Saturday, February 22, 2014

You Shall Be Perfect: A Command or a Promise?

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The text for today is Matthew 5:48: [Jesus said]: “Therefore, you shall be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Notice the subtle change? The ESV translation we just heard for our Gospel has “Therefore, you must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I just said, “Therefore, you shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” So which is it? Must or shall? Either is grammatically correct. The Greek verb may carry with it two senses: an imperative or a description of a future condition. It could either be a command or a promise. Or, to express it in terms we Lutherans are more inclined to speak: Law or Gospel.
The first way of translating it is Law. You must be perfect. You must be as perfectly righteous and holy as your Father in heaven is perfectly righteous and holy. God doesn’t grade on a curve. His standard is perfection. Don’t settle for less if you want to be called His child. You must reflect who your Father is. Do you call God “Father?” Do you dare to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven?” Then measure yourself against your heavenly Father. Be perfect, as He is perfect!
Jesus started out this section of the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” That was bad enough. But you have to be better than the best.  You must be perfect!
The last couple of weeks, we’ve heard Jesus goes through the commandments and the scribal interpretations of the Law. Taking it much farther than any of those righteous teachers, probing to the deepest, darkest recesses of sinful human hearts. You’ve heard it said, “You shall not murder,” but I say to you, “Don’t even call your brother a nasty name.” You’ve heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I say to you, “Don’t even look at a woman with lustful intent.” You’ve heard it said, “Do not swear falsely,” but I say to you, “Don’t make an oath at all, but let your word stand for itself. And cut off anything from your life that leads you to sin.”
And if that was not enough, Jesus piles it on: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
There is a grudging sort of spirit that afflicts mankind by nature—at least, fallen mankind. Keeping score: tit for tat; even-steven, that’s the thing. Do unto others before they do it to you. Don’t get mad—get even! Do what you have to in order to stay ahead, and if someone does get ahead, be sure to get even. Never, ever let anyone take advantage of you.
In place of grudging compensation and quick revenge, Jesus calls His disciples to lives of reckless generosity and naiveté. His teaching is hyperbolic—but that does not mean He is not serious. His words are to reform our basic instincts, our quick reactions, our unwillingness to sacrifice. St. Paul hits very close to this same target with his admonition to not repay evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:18-21).
No pound of flesh. No resistance. No rationalizing or looking for loopholes. A willingness to give up one’s rights, to even allow others to take advantage of you. If you want to take the Law of God seriously, this is where the Law of God will take you. It’s God’s way. It is the way of our perfect heavenly Father. But it is not the way that comes naturally to us fallen sinners.
And if such demands of the Law were not already impossible for you and me, Jesus raises the standard even higher. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
Jesus urgently commands His disciples to “love” without reference to the worthiness of the person being loved and to “pray” for others in the same way. Even the enemy and the persecutor must receive the loving deeds and prayers of Jesus’ disciples. The purpose of loving and praying in this way is to give the evidence that Jesus’ disciples are, in fact, the sons of the heavenly Father, who is known only in Jesus (Matthew 11:27).
Why will love even for the enemy reveal that Jesus’ disciples are the Father’s adopted sons? Because the Father is good to both evil and good, to the just and the unjust. This is so in the realm of creation, where God does not withhold His good gifts from those who have set themselves against Him in unbelief and rebellion. It is preeminently so in Jesus Himself, who will give His life as the ransom payment, not in the place of the few, but of the many.
Jesus’ words have hit home and stung throughout the centuries, and they would have been strikingly powerful in the first-century context of patronage, where relationships of status over against other members of the community were of paramount importance. The Lord’s teaching also has special force in a society like ours that is concerned with possessions and busy-ness, and in which families are falling apart at an alarming rate under the pressures of poverty and divorce. In our day, it seems almost newsworthy if someone succeeds even in the most basic task of loving those who love him or her. But in response to that kind of conditional support, Jesus asks rhetorically, “What reward do you have?” The tax collectors, among the most-despised member of society, often succeed in doing such things. Even the Gentiles, the unbelievers are nice to their own kind. 
And so, Jesus concludes: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”           “You must be perfect?” or “You shall be perfect?” Perfect as in complete, whole, all that you are and all that God has made you to be. “Must be” as an imperative command, or “shall be” as a description of future condition? Which is it? “You must be perfect” or “You shall be perfect? Is it Law or Gospel? Is it your doing or Jesus’ doing?
If it’s Law, it’s all up to you to do. And then you’re left without eyes and hands and still haven’t addressed the real problem—your sinful heart. And try as you might, you can’t fix your own heart. As we heard last week, you need a new heart, a clean heart. A heart of flesh instead of that sinful heart of stone.  No, your problem is not what you do; your problem is who you are—a poor, miserable sinner who justly deserves God’s eternal wrath and temporal punishment.
But if this is Gospel, everything changes. If this is Gospel Jesus is promising that you will be perfect, complete, whole, entire, as your Father in heaven is perfect, not because of something you have done, but because of everything that Jesus has done for you and in your place: His perfect life for you, His becoming sin for you, His atoning death on the cross for your sin, His resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand for you, and by the outpouring of His Spirit upon you in Holy Baptism. If this is what Jesus means, then it is the sweetest Gospel your ears could possibly hear!
Yes, there is Law. This text, like so much of the Sermon on the Mount, is full of Law—scathing Law, accusing Law that condemns you by exposing your sin. Yet as Jesus lays down the Law in this passage, the words He uses keep pointing you to the Gospel, the Good News of salvation. Dear friends, there is hope and life for you. Not in rights or works, but in grace and mercy. Not in you, but in Christ. For Christ has fulfilled the Law for you in your place, and in doing so has won your salvation. And that changes everything!
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” A Law that was meant to ensure that the punishment doesn’t exceed the crime. But there is Christ in the Praetorium, beaten and scourged. Does He deserve to be punished so severely?  Absolutely not!  He is the sinless Son of God!  Does He have the right to be treated better? Absolutely! He’s the King! He deserves all glory, honor, and worship. But Jesus is not there to enforce His rights. He is there, acting in love for you.
Jesus is slapped on the cheek, struck hard. His enemies mock Him for claiming to be the King and the Christ! Justice would have Him speak a Word of righteous anger and kill His enemies on the spot. But like a Lamb led to the slaughter Jesus opens not His mouth. He turns the other cheek instead, because He is going to bear the burden of your sin to the cross. He is living and suffering and dying according to His great love for you—that you might be redeemed.
Jesus is not compelled to carry a soldier’s pack for a mile. He’s forced to carry His own cross as far as He can manage. For you. They take His tunic. How obscene. They cast lots to see who takes it home even when He’s right there, bleeding and dying on the cross. What is the thing to do by right? Put an end to this injustice, come down from the cross and get rid of sinful man. But what does the Savior do? He doesn’t take His tunic back, nor does He demand theirs. He gives more than His cloak: He gives His blood. He wants them clothed in His robe of righteousness. You, too. He is living, and dying, by love for you. He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The penitent thief on the cross is a beggar: he’s got nothing to offer the Savior. But still, by faith he says, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t bother Me, I’ve got enough troubles of my own—you look after yourself.” He does not refuse; He gives. He gives life. He gives a place in His kingdom: “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” says Jesus in our text, “so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” The only-begotten Son of the Father in heaven is on the cross out of love for His enemies—each and every one of us—for while we were yet sinners and enemies, Christ dies for us. He has a right to far better than crucifixion, but He perfectly set aside what He deserves in order to save you from what you’ve got coming.  He takes what you and your sin deserves to give what He’s got coming as the sinless Son of God.
And so you are set free from sin, and this is what sets you free to love others. It’s all a free gift of God’s grace. You didn’t have a right to the absolution this morning. Jesus didn’t say, “Because you’ve done so well, I forgive you all of your sins.” You’re a beggar—you’ve got nothing to offer Jesus in order to earn His favor. He simply said, “I forgive you.” It’s His doing, His gift, His love for you.
You don’t have a right to the Lord’s Supper. Anyone who insists they have a right to the Sacrament has automatically disqualified himself until he has repented. The Supper is not a right or reward for those who have been loving enough to come into God’s presence. It is a meal for beggars, for hungry souls. It is Jesus coming with undeserved forgiveness for you. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
God gives you salvation solely by His grace, solely for the sake of Jesus. You’re no longer an enemy or a beggar: by the grace of Christ, you are a holy child of God, promised an eternity in His household, His kingdom. Your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. You are perfect, whole, complete, all that that God has made you to be. On the Last Day, when Christ raises you from the dead to life everlasting, you shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Such life begins even now, for Jesus’ sake, for 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, February 16, 2014

Jesus Lays Down the Law

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Jesus lays down the Law. He pulls no punches, setting forth in no uncertain terms the holy, righteous will of God. Do you remember how our Gospel ended last week? In the verse immediately preceding our text, Jesus warns His disciples: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
In our text for today, Matthew 5:21-37, Jesus begins to describe what such righteousness looks like. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is His footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Jesus goes on from there, and we’ll get to hear more of it next week. But this should be enough to get the gist of what He is saying. Jesus is contrasting His teaching with the teaching that the people have been receiving: “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…” He does this six times in the rest of this chapter. We have four of them today. Obviously, this must be important.
So, is Jesus contrasting His teaching with the Law of Moses? Does Jesus bring a new Law, a higher Law, a better Law? No, the Law of Moses is God’s Word. God’s Word like God Himself is holy; it does not change. It is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And when Jesus directly quotes the Old Testament at other times in Matthew’s Gospel, He never introduces the citation with “It was said.” Instead, He uses expressions such as “It is written” or “God said” or “Have you not read?” No, Jesus is contrasting His authoritative interpretation of the Law of Moses with the current scribal interpretations of the same. What Jesus offers to His disciples as they seek to do and teach the commandments of God (Matthew 5:19) is the proper, authoritative interpretation of the Law. Thus the Formula of Concord explains that in Matthew 5:21-48, “Christ takes the Law into His hands and interprets it spiritually” (Epitome V 8 [thesis 7].
Jesus lays down the Law. He first takes aim at a limited understanding of the Fifth Commandment that His disciples had “heard” from some of their Jewish teachers. Murder makes one liable to judgment. Not many people will disagree with that. But the Fifth Commandment entails more, and Jesus reveals the fullness of God’s intention in giving the commandment. You can “murder” someone in your heart or with your words. Bitter insults partake of the same poisonous roots as murder itself, and there is no essential difference in the sight of God; murder, anger, and bitter insults all can lead down the road to eternal damnation.
It is an especially grievous matter when a disciple treats a fellow Christian, a “brother,” in this way. Don’t approach God in prayer or in worship with anger in your heart. If you have wronged someone, go to that person and attempt to be reconciled with him or her. Unrepented sin is a barrier to any kind of God-pleasing worship, and these words of Jesus are appropriately applied to our preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper. Genuine repentance will always lead to a sincere effort to undo the wrong of which one has been guilty, and to seek reconciliation.
It may not seem as dramatic as murder, but Jesus also deals with the swearing of oaths. An oath is a serious matter. A person taking an oath calls upon God as his witness that he is telling the truth and that he will keep his promise. That means he also asks God to punish him if he is not true to his word.
The scribes and Pharisees have devised a system of oaths in which some oaths are considered more binding than others. They imagine that they decrease their responsibility if they do not directly use the Lord’s name in an oath. So they will swear by heaven or earth or by Jerusalem or by the temple or even their own heads. But Jesus points out that God is still present as their witness, no matter what formula they might recite. It is nonsense to say, as they do, “If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath” (Matthew 23:16).
The whole concept of such oaths is offensive to God. They are “weasel words.” It is a way for someone to avoid telling the whole truth or being bound by their word, the very opposite of what a God-pleasing oath is intended to be. So Jesus tells His disciples simply to say “Yes” or “No.” Anything beyond that is inspired by the devil himself, who is a liar and the father of lies.
Jesus goes on to speak of another oath, a marital vow, offering His own authoritative interpretation of the Law regarding divorce. Much like our own day, when it came to divorce in the first century Israel, divorce itself was assumed to be an available and acceptable option for most any reason. Divorce itself was not in question; the really important thing was to divorce in the right way.
Against this, the Lord’s voice thunders! Divorce is sin! Divorcing your spouse shatters a sacred union that God intends to be permanent. Even in the case of a spouse’s sexual unfaithfulness, Jesus allows, but does not command divorce. Those who think that the goal is how to divorce and then “still be friends” or have an “amicable divorce” have strayed far from God’s will in the Law. Jesus simply says, “Do not divorce.” To do so is, in the sight of God, is as terrible a sin as adultery itself. Instead, let your light shine in the presence of other people; be faithful to your marriage vows, and so bring honor to your Father in heaven.
In a similar manner, Jesus deals with the Sixth Commandment. The religious teachers of the Jews rightly condemn the act of adultery, but Jesus points out that sexual lust, the desire for sexual involvement with anyone other than one’s wife or husband, is also a violation of this commandment in God’s sight. Someone will respond, “Surely, it doesn’t hurt to look, as long as I don’t touch, right? It’s only normal and natural. I can’t help it if desires are aroused in my heart at the sight of a person of the opposite (and some would include the “same”) sex. That may be true, but that does not make it right. It only shows the depth of depravity that what God and His holy Word call “sin” seems normal and natural—even desirable!
Jesus’ comments on this matter are often regarded as figurative language. Hyperbole. Does Jesus really mean to say that we should gouge out an eye or chop off a hand? Yes, He means exactly that! If it is really the fault of your eye or your hand that you commit sin that could condemn you to hell, wouldn’t you really want to rid yourself of that offending part of your body rather than have your whole body cast into hell? You would not hesitate to have a cancerous part of your body removed before cancer destroys your whole body, would you? People do that all the time. It is radical surgery, but they do it in order to save their life. So, also removing a treacherous member of your body would be small price to pay to save your soul and body from the eternal torments of hell. It would be the reasonable thing to do—the “lesser of two evils,” if you will.
The point Jesus wants to make, however, is that such maiming of one’s body would not be the real solution, for the sin of lust or for any sin. If your right eye and your right hand cause you to sin and you get rid of them, would not the left eye and left hand still cause you the same problem? If a person amputated all of his limbs and gouged out both of his eyes and stopped up both of his ears, would he then be able to keep himself perfectly pure? Is it not more likely that his heart and mind would then constantly dwell upon acts that had become physically impossible for him? Would it not, in fact, increase the sin?
Avoiding sin is not easy; it’s impossible! Yet, like the scribes and Pharisees, you want to see yourself as a “Law-keeper,” comparing yourself to scoundrels to feel a bit better in comparison.  But it doesn’t change the cold, hard facts. You don’t and can’t keep the Law as you should and must. According to God’s Law, you are indeed a poor, miserable sinner. You’ve called people names. You’ve made promises you have not kept. You’re lusted for others. You’ve failed to uphold the sanctity of marriage—yours or someone else’s. You sit in judgment of others, so you now stand condemned.
This problem of sin is a whole lot bigger than you thought! It consumes you. You sin a lot, everyday. You do what you want, not even considering if God has a different plan, or if other people in your life have needs. You might want to think that your sins are just small idiosyncrasies, “mistakes,” or minor lapses in judgment compared to other people. But God sees your sin differently. He sees it as a scandal, as a death-trap into which you have fallen, and you can’t get yourself out. As a pit you have dug yourself that leads to the very pit of hell!
And that is why Jesus lays down the Law. He wants you to realize the wretchedness and hopelessness of your condition. The Law cannot save you; it condemns you! The chief purpose of the Law is to reveal mankind’s total corruption because of sin; and having seen your own sin in the mirror of God’s holy Law, to drive you to seek salvation that is available only in Christ. While the Law does hold gross outbursts of sin in check, its chief purpose is to get you to realize the damning consequence of original sin, and to show you the depth of depravity within you, a problem that will take something worse than radical surgery or chemotherapy to cure. 
No, the problem of sin is much worse than an eye or a hand or any other body part problem—it’s a heart problem. You and I need a new heart. We need our stony sin-hardened heart removed and replaced with a heart of flesh. A clean heart.
But notice Jesus doesn’t tell you to cut out your own heart. That wouldn’t work very well would it? None of us is a heart surgeon. And heart surgeons who have themselves as patients are truly fools. But Jesus is the great Physician. He can perform the one and only heart transplant that you need.
Guess what! He has already done it. Jesus has performed a circumcision of your heart at your Baptism. He cut out your old sin-sick heart and removed it from you at the font. It, with all of your sins is nailed to Jesus on the cross where He bears your sin and its punishment on the cursed tree.
But Jesus doesn’t leave you heart-less. Having kept the Law for you with His own perfect obedience and holy life, and suffering the punishment the Law justly demands for your sin, Jesus creates in you a clean heart, and puts a right spirit, His own Holy Spirit, within it! This new heart transplanted in you is none other than the heart of Jesus Himself. His holy, righteous, pure, and sin-free heart is given to you in trade for your old evil heart.
Jesus lays down the Law with His own perfect life, obedient suffering and atoning death. Jesus takes your heart as His own, bearing the shame, guilt, and punishment you deserved for your sin. He gives you His sinless heart as your own, a clean place for the Spirit to dwell so that you might begin to keep the Law. So that you might begin to fear, love, and trust God above all things. So that you might begin to fear and love God so that you do not hurt or harm your neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.  So that you begin to fear and love God so that you lead a sexually pure and decent life in what you say and do, and love and honor your spouse.
So that when you fail to keep these commandments, or any of the rest of the Law, you would repent.  That is, that you would confess your sins to God the Father almighty, and that you would hear and believe this Good News: Sin no longer has dominion over you; for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Acceptable to the Lord

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Lord Himself speaks in the verses preceding our text from the 58th chapter of Isaiah: “Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to My people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily and delight to know My ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of Me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.”
Isaiah is to lift up his voice, to shout “like a trumpet” to proclaim the rebellion of God’s people. Notice how this rebellion is described. It’s a passive-aggressive sort of rebellion. It seems as if the people are eager to know the ways of the Lord. They observe the worship regulations, including fasting and observation of the Sabbath, outlined in the Law of Moses. They ask God for righteous judgments and seem to be eager to draw near to Him. They look for God’s deliverance. All this seems to be as God demands, but something is deeply wrong.
The people say, “Why have we fasted, and You see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and You take no knowledge of it?” They are expecting God to reward their fasting and humility. These people do not understand the grace of God and the promises of redemption through the promised Messiah. They trust in their own works to earn God’s favor. They pervert and destroy God’s grace. Deliverance, in their way of thinking, becomes a reward for their religious fervor.
What is wrong with such thinking? First, it is absolutely arrogant. God is holy, perfect, and separate from everything human—far above all creation. What can any human offer to God to earn His favor and be worthy of His notice? All humanity together cannot offer enough sacrifices or deeds of kindness to move the mind and heart of holy God to bestow His blessing.
Grace, and grace alone, remains the only reason God shows compassion and concern for anything human. He loves not because we love Him nor do anything righteous. He loves for His own sake. It is arrogance to think that we could do something so good or so great that we could earn His love.  
The attitude of the people is wrong from another perspective too. Their attitude opposes God’s clear message. Just a few chapters earlier, Isaiah very clearly proclaims the vicarious atonement of the Servant who suffers for the people. That substitutionary sacrifice serves as the basis of God’s justification of sinners. “Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the righteous one, My servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).
Human effort cannot earn such blessings, but so many choose to pervert the message, rebel against it, and substitute their own doctrine of blessings earned by human effort. That is rebellion against God and a perversion of God’s expressed and clear Word. Deliverance from sin and death cannot be earned by human effort; it can only come as a free gift of God to undeserving sinners.
The people to whom Isaiah speaks in our text do not believe the Scriptures. They do not believe what God tells them there about themselves or about the deliverance from sin and its consequences. In effect, these people have erected another idol. They worship a god different from Yahweh, the God of grace. They create a god who rewards their fasting and religious fervor with blessings.
That concept of god makes God no different than other manmade gods in the nations surrounding them. In those neighboring cultures, when the crops were bad, people believed that their god was angry with them and that they had to appease him or her. When things were good, they imagined that they had done what the god wanted them to do and that he or she or it was rewarding them for their devotion and zeal.
But there is a subtle and dangerous difference between the gross idolatry of the heathen and the concept of God held by these Jews. Their heathen neighbors fashion statues of wood, stone, or metal and worship them. The children of Israel are not so crass. Most of them know better than to bow down to graven images, but they construct their own idols in their hearts and minds.
The god they worship rewards them for their good effort and punishes them for their evil. He rewards their fasting and notices when they humble themselves. The God of grace has become a god of works. It is as if they take the pure gold of grace, make a plaster cast of it, and paint it with a bright color. They no longer see the God of free and faithful grace. Instead, they worship the painted plaster counterfeit, the god who rewards humans with deliverance because of their deeds.
But they are not alone in their idolatry. As sinners, we are all infected by pride and arrogance. We believe that what we do matters in the court of God’s justice. We want to be noticed, and we want our good deeds to be appreciated and admired. We still have a tendency to exchange the grace of God for the delusion of works to make ourselves acceptable to the Lord.
Deliverance from sin and death by our own efforts is an enticing idea to our sinful human hearts. It sidesteps the harsh demands of God’s holy Law and avoids the confrontation with the just punishment all sinners deserve from God. Old Adam grasps onto any message that deliverance can be earned by his own works. Only regular repentance turns our boast about how much we have done for God to the humble plea of the publican: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
No religious fervor or pious life can earn the blessings only God can give by grace. Every human work, even the most noble and noteworthy, is flawed. When confronted with the harsh demands of God’s holy Law, the human spirit can only make one of two false choices: Either it deflects the harsh demands of God’s Law and becomes self-righteous, or it abandons all hope and turns to despair.
The people described in our text choose the first of the two false choices. They believe that they can do what God demands and God will reward them for their goodness and their devout fasting. But they do not truly understand themselves or the depth of human depravity. They do not know that their righteousness is only a sham and hypocritical. God corrects them here!
The people take pride in their fasting; but as devout as their fasting may appear, it is not sincere. They do as they please, not as the Lord demands. Their fasting ends in quarrels, strife, and brawling. Their hearts and lives have not been changed by the worship of the Lord. No compassion, generosity, humility, or love marks their lives. They remain combative, arrogant, selfish, and greedy. Yet they imagine that God will reward them for their religious fasting and devotion.
These people reject God’s grace. They abandon what God has told them about the Messiah and are trying to earn God’s blessings by their fasting. That’s impossible. Without Christ, God accepts no human effort, no matter how good it appears. With Christ, human effort comes to the favorable attention of God, who forgives the failings and sins. God sees the blood of His own Son instead of the stain of the believer’s sin. Then, by virtue of His love for sinners in Christ, God empowers His faithful to persist in their efforts to live as He desires.
The Lord describes such a pious and faith-filled life this way: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am’” (Isaiah 58:6-9a).
When faith enters our hearts and we understand the word of reconciliation, we become God’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). The light within our hearts shines. So Jesus encourages us in our Gospel: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Good works. Because we Lutherans so rightly emphasize salvation by grace through faith apart from good works, it’s easy to get the impression that we think good works are a dirty word. But that’s not so! There is a place for good works: “before others.” For the neighbor, for that person that God placed next to you. Jesus shines His light on your works not so you can see them or God can see them, but so that your neighbor can see them (and experience them)!
That’s how faith is made visible. Faith itself is invisible. You can’t see my faith; I can’t see your faith. As St. James reminds us, you can talk about faith all you want but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s like saying “be warm” to a person who needs a coat. Or “be filled” to a person who needs some food. Faith talk is meaningless to others, because faith is between you and God. God sees your faith; people see your works. Keep those straight, and everything works out just fine.
One of the verses from our sermon hymn explains this relationship well:
Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify;
Works serve our neighbor and supply
The proof the faith is living.
Let your light shine before others, your neighbors, that they may see your good works. They are watching closely, you know. They want to see what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. They want to see what difference it makes. They need to see the light. They need to taste the saltiness. There’s no point in talking about your faith, because that’s… well, that’s your faith—the faith that God gave to you. It doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. You show your faith with what you do. Good works. Concrete, real, get-your-fingernails-dirty, self-sacrificing good works—these make an impression.
In 2nd century Egypt, the 10% or so of the Christians in Egypt did the vast majority of the social work. They didn’t rely on government programs. It was the Christians who went to places where the poor congregated. They fed the hungry, they clothed the naked, they did works of mercy, not to merit God’s favor or earn their salvation, but to serve their neighbor in love. People took notice. They wanted to know more about those Christians who went out of their way to do good.
The Rev. Matthew Harrison, our synodical president, has been talking about this a lot. He was asked about congregations losing touch with their communities and what we can do to make people notice our congregations again. He said three words: works of mercy. Go into your community, find out what the needs are, and fill one of them in the name of Jesus. Let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
God doesn’t want to see your good works. He knows about them before you wave them around. He prepared them for you to do before you were around to do them. And you can’t do enough of them well enough to earn your way into the kingdom. Jesus warns: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And don’t kid yourself, the scribes and Pharisees were pretty good at the religion game. If anyone nearly earned their way in, it was them. And yet your righteousness has to exceed theirs.
No, good works won’t get you into the kingdom of heaven. The best of your good works are still soiled with sin, with your inherent selfish self-centeredness. Even the noblest act of charity has something less than charitable in it. That’s where Jesus comes in. He comes to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He doesn’t come to set aside the commandments, as though God changes his mind midstream. He comes to fulfill them, to literally fill them up with His own perfect obedience.
Jesus comes as the Light of light, the true and only Light of the world. His righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. His is the righteousness of God. He keeps the Law perfectly. He fulfils the word of the prophets down to the last stroke of the pen. And the wonder of all wonders is that He gives that righteousness to you. He credits you with something He did.
That’s how you become acceptable to the Lord. That is worship acceptable to the Lord. Those are good works acceptable to the Lord. Not by what you do; but by what He did and does for you. You are baptized to be the light of the world. You are given to live and love under the umbrella of God’s undeserved kindness in Jesus. And under that grace you cannot fail. You cannot fail as light of the world unless you hide the good works God is doing in you and through you.
At the close of the day, at the end of your life, you are covered with a righteousness not your own, a righteousness that exceeds that of even the scribes and the Pharisees, the righteousness that comes as a gift through faith in Jesus, who came to fulfill the Law and the prophets. For His sake, you have a place in the kingdom of heaven, for you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why Did You Come Here? What Do You Seek?

Click here to listen to this sermon.

The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 2:22-40.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord
Why are you here? What do you seek? Why did you come here, to this place of worship, on this day? What do you expect or hope to find here? Those are important questions because someone (even with “good intentions”) could come naively here for the wrong reason.  Or because a seeker, whose particular desires are contrary to God’s will and Word, might come to this place hoping or expecting to find what he or she wants.
Examples of such false expectations, wrongful motives, or selfish desires? To come here as a matter of course, merely out of habit. To try to impress other people with your personal piety. To get your parents or spouse off your back. To build up heavenly reward points for the number of trips you’ve made to be here. To seek to appease God’s wrath with your good works. To gain leverage against God that you will pull out as a trump card on Judgment Day. To be uplifted and motivated toward greater success.  To learn the secret to contentment or the seven habits of spiritual success. To feel better about yourself and your life.
Enough? How about one more?—to hear these examples in a sermon and still think they simply apply to others, that none of them apply to you, that you are somehow exempt from such natural inclinations of your old sinful heart and from such unchristian thoughts in your head.
Why are you here? And what do you seek? Consider what is God-pleasing, what is taught as such in His holy Word. Take a look at the others who have come to the holy house of the Lord throughout the years. Do you see them? Husbands and wives… families… singles… widows… a baby… newlyweds… new parents. Why have they come here? What do they seek?
Do you see that woman over there? Her name is Anna. She’s a faithful widow of 84 years, who hangs around the temple day and night. In addition to being the first prophetess mentioned in the New Testament, Anna’s also quite remarkable in that she’s one among only a few believers left of the ten lost tribes of Israel—the tribe of Asher. Why is she here in the temple? What is she seeking?
Well, she is one of the remnant in Israel looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Anna’s hope is in the Lord God and she awaits Him in the place where He has promised to be found in His grace and mercy.  For He has said through the mouth of His prophet, “Behold, the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple” (Malachi 3:1). Anna worships “with fasting and prayer night and day.” Thus, Anna dwells in the house of the Lord all the days of her life, awaiting the real presence of the world’s Redeemer.
Do you see them? Husbands and wives… families… singles… widows… a baby… newlyweds… new parents. Why are they here?  And what do they seek?
How about that man over there? His name is Simeon. St. Luke does not tell us much about him: whether he is young or old, or whether he is clergy or laity. But he does tell us this much: Simeon is devout and righteous. In other words, the Holy Spirit has worked faith in his heart.
So, why is Simeon here in God’s house? And what does he seek? Well, dear friend of God, Simeon is looking for the consolation of Israel ... for the hope and comfort of the Church. Indeed, in a wonderful promise that is marvelous in our eyes and music to our ears, “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”
Thus, this day, Simeon “came in the Spirit into the temple.” Why the temple? Because the Holy Spirit said through the mouth of Malachi, “Behold, the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple” (3:1).
Look at the others gathered in God’s holy place. Husbands and wives… families… singles… widows… a baby… newlyweds… new parents. Why have they come here and what do they seek?
Mary is here. She is a wife, a newlywed, married less than a year. She is a mom, having given birth to her firstborn, a son born forty days ago in the little town of Bethlehem. Why is she here; and what does she seek?
Mary is here for her purification according to the Law of Moses. Mary needs a sin offering to be made for her so that she might be clean. Moses wrote in the book of Leviticus: “This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering, and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean” (12:8). Thus Mary gladly and willingly receives this Word of the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her Savior.
Joseph is also here. He is the husband of Mary. He is a dad, having been entrusted with a son not from his own loins, but rather the Son of God incarnate of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Joseph is the baby’s legal father. On the eighth day when the Infant was circumcised according to the Law, Joseph named Him Jesus according to what had been told to him by the angel—“for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Now Joseph has brought his family to the temple in Jerusalem.
Why is he here and what does he seek? As the pious head of the holy family, Joseph seeks to do what is good and right and according to the Law for his wife and her firstborn Son, Jesus. Joseph and Mary “brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:22-24).
Remarkable!  Absolutely astounding when you realize what this means!  Because of the Passover when the firstborn sons were spared by the blood of the lamb, all such sons belong to the Lord. A firstborn son could be bought back by bringing an offering of a lamb, or a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. Joseph and Mary have the offering necessary to redeem their son. This is quite fitting, for even now Jesus is already redeeming them. They bring, not a lamb, but rather, the offering of the poor—two turtledoves. Still, into the temple Joseph and Mary carry the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And the Word of the Lord has come to pass that is written, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, He is coming, says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 3:1b).
Husbands and wives… families… singles… widows… a baby… newlyweds… new parents. Why have they come here and what do they seek?
There’s one more! A baby! Perhaps the easiest to overlook, but certainly the most deserving of our attention. Jesus is here. He is the firstborn Son of Mary and the Son of the Most High. The Savior is here and He is holy to the Lord.
Why has He come? He has not come for Himself, but rather for us. For Himself He needs no purification, no redemption. The Incarnation of the Son of God is for sins of the world. His way of the cross, which will lead to His sin-atoning death, is for the life of the world. For “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
What does He seek? The little Lord Jesus, Immanuel, “God with us,” seeks to be present with His Church in the temple, and He was and is and ever shall be. The Christ seeks to be in the midst of His people who “come into His Presence with singing” ... who “enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise” (Psalm 100), and He was and is and ever shall be.
Here the Lord God Almighty has His little congregation ... His family, a widow, a man, young and old, husband and wife, mother and father, carpenter and housewife. Here, what began as an assembly of the Old Testament Christian Church becomes the first gathering of the New Testament Church. “Behold, the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple” (Malachi 3:1).
What happens as a result? A widow remains in the holy place and tells the Good News of Jesus to all who are looking for the Redeemer. A man may commend himself into the hands of God, ready to depart in peace. A father and mother now marvel at this Word that tells them of the Savior of the world and of their Savior. Husband and wife may now go home, living their lives and carrying out their vocations, submitting to one another, raising their offspring in the fear and love of the Lord, living in the presence of Jesus.
Husbands and wives… families… singles… widows… a baby… newlyweds… new parents. Why are you here? What do you seek? Have you come looking for someone to rid your life of all of your problems? Sorry, you won’t find that here. We preach Christ and Him crucified. We preach a Savior who bids His disciples to take up their own cross and follow Him. He is the “Sign” who will be opposed. Even the one with whose blood He shares His humanity, His mother Mary, will suffer the piercing of her own soul. Christ has not promised you your best life now. That will only come in eternity, with the resurrection of your body unto life everlasting. He has come for a much greater objective—to rid you of the eternal consequences of sin, to reconcile you with God.
Why are you here? What do you seek? Are you looking for affirmation from a doddering old grandfather god who simply winks at your transgressions and accepts you just as you are? Sorry, you won’t find that here. This is a place for real sinners who are waiting for real redemption. We speak of a just God who is so serious about sin that He gave His only Son into death to redeem us from it.
Why are you here? What do you seek? Have you come to get your ears tickled with entertaining stories or to gain a set of practical tips for a purpose-driven life? Sorry, you won’t hear that, either. We preach Christ who is appointed for the fall and rising of many. We preach the full counsel of God’s Word. The Law that shows us our sins and the Gospel that shows us our salvation. The Law that condemns and the Gospel that brings forgiveness and life.
Why are you here? What do you seek? Have you come to fulfill the Law? That’s already been done for you with the passive and active obedience of Christ!  From the time of His conception, Jesus lived a perfect life in obedience to the Law on your behalf. On the cross, He took upon Himself the penalty for your sins, bearing the full measure of God’s wrath for your sins, suffering the wages of sin—death, and crediting you with His righteousness.
Why are you here? What do you seek? Do you seek the consolation of God’s people? Do you wish to depart in peace? Have you come to worship and pray as you wait for your redemption? Have you come to marvel at what is said of your Savior? Have you come to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Have you come to see and hear and feel and taste and touch your salvation? Have you come to sing your canticle of praise? Have you come to be in the presence of the Lord?
Maybe, but probably not, certainly not entirely. But when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t matter why you have come here this morning or what you were seeking when you came, but rather the manner and condition in which you leave here this morning: repentant and forgiven. You may have come here for all of the wrong reasons, and with the very poorest of motives. But God’s Word does not return to Him void. It still accomplishes that for which He sends it forth.
And in the Word, the Lord is present here for your salvation!  Indeed, the Lord God is present in this holy place and sanctifies you with His Word of forgiveness of sins, of peace, of hope that doesn’t disappoint, and of life in His Name. In the water and Word of Holy Baptism, He fills you with the Holy Spirit and you receive adoption as sons of God. You are clothed with the garments of salvation, and covered with Christ’s robe of righteousness. As you confess your sins and iniquities, the Lord gives you His absolution through His called and ordained servant. In Holy Communion, the Bread from Heaven feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
As you leave this holy place, you may be assured that you have seen your salvation. You are indeed blessed!  Through faith in Jesus ... the Incarnate Son of God ... the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world ... you may depart in peace according to God’s Word. For truly, you are forgiven of all your sins in the name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Into the Wilderness

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