Wednesday, September 28, 2016

You Must Forgive Him!

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“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3b-4).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Well, it’s another text on forgiveness. Doesn’t Jesus ever get tired of talking about forgiveness? And the thing is, whenever Jesus talks about forgiveness He always seems to ask the impossible. Just listen again: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
But that’s not our first reaction when someone sins against us, is it? We want to attack right back. Even the score. By whatever means necessary. No matter how long it takes. “You sin against me; I’ll sin against you. Yell at me; I’ll yell louder. Push me and I’ll shove back harder. Hurt me or one of mine and I’ll crush you!”
As a Christian I know I should forgive, but Jesus’ command sounds like an invitation for someone to take advantage of me. How do I know someone is really sorry for a sin against me when they say, “I repent?” Especially if they do the same thing over and over again. When I forgive, I want there to be a change of heart. I want them to weep and wail. I want them to come crawling to me on hands and knees begging for forgiveness. Then, I’ll know they really mean it. I need to put conditions on my forgiveness. I like to wait a while to make them think really hard about what they’ve done, let them stew in their guilt for a bit before I offer forgiveness. Then they’ll appreciate it more.
And when I do forgive, I want everyone to notice. I want everyone to know how forgiving I am. I want people to say, “Wow! He is really a super Christian. He can even forgive someone who has done that really, really bad thing to him.”
The problem is that all of those attitudes are the sin that Jesus is telling us to avoid. Temptations to sin are sure to come. But the sin Jesus is talking about here isn’t the sin other people do to us—it’s our sin in not forgiving the sin of others. Our problem is that even though we believe God’s Word and want to follow it, we have a difficult time forgiving people as Jesus would have us do. And when we don’t forgive it is just like we don’t believe in God’s promises of forgiveness to us.
No wonder Jesus clearly says: “Pay attention to yourselves. When My little ones see this, it causes a scandal. It can lead them away from the faith or cause them to sin. They think they can act like this too. And if you folks are going to operate that way—let Me give you some advice: Tie a huge millstone around your neck and jump feet first in the deepest lake you can find.
It’s difficult for us because we are so easily hurt. And there is so much trouble in our lives. Every day we run into people that hurt us. The mechanic takes advantage of you. Your neighbor schemes to take away the land you’ve been working all your life. Your friend lets your secret slip. Members of the church turn their back on you when you need them most. And of course Satan has his part here too. He never lets you rest, telling you that you have every right to settle the score, to take revenge, and to withhold forgiveness when you have been hurt.
Jesus says we are to be different. We are not to listen to Satan’s word. Especially in the Church. Jesus uses the word “brother” to tell us that he is especially talking about how we live together as a Church, how we live together as a Christian community. Our relationships with each other are to be very different.
Rather than harboring bad feelings against the brother or speaking to someone else about the sin, Jesus tells His disciples to “rebuke” the sinner.  “Rebuke” doesn’t mean to go off the deep end, to go ballistic. It simply means to lovingly but firmly tell your brother: “You’ve sinned against me. This is what you’ve done. This is how you’ve hurt me.”
You say this not to win the argument, but for repentance. You want to win your brother back. You want your brother who’s sinned to say: “You’re right, I’ve sinned against you. I’m sorry I hurt you. Will you forgive me?
We Christians are to be in the forgiving business. When Jesus says forgive seven times a day, He doesn’t mean we should keep count. He means “forgive as often as it happens.” Sin is serious and should not be taken lightly, but we should never withhold forgiveness from the repenting sinner. In the Church, forgiveness always follows repentance. Jesus makes that clear when He uses that “m” word—must.” You must forgive him. When a fellow Christian comes to us for forgiveness we are required to forgive, forgive freely without condition.
But we think that Jesus can’t really mean that. It can’t be that easy. Jesus must not realize just how seriously they have offended us. Perhaps what He really means is that after someone has proved he has changed, he is to be forgiven. There have got to be conditions. We have to make sure that his or her repentance is real. Anything else just doesn’t make sense to us. Anything else is simply impossible.
That’s because we want to be in control of whether or not we forgive. And so we say or think things like: “I can’t forgive so-and-so for what they did to me. It just hurt me so much; I’ll never be able to forget it.” Or, “I just can’t forgive you now. Give me some time, then maybe I’ll be able to forgive you.” Or may even, “Well, I forgave you. Now it’s your turn to do something for me.”
That’s how we forgive. When we forgive. If we forgive. Incompletely. Begrudgingly. With string attached. And you know what? The disciples had the same problems. When Jesus says these words to them: “You must forgive,” they look at Him and say, “Increase our faith!” What they mean is: “That’s impossible! We can’t do that. We’re not even sure that we want to do that. Make us stronger so we can. Give us what we need to do the ‘must’ we must do.”
But Jesus denies their request. Not because He doesn’t want them to forgive. Not because He doesn’t want their faith to grow. But because just like they misunderstand forgiveness, they still don’t understand what faith really is. They think faith is some quality in them that allows them to do what God wants them to do. The bigger it gets, the more they can do God’s will. The bigger it gets, the more they will be able to forgive.
Jesus says it’s not the size of faith that matters. The smallest faith does the impossible. What matters in faith is the object of the faith and the source of that faith. The faith that Jesus is speaking about here is not naturally generated from within us. It is not something we offer to God. Faith is a gift of God’s grace. Faith is the instrument by which believers receive God’s blessings. It is an utter dependence on God and His Word. It is complete reliance on Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection for us. Faith is looking to God to do it all. There is no part in faith for “God does His part and now the rest of it is up to me.”
When you try to forgive, you are placing your faith in you… in your ability to forgive… in your willingness to forgive… in your desire to forgive. And if you do rely upon yourself, you will never be able to forgive.
As Lutherans, we have been taught that we are saved solely by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We know that Jesus wants us to trust solely in Him for our forgiveness. But what we often miss is that He also wants us to trust in Him for the forgiveness we give others, too. Christ died for the forgiveness of all sin. You didn’t die for a single one. Like everything else, the forgiveness you have comes from Christ. He wants you to share it with others.
The longer I am a pastor, the more I appreciate how simply Martin Luther expresses what the Bible actually says in the Small Catechism. Let’s review his explanation to The Fifth Petition as it relates to forgiveness:
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
 What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.
Notice how it doesn’t say that we forgive because we try so hard to do it. Notice it doesn’t say that we forgive because our faith is bigger than a mustard seed. Look where it actually starts: We forgive because we have been forgiven. We only give what we have already received—freely and spontaneously.
We know we don’t deserve forgiveness, so we shouldn’t expect that those who sin against us would deserve it, either. But God, in His mercy and grace, gives forgiveness to people who don’t deserve it… to people who can’t forgive each other… to people who hold a grudge… to people who take advantage of one another… to people who are very slow to forgive. God gives forgiveness to you, undeserving sinner that you are. So you can freely give that same forgiveness to those who sin against you. It isn’t really yours to give in the first place. It is God’s gift to you and through you for the sake of Jesus Christ. He does what you are unable to do, what you often don’t want to do: He forgives!
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, He forgave those who hung Him there. Just think of it. From the cross, Jesus looked out over those men who drove nails through His flesh and forgave them. He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” From the cross, Jesus looked out over the Jewish leaders who manipulated the government to kill Him in order to keep their own power and He forgave them. From the cross, Jesus looked out over the disciples who abandoned Him and left Him alone and He forgave them. From the cross, Jesus looked out over us who are slow to forgive, unable to forgive, and He forgave us.
From the cross, Jesus looked out over the whole world and said, “It is finished.” Right there, Jesus earned forgiveness for every single sin. The holy, precious blood that dripped from His hands and feet and head and poured from His side were His payment. The pain that He suffered was punishment for sins that He didn’t do. It was punishment for your sins and those who sin against you.
Three days later, Jesus rose. His resurrection is proof that He is who He says He is, that He did what He says He did. So when Jesus says that you are forgiven, you can believe that it is true. You can live in that forgiveness and share that forgiveness, even with those whose sins have hurt you deeply.
If you’re looking for that kind of forgiveness in yourself, you’re not going to find it. Forgiveness is found only in Christ, in His forgiveness. That’s why you come here, where Christ gives Himself, His Word of promise, His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
We know this is true. We pray about it every time after the Holy Supper. “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another…”
“Faith toward You and fervent love toward one another.” Those are wonderful words. Through God’s gift of faith in the forgiveness of sins we are able to live them, even though we struggle to do them perfectly. But that’s why we are here, to receive forgiveness and to pass it on to our brothers and sisters. We forgive others their trespasses, even as we are forgiven all of ours.
That’s why it is my privilege as Christ’s called and ordained servant to once more proclaim to you this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sin.
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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Are You Listening?

Lazarus and the Rich Man  Jacopo Bassano · 1550
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“Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And [the rich man] said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Luke 16:29–31).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Are you listening? That’s a question many are asking voters as Election Day approaches. Are you listening? Are you paying attention? Do you know what the candidates really stand for? Do you know which candidates are closest in line with your values? Are you informed enough to vote? To help us listen, the airwaves are flooded with political ads and sound bites in the news. Ironically, it seems the more we hear about the candidates the more we don’t listen because they annoy us. Still, I suppose most of us would say that sometime before November 3rd we really should listen. The future of our country may depend upon it.
Our Gospel raises the same question—but more profoundly—and upon the answer depends another future: your eternal future. So I ask, “Are you listening this morning? Are you listening to the Word of God?” Even if you haven’t before, now is the time to do it. That’s the point our text makes most emphatically. Now is the time to listen to God’s Word because listening means eternal life.
That sounds easy enough—listen to the Word of God—but is it really? Let’s see. This is the second week in a row that our readings have talked about money and warned about its proper use. Last week Jesus told us bluntly that we cannot “serve both God and Money.” This week Amos warns against complacency. Paul reminds us that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” But is anybody really listening? Are we changing our behavior on account of God’s Word?
That’s hard to do, isn’t it? After all, money is our principal tool for coping with day-to-day life. He who has money has it easier in life—he eats better, has better clothes, a nicer home, superior medical care, and so on. But is that why God gives us money? To live better? For our own selfish enjoyment?
The rich man in the parable certainly thought so—he lived in luxury every day. Please note, the Bible doesn’t say this man lived an especially sinful life. Good food and clothes aren’t a sin—except when they’re enjoyed at the expense of our neighbor—in this case, one who languished literally on his doorstep.  
The scene shifts from earth to heaven and hell. Lazarus dies and angels carry him to Abraham’s side. This is an extraordinary reversal. Lazarus wasn’t even allowed scraps from the rich man’s table, but in heaven he feasts forever at the Lord’s banquet. Looking up from his place of torment, the rich man sees Abraham with Lazarus at his side. Though separated by a great chasm, they are close enough for a conversation to take place between these two completely different realms. The rich man begins by asking Abraham to have mercy on him. Curiously, the rich man’s arrogance hasn’t been tempered by hell’s flames. He still thinks of himself and views Lazarus as a servant whom Abraham can send to relieve his agony.
Abraham calls the rich man to “remember” what happened to him and to Lazarus during their lifetime. In his earthly life he received good things and Lazarus received bad things, but now the Great Reversal has taken place. Lazarus is comforted by God, and the rich man is in left in eternal torment.
Two main points are made in this parable: (1) the finality of judgment at the time of death; and (2) the importance of listening now to God’s Word if we want to avoid the rich man’s fate. This story also helps shed light on the story of the shrewd steward from last week. He showed mercy to his master’s debtors because he trusted in his master’s mercy. Jesus used this parable to encourage the Pharisees and His disciples to rely upon His mercy and to show mercy to others.
The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers so they don’t end up where he is. Abraham curtly replies: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” In other words, these brothers need to listen to God’s Word and to take it to heart, now while they still have time! Those who wish to avoid torment in hell must listen to the full Word of God as it reveals their sin and testifies to Jesus and His work of salvation.
The story could’ve ended here, but the rich man speaks again. He begs Abraham to let someone from the dead go to his brothers so that they might repent.
The rich man is finally listening, but it is too late for him. The more pressing question at this point is, “Will the rich man’s brothers listen to God’s Word before it is too late for them?”
But even more personally, I must ask, “What about you? Are you listening? Are you listening to God’s Word and examining your own life in the mirror of His Law? Are you listening so that God’s Word produces repentance and changes your heart so you may love your neighbor in need? Are you listening?”
Perhaps the most unnerving thing about this parable is that the only reason given for the Great Reversal in the afterlife is offered by Abraham when he says to the once rich man, “In your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”
No negative report about the rich man is given in any part of the story. We are not told that he cheated anybody, that he was an adulterer, or even that he rolled down the window of his limousine one day to yell at Lazarus to “Get a job!” It’s clearly implied that he did no direct harm to Lazarus. He simply ignored him.   
According to Abraham, then, is his great sin that he was rich? If that’s true, just about everybody I know will breathe a little sigh of relief, because we’re not rich. Wheww! But here’s another thought to chew on: right now more than a billion people in the world live on less than one dollar a day. Now who’s rich?
Before the Israelites entered Canaan, Moses warned that when they became prosperous, they might turn to other gods. St. Paul says the same kind of thing in our epistle: “Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith.” This is certainly true in modern day America. We live in a land of plenty. Few of us actually have to deal directly with beggars. But still, our attitude is much like the rich man’s—we’re complacent and self-centered.
Consider once again our politics. The politicians vie with one another in making promises. But how many of us stop to evaluate those promises on any other basis than our own self-interest? We wonder, “How will it affect me—my income, my taxes, my life?” And rarely do we ask, “How will it affect others?” But we should be asking, “How will my vote square with my Christian faith and the life I am called to live as one of God’s children?
 God tells us to love our neighbors, but when it comes to money, to showing mercy, or voting our consciences, we find it hard to listen. The question I have for you today is this, “Will you listen? Will you hear before it’s too late?”
You see, we have our own Lazaruses on our doorsteps, too. Oh, we might not recognize them as such, but they’re still there all the same. Some of them we figuratively step right over as we enter the voting booth and cast our ballots based upon who promises us the most goodies. And our complacency leads to the death of over 3,600 of these little ones every day in this country alone. Yes, I’m talking about abortion, a national atrocity that since 1973 has traded the lives of 50,000,000 babies for “a woman’s right to choose.” Each one of those babies was a little Lazarus, for whom we Christians should’ve spoken up for and shown mercy.
May God have mercy on us for failing to listen to their silent screams. May God have mercy on us for becoming so complacent that we would allow politicians to represent us who have no fear of God, who don’t keep His commandments, who won’t stand up to the special interests who profit from death.
Abortion is not a “political issue” that Christians have no right to address. Abortion is a grave sin. Abortion assaults God’s Word of truth about the sanctity of human life and, therefore, assaults the Word Himself Who became flesh that we might have life. Abortion is a sin against God Who is the Author and Redeemer of life. It is a spiritual issue, one that we must not be complacent about.
There are other Lazaruses we must reach out to as well. Not only does each abortion kill a pre-born child, it forever wounds a woman. Although she may at first feel a sense of relief that her “problem” has been solved, eventually the reality of this unnatural choice sinks in. When it does, the guilt and shame can be devastating. This awful reality can also bring the same devastation to fathers, grandparents, and siblings. Because abortion can destroy relationships within families as well as between God and an individual, it is a spiritual issue.
Therefore, as Christians, we cannot debate the pros and cons of abortion any more than we can debate the pros and cons of rape or lying or stealing or adultery. Abortion cannot be a “right” for, in God’s sight, it is a fundamental wrong. It is such a fundamental wrong that when it comes to voting, a candidate who favors abortion should be disqualified from receiving our vote.
The Church is compelled to “speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves” and to expose the “fruitless deeds of darkness.” We must diligently examine the voting records and stance of candidates in regard to the sanctify of human life. And when we find that a candidate promotes the sin of abortion, we must take action to oppose this sin and defend those affected by it.
The Church is compelled not just to expose the deeds of darkness but also to be a light to those trapped by them. The Gospel of forgiveness is the only source of true hope and healing for those struggling with a past abortion decision. We, in the Church need to share that message of love and forgiveness those who are hurting. But first we must repent and hear that word of forgiveness for ourselves.
The truth be told, we’ve failed miserably as a society and as individuals. Too, often we’ve put ourselves first and ignored the needs of those around us. We’ve been so consumed with making a living, we’ve failed to love our neighbor in need. Like the rich man, we only deserve to suffer the torments of hell for eternity. For this we must repent and plead for God’s mercy and grace.
We need to be like the beggar. He had nothing at all—no food, no friends except dogs, certainly no money, only a name, Lazarus, which means “God helps.” And God did help. For when he died, God sent angels to take him to heaven.
God helps us, too! His Word reveals the selfishness of our lives and the selflessness of His Son. Jesus lived the perfect life we could not. He freely gave up His life on the cross to pay the price for our sins. He suffered the torments of hell we deserved so that we wouldn’t have to. And He rose triumphantly, the firstfruits of the resurrection. The dead man returned that we might have eternal life.
By God’s grace, we have not only the Old Testament, but also the New, not only the promise, but also the fulfillment—Jesus Christ. And we have that powerful Word made tangible for us here today in His Word and Sacraments. In this Word of God, we receive the absolute assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we have a place with Abraham in heaven. In the Holy Communion, the risen and ascended Word feeds us His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. In His Word, God transforms us into His children, who do not walk over the needy, but walk with them, perhaps even picking them up and carrying them, using the gifts God gives us to use for others.
Go in the power of strength of God’s Word! 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.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Shrewd Steward and the Merciful Master

Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
The parables of our Lord are wonderful teaching devices, not least of all because they make us think. And our text for today is certainly one of the most difficult to understand and interpret. But one of the characteristics of parables is that they contain a “crack” or something unusual that makes the reader realize that this is not a story that comes from human experience. For human experience cannot teach us the “knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.”
In this text, the obvious jarring note is the reaction of the master who, instead of raging against his steward, “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” It is difficult to see how we might reconcile this with a righteous, holy God. But that is our task as we explore this parable from Luke 16:  
There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me?’” (1-3). So far the text.
And, so far, our understanding of this challenging parable is clear. This steward, or manager, was put in charge of the estate of a very wealthy man. He was given the responsibility of managing his master’s property. But he had not been faithful to his calling. He had wasted his master’s goods. His squandering of the master’s goods must have been apparent to many in the community, for word of this steward’s unfaithfulness soon reached the ears of the master. And now the master had come to call his steward to task. The steward knows that he will be fired, and that his days of employment by the rich man are numbered. Thus comes the very understandable question: “What shall I do?”
Now, up to this point, the application of this parable is clear as well. Jesus is speaking these words directly to His disciples. He is teaching His disciples—and that includes you and me—about being good stewards of our possessions. Or, I should say, it’s about being a good steward of God’s possessions. For we really do not have any possessions in this world. They are all God’s. All things in this world are God’s possessions given to us as gifts to manage on His behalf.
Yes, it is God Himself who is the rich man in this parable. And each one of us is a steward of the property that God has generously placed into our trust. All of our worldly possessions—and all of the talents and time that we use in acquiring worldly possessions—are gifts to us from God. He gives them to us so that we will use them in carrying out His great commandment and great commission: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
Our heavenly Father wants us to use His good gifts to show mercy to our fellow man and to witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus. Our Master would have us use His resources to help our neighbor in every need of body and soul. We are called by God Himself to show that we do indeed love Him above all things, and trust in Him alone when He calls us to be good stewards, to use His possessions—in service to our neighbors in this world: in service to our family, our congregation, our government, our neighbor next door, even our enemies on the other side of the world who do not yet know the one true God.
Yes, we are stewards of The Rich Man… and yes, sadly, we too, have been unfaithful to our calling. We’ve squandered our Master’s possessions. We’ve spent far more of His treasure trying to satisfy the cravings of our flesh for selfish pleasure than we’ve spent to satisfy the cravings of the hungry for food. Our talents have been used far more often in leisure than in building up our congregation. We’ve spent far more time in the pursuit of worldly wealth than in the pursuit of the righteousness of God in His Word and sacraments.
We all live daily on the verge of having the Master come to us and say, “you can no longer be manager… If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? … You cannot serve God and Money.” Then should come from our own lips the question asked by the steward in the parable: “What shall I do?”
The steward in the parable seems to solve his problem by some additional dishonesty. He recognizes that he can win some friends for the future by doing a favor for them now while he is still the master’s steward. He goes to two others who owe the master money and cuts the amount that each one will need to repay. Little wonder then why these men would be glad to take care of the steward after he’s fired by the master, for he’s saved them a significant amount of money.
But there is a big wonder over the reaction of the master to this seemingly shady deal, for the master “commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” Can you believe it? The master praised the steward for the steward’s shrewd dealing! That doesn’t sound too much like our righteous Master, does it?
Here is where our understanding of this parable and its application become challenging—for we do not know at first what to make of the fact that God seems to be praising a wicked steward for a dishonest deal. But here is the key that unlocks the mystery. The main point of the parable is not found in the details of the steward’s dealings. In fact, the steward is not even the main character. The main character is the master, and the main point is his dealings with his steward.
You see, the reason why the steward even dares to change the two accounts is because he knows his master is a lord of mercy. The master has already shown mercy in not immediately firing the unfaithful steward, but quite shockingly has given him an opportunity to somehow straighten out the books. And the steward banks even more on his master’s mercy when he arranges for the huge discount on the two debts.
The steward acts quickly here, not so much to avoid detection by his master before the deal is done, but he wants the deal sealed before the debtors find out about his firing and think that this was merely an act of self-preservation by a desperate man. The steward is desperate, but he is desperate to demonstrate to these two debtors—and to his master—that he trusts in his master for mercy.
The readiness of the debtors to accept the steward’s rewriting of their bills indicates that they believe this comes from the master’s hand. The entire community is dependent on this generous and merciful master and has come to expect this sort of mercy from him, and so, the steward benefits from that reputation in that he is viewed as an extension of the master.
By the time the master discovers what the steward has done, he is in a bind with only two options. Legally, he can reverse the steward’s decisions to adjust the accounts. But in doing so, he will anger his tenants and force them to reassess whether he really is a generous and merciful master. On the other hand, if he lets the adjustments stand, he’ll further secure the goodwill of his tenants.
That, then, is the obvious choice for the master, if he is to be consistent with his own character. He must commend the steward for shrewdly managing his personal crisis since the steward trusted the character of his master and staked everything on the master’s love and mercy. The steward is not disappointed. His master delivers mercy to him, rather than the wrath he deserves.
And so does our Master deliver His mercy to us! Just as the steward had created trouble for himself and could only trust in his lord’s mercy for the solution, so we find the only resolution to the desperate problem of our sinfulness in the mercy of our Lord—the Lord of all! Though we stewards are exceedingly poor in our dealings with our fellow man, our Master is exceedingly rich in His merciful dealings with us! Though we squander all of the good gifts that God gives to us as His stewards, He’s not taken away the stewardship from us.
Instead, God the Father, in His great compassion for us, sent to us His most precious gift—His Chief Steward—His Own Son: Jesus Christ. Jesus came to settle our accounts with God. As a result of our poor stewardship and all of our sinfulness, we owed a huge debt to God—a debt payable only by an eternal death. But along came Jesus, the Chief Steward of God—and reduced our debt—not by twenty percent, or fifty percent, or eighty percent—but by 100%! Christ writes off all of our debt to God, trusting in His own Father’s mercy to accept this cancellation of the debt, trusting that His Father would accept His own holy, precious blood as the full payment for the sins of the world.
And God the Father delivered! Our invoice remains nailed to the cross to which Christ Himself was nailed. The empty tomb of Jesus means that your tomb—and the tomb of all who trust in Him—will be empty for all eternity, for your bill has been paid in full by Him!
And the Master restores you to full stewardship! God in His mercy not only forgives you of all of our sins and gives you the promise of everlasting life, but He gives you new life to be used in His service for the remainder of your time in this world! Through His Word, through the water and Word of Baptism, and through the bread and wine of His Holy Supper, God, in His mercy, sends anew to forgiven sinners the gift of the Spirit of stewardship—His Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit calls you through God’s Word to live as faithful stewards. He encourages and empowers you to make the lifestyle changes necessary to change your stewardship, so that you manage your possessions—or, rather, God’s possessions—in a way that pleases our Master. The Holy Spirit enables you to conform your stewardship—and your entire life in this world—to love your neighbor as yourself, to show mercy to your fellow man, to help everyone everywhere every way you can.
By the grace of God, you trust in the Lord’s mercy. You confess your sin and unrighteousness to Him, trusting that He who gave His own life to redeem you will continue to save you now. And so He does. Your Lord commends you today with these words, “You are saved by My mercy this day, because I have accounted for all your sin at the cross. You are baptized into My death and resurrection. You have been fed with My body and blood, empowered by My Word. Go in peace and serve your neighbor. You are forgiven for all of you 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.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Miracle and Means of Life 2.0

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“Then [Jesus] came up and touched the bier and the bearers stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother” (Luke 7:14-15).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Our readings for today are full of miracles. We begin in the little town of Zarephath, where the prophet Elijah dwells with a widow and her son. This is Old Testament time, famine and all, where mortality rates are terribly high and death is all too common. In this case, the widow’s son becomes sick and dies. He was all that she had left—both for family and for her livelihood. Now, he’s gone. So the widow cries out to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to kill my son?” (1 Kings 17:18).
The widow’s anger is understandable. She has just lost her only son! She instinctively lashes out at someone just to seek some measure of relief. Her conscience oppresses her. Has God sent the prophet to stay with her just so that she might suffer and grieve for sin even more? Is that what the Lord is about?
Hardly. The Bible assures us that God never punishes His people for sins they have committed. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). But there is a direct connection between sin and death. Sickness and death are constant reminders that we live in a sinful world, that the perfectness of Eden is gone, that we personally need a Savior from sin.
Elijah responds to the woman’s anger with gentleness. He asks God whether, after sparing this family from starvation, He really intends to take the life of this boy. Then Elijah boldly asks God to perform a work such as the world has never seen before. “There was no breath left in him” (verse 17). Elijah asks God to raise the boy from the dead.
Elijah takes the boy into a room, stretches himself out on him three times. He prays that the Lord of life will return the boy’s soul to his body, and the God who gave life to Adam at the beginning of time gives new life to the dead body lying on Elijah’s bed. The boy revives, and Elijah returns him to his mother.
So what is it that brings the boy back to life? Is it the widow’s grief? Is it the prophet’s zeal? Is it some sort of medical maneuver as Elijah lay atop the boy? Some ancient precursor to CPR? No! The widow gets it right when she says, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the Word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth.” In the Lord’s will, He chooses to return the boy’s life. He does so by His Word. The boy lives again because of the Lord’s Word and the Lord’s will. Don’t miss the miracle—life. Don’t miss the means—the Word of the Lord.
Our Gospel lesson shows how the Lord uses Elijah to point to Jesus’ ministry later on. Crowds follow Jesus as He approaches the city gates of Nain, but this parade into town is halted by another—a procession of death. A widow’s only son has died, and the funeral procession bears his body out of the city.
The grief is thick. Death, that most pernicious enemy of our humanity, has robbed the widow twice, first of a husband and now of her only son. Who will care for her? Who will provide for her? How can she carry on with the rest of her life? We can only begin to imagine her pain, the feeling of helplessness, anger, the tears that would not end with burial, but would go on for days, weeks, even years.
People often ask, especially when a young person dies, “Why? Why does God allow this happen?” It’s a natural question with a simple answer. But an answer that none of us wants to hear. Why does a young person die? Why does anyone die? One word: Sin. Death is the wages of sin. It’s the price of Adam’s sin and our own. That young man was a sinner, born with the congenital disease of Adam in his own flesh and bones. Whatever it was that killed him, the cause of his death was sin and the Law that kills sinners.
That’s sometimes overlooked at funerals. We’re hesitant to talk about sin amidst all the grief over the death of a loved one. Yes, we know that they weren’t perfect, and we know they were a sinner, but we really don’t want to hear about it at the funeral. Perhaps it seems like we’re piling on and we want to try to soften the blow. More likely we don’t want to be reminded of our own sin and mortality.
We’d rather hear about all the good things they did. Let’s “celebrate their life” as funeral homes like to put it today. Now, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating a life, as God is the Author and Lord of life. And God hates death as much as we do… even more than we do! In celebrating life, though, we need to recognize the reality of death, what comes to every son and daughter of Adam simply for being a son and daughter of Adam. We are born to die, and it’s our sin of origin, concupiscence, that old Adam that is killing us. Denial gets you nowhere.
And that reality of death is evident when Jesus and the great crowd meet the dead man, the widow, and the considerable crowd following her. The procession of life meets the procession of death. Who has the right-of-way?
In this world, death trumps life. Even today, funeral processions go through while others pull to the side, a gesture of respect and an unintended sermon that death gets its way. But it is not so that day at the gates of Nain. Jesus doesn’t go off to the side to give this grieving widow and the mourners their space. The Lord of life meets death head on. He sees the widow, is filled with compassion, literally, “His gut moved” and He reaches out to her as only Jesus can. He speaks the consoling Word that only He can speak with full effect: “Do not weep.”
We sometimes say that to each other in our shallow attempts at comfort. “Don’t cry. Don’t be sad.” But those well-intentioned words do little, if anything to stem the flood of tears. With Jesus, it’s different. His words come with action. His words are action. He goes to the open coffin and touches it, calmly, resolutely, staring death in the face. The pallbearers stop dead in their tracks.
Jesus speaks: “Young man, I say to you, arise.” “Arise.” For Jesus, raising someone from the dead is like waking him up from sleep. He tells the dead to get up, and they do. All that it takes is a Word from the Lord of life who came to defeat death itself by His dying. One little word. “Arise.”
Notice the difference from Elijah. When Elijah raised the widow’s son in Zarephath, he did it by prayer. And the Lord heard the prophet’s prayer. But Jesus is more than a prophet; He’s the eternal Son of God in the flesh. He doesn’t pray; He commands. He doesn’t plead with the Father; He orders the dead to rise. And they hear Him, and His Word does what it says. Jesus speaks His Word, and death must flee. The young man sits up in his own coffin and he began to speak.
Don’t miss the miracle or the means. Life is given by the Word of the Lord.
You say, that’s nice. I’m happy for the widows of Zarephath and Nain who got their sons back from the dead. They must have been overjoyed. They went out to bury their sons only to bring them back alive. Wonderful for them, but what about me? What about the loved ones I’ve buried? What about those of whom death has robbed me? What about them? What about me, when the doctors say, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do for you”?
This is where we need to understand and receive the miracle for what it is—a sign for our faith, a foretaste of greater things to come. We delight in these miracles. We give thanks to God for them, even as we remember they’re isolated incidents, not standard operating procedure in this fallen world. As Jesus Himself points out in Luke 4, there were many widows who suffered in Elijah’s time, and yet Elijah was only sent to help one. Likewise, many died during Jesus’ earthly ministry, but Jesus only healed a few. These miracles are exceptions to the rule—at least for now. But it will not always be so. From the city of Nain, Jesus makes His way to Jerusalem, where He is betrayed and crucified. He suffers the scorn of sinful men, God’s righteous wrath for the sin of the world, and dies.
Three days later, Jesus shatters death’s hold and rises from the dead. Because Christ has died and Christ is risen, we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We confidently await the day when death is no more, and when the Lord calls all the dead back to life with His Word.
Thus, dear friends, my plea to you today: do not miss the miracle that has happened to you and still happens. Do not miss the means by which it takes place. Don’t miss the miracle—life. And don’t miss the means—God’s Word.
Dead men don’t sit up, and dead men don’t speak. Neither do those who are spiritually dead. That takes the power of God’s Word. The same Word of God that baptized you into Christ’s death and resurrection. The same Word that gives you Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and strengthens you in body and soul unto life everlasting.
The death of the body is a horrific thing. There’s no use trying to sugarcoat it. We see death and it fills us with anguish and revulsion. But in the meantime, we look on those around us who are not believers, and it doesn’t seem to bother us so much. They seem to be getting along well enough in this life. In other words, we are troubled far more by dead bodies than dead souls. Faith sees things quite the opposite: again, one who is dead in body but alive in soul is the Lord’s. One who is alive in body but dead in soul is lost. Thus Jesus Himself declares, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Having said that, again let me repeat: physical death is a terrible thing; and as it is given to you to grieve the death of loved ones, please do not think that I am trivializing that pain at all. Rather, I would have you believe, by faith, that the death of a soul is that much more terrible. For as you understand this, then you will rejoice all the more in the greater miracle God has given to you in faith.
Before you were born, God’s only Son shed His blood and offered up His life on the cross for your salvation. Though you were born dead in sin, blind, and an enemy of God, the Lord has made you alive by His grace. He has turned you from enemy to beloved child. He has given you faith to see. Don’t miss that miracle. Further, do not miss the means, for it is the same as all the other miracles we have heard today: it is God’s Word that brings you forgiveness and life.
But be warned: the devil, the world and your own sinful flesh will want you to think this forgiveness to be nothing, will tempt you to roll your eyes at the mention of God’s grace. But your faith delights to hear the Gospel, because that’s how you are made alive in a miracle far greater than the resurrections of Nain or Zarephath. Even today, by His means of grace, the Lord performs this greater miracle on you; and because He does, even death and grave have lost their sting.
Remember this the next time you see a funeral procession. Or the next time you’re at a funeral. Or as you prepare for your own funeral. Let this Word bring you comfort in grief and sorrow today, and hope for the future. Jesus’ miracles of resurrection and forgiveness are signs for our faith and a foretaste of the feast to come. On the Last Day when the Lord Jesus appears in all His glory, He will raise all the dead and give eternal life to all His believers. What He did for the young man on the way to his burial, He will do for you and for all of your loved ones who have died in the Lord. He will raise you up with His life-giving Word: “Arise.” And it will be so.
Don’t miss the miracle. And please, do not miss the means. Come often to hear God’s Word and receive His Sacrament. Here is life and forgiveness. Indeed, 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.

The Lost Sheep Speaks

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“So [Jesus] told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:3–7).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Good morning! My name is Hamartolos—a Greek name that means “The Sinner.” That’s me! I’m the lost sheep from Jesus’ parable. From the time I was a little lamb, I’ve always been independent and tough. A rugged individualist, you might say. My Mama called me “stubborn,” but I argued I was not stubborn, just obstinate. She used to warn me that if I didn’t straighten up I’d end up in trouble. I guess she was right.
It all began gradually. At first, I wandered a few steps from the rest of the flock—munching on grass here and noticing a juicy mouthful over there. I saw that the others were gathered together a long way from me. But I knew that I had not really separated myself from them. I could go back at any time. The Good Shepherd didn’t need to worry about me. I could handle it.
Then I got further occupied with myself and my thoughts, my pleasures and my priorities, my plans and my purposes. Of course, that takes time and effort—time away from the other sheep and the Good Shepherd. (Though at the time, I hardly thought Him to be good. Rather, the longer I stayed away and the farther I strayed away, the more it seemed He was Mr. Rule Maker.) 
Anyway, my pursuits also took away my concentration from what I had been hearing from that Big Boss Man and what the other sheep heard, believed, and did. Instead of doing what He wanted, I became obsessed with working my own way from one field to the next, just doing whatever pleased me. Even though I couldn’t always see the flock from where I was, I knew the general direction and was always able to find my way back by nightfall. But after a while, the adrenaline rush from my daytime adventures started to wear off.
I remember very well the day I decided to strike out on my own. The Good Shepherd had the whole flock—all one hundred of us—out in the open country—a wilderness area. I have to tell you: I was tired of that place. Sure, there was nice pool of water to drink from. But you had to walk a long way to get to it. And there was grass, but you had to work pretty hard to find it. Besides, I was getting tired of eating the same stuff, day after day. Variety is the spice of life, you know.
I thought of the lush, green pasture on the mountainside that we had gone to the summer before. Now, that was living! The grass was so thick you could just stand in one spot and eat until your belly got so full you couldn’t move. But that was all right, because it made a nice soft mat to lie on, too!
And the water! Why, it must be the best water in the world. So cool and refreshing! And so still that you could see your reflection in it while you were drinking. So quiet, you didn’t have to worry about being swept away by the current. On a hot day, you could just stand in it and soak your hot, tired feet.
Ohhh! It was heavenly! It had everything that a sheep could ever need! I couldn’t figure out why the Shepherd hadn’t taken us there yet. I was tired of waiting, so I decided to go by myself. I didn’t bother to ask anyone else to go along with me. They’re all a bunch of wimps. They would’ve tried to talk me out of it, or let the Shepherd know I was missing before I got far enough away. Besides, I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself. Or so I thought.
Shortly after midnight, the shepherd seemed to be sound asleep. So, I quietly crept away and headed toward greener pastures. It was a perfect night for traveling. The sky was perfectly clear. You could see the twinkling stars—especially the North Star that pointed the way toward the mountains. The full moon lit the way before me so I could avoid the scattered rocks and spiny cactuses. I made good time, and before daybreak I was several miles away from the Shepherd and flock       
The first few days were a great adventure. The path was well worn and easy to follow. I was too busy enjoying my freedom and independence to miss Mama or the rest of the flock, and it was nice not having to follow that Shepherd all the time. Though the grass wasn’t as plentiful as the mountainside, there were all sorts of new ones to try along the way. I thought I remembered how to get to the mountain pasture. There was a narrow path you had to follow. But as I tried to make my way along the path of righteousness, I found it wasn’t so easy to do by yourself. You come to so many forks in the road where you have to choose the right way to go. One mistake, one wrong choice, will get you completely lost in a short time.
And that’s what happened to me. I guess, because the Good Shepherd had always been the one who led us to the pasture, I hadn’t paid close enough attention to the right route, and I soon found myself in trouble. I was hurt and alone, and I must admit, I was really scared. I thought about the rest of the flock and the Shepherd, but I no longer had any idea where they were. I was lost… absolutely lost. All I could do was bleat like a lost sheep. My only hope was to be found.
But think about it. Why would anyone find me? Who would sacrifice the time and effort to search for one stubborn, stupid little sheep, who carelessly and purposely wandered away? Who would care enough for me to risk his life to find me? I could only think of one… the one I used to know as the Good Shepherd. But He probably didn’t even know I was lost. I had always been wandering. He wouldn’t miss one sheep when He had ninety-nine others to look after. Would He?
Just when I had completely given up, I heard His voice calling out my name. Can you believe it! It was my Master and He was calling for me! But then my guilty conscience started getting to me. I wondered, “Why is coming for me?” I thought there could only be one reason…vengeance. He was going to find me and to make me pay for what I had done. I was afraid that if He found me, He would really let me know what trouble was all about. He’d make me an example to all the other sheep of what happens when you run away from Him. So I tried to hide from Him, like the first sheep, Adam did, when he covered his shame with leaves and hid in Paradise when he heard God calling for him.
But the Master knew where to look and there was no hiding from Him. He found me, bent down to me, and to my amazement, said, “Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are no longer Hamartolos—The Sinner, but you shall be called Dikaios—The Righteous One. You are Mine.”
He had not come to me as the Rule-Maker, but as the Law-Fulfiller. This was the Good Shepherd, who came to seek and to save the lost. The One who came in grace and truth to bind up the broken-hearted and to release those held captive by sin and that most dangerous of predators—Satan.
The Good Shepherd’s nail-pierced hands lifted me up from a certain death. Just as He once joyfully taken up His cross and carried it in my place, He joyfully picked me up, set me on His shoulder, and set off to return me to the flock. I understood that I had been restored to Him and He rejoiced in that restoration.
But as I rode on His broad shoulders, I’ll admit, it was more than a bit scary. He was tall and it was a long way to the ground below. If He dropped me, I would probably die on the jagged rocks below. But His strong arms held me tightly. His deep voice assured me, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me…no one shall snatch them out of My hand.”
I must tell you, it was a breath-taking ride, but I knew I was in good hands. The winding path we took looked unfamiliar, but I trusted that the Good Shepherd knew the way home. But then as I became more comfortable, I started to wonder what the other sheep would think of me. I was scared of what they might say to me…how they would treat me…and whether or not they would accept me back into the fold. After all, my wandering had affected them, too!
But as we came near the village, the Master called out to His friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with Me; I have found My sheep that was lost.” And amazingly, they rejoiced at my return. They were genuinely happy that I was back! And I was welcomed as though I had never left! Fellow sheep, Jesus declares, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Now that may well be an account of your life with God. Maybe you’ve wandered away from the Good Shepherd’s flock. Maybe you got lost, and now you would like to come back. Please do! You don’t have to be afraid! Just call out to Him and He’ll joyfully carry you back to the flock in His loving arms, too! The rest of us sheep will join in the rejoicing.
Some of you maybe have never strayed so far away from the Savior as I did. Maybe you’ve never personally experienced being so separated from God that you thought you would never be found. Maybe you can’t recall a time in your life when you were not a Christian. That’s cause for rejoicing as well.
You see—you were lost! You may not even have realized it, but, at one time, you were also a sheep separated from the Good Shepherd by sin. You were a poor, miserable sinner, too! We all were! We all still are! But that’s who Jesus came for—sinners such as you and me. Lost sheep, who couldn’t find our own way to our heavenly home, no matter how hard we tried. And not only did He come to find us—He gave up Himself into death on the cross as payment for our sins.
Seven centuries before Jesus’ birth the prophet Isaiah wrote of our plight:
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made His grave with the wicked and with a rich man in His death, although He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in His mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief; when His soul makes an offering for guilt, He shall see His offspring; He shall prolong His days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide with Him a portion with the many, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:6-12).
The Shepherd makes Himself one with His rebellious, wayward sheep. The Lamb of God takes our sins upon Himself and pays for them on the cross with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. Having raised Himself from the grave, He shares His eternal inheritance with you and me and all who will receive Him by faith. Redeemed, forgiven, and accounted righteous by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, we are designated “His offspring.”  
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day complained, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” And do you know what? The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were right! They were absolutely correct in what they had declared. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, receives sinners like you and me, and He eats with us!
As His Holy Spirit works through the Word, the risen and ascended Jesus invites you to draw near to Him and believe in Him. He gently calls you by name and leads you to the quiet waters of Baptism. He forgives your sins and restores your souls through the voice of His undershepherds. He guards and keeps you with the rod and staff of His Word—the Law that accuses and corrects, the Gospel that comforts and empowers. The Good Shepherd sets a table before you in the presence of your enemies. He gives you His very own body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul unto eternal life. All of this He does solely out of His grace and mercy without any worthiness on your part.
And, in turn, the Good Shepherd calls you to help look for the other lost sheep that need to be found and brought into His flock. He calls you to share His blessings with other sheep that are not in His sheep pen yet. He calls you to rejoice along with the angels over each and every lost sheep that is found. For that is what you once were, too! Indeed, even today there is rejoicing in heaven every time you repent—as you confess your sin and trust in His absolution. 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
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.

Into the Wilderness

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