Saturday, August 30, 2014

God's Gift of Contentment

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“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A couple who had lived in the same house for 30 years grew tired of their surroundings. “Let’s sell and move!” they decided. So they listed their house with a realtor, who wrote an elaborate listing. Before the agent posted it, however, she showed the listing to them. It was a glowing description, noting the excellent location, solid brick exterior, comfortable rooms, large lot, and many other valuable features. The couple looked at each other. “On second thought,” they said, “we really are happy here. I’m not sure we would be content in another home.”
This couple learned an important lesson about contentment. Contentment is not found in what we have, but rather by how we look at things. Nothing had changed in their lives. It was still the same old house of which they had grown tired. It was the same old house they had begun to take for granted. But when they saw it in a different light, they noticed all of its valuable features, and realized it was perfectly capable of bringing them contentment.
Regarding contentment, St. Paul writes: “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:6-10).
St. Paul contrasts the way of godliness with the way of the world. True godliness is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ together with the kind of life that faith produces. This brings joy and satisfaction and contentment—the opposite of dissatisfaction and greed and covetousness.
Coveting is desiring something to which you have no right, craving something that belongs to someone else. Covetousness is at the heart of sins against all the commandments. Therefore, it is fitting that it is addressed by the last (two) commandment(s) because it deals with the inner attitude, which leads to violations of all the others. As Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Mt. 15:19).
Covetousness is rooted in our basic human selfishness. We want what we want, when we want it, and we don’t care who gets hurt or left out in the process. Happiness is our right, and we will get it. And since our society has come to identify the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of possessions, we think we will be happy if we just have one more thing. We recognize this pursuit in young children. Buy them a new toy, and they are bored with it after a few hours. We recognize it in others and call it “keeping up with the Joneses.” We recognize it in ourselves that it seems like “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”
The recognition of the pursuit for possessions or for pleasure is not peculiar to Christianity. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus put it this way: “If you want to make a man happy, add not to his possessions but take away from his desires.” Some religions try to shut off all human desires. It’s the solution offered by ancient Stoicism, by Buddhism, by ascetism, by New Age mysticism.  But desire, in itself, is not evil. God built desires into our very being. In fact, God Himself has many desires. The psalmist writes of God: “Behold, You desire truth in the inward being, and You teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:6).
God speaks of His own desires throughout Scripture. Through the prophet Hosea, God announces: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6). And God states His desire for us through Isaiah: “My word… will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (55:11).
Yes, God is filled with desires—healthy, helpful desires—and He desires the same for us. Through St. James, the Holy Spirit speaks of “the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:20). Through St. Paul, he urges the Corinthians to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31); “eagerly desire spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 14:1); “eagerly desire to prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:39). And he tells Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, [that is, a pastor] he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).
Desiring something isn’t necessarily wrong. Desiring becomes a problem when we yearn for something that is not God pleasing. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul makes this differentiation: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Romans 8:5, NIV).
We cross over that thin line between acceptable and unacceptable desiring when we covet, when we want something that is not intended for us or is available only at someone else’s loss or expense. Coveting is like a cancer. It sucks away our peace and contentment. Coveting makes us greedy for more, and discontent with what we have. When we covet, our will displaces God’s will for our lives. God tells us not to covet because He wants us to be satisfied with what He gives us.
In our Lord’s parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21), the farmer was not wrong to produce a huge harvest. He was not wrong to build big barns to store them. He was wrong to call them “my crops,” “my grain” and “my goods.” As Jesus says in the parable, “The land of the rich man produced plentifully.” It was God who had blessed him. God entrusted the crops, the grain, and the goods to him. God trusted that he would use these blessings properly. They were not given for his selfish enjoyment but were gifts to use with responsibility and accountability. Instead, the rich man thought only of himself, only about having more. He was looking for contentment in the wealth he amassed for himself. He did not think of the needs of others and of God’s kingdom. He said to himself, “You have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”
The man wasn’t wrong to retire. He wasn’t wrong to “be merry.” And it certainly wasn’t wrong for him to be rich. But God wanted so much more for him. And God wants so much more for you and me. The rich man desired the wrong thing. He coveted what was foolish and temporary and selfish. “'God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” He foolishly forgot that he would one day have to give an account of his stewardship to God. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
The man was not wrong to desire wealth. He was wrong to covet. He was wrong to think that he had a right to it… that it was his to do with as he pleased. His life was focused on the wrong goal. When our lives have the wrong center, when we are focused on the wrong goal, we are tempted to covet what belongs to our neighbor—what the Ninth and Tenth Commandments warn against.
As Luther explains the Ninth Commandment, “We should fear and love God so that we do not scheme to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, or get it in a way which only appears right.” And the Tenth Commandment, “We should fear and love God so that we do not entice or force away our neighbor’s wife, workers, or animals, or turn them against him.” As in the other Commandments, the accent is on the positive attitude of serving one’s neighbor. We should “help and be of service to him.” We should “urge them to stay and do their duty.”
The foolish rich man in the parable had gained the whole world but lost his own soul. His desire was for the things of this world. St. John writes, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
What do you eagerly desire in life? Where is your focus? What proceeds from your heart? Where are you looking for happiness? Whom or what are you trying to serve? Do you live for others? What is your ambition and passion in life? Are your energies directed toward helping and serving others?
Too often we do not recognize or want to admit when we have crossed over the line from wanting something to coveting. So God has given us the Law to show us His will. St. Paul writes in Romans 7:7: “Yet if it had not been for the Law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”
In his explanation to the 9th and 10th Commandments in the Large Catechism, Martin Luther says God gave these two commandments to ensure His people know that it is sinful not only to steal, but also to desire something that is not ours. These commandments are not broken with the hand or the mouth but with the heart. Like all the commandments, these commandments accuse us of sin and reveal to us where we stand under the Law in God’s eyes: We are guilty! This is the chief purpose of the Law—to show us our sin… to call us to repentance… to call us to a change of heart.
Since the 9th and 10th Commandments are sins of the heart, what we really need is a heart transplant. And so, as King David sang over three thousand years ago, we sing each Divine Service: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy presence and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation and uphold me with Thy free Spirit.”
It’s time for us to turn our hearts to Jesus Christ, who manifested the most pure form of love this world has ever seen or will see. The Bible says: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
Fellow redeemed, do you realize that Jesus, in His love for us, did the very opposite of coveting. He fully submitted to His Father’s will. He gave up everything for you and for me. He emptied Himself. He made Himself nothing. All He desired from you when He came to this earth was your sin, so that He could pay for it on the cross and forgive it and give you back eternal life. That’s love.
Remember, Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus wants you to have life with gusto! But He’s saying in the 9th and 10th Commandments, that kind of life has nothing to do with getting “stuff.” It has everything to do with being content. It has nothing to do with what you “have.” It has everything to do with whom you know. It has everything to do with following the good and gracious will of God.
It’s hard for us to be content because often what we want and what God wants are two different things. What does that tell us? We are not following God’s will! And guess which one of us is right?
Only Jesus can turn us from following our own will to following God’s will. He calls us to repentance. He offers forgiveness through His death on the cross. He offers a clean heart through the power of the Holy Spirit. Because the Lord redeems and sanctifies you, you, too, can be a person “after His own heart.” You, too, can learn to be content.
St. Paul explains: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:11-12).
Regardless of his physical circumstances, Paul had learned to always be content. Throughout his lifetime, and especially during his years as an apostle, Paul experienced earthly circumstances that varied from great need to great fortune. At times the Lord granted him periods of rest and refreshment, even relative prosperity, but more often the apostle had lived in less than prosperous circumstances. As he served the Lord—often, in fact, because he served the Lord—he suffered hunger, cold, nakedness, beatings, imprisonment, and lack of the physical comforts many others would have considered necessities.
No matter what physical circumstances he faced, Paul had learned the secret of being truly satisfied. He had found that secret in Christ. Daily, as Christ came to him in God’s Word and as he came to Christ in prayer, the apostle found a source of strength and never-failing fountain of contentment that could lead him to confidently declare, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.”
Whatever needed to be faced or done or accomplished or suffered, Paul was confident that he could meet the challenge because by faith he was “in Christ.” Christ’s grace was sufficient for him. Whatever physical things the Lord chose to give to him or withhold from him, no matter how the Lord worked in his life, Paul was content because he knew the Lord Jesus was at his side.
You, too, can be content with whatever the Lord gives you, be it little or much. You, too, have the assurance that because you are in Christ by faith, He is always there beside you to give you the strength He knows you need to cope with life in the world and to live your life with Him.
You find your security in the Lord’s promise: “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing” (Psalm 34:10). The Lord Jesus says: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).
Think about the blessings you already have. You have your daily bread:  God gives you clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all that you have. He richly and daily provides you with all that you need to support this body and life. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on your part. For all of this it is your duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.
Those are great blessings! But God gives you so much more! You have the greatest spiritual blessings, too! He has provided you with the finest clothing—in Baptism, you have been clothed with Christ’s righteousness and given an eternal inheritance in heaven. In His Supper, our Lord gives you a foretaste of His eternal banquet, His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sin. And in His absolution, God renews and restores you. No sin is left out, not even your sin of coveting. Yes, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

God Protects Our Reputation

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“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Perhaps the most ridiculous proverb in our culture is this one: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What a dirty, rotten lie! Words can hurt us… to the core of our being. That’s why bullying is such a big issue. Child psychologists say it takes ten positive remarks to compensate for one negative remark—and I think that remains true for us as adults, too. Words can hurt. Their scars may be invisible to the naked eye, but they can last forever.
The Eighth Commandment has to do with the power of words—particularly, as it applies to one’s reputation. How does one endure being falsely accused? Remember Richard Jewell, the security guard who was falsely accused of the bombing in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics? Or how about the young men from Duke University who were unjustly accused of sexual assault? Not only did their names get dragged through the mud, but their entire lacrosse team suffered as the program was canceled in the rush to judgment.  
One of the most irreparable injuries is the loss of one’s reputation. That’s why God give us the Eighth Commandment. The Fifth Commandment protects life. The Sixth Commandment protects marriage. The Seventh Commandment protects property. But the Eighth Commandment protects something arguably just as valuable—one’s reputation. Proverbs 22:1 says: “A good name is more desirable than great riches, to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”
What is a reputation? You can’t see, feel, hear, taste, or smell it, but it’s just as real. Everyone has one. And most people care a lot about it. Businesses will spend millions of dollars to create a good reputation. Politicians caught in compromising situations go into damage control to maintain theirs.
Your reputation is about you. It is what others think and say of you. A good reputation makes you welcome, trusted, and acceptable; a bad reputation does just the opposite. A reputation impacts how you will get along with other people. False witness, gossiping, and lying destroy the fabric of society. Without trust and sincerity there can be no human community.    
As with any other broken commandment, the Old Testament penalties for this one were severe. Jewish law was careful about prejudiced witnesses. No relative, friend, enemy, heir, or person of disreputable occupation was allowed to give testimony. Two witnesses were required to convict a person of any crime (Deuteronomy 19:15). A false witness received the same punishment the accused would have received if convicted. If the punishment was stoning, the accusers were the ones compelled to push the convicted person over the cliff and throw the first stone. No one took lightly accusing one another of wrongdoing. Why? Because one’s reputation is his or her most important legacy. You can leave behind children. You can found an organization or establish a business. You can make a lot of money and pass on a huge inheritance. But your real value to the world is who you are, your character, your example, your influence.
This commandment protects something more valuable than property or even life itself. It protects your value as a creation of God. It protects all that you are and want to be. And it is so vulnerable. How do you protect yourself from a false accusation? How do you undo your gossip against others? A reputation built up over years can be destroyed in seconds by a false accusation. It can never truly be restored. Confidence and trust are lost.
St. James warns us, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (3:5-6). The tongue can ruin marriages and devastate children. It can destroy careers or start wars between nations. It can lead to suicide. And, it can cause extensive damage to the Church, the body of Christ.
Gossip is, perhaps, the most pernicious sin in the Church. It can be a cancer in the congregation. Think about this: When you gossip about another member of this congregation, you are attacking someone who is a member of the same body to which you are joined. It would be like your hand deciding to cut off your own foot. It would be like setting fire to your neighbor’s house when you both live in the same apartment building.
There’s a saying that “nothing ever happens in a small town, but what you hear makes up for it.” And we laugh at that. But dear friends, sometimes it’s not all that funny. And sadly, I think we could apply that saying to churches, too. Though it is seldom done maliciously, gossip, idle talk, and rumors have a way of inserting themselves into the church. And they can cause much damage to the relationships we have with one another, and ultimately to the Church’s mission.
We don’t realize the power we possess in words. Sometimes our words can’t do much good for people, but they can always do much damage. There is nothing harmless about bearing false witness, about slander, gossip, betrayal, or lying. Do you realize that the mess our world is in today can all be traced back to the telling and believing of one lie? To one bit gossip? The bearing of false witness?
Remember in the garden? Satan saying to Eve—if she ate of the forbidden fruit—“You won’t die.” “You’ll become just like God.” “God is holding out on you.” The devil’s lies and the subsequent actions of Eve and Adam opened the floodgates of evil into our world.  And the suffering, the struggle, and the pain that we see all around us every day can all be traced back to those lies as God brought the consequences of their sin to bear.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s  desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
When we break the Eighth Commandment in any way, shape, or form, we line ourselves up with the devil and we declare him to be our father instead of God. And that’s serious business. Lying goes to the heart of you who are and who you want to be. It has nothing to do with what you can get away with, but how you want to live. Whose child are you? God’s or Satan’s?
In his explanation to the Eighth Commandment, Martin Luther writes: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
As with all the commandments, there is a negative side and a positive—the sin we must avoid and the good we must do. We must defend our neighbor, speak well of him, and explain his actions and motives in the kindest way. We must not communicate in ways that do not uphold our neighbor’s name and reputation. We should not spread bad reports about our neighbor—even if they are true.
A woman once complained to King Frederick the Great of Prussia about her neighbor. The king said, “That is none of my business.”
The woman answered, “But, my lord, he speaks evil of you.”
“Then it is none of your business,” the king answered.
If we are aware of something negative about our neighbor, but have no authority to act up upon it, we should remain silent. Mind your own business. But if it is your business, follow Christ’s words in Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Here we have an excellent teaching for governing the tongue. Do not too quickly spread evil against your neighbor and slander him. Instead, admonish him privately, that he may amend his life. Likewise, if someone reports to you what this or that person has done, teach him, too, to go and admonish that person personally, if he has seen the deed himself. But if he has not seen it, then let him hold his tongue.
 Far from making our neighbor’s sin against us public knowledge, Christ instructs us to deal with him privately. Our goal is to win our brother, not to point out his shortcomings. Our goal is to build up the body of Christ, not to tear it down. If someone sins against you, go to him or her personally, privately. To be certain, this is not easy, and it will create a few uncomfortable moments for both of you. But if you don’t feel it’s important enough to deal with personally, if you don’t feel your case is strong enough to present yourself, then perhaps that it is a good indication that the manner should best be left alone.
It should not be your pastor’s job to run around the congregation putting out fires between members. He is not a fireman. Neither are the elders. If someone hurts you, if someone offends you, the strategy that Jesus gives you to deal with it is not to run out and tell someone else about it—not even your pastor. Go and tell the offender you’ve been hurt. Work it out “just between the two of you.” By the way, a phrase that is handy in those times is this: “I forgive you.”
This approach is especially helpful in regard to the pastoral office. A pastor’s integrity is the capital on which he does the Lord’s business. If people get mad at the pastor and instead of coming to him and working things out they decide to bad-mouth him… that hurts the entire ministry in that church. And the price they pay personally is that they can no longer hear the Word of God from their pastor, because their hearts become hard to anything he has to say about God.
In no way am I saying I (your pastor) won’t do dumb things or that my (his) way is always the right way or that you’ll never get upset with me (him)—or I (he) at you. But if that happens—if you get upset at me (him), whether it’s my (his) fault or yours—we (you) have to work it out, or you will starve spiritually. You will not be able to hear the Word from me (him). All you’ll see is the flawed vessel, not the pure contents of the Word of God. And chances are, the conflict will end up causing collateral damage in the church as others are dragged into the fray.
So much for what we must not do. What should we do to help maintain our neighbor’s good reputation? We honor God according to the Eighth Commandment when we defend our neighbor against false accusations. When we take his part, speak up for him, especially in his or her absence.
 We honor God according to the Eighth Commandment when we refuse to listen to gossip. The ear can sin as well as the tongue. Martin Luther put it this way: “The slanderer has the devil on the tongue, and the listener has him in the ear.” Gossip would never spread if it didn’t have an eager audience.
We honor God according to the Eighth Commandment when we speak well of our neighbors. Point out their good traits. Praise their good actions and qualities, rather than piling on the criticism.
We honor God according to the Eighth Commandment when we explain everything in the kindest way. The old advice is to “put the best construction on everything.” Take everything you hear in the best possible way. Look at everything in the best possible light. Assign the best motives to the actions of others. If you make the effort to do this, I guarantee you will save yourself a lot of trouble and anguish. Usually, when someone is grumpy with you, it is not because he has it in for you, but because of something bad that happened to him at work or at home. Instead of taking offense right away, it is good to be patient and try to understand where the person is really coming from.
St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoice with the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres… Love covers over a multitude of sins.”
How’s that for a scandal? The Church is engaged in a “cover-up” business! It’s true! We are called to cover one another’s sins. Actually, Christ has already covered them with His atoning sacrificial death. When we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
That’s a great thing about using the liturgy. Corporate confession and absolution is the great leveler. Each week, as we confess our sins together, we are confessing that we are really not any better than our neighbor—we are all poor, miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. We have all violated God’s commandment against false testimony. We have all sinned by what we have said to and about others. We have all been eager to hear “bad news” and rumors about other people. We have all failed to protect our neighbor’s reputation and explain things in the kindest way.
But despite all of this, we also all hear the same absolution, the same Word of forgiveness and grace covers each of us. Our Lord Jesus Christ, by His innocent suffering and death, has atoned for our many sins. St. Peter writes in his first epistle: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:22-24).
That’s how God looks at us. He knows you and me at our worst. He’s seen us when we did things nobody knows about, not even our spouse or best friend. But as we heard last week, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). When God sees us—He sees His Son Jesus. Talk about putting the best construction on things!
Jesus stands at our side to defend us. He tells the accuser—Satan—all sins have been paid for by His death on the cross in our place. He covers us with His perfect life so we can stand in God’s presence holy and perfect. We are completely forgiven. The Father knows all we’ve done and all we’ve failed to do. Yet, in grace, He adopts us as His own children. He calls us “precious in My eyes, and honored” (Isaiah 43:4).
Our heavenly Father wants you to think of those around us in the same way—to love them, forgive them, as He would—and, as Luther emphasized, “defend [them], speak well of [them], and explain everything in the kindest way.” This is how you protect your neighbor’s reputation, and in so doing, build your own—as a Christian, a little Christ, being the light and salt of the earth.
Through the cross of Christ, you see your neighbor in a new light. God has cleared your name and his or her name as well. You see your neighbor as one of those beloved children, like you, for whom Christ also gave His perfect holy life into death. You see your fellow Christian as one who, who like you, has also been washed in the blood of the Lamb and clothed with His righteousness in Holy Baptism. You see your neighbor as a fellow guest invited to the Lord’s Supper, one with whom you share a most intimate fellowship—Christ’s very body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. You trust and believe that you and your neighbor are both covered in Jesus’ words of absolution: You are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

God Protects Our (His) Stuff

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Or here.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The text for today is Exodus 20:15: “You shall not steal.”
At first blush, this Seventh Commandment seems quite straightforward: “You shall not steal.” Duhh!!! Everyone, from the youngest child on up, knows it’s wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to you. Protection of private property is fundamental to stability in any society. How can you have any sense of order if everyone’s trying to take stuff from someone else? How can you be productive if you spend all your time trying to protect the stuff you’ve already got?
But Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism once again draws out the deeper implications: “We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”
As with all the commandments, there is a negative side and a positive side to this commandment. It deals with sins of omission and sins of commission—not only the evil that we do, but also the good we fail to do. You shall not steal; rather, you shall help your neighbor to improve and protect his possessions and income.
The term steal has taken on a rather limited meaning. Today it means the brash removing of someone else’s property from the owner’s premises. In his explanation of the Seventh Commandment, however, Martin Luther provides a broad definition to include obtaining things “in any dishonest way.” Stealing is not only physically robbing another’s possessions, but it is also taking advantage of other people through any type of fraud, usury, laziness, or cheating. As Luther explains, “stealing” also includes failing to help our neighbor improve or protect our neighbor’s stuff —his or her possessions and income.
Examples of breaking the Seventh Commandment include sins most of us would readily recognize: things like robbery, embezzlement, false advertising, “bait-and-switch” tactics, cheating on taxes, and shoplifting, just to name a few. But this commandment also deals with less obvious sins like taking credit for work someone else has done, knowingly pocketing the extra change a store clerk accidentally gives you, wasting time, plagiarizing a report from the internet, pirating CDs or DVDs, sharing songs on the internet, pay day loans, cheating, vandalizing, laziness, and being careless with borrowed property.
Greed is the primary target of this commandment. The issue is not stealing itself. The issue is taking advantage of another for one’s own advancement. The issue is making someone else’s loss your gain. The issue is the idolatry of stuff. Ultimately, the issue is one’s soul. Jesus warned, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). St. Paul added, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10).
It’s really a matter of perspective. How we view other people’s possessions is related to how we view what belongs to us. Possessions may appear to come to us through our hard work or shrewd management, but Scripture says that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). All earthly goods and possessions really come from God. In His goodness and mercy, God distributes these gifts among people—to some people more, to some less.
We often affirm, “I own this.” “She owns that.” For practical and legal purposes, these statements are true. In reality, however, God owns everything. It’s His stuff. We are only caretakers or stewards of God’s gracious gifts. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for He founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters” (Psalm 24:1-2).
As stewards, we may use the possessions God has entrusted to us as we wish, as long as we do not contradict God’s purposes. We may keep, sell, trade, or give away our possessions. But God commands us never to step over the line between what is ours and what belongs to our neighbor. God commands all people, “You shall not steal. You shall help your neighbor and improve his possessions and income.” In this way, God protects our (actually, His) stuff.
The Bible indicates that we can also rob God. In Old Testament times God commanded that the first tenth (or tithe) of all that was received was to be returned to Him (Malachi 3:8-10). God did not require the tithe because He needed the resources. On the contrary, He said, “I have no need of a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:9-10, ESV).
So, what then was God’s purpose in commanding the tithe? It was to remind His people of His ownership (Psalm 24:1) and to pour out His blessings on them. “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house. And thereby put Me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (Malachi 3:10, ESV). Neglecting to tithe breeds indifference to God and robs His people of the good things God wants to give them. Tithing honors the Giver.
That is not to say that the tithe is mandated for the Church today. In the New Testament we are not bound by a set percentage, but challenged by God to give regularly, proportionately, and sacrificially in the support of His work. St. Paul instructs the church in Corinth: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income” (1 Corinthians 16:2). Later, he urges: “Just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you excel in this grace of giving” (2 Corinthians 8:7).
Did you hear that phrase: “this grace of giving”? Perhaps it sounds foreign to you. Maybe you’ve never considered giving as an act of grace, especially with it comes to tithes and offerings. Many people give to meet the needs of the budget. People are by nature “needs givers.” If there are needs and the need is worthy they will condescend to give something. But good stewardship says, “I will return to the Lord in proportion to how He has blessed me.” You shouldn’t need some special program like a building project or a budget shortfall to motivate you to give. When God’s grace and Word works in your heart, it just becomes part of who you are.
As a New Testament believer who acknowledges God’s ownership of your life and enjoys His love and grace, you will be eager to give Him your total devotion, as well as a generous share of your resources. Those with large incomes have the financial ability to give beyond the tithe. Jesus said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48, ESV).
Unfortunately, many people have developed something today we might call “Cafeteria Christianity,” a pick and choose approach to the faith. They say to themselves, “I’ll follow God in these areas of my life, but I’m going to reserve some of my life for myself.”
But God doesn’t operate that way. He doesn’t in any area in which He gives direction to our lives. and He doesn’t here, regarding money and possessions. Jesus Himself spoke more about money than probably anyone else in all the Bible. And He summed up His message with the words, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
So, where is your treasure? Is in found in the stuff of this world or in your Lord? Is it found in the creation or the Creator? Is it found in the gift or the Giver? Your stewardship of God’s blessings answers that question more truthfully than your mouth ever could. Perhaps this simple illustration will help to explain:
A father takes his five-year-old son to McDonald’s because the boy wants some fries and a coke. And the father is not really hungry, so he doesn’t order anything. He’s just enjoying the company of his son. So the son gets his fries and pop and they are both sitting there enjoying the moment. As the father observes his son popping the fries in his mouth, he casually reaches over to get a fry. And the boy says, “Mine!” And the father looks at his son, and he says to himself, “Doesn’t this kid understand? I’m the one that gave him the fries. I gave them to him out of love. I could go and get my own fries if I want. Doesn’t this kid understand? He would only be sharing something I gave him in the first place.”
Well folks, here God showers us with His gifts, and we clutch them and say, “Mine!” Don’t we understand? We don’t, do we? Do you know what belongs to you? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! You brought nothing into this world and you will carry nothing out. Everything belongs to the Lord. You are merely a steward, a manager of some of those blessings.
Really, in many ways, the least and simplest thing you can do for your Lord is to give money. When you give money for the Lord’s work you do ministry by proxy. Through your pastor, you minister to the sick, the shut-in, of our local congregation, and provide comfort to those whose loved ones die. You help teach children in VBS and Sunday School. You help those who are lost in their sin open their eyes and see Jesus.
Your gifts go to ministry in the Minnesota South District, such as financial aid for future pastors and teachers, outreach programs, evangelism training, and the planting of new congregations. Your gifts go through our synod for work in countries all over the world feeding and clothing and housing those in need, digging wells, building seminaries and hospitals, and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It may not look that exciting when you just drop money in the plate week after week, but you are making all that happen. And that is tremendously exciting!
In the end, your understanding of this commandment not only affects the relationship we have with your neighbor, but also gets to the very view that you have of God. How do you see God? As a harsh taskmaster and stern judge, or as a loving Father and generous Giver?
God is a Giver. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Jesus gave His life for you that you might have everlasting life, so that you might be forgiven even of your greed and selfishness. Everything that we have comes from God. Everything that God controls gives. “The sun gives light, the rain gives life, trees give shade, and so forth. On the other hand, everything that Satan controls takes. The Bible says that Satan’s purpose is to “steal and kill and to destroy.” When you steal, you are lining yourself right up with Satan; you are swearing allegiance to the prince of darkness.
God is a Giver who revels in generosity. In Jesus’ parables, God rejoices to be generous with His servants. God gives the worker who came in at the last hour the full wage (Matthew 20:1-16). He cancels the huge debt of his servant because he pleads for mercy (Matthew 18:21-35). He generously entrusts ten and five and one talents to his servants and then doubles them for His faithful ones on His return (Luke 19:11-27). The five thousand are fed until they are fully satisfied and there are baskets of bread leftover. The wedding party is provided with the good wine that will not run out. God is gracious and generous!
Thank God He is! He does not reward you according to what you deserve; He blesses you according to His unfailing generosity. The psalmist writes: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:10-12).
Our Lord died, rose, and now reigns so that He can “graciously give [you] all things” (Romans 8:32) in time and—most important—for all eternity. God generously gives every good blessing to you, including our very salvation. And then He sends you out saying, “Go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Do not steal, but help and protect your neighbor and his or her property. Be honest with your boss—on your time sheet, on your expense account, and on your phone calls. Be honest with your classmates—don’t cheat on tests and papers. Be honest with authors, artists, and composers—don’t duplicate their articles, their movies, and their songs without permission, attribution, and/or appropriate compensation. Be honest with the next generation—do not take their money and their natural resources. Be honest with your fellow citizens—pay your fair share of taxes. Be honest with your God—do not rob Him of His tithe.
This commandment calls you to live a life of integrity and generosity that reflects the characteristics and nature of our good and gracious God. God is truly a Giver! He has created you and given you life. He gives you all that you need to support this body and life and, more importantly, for the one in the new age to come. In His generous love and mercy, your heavenly Father has given you His only Son Jesus, who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Jesus is your gracious substitute, who has willingly given His life as a ransom for your sins.
Here is stuff that endures forever, a treasure that will never fade, spoil, or rust: faith, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In Baptism, God adopts you as His child and gives you His Holy Spirit and new life. In His Holy Supper, the Lord feeds you with the bread of heaven, and shares the cup that never runs out—His very body and blood—to strengthen you, body and soul, unto life everlasting. Week after week, your generous God speaks to you this gracious Good News through His called and ordained servant: “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, August 9, 2014

Loving God and Honoring Marriage

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Sixth Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).
What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.”
Christians get a little embarrassed when it comes to discussing human sexuality. In fact, if we took a poll here it might be interesting to see how many of your parents talked to you at any length about anything having to do with sex. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you never had that talk at all.
And that’s a shame—because everybody else is talking about it, aren’t they? Our society, our televisions shows, our advertisements—they are all obsessed with sex. For Christians to ignore that and fail to present what God has to say about our sexuality is to leave an open door for the devil. So today, we will examine God’s holy will for us in the area of human sexuality.
Let’s start with the basics—marriage and family. “God sets the lonely in families,” says the psalmist (68:6). It was not good for the man to be alone, according to Genesis; so God made him a woman from his very flesh, instituted marriage, and commanded them to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1-2).
Marriage is a vocation—a calling—from God. This was a major issue in the Reformation. Our Lutheran forefathers had to battle the notion that those who wished to be highly spiritual would have to join a monastery or abbey, take a vow of celibacy, promising never to marry or have children. Pointing to the biblical texts on marriage and the family, the Reformers insisted that there is no higher or holier calling than marriage, and that everything that accompanies marriage, including sexual relations, is a gift from God.
Indeed, Scripture makes clear that the intimacies and relationships of human marriage have profound spiritual significance. Throughout the Old Testament, God describes His relationship to His people as a marriage—He is the Husband and His people are His bride. When they stray away from Him or fall into idolatry, God pictures their betrayal as spiritual adultery. The Book of Revelation emphasizes how the Church will be revealed as the Bride of Christ at the end of time (21:2, 9).
The Song of Solomon with its longing and its sensuality, is certainly about marriage. But it has always been interpreted also to speak of the relationship between Christ and the Church, His people. That is to say, Christ is hidden in marriage. Not that marriage is a sacrament as such, since even non-Christians get married. No, marriage is a natural state, common to the whole human race, instituted by God at creation. It has to do with God’s earthly kingdom and thus is licensed and regulated by civil laws. Nevertheless, marriage is a tangible manifestation of the relationship between Christ and the Church, though only Christian couples, through the eyes of faith, will be able to glimpse how this is so.
St. Paul explains: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:28-32).
Far from denigrating the body, as Christians are often accused of doing, the Bible affirms our physical nature. Moreover, this text speaks of Christ’s unity with His people, not in vague “spiritual” terms, but in terms of the “body.” The Church is the Body of Christ. Furthermore, Christ has given His body, broken on the cross, for His Church. In the ongoing institution of the Lord’s Supper, He says, “This is My body, which is given for you.”
At the outset of creation when God established marriage, He ordained that the husband and wife become “one flesh.” This is indeed “a profound mystery.” The nature of Christ’s unity with the Church, what it means that we are the Body of Christ on earth, and what it means that He gives us His body opens up depths of theological inquiry. But it is here applied to marriage in a very down-to-earth way.
A husband should love his wife just like he loves his own body. He should never mistreat or harm her any more than he would hurt himself physically.
Nor does St. Paul draw away from the sexual implications of the mutual body that the man and woman share. In 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, he is more explicit: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
This passage is rather astonishing in how far it goes in affirming the sexual dimension of marriage. The husband and the wife are to satisfy each other sexually. Their bodies do not belong just to themselves but to the other person. They should not “deprive one another” of sex accept when both agree to devote themselves to prayer, but this should only be “for a limited time,” and after that they should “come together again.”
This sexual freedom within marriage is very different—and far more liberating—than today’s secular attitudes toward sex. There is none of this “It’s my body, and I can do with it what I want.” No, it is not your body—it is your spouse’s, and it is God’s. There is certainly no sexual permissiveness here. Sex is to find full expression in marriage, lest Satan tempt the man and woman through their lack of self-control into infidelity or other kinds of sexual immorality.
This illustrates an important principle of vocation: Something may be good when done inside a vocation, but sin when it is done outside of that vocation. Sex outside of marriage is wrong, but not because there is anything wrong with sex. Within the vocation of marriage, it is a great good. Outside the vocation of marriage, though, it is evil. You are not called to have sex with anyone other than your spouse. You have no authority to have this positive physical relationship with someone you are not married to.
Like observing the Sabbath and honoring parents, the Sixth Commandment originally was social legislation intended to protect those most vulnerable in the society—in this case, women. In other societies at the time, men could grab any woman they wanted and treat her as property. Among God’s people, it would not be this way. Like the Fourth and Fifth Commandments, the Sixth Commandment carried the severest penalty—death. As with the Fourth Commandment, it protected one of the “orders of creation” on which society stands. Honoring parents protected the family. Prohibiting adultery protected marriage. Without stable families and marriages, society disintegrates and self-destructs. True of the once great Greek and Roman civilizations, it will be true of our American society.
The Sixth Commandment is about more than just “cheating on your spouse.” “Adultery” is having sex with anyone other than your spouse. I tell confirmation students: “Even now you are called to be faithful to your spouse—even though you’d don’t know yet who he or she is.”
Obviously, sexuality immorality is rampant. This moral decay will doom our society, as it has every sexually decadent society before us. Anthropologists, however, have pointed out one peculiarity of our society. Never before has a society had cultural leaders who sought to treat decadence as normal and to have it recognized as legal. Despite rampant homosexuality, adultery, and promiscuity, the Greeks and Romans always considered such things perversions. The laws against them were never removed, no matter how much they were flaunted. Why? They recognized that an order of creation was at stake. The elite wanted to flaunt accepted morality for the sake of their own pleasures, but they sure hoped others wouldn’t or the order of creation would be undermined, society would collapse.
So how did we get here? I would suggest an over-correction of a false view of sex—the ascetic view—has brought us to this point. In this view, bodily drives are considered bad because they divert from the real nature of man—which is spiritual. Sex is bad because it satisfies a basic drive of the body. This view of sex shows up in many religions: (1)  in the requirement that “holy men” be celibate,(2) in the opinion that sex shouldn’t be talked about in church, or (3) the idea that a truly spiritual person will suppress all sexual feelings.
Obviously, this is disrespect for a creation of God. In the beginning, God created them male and female, capable of having sex. Sex is a beautiful gift of God. It was not good for man to be alone. God intends for us to be joyful. He created us to rejoice before Him. He created us to rest in His love and to share that love with others. He wants you to enjoy the body He gave you. He wants you to enjoy your sexuality within its proper context.
But the current view of sex over-corrects the ascetic view. This naturalist view proclaims that we were created to enjoy sex, so let’s do it. The Christian view is that the sex drive need not be denied. The naturalist view is that it must not be denied. A person’s feelings are the judge of what is right and wrong. Anything that frustrates a person’s drives and fulfillment must be rejected. A person should be free to have sex anytime, anywhere, and any way—as long as he or she feels good afterward and no one gets hurt. That is what our rebellious, sinful heart tells us. And it’s not peculiar to our age or society. David gave in to this naturalist philosophy when he took Uriah’s wife. Satan says, “It’s just a one-night stand. I want it. She wants it. Nobody’s going to get hurt.”
But that’s a lie! There is no such thing as safe sex outside of marriage! Someone will be hurt—whether the consequence are readily noticeable or not.
For one: God will be hurt. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul reminds us: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By His power God raised the Lord from the dead, and He will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ Himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’  But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with Him in spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:13-17).
For another: You will be hurt. “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). Sexual sin not only increases the chances of physical ailments; it harms you psychologically and spiritually.
Also: The other person will be hurt. How can you lead him or her into sin and the harmful consequences of such sin? Is that really loving your neighbor?
But the devastating effects of sexual sin don’t end there. Others will be hurt as well. Society and homes are littered with the carnage left in the wake of sexual sin: broken homes, skyrocketing divorce rates, abortion, the demeaning of women, the abuse of children, the redefinition of marriage, and pornography,     
In describing marriage as a “one flesh” union, God makes it clear that sexual intercourse is far from just a physical encounter. He established in that union a oneness of body and soul in which all barriers are down. By its very nature that one flesh cannot tolerate a third party. Someone has said, “Adultery is like putting your tongue on a frozen pipe. You can tear it off, but not without leaving some of your tongue on the pipe.” You don’t ever walk away unscathed. You don’t ever walk away without leaving a piece of yourself behind.
In addition, the heart hardens with sexual sin. It goes from one defiance of God’s commandments to another. David’s fall started with it lustful look at beautiful Bathsheba. He coveted Uriah’s wife. He abused his authority and had Bathsheba brought to him. He committed adultery. To cover up his sin, He lied and schemed. David finally had Uriah killed, and took Bathsheba to be his wife. In one short episode, David ended up violating practically all Ten Commandments.
The prophet Nathan boldly confronted David with his sin. David loved his Lord and confessed his sin. He prayed, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love… Against You, You only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me… Restore to me the joy of Your salvation” (Psalm 51:1, 4, 10, 12).
That’s the assurance for you as well. Sexual sin—no matter what it is—is not the unforgivable sin. Sexual problems do not make you unacceptable to God. They, too, are part of your fallen nature. The homosexual, the sexually immoral, and the unfaithful spouse are among those for whom Christ shed His holy, precious blood. Jesus is the “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).
To be sure, there will be consequences, as with all sin—in your body, in your heart, in your self-respect, in your relationships. As St. Paul noted with Roman society in his time, “God gave them up to dishonorable passions… receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26-27). A spouse may not be able to forgive or to trust again. Children may not be able to forgive. The marriage may end in divorce. You may find it difficult to forgive yourself. But if you turn it over to God, He will take it as He has time and time again—whatever your sin. When you repent as King David did and pray for a new heart, you will receive it. Your sweet Savior took that sin with Him to the cross. You may still suffer earthly consequences of your sin, but the eternal consequences were absorbed by our Lord. You are forgiven.
Dear Christians, God did not give the Ten Commandments to cramp your style, to curb your fun, or because He’s a puritanical prude. God gave the Ten Commandments as a means of protecting and blessing you. The real issue here, as with all the commandments, is this: Are you willing to bring this part of your lives under the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Will you confess your sin, and receive God’s gift of forgiveness and new life? Will you repent and live in the true freedom that comes in walking in the Lord’s way and according to His will and Word?
We live in a sinful and broken world, burdened by the weight of our own shameful sins and lusts. But the whole Biblical record is full of examples of God working through sinners, forgiving, redeeming broken lives, and making great things happen when all things seem shattered and lost. He still does this for you today. No matter what your sin.
Christ has paid for all of your sins—even your most shameful secret sins—with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. In Baptism, He has made you His own, and covered your shame and sin with His perfect robe of righteousness. In His Supper, He feed His very and body and blood, a foretaste of the great marriage feast of the Lamb, where He will come to take you, His Church, to be His eternal Bride. Through these means of grace, and the voice of His called and ordained servant, He steadfastly loves you and continues to bring you this Good News: “You are forgiven of all of your sins.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.   Amen.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

God Protects His Image

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“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).  
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
In this Fifth Commandment, God forbids us to take the life of another person (such as through murder, manslaughter, abortion, or euthanasia) or to take our own life. Only God has the authority to take a human life, to avenge wrong, and to punish crime. Now, as we heard in last week’s sermon on the Fourth Commandment, God does entrust this authority to others. Theologians call this “the power of the sword” based up Paul’s continuing instructions in Romans 13. Therefore Christians can in good conscience wage just war and punish and execute criminals under rightful government authority. God continues to protect His precious gift of human life through these human institutions.
But before we go any further, we must ask an important question: “Why does God value human life?” Why does God value human beings above all His creatures? Why does God place penalties on the taking of human life but not that of plants and animals? What makes man so special?
God Himself tells us in Genesis. As He blessed Noah and his sons after the flood, God included the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and the creatures that move along the ground, as things that could be eaten for food in addition to the green plants He had already given for food at the time of creation. But the more frequent killing of animals was not to make people indifferent to the shedding of human blood. God therefore announced this general rule and why He made this rule: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood will be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). According to this passage, it is the image of God that gives unique value to human life.
In Genesis 1:26-27, we read that God created the first man and woman in His image and likeness. But we also know that in the fall, that image of God was lost—not just to Adam and Eve but also to all their descendants. Seth was not born in the image of God, but in the image of his father, Adam (Gen 5:3). Which brings us potentially troubling questions: If this image of God was lost to Seth and all of Adam’s descendants, how can God still prohibit the shedding of human blood on the basis of man being made in the image of God? Can humans born under the curse of original sin still be considered to be “made in the image of God”?
It depends upon what “the image of God” means. Nathan Jastram offers a simple, yet very inclusive definition of the image of God: being “like God” in some way. And this can occur in a variety of ways. First, there is the righteousness and holiness associated with being like God. Adam and Eve had a perfect knowledge of God and His kindness. Adam and Eve were holy and righteous and, consequently, immortal. But being like God also includes having reason and intellect that makes us different than the animals. It includes being able to make moral choices and ruling over God’s creation.
After their fall into sin, Adam and Eve were no longer like God in terms of righteousness and purity of the knowledge of God. Theirs was only a natural knowledge of God, of His power seen in His creation, a knowledge that brought no love or trust in, but only fear of God. There was no longer joyful conformity but hostility that did not submit to God, but was by nature God’s enemy.
In order to rescue His creation that was no longer like Him in holiness, God took on the likeness of man. Although He remained sinless, Jesus took upon Himself humanity’s unholiness, our unrighteousness and mortality. He bore the wrath of God that all humans deserved as He was forsaken by His heavenly Father on the cross. Jesus rose from the dead to validate all that He had done through His holy life and unholy death. Complete payment for sin was made once and for all.
By God’s favor and through faith in Christ’s victory, the likeness of God’s holiness is being renewed in believers. There is renewal of the knowledge of God. St. Paul writes: “You have become a new person. This new person is continually renewed in knowledge to be like its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). Unlike the original knowledge of God, however, this knowledge is not natural and is only revealed through the Gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
In the Gospel, there is renewal in righteousness and holiness. St. Paul also writes that you were taught “to put on the new self, created after the image of God in true righteous and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Unlike the original righteousness and holiness, however, this is not perfect or complete. Paul spoke of the sinner that still remains in all of God’s saints. “I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15). The image of God is being renewed—we are being changed into His image with ever-increasing glory—but it is not yet complete.
The end of time will mark the full restoration of the image of God. In the new “heaven and earth” God creates, there will once again be the direct knowledge of the goodness of God. The intimate relationship with God that Adam and Eve experienced will be restored. Sin’s consequences will cease to exist: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There won’t be any more death. There won’t be any grief, crying, or pain, because the first things have disappeared” (Revelation 21:4).
With that in mind, we are now ready to discuss the place the image of God has in the innate value of human life. Passages like Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 indicate that even after the fall, value is attached to human life because of the image of God. After the fall into sin, human beings are no longer like God in terms of holiness, but there still remains a likeness to God that engenders inherent value and respect for human life. Human beings are still like God in terms of reason, intellect, and the ability to choose. Despite the fact that these all have been marred by sin, such things elevate human life above animal life.
It seems proper, therefore, to argue that the child in the womb has value to God not only because God is intimately involved in the creation of that child (Psalm 139:13-14) and declares that the child is a gift (Psalm 127:13), but also because in the beginning human life was elevated above all other aspects of the creation and was created in the image of God. Though the child in the womb is no longer like God in holiness, he or she is still like God in terms of reason, intellect, and the ability to choose, and, therefore, has inherent value as a human being.
We can also argue that all human life is given special value because God sent His Son to make complete payment for the sins of the world. The gift of God’s Son is the ultimate proof of the value God places even on unbelievers, be they born or unborn. Jesus came to die for the “ungodly” (Romans 5:6) and for those who were His “enemies” (Romans 5:10). Every human life is a life for whom Jesus died to redeem, to restore to His image.
It is also proper to argue that Christians have special value because God is at work in them. Indeed, our bodies are temples of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Through the Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit is at work renewing us in the true knowledge of God “from the face of Christ” and applying to us the “righteousness and holiness” of Christ. Christians do not have value because we bear the image of God as did Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But we do have value because God’s Spirit is at work in us renewing that image through Christ, which will be fully restored on the Last Day in the resurrection.
Murder strikes at the majesty and glory of God. And since the divine image, lost in the fall, can be regained only during a person’s lifetime, to end someone’s life means to cut off his time of grace and, if he has not regained God’s image, to doom him to an eternity of separation from God. God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” God wants everyone to be restored in the image of His Son. That it is why He gives us the Fifth Commandment.
“You shall not murder.” That doesn't sound so difficult, does it? After all, I haven’t shot anybody. I haven’t drawn a knife or cast a stone (that is, if you don’t count that time when I lobbed that one and my brother jumped in front of it). I haven’t run through a stop sign and plowed into another vehicle. And although I was in a few tussles in my younger days, I’ve never been in an actual fistfight.
But the Fifth Commandment doesn’t end at the shedding of blood. Jesus raised the bar considerably, showing that this commandment can also be violated by one’s words and thoughts. “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, ‘Raca!  You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).
There is such a thing as righteous anger, which is concerned about God’s honor and God’s truth, but here Jesus speaks about sinful anger, which is concerned about revenge and may involve hatred. Such anger may not even be evident to other people, but God is aware of it, and it deserves God’s punishment.
It is difficult to translate accurately the word Raca and the word Jesus used for “You fool,” but it evident that the latter expression is more vicious than the preceding one. It has been suggested that Raca was not even a real word, just a sound of disgust or contempt that was accompanied by appropriate gestures. I imagine it as the kind of thing that happens whenever someone suddenly pulls out in front of me in traffic, causing me to apply my brakes more quickly than I planned. What Jesus illustrates here is that even sinful desires or evil words that fall short of the act of murder are transgressions of God’s commandment and deserve the severest penalty. St. John writes: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him” (1 John 3:15).
But even if you’ve managed to somehow avoid these sins… even if you’ve never called someone a name who has cut you off in traffic, or made a threatening gesture…even if you’ve never been angry with a member of your family or of our congregation… you’re still not off the hook. Those sins only pertain to the negative part of this commandment and not the positive.
Luther explains the full meaning of the Fifth Commandment: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” Notice, there are two sides of this commandment: what you must not do and what you must do to protect innocent human life. Obviously, the positive side of the commandment is much more difficult, more demanding, more open-ended. We can avoid hitting and killing people, and refrain from calling them bad names, but how do we help them?
Jesus Himself laid that out in His discussion with the rich young man (Matthew 19). “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” he asked. Jesus replied, “Keep the commandments… ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The man replied, “All these I have kept” (v.20). How could he say this? He really believed he had observed the Commandments fully. But he was looking only at one side of the Commandments. He didn’t recognize the wide-open, demanding positive side. He thought he could make himself acceptable to God by his wonderful life. Yet, deep inside, he knew something was wrong. That’s why he came to Jesus.
Jesus pushed him to recognize the impossibility of the game he was playing, the game the Pharisees had the whole nation playing. Jesus said, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (v.21). Jesus took just the one commandment and spelled out what it means to fulfill it.
The Fifth Commandment means more than not killing or hurting. It means going out and helping. It means sacrificing for the sake of others’ welfare. It means thinking of others’ needs, not just your own. It means “count[ing] others more significant than yourselves.” It means “look[ing] not only to [your] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). That’s hard. That’s demanding. That’s impossible.
That’s the point. It is impossible. The Commandments are not a game God gives us to play against impossible odds. He knows we cannot carry out His perfect will. He wants us to confess our sin and our need for a Savior. That’s why Jesus came and fulfilled all the Law’s demands in our place.
We admit every Sunday that we have sinned “by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” In fact, 99 percent of our sins are sins of omission, not sins of commission. It’s the thousands of good things we fail to do that are really at the root of our sinfulness. We don’t see them. We pass right by because we are blinded and hardened by sin. We focus so sharply on ourselves that we don’t see the opportunities to help and befriend other people every day.
We confess, “We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” We have loved ourselves first and foremost and unfailingly. What have we ever really sacrificed for the sake of others in need? Even what we have given hasn't really hurt us. We hardly missed it. We haven’t come close to carrying out this commandment: “Sell what you possess and give to the poor.” And that’s why we honestly confess, “We justly deserve Thy temporal and eternal punishment.”
That’s also why we boldly and devoutly cling to Christ: “For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us.” Jesus came to bring us that perfect, eternal mercy from God. The game is over. It need never be played again. Jesus played it and won. He was the perfect sacrifice for sin in our place. Now we just exult in His total, free acceptance.
Because Christ fulfills the Law for us, we can love our neighbor with His perfect love. In spite of all our sin and rebellion and weakness, we are accepted. We are welcomed into His presence. He calls us His own, rebels though we are. And then He sends us out to spread His kingdom of love. He sends us to be His arms of mercy in a hurting world. He teaches us to pray, “Our Father… give us this day our daily bread.” We pray not just for ourselves, but also for our brothers and sisters around the world, especially the poor. We look for ways to help and befriend our poor brothers in all their bodily needs. And when we fail, we repent of our sins, trusting in His mercy and grace, and seek to amend our sinful ways.
Human life is important to God. Your life is important to God. God is the Giver of life. God is the Creator of life. God is the Redeemer of life. God is Sanctifier of life. Christ has lived and died and rose that you might have life and have it to the full. For His sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Into the Wilderness

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