Sunday, July 31, 2016

Your Soul, Those Things: Whose Will They Be?

Click here to listen to this sermon.

And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:19-20).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
It’s quite embarrassing really. Jesus has just warned His disciples to beware of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He has encouraged them to not fear those who will persecute them. He has promised His disciples that those who confess Him before men will be acknowledged in heaven. And He has assured them that they need not worry how to defend themselves when brought before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, but that the Holy Spirit will teach them what to say.
Then some dunderhead in the crowd says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Notice what he does not say: “Teacher, my brother and I are quarreling and I’m afraid it is going to create a permanent break in our relationship. Would you please listen to me and to him and reconcile us?” No, instead he asks Jesus to mediate a family dispute as if Jesus is the local probate judge. The man is more concerned about his personal affairs than Jesus’ teaching. It’s as if he says, “Lord, thank You for Your wonderful discussion on the eternal consequences and rewards of confessing You as Savior, but I need You to go tell my brother to divide our inheritance so that I can get my share.”
But Jesus is a reconciler, not a divider. He wants to bring people together, not finalize separations. The man’s demand indicates that the split between brothers has already taken place in the heart, if not according to legal proceedings. The fact that it is a demand is also a red flag. Throughout His ministry, no one ever succeeded in giving Jesus the “right answer” and then pressing Him to accept it.
Jesus’ refusal confirms His indignation: “Man, who made Me a judge or arbitrator over you?” On the surface, it may appear that Jesus wants nothing to do with this topic. At a deeper level, however, this question is ironic. Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus is called the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5). He is also described as the Judge of all mankind (John 5:26-29). So, Jesus in fact does judge and mediate—but not in the manner this guy requests.
Jesus isn’t there to divide the family farm; He hasn’t come for such temporal things. Why has He come? He has come to do what goods and grain, what relaxing and eating and drinking and merriment can’t do. He’s come with a kingdom and an inheritance that lasts forever. He’s come to save souls for eternity—and their bodies, too, as we’ll get to in a few minutes.
But this man’s appeal leads Jesus to speak on the subject it suggests to His present audience: “Take care to be on guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Covetousness can keep you out of the kingdom. Like its close cousin, greed, covetousness comes with a host of sins. Among these sins is the willingness to pursue things at the expense of others—two of the Ten Commandments warn that coveting is the opposite of love, wishing harm upon your neighbor. Worse though, is discontent: covetousness says, “What I have isn’t enough. I should have more. I want more. God is holding out on me.” The one who sins by coveting seems even sillier than the rich fool in the parable. At least the rich man said, “I trust in what I have to take care of my soul.” The one who covets says, “I trust in what I don’t have to take care of my soul.”
Possessions are tied to a deep, often irrational fear—the fear of one day not having enough. Regardless of how much wealth is squirreled away, this gnawing fear compels frail human beings like you and me to seek to acquire more. There is never quite enough because the insecurity within never dies. The answer to “How much is enough?” is always “A little more than I have right now.”
In good Middle Eastern fashion, Jesus follows this saying with a parable about surpluses, those blessings that go beyond our daily needs. If God is the owner of all things material and people are only His stewards, what rights do they have to the surpluses that God gives? Well-known responses to surpluses include:
Hide them. Flaunt them. Spend them on expensive vacations. Upgrade one’s lifestyle and they will evaporate. Buy expensive toys and go in debt. Buy more insurance. Pretend you are poor and just scraping by. Use them to acquire power.
What to do with the surplus? That is the question the man in the parable faces, and it’s also the question each (or at least most) of us face. It’s more than a matter of practicality, it’s really a matter of priorities, a measure of our faith, an indicator of how Christ and His Word is having its way with us.
The man in Jesus’ parable is already rich. Then his land produces a bumper crop. It’s an unexpected bonus. He does not have to work harder to produce this bounty, in fact he can’t. As most of you understand firsthand, a farmer can be diligent in working the ground, planting good seed, fertilizing, and applying the proper pesticides and herbicides, but the difference between an average crop and a “bin buster” is usually determined by factors that are out of his control—especially favorable weather. A good crop is a gift of God. So, the man faces an important, though certainly not drastic decision: What will he do with the abundant surpluses?
Literally, translated, the text says he “dialogued with himself.” This is a very sad scene. In the Middle East, people make decisions about important topics only after long discussions with their friends. Families, communities, and villages are tightly knit together. Everybody’s business is everybody else’s business. Even trivial decisions are made after hours of discussion with family and friends. But this man appears to have no friends. He lives in isolation from the human family around him, and with an important decision to make the only person with whom he can have a dialogue is himself. His only advisor is his own “soul.”
Perhaps you’ve seen this saying on a t-shirt or Facebook meme: “Of course I talk to myself! Sometimes I need expert advice!” It’s humorous in theory, but very sad in reality. Dangerous, too! I can tell you from my own experience: The worst decisions I’ve ever made happened when I did not ask anyone else for advice. But worse than that, I didn’t even turn to God in prayer. Oh, I made a show of prayer, but really it was me. I gave God the options that I had determined and then I told Him to show me the best one. I suspect He did answer my prayer by showing the best solution of the ones I proposed—but in the process I missed out on at least one better alternative. The words of Proverbs 12:15 ring true: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”

The Swiss artist Eugene Burnand brings this pitiful scene to life in a couple of drawings (I’ve included as bulletin inserts). If you look at the first picture, you will see that he draws the rich man as he has come to his decision. He has carefully recounted his gold and his silver, setting aside one sack after another. A certain amount that is to be used for other purposes is placed on a shelf above his head. The money that is to be used for the new buildings is stacked on the table before him. Now he leans back—furrows of thought on his forehead, a faraway look in his eyes—he is thinking of all the money and the work it will mean, all the new, fine, grand storehouses, full to overflowing with “all my grain and good things.” What a picture! But turn the page. There is the same man, cold in death, his hands crossed on his breast!
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “I’ve got more time than money.” Well, here’s a man who has more money than time. Lots more money than time. But soon, he will have neither. And then what will become of his money and barns and grain? Someone else with get them!
But there’s a more important unspoken question here. What will become of his soul?
Jesus, as only He can do, takes us inside the man’s heart and mind, letting us listen in to the man’s inner dialogue. The rich man asks himself, “What shall I do?” He has no place to store his abundance and sadly displays no awareness that his bumper crop is a gift from God or that he is responsible to use it as its owner might direct. Rather, he knows only my crop, my barn, my grain, my goods, and my soul.
Commenting on this parable, Ambrose, the fourth-century Latin theologian, astutely observes, “The things that we cannot take away with us are not ours… Compassion alone follows us.”[i] Augustine, Ambrose’s student, writes, “He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns.”[ii]
The rich man has no one with whom to share his thoughts and ideas, and from whom he can derive some wisdom. He is all alone, thinking only for himself, thinking only of himself. “Soul,” he continues, “you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” His inspiration appears to come from a verse in Ecclesiastes that says: “And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun” (8:15).
This is a nice philosophy, but notice how the Preacher of Ecclesiastes is aware that “the days of his life” are a gift from God. Our rich man reflects no such awareness. He remembers the first part of this verse that tells him to “eat, and drink and be joyful.” But he conveniently forgets the latter part of “the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”
Ibn al-Tayyib, in commenting on the rich man’s failing, observes:
“He imagines that a person created in the image of God can be fully satisfied with the food for the body, for he says ‘O Self, you have an abundance of goods, relax, eat etc.’ He imagines that the self is animal-like and that its highest pleasure and greatest form of satisfaction is eating and drinking.”[iii]
The Greek word here is psyche, often translated “soul” in English, carrying the meaning of a spirit that can be separated from the body. But behind this Greek word is the Hebrew nepes, which denotes the whole person. Using this same word, the psalmist notes that as the deer thirsts for water in the desert, his soul thirsts for God (Psalm 42:1-2). Not so the rich fool whose soul is fully satisfied with food and drink. His problem is a radical misunderstanding of the nature of the soul and a critical misjudgment in regard to what is needed to sustain the soul. Augustine is famous for saying “My soul is restless until it rests in Thee.” This rich man’s view is, “My soul is restless until I am assured of an overabundance of food and drink.”
Suddenly, God speaks: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The man discovers that his soul and things are not his own. In the Greek text, the phrase, “your soul is required of you,” is the language of the return of a loan. This is one of the major, often hidden, truths of Scripture. Life is not a right but a gift—on loan from God who can call in that loan at any time. If God gives five days of life to a child, we mourn our losses and are grateful for those five days. We have no rights or expectations, neither for ten days nor for eighty years. Each day is a gift, and we praise God for it.  
Jesus closes by suggesting where true wealth may be found: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).
L. T. Johnson notes:
“Wealth with respect to God has two levels of meaning for Luke: the first is the response of faith, the second is the disposition of possessions in accordance with faith, which means to share them with others rather than accumulating them for one’s self (see 16:9-13)”[iv]
To be rich toward God is to believe that God is the giver of all things, including life and salvation. To show that one believes is to share with others the gifts God gives. This is the consistent teaching of Jesus in His various words about possessions. Behind it is the Gospel of grace: forgiveness is bestowed as God’s free gift in Jesus Christ.
Yet a time of accountability will come when God will ask whether His free gift of forgiveness was appropriated through faith or was abused by the arrogant assumption that God’s gifts were personal possessions earned by one’s own efforts and therefore at one’s disposal to hoard or squander. Jesus shows us that covetousness is self-destructive. An obsession with money and/or things could eventually crowd God out of our hearts.
But Jesus doesn’t just show us our sin and leave us to deal with it. Jesus takes our sin upon Himself and carries it to the cross to pay for it. There on the cross, God the Father required Jesus’ soul, His body, His life to redeem a world of sinners, and He gave it up willingly. There, on Calvary, Jesus exchanged His selfless love for our greed and covetousness. He who “was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead. And now all those things He prepared are yours and mine, including forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
Ascended into heaven at God’s right hand, Jesus shares His inheritance with you and me. He keeps His promises to be with us always to the end of the age in His Word and Sacraments. Happily, Jesus’ Gospel changes our hearts. Where His Spirit has its way, Jesus is recognized as the source of life and goodness, and He alone provides the ultimate satisfaction, lasting joy.
It’s good to be here today. It’s good that the Lord has seen fit to give us another day. May we always remember that everything we have is a gift from God, every day, every hour, every minute is a precious gift of God. If not for His providence we would not have this day, let alone tomorrow or many years.
That’s why I find it so helpful to begin each day with making the sign of the cross and saying Luther’s morning prayer:
I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.[v]
Commending yourself, your body and soul and all things, into the hand of the Lord, acknowledges what is true already—everything you have is the Lord’s! As you confess this truth, you are no longer laying up treasure for yourself, but are being rich toward God.
To be rich toward God is to be rich in the treasures of God—the gifts that He provides you through His Word and Sacraments, which are and come from the Incarnate Son of God. This wealth includes the jewel of Holy Baptism, the abundant treasury of forgiveness, complete peace with God and pardon from your sins, a standing invitation to dine at the Lord’s Table, receiving His very body and blood to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul unto life everlasting.
Yes, in Christ, you are rich! You have everything you need to support your body and soul for this life and for eternal life. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, Homily 7.122, quoted in Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, ed. Arthur J. Just (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 208.
[ii] Augustine Sermon 36.9, quoted in Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, ed. Arthur J. Just (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 208
[iii] Ibn al-Tayyib, Tafsir al-Mashriqi 2:213, quoted in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, Kenneth E. Bailey (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p. 305.
[iv]  L.T. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 199), quoted in Luke 9:53-24:53, Concordia Commentary, Arthur J. Just (St. Louis, Mo: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), p. 507.
[v]  Luther, M. (1991). Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

As Dear Children Ask Their Dear Father

Click here to listen to this sermon.

 “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
The other day, I painted my twin two-year-old granddaughters’ fingernails. My wife, Aimee, couldn’t believe it. “You never did that for your girls,” she said. “That’s right,” I answered. “They never asked me. Madyn and Briyr did.” “Papa, will you paint fingernails,’ they asked, emphasizing their request by wiggling their little fingers. So, I told them “Yes, I will, as soon as I finish feeding Boden.” They squealed in glee, and then asked me a couple of more times as they were waiting for me to get to it. Somewhat the opposite of their personalities, Madyn chose a subdued pink and Briyr a vibrant red, as you can see in the pictures I just happened to include in the bulletin for today.
But it did get me to wonder: Why didn’t my girls ask me to paint their fingernails? I suppose we could ask one or more of them after the service, but I suspect it was because they thought I would say no. I might have said no on so many other occasions, they just assumed that would be my answer. Maybe they felt their poor behavior did not merit my consideration of their request. Perhaps they thought I already did so much for them already, they didn’t want to ask for anything more. Maybe they thought I couldn’t do it because I lacked the skill. Or that I wouldn’t do it because I lacked the will—perhaps I thought it unmanly to do so or I didn’t think I had time for such foolishness. Maybe they thought I didn’t really care. It’s hard to say; hindsight isn’t always 20-20, especially when dealing with hypothetical situations. But whatever the reason, my granddaughters had no such barriers. They fully expected Papa to paint their fingernails if they asked.
So what does this have to do with prayer? A whole lot! Aren’t many of these possible barriers to making requests of our loved ones similar to those you and I experience (or anticipate) in our prayers to God? Do you fail to pray for something because a guilty conscience tells you that you don’t deserve anything good from God? Do you ever hold back on your prayers because God has done so much for you already? Have you ever wondered if God really cares about your worries and concerns? Have you ever failed to ask God for something because you’ve reasoned it is such a small thing that it is hardly worth His time or concern? Have you ever held back on asking God for something because it seems like such an impossible request? I bet you have! I know I have. I’ve often failed to pray for one or more of these reasons. In fact, I’m probably guilty of failing to pray as I ought for all of these reasons and many other at one time or another. That’s why Jesus teaches us to pray. Well, that and because one of His disciples asked Jesus.
“Lord, teach us to pray…” he asked. And Jesus taught them to pray. He gave them His prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. The “Our Father” it is also called, though not so often in contemporary Lutheran circles. And that’s too bad, because “Our Father” reminds us of the proper posture of prayer. As Martin Luther explains in the Small Catechism: “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.” Or if you permit me a little literary license: “As dear children ask their dear Papa.”
That’s an important place to begin. Little children ask for help because they realize they need help, that they are utterly incapable of making it on their own. They also quickly begin to trust in someone who is able to help, and who does consistently answer their cries and whispers for help. As they grow up, they lose that dependence and trust as they learn to do more for themselves or as someone consistently fails to deliver on their requests.
Now, to a certain extent, that is good in our day-to-day, temporal lives. It is important for us to grow up, to become more independent. The world already has enough adult children still living in their parents’ basement or on the public dole. But it’s a dangerous path to walk in our spiritual journey, where maturing in our faith actually means becoming more dependent upon the Lord.
As Lutherans, we confess that we believe in justification by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet too often we fail to live by grace and faith. This is especially true in our prayer life, where we all to easily fall back into justification by work and reliance upon our own performance.
Unfortunately, our old Adam is too often steered back to his own works and filthy rags of self-righteousness. Go into a Christian bookstore looking for resources on prayer and you are more likely than not to find literature that only reinforces the idea that improvement in prayer depends upon you—your knowledge, your faith, your discipline, your attitude, and your expertise. These teaching are popular because they promise to be practical, pragmatic, and powerful. But they fail to acknowledge an important truth: your own spiritual impotence. They present prayer as something you do yourself, your own willpower, your own persistence, and your own performance. These teachings divorce prayer from Jesus and what He has done and is doing for your salvation with His perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection. They seldom teach that prayer is God’s doing, something that He produces in you.
Jesus’ teaching on prayer was much different from the other religious leaders in Israel. He taught little about the theory and practice of prayer. He didn’t spend much time on when, where, why, and how to prayer, but emphasized repeatedly the importance of faith in Him and His Word. Jesus taught that God-pleasing prayer depends entirely on Him, from beginning to end, rather than the person praying. We see this very clearly in our Gospel today, Luke 11:
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when He finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation’” (v. 1-4).
Seeing Jesus pray, at least one of His disciples was motivated to learn more about prayer. And he started in the right place by asking Jesus for help. We do well to follow his lead. Like Jesus’ disciples, we are all inept and inexperienced when it comes to praying. Left to ourselves, we can’t pray properly, nor do we know how to pray effectively. Jesus needs to teach us. He is the only expert in prayer.
Jesus teaches His disciples and us to pray by giving us His prayer. He alone has the right to speak to God as Father. He alone has access to Him as His only perfectly obedient Son. He alone can legitimately come to God with His prayers and petitions “as dear children ask their dear father.” But in His great love and mercy, Jesus shares that special access with you and me, by sharing His prayer.
Jesus doesn’t just teach you a few fundamentals of prayer and then turn you loose to work on it yourself. Instead, He gets you to join in with Him as He prays to His heavenly Father. In giving you the Our Father, Jesus gives you much more than a set prayer that is to be the model for all of your prayers; He gives you His own status as God’s Son and allows you to share in all of the privileges of His unique relationship with His Father. By giving you His prayer, He includes you in His relationship and allows you to act as if you were Him.
But that’s not all! The prayer Jesus gives you to pray with Him is, in fact, His prayer for you and for the whole world. Notice how He doesn’t just address God as His own Father, but as “our” Father. Jesus goes so far as to pray for “our” daily bread, “our” forgiveness, and “our” protection in temptation, even though He Himself needs none of these things. He identifies Himself with us and our needs, our sins and our temptations. He joins Himself to us so that we can join Him in prayer and borrow everything from Him. In “the great exchange,” Jesus trades places with us so that we can be where He is before God the Father. He takes our sin and disobedience to the cross, pays for it all by His death, and then credits us with His righteousness, holiness, and standing before God as beloved Son. 
Jesus also teaches you to pray by sending you people to pray for. That’s the point of His parable:
“Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs” (Luke 11:5-8).
Jesus, rather ironically, compares God the Father with a grumpy next-door neighbor. Like the person in the parable, you are often confronted with friends and acquaintances who need something from you, physically or spiritually, that you are unable to provide for them. For example, what help can you offer to someone who is battling cancer or an addiction or who has lost faith in God? You want to help them but you’ve got nothing to give them. But you do have access to a friend next door—God the Father—who has everything that you lack. You may shamelessly borrow from Him by praying for them, even using Jesus’ own prayer.
Jesus teaches you that the point of praying is to receive God’s gifts:
 “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).
You don’t need to use prayer to wear God down, like demanding children do with their reluctant parents, nor do you need to inform Him about what you or your neighbor needs as if He is unaware. The point of prayer is to receive from God the Father. Jesus gives you His own prayer so that you can use it and your faith in Him to receive the good gifts He has promised to give you. God is not stingy or reluctant to give. The problem lies in you and me, who are too reluctant to ask for what He wants to give to us. Jesus helps you pray by commanding you to ask for what you need and promising that God the Father will give what you ask for.
Yet, when you pray with Jesus, the Father gives you even more than you ever ask. Jesus explains this by comparing prayer to knocking at the door of His Father’s house. When you knock on the door of your parents’ house, they don’t ask what you want; they invite you in. Like your parents, God the Father opens the door for you when you ask Him for something and He lets you in. Therefore, you don’t just get something from God when you pray, you receive God the Father, His company, and life with Him. That is the unexpected bonus of prayer!
Actually, that’s just one unexpected bonus; there is one gift that is even better. God the Father gives you His Holy Spirit to help you pray:
“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11-13).
On the surface, this promise of the Holy Spirit seems to have nothing to do with teaching us how to pray. Yet, on a deeper level, it has everything to do with praying. Jesus recognizes that the basic problem you and I have with prayer is our inability to pray as we would like and God requires. His solution is to send the Holy Spirit as our helper, the one who prompts and enables us to pray.
So, to overcome your inability to pray properly, Christ not only gives you His prayer, He gives you the power to address His heavenly Father as His dear children by pouring out His Spirit in your hearts. When you pray, you don’t just join with Jesus who carries you along with Him; you go along with the Holy Spirit who moves within you and leads you with Jesus to God the Father.
St. Paul explains this more fully in Romans 8:26-27. He writes that even though you don’t know how to pray, or what to pray for, the Holy Spirit helps you in your weakness and intercedes for you in accordance with God’s will. The Spirit helps to articulate your hidden needs and prompts you in what to say. And when you can’t come up with words, He brings your sighs and groans to God as proper prayer. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of prayer (Zechariah 12:10). So it’s no surprise that the best help that Jesus gives to you for your praying is His Holy Spirit.
And if the Father gives you the Holy Spirit, He gives you faith in Christ. If He has given you faith in Christ, you are His beloved child. And so you are—all for the sake of Jesus. So pray: and as you pray, rejoice that the Lord has already answered in Christ. And if He has already answered in Christ, then you’re His dear child and He will not cease to hear your prayers and answer them in the way that’s best for you. He has answered in Christ. He will answer in Christ. And He does even now, for He declares that in Christ, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Much of the teaching on prayer in this sermon is drawn from John W. Kleinig’s “Grace upon Grace: Spirituality for Today” copyright © 2008. Published by Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 161-166.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The One Thing Necessary: The Word of Life

Click here to listen to this sermon.

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
During their travels, Jesus and His disciples were often guests in the homes of people who accepted His message and supported His mission. In fact, when Jesus sent first the Twelve, and then the seventy-two into the towns of Judea, He instructed them to go without extra supplies. Those disciples were to depend on the hospitality of the townspeople. They were to stay with the people who welcomed them and eat in their homes. They were to heal the sick, and tell them the Good News, “The kingdom of God is near you.”
Jesus didn’t force Himself on anyone. He went into the homes He was welcomed and invited, and taught His disciples to do the same. It didn’t matter who they were, what they had done, or what station of life they occupied. Jesus went to the homes of the most religious like Simon the Pharisee; but He also stayed at the home of Zacchaeus, the tax collector. That caused some tongues to wag. “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner,’” the Pharisees and the scribes muttered.
Wherever Jesus went, He used it as an opportunity to share His Word of Life, to teach about the kingdom of God. When Jesus ate with the so-called outcasts of society, the tax collectors and sinners, His message did not fall on deaf ears. Many of them listened to Jesus and believed in Him as their Savior. They repented and believed. The Gospel had its way with them, and so their lives were changed for the better. And they couldn’t wait to share that Good News! They invited their friends to hear Jesus’ Word of Life for themselves
So, when Jesus ate with someone, what was more important, the meal or the teaching? (Pause) The opportunity to teach God’s Word was more important, of course. Mac & Cheese would work as well as prime rib. Fast food carryout would do as well as a home-cooked seven course dinner in a pinch. The meal only provided an opportunity for Jesus to teach. Proclaiming God’s Word was the more important thing. It was the one thing necessary.
And when Jesus was at Martha and Mary’s home, what do you suppose was the more important thing, the meal or Jesus’ teaching? (Pause) Again, the more important thing was the opportunity for Jesus to teach. The one thing necessary was for Martha and Mary to listen to Jesus.
Martha made the mistake of thinking she was the host and Jesus the guest. But actually, it was the other way around. Jesus was the real host. Jesus was the main event, and therefore everyone should have stopped everything in order to hear what He had to say.
As sinners, Martha and Mary needed the Gospel Jesus came to deliver to their house. So do we! The most important thing for us is to receive God’s grace and mercy in Christ. The one thing necessary in our lives is the Word of life which is delivered here Sunday after Sunday. That is the good portion, which will not be taken away from you or me.
It was a special day for Martha. Jesus came to Bethany and accepted her invitation to her home. As we see in our Old Testament lesson, ancient people expressed hospitality by preparing special dinners for their guests. Abraham had Sarah bake some fresh bread and a servant prepare a delicious beef stroganoff. A meal was, in many respects, a symbol of the bond of friendship, trust, and mutual admiration among all gathered at the table. It was also an opportunity to show honor to distinguished guests. And certainly no one is due greater honor than Jesus!
We can imagine Martha’s sense of responsibility as a hostess. A banquet celebration meant the best of meats, the finest wines, and an assortment of vegetables and side dishes. Martha had a lot of things to think about. No doubt, she was quickly figuring out how to stretch the meal she already had planned. She was thinking about any extras she had in the pantry that would be available to help feed company. Remember, this was long before refrigerators and freezers and microwave ovens. You couldn’t just call for a few pizzas to be delivered or pick up a couple buckets of chicken or Chinese takeout.
Martha had a lot of things to do, and she wanted to do them right. We get the impression that she was an energetic worker—diligent and productive. If she was a member of this congregation, I’m sure she would be found preparing a meal for this or for that event. I bet you could find her in the kitchen, helping to do dishes and cleaning up afterwards. Like the women here at St. John's, she’d be called a good and faithful worker.
Was it wrong for Martha to serve Jesus a meal? Was it wrong of Martha to want to do her very best? Of course not! Martha was simply trying to provide for Jesus’ needs. She was trying to be one of those homes that welcomed Jesus and His disciples and invited them to stay, eat, drink, and share His Word of Life.
But, our text says that Martha was “distracted with much serving.” What was distracting her? What was she being distracted from? (Pause) Serving a meal distracted Martha from listening to Jesus’ Word. Getting upset at the fact her sister was sitting at Jesus’ feet instead of helping her get the meal ready, distracted Martha from cheerful service. She came to Jesus and asked Him: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me!”
I’m sure Martha was taken aback by Jesus' reply: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
It’s not that Martha was entirely off base. She was showing hospitality to the Son of Man who had no place to lay His head. She was welcoming the Savior, and providing for the physical needs of Jesus and His disciples. Those were certainly good things. But, in doing those good things, Martha was missing out on the one thing that is necessary, the better thing that will not be taken away. Simply put, Martha’s priorities were in the wrong place. She was anxious about the details of life, details that in the light of the Kingdom have little or no ultimate significance. Today is the day of salvation; now is the time to receive God’s gifts with quietness of heart and single-minded devotion.
Martha was upset and angry about Mary’s choice and wanted Jesus to correct the wrong. But in fact, the solution was not to take Mary away from the Good News, but for Martha to come near the Good News. Martha could’ve first sat down and listened to Jesus and then served the meal. She could’ve forgone the elaborate banquet, prepared a simple lunch, and then joined Mary at Jesus’ feet. Martha forgot that Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. He came for the purpose of serving mankind with His Word. Ultimately, He came to give His life as a ransom upon the cross.
Can you identify with Martha? Oh, there’s nothing wrong with serving others. There’s nothing wrong with teaching Sunday School or helping out at Vacation Bible School. There’s nothing wrong with inviting the neighbors over for supper or volunteering to coach your son’s baseball team. These are good things. We encourage everyone to share their time and talents with their family, neighbors, and our congregation as much as possible. But if such service distracts us from hearing God’s Word and receiving the Sacrament, then it’s not good. If serving our Lord becomes a burden, then it’s not good. If neglecting worship becomes a habit, or worship just becomes an occasional thing here and there, it’s not good. If we’re anxious and troubled about many things not trusting in God, then it’s not good.
If we’re honest, we must admit that like the tax collectors, the sinners, and the outcasts of society... like Martha and Mary, we too, are sinful and in need of God’s grace and mercy. We, too, have let our priorities get out of line. We, too, have let the busyness and worries of everyday life distract us, and cause us to feel resentment, even anger toward others. So what do we do? Where do we turn? (Pause) We turn back to the one thing necessary, the good thing that will not be taken away from us—Jesus’ Word of Life and forgiveness!
Martha was distracted with many things, but for Mary, there was only one thing necessary and that was to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to His Word. There was plenty of time to serve a meal. The most important thing–the highest priority–for Mary was to receive from Jesus the Word of God.
David said, “One thing I have asked of the Lord... that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Psalm 27: 4). The one thing that was most important for David was to be in the gracious presence of the Lord.
After the ten lepers were healed, one of them said to himself, “I have plenty of time to go to the priest and then to my family, but I must turn around and give thanks to Jesus for healing me.” The highest priority for him was to give thanks to Jesus. And so he turned around, fell down at Jesus' feet and gave Him thanks.
A few weeks ago we heard about the demon-possessed man who lived in the region of the Gerasenes. He was often bound in chains and shackles. He lived among the tombs. Jesus came along and cast out the demons. The man was healed. And where did the people find that man? (Pause) He was sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind listening to Jesus.
Jesus once said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). And He said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 8:8). He also said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you” (Matthew 6:33).
Dear brothers and sisters, the highest priority in your life is to listen to God’s Word and to receive His gifts of life and salvation. His forgiving Word comes to you in Holy Absolution, removing sins of worry, sins of distraction, and sins of anxiety. His Word is delivered from the lectern and the pulpit. And His life-giving Word is fed to you from this altar in Jesus’ very body and blood.
God’s grace and mercy in Christ Jesus is exactly what we poor, miserable, sinners need. We will not live by bread alone. But the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God is the one thing necessary in our lives. Whether God’s Word is taught, preached, or read it has the power to create and to strengthen faith. God’s Word points us to Jesus who willingly died upon the cross for all of our sin and rose again the third day. God’s Word makes us wise unto salvation. God’s Word calms our fears and refreshes us. It lifts us up and strengthens us. It is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path which points the way to heaven.
Today, God has welcomed you into His house and you came. In our Divine Service, God serves us with His Word and Sacrament. After we have received God’s service to us, then we respond to Him with thanksgiving and praise. We, then, serve our neighbor because of God’s love which first came to us.
Peter’s mother-in-law got it right. First Jesus healed her of her sickness and then she served Him a meal (Luke 4:38-39). In the same way, we too, need to first be healed and fed by His Word, before we serve Him. We must first receive what Jesus has to offer us, before we have anything to offer anyone else.
Our priorities are in the right place when we realize faith first receives what God has to offer. The proper posture of saving faith is not in the busyness of doing things, but in the stillness of listening to the words of Jesus. We have to first hear that life-giving Word. The opportunity for that Word to work in and through our lives will present itself soon enough.
It wasn’t long after Jesus came to Martha and Mary’s house that their brother, Lazarus, died. In order to comfort Martha, Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” And Martha said, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:25-27).
It’s amazing what God’s Word can do. God’s Word had its way with Martha and she believed in Jesus as her Lord and Savior. And being in the Word helped her to hold onto her faith in the storms of life. Even in the midst of her sorrow and mourning, Martha was able to confess her faith in Christ as her Savior and to look forward to His resurrection of the dead.
It’s times like that, you begin to realize where your priorities really should lie. It’s times like that, you desperately need that one thing necessary, that good portion, which will not be taken away, that one thing Mary chose. It’s times like that you need God’s holy Word hidden in your hearts and minds. For only that Word can bring peace in the midst of things you cannot understand. Only that Word can bring hope when all seems hopeless. Only that Word has the power to keep you in the faith and carry you through to life everlasting.
Dearly beloved, God’s Word of Life is your one thing necessary, which will never be taken away. Make sure that the hearing and receiving of God’s Word is the highest priority in your life. For in it, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, 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, July 9, 2016

The One Who Shows Mercy

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:36–37).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
The man who comes to “test” Jesus is an expert in religious law. Our text calls him a “lawyer,” but the Gospels more often identify such people as “scribes.” These men are often depicted as hostile toward Jesus and acting in league with the Pharisees. Typically, they let it be known that they considered Jesus’ observance of the Law to be deficient. In contrast to the majority of scribes in the Gospel accounts, however, this one shows no overt antagonism toward Jesus.
Still, with his opening question, you sense there is going to be more than a little tension. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. What does anyone ever do to get an inheritance? Someone else has to die and you have to be in his or her good graces. Still, the word “inherit” does, at the very least, hint at the gracious nature of salvation. No one can earn or compel another to give an inheritance. The giver (or testator) always retains the full right to give the inheritance as he or she wishes. Thus, it can be said that God graciously bestows eternal life as an inheritance. So, at least this lawyer is on the right track. But as they say, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
Jesus lovingly seeks to improve his aim: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Though he is considered an “expert in the law,” this scribe is a representative of the “wise and understanding” from whom Jesus has just said the things of God remain hidden (Luke 10:21). He demonstrates his knowledge of Scripture by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 concerning love to God and Leviticus 19:18 about love for one’s neighbor, but he can’t seem to apply it to himself.
The lawyer gives the correct answer, but Jesus has to direct him to put it into practice: “Do this, and you will live.” If a person fulfills the Law of God, then that individual will receive eternal life on Judgment Day. However, God expects perfect obedience. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and will all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). 100% love, 100% effort, 100% of the time. Obviously, perfect obedience to God’s Law is beyond the capacity of fallen human beings.
Jesus has just made this expert in the law look foolish. He feels the need to “justify himself” for asking such a simple question, one he himself easily answers, (a question I would expect my second year catechumens to be able to answer). This is the point at which the lawyer really starts to squirm. He tries to deflect attention away from himself by implying that the Law is the problem, that the Law is unclear. So, he asks a further question, seeking to demonstrate that loving your neighbor as yourself is not so simple as Jesus makes it sound.
The lawyer suggests that before anyone can keep this command, it is necessary to legally clarify who is “neighbor” and who is not. Coincidently, legal definitions just happen to be in his area of expertise. The question, “Who is my neighbor?” implies that there are some people who are not my neighbor. By asking the question, the lawyer asks Jesus to interpret the Law as to the kinds of people Jesus would exclude from His love. Anyone vaguely familiar with Jesus’ ministry up to this point should know that as Jesus fulfills the Old Testament in His ministry, absolutely no one is excluded from His love.
Generally, among the Jews, the “neighbor” was defined as a fellow countryman, one of the same race. The Greek word translated “neighbor” is really an adverb that means “nearby,” “close,” or “beside.” When combined with an article, it becomes something like “the one nearby” or “the one beside.” We generally define neighbor in a similar way, as someone who lives near to or next to us.
This question, “Who is my neighbor?” was something that other Jewish thinkers had wrestled with. How do we know? For one thing, the translators of the Septuagint chose the word “neighbor” to describe not only people related by blood or common religious commitment, but also those who are not kinsmen or part of the covenant community. So, Jesus is not giving a new teaching here. Pious Jews before Him had understood that God’s love transcends blood and tribal relations.
As in the first round, Jesus will answer the lawyer’s question with another question, but first He tells a story that will prepare for and clarify it.
A man was traveling the winding road through the rocky desert from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was accosted by thugs who robbed him, beat him, and left him on the side of the road as if he were road kill. Three men came upon his bloodied body. Of these three, a priest and a Levite (a temple assistant) both saw the man but did not stop to help. They “passed by on the other side.”
Why they did not stop, Jesus does not say. It doesn’t really matter why. They may have had some reasonably legitimate reasons; such as concern for maintaining ceremonial purity or more pressing business to do or fear that the robbers might be lying in wait for them also. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that they did not love their neighbor when they had the opportunity. They failed to show mercy to one who was in urgent need. Both of these men represented respectable religious positions, the kind this lawyer no doubt would be eager to include among his neighbors; but sadly, their religion did not have room for much mercy.
The third man who came by was a Samaritan. Such people were mistrusted and despised by Jews, who considered them racial half-breeds, traitors to the nation, and religious heretics. So when Jesus introduces this character, quite likely the original audience expects him to be a villain. Given this long-standing animosity, one would not expect a passing Samaritan to help the half-dead man. Yet, Jesus says that when “he saw him, he had compassion” (Luke 10:33).
Matthew Harrison explains the significance of the Greek word translated here as “had compassion”:
In ancient pre-Christian usage, the Greek word splanchnon denoted the “inward parts” of a sacrifice, such as the liver, lungs, and spleen. It also denoted the lower half of the body—the womb or the loins. In more figurative usage, and for obvious reasons, the word meant “the seat of ‘impulsive passions.’” In pre-Christian use, splanchnon is never used for mercy. In the Septuagint, the Greek edition of the Old Testament (ca. 100 BC), splanchnon began its journey toward its significant and sacred use in the Gospels…
Study of the word splanchnon in reference to Jesus reveals something extraordinary about our Savior’s compassion. For Jesus compassion is literally “visceral.” The verb is used eleven times in the Gospels. Seven times the verb appears as an action attributed to Jesus. Twice the verb is used as an action attributed to characters in parables told by Jesus. Given the origin and development of the use of the word, we might think that in the Gospels it came to mean simply “to have compassion” or “mercy,” and it does. However, each time splanchnon occurs as a conviction or sentiment or emotion in Christ (or of characters in parables), there is consequent merciful action. Compassion begets action. Mercy makes something happen.[i]
That is certainly the case here. The Samaritan, moved by compassion, was compelled to help, and he did so in a manner far surpassing ordinary obligations. He bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him overnight. Before leaving, he paid two days’ wages for the man’s care and promised to pay more if necessary.
Many people have noticed that the order of the Samaritan’s actions seems to be the reverse of what one would expect. Oil is to clean the wound, wine is to disinfect it, and then it would be bound with a bandage. But Ken Bailey suggests a theological rationale for this order as it relates to liturgical worship:  
Furthermore, the oil and wine were not only standard first-aid remedies. They were also “sacrificial elements in the temple worship” (Derrett, 220). Likewise, the verb “pour” is for the language of worship. There were libations in connection with the sacrifices. Yet for centuries the call had been sounded for going beyond ritual in an effort to respond adequately to what God had done for them. Hosea (6:6) and Micah (6:7-8) called for steadfast love and not sacrifice… The Jewish priest and Levite were the religious professionals who knew the precise rituals of the prescribed liturgy. In worship they officiated at the sacrifices and libations. They poured out the oil and wine on the high altar before God. Here in the parable this same freighted language is applied to the Samaritan just after the priest and Levite have failed miserably in their ability to make the “living sacrifice.” It is the hated Samaritan who pours out the libation on the altar of this man’s wounds. As Derrett observes, “To show what is the [steadfast love] which God demands one cannot be more apt than to show oil and wine employed to heal an injured man” (Derrett, 220)… It is the Samaritan who pours out the true offering acceptable to God.[ii]
This Samaritan, whom the lawyer probably would have excluded from his definition of a neighbor, showed himself as the one who fulfilled the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, in this case even an enemy. Those related by ethnicity and a common faith (religious leaders, at that!) left the victim to die, while one thought to be an enemy rescued him and provided for his ongoing care.
Accordingly, this parable conveys dramatically what Jesus had previously taught in the “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:27-38): Godlike love extends even to those who hate, curse, and abuse. Luther saw this clearly and reiterated the point, stating, “Our neighbor is any human being, especially one who needs our help, as Christ interprets it in Luke 10:30-37. Even one who has done me some sort of injury or harm…does not stop being my neighbor.”[iii]
The expert in the law had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus goes a step further with the question he now puts to the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor?” The man has no choice but to answer: “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus instructs: “You go, and do likewise.”
This is a parable which shatters the values of the Jewish religion as practiced by the lawyers and the Pharisees. The priest and the Levite are pictured in a bad light; the Samaritan outcast becomes the example of mercy. But it shatters our own illusions as well, for Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan leaves no doubt that Jesus expects His followers to do good to all people. And His concluding words, “You go, and do likewise,” reminds us just how we far we are from the loving, self-sacrificing behavior the Lord expects. We do not show mercy as we ought.
 So it was that Jesus became the Good Samaritan for us, radically fulfilling the commandment to love by laying down His life for us while we were yet His enemies. Truly He is the One who shows mercy.
Nevertheless, I do not want to leave you with the impression that the important or decisive thing about Jesus is His example of or instructions (Law) to care for the needy. The moral teaching Jesus presents offers nothing that can’t be found in other religions. What’s more, the attempt to follow Jesus’ example as the means to gain God’s favor will merit nothing but hell. Even Jesus’ miracles are not the center of our confession of Jesus Christ as Savior. These acts of mercy are significant because they flow from and point to Jesus as God Incarnate and Savior.
The coming of God into the flesh is Gospel. It is God’s gracious act to accomplish our salvation. Luther writes that Jesus “became incarnate to comfort”[iv] Jesus is mercy incarnate. Christ’s life is filled with compassion and actions of mercy for those in need. Christ’s life is more than an example for our living. The incarnation of Christ is the strongest and most powerful Gospel gift. He is the sacrifice that earned salvation for us.
In Word and Sacrament, the Church delivers what Christ obtained on Calvary—the forgiveness of sin. In Word and Sacrament, the Christian is born again. Raised to walk in newness of life, the believer demonstrates compassion for those in need, the lowly, the suffering, the orphan, etc. However weakly and imperfectly, our compassion reflects the compassion of God Himself. God accepts our daily acts of compassion as our daily and holy worship because of Christ.
Philippians 2:5-8, St. Paul’s great hymn of the incarnation, teaches us the key motivation for mercy: “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 emptied Himself, by 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.”
The Law calls for love and mercy, but it cannot create it or motivate us to do so. The Law is but a mirror that shows us our sin. The Law condemns and kills. Only the Gospel makes alive and empowers. Christ’s incarnation, servanthood, humble obedience, and finally death on a cross on our behalf—the Gospel—is what creates His attitude in us. We are baptized by Christ into merciful compassion for those in need around us.
A man once observed Mother Teresa cleaning the wounds of a leper. He turned away in revulsion and said, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Teresa look at him and replied, “Neither would I. But I would do it for Christ.”[v]
The Gospel reveals that such showing mercy flows only from having received God’s mercy. Legalists who cross-examine Jesus make no progress until they recognize that they are the man half dead and Jesus is the one who does mercy as a neighbor. The lawyer in each of us says, “I will act to love my neighbor as myself; tell me who he is.” But Jesus answers, “You cannot act, for you are dead. You need someone to love you, to show mercy to you, to heal you, to pay for you, to give you lodging, to revive you. I am the one you despise because I associate with sinners, but in fact I am the one who fulfills the Law and brings God’s mercy to you. I am your neighbor and give you the gifts of mercy, healing, and life.
“You are baptized into My death and resurrection. You are fed My body and blood, which strengthens you in faith toward Me and in fervent love toward one another. As I live in you, you will have life and will do mercy—not motivated by laws and definitions, but animated by My steadfast love and mercy. As you remain in My love, and empowered by My Spirit, you will grow daily until at last you are transformed and glorified into the perfection the Father planned for you from before the foundation of the world. Even now, by grace through faith, I find you blameless and righteous. You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Harrison, Matthew C., Christ Have Mercy: How to Put Your Faith in Action (S. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2008) 40-41.
[ii] Bailey, K, Through Peasant Eyes, 49-50, citing J. D. M. Derrett (Law in the New Testament [London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1970].
[iii] Luther, Martin, Luther’s Works, American Edition. General editors Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann. (St. Louis, MO: Corcordia and Philadephia: Muhlenberg and Fortress, 1955-86). 27:58
[iv] Tappert, Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 98.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Loose Ends and Threads of the Kingdom of God

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you.’ Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near” (Luke 10:9-11).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Like many farm kids, my brother and I learned to be resourceful. String doesn’t grow on trees, and we certainly weren’t going to ask Mom or Dad to go buy us some when there was a perfectly good supply in the barn left over from the twine cut off the hay bales. The hardest part was untangling it. There were always a bunch of threads you had to follow to get each individual piece of twine free. Sometimes you would get so frustrated with a particular knot that you’d end up cutting the twine. Then you’d only end up with more loose ends.
Looking back, I learned a lot from this experience: I learned practical skills in how to tie a good knot and braid and even make a heavy rope. I learned the disciplines of patience and persistence. I learned problem solving techniques and spatial reasoning. And perhaps more than anything, I learned how to make do with what you have on hand and be content with it. I never, for a moment, thought it might help me someday in writing a sermon.
Tim Saleska suggests that our text, rather than presenting us with a series of clear commands, laws, and instructions, sounds as though the kingdom of God is made of a lot of threads and loose ends.
“Words, themes, and events in this text have connections, or threads, with the Old Testament and various other texts,” he says. “We can follow the threads to see how this text ties in to a bigger picture of God’s kingdom. The threads also invite us to read forward. That is, they connect us, God’s people now, to God’s kingdom as well. Loose ends in the text leave us hanging in various ways: tensions in God’s kingdom that still need to be resolved, questions that need to be answered, events that have not happened yet.”[i]
So, let’s review our text, stopping from time to time to follow a couple of the threads and pull on a few of the loose ends we find. As we do, let’s keep in mind that Jesus is not giving us evangelism techniques or instructing us in how we must do mission work. He is trying to get His disciples and us to see the world as He does. That is not an easy task, for Jesus’ view is entirely different from other viewpoints that vie for our attention. But I would suggest that this insight, can do much to influence the way we live our lives and live out the faith.
As the days draw near for Him to be taken up, and Jesus makes His way to Jerusalem, it becomes increasingly obvious that a vast number of people are prospects for the kingdom of God. However, workers to proclaim the Gospel message are few. Jesus makes a comparison with the harvesting of ripe grain. No matter how plentiful the harvest, the crop will be small if workers are scarce. The metaphor of the harvest is usually used in Scripture for judgment (Jeremiah 51:33; Hosea 6:11), but here it is positive (Isaiah 9:3; Psalm 126:5-6). The language suggests that it deals with the end times—an urgent matter of life and death.
To be a harvester for God’s kingdom is difficult work. Jesus has laid strict demands on those who would follow (Luke 9:57-62). Proclaiming the kingdom of God calls for dedication and commitment that, unfortunately, too few people have. Yet there are some ready for this task of harvesting. Jesus appoints 72 men and sends them out two by two into the towns through which He will be passing. These appointees are in addition to the apostles. The work of harvesting is not limited to just the Twelve. It is too big a job. In fact, the first assignment Jesus gives these new recruits is to pray for the Lord of the harvest to provide more workers.
The Seventy-two are sent without provisions. They are ambassadors who have foregone the things of this world and are dependent on the care and protection of the locals. They have renounced home and family; their new family are those who receive their message of peace. They are not to depend on themselves, but their trust is in the provision and protection of the Lord of the harvest.
The commission of the Seventy-two is Christological and sacrificial in nature. Jesus subtly implies this when He describes them “as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). The Greek word for “lamb,” arnon, is used only here in the New Testament. But in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is used as the technical term for the sacrificial lamb of the Passover (Exodus 12:5) or the burnt offering (Leviticus 1:10) or the sacrifice of peace (Leviticus 3:7).
By describing them as lambs, Jesus suggests that they will be rejected and suffer the consequences of announcing the presence of the kingdom of God. Like their Lord they will become sacrificial victims of the Gospel that calls for a reversal of the world’s values. After the calling of the Twelve and the description of His passion, Jesus had told them about their own cross-bearing as His followers (Luke 9:23). The Seventy-two should expect the same. To save their life they must lose it. They are sacrificial lambs, who go forth in full knowledge of the world’s enmity. But in their proclamation they will show that they are not ashamed of Jesus and His words. They are a part of a privileged group to whom the Father, through Jesus, has revealed the secrets of the kingdom of God (Luke 10:21; 8:9-10).
Moreover, the Seventy-two carry in themselves, in their own bodies, Jesus’ redemption and His peace. The peace that has come down from above in Jesus they can now give—and receive back when it is not received. As His ambassadors, they now represent Jesus and stand in His place. They bear in themselves the person of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:10). In bearing the cross daily, they also bear the image of the Passover lamb who must be sacrificed for the people.
Perhaps Jesus’ instruction to “greet no one on the road” seems a little bit cold even in our get-right-down-to-business day. Any sales course will tell you that you have to establish rapport with your prospect before you get down to business. In the ancient Middle East, exchanging greetings could be quite time consuming, typically including inquiries about family, followed by reports on how everyone was doing. But such chitchat takes away from the proclamation of the kingdom, and so Jesus tells the Seventy-two that it is to be avoided. This is yet another way that Jesus emphasizes the urgency of His kingdom and its call.
Rather than a lengthy greeting on the road, the Seventy-two are to go directly to the house and announce, “Peace be to this house!” The message of the kingdom of God contains both calls for repentance and good news, both judgment against sin and forgiveness. The first word that Jesus’ messengers announce is one of grace and good will. So it remains today. The Good News of God’s grace in Christ is the Church’s predominant message. Only those who receive with faith the blessings apportioned by the Gospel actually benefit from it.
To keep the mission simple, the disciples are to stay at one house. This will help restrain the temptation to strive for gain by soliciting donations from many houses. They deserve to be given appropriate provisions for their mission, but their purpose should not be to maximize their profit from their efforts. The duration of their stay in a single house would also tend to establish a strong base from which all other emissaries might go out in the future.
Jesus then shifts His emphasis from the house to the town. “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has some near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless, know that the kingdom of God has come near’” (Luke 10:9-11).
The Seventy-two announce to the towns the arrival of the kingdom of God because of the presence of Jesus. In some towns, they will find a ready welcome. However, other towns will not have the welcome mat out. The act of wiping off the dust that sticks to one’s feet is a symbol of God’s coming judgment against those who refuse the message of grace. Yet whether welcome or not, the workers are to announce that the kingdom of God is near in the person of Jesus.
The thought that some towns will reject the message of God’s kingdom provokes Jesus to speak out against such ingratitude and lack of repentance. Sodom was destroyed by burning sulfur because of its wickedness (Genesis 19:24). Yet even Sodom will be judged less severely than those cities that close their hearts to Jesus and His messengers. He condemns some of the Jewish cities near the Sea of Galilee for their failure to repent.
Jesus makes it clear that His messengers speak with His authority and should be treated accordingly. Receiving the Word of the kingdom from one of these 72 is as good as receiving the Word from Jesus Himself. At the same time, those rejecting God’s representatives are actually rejecting Him. The Reformers saw this dynamic very clearly, equating the Church’s authority with its call to proclaim the Gospel:
“They have been given the ministry of the Word and Sacraments. They have no other authority according to the Gospel than the authority to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church wicked people, whose wickedness is known. They cannot exclude people with human force, but simply by the Word.”[ii]
The Seventy-two return to Jesus, giddy with excitement: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” Jesus shares in their rejoicing and tells of a vision He had of Satan falling like lightning from heaven. In their preaching and in their healing, they are achieving victory over Satan and his minions, a victory that will be ultimately demonstrated in the judgment on the Last Day.
Nevertheless, Jesus directs the attention of the disciples away from thoughts about sensational success to contemplation upon their heavenly status. Pride and a theology of success could take their focus off of what is truly important—the heavenly gift of God’s grace. Their names are written in heaven, beside the names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the chosen people of old. They are merely part of a pattern that stretches back to the Old Testament prophets and is centered in Jesus, the greatest Prophet, who testifies to God’s presence and salvation through teaching and miracles. The Seventy-two speak His words and represent His person.
Let’s be honest: there’s a lot going on here in this text. It gives us a complex picture of the nature of God’s kingdom. But that shouldn’t be so surprising, should it? We have a very complex King. One whose thoughts and ways are much higher than ours. The now-not yet, hidden-visible, Law-Gospel, and power displayed in weakness, tensions are not solved in this text. Even Jesus’ closest followers fail to grasp much of this until after His death and resurrection. In the present age, we cannot escape our own questions or resolve all the seeming contradictions. We live within them and our experience of them marks our Christian life.
Certainly, thinking of the kingdom of God as a bunch of threads and loose ends will not resolve all of our questions or present us with a concrete program for action. Instead, it helps us expand our vision of what the Church is all about and what Jesus has done and will do for His Bride, the Church, throughout time. In many ways, the text keeps us wondering and waiting. That is a good posture for God’s people to take. Through this mystery, Jesus reminds us that we are part of something much bigger and farther reaching than ourselves. In fact, it is probably true that threads and loose ends have always characterized God’s kingdom from the first mysterious promise of a Savior, the Seed of the woman, who will crush the serpent’s head. That is what we are part of, and we must wait and watch for everything to be tied up on that Last Day of which Jesus speaks.
In the meantime, we trust Jesus’ Word: The kingdom of God has come near to you. Where will you find it? Right where He has promised, in His means of grace. Here in little Trosky, Minnesota and everywhere God’s people gather that the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. Here, in Christ’s means of grace, you have the assurance that this is true for you as well.
“The kingdom of God has come near to you.” That’s what the Seventy-two announced to those whom they healed by the power of Jesus, and I announce the same to you today: for while you may not be healed of injury or sickness until the Day of Resurrection, Jesus has already raised you from death to life by the forgiveness of your sins. Therefore, you can be sure that He will heal you of every bodily affliction on the Last Day, if not before. This is true for you because the kingdom of God has come near to you; your name has been written in heaven.
In Baptism, God has adopted you as His own dear child. He has placed His triune name upon you, baptized you into Christ’s death and resurrection. The blood of the Lamb of God, has cleansed you from all your sins. You have been clothed in the robe of Christ’s righteousness. In His Supper, Jesus greets you with peace. He invites you to His Table to receive His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen and preserve you—body and soul—unto eternal life.
Rejoice! For the kingdom of God has come near to you. And because the King has come near with the peace He won for you on the cross with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Timothy E. Saleska, “Proper 9, Luke 10:1-20.” Concordia Journal, 42 (2016): 148-149.
[ii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 59). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Into the Wilderness

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