So, What Does Belong to God? – A Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

October 18, 2014 Leave a comment

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson, where Jesus encounters another trap. “…[T]he Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?””

If there were ever two groups of people who didn’t get along, it was the disciples of the Pharisees and the followers of Herod. The disciples of the Pharisees were very public in their outcry of Caesar, especially when Caesar demanded that he be treated like a god. To these pharisaical disciples, there was only one God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This God, and this God alone deserved all praise, and honor, and thanks, and sacrifice. This God’s laws were the only ones that needed to be followed. Peter’s rallying cry in Acts was very familiar to these disciples. “We must obey God rather than men” was the motto they lived by. Especially when that man was a pagan ruler who thought himself a god.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were were loyal to King Herod. A King put in place by Caesar. Maybe they were loyal because they got something out of it. Perhaps they were loyal because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they weren’t. Maybe it was some of both. But Herod was King. And to be friends with a king was rewarding place to be.

Since the king was charged with keeping the peace in Judea, it was in their best interests to make sure that peace was indeed kept. And keeping the peace meant making sure everyone did what Caesar commanded. When the people needed to worship Caesar, there they were, enforcing that rule. When Caesar’s authority was questioned, there they were, asserting it. And when Caesar’s taxes needed collected, there they were, making sure people paid.

The Pharisees sent both their disciples and the Herodians to Jesus. A veritable tinder box, waiting to go up in flames. The flattery they gave to Jesus wasn’t to soften up Jesus. They themselves acknowledge that’s a thing that can’t be done. No, the flattery is to invest both their disciples and the Herodians in the answer. A man who is true? Who teaches the way of God truthfully? A man who is bold enough to answer anyone? Who considers himself the equal to any great man? Surely he, of all people, will tell those Herodians off. Or tell those Pharisaical disciples off. And if he will not, then he’s going to have eat all those bold words in the form of a knuckle sandwich. Into this tinderbox, the Pharisees put the lit match. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” And from there, they wait for everything to burn to the ground.

Of course, Jesus makes it look easy. When they show Him the coin used for the tax, with Caesar’s image, and Caesar’s inscription, Jesus simply says, “Therefore render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus stays true to God, unswayed by men’s opinions or appearances. And both sides are satisfied. There will be no fire today. So everyone can go their way.

Is that what we do too? Go our own way after hearing Jesus’ words? Figure what we were doing all along was really the right way? Because the question that we should be asking right now is “What belongs to God?” The Herodians would answer this by saying Caesar is god. Therefore rendering unto Caesar and unto god are the very same actions. The disciples of the Pharisees would say that everything is God’s. Therefore once you have rendered unto God what is His, there’s nothing left to give to Caesar. And perhaps we might sympathize with that. But clearly, that’s not what Jesus meant.

What belongs to God? Thanks and praise? Obedience? Honor? Glory? Time, talents, and treasure? Sure, all those things belong to God. And should be given to God. Have you given them? Eh, …sometimes? That’s the problem in asking a Law question. You always get a Law answer. And the Power of God in the Law is not salvation, but condemnation. Sometimes isn’t a good enough answer. Or is it?

When we ask what belongs to God, it inevitably leads to some self-justification on our part. Sure, I give God thanks and praise. When I have things to be thankful for. When I remember that I’m better off than that other guy. That I don’t have to deal with the things he deals with. So I thank you Lord, that I am not like other men… Dang!

That inner disciple of the Pharisee comes out so well. That inner Herodian is convinced. That part of us is practiced to near perfection. As long as I can measure myself against someone else who is worse than me, I can self-justify myself out of having to do all the Law. Because I do enough. At least by my own measure. But that doesn’t make the Law go away. The Law still condemns us. Because we’re not measured by the parts of the Law we choose, but the whole thing.

However, despite the fact we cannot do the Law, that question is still implicit in our text. What belongs to God? And it needs an answer. Simply saying we’ve done it, or saying we haven’t, doesn’t answer the question. Reducing it to what we have to give doesn’t answer it either. Because what if it isn’t a Law question? We ask it like it is. So why should we be surprised when we come up with a Law answer? But what if we ask what belongs to God as a Gospel question?

What belongs to God? You do. Because you have been purchased with a very different kind of coin. Not a dollar, or a denarius. Not a coin bearing an image of some earthly authority. Nor the inscription of some ruler of this world. But this coin “Purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.” At least that’s how Luther says it in his Small Catechism. “Not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live with Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives, and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

Jesus is a different kind of coin. But he has all the qualities of a coin listed in this text. Jesus bears an image. Paul writes in Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God, [and] the firstborn of all creation.” Not Caesar’s image, God’s image. Likewise, there is an inscription. You know it. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. That inscription hangs over His head at the one time it really matters: The cross. Not Pilate’s inscription, Jesus’ inscription. Jesus is indeed a different kind of coin. But He still purchases you. You are not your own, for you have been bought with a price.

And that price is the very life of God Himself. While we stand around and argue about what Caesar deserves, Jesus has already purchased us with His death and resurrection. While we ask Law questions about what we’re supposed to do for God, Jesus does everything God was looking for. Our God tax has already been settled. Our Herodian tendencies have been forgiven. Our well intentioned Pharisaical attitudes have been overcome. The burning inferno of our sin has been extinguished. Even our most terrible sins, the ones we hoped would never come due, have been paid in full. What we could never pay, Jesus paid. And now you belong to God.

And that is good news. Because now there is nothing in this life; Nothing that this world, nor all its Caesars can throw at you; Nothing that Satan, in all his power, can do to you that will ever separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Because you are paid for. Paid by the image and inscription. Paid by the strangest coin ever used. Paid by the body and blood of Jesus on the cross. Given for you. Shed for your forgiveness. There for you every time this life, and this world, inflict their worst.

For there is a resurrection. Already paid for. Already yours. Both now, and the day Jesus returns to hand it to you. And not even death can stop Him from giving that resurrection to you. You belong to God. You belong to Jesus. And that means the world will set its trap for you. Just as it set a trap for Him in today’s text. And those traps will be too big for you to handle. Too much for you to buy yourself out of. But while you will always be given more than you can handle, you will never be afflicted with more than what Jesus has already handled on your behalf. Because death itself has been beaten. And the resurrection of Jesus is yours. You belong to Him. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon

An Unsafe King to Be Around – A Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14

October 11, 2014 Comments off

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson where Jesus gives us another parable. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding for his son.

But as Jesus is telling this parable, this king He mentions bothers us. He is not a safe king to be around. His mood seems to change at the drop of a hat. So from one minute to the next, we’re not sure if we’ve got the inviting king, or the angry one. The patient king who sends out more servants, or the outraged king who is putting people to death. The generous king who has the wedding dinner ready, or the king who burned cities to the ground. The king who dresses all his guests, or the king who throws his guests out into the darkness. So this whole parable sounds ominous. And Jesus saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen,” doesn’t help.

Now, maybe we can mitigate some of this. Remember that the people who refused the invitation were quite offensive in their own right. They were invited multiple times. And killing the king’s servants is a pretty serious act of rebellion. Refusing to wear the clothes the king provided, which is what the original language implies, is a brazen act against the king’s generosity as well. So perhaps the king’s not all bad. But that doesn’t really give that much reassurance. Because who knows when someone else will offend the king. And who knows if that someone might be us.

This king doesn’t quite match our personal picture of God, does he? We like the parts that are patient, generous, and giving. Which God certainly is. But those other parts? The putting to death, the burning the cities, the throwing out in to the darkness. We don’t really want that in our God. That God sounds a little too Old Testament. Just give us that nice, friendly God back. That who we want to hear about. And the Jesus who has all that patience. Who would never hurt us in any way. I can deal with that God. This other one in today’s text is a little too wild. Reacts a little too strongly. Is not quite tame enough.

Is that what you really want? A god who has only patience for you? A christ who is generous with comfortable gifts? A lord who will always smile and pat you on the back? A king who will never say anything that would make you uncomfortable? Such a king could never put to death the sinful old Adam living in you. Such a lord would leave you in your sin forever. Such a christ could never save you from yourself. Such a god could never say no to the others who would hurt you. What a useless god that would be.

It’s uncomfortable to have a God who’s not tame. But this is the only God to whom you can cry out Kyrie Eleson! Lord, have mercy! Because our God will wildly charge in His anger into battle. Against sin, death, and the devil. And He’ll do it for you. Is that safe? Not at all. Because in that battle, our Lord must put to death the Old Adam in me.

That’s kind of scary to think about. But that’s exactly what we need God to do. We need God to destroy that murderous sinner in us. We need Christ to burn down the cities in which our sinful flesh sets up its temples. We need to have our sinful selves thrown out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. We need the Old Adam dead. And our Lord is the only one who does that.

The very parts of our King that make us uneasy are the very same parts of Him that conquer sin, death, and the devil. That anger and outrage is for you. Jesus fighting on your behalf. Even when it’s you who have rejected God’s invitation, abused God’s servants, and refused God’s gifts. Because that sin in you absolutely needs to die. Come against me, O Lord. Because even though you kill, you also raise the dead.

Today’s parable is once again a picture of baptism. In all these weeks, Jesus has yet to leave the subject. We are the unworthy invited guests in the parable. And in baptism, we die with all the fervor the King can muster. But in that baptism we are also raised. We are also clothed. We are also prepared for the wedding. For many are called, but you are chosen. You, who have been given God’s promise through water and His Word. You, who have through this washing of regeneration received the Holy Spirit. You, who live a new life. The King may put to death, but He also gives resurrection.

And that kind of resurrection takes Christ’s resurrection. Because without resurrection, there is no good news. Without resurrection, God putting our sinful selves to death would not be good news. Without resurrection, not even the death of Jesus is good news.

But Christ is risen, just as He said. Therefore since “[w]e know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” And if death no longer has dominion over Jesus because of the resurrection, then death will no longer have dominion over us in our resurrection. And neither will the sin which leads to death. Nor the devil, who accuses us of our sin.

Jesus’ resurrection is the foundational event of our faith. Not just an oddity in the way things are. Not just a footnote in history while everyone else dies. No. The resurrection of Jesus is where everything changes. A new reality breaks into our world.  God raises the dead. And once raised, they… we can never die again.

Now that Old Testament God makes sense. Now that unsafe King who destroys the cities and people of His kingdom makes sense. Now the invitation to anyone passing on the road, whether good or evil makes sense. Because through resurrection, sin can be left for dead. Through resurrection, the wedding hall can be full. For our King doesn’t kill for vengeance. But rather so that our own sin would die. And we live in Jesus’ resurrection.

Resurrection undoes the power of death. And starts something new. Is it safe? Is it tame? Not at all. It’s a wedding. Complete with a feast. And a groom. And a bride. For many are called, and you are chosen. Marked by a promise. Dressed for that wedding through your baptism. And waiting for the wedding feast to come on that last day. The day you are given resurrection from the dead. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon

Getting New Tenants – A Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46

October 4, 2014 Comments off

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson, where Jesus utters the most frightening words He can say. The kingdom of God will be taken away from you.

That’s the last thing we ever want to hear. Those are the words that chill us to our very soul. If those words are true, then everything is over. These are the words that put wretches to a wretched end. Whether in parable or in life. That’s why it a big relief to hear the very end of our text. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.”

Whew! Oh good. Those chief priests and Pharisees totally deserve what’s coming to them. Because Jesus was right after all when He gave His parable. Their forefathers had been rejecting all the servants God had sent to them. Beating the tar out of them, stoning them, killing them. They did it all. And as the fathers did, so did the sons. They were the ones who rejected John the Baptizer. They were the ones who tried Jesus at night and falsely convicted Him. They were the ones that demanded Jesus be crucified. So yes, Jesus was talking about them. Therefore, this parable can’t be talking about us now, can it.

Can it? All we have written here is the perceptions of the chief priests and the Pharisees. What if Jesus intended it for more than just them? What if Jesus intended for you to hear this parable? What if Jesus was telling you that it’s you who have not treated His servants well? That it was you who killed the Son? That it was you from whom the kingdom of God would be taken away?

I don’t like the sound of that. In fact, that thought is downright repulsive. How dare anyone say that about me. How dare anyone say that to me. Those are lies. Because if I were there, I’d treat God’s servants with respect. I’d listen to what those prophets had to say. Because their words are from God Himself. I’d treat God’s Son with respect. Listen to His words diligently. Follow Him wherever He might lead. I’d happily give God the fruit he was looking for. And be content as a worker in God’s vineyard.

We say that. But we don’t do that even now, when we’re given the chance. Because we are sinners. Just as bad as the chief priests and Pharisees. Just as bad as the tenants in the parable. And although we might assuage ourselves by saying we never beat up or killed God’s servants, each sin is just as bad as another in the eyes of God. So whatever condemnation comes to them, is the same condemnation that comes to us. “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.”

No. Not that. Anything but that. God, we’ll do anything. Anything you ask. We’ll be in your word more. We’ll do more good works for our neighbors. We’ll be involved in church so much that people will think we live there. Whatever it takes to make up for all this, just say it, and we’ll do it. But we can’t keep any of those promises. We can’t work ourselves out of our own sin. We are wretches, and God puts us to a wretched end. “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” The stone is here. We are to die. And that death in us started with these words: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And that death continues with these words: In the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Didn’t expect those words to kill you, did you. You see, this parable isn’t just about the wicked tenants. It’s about a master of a house who does things a whole lot different than we ever would. A master of a house, who, after putting those wretches to a wretched end, hired those same tenants as new ones. Tenants made new through the mercy of the master. Tenants raised to new life.

This is exactly what happens for every Christian. Whether they were crying out “Crucify Him!” against Jesus two thousand years ago, or are sitting here today. Or anywhere in all the history of creation, past, present or future. The master both puts you to an end and makes you new. That sinner in you is put to death through the cross of Christ. And a new creation is raised from Jesus’ grave. “This is the Lord’s doing,” our text says, “and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

The kingdom of God is being given to a people who cannot help but produce it’s fruits. Because the fruit of God’s kingdom is faith. Is repentance. Is resurrection. And that resurrection is in you even now. Luther put this verse from Romans in his Small Catechism for a reason. Because it cannot be made any clearer than this. We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

In baptism, we are there when the Son is killed by us tenants. And yet we still receive His inheritance. Because that inheritance is to die with Him. And share in His resurrection. Because we are both saint and sinner at the same time, the kingdom of God is both taken away and given at the same time. Taken away from the sinful part of us. That sin has no resurrection on the last day. It is buried in Christ’s tomb forever. However the new creation in us is given the kingdom of God. The whole thing. We are co-heirs along with Jesus. Given eternal life through Him.

Likewise when we are forgiven, the old sinful self in us dies. In the exact same way it does in baptism. Our lives here in this world are the constant death of the Old Adam, and the raising of the New Adam. Over and over again. Because both of those are with us in this world. And that is always a struggle. But when we do die, when we are put in our graves from this life, only one of them is there for the resurrection.

Jesus has already told us the outcome. And it’s right here in this text. You are a people producing God’s fruits. Producing because you have Jesus with you even now. In baptism. In Absolution. In Supper too. After all, here in this text we have the fruit of the vine and the blood of the Son in the very same place.

This parable, then, isn’t as frightening as we fear. Jesus did intend for you to hear this parable. Because this is what being a Christian in this world is. Death and resurrection. The sinful tenant dying. The new tenant rising to life. Every day, then you are new in Christ Jesus. Every day, you are His people. Every day producing His fruits. Inheriting His kingdom. Baptized in His name. Forgiven your sins. All because our Master does things differently than you or I. All because our God has mercy beyond anything we could ever do. All because Jesus shares His death and resurrection with you. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon

The Authority to Give – A Sermon on Matthew 21:23-27

September 27, 2014 Comments off

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson, where Jesus returns the Chief priest’s question back to them. But without context, all we’re really left with is that Jesus is pretty good at avoiding traps and setting His own. What got left out is where Jesus was going with all of this. Because this text isn’t about how cool a cucumber Jesus is. This text is about Jesus tearing down our false religions.

Now we know that there are many false religions in the world. Many false gods. Those who believe in them work very hard at pleasing their gods. Whatever that god is looking for, that follower goes out and does. All in the hopes of getting in good graces. And thereby earning heaven, or nirvana, or a good life, or whatever it is they’re looking for. If only they just do what their god wants, then their god will repay them the favor. But who is to say what that god is looking for? Those who have authority, of course.

This is what Jesus is tearing down. And it starts a little earlier in chapter 21. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we celebrate on both Palm Sunday and the first Sunday in Advent, is a challenge to the existing authority. Not because challenging authority itself is a good thing. But because that authority is misrepresenting God.

That misrepresentation is seen when Jesus first enters the temple. In His anger, Jesus overturns the moneychangers’ tables and drives out all the animals for sale. And He does, because they gave the message that the temple is where you do things for God in hopes of getting God’s favor. His grace for sale at such a low, low price. So easy, anyone can do it. You don’t even have to leave for the market or the money changer. It’s all here. All you have to do is buy in. After all, God helps those who help themselves.

Jesus drove them all out. Because God is the giver. Not the barterer. Not the salesman. Not the magic genie waiting for you to rub his lamp just right. Not looking for something from you first. God gives. And so anything that said otherwise had to go. That’s what happened to the fig tree. This gift of God, this plant, bore no fruit. Perhaps if someone had done something first, it might have. Proper water or fertilization. Maybe getting some bees in to pollenate the flowers. With work, you might get a real good crop out of it. But that is exactly the idea Jesus is preaching against here. To you not need to work for what God gives freely. Therefore the tree is cursed. And it dies.

When Jesus returns to the temple to teach, likely this very lesson, the chief priests and elders of the people came to Him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you that authority?” Jesus doesn’t just reverse the trap, He continues the lesson. Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

Well, you tell me? Was John’s baptism from heaven, or from man? Was that baptism something the repentant did in order to get forgiveness from God? Was that baptism a statement of believe from a person’s heart? Was that baptism an ordinance a person followed in order to give obedience to God? If so, then John’s baptism was from man. The chief priests and elders were then right all along. And Jesus was wrong. However, if John’s baptism was from heaven, then what does that say about our baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?

If baptism is the gift of God. If baptism saves, as is written. If baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, as was preached on Pentecost. If baptism clothes us in Christ as Paul writes to Titus. If baptism buries with Christ and raises us with Him as well. Then we must say with Jesus that this baptism is not from man, but instead from heaven. And as Jesus has made the point all along, your baptism is a gift. Not from you. But for you.

What kind of strange authority is this? Jesus’ uses authority not to take. Not to make you give from yourself to Him. But instead to give all He has to you. The temple sacrifices in Jesus’ day were both a gift of food and of forgiveness. But that gift was rejected. Instead there were moneychangers and merchants, An implicit mandate that the giving went the other direction here. And in that mandate, the temple died. The fig tree was likewise to be a gift from God. But when it did not give God’s gifts, it too died. Baptism is also a gift of God. But when a church body turns baptism into man’s works for God, it too faces the same fate as the temple and the fig tree.

But how then can anyone avoid that fate? Because in sin, this is the world’s religion. This is our hearts’ faith. A faith in itself. That if we do enough for our god, only then our god will return that favor. Sunday Morning becomes a marketplace. Where we exchange our praises and offerings and prayers to our god hoping to get in exchange what we need to get through to the next week. Where we can keep the right rules and make our god happy. We use marketing tools can we use to attract more customers for our god. Exciting gimmicks will bring our god more people from whom he can receive things. These are our hearts’ ideas. And this is why our hearts have to die. Just like the temple. Just like the fig tree. Just like the question of the chief priests and the elders.

But you know what? It’s a good thing for our hearts to die. Because Jesus dies right along with us. And He dies precisely to give us everything He has promised. That’s what Jesus uses His authority for. To give. And only to give. Still Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to treasure all things which I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you always, even to the very end of the age. 

This statement is all promise. Not command. Not commission. Promise. Go? Jesus sent someone to us. Someone bringing us Jesus. Might have been our parents, or a family member, or a friend, or a pastor, or even a stranger. But Jesus has indeed given to us by someone who went. And they went not to get anything for themselves. But so that they could give as Jesus gives. When we go, it’s the same way. In thanks.

Jesus has made you disciple. And while our hearts want that word to mean something special we have done, all disciple is is the Greek word for student. One who is given knowledge by a teacher. To be a disciple of Christ is to be taught by Christ. To receive what He gives. Nothing more, nothing less. And it is a joy to receive that gift.

Jesus has baptized you. Another gift. Not because you believed well enough. Not because you gave God enough of your heart. No. It’s all gift. Jesus has given you His name. The name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The name of Yahweh. I am. And with that name on you, you are. You exist. You live. And have life everlasting. That’s God’s promise to you. God’s gift to you.

And because these things are all gifts. Because you couldn’t earn any of them no matter how much work you did for God. Because these gifts of the Gospel are so great, they are a treasure. We hold these gifts dear. Because in them God’s promises are sure. His authority backs them all.

And one last promise. I will be with you always, Jesus says. He is with you in life everlasting. He is with you in death. He is with you even now. Are you caught in sin? Jesus is with you right now to give forgiveness. Are you facing death? Jesus is with you right now with the good news of His resurrection for you. Are you hurt or broken? Jesus is with you right now to bear that pain along side you. Jesus went to the cross with you. Jesus dies with you. And Jesus rises from that grave with you.

This is the good news. This is what that Old English word Gospel means. This is the power of God unto salvation. The only thing St. Paul though worth preaching. The only thing God attaches His promises to. And it is given. Not earned. Not bartered for. Not traded. Not merited. Given solely by the authority of Jesus. Given to those who don’t deserve it in the least. Given to you and me. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon

A Working Heart – A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16

September 20, 2014 Comments off

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson, where Jesus gives the parable of the vineyard workers. But this parable has some back story. Back in the last chapter, a rich, young ruler comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to enter into eternal life. When Jesus tells him the commandments, the young man claims to have kept them all. So Jesus tells him to give all that he has to the poor and follow Him. The man goes away sad. That, after all command was more than his heart could take. In response, Jesus makes his famous statement that it is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The disciples are shocked, because they believed material possessions was a sign that God had blessed a person. They ask who then can enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus says that what is impossible with man is possible with God. Peter responds by saying that the disciples have given up everything to follow Jesus. Trying to show that at least his heart was in the right place. But Jesus responds with this parable, making the point that it is not by works that you are saved. The rich man can’t do enough to earn salvation. The disciples can’t do enough to earn salvation. Salvation is given solely because of the generosity of God.

It was a rough message for people in those days. The disciples had already invested a lot of work. The rich young man would have to invest a lot more. And the payoff was the same, even for those who invested very little work. And a lifetime of work was of no value at all. No wonder the workers of the parable grumbled. Everyone had something to grumble about. Whether they were disciple, or rich man, or anyone else.

Why is it that every time there is work to be done as a Christian, our hearts betray us so badly? When there’s work to be done, our sinful nature rears its ugly head. Take something as simple as reading God’s Word. Which way does your heart go? The way of the rich young ruler? Do you look at that Bible and think, “There’s no way I can read that thing”? That it’s just too much? Even starting is a daunting task. As though the promises God makes depend entirely on your ability to understand them?

Or does your heart go the way of Peter and the disciples? Does reading God’s Word make you better than that other guy? Do you know it so well, that everyone else should be just like you? Are you so impressive, that surely even God has to notice? Or not even that. Just, hey, I did a nice job today. I did pretty good, all things considered. If I keep that up, I just might get myself somewhere. It still all comes down to me, myself and I. And a little arrogance is the same in God’s eyes as a lot.

Or does your heart go the way of the workers hired at the beginning of Jesus’ parable? Are you frustrated that you’ve been digging in God’s Word for so long, and those people who just heard it for the first time are considered to be exactly the same as you? That it’s not really all that fair for God to treat you this way? Does that hatred from others grow, even if just a little bit, because God makes things too easy for them?

Or does your heart go one other direction? We know that God considers us all equal. Therefore reading God’s Word doesn’t really matter. We all get the denarius. We all get eternal life. There’s no prizes for those who read the most. No award for those who know the most. So we’ll leave all that study to someone else, and listen instead to where my heart leads me. Even though out of the heart comes only evil, continuously.

Take any other good work you can think of. Our sinful hearts do the same thing to them all. Make each and every work about me. Whether it’s about my strength, or my pride, or my indignation, or my self-centeredness. It always comes back to ourselves. And the minor incidents are probably even worse than the major ones. Because when we get really self-centered, we’re at least shamed enough to say, wow, that was pretty bad. I shouldn’t do that.

But this is why Jesus has to make the point over and over again that salvation does not come by our own work. It comes only by the generosity of God. Because none of us working in this field have earned the days wage. None of us have earned eternal life. Because the dead do not work. And whether we’re dead in our sin or dead in the ground makes no difference whatsoever. Our hearts are still the same in both cases.

This is why Luther often called good works damnable. Because no matter how much good they actually do, our hearts use those works to try and drive us inside  ourselves. To make us our own idols. To push us further away from God. And yet, despite it all, God keeps on giving that good work to us anyways. Even thought we’re the last people who should ever be given something like that. But He does. Because the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

Jesus is the one who deserved to be first. He can actually do good works. Not only because He is God in the flesh, but because in His flesh He has no sin. He is just like Adam and Eve before the fall. With a heart that has no evil. He was born as God had created humanity in the beginning. And so, when Jesus stood on this earth, it was as both its creator and the first of all creation.

But in His mercy, Jesus took on the sin of the last people who ever deserved it. Took on everything our sinful hearts have gotten us. Our fears. Our arrogance. Our hatred. Our selfishness. Jesus did the last thing He should have ever had to do. He took every sin. And paid for each and every one of them. Paying with His own life. Dying the last death he should have ever had to face. The first became last. So that the last would be first.

The last thing in all creation that our hearts could ever get us, is the first thing God gives. We are given Jesus. Over and over and over. And with Jesus, everything that comes with Him. Forgiveness for each one of our sins. Resurrection from our dead state. Both from sin, and from when we lie buried in the ground. Salvation from our tainted hearts. The promise, that He is with us always. Even when the world falls apart around us. Even when nothing else turns out okay. And that might not make us first in the world’s eyes. But it is without a doubt to be first in God’s eyes.

What Jesus has done, what Jesus has given you is no less than the power of God unto salvation. That’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection is. And that power has overcome even your sin soaked heart. Christ Jesus does good work in you. And He does good work through you for your neighbor who needs those works. And yes, that heart will scream. That heart will begrudge God His generosity. But Jesus is stronger than even your heart.  For He has given you His own heart, a working heart, in its place.

The day’s wage is yours. Jesus has been given to you. Not by your own works. And despite your own heart. All through the generosity, the mercy of our Lord. The first has become last for your sake, so that you are now first. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon

Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean That It Didn’t Hurt – A Sermon on Genesis 50:15-21

September 13, 2014 Comments off

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text this morning is the Old Testament lesson, where Joseph forgives his brothers.

What does it look like when you forgive? I know what I do when I’m not up here forgiving in an official capacity. When someone says they’re sorry, I usually respond by saying, “Oh, that’s okay.” Or, “No problem.” Or, “Don’t worry about it.” And I respond that way to assure people that things are alright. Because, really, they are. “Oh, sorry I hit you with my shopping cart.” “That’s okay, it didn’t hurt.” “I’m sorry I didn’t make it yesterday.” “No problem, I know what it’s like to have the flu.” “I’m so sorry I backed into your truck!” “Don’t worry about it, it was covered in dents anyways.” Nobody really got hurt. Nobody intended to cause any harm. So forgiveness is pretty easy.

But how do we forgive when things really aren’t okay? How do we forgive when there’s no remorse? How do we forgive when they intentionally hurt us? We don’t. We withhold forgiveness. Maybe as punishment to them. Maybe as a means of control. Maybe as a way to protect ourselves. Because it’s not okay. It is a problem. We cannot but worry about it. We are hurt. And that hurt doesn’t just go away with a few words that we don’t really mean. Forgiveness, instead of being easy, is a difficult thing to give.

In our Old Testament lesson today, at the death of their father Jacob, Joseph’s brothers are hoping for forgiveness. But the way they go about it is pretty shameful. The brothers come to Joseph, bearing a “message from their father.” A command to forgive. Doesn’t matter if the message is real or not. Forgiveness just isn’t that easy. Not when they told their father that Joseph was dead. Not when they sold Joseph to slave traders. Not when they were the ones that were responsible for him ever being near Potiphar or his unfaithful wife. Not when they were responsible for all those years in prison. All the abuse he received. All the depravation he endured. All the betrayal at their hands. And now they come bearing a command for forgiveness? Who can blame Joseph from weeping at these words? Even if he had already forgiven them long ago, this “message” still cut Joseph to the heart.

What was he supposed to say? “That’s okay, because it worked out in the end”? But it wasn’t okay. Not even close. Not everything worked out. “No problem, because I ended up with something better”? But it was a problem. A big problem, that not even all the wealth and power of Egypt could cover. “Don’t worry about it, because nobody got hurt?” Joseph hurt. He hurt every day. And was still hurting when the messengers arrived. Hurting when his brothers arrived afterwards. Forgiveness isn’t easy.

And yet, every Sunday, here we are awaiting God’s forgiveness. We show up, not really any different than Joseph’s brothers. Afraid God might remember what we did. Or worse, not even caring what we need forgiveness for. And, if we play our cards right, maybe God will forgive us. Because if can should say, “That’s okay, no problem, don’t worry about it,” it’s God, right? After all, He is God. He can just make everything okay. He can just make the problems go away. He doesn’t have anything to worry about.

How easy is it to forget that God is somebody? It’s too easy to think of God as just a collection of attributes. Too easy to think of Him as a power or force. To easy to dismiss the fact that He is His own individual. We reduce God to a concept. Goodness. Holiness. All-powerfulness. Love. And as a concept, we cannot imagine God ever being hurt. And yet, our God hurts like you or I cannot imagine.

From even Genesis, we see the pain of God. At the fall. Talking with Cain. Before the flood. We see God hurt. And can we see just how much we have hurt Him. With our betrayal. Our lies. Our lusting after other gods. And even worse, when we justify ourselves for doing these very things. Tell God how right we were to hurt Him like this. Tell Him to His face that we’d rather be alone, than endure His love. That’s what sin does to Him. From littlest white lie to the greatest abominations you can imagine. They all take their stab at God. And He feels every one of them. And they all hurt the same.

“That’s okay, no problem, don’t worry about it.” Those words just don’t cut it. But the words, “I forgive you,” do. Because forgiveness doesn’t mean that it didn’t hurt. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still hurt even now. What forgiveness means is “I release you from it anyways.” And that is a frightening idea. To actually forgive someone who hurt us is too much. Because it threatens to bring the pain all over again.

And for God it absolutely does. Forgiveness meant hurting all over again. The first time it definitely hurt. But Jesus came to endure the pain of all those sins again. To take those sins nailed into His hands and feet. To bear that sin pierced into His side. All in order to forgive you. Forgiveness isn’t easy. But you’re worth the price. You’re worth that pain. You’re worth dying for. You’re worth saving. No matter how many sins you have. To do that takes more than an attribute. It takes a person. It takes Jesus.

But what about Joseph? Forgiveness still isn’t easy. Could Joseph love his brothers that much? Were his brothers worth it to him? Doesn’t matter, because Joseph saw that they were worth it to God. God had saved those jealous, backstabbing, hateful brothers. And He saved them by putting Joseph in the right place. Giving Joseph the right gifts. God saved even them. And if that’s how God felt, who was Joseph to do otherwise?

Did it mean Joseph felt that hurt again? Yes. And it brought him to tears. But it also brought joy. The joy of reconciliation. The joy of restoration. The joy of family. A joy that was impossible so long as Joseph withheld forgiveness. And just as Joseph forgave because of what God did for them, so also we can forgive because of what God has done for them. Those who have hurt us so badly? Jesus went to the cross for them. Jesus suffered for them. Jesus died for them. Jesus forgives them.

Is that then a command? For us to forgive? Like the message Joseph’s brothers brought to Joseph? Perhaps. Or perhaps forgiving others is itself also a gift from God. A mirror image of what He has already done on our behalf. Might it hurt? Yes. Might your forgiveness be abused? Absolutely. But it’s still God’s gift through Christ for both you and your neighbor. And in that gift there is joy to be found.

So that is why it is an honor and a privilege to be here serving you as your pastor. Because I get to share in your joy by speaking God’s Word of forgiveness to you. And it is my joy to say that in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Categories: Sermon

The Greatest in the Kingdom – A Sermon on Matthew 18:1-20

September 6, 2014 Comments off

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. At that time, the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, He put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 

What Jesus says here in Matthew is a lot like what He says in Mark and Luke’s Gospel in a different situation. “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Jesus calls us to a childlike faith. And what better way to have childlike faith than to actually be a child. This is why Jesus put children in front of the disciples. As though telling them, “Here’s you example.”

And because of not only what Jesus say, but also what Jesus did, I say this with all confidence. The greatest among us in the kingdom of heaven this morning is Alexandria Lily Williams. Who this morning was given God’s gift of baptism. There is no more childlike faith, than the faith of a child. And through that baptism, God’s promises are made hers. God has indeed given her faith. And she has indeed been brought into the kingdom of Heaven. And it means that right at this moment, Alexandria’s faith is stronger than yours or mine will be for the rest of our lives.

Because ‘faith’ is just a churchy word for trust. And Alexandria has no alternative but to trust. She has to trust you, Bethany, to feed her. She has to trust you, James, to care for her. She has to trust her very life to you both. There’s no choice in that matter for her. Not at this age. It’s only when we start growing up that trust becomes optional.

And just like she trusts her mom and dad, she now also trusts Jesus. And I can say that with certainty. Because that is what God promises in baptism. Baptism now saves you. Be baptized every one of you for the forgiveness of your sins. Salvation, forgiveness, entering the Kingdom of heaven. These are all the same thing, found in the death and resurrection of Jesus. These are all the Gospel, the good news which Jesus gives to her, to you, to me, to all. And this is Alexandria’s faith.

“But how can she possibly know?” you ask. After all, her mom and dad are really there interacting with her. She can hear them, taste them, touch them. Where as God…. Well, what? Is God imaginary? Is God only an intellectual construct? Is God something we can only fathom with sufficient mental capacity? If that’s all God is, then Alexandria can’t really know God. And, frankly, neither can we.

But today, Jesus has made Himself heard. It’s His voice speaking His words. To Alexandria, and to you. Jesus has made Himself felt. Felt in water, as He Himself buried Alexandria in His own death. Felt in that same water as Jesus takes her by the hand in resurrection from the dead to new life in Him. And He has done the same in your baptism as well. Jesus gives us a taste of Himself as well. As He feeds us His own body and His own blood sacrificed on our behalf on that cross for the forgiveness of our sins. So in the very same ways Alexandria trusts her mom and dad and knows they’re there for her, likewise we all trust Jesus Christ, and know that He’s really here for us.

There is one more promise that comes to little Alexandria, and to us in today’s text. It’s a little obscure. And not a whole lot of time gets spent on it anywhere else. But it is a promise nonetheless. “See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is heaven.” It’s a promise that you matter to God. That you are important to Him. That the most important members of God’s heaven, the ones that see Him face to face, are the same ones he has given to look out for you.

But again, just as we wonder how a child can trust God, we also wonder how this promise could really be. After all, there are times we really wish that guardian angel would have been a little quicker. Not let those things happen that hurt our hearts so badly. There will be times in Alexandria’s life where we will all wonder if that angel fell asleep on the job. But all that boils down to is a charmed life tuned to the desires of our hearts. You see, we like our angels like our gods, imaginary.

But when tragedy strikes, when the pain comes, when our hearts are broken, and in this sin filled world, they will be, then there is God, hurting, crying, suffering right there with us. There is our guardian angel, straight from the face of our Father, to let us know that we are not alone. To comfort us. Whether that’s in letting us know that our sin is forgiven. Whether that is to hold our hand and be by our side. Whether that is reminding us that there is a tomorrow, a new tomorrow with a new heavens and a new earth, where every tear is wiped away.

Because this is promise is still the same promise given in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This gift of God is still the same gift. Life, forgiveness, salvation, hope, love, peace, comfort, compassion. Because Christ Jesus has indeed overcome all things. Conquering even death itself. All for you.

There is no millstone so heavy that Jesus cannot pull you out of the sea. There is no hell of fire too hot that Jesus cannot save you from it. There is no one so lost, that Jesus cannot find you, and rejoice. There is no sin so great, that Jesus cannot unbind it. And there is no place so alone, that Jesus cannot enter it. All these things, which Jesus warns against in today’s text, are certainly worthy of full attention. But none of them are outside of what He Himself covered with His own blood at the cross.

Because you are there with him at that cross. There through baptism. As St. Paul said to the Romans, “We were therefore buried with Him by baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too would live a new life.” That new life is yours, just as it is Alexandra’s. And through that new life as a baptized child of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is yours as well. Thanks be to God.

This isn’t just Jesus rebuking His disciples for arguing who is the greatest. This isn’t just Jesus saying that even some child passing by is greater than they are right now. Although both those things are true. Jesus makes the point that there is no greater Christian, no more faithful person to God than a child. We all should strive for a childlike faith. And there is no easier way than to be a child.

Jesus’ words mean that in all confidence I can say to you that the greatest Christian in this room right now, is little Alexandria, who is baptized today.

Categories: Sermon

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