was doing before and ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ for the time I’ve got left.  What else is there to do?”
How does a pastor preach the Word to this man or woman?  What does he or she need to hear?  First of all, a wise pastor recognizes that the Law has done, and is doing, its work on him or her.  He realizes that what is needed in this case is not more Law but the Gospel.  A penitent sinners needs to hear forgiveness. 
One of the harmful effects of revivalism in this country has been the common conviction that genuine conversion always shows itself in measurable moral progress.  This sort of theology is not only untrue, it is deadly.  Any teaching that turns us back into ourselves for assurance is no assurance at all.  That’s why we Christians need to continue hearing that the death and resurrection of Christ in our place was strong enough to save us, too!  This means that the means of grace must be central to a pastor’s ministry.  Christians also need to hear the Good News of Christ crucified for sinners, by grace alone, through faith alone. 
One thing that makes this so difficult for pastors today is the influence that revivalist thought has had in our day.  The emphasis is on “Christ within” more than “Christ outside of us,” and that appeals to many itchy ears.  Luther faced this in the case of Melanchthon, his brilliant co-worker.  Genius that he was, Melanchthon was more “inward oriented” than was Luther.  In a letter to Luther, Melanchthon fretted, “I wonder if I trust Christ enough?  Perhaps I do not?  What then?”  Luther fired back his famous letter, “Melanchthon, go and sin boldly!  Then go to the cross and boldly confess it!  The whole Gospel is outside of us!”
Contrary to popular opinion, it is not Christ’s work within us that saves us.  It’s outside of us.  Extra nos.  It’s not Jesus in our heart that saves us, but Christ on the cross who saves us!  What saves is Christ’s objective dying, His objective blood shed on an objective cross, His objective Word, His objective Supper, His objective absolution that saves us.  Or to put it another way, it is not our faith that saves us, but it is the object of our faith—Jesus Christ crucified—that saves us.
This sounds so simple, but it is the battle between the true objective Gospel and a false gospel of inwardness.  When our self-examination results in despair (and well it might, because we continue to sin), Christ’s objective and sufficient work must be preached to us by our pastors.  We cannot do this for ourselves.  It must be preached to us by pastors who are called to do it for us. 
This is God’s gift to His Church.  God speaks through the preached Word of pastors.  God feeds His sheep the very body and blood of the Lamb of God from the hands of His undershepherds.  God absolves repentant sinners through His called and ordained servants.  Indeed, in the stead and by the command of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of our sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

What You Have Heard from Me… Entrust to Faithful Men

Click here to listen to this sermon. An mp3 file is available upon request.

The text for today is our Epistle, 2 Timothy 2:1-2: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1-2).  Here ends our text.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Trust me.  After 13 years in the Office of Holy Ministry, I know.  Remaining a faithful pastor is not easy.  Preaching Christ crucified for sin does not set well in a culture where sin has been dropped from our vocabulary, and the “Christian life” is given priority over the Christ.  Proclaiming Law and Gospel doesn’t go over well to a seeker-sensitive audience that prefers its itching ears be scratched with manageable law and cheap grace.  Holding to absolute truth in an age of moral relativism and post-modernism is draining.  
Not that being a pastor was ever easy.   In fact, any difficulties I’ve experienced in the ministry pale in comparison to St. Paul.  For the sake of the Gospel, the apostle endured so much suffering it would seem far-fetched as a plot in the latest action-adventure film: countless beatings near to death, five times forty lashes less one, three times with rods, once stoned, three times shipwrecked, in danger from rivers and robbers, Jews and Gentiles, in the city, desert, and sea, suffering sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, cold and exposure, stress and anxiety. 
In fact, as St. Paul writes this letter to Timothy, he is in prison and bound in chains for the sake of the Gospel.  The apostle knows that his time on earth is short.  But before the Lord takes him home, Paul wants to make sure that Timothy grabs the torch and carries it forward, continuing to spread the Gospel, even as he has begun.  The apostle places special emphasis on faithfully teaching the Word in opposition to false teachers and rising imperial persecution.
It would seem from St. Paul’s earlier correspondence that Timothy was a timid sort, and boldly proclaiming the unpopular Gospel didn’t come naturally to him.  So Paul gives Timothy a pep talk.  Preaching the Gospel in an unbelieving world will involve suffering and hardship.  Timothy’s sinful flesh is going to balk.  Nevertheless, Timothy is to “follow the pattern of sound words” that he had heard from Paul.  He is “to guard the good deposit entrusted to [him].”  This will require strength—moral and spiritual strength.  Much greater strength than Timothy could possibly find in himself.  Such strength can only be found in the grace of God that is in Christ Jesus. 
Then we get to the particular reason that Timothy must be strong: He is an important link in the chain that provides for the Gospel to continue to be proclaimed.  Paul had taught Timothy and publicly affirmed his calling as a pastor.  Now Timothy must teach and affirm other men who are qualified for the pastoral office.  For the sake of the Church, the Office of the Holy Ministry has been established to preach and administer the means of grace.  In a cycle that is to continue to the end of this present age, men who are faithful and able to teach are to be instructed and then entrusted with teaching and proclaiming this Gospel.  They, in turn, will teach and entrust other faithful men with the Gospel.
Let no congregation or church body fail to recognize the importance of this responsibility.  The Church must encourage and enlist its capable young men for pastoral training.  It must encourage those it trains to make faithful use of God-given gifts as they prepare to teach future generations.  We must cherish and support our theological institutions of learning and see to it that the professors are faithful men and capable teachers, above all, such who teach the pure, sound doctrine of the apostles.  This is the provision that the Lord made for the future.  Only when the Church has such a ministry will it effectively fulfill its mission.  Only in this way will sound preaching and teaching continue.
Paul uses three proverbs to help Timothy understand this daunting task: “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.  An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.  It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” 
Stay on task.  Follow the rules.  Give it everything you’ve got.  It sounds like good advice.  And it is.  But here is where we have to be careful.  Taken out of its proper context, this has all the makings for one of those “three simple steps to better Christian living” sermons that you will unfortunately hear in far too much of popular Christianity these days.  Call it “gospel lite” or “manageable law.”
But remember, this is the same Paul who also wrote: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).  
No, Paul is still focusing on the Gospel, but first he has to lay down the Law.  So he encourages young Timothy: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”  Despite the claims of Word/faith teachers like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, Christians are not suddenly immune to suffering in this life.  If anything our Baptism paints a target on us at which the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh will take steady aim.  Trust me!  This is true for all Christians, and it’s especially true for pastors.  That’s why we need your support.  As Paul found out first hand it’s during such times that you find out who your real friends are.
This requires persistence and a strong sense of devotion and duty.  Paul encourages his young co-worker to think of himself as a good soldier.  A good soldier serves his commanding officer with singleness of purpose.  He cannot have divided loyalties.  Those whom the Lord enlists for service in the Church must be intent “to please” Him who is our head.  They must be willing to set aside their own agenda and egos and point to Christ alone.   
Paul’s second illustration is that of an athlete.  If Timothy expects to win, he must compete “according to the rules,” that is, he must follow “sound doctrine.”  The pastor who neglects preaching the crucified Christ and instead becomes politically active or who engages in social reform is in danger of losing “the victor’s crown.”  The pastor who waters down God’s Word of Law and Gospel in order to pack more people into the pews may find himself disqualified. 
In the third illustration Paul is not telling Timothy what to do but rather the blessings he can expect from his hard and difficult work.  “It is the hardworking farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.”
How does a pastor receive the firstfruits of his work?  Paul is not speaking of financial or earthly benefits, although in his first letter to Timothy he had encouraged churches to support their pastor’s physical needs.  But the chief fruits of the pastor’s labors are spiritual.  His parishioners will certainly receive spiritual fruits from his faithful preaching and teaching.  However, as the pastor studies the Word and prepares a sermon or Bible study, he will also reap a rich harvest for himself in spiritual growth and strengthened faith.
Stay on task.  Follow the rules.  Give it everything you’ve got.  Paul’s admonition to Timothy is sound advice for affirming the pastoral ministry.  But it is not the core of Christian life.  It will not save you.  It is the Law, and in our fallen state we are not able to keep the Law well enough to please God.  The Law threatens God’s wrath and punishment.  The Law does not bring life but kills.  The Law does not make us better people, but only serves to show us our wickedness. 
Therefore the message of this text is not: “If you kick it in gear and really apply yourself, then God will be pleased.”  Rather, it’s “Confess your sins of distraction, inaction, and rule breaking, because Christ has died for these, too.  By His forgiveness, Christ sets you free from the curse of the Law.  He sets you free from the slavery of sin.  He sets you free to do His will.” 
That’s why the rest of this text is just dripping with Gospel.  For the Gospel, which Timothy must entrust to faithful men that they may teach others, must first be experienced by Timothy.  And so Paul points Timothy to God’s grace: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”  In other words: “Remember Timothy, where your sins might accuse you of your weakness, Christ has died for your sins to strengthen you.”
Notice how Paul tells Timothy about Jesus’ forgiveness and presence before he even gets to these three proverbs.  And what does he say after the Law?  More Gospel!  “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my Gospel.”  The Gospel must predominate.
You see, as Timothy hears that Law, there could be two nasty results.  He might say, “This is too much for me—I’m going to quit being a disciple of Jesus.”  In which case, Paul says, “Remember that your salvation isn’t in how well you do, but that Jesus has done well for you."  As we said last week: “It’s not about you!  It’s about Christ for you!”   Christ has already lived the perfect, obedient life for you.  He has already suffered and died for you.  And He’s already risen from the dead and ascended to heaven for you!  He’s your strength!  Trust in Him!”
The second possibility is that Timothy might heed Paul’s commands, but start to think: “Now I’m really a Christian because I’ve overcome distraction, inaction, and discouragement.  Look at me, Lord!  I’ve got my act together!”  But Paul declares, “Remember the source of grace and strength—not your actions and attitudes, but Jesus who has died and is risen for you.  Your commitment and dedication will waver, but Christ remains wholly committed to you.”
Finally, Paul proclaims this trustworthy saying that shows the relationship between suffering and glory: “If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful—for He cannot deny Himself.” 
When did we die with Christ?  What does it mean to live with Him?  “We were buried with Him through Baptism into death.”  With Him our “old self was crucified.”  Thus joined to Christ and His death by faith, we also live with Him now in the newness of life.  And we share in His resurrection to life eternal. 
That doesn’t mean it will always be easy.  The Christian’s life in this world calls for endurance.  To Christians facing persecution, the living and exalted Lord promises, “Be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10).  But even if you are faithless, the Lord remains faithful to His promises.  He cannot deny Himself.  He does not change.  He’s made you His, and He’ll keep pursuing you with grace for the rest of your life.
Let’s be clear: you are saved by grace, not works.  Heaven is yours because Jesus has done all the work of living for you, dying for you, rising for you, and ascending for you.  He’s done all the work of giving you forgiveness and faith in the water and Word of Holy Baptism.  And He continues to forgive you and strengthen you in His Word and Supper.  That’s the Gospel.  It’s all His doing.
In a perfect world, Adam and Eve were created for blessed labor.  As one clothed in Jesus’ perfect righteousness, you’re created in Christ Jesus for good works.  Saved by grace, you’re set free from sin to serve.  Not because you have to serve, but because you get to serve.  You get to serve your neighbor.  You get to serve God.  You get to support your pastor and the work of the Church. 
Stay on task, yes.  Follow the rules, of course.  Give it everything you’ve got, always.  But always remember this, too: you’re not saved doing these things; you are strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 
You’re not saved by your courageous faith or bold witness in the face of suffering, trials, or persecution.  You’re saved because Christ is the High Priest who is not unable to sympathize with your weaknesses, but has been tempted every way you as are, yet was without sin. 
You’re not saved because of how well you’ve supported your pastor or our seminaries, or because you’ve encouraged young men to consider the pastoral ministry.  You’re saved because Christ has established the Office of Holy Ministry that His Word might be preached and His Sacraments administered among you.
You’re not saved by your ability to stay on task or to persevere despite great obstacles.  Salvation is yours because Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem and His cross and died for your sins there.
You’re not saved by following the rules, even if you’re doing better at it than you were five years ago.  You’re forgiven because Jesus has already kept God’s Law perfectly, and He gives you the credit for His doing.
You’re not saved because you never get discouraged or disheartened or downright depressed.  You’re saved because for the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross and scorned its shame.
Christ has done it all to make you alive, to give you salvation.  That’s why you rejoice to confess your sins, knowing His grace is sufficient.  That’s why you rejoice to labor and serve, because He’s already set you free to do just that.  You have nothing to prove, nothing to earn, it’s all yours by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, because 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.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

It's Not About You! It's About Christ for You!

Click here to listen to this sermon. mp3 files are available upon request.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A man, positive that he’s done enough good works to enter heaven, stands in line for the final judgment.  Coincidentally, Mother Teresa is one spot ahead.  The man then hears God saying, “Frankly, Teresa, I expected a whole lot more out of you.”  (A Jeff Pulse sermon opener cited by Peter J. Scaer.)
Of course, like all such jokes with the judgment or entrance into the pearly gates as its theme, this one is also apocryphal.  It’s never going to happen.  But it does contain an element of truth.  There isn’t anyone, even Mother Teresa, who is going to make it into heaven based upon good works or personal merits.  All our righteousness is like filthy rags.  Jesus says as much in our text, Luke 17:10: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”   
Pretty simple, but that doesn’t make it east to accept, does it?  How would you like to work for a boss like that?  One, who in essence, tells you, “Don’t be expecting any ‘attaboys’ from me.  You’re only doing your job.  You’re barely meeting the minimum requirements.”  Would you feel appreciated?  Would you feel like a valued employee?  Being in a sort of middle-management position at Wal-Mart I get to hear complaints about this kind of thing way too often: “Management doesn’t care about us.”  “The only time they ever say anything is when I mess up; they never tell me when I’ve done a good job.” 
Honestly, there are some workers who don’t deserve a whole lot of praise.  Still, given today’s workplace dynamics, I can’t imagine any good manager coming right out and saying to his or her best employees, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
But what makes this verse doubly shocking is who speaks it.  It’s not the manager of a modern business.  It’s not a king addressing his subjects.  It’s not even a master addressing one of his household slaves.  It’s Jesus, speaking to His disciples, teaching them about sin and temptation, forgiveness and faith, salvation and judgment day, and how they all work together. 
 Jesus launches the first salvo: “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!  It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”
It’s a two-fold announcement.  A bitter pill to swallow.  The word translated “temptation to sin” is skandala.  We get the word “scandal” from it; something offensive, a stumbling block to faith.  If you offend someone by your witness, it’s so serious a sin that it would be better to be thrown into the sea wearing a millstone necklace.  And then, Jesus adds this little caveat: “By the way, it’s impossible that you won’t offend.”
This will play out publicly in the lives of the disciples.  Peter will deny Christ three times and later must be rebuked by Paul for mixing works back into the Gospel.  Or how about Judas who will betray his Master?  And then there’s the whole bunch of disciples who will hide in fear after the crucifixion—refusing to believe what Jesus had taught them, refusing to believe the women who return from the empty tomb.  Clearly, they will be guilty of an offensive witness that could lead many astray.  Clearly, according to Jesus, they will each earn a fate worse than a terrible watery death.
And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus piles it on: “Pay attention to yourselves!  If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”     
Another tough bit of Law.  Why, it’s difficult enough to forgive someone once or twice when they’ve sinned against you… but seven times?  Lifelong friendships are known to fall apart after a single transgression or a couple of perceived transgressions over a period of time.  It happens!  The ability and desire to forgive a transgressor repeatedly is beyond what you or I are able to muster.
Jesus’ disciples apparently realize their shortcomings and take the consequences seriously.  So they say to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  They reason that with more faith, they will be up to the challenge.  They’ll be able to live without offense.  They’ll be able to forgive.  They just need more faith.  Jesus replies, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
So, if the disciples just had faith the size of a dinky little mustard seed, they could do something more spectacular than forgive and not offend?  This leaves the disciples with one of two conclusions: either they don’t have much faith (because they can’t move trees by talking to them), or else they misunderstand faith.  We’ll get back to that later on.
Like everyone else since Adam and Eve, the disciples are frail children of dust, a dangerous combination of egocentric sinner and self-righteous hypocrite.  So Jesus seeks to strip them of any trust in themselves.  Where they’ve thought they’re doing pretty good at toeing the line, He tells them that they haven’t even come close.  And then, He delivers the knockout punch: “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?  Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?  Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Now, that’s a blow to the old ego.  Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the disciples are to excel.  They manage through heroic efforts to live long lives in which they give no offense, and that they forgive everyone no matter how much they’ve been hurt.  Let’s say that they make proper use of faith and even move a mulberry tree or two to the sea.  It’s not going to happen, but let’s just say it does.  What then?  Do they deserve extra praise for going above and beyond the call of duty?  Is the Lord especially pleased that they’ve done such an excellent job?
No.  Even if the disciples do everything that they’re supposed to—if they’ve kept every last bit of the Law, then—finally!—they’ve only done what they were supposed to be doing all along.  They’ve only achieved the level of unworthy servants.  They’re finally meeting minimum expectations. 
Do you see what Jesus tells His disciples?  To them, pure and holy obedience of God’s Law is so impossible it seems that any improvement must count for something.  They suppose that when someone is doing better than they were before, the Lord must be impressed.  But Jesus says otherwise: When someone keeps all of God’s Law perfectly, when they have faith that can move a mulberry tree, when they’ve forgiven every wrong done by someone else, they’ve finally done the minimum of what God has been telling them all along.  That’s a tough standard.  Perfection is satisfactory, and nothing less comes close.  Everything else merits worse than the millstone.
Is there any hope for the disciples?  Yes.  But first, let’s bring us into this sermon.  You and I expect people to do their jobs.  We’d don’t give fist bumps to the cashier for giving us the correct change at the checkout counter.  We expect the correct change.  Police officers don’t generally take the time to thank citizens for obeying the law.  If they pull you over, it’s probably because you’ve done something wrong.  Do you get the idea?  When people do what they’re supposed to do, that doesn’t merit extra praise or a party.  They’re only doing their duty.
You and I have jobs to do, different vocations that the Lord gives to us: employee, boss, parent, child, husband, wife, student, teacher, congregational member, citizen, etc.  With each of those vocations comes a set of requirements, expectations, things to do—a lot of requirements, expectations, and things to do.  And frankly, even though we expect other people just to quietly do their duty, we sure don’t mind some recognition and appreciation for all that we do.
But here’s where the rubber meets the road.  When we figure we’ve done a pretty good job of being a Christian, we expect that that meets with the Lord’s approval.  If we’ve done a little bit better at keeping the rules, we expect the Lord to take notice of our success.  But it is really success?
The Lord warned His disciples against bringing offense.  As a Christian, you are called to live a life that serves as a witness of God’s goodness and mercy.  Any sin that you commit, then, has the potential of giving a bad witness, of causing offense to others; and it is certainly already an offense before almighty God. 
So, do you ever grow impatient?  Angry?  Could you ever be caught looking at something you’re not supposed to?  Doing something that you shouldn’t be doing?  Do you ever participate in off-color humor, just to fit in?  Ever nod approvingly at some sort of gossip or prejudice that’s being expressed?  All of this brings offense and could cause someone to stumble.  Therefore, the Lord says, for such sins it would be better for you to take a plunge in a millstone lifejacket.
Now, note this: Jesus doesn’t say that, if you offend less, that you’ll get a smaller millstone.  You’re either sinless or you’re not, pretty good is not good enough.  God doesn’t grade on a curve.  In fact, if you live a perfect life where you cause no sinful offense to anyone, what does it mean?  It means that you’ve finally done what you were supposed to be doing all along.  It means no millstone; but it also means no special achievement, either.  In fact, you’ve finally qualified to be called an unworthy servant, nothing more.
The Lord warned His disciples to forgive, even forgive the same sinner seven times in a day.  But forgiveness doesn’t come easy to the Old Adam.  We bear grudges far too easily, and it’s pretty natural for us to remember the sin and use it to our advantage later on.  And we often mouth words of forgiveness even while we still resent the sin.   Now, imagine someone sinning against you not once, but seven times in the same day!  Each time, they say they’re sorry.  What does the Lord require of you?  What does He say about such a situation?
“Forgive him seven times, and more if necessary.  And remember: if you do forgive him seven times, it doesn’t make you a super Christian.  It means that you’ve finally done what you were supposed to be doing all along.  You’ve finally reached the level of unworthy servant, nothing more.”
Do you see what the Lord tells us here?  His Law demands the impossible—obedience that we cannot do.  And even if we did the impossible, it wouldn’t be anything special.  It would only be our duty.  No wonder the disciples said, “Increase our faith!”  So we should also pray.
But be careful here, too, because so many misunderstand faith.  Sadly, many teach that faith is something that enables you to do whatever miracles you desire and that as your faith increases you can actually stop sinning in this life.  But if that’s the case, then faith is something that teaches you to rely on you, not Christ—as long as you believe enough in Jesus, you can use His power to do what you want.  Maybe you can be perfect, show yourself to be a worthy servant before God. 
But all of that’s wrong.  It misunderstands faith in a way that takes the focus off of Christ and puts it onto you.  When that happens, you’re a most unworthy servant indeed.  In our text, Jesus is doing His best to strip from you any sort of hope that would fail you, so that you might trust in Him alone.  The faith He gives isn’t going to do the opposite and teach you to trust in your own works and power of believing.
It’s not about you!  It’s about Christ for you!  Properly understood, faith is God’s gift to you, and faith is what believes the Word and all the promises of God.  And it is by this faith that you are delivered from the millstone around the neck and everlasting condemnation.  Faith believes what God says about His Law and the consequences of breaking it.  Old Adam says, “I’ll show God that I’m good enough.”  Faith, on the other hand, acknowledges the brutal truth.  By faith, you confess, “I am a sinner, for I have failed to keep God’s Law.  For that, I deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment.  Even if I kept God’s Law perfectly, I would only be doing what was expected of me; therefore, my far-from-perfect works do nothing to save me.”  In other words, faith acknowledges the truth that you are sinful and need a Savior, as Scripture declares.  So moved to contrition and repentance, your faith delights to hear what the Bible says about your Savior, Jesus Christ.  Hear this Gospel now, that your faith might be strengthened.
Jesus was the worthy Servant for you.  As the Son of God become flesh, He kept God’s Law and obeyed His Father’s will perfectly.  He did this for you in order to make up for your sins, to credit you with His perfect obedience.  Faith trusts and rejoices that Jesus became flesh and lived a perfect life for you.  The worthy Servant became the suffering Servant for the sins of the world.  Rather than hang the millstone around your neck for your sins and offenses, God the Father hung that weight of sin on the shoulders of His Son as He hung upon the cross.  Because Jesus took your guilt and suffered your sin, He now declares you “not guilty,” forgiven.  And because He is the Lamb who was slain, He is worthy of more than recognition for His holiness.  He is worthy of all power, riches, honor, wisdom, strength, glory and blessing (Revelation 5:12).
But that’s not all folks!  The Lord doesn’t stop there.  Risen again from the dead, He comes to you to increase your faith.  Remember His story in the text, where he speaks of the master who rightly expects his servant to serve him a meal.  According to the Law of God, you’re less than an unworthy servant.  Even if you do not sin, you’ve only done your duty.  You haven’t earned the right to sit at the table while your master waits upon you.  However, according to the Gospel, that’s exactly what Jesus does!  According to the Gospel, you’re far more than a servant.  You are His beloved child whom He’ll feed and nurture now and forever.
 Through His means of grace, the Lord gives and maintains your faith.  He enables you to do what you could not do yourselves.  Things like believe, confess, enter heaven, speak the truth, rebuke the sinner, and forgive the penitent.  Here in His house, your Master serves you.  As He washed His disciples’ feet and pronounced them clean, He washes you and pronounces you clean in the water and Word of Holy Baptism.  He welcomes you to His Supper and feeds you His body and blood for the forgiveness of sin and to strengthen you faith.  He speaks words of healing as He forgives your sins in His absolution.
It’s not about you!  It’s about Christ for you!   There is, then, no room for pride which would try to earn points toward heaven.  Nor need you sink into despair because of your sin.  No, you need not fear being unworthy, for the Master makes you worthy, declaring you to be His beloved child.  More than seven times, but again and again He declares this gracious good news:  You are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and 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 ...