Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Truth That [Who] Sets You Free

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Or here.
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:31-32).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Our text, like many other passages of Scripture, is often misused and taken out of context. The words “the truth will set you free” are isolated, so that any learning that might help us to find “truth” (whatever that may be) is praised. We see the words on libraries and as secular college mottoes. We hear them on the lips of our post-modern intellectual leaders and politicians. But we don’t hear Whose Word reveals the truth that sets us free. We don’t hear Who is the Truth that sets us free. And we don’t hear what it means to be really, truly free. And unfortunately this is not limited to the outside world. This goes on in many a church body that calls itself Christian—even among a number of them that claim to be spiritual descendants of the Reformer, Martin Luther.
So, what is the proper context? Jesus originally spoke the words of our text to those whose belief in Him was superficial. They were “hangers on” but not really disciples. And just as there’s no such thing as “almost pregnant,” there is no such thing as “almost a disciple.” You either are or you are not. Discipleship means accepting all of Jesus’ teaching and remaining faithful to it. That’s what He means when He says to “abide in My Word”—to hold to His teaching.
The message of the Scriptures rediscovered by the Reformation is that by faith in Christ, before God we are free, saved by God’s grace alone, for the sake of Christ alone, through faith alone. And this is true freedom. In Jesus, we are free from the guilt of our sin. We are free from the power of death to destroy us. And we are free to live for Jesus and for others.
But how do we live in this freedom without letting it go to our head? Or without falling back into slavery? How will our faith in Christ’s promise be sustained? These are questions Jesus addresses in our text, where Jesus lets us listen to his extended conversation with the Jewish leaders and people.
As a result of Jesus’ Word, some had believed in Him. And thank God they did!  But not everyone who followed Jesus was one of His own. What separates a true disciple from those with only a casual interest? Jesus says, “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples.” Abide: It means remain in, rely on, live in. Jesus is saying: “If you remain in… if you rely on… if you live in My teaching, then you are really one of My disciples.” You see, the Word of God is what works faith in a person. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ,” St. Paul writes (Romans 10:17).
But faith not only originates in the Word; the Word of God is also what keeps faith alive. Faith always comes from the outside in. So, for faith to stay alive (not just strong or growing, but to stay alive), we must abide in the Word of God and the Word of God abides in us. The longer a person who has been brought to faith in Jesus stays away from the Word, the weaker faith becomes. Eventually, if faith is not nourished again by the Word, it will die.
The Word of God is the food of faith, the air faith breathes, and the fuel faith burns. Without the Word constantly nourishing and sustaining faith, our faith dies. There is no other way. “Man shall not live by bread alone,” Jesus said, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Scripture says, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My Word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
The Church of Christ is sustained and given life and freedom through the Word and through the Word alone. We know this. That’s why the Lutheran Church is the Church of the Bible. “Scripture alone!” is one of our Reformation watchwords.
So… how many of you regularly read and study the Bible? I have to admit, not as much as I should either. Do you think the devil knows “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” as the Scripture says (Hebrews 4:12)? Of course, he knows that! That’s why the devil works so hard to keep people from the Word. That’s why he tries so hard to keep pastors from doing their best to preach the Word. That’s why he works so hard to divide people from their pastors. Whatever it takes the devil is constantly trying to get us away from the Word of God, because he knows that’s where the freedom is. Without the Word of God, we are still slaves of sin. “If you abide in My Word… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” Jesus said.
Writing about this passage, Luther says: “The true disciple remains… [in] the Word of God, saying: ‘I am helpless. May God help me. It all rests in His hands. He promised and said: “Just cling to the Word, and I will uphold you.” When you find yourself in any extremity or distress, you will learn to continue in God’s Word. This will liberate you make you a true disciple…Truth does not consist in merely hearing Christ… but also in believing in your heart and experiencing with your heart that Christ wants to set you free.”   
“You will know the truth,” Jesus said, “and the truth will set you free.”
But the Jews respond, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Never enslaved to anyone? Right then and there, they were slaves to the Roman Empire. And that wasn’t the half of it. Because they didn’t see their need for the Word of God, they were slaves of sin—a slavery far worse.
Before we look down on them, let’s look at ourselves. Have you ever thought: “I don’t have to come to Bible class. I learned it all years ago in confirmation. At least as much as I need to know”? This is one of the devil’s favorite tricks: to convince us we really don’t need to know all that much of the Word of God. “I was born a Lutheran, confirmed a Lutheran, married in the Lutheran Church, and I’ll be buried a Lutheran,” someone told a friend of mine. When asked, “Well, don’t you have to at least come to church once in a while?” he said, “Why?” What a sad attitude! When we think we learned all we need to know years ago and have no more need to hear and study the Word, as though God has nothing more teach us—we are actually despising the Word of God. When we hear a sermon and, like, an audience at a movie, judge the message on how well it entertains us, instead hungering and thirsting for a deeper understanding of the Word of God, we are despising that Word. And that is a most dangerous sin!
Here Jesus exposes our real problem. “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever.”
“Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That gets us all. No one is left out here. You’ve sinned? You’re a slave. Sin is your master.
Can you free yourself? (Pause)  No. Have you ever known anyone who stopped sinning? (Pause)  Anyone who claims he’s stopped sinning is in the worst sort of denial. He is already full of the sin of pride and self-worship and, ironically, is even more enslaved to sin.
That’s why Jesus invites us to confess our slavery to sin, so that His Word can bring His freedom. And with confession, Jesus also rouses in us a hunger for the Word. For in the Word, we come to know the truth, and knowing the truth in the Word is what sets us free. “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Free from sin, free from fear, free from death. Free from slavery! 
The Word was written down in the Scriptures, not to give us a list of dos and don’ts or suggestions to give life purpose or teach us how to live a victorious life. The Scriptures are given to unfold for us the precious gifts God gives in Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, crucified and raised from the dead for us. The Bible is all about Jesus and what the Father gives in Him. It is His book, His words. His Spirit inspired it from the first words of Genesis to the last amen of Revelation.
This book preaches into our hearts the truth that is Jesus, and it is this truth that kindles faith and keeps it alive. And the truth that is Jesus is the truth heard from a cross, the true cross, the true Word of forgiveness and of freedom. Jesus speaks it on every page. He alone can speak it, for He alone has carried the sin of the world—even the sin of not listening to him and not wanting to hear what He has to say. He has carried it all. It’s all been forgiven.
To know that truth, then, is to be set free from slavery: freed from our callous disregard of the Word, freed to listen, to love, to treasure, and to keep the Word. “You have been born again,” Peter says, “not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding Word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flowers of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the Word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the Good News that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23-35). That Word is the truth that sets you free!  That Word lasts forever. That Word makes you last forever.
Again, Luther has a vivid way of putting it: “This doctrine proves its worth when death approaches, when the devil speaks to you and says: ‘You are forsaken by God, you are steeped in sin.’ It is also invaluable when your conscience denounces you. At such a time it is not a doctrine composed of mere letters and words, but a living doctrine, one that does not tell you what to do what to say, but how to live, how to defend and preserve your life against death, and how to escape the jaws of the devil…
“This freedom is attained when I have faith in Christ and believe that He suffered and died for me. This is what liberates me from sin—[nothing I do]; but it is solely Christ’s redemptive work. For no one else was born of Mary, died, was buried, rose from the dead, and so ascended into heaven than this one Man, Christ. Outside of Him there is no one in heaven or on earth, not even any angel, who could help us. Therefore we must cling solely to this Man and acknowledge Him alone as our Savior.”
This is why we have a special Reformation service. Not just to remember something that happened almost five hundred years ago, but so that God’s Word can do what it does in our lives and hearts now.
So that we are reformed by the Word.
So that our churches are pulled back into the Word of God.
So that we hear again the Son say to us today—Go in peace, you are free!  Free to live in Christ and for others. Free from sin and the power of death to destroy us. Free from the condemnation of the Law. Free to live joyfully as a son or daughter of God. Free to live in the house forever.
Freedom! In Christ, the Word of life: “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says in Galatians. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Abide in the Word of Jesus, my friends. Only His Word brings freedom and life. Christ has broken all the powers that enslave us. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
You are truly free. You are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Things That Are God's

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“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
They say that politics makes for strange bedfellows. That’s certainly the case here. The Pharisees—ardent nationalists who opposed Roman rule—team up with the Herodians whom they despise because of their cooperation with the Roman government. This would be kind of like the members of the Tea Party actively promoting Hillary Clinton for President in 2016. You know that something fishy is going on here.
The Pharisees try to trap Jesus between a political hard place and a religious rock. “Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and You do not care about anyone’s opinion, for You are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what You think.” Obviously, the Pharisees are not afraid of dishing up a bit of flattery to achieve their objectives.
Thinking they’ve sufficiently buttered up this teacher, these legalists pose their carefully worded question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But what these legal experts don’t explain is according to what standards they are asking is it lawful: civil law or the Law of God?
That omission, of course, is intentional. It’s a great chess move. They’ve got Jesus trapped. If Jesus says “no,” He’s a traitor to Rome, an insurrectionist, a tax dodger, a threat to national security. If He says, “yes,” He’s a traitor to His own people, a Roman loyalist, a supporter of the occupation government, an enemy of Israel, an enemy of God.” Yes, they’ve got Him right where they want Him.
Or do they? You see, when you try to trap Jesus, you’ll wind up getting trapped yourself like Wile E. Coyote going after the roadrunner.
“Why put Me to the test, you hypocrites?” Jesus says. “Show Me the coin for the tax.” And so they bring Him a denarius, the Roman coin equivalent to a day’s wages for a laborer. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Jesus asks.
“Caesar’s,” they begrudgingly reply.
“Well then, there you have your answer. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” With that, Jesus dodges the political bullet. He’s no insurrectionist. He has no interest in politics, per se. His kingdom is not of this world. He’s the King of kings, and the Lord of lords. So never mind old Caesar. Just give him his coin and don’t rile a sleeping bear.
And then Jesus turns the tables on those legalists who would test Him. “Oh, by the way… render to God the things that are God’s.” “Render to God the things that are God’s.” And what, pray tell, might be “the things that are God’s”? Jesus doesn’t say. And the Pharisees and the Herodians aren’t inclined to ask. But let’s follow it through. Caesar gets the coin. That’s because it has his likeness and inscription on it. But what does God get? Well, what bears God’s image and likeness? What has God’s inscription?
You! In the very first chapter of Genesis we read of the creation of man. “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, that is, they truly knew God as He wishes to be known and were perfectly happy in Him. They were righteous and holy, doing God’s will. Unfortunately that perfect image was lost when our first parents disobeyed God and fell into sin. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which all mankind retains the image of God. Two passages of Scripture make this clear. Genesis 9:6 records God’s words to Noah: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” St. James echoes that thought: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (3:9).
God has begun to rebuild His image in mankind through His Son, Jesus Christ. St. Paul tells us that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, the God-Man, Jesus Christ lived a perfect obedient life for you. On the cross, Christ exchanged His perfect righteousness for your sin—that original sin that is part of who you are and those actual sins that you have done or failed to do regarding God’s holy Law and will. Having risen from the dead, Jesus now leads His people into His kingdom one-by-one through the gracious water of Holy Baptism, inscribing on the foreheads of each one God’s holy name—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Consequently, St. Paul tells us that “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], [you] shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49) and you are being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29). In Christ you “have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:9-10).
Ultimately, that image of God will be restored to you fully in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting on the Last Day. In the book of Revelation, St. John sees the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world, standing on Mount Zion and with Him, you among the multitude… you having His name and His Father’s name written on your forehead.
So, what are the things of God?
You, first and foremost. You are “the things of God.” God has created you. Christ has redeemed you, making you His own. The Holy Spirit is at work sanctifying you, working a renewal of your whole life. You bear God’s image and inscription. And while you are not yet standing in Paradise, you stand here in anticipation of that joyful eternity.
So what does that mean for you today? I’d like you to take a look at the cartoon in the bulletin. It’s called Agnus Dei, a comic strip written by a Lutheran pastor that follows the regular Sunday readings. These two sheep are Rick and Ted. Rick is the sheep with the coffee. He always has coffee. He always has answers. Ted is the guy with all the questions.
Ted asks, “So Caesar gets the money because his image is on it?”
“Then what does God get?”
“Well, you were made in the image of God…”
“The board of stewardship put you up to this, didn’t they?”
No, you can’t blame the board of stewardship for putting this in the bulletin, since we don’t have a stewardship board. But it sounds just like something we would expect a stewardship committee to do, doesn’t it? And Ted’s response is probably a lot like yours. You don’t mind giving to the church, but you sure don’t want to be told what to give, how much to give, or when to give. And this “giving yourself” idea sound just a bit cultish, a bit fundamental, doesn’t it? And the truth be told, your Old Adam doesn’t want to belong to anyone.
But that’s what God wants from you. That’s what God demands of you. That’s what God commands you to render to Him. You! God wants you, not your money. You! God doesn’t demand taxes; He wants you! Your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength. He wants your fear, your love, and your trust. He wants you. All of you!
This is tricky business. We’re inclined to withhold. Pay the minimum tax possible. Shelter income, divert investments, do anything to give less to Caesar. Render to Caesar what he asks for (what he demands under penalty of law), but not a shiny penny more. That’s how it works with the tax game, doesn’t it?
Can you imagine someone filling out their 1040 Form and enclosing a check for an extra thousand dollars with a note? “Dear Uncle Sam. It’s been a good year and I thought you could use the extra cash. Here’s a little deficit reduction.” It’s never going to happen. Even billionaires who say their taxes should be higher hire accountants to lower their tax bills. Everyone wants to pay the bare minimum.
I know of a congregation that has a school tuition discount for members. The catch is that you have to show up to church at least twice a month in order to get the discount. You wouldn’t believe the stories of people looking for the loopholes—or maybe you would. People ask, “Do both parents have to come to church?” “Do we have to bring the kids?” “What if we dropped the kids off, would that count?” That’s the way the law works. You’ll find the least you have to do to squeak by the bookkeepers. If the law says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you’re going to ask things like “Who’s my neighbor?” and define it so narrowly that walking the little old lady next door across the street qualifies as a full quotient of neighborly love.
And we’ll do the same with God. When we treat God as the government we start to wonder what’s the least we have to give Him to stay on His good list. Give to God the things that are God’s. What does that mean? A tithe? Ten percent? Give God His ten percent tax? Ten percent of your time, your treasure, your talent? Pay your religious tax and stay on God’s good side?
It may work that way in Caesar’s realm, but not in God’s. The kingdom of God is different, remember. Upside down, inside out, and sometimes just plain weird. It’s where the last are first, the first are last, the losers are winners, and the tax collectors and prostitutes slip through the pearly gates ahead of the lifelong Lutherans. This kingdom doesn’t just want a piece of you; it wants all of you. And God is restless until He has all of you—your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength, your fear, your love, your trust.
And you know what? You won’t give it. You can’t! You are so wrapped up in yourself you simply won’t give to God the things that are God’s. You’ll claim it as your own. “It’s my time, my treasure, my talent, my life. Mine, mine, mine. And you can’t have it, God! Oh, I’ll give you a Sunday or two, now and then, for no more than an hour or two. But the rest of the day is mine. And the rest of the week from Monday to Saturday, that’s mine too. And don’t You dare interfere with my plans. I’ll pay my temple tax and put a few of Caesar’s coins into the offering plate. But that’s as far as I’ll go. Don’t ask me for more!”
Oh, you’ve maybe not been so bold as to say this aloud. But you’ve thought it. You’ve acted as if it is true. And don’t think that God doesn’t know that. He knows how it is. He knows you’re not going to render to Him the things that are His. Jesus knows that. That’s why He says it to the Pharisees. He wants to trap them in their words, those religious hypocrites who look down their noses at others, who pick at the speck in their brother’s eye and can’t even fathom the two-by-four sticking out of their own. Jesus knows, and He calls them on it.
He calls us on it, too, when we feel oh-so-smug about all our “giving.” Give to God what is God’s. Everything… your whole life… is God’s. He wants all of it, and you don’t want to part with it. You can’t. And God knows that. That’s why He sent His Son in your place—to render to God the things that are God’s.
Jesus is the image of God restored in humanity to its original luster. He gave to God the things that are God’s. His perfect obedience. His innocent life. His sacrificial death. His holy, precious blood. The image and likeness of God nailed to the cross—that’s the currency of the kingdom. Jesus rendered to God what is God’s—His very body and soul given into death and hell. He gave up everything for you. He did it all for you, solely out His mercy and grace, without any merit or worthiness on your part.
What can you do for Him in return? The psalmist answers that same question: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; bring an offering, and come into His courts! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth!” (Psalm 96:8-9)
You can join your fellow Christians in worship, gladly receiving the Lord’s love and forgiveness in His Absolution, partaking of His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. You can bring your offerings, not thinking of them as an obligation, but as a privilege and honor afforded only those who bear the image of God. You can leave this house of God, anxious to tell all your friends and neighbors the wonderful things that God has done for you in Christ.
But really, rendering to God the things that are God’s isn’t necessarily about what happens with “church stuff.” It’s also about you serving your neighbor in what you do every single day. Moms and Dads change diapers and discipline their children. Husbands and wives serve each other. Teachers teach. Students study. Truck drivers drive. Factory workers make things. Farmers grow things. Stockers fill the store shelves. Each of these daily vocations is both rendering to Caesar and to God. Good works done in faith, help our neighbor and bring glory to God.
And when that old sinful nature pops up again and again, changing your work for your neighbor back into work for yourself, turning the things of God into “my things”? What can you do with such a wretched man? Put him to death! Drown him again in Baptism through contrition and repentance so that your new man should arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Remember, Jesus Christ died for that sin, too. Indeed, even now for His sake, you are counted righteous and pure. You are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Everything Is Ready! Come to the Banquet!

Click here to listen to this sermon.
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The text for today’s message is the Gospel lesson, Matthew 22:1-14.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When the last empress of China (1835-1908) lived in the historic “Forbidden City,” she held extravagant banquets, sometimes serving as many as 150 different dishes for a single meal! It was an extremely exclusive affair. Only members of the royal family and their chosen guests were allowed to attend. For ordinary citizens there was no room!  
God rules in His kingdom in a totally different way. He does not exclude ordinary people. He includes them! He invites everyone in—“the good” and “the bad,” hypocrites and sincere believers. Anyone who will accept His invitation. He has also reserved a place for you at His banquet table! Please listen to Jesus’ parable again and we’ll talk more about this wonderful, gracious invitation.
A certain king prepared a marriage-feast for his son. Although it seems strange to us, that’s the way it was done in Middle Eastern culture. The bride’s family provided a dowry. The groom’s family was responsible for the wedding celebration itself. Such a wedding-festival was not an affair of an hour or two, but often lasted for days, sometimes as many as seven or even fourteen days (Judges 14:17; Tobit 8:20).
Certainly it was quite an honor to be invited to such an event, and the host would make lavish preparations. Invitations were sent out well ahead of time to announce the upcoming festivities. Then, at the appointed time, servants were sent out to announce that all the preparations had been made and it was time to come to the banquet. In Esther 6:14, we see them even making arrangements to pick up the nobility for a special banquet. (I guess that would be like someone sending a chauffeur-driven limousine to pick up someone today.)
The result, in this case, however, was a flat refusal of the invitation. But the king was patient. He sent other servants with a more urgent message for the invited guests. But they still refused. They were completely indifferent to the king’s urgent call!  The majority turned away and devoted themselves to their own private affairs—the landholder to his farm, the merchant to his store.
But a few of the invited guests were not satisfied with merely indicating their disapproval of the king and their contempt for the wedding feast by simply ignoring the invitation. They vented their ill feelings on the messengers. They seized them, mistreated them, and finally killed them. Such acts of open war and rebellion demanded the king’s swift, just retribution, which he did.
When the servants reported their failure to persuade the former guests, the king ordered them to invite new guests. Time was pressing. Everything was ready. Great hurry was demanded. So the servants were to go out onto the highways, to the crossroads where there was the heaviest traffic and the chance of finding guests would be greater. No care was to be exercised about who was invited. The unworthy guests who refused to come should be replaced as rapidly as possible by others, good and bad, whomever they might come across.
The servants followed the command literally. Going out, they brought in all whom they found, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. The king was naturally pleased over the success of his plan, and as soon as the guests were placed and the wedding-feast was in progress, he came in to welcome them all.
But while passing down between the rows of tables his attention was drawn to one man who, although reclining with the rest at the table and partaking of the food, still was not clothed in the proper wedding garments. It was a case of foolishly and deliberately despising the generosity of the king. And so the king ordered his servants to tie the guilty one hand and foot and throw him outside in the darkness, where he would have plenty of time to regret his foolishness.
Jesus sums up the parable simply: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” God’s call, His invitation, goes out to all Israel (v. 3) and to all others—good and bad (vv. 8-10); but His grace working through His Word achieves its goal only in the few whose response marks them as God’s chosen, His elect. All are invited, but not everyone will accept that invitation.
Still, the Son will be honored, and the celebration will take place, regardless of the reaction of those invited. The day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The day of the great wedding feast of the Lamb will come. The only question is who will join in the celebration. As Martin Luther writes in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer: “The kingdom of God certainly comes without our prayer, of itself; but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.”
You’ve probably figured out that God Himself is the king of this parable. The wedding feast is that of Christ’s kingdom, the marriage of the Lamb. The first invitation was issued to the chosen people of the Old Testament, Israel. The prophets came to them in increasing numbers with increasing clearness of message. Yet how strangely the people of Israel responded! Their refusal to attend the royal wedding would only make sense if it were a protest born of fear or hatred toward a terribly cruel dictator. But why would a ruthless despot graciously invite them, free of charge, to a joyful celebration?
Verse 5 clears up the matter. The fault was not with the King, but with the unwilling guests who were mysteriously apathetic toward the invitation. While our ESV translation says “they paid no attention”; the Greek word is much stronger, used elsewhere to describe people spurning salvation (Hebrews 2:3) or failing to use their spiritual gifts (1 Timothy 4:14). Motivated by self-centered pride, these people considered the wedding unworthy of their time and attention. Their personal business was more important than the King’s invitation, or His Son.
The parable emphasizes the root problem of our sinful nature. When we do not fear, love, and trust God above all things, our pride becomes our god. Our own agenda, our own wants, our needs, concerns, or desires become more important to us than our relationship with God. And it can easily cause us to foolishly despise God’s gracious invitation. It happened back then and it happens today.
Following the Old Testament prophets, God sent John the Baptist, Christ Himself, and the apostles with their urgent call to repentance and salvation. But the answer was still indifference, hatred, blasphemy, and murder. Then God’s patience with Israel was exhausted, His judgment was executed upon the Jewish nation, as the Romans destroyed both Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D.
Since that time the Lord has faithfully attempted to get other guests for His wedding feast. His messengers have gone forth on the highways and byways of throughout the world. The Christian Church has spread to practically every country of the earth. Men of every tongue and nation have been assembled in the great hall of the Lamb’s wedding feast. Good and bad, hypocrites and sincere believers, are joined in the outward communion known as the visible Church.
Jesus told this parable of the banquet to show how God’s gracious kingdom works. But please do not confuse this parable as teaching you what you must do in order to be saved. Rather than focusing on something you must do, the story of the banquet focuses on what God has done for you. That’s why the analogy of a banquet works so well.
For example, when you attend a banquet, you are not there because you are qualified. You don’t earn an invitation by your own merits, but are invited solely by the host’s grace and hospitality. And, when you arrive, you contribute nothing to the whole affair. You don’t purchase supplies. You stay out of the kitchen. You don’t have to help prepare the food. You don’t set the table or put up decorations. The host simply welcomes, seats, and serves you as an honored guest.
God’s kingdom works in the same way. You do not earn your place in heaven by your own worthiness, but by God’s grace. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, your heavenly Father has prepared everything for the celebration. His Holy Spirit calls you through the Gospel. He invites you to a table set with the richest of fares, including Christ’s very body and blood. And because the Son has given Himself as payment for your admission, no matter who you are or where you are from, heaven’s King promises He’ll always welcome you as His honored guest.
Perhaps you have said to yourself, “Because of my sins and failures in the past, God would never accept me. God could not possibly want to spend eternity with me. I have to get myself together first, then maybe He could accept me.”
But that’s not true! This is why the truth Jesus proclaims in this parable is so important to you. Jesus sharply rebukes the Pharisees for teaching that you have to earn your seat in heaven. In fact, in the Gospel lesson two weeks ago, we heard Him say to those self-righteous Pharisees, “The tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). If the Lord of the banquet forgives tax-collectors and prostitutes for their past failures and makes room for them in His kingdom, He’ll certainly do the same for you.
At this very moment, God is calling you to His banquet as one of His guests. Your seat at God’s table is already paid for! When Jesus shed His blood upon the cross to wash away your sins, He prepared a place for you in God’s kingdom. When Jesus cried out on the cross, “It is finished!” He announced that the meal is ready and declared that all sinners, including you and me, are invited to attend.
If you have stayed away from hearing God’s Word in church because you fear what people might think of you, or if you have delayed to repent of your sins and believe the promise about heaven because you thought you could never be worthy, be encouraged by St. Paul’s words, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33).
Your Lord has included, not excluded, you from His kingdom. Heaven is no “Forbidden City” where only the rich and famous and powerful are invited. Just as the lord of the banquet sent His servant to gather all kinds of people, even those unworthy in the eyes of the world, so the King of heaven sent Jesus Christ to declare you worthy and prepare a place for you in His kingdom (Mark 10:45). Don’t delay! Respond to God’s invitation. He wants His banquet to be filled!
But as you do, there’s one more aspect of the parable you must remember. After many invitations and turndowns, the wedding hall was finally “filled with guests” (Matthew 22:10). Then came a puzzling moment. When the king came to look over the dinner guests, he saw one who was not dressed in proper wedding clothes. “Friend,” the king asked, “how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” The man was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 22:11-13).
One cannot imagine anything more horrifying than to be forever thrown out of God’s presence because of a lack of proper attire. Unfortunately, these warning words of Jesus have the potential to move us to try, in vain, to prepare ourselves for the feast by sewing together our own garment of self-righteousness. In doing so, we hope, in some way, to do something that would please God and make us acceptable to Him. But such a hope will never be acceptable.
You may have wrongly believed that if you feel sorry enough, and maybe if you can do a few “nice things,” God will accept you back. You may have also been misled by the devil to believe that God has given guidelines in the Bible for you to follow so that if you only try hard enough you can do His will, earn His love, and gain a seat at His heavenly banquet. But God says that all of your righteous deeds are “like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6), and that’s a whole lot worse than the homemade suit the man tried to wear to the parable banquet!
But, here is the Good News! In Jesus’ day, the one giving a wedding feast usually provided free wedding garments for the invited guests. You didn’t have to bring your own or worry that you might not meet some strict dress code standards. The host provided you with proper garments. In the same way, God is not only inviting you to come to the wedding feast of His Son, He’s clothed you with garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10).
 In your Baptism, God strips away your filthy, unrighteous clothes and covers you with His robe of perfect righteousness. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (3:27). Now your heavenly Father does not see all your sins and failures, but Christ and His robe of righteousness. Even though you may stumble in the future, even though your mind and heart are not always filled with good thoughts, God has forgiven you and reconciled you to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).
So, don’t be one of those permanently cast out of God’s presence. Instead, consider your heavenly Father’s gracious invitation to the glorious wedding banquet of His Son. Enabled by the Spirit, be fully prepared. Join St. Paul in confessing: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).
Rejoice and thank God. This is a new day for you. You have a standing invitation to the wedding feast of the Lamb. You are covered with Jesus’ robe of righteousness. And all of this is certain, for you are forgiven of all of your sins.

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

Friday, October 3, 2014

Producing Fruits of the Kingdom of God

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Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’ Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:42-43).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
He plants a vineyard. Sets a fence around it. Digs a winepress. And builds a tower to watch for thieves and robbers. So far so good. Sounds a lot like the song of the vineyard that we just heard in our reading from the book of Isaiah, doesn’t it? Then the owner of the vineyard makes his first mistake. He leases it to tenants. He’s asking for big trouble. He should keep the vineyard for himself. Nobody else will ever care about it as much as he does.
Then the owner compounds his error. He decides to go off to another country. He takes a trip, an extended holiday. Idiot.  Everyone knows that if you want things done right you’ve got to do them yourself. You’d better watch over the tenants’ work otherwise they’ll take advantage of you.
So, what’s up with this owner? Is he crazy? He must be! After all, he expects the tenants to do their work well without direct supervision. He expects them to give him his portion of the grapes. So the vineyard owner sends his servants to get his fruit. “Scram. Beat it!” is the tenants’ response. They will not share any of the harvest with the owner; that would mean less for them. And why should they share? Who’s going to make them? An owner who takes extended vacations in another country isn’t much of a threat. And so the tenants take his servants and beat one, kill another, and stone another.
You’d think the owner would get it by now. Nope. He sends other servants, more than the first. And they [do] the same thing to them.
And then the owner makes the most lame-brained move of all time. He sends his son to them saying, “They will respect my son.” Respect the son? Not these tenants! This is their big chance. An absentee landowner is nobody to worry about. And if they get rid of the son, they think, then all their problems are solved. The vineyard will be theirs for keeps. So they do the unthinkable. They take the son, throw him out of the vineyard, and murder him.
Which leads us to the big theological question: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give Him the fruits in their seasons,” is the answer of the chief priests and Pharisees. And that reveals something about their mindset. They expect God to act as they would. Selfishly. Harshly. Tit for tat. Quid pro quo. And that is what they will get. Luther explains: “As you believe, so you have.” In other words, if you treat God as one who deprives you of what you   have coming, one who takes what is His and pays back evil for evil… then that’s the God you have. If you treat God as one who can’t be trusted to care for your good, if you treat Him as a threat… then that’s the God you have. The evil you think of God, you’ll receive from Him in judgment. There’s nothing capricious about God’s judgment. It acknowledges what is the fact with a man and deals with him accordingly.
To bring this message home, the Lord asks another question: “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
Of course the chief priests and Pharisees have read this. They are, after all, Israel’s leaders and teachers. These verses are part of Psalm 118, the last psalm of the Passover collection, which speak of the Messiah and His deliverance. They will be singing this psalm in their observance of the Passover Supper in just a few days. Of course they have read this passage—many times. But what of it?
Jesus answers: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
Suddenly it clicks. The chief priests and the Pharisees realize that Jesus is speaking about them! And they don’t like it one bit! They plan on how to arrest Jesus, but they have to be careful about it because of the crowds who hold Him to be a prophet. Imagine that! They’re afraid of what the people will do. They ought to be more afraid of the One who has the power to destroy sin and body in hell.  
But such wicked foolishness shouldn’t really surprise us.   That rejection and irrational behavior follows a long established pattern throughout history. The Lord makes Israel His people. By His power He leads them out of Egypt. He makes a covenant with them. He puts them in a vineyard called the Promised Land. And He promises to send the Savior—His Son. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord sends His prophets to Israel to gather the fruits of repentance. Time and time again, God’s chosen people will not listen to the call to return to the Lord. By Isaiah’s day, this rebelliousness is so bad that the Lord calls Israel a vineyard of wild grapes, and warns of impending destruction for their sin.
Nevertheless God is faithful to His promise. The Lord sends His Son. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus comes as Savior of the world. He performs miraculous signs and healings. More than that, He speaks the truth, warning people of sin and announcing His forgiveness. He chastises them for false religion, and He urges them to repent before it is too late. Surely, they will respect the Son, right?
No, this very week, the chief priests will have the Son of God arrested. Setting aside the Law of God, they’ll unjustly condemn Him to death. Then they’ll take Him outside the city walls and nail Him to a cross, in effect, boldly declaring: “We’re getting rid of the Son; but we’re still planning on keeping the vineyard.”
The aftermath is a matter of history. Having rejected the Son, the officials turn all the more zealously to trying to please God by their own efforts. This leads, more and more, to an outright rejection of the Roman Empire as well. Forty years later, Rome has enough and Jerusalem is leveled. The walls are destroyed and the vineyard is no more. The tenants reject the rules and the son, but want to keep the vineyard. In their sinful rejection they lose both.  
The Pharisees foolishly believe that the Lord will not judge them for Jesus’ death. In fact, so blind are they that they believe God will approve. They think they’re doing God a favor. This is how blinding sin is, how foolish unbelief becomes. It calls right “wrong” and wrong “right,” evil “good” and good “evil,” and expects a pat on the back from God for finally getting religion right.
But there will come a day of reckoning. When you reject the Son, there is nothing else that the owner of the vineyard can do. You’ve cut yourself off from your very means of salvation. Jesus warns His opponents that in seeking to destroy Him, they will only bring their own destruction. God’s judgment on them will be swift and terrible and final and inescapable. As you believe so you shall have.
“Rotten Pharisees! Serves them right!” That could be your reaction to this text. But then you would be missing the point. While Jesus’ words were addressed to the Pharisees on that day, they no longer apply to that particular group. Their time for producing the fruits of the kingdom of God is long past. No, this sermon is not addressed to the Pharisees. It is addressed to you. You must not focus on their sin, but yours. The fruits of the kingdom of God that are being called for are yours!
What fruit? Certainly not just good works or the keeping of rules and regulations. The Pharisees, for all their shortcomings, were experts in this area. Humanly speaking they were paragons of virtue. They’d put any one of us to shame. But that would not save them. Being better than the next person is not good enough. The standard for a place in the kingdom of God is perfect righteousness.
What fruit, then is called for?  In a word… repentance. Turning away from sin and back to God. Turning away from insisting that God do things our way and instead, trusting in Him, and His grace and mercy, patience and steadfast love. Repentance is contrition and faith. Repentant believers are those who are sorry for their sin, and who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Repentant sinners believe that God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Law for them. Christ has lived the perfect, righteous life that you could not live. He suffered the rejection and pain that you deserved so that you might be reconciled to His heavenly Father. On the cross, He exchanged His perfect righteousness and obedience for your sin and disobedience. In the death of the Son, you have what the tenants sought, an inheritance, only this one is eternal, a place in God’s kingdom now and forever.
Repentance is a matter of life or death. A matter of heaven or hell! Or, put another way, repentance is a matter of Law and Gospel. Those who ignore the Law’s call to repent will suffer the full penalty of the Law’s condemnation. Those hearing the call to repent, however, find refuge from its accusation and condemnation in the Gospel’s promise of forgiveness.
In Proverbs we read: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find mercy” (28:13). St. John writes: “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
That’s why repentance must not be seen as something done once or only occasionally when one experiences a spiritual crisis. Repentance should be part of daily Christian life and prayer, for we sin daily and we sin much. That’s why in his famous Ninety-five Theses, Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He wills the entire life of believers to one of repentance.”  
So, you in the vineyard: How goes the digging? The watering? The weeding? How’s the harvest? Are you producing fruits of the kingdom of God? Are you living in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance? Are you receiving God’s grace through His Word and Sacrament? Are you coming to the Lord’s Table regularly to receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith? Are you hearing with the ears of faith the Absolution of Christ, through His called and ordained servant?
If you are—keep it up! Continue to share the Lord’s joy with others. Revel in His grace. Bask in His mercy. Be covered with His righteousness. Share that love with others by helping your neighbor in need. If you’re not producing the fruits of the kingdom of God—repent. It’s never too late. That’s the great thing about repentance. There is always the chance to repent as long as you live and breathe. Even in the midst of rebellion, our loving Lord continues to reach out with His grace. Even a sizeable number of Pharisees ended up repenting.
You’ve already heard from one of them today in our Epistle. By God’s grace, St. Paul—a Pharisee and persecutor of Christ—was led to contrition and faith. He began to produce fruits of the kingdom of God. Instead of trying to destroy the Church, he became a master builder of the Church, laying a foundation with his preaching of Jesus Christ, the stone the builders rejected.
We might marvel at the faithless rebellion of the chief priests and Pharisees. “How could they be so foolish to reject their Savior?” But we shouldn’t. Our own lives, and the lives of those within our own fellowship, show we are capable of the same. The refusal to repent, to admit one’s guilt, or accept another’s forgiveness leads to hardened hearts that commit the most heinous sins and justify them as necessary to serve God. Characters will be assassinated, reputations ruined, the smoldering wick of faith snuffed out, all in an attempt to gain power, maintain the status quo, to have one’s own way, or to preserve one’s self-righteousness.
No, we shouldn’t marvel at the Pharisees failure to repent; we should repent of our own selfish ambition and greed. We should repent of our own rejection of the Lord’s outreach to us, the times in which we’ve despised His means of grace in pursuit of our own plans or goals. We should repent of the times we’ve pictured or portrayed God as a strict lawgiver and judge, rather than a gracious Lord.
What we should marvel at is God’s steadfast love and grace. God is a generous giver. His is an incredible again and again generosity. Giving His vineyard, that is, His kingdom, over into our hands. Sending His beloved Son Jesus Christ into death that we might have life.
Call it crazy. Call it reckless. But that’s God’s way with sinners. He won’t give you what you deserve as a sinner—unless, of course, you insist on it. If you treat God as a threat or as an enemy, then that is what He will be to you.  But that most certainly is not what God wants. In His marvelous grace and steadfast love, the Lord has brought you into His kingdom through the Word and water of Baptism that you might produce its fruits of repentance. You are restored with the Lord at His table now and in the fullness of His kingdom. You have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, you are forgiven 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 ...