Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Four Most Horrible Words

 


Matthew 7:15-23

"Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.

"Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity                                            7/25/21

The Four Most Horrible Words

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The four most horrible words in all of human history are to be spoken by Jesus at the final judgment. He will say to some, I never knew you! No more horrible words can ever be spoken, for these words mean eternal destruction and damnation for those who called themselves "Christians" and called Jesus "Lord."

You want to be sure that you are not among such as these. Jesus said that not everyone who said to Him, "Lord, Lord!" would enter the kingdom of heaven. Many – not just a few, but many will claim to be confessing Christ, serving Him, doing miracles in His name, preaching Him, and yet will hear those four most horrible words in all of human history spoken to them.

What is the difference? How do we avoid that pitfall and deadly danger? Jesus said that the ones who enter the kingdom of heaven are those who do the will of [His] Father who is in heaven. Now that begins to sound like works, doesn't it? That begins to sound like what you do in this life will make all the difference. If you confess Christ but do not walk the walk, as they say, you will not enter eternal life. That conclusion, however appealing to our human reason, is absolutely false!

Ask yourself, "what is the will of our heavenly Father?" Is it not best expressed in the First Commandment, the commandment which we must keep before we can keep any other, and which we will keep if we keep any other? And what is the First Commandment? Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. And what does that mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. It means faith. It means that you know who God is and love Him and trust in Him first and last and always and in all needs and circumstances. That is faith.

But that is not just my opinion of the matter. Look at where Jesus puts this exhortation – immediately following the section of warning about false prophets. Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. Jesus began this section of warning by first commanding us to beware of false prophets – what we might call false teachers today. He said that they would come in sheep's clothing. Since all of God's people are called "sheep", and we are "the flock of the Lord", and He calls Himself the Good Shepherd, the suggestion that they will come to us in sheep's clothing means that they will look to us like fellow-Christians – but they will not be. Inwardly they are blood-thirsty and destructive wolves – predators that prey on the sheep of the flock of God.

"Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.

But what are their fruits? Are we talking about their deeds? NO! If we want deeds, behaviors, and actions as fruits, we look to actors. If we want music as a fruit, we go to singers and musicians. But if you are going to judge the fruit of a teacher, you must look at their teachings! Remember, Jesus said that they would look like good Christians!

And don't false teachers look good? They clothe themselves in the appearance of righteousness and piety. They are the ones who speak so much of the holiness of life, of walking the walk and talking the talk. They preach rules and principles of life that sound so good and appeal to our flesh. They are the models of piety and personal character. They look so good and sound so sincere, how can they be anything but righteous and holy and true?

But Jesus says that we will know them by their fruits. And their fruits are their teachings. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit. You have to look at their teachings. A faithful teacher will teach the truth, faithfully. He is the good tree. A false teacher will lead you to hell. That part of the Gospel lesson which says, Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' reminds us that these false teachers, these wolves in sheep's clothing, will also be among the lost – and may, in fact, be quite sincere – just dead wrong.

But when Jesus tells us that a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit, He is telling us that once we have identified a teacher as one who teaches falsely in any regard, we must flee from them and never trust them at all. Jesus didn't say that it was not a good idea to hang around them, or that they might be dangerous, but you might be okay – He said that a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit. And He commanded you to Beware!

Now, I know that most of you think that it is not necessary to be in Bible Study. Some of you don't particularly care who the preacher is, or what he says. You come to church for something else – for some other reason. This text warns you that such an attitude is not Christian and that many – not a few or just some, but many will not enter eternal life who fully anticipate they are going there. They will be amazed, and they will stand before the Lord and say, "Now wait a minute, Lord. I was Your child. I witnessed. I did the good works. I went to church." Jesus even says that some will say that they cast out demons and performed miracles in His name. In short, they will tell Jesus that they belong among the saved, among His people, and they will claim a place in His body and in His bride – and yet Jesus will level them with the four most horrible words – I never knew you!

And then He will assign them their place among the damned, and send them away to that outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth – DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.. And the lawlessness that they will have practiced is that they did not fear God as God – or love Him as God – or trust in Him, but they trusted in themselves and their own wisdom, choosing to follow the wisdom of their flesh, rather than the Word of God. They will be guilty of not listening to Jesus' warning, and not testing the prophets, and not checking their fruits.

A false teacher cannot teach you the truth. It seems reasonable and very compassionate to say that just because he or she has this or that doctrine wrong, doesn't spoil the fact that they are fine preachers and good teachers. Jesus disagrees. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? If you want false doctrine, a false teacher will do just fine. If you don't care whether it is false or true, any teacher will be as good as the next. But if you want the truth, you must cling to those who teach the truth faithfully, and flee from those who are careless or dishonest with God's Word -- those who are inwardly ravenous wolves.

The truth is the Gospel. Jesus is your Hope and Salvation. He has won forgiveness and life for you by dying in your place on the cross. It is what Jesus has accomplished, and not how you behave, that will save you. It is trusting the promises of God, and not hoping that you are good enough, that will receive the promises of resurrection to life everlasting and eternal glory.

Not that your conduct doesn't matter – it always matters. It just doesn't save. You cannot hope to earn heaven, or be good enough to please God, or do everything right and go to the right church and figure that those things will have to be enough. They are not.

You need to know the truth – about your sin, and your wickedness, and about God's love and how He rescued you – and then you need to rest all your hopes on Him. When you do it will make you different. But the difference will be a difference of the heart that shows through in the life, not a change built on the hope that you will measure up in the final accounting.

Faith – trusting in God – receives the grace and the blessings of God. Jesus has accomplished all that you need to be accomplished. And that faith must be built on the truth if it is to be saving. Believing something false – trusting in a Jesus who does not care about who you are or how you live, or hoping in a God who demands your righteousness as a pre-condition of your forgiveness, or holding to a God who has no clear identity, and who does not care if you know who He really is – believing anything which is not in accord with the revelation of God in Scripture is not saving faith.

How can you know? How can you be sure? You must study. Your opinion of truth is not important. Truth is. The false prophet wants you to follow him. It is his fame, or it is his fortune, or it is simply his living that he seeks to extort from you, and in the process, he will destroy you, and add you to the number of those who will hear Jesus speak those four most horrible words to them. The only way to tell which is what is to look at the fruits of the teacher – examine and judge his teachings in the light of the Word of God.

That is why we are Lutherans. We have examined and judged the Lutheran Fathers to be faithful, and their writing, our confessions, to be clear and faithful and accurate expositions of the Scriptures. That means that when there is a debate over what a passage means, or two doctrines are contrasted by teachers, we have found that the Lutheran Fathers have faithfully and truthfully explained and interpreted the Scriptures. We don't go on to invent our own interpretations which contradict theirs – we study the Scriptures, and we answer our questions about "What does this mean?" by seeking the Lutheran Confessors' wisdom as part of our study – and we let them explain why they say what they say in the light of other Scripture passages.

When we have learned that, we compare our present-day teachers to that standard. If they say the same thing, we trust them – but if they fail to teach us the truth of Scripture, or they have something new and different from God's Word, we mark them as those rotten trees which cannot produce good fruit, and we avoid them as the ravenous wolves that they are.

Now, what if you don't agree with all those Lutheran Fathers, once you have studied them and the Scriptures? Then you must confess that you are not Lutheran, and you should go to that church where they teach what you do believe. If you cannot accept and do not believe that what we Lutherans teach is faithfully God's Word, then you must mark us as those who are rotten trees and ravenous wolves. And you must flee from us and beware of us.

But frankly, I don't expect that to happen. God's Word is powerful and effective and clear. Where it speaks, God's people hear His voice and believe. In all my years of ministry, I have never had anyone who accepted the Word of God who found the Lutheran Confession to be false, once they studied them. I have known those who would not study them. I have known those who were convinced without and before they opened the book. But I have never known anyone who listened to God's Word who found the Lutheran teachings to be contrary to God's Word.

So, Jesus tells you to Beware! He sets the standard before you – His Word and His truth. He tells you to avoid those who teach contrary to His Word, and He warns you that those who do not listen to His warning and take heed from it, will be forced to listen to the four most horrible words of all of human history – horrible when spoken to you by Christ for what they mean for eternity, I never knew you!

God in His grace bless and keep, guide and preserve you and grant that you never hear those words from Jesus, but rather, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Compassion and Supply

 


Mark 8:1-9

In those days again, when there was a great multitude and they had nothing to eat, He called His disciples and said to them, "I feel compassion for the multitude because they have remained with Me now three days, and have nothing to eat; and if I send them away hungry to their home, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come from a distance." And His disciples answered Him, "Where will anyone be able to find enough to satisfy these men with bread here in a desolate place?"
And He was asking them, "How many loaves do you have?" And they said, "Seven."

And He directed the multitude to sit down on the ground; and taking the seven loaves, He gave thanks and broke them, and started giving them to His disciples to serve to them, and they served them to the multitude. They also had a few small fish; and after He had blessed them, He ordered these to be served as well. And they ate and were satisfied; and they picked up seven large baskets full of what was left over of the broken pieces. And about four thousand were there; and He sent them away.

Sermon for Seventh Sunday After Trinity                      07/18/21

Compassion and Supply

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

We live today in what was described just a few years ago as a dystopian vision of America - the America of strife and civil war, of riots and lawlessness, unlike anything we could have imagined just a few years ago. We don't really understand where it has come from and we are frightened to imagine where it is headed.
The almost automatic reaction to all of this is to wonder where and when it will all stop. When will we be safe? When can we stop worrying about all of this Antifa and BLM and Islamic terrorism stuff?

There are two answers; one is theological and the other practical and more politically-realistic. The second - the practical answer is "Never." Islamo-fascism is here to stay. The war they are fighting has been going on for at least 1400 years. Luther mentions it in his writings. As long as Islam exists, and other religions survive, their war against the infidel will continue. The rising tide of riots and burning of cities in America is the form Marxism has taken for the last few years, and it shows no signs of growing less fanatical or committed. This is the war between the forces of paganism and Christianity, and it will outlive us all - particularly as long as our leaders find it a useful political weapon and refuse to recognize it for what it is.

The first answer, the theological one, is that we can stop worrying right now. It is in the hands of God. The victory is already ours in Jesus Christ. Nothing will happen - either to us or to our nation - except what God permits in order to accomplish His good and gracious will.

We live today in what was described just few years ago as a dystopian vision of America - the America of strife and civil war, of riots and lawlessness, unlike anything we could have imagined just a few years ago. We don't really understand where it has come from and we are frightened to imagine where it is headed.t is the message of our Gospel this morning. So, let us consider the Gospel with the theme, Compassion and Supply.

The Gospel doesn't start with anything nearly as urgent or frightening as the riots in America's big cities. Jesus has been teaching the multitude - which, in this case, means about four thousand people. Mark calls it a "great multitude." This crowd has gathered to listen to Jesus and has been together for three days. Jesus notes that they have nothing to eat. This doesn't mean that no one has had anything for three days - but their food has run out. Jesus recognizes the reality of the situation: they have been with Him now for three days, they have nothing to eat, and some of them have come from quite a distance. Some of them may not have eaten for several days, and Jesus is worried because some of them will collapse on their way home if He doesn't feed them.
 
Seeing their need, Jesus feels compassion for them.  They didn’t need great things.  They weren’t in any great danger - just hunger.  It was a common, physical need, but Jesus felt compassion for them in their need, and supplied them with what they needed.  Hence our theme, compassion and supply.  Jesus has compassion and He has the Supply.

And what a supply! Jesus starts with seven loaves of bread – although "loaves" is a misnomer. Their bread was probably those little flat pancakes of bread, an inch thick, or so, and probably six or eight inches across. It wasn't slicing bread, it was hardtack and tear-off-a-hunk sort of bread. The word for "loaves" in Greek means literally, "bread", and nothing more. So Jesus starts with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish, and He distributes the bread and the fish to His disciples, and they start handing them out to the crowd, as they sit on the ground. The miracle is that they never seem to run out of bread or fish until everyone has some, and everyone has had enough.

One of the comments I read about this was that Jesus gave all of the food to His disciples. He didn't keep any for Himself. He gave them everything and they distributed it. Whatever Jesus may have needed for Himself to eat was apparently shared with Him by His disciples from their abundance, which He gave to them. I don't know if that is true because the Bible doesn't go into those details, so it wouldn't be fair of me to preach on them as though it were absolutely sure and settled and so it means something. But it is an interesting thought. Jesus gives us all that we need, indeed all that we possess, and then whatever He needs to work in the world today, He gathers from the sharing of His disciples today with Him. It is our offerings and stewardship and serving one another and meeting the needs of the ministry among us that echoes this sharing of the bread and the fish by those first disciples. He serves us and then waits for us to serve Him back.

Then Jesus asks His disciples to gather up the leftover fragments. When they gather them, they fill seven large baskets with the left-over bread. These seven baskets together are more than the leftovers in the twelve smaller baskets when Jesus fed the five thousand. We know that by the names of the baskets in Greek. The point of this detail is simply that they had much more leftover than they began with. Jesus provided abundantly! He had the supply!

The whole thing is sort of like God feeding the people of Israel in the wilderness during the Exodus with the Manna.

One lesson we can take away from our Gospel this morning is that food is no problem. We never need to worry about that because God can feed us when there is little or nothing at hand. We have trouble believing that, most of the time, because we trust our eyes and our judgment too much and trust God too little. But supply is never a problem - and Jesus demonstrated that He is compassionate. He has compassion even in regard to those things we need only for our physical comfort and well-being. Physical supply is no problem - and there is no shortage of compassion either. Compassion and Supply.

Now, that is the meaning of this miracle. All of the commentators say so. I could end the sermon right here.

But what would be the fun of that? We can take this miracle as an illustration of a greater principle, too. We have a need. We are sinners, and we are justly under the sentence of death for our sins if we look at things without Christ. We are hungry for what Jesus alone can give - forgiveness and life and resurrection from the dead. Is that what this miracle means? No. But what I just said about our need is true.

And Jesus has compassion. If He is compassionate about physical hunger, we know - because He has revealed it to us - that He is genuinely concerned about our greater and more urgent need. He is so concerned that He took on our human nature and flesh and blood and bore the burden of the law for us so that He could die in our place. He did not need to do any of it, but He felt compassion on us. So He bore the burden of the Law and then bore the burden of the wrath of God over against our sins.

That is what the Gospel is about. Jesus died for us to bear the justice of God over sin and to bring us what we really need - salvation! He has compassion and He has the supply - forgiveness, life, and salvation!

If we want to take it a step farther, we can look at the miraculous meal, and see there a sign pointing our hearts to our own miraculous meal, provided by Christ, who gives to His servants the food which He has blessed, and makes it sufficient to feed them all - us - with His body and blood to refresh us so that we do not faint on the way.

It all of this part of the meaning of the feeding of the four thousand? No. Not really. But every bit of it is true - He has had compassion on us, and He has supplied us with everything we need and feeds us with a meal the likes of which no one else could feed us. He gives us His body to eat and His blood to drink for our blessing, our forgiveness, our refreshment, and our salvation. It is just as it was back there, only better.

But the miracle teaches us that we need never fear need or lack of anything. Jesus knows our every need, and He has compassion, and He will supply all that we need. His willingness to do this for strangers just because they took a few days off and listened to Him should embolden us. He does this for strangers! What will He be willing to do for His own people, chosen and precious, adopted into His household as brothers and sisters?

We have no need that He cannot see, and will not fill. We might have to wait for it - like these people waited three days for the feast - but He will provide what we need. All that is left for us is to be faithful. Trust Him. Learn from the example of the feeding of the four thousand, and live in the moments you are given to live in as though it is true, and Jesus can and will provide. Live as though it is true because it is!

What we face today is not a lack of groceries, but a world of Islamic terrorists and a culture increasingly hostile to our confession. Nevertheless, we still have all that we need to do what Christ would have us to do. We simply need to be faithful, and trust Him - and now and then offer to Him from the abundance He has given us whatever He may need to accomplish His work in the world around us.

Compassion and supply. That is our Lord and Savior - and we are His beloved people.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Monday, July 12, 2021

Better than the Best

 

Matthew 5:20-26

"For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
 
"If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 
 
"Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent."

Sermon for Sixth Sunday After Trinity 07/11/21

Better Than the Best

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Sometimes planning only makes things harder. Have you ever noticed that? As some of you know, I plan the services a month or more at a time. I do that primarily to plan the hymns so Barbara has time to make her plans. It is more challenging to produce the music for the service than it might seem if you have never participated in doing so. When I plan the services, I read the text and try to plan the theme of the sermon - that is how I know which hymns to pick.

Usually, this sermon-theme planning works out okay. Sometimes, however, I come back to the text and discover that I overlooked something, or I cannot imagine what I was thinking of when I planned the theme that I put on the planning form. The hymns are almost always appropriate - but writing the sermon can get to be a challenge, trying to fit into a theme I no longer see or resonate with. I am sure you have had the same experience now and then, you know, reading a Bible passage and seeing one thing in it at one time, and reading it again weeks or months later and seeing something else, or something more -and wondering how you missed it earlier.

The reason for that is that the Word of God is living and active - according to the Bible itself. God is at work through His Word, and He opens up certain things to us at the time we need them - as they apply to our situation at the moment. It is the same Word, and it says the same things and means the same things - but we just pick up on how it applies differently in different situations and according to the need of different moments.

I only mention that because each time I read our text for this morning, I see something more - something I either did not see earlier, or saw and dismissed from my planning, and cannot put out of my mind as I consider the text anew. So, while we wrestle with this Gospel lesson, this morning, we will do so under the theme, Better Than the Best.

The theme came from the first sentence of our Gospel, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." Although we carry a prejudice against the Pharisees because of their condemnation by Jesus, the truth is that they were pretty good people. They were ultra-moral. They were the most diligent of the Jews in minding the Law and keeping their religion's rules and regulations. They were the kind of people that made others feel unclean by comparison, and they didn't have to brag about it to do so. They did brag, but they didn't need to in order to make others feel less religious or less righteous. They were really the Best.

Jesus didn't condemn them for keeping the Laws, but for their hypocrisy. They were keeping the rules, but they had forgotten God. They had the form of their religion, but they did not love God. They didn't understand the rules they were keeping - or the reasons for them. They were just about being the best without really thinking much about why or how their observance of their own religion matched up with the religion they were supposedly observing. Some of them were masters of putting on a good show publicly, and accommodating every vice and lust without anyone seeing it.

Jesus knew the truth, however. He saw their empty formalism. He saw the pride behind doing outwardly and slavishly what God desired they do from their heart - out of love for their God and Savior. The Pharisees didn't even call themselves "Pharisees". That name means the "separated ones". They called themselves "Haberim", meaning "The Associates" or "The Brothers". Their public nickname is the one that stuck, however, because they thought they were better than anyone else. And, in terms of keeping the rules, they were.

And Jesus said "that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." You need to be better than the best. Then Jesus goes on to sharpen the Law for us so that we understand that even if mere formalism were our goal, we would find it far more difficult than we might imagine. It is not just enough, for example, to refrain from killing our neighbor. We must also not speak ill of him or call him a rude name. Even being angry is as bad as murder, but calling them a name or saying "You fool!" is enough to send you to hell. The demands of the Law are far more exacting than we like to think.

They are so exacting that if we were to try honestly to measure up for ourselves, we would find ourselves failing miserably. And that is the point of the Law. It accuses. The Law always accuses. The law should always remind you forcibly that you are fit for hell, and you deserve no good thing from God whatsoever. If you hear the Law preached and come away from it feeling pretty good about yourself, and think that you're not so bad after all, either I haven't done my job right, or you have not been paying attention.

So, just in case, listen up: the Pharisees were the very best at outwardly observing the Law and keeping the rule, and Jesus said that unless your righteousness was greater than that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Note that Jesus did not say "might not" or that you could miss - but that you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. You've got to be better than the best.

Then comes the part that jumps up and grabs me - the part I didn't think about before. Jesus talks about making friends with your opponent at law. "Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent."

I have to confess that I have preached this as I have heard it preached in the past - reconcile with your brother now - you know, make hay while the sun shines. But as I prepared to write this sermon, it stuck in my craw, so to speak. It just didn't fit. The thought is okay, God would have us reconcile with one another - it's just that it really never seems like that is what Jesus is getting at there. He does that in the verses before, when He tells us to leave our gift at the altar and go and be reconciled with our brother before we present our gifts. More than just saying, "God loves a cheerful giver," Jesus is saying there that God doesn't want anything from you - not offerings or worship or anything until you get right with your brother down here. It is like where John writes, in 1st John, "If someone says, ‘I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen."

Jesus tells us in our Gospel that we have no business even approaching God with anything standing between us and our brother - that is, a fellow believer. He speaks there of reconciliation and setting things right man to man and woman to woman so clearly that it cannot be what He is talking about in these last verses of our Gospel.

Then it struck me, our ‘opponent at law' is God Himself. The judge will be Jesus at the end, and jail from which we shall never escape ‘until we have paid the last cent' is hell. Jesus is preaching the Gospel here, sort of. He is saying fix the problem of sin while you are on the way - you know while you are alive or before you face God at the end. But we cannot. We need to be better than the best. We need to be better than we can be, and each one of us has dared countless times to come before God with anger and hard feelings standing between us and someone else, even between ourselves and those who also profess faith in Christ. So what are we to do?

Since we are lost already - and we cannot make friends with our opponent at law while we are on the way - we need Him to rescue us. And that is precisely what He has done. He took the entire burden of our sins and paid the price, bore the penalty, endured the wrath of God which was ours by right and by deserving. Jesus did all of that on the cross with His brutal death, and He invites us to make friends by taking Him at His Word and trusting His promises and believing that because of His death, and this is proclaimed by His resurrection, our sins are fully and freely forgiven, and that He that believes and is baptized shall be saved!

How do you make friends? Trust Him. Take Him at His Word. If you do, and you take that seriously, you have that righteousness which surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you have the righteousness of Christ by His gift and grace. You are cleansed by the waters of Baptism, and you are filled with the righteousness of Christ by forgiveness and by the indwelling of Jesus Christ in you which you receive as you eat of His body and drink of His blood in the Holy Sacrament. In Christ, you are declared by God to be better than the best – at least the best that man can accomplish by his own powers and natural abilities.

Our lesson this morning is a piece of the Sermon on the Mount. Many people love the Sermon on
the Mount because Jesus taught it and they interpret it as pure Gospel, somehow. It is not. It contains some of the sternest Law of the entire Bible. Jesus made the Law more demanding and exacting and comprehensive – as He did in our Gospel lesson this morning – so that no one could misunderstand and dream that they could earn eternal life. Obviously, that hasn't stopped most people – not even most who call themselves Christians. I read an article this past Monday about how a false and "therapeutic" Gospel is replacing the Christian faith for most even in the church – but you should not allow yourselves to be deceived.

The message this morning is, give up on yourself. You are not good enough. Throw yourself on God's mercy, and He will have grace and forgiveness and salvation for you, if you humble yourself and repent, and trust Him. When you do, the Holy Spirit will work in you through Word and Sacrament, and your life will demonstrate the sincerity of your faith as He leads you to live a changed, repentant life. Sadly, your life on this earth won't be perfect even then, but our life and our perfection is not our hope. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. In Jesus Christ, and only in Jesus Christ, are we better than the best.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Success is the Lord's


 Luke 5:1-11


Now it came about that while the multitude were pressing around Him and listening to the word of God, He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret; and He saw two boats lying at the edge of the lake; but the fishermen had gotten out of them, and were washing their nets.  And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon's, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the multitudes from the boat.  And when He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch."  And Simon answered and said, "Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but at Your bidding I will let down the nets."

And when they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish; and their nets began to break; and they signaled to their partners in the other boat, for them to come and help them.  And they came, and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink.  But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus' feet, saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!"  For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, "Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men."  And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him.

Sermon for Fifth Sunday After Trinity                                       07/04/21

Success Is the Lord's

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

One of the interesting developments in home video stuff in the past few years has been the DVD.  When it came out, the producers of DVD's promised great wonders, which they have failed to deliver, but one of the small things that I get a kick out of is the "Special Features" on some DVD's.  They promised great stuff in the Special Features that they have rarely produced, but even some of the inane stuff is interesting in its own way.  I am thinking of those features that talk about how they make a movie.  The movie, "The Day After Tomorrow", the an old environmental horror flick, had a feature in which they showed the layers of sounds added to the photography that made up the scene.  They took us from a silent film of the scene to where they had added the conversation, the sounds of the helicopter, the sound of air rushing by, the background noises, the radio transmissions just at the level of noise you would notice, and so forth.  It was interesting to note how the scene wasn't quite right until all of the sounds were in place.

If I had to choose, I would have trouble deciding which sounds were more important to the realism of the scene on the screen.  The little noises that I might forget about, if I were assembling the scene, were just as important as the voices of the characters, or the sound of the helicopter rotors turning through the air.  In a way that is analogous to the assembling of a scene in a movie, every part of the world around us is significant as well.  Every person has a role to play in the plan of God - particularly His holy people.  That is the focus of our attention this morning as we look at the Gospel lesson about Jesus preaching, and the miraculous draught of fishes.  Our theme is, Success is the Lord's.

Our Gospel opens with Jesus teaching.  He has quite a crowd - a multitude - gathered around Him.  You know how crowds are, they gathered too close to Jesus for effective communication with the whole group.  His voice was lost in the press of bodies and clothing right next to Him.  It is helpful to remember that the personal space of the middle-east culture is a lot smaller than ours today in America.  We like people with whom we are having a private conversation to be at least a foot and a half away, sometimes just a bit farther.  We are not comfortable when people invade our personal space without our explicit invitation.

In the Middle East, people tend to talk literally nose-to-nose.  Imagine, then, the crowd gathered around Jesus.  Luke tells us that they were pressing around Him, and we can imagine that with personal space measured in inches, rather than arm's-lengths, His voice would be easily absorbed by bodies and clothing around Him, so, to teach the whole crowd effectively, He needed to put some space between Himself and the crowd – just like the space between the pulpit and the first row of pews here.

To accomplish that, Jesus climbed into Simon Peter's boat and asked him to put out a little way from the shore.  The choice of that boat and His presence at that particular place on the shore were not coincidences, although it probably appeared that way to everyone else.  Jesus had Peter in mind, and He led his multitude to this spot to accomplish what He was intending to do.  So, He climbed into the boat and had Peter put out a couple of yards from the shore, and He sat down in the bow of the boat (probably), as a teacher in those days would do, and began to teach from the boat.

There was nothing random here.  God doesn't do random.  Every detail was part of His plan, although no one but Jesus was probably aware of how deliberate each element of this scene was.  When Jesus was done with teaching the lesson for the day, He simply asked Peter to put out into the deep water, and let down His nets for a catch.

Mind you, fishing of this sort was traditionally done at night and in the shallow water.  Peter and his brothers and partners had been at it all night and without a catch.  It was likely quite unusual to fish all night and catch absolutely nothing, but that is what they had done last night.  Peter kind of complained that they had already spent the night fruitlessly, but, at Jesus' request, he would put down the nets one more time.  

He already knew that Jesus was something special.  Not only had he heard Jesus teaching that morning, but in the previous chapter of Luke, Jesus had healed Simon's mother-in-law of a high fever, had driven out demons that cried out that Jesus was the Son of God, and had healed many people of various illnesses in the presence of Peter and, possibly, his brothers.  Peter wasn't a full-time disciple yet, but he had seen Jesus at work, and knew He could do amazing things, so he let down his nets.

You all know what happened, because I read it as the Gospel lesson this morning.  Peter immediately enclosed in his nets a great quantity of fish, so great, in fact, that the nets began to break and Peter had to call for the guys in the other boat to come out and help him.  When they came out, there were so many fish that they filled both boats with fish to the point where the boats began to sink - they were swamped with the success of the fishing.  It was a very profitable morning indeed.  Peter recognized the truth of our sermon theme - Success is the Lord's - and he realized again that he was standing in the presence of someone who was more than merely a man.  He could see that something divine was there, and he fell down before Jesus, which actually means that he began to worship Jesus, and he said, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!

Peter understood at some level that he was standing in the presence of the holy God, and the first reaction he had was to become suddenly aware of his sin.  Peter was beginning to learn about Jesus - who He was and what He could do, and what He could accomplish.  Success is the Lord's, and God gives it where He chooses, for His own reasons.

What we often do not pay attention to is the night before.  I mean, why would we pay attention to that?  Jesus wasn't there yet, and nothing happened.  It was a singularly bad night of fishing.


And yet, if it had been a great night of fishing, or even an average night of fishing, Peter and his brothers would have doubtless been less impressed with the catch Jesus gave them.  The contrast between nothing and the unimaginable abundance makes the point that Jesus wanted to make so much more pointed.  So, why do you think that they caught nothing the night before?  Ever thought of that?  Do you think that it was just coincidence?
Remember, God doesn't do random.

Success is the Lord's - not just great success, but appalling success - also known as failure.  I don't want to blame God for every human endeavor that fails to accomplish something, but wherever God's people are, there He is.  He is with them, guiding them, blessing them, and granting them success.  When we are the Lord's, and we are faithful, we cannot fail.

God tells us that His Word never returns to Him without accomplishing that for which He spoke it.  When we preach it, or tell it to someone else, and see nothing happen, we must conclude that either God isn't done doing what He spoke His Word through us to accomplish, or we have witnessed what His Word was intended to accomplish, although we see nothing we would call success.

Remember the movie scene at the beginning of the sermon?  Just as every sound, no matter how soft or seemingly insignificant, was important to the completed scene, just so, every one of us, and all of our faithfulness is important to the plan of God, to what He is doing in us, and around us, and through us.  The hours of fishing with no catch played a vital role in accomplishing the plan of God for that day for Peter and his brothers and the work of Jesus.  In the same way, our time spent with no visible results, our faithful worship and our confession of the Lord day-by-day, and our inviting one person after another who ignore our invitation, plays an important part in the plans of our Lord for us and for those among whom we live and confess the faith.

It is important that we keep in mind that our salvation rests on what appeared to be defeat and failure.  Jesus' enemies triumphed over Him.  They arrested Him, humiliated Him, abused Him and then executed Him under false pretenses.  On Good Friday, Jesus looked to be a failure, the one man in Israel who had no friends, no ability to play the system, and not even a tomb to call His own.  Measured by any human standard, Jesus was a failure on Good Friday.

And yet, we know that Jesus scored His victory, and ours, on Good Friday.  He accomplished precisely what He had come to do.  He died, although innocent and actually deserving eternal life.  He carried our sins instead, because He had none of His own.  He paid the penalty and set us free from sin and death and hell and the power of Satan, by dying in a way that appeared so helpless and defeated.  By His stripes you are healed, and because He suffered for your sins, you are forgiven!  We all are!

Success is the Lord's.  We may feel insignificant.  We may judge our own efforts as futile and ineffective.  It may seem to us and everyone around us that our faithfulness is foolish - and pointless - and inconsequential.  They may point at our congregation and say, "Your congregation is insignificant and small and destined to close one day!"  The devil will certainly suggest it to us, and invite us to despair.  But success is the Lord's.

We are God's holy people, and, as such, we cannot fail.  God Himself is with us to bless us, and guide us, and keep us.  He doesn't ask us to know, or to understand every moment or every detail of His plan.  He calls on us to be faithful.  He invites us to believe His promises, to trust in Him with all our hearts, to let down the nets even when we have spent the night fruitlessly working and have nothing to show for it, and to remain faithful.

Some have despaired and given up.  Only they have failed.  Jesus has not failed, nor has He broken His promises to us.  He never promised it would be easy, or fun, or impressive in the estimation of the world around us.  

Individually, we don't get to see everlasting life until we die.

But the promise of Jesus is, "Be thou faithful until death, and I will give thee the crown of life."

Besides, in the middle of that long night of fishing without a catch, we cannot see what part it plays in the plan, or how God is working through us.  Our sicknesses, our pains, our sorrows - they are all parts of life, and yet because we are God's people we not only know that we do not go through these things alone, but God has a reason for letting these tribulations come to us, and when we are faithful, we cannot fail, but we succeed, and accomplish what God sent us to accomplish - or, better yet, what He set out to accomplish through us.

Success is the Lord's.  He cannot and He will not fail - ever.  While we stand with Him, we cannot and we will not fail - ever.  So, listen to the voice of Jesus inviting you to drop down those nets again, this time for a catch.  Be faithful, and do not give up hope.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall make your paths straight.

Success is the Lord's.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

What Makes You Afraid -- and Why?


 Mark 4:35-41

35 And on that day, when evening had come, He said to them, "Let us go over to the other side."  36 And leaving the multitude, they took Him along with them, just as He was, in the boat; and other boats were with Him.  37 And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up.  38 And He Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they awoke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?"  39 And being aroused, He rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Hush, be still." And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm.  40 And He said to them, "Why are you afraid? How can you have no faith?"  41 And they became very much afraid and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?

Sermon for Pierce                            6/20/21

What Makes You Afraid, and Why?

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

I want to begin this morning with a confession.  I altered the translation of the Gospel lesson.  I didn't change it much, but, since no translation is perfect, I decided to improve on the translation of our Gospel Lesson.  In the original, Jesus asks the disciples why they are so "timid."  In the King James Version, He asks why they are so "fearful".  The word in Greek means "cowardly, or fearful".  The question Jesus asks them is why they are so easily frightened – or why they are afraid.  That is, ultimately, the question Jesus asks us, this morning, through the Gospel lesson.  Our theme is, What Makes You Afraid, and Why?

It is easy for us to see what frightened the disciples.  They were out in the middle of one of the world's most unpredictable bodies of water, in the middle of a great storm, their boat was being tossed about by waves bigger than it was, and they were filling with water faster than they could bail it out.  On top of that, they probably did not know how to swim.

Why do I think that they did not know how to swim?  Easy.  In their society and religion, they had the superstition that the bodies of water, particularly seas and large lakes, were the domain of the demons.  After all, they had reasoned, so often when someone fell into the water, they disappeared.  They were dragged under by the demons and died there.  If their bodies ever did float to shore, they were always dead.  It seemed reasonable to them that the demonic ones lurked in the waters, waiting for them to make the mistake of entering their realm.  So, one did not learn to swim, because one did not willingly enter the devil's domain and invite death.  They might jump into the shallows where they could walk.  They tried to swim when they were in deep water, but they didn't generally swim well, and most, except for the hardy fishermen, couldn't swim a lick.

They had good reason to be terrified.  Even if they were able to swim, swimming in a violent storm is not usually successful.  Their boat was about to sink, or so it seemed.  They were going to die.  And Jesus was asleep.  He was acting like nothing was wrong and they were perfectly safe.

They woke Jesus up.  They were asking Jesus if He didn't even care that they were about to die.  In Matthew's account, they just cried out to Him to save them because they were perishing.  I am not sure what they expected Jesus to do, but they called on Him to rescue them somehow.  They clearly did not expect Jesus to do what He did, for they were marveling at what He did.  And Jesus simply commanded the wind and the waves to settle down and be quiet, and it happened!

The point of what Jesus said to them, then, was that they should have known.  Their faith should have told them that they were safe, somehow.  They had nothing to fear.  Their faith told them that Jesus could rescue them.  And if Jesus could rescue them, they really had nothing to fear.   If Jesus was not frightened or worried, but was quietly sleeping in the front of the boat, they should have realized that they were safe, too.  If they could believe He could save them, they should have been able to understand that as long as He was with them, they were safe already.

Jesus pointed out that inconsistency, and asked them why they were so cowardly, why they were so easily frightened – and then He answered the question in Matthew, – You men of little faith!  The question was an accusation, and the answer was the explanation.  As long as Jesus is on the job, we have no reason to be afraid of anything.  Period.  Not sin, not sickness, not death, not hell, not the wrath of God, not injury, not sorrow, not Covid, not misfortune, not financial disaster, not hunger or thirst or anything!  Nothing should have the power to make us afraid – if we believe the Gospel.

St.  Paul said it in Romans 8:  What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? . . .  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Our confidence in God and our shield against fear rests in the Gospel.  It was on the cross and in His willingness to die for us that Jesus showed us how precious we are to God, how great His love is toward us, and how far He will go to save and rescue us.  He became a man for us.  He set aside the glory of God and took on the poverty of man, and lived among sinners and those who hated Him as God and Man for us!  He endured the abuse leading up to the cross, suffered the pain and the indignities of the crucifixion, and died for you!  It wasn't a faerie tale sort of thing.  Jesus died the same sort of death you will one day face, human death.  It was the separation of body and soul.  He died in your place so that your death would not be permanent or filled with terror and pain, but be the doorway to eternal life in glory with Him.  He went that far and did that much for you.  That is the Gospel.

That is what you confess with your anniversary celebration theme from Ephesians 1:3:  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ

Knowing that love, and the will of God to do whatever it takes to bless us, and go as far as needed to save us, we should be at peace.  We can be confident that nothing will happen in our lives that will be evil for us, if we simply put our trust in Him, and rest our confidence in Him, and find our hope – in this world and life and for eternal life – completely in Him and His love and His good will for us.  And what is His good will for each and every single one of us?

At this point, I have trained my congregations for decades to reply, "Our Salvation."  So let us try this again: And what is God's good will for each and every single one of us?

We should be at peace in His love.  But our flesh does not always permit us that peace, does it?  And so our Gospel lesson today asks you the question, "What Makes You Afraid, and Why?"  Just like the Disciples, we can stand in the presence of Jesus and be frightened by the noise and the fury of the storm of life around us.  Many people fear the worst is going to happen.  The economy will collapse.  Their personal lives will disintegrate.  Their children will fail, or turn their love away from them.  Life will crush them in one way or another.  Among us, disease is often a specter that causes fear.  Cancer.  Heart troubles.  High-blood pressure.  Covid, Diabetes.  M.S.,  Strokes.  We often fear them, and they cause us terror when the doctor speaks their names in the diagnosis of our health.

What makes you afraid?  We each have something.  But the ultimate reason for fear is our little faith.  God would reassure you.  He would have you know no fear at all.  Cast all your cares upon Him for He cares for you!  Let God do the worrying!  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows.  Remember the love that God has for you and all that He has suffered for you already!

The cause of fear is sin.  It convinces us that God is against us because we are evil.  And it is true that we are evil and sinful by nature, but God is not against us!  Sin causes us to fear death – but Jesus has borne our sins, and died our death to transform our deaths into the door leading directly into eternal life in the very presence of – and glory of – God.  Sure, life will hurt.  There will be pains and discomforts at times.  Some of them will be tremendous.  If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  But the pain will pass, and the discomfort is but for a time, and then glory.  St.  Paul reminds us of this truth in His statement of faith in Romans 8:18, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

When we are with Jesus, nothing in this world can harm us.  It may not be fun at every moment, but then His cross wasn't fun either – so why should the cross we must take up be?  However we may perceive it, no evil shall befall us.  Not even death can hurt you when you have everlasting life, and resurrection hope built on Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection.  It is like a get out of jail free card in Monopoly – only this isn't a game.  It is for real.  He that believes and is Baptized shall be saved!

What makes you afraid?  God's answer is that it is the smallness of your faith.  Pray like the father of the boy who was demon-possessed when He was seeking a miracle from Jesus, Lord, I do believe, Help my unbelief!  This isn't a command but an invitation from God to find peace and security and hope in Him for every circumstance of life.  We are perfectly safe and secure in the arms of Jesus.  Remember the precious words from the pen of Paul, Who will bring a charge against God's elect?  God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?  Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  Just as it is written, "FOR THY SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED."  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.

Heaven knows – and I mean that literally, heaven knows how many things there are threatening us and trying to make us afraid.  There is just one answer, and it is the perfect answer, the blood of Jesus Christ and the love of God and His promises to those whom He has claimed to be His own in baptism.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid, believe in God, believe also in Me.

What makes you afraid? – pray the answer be nothing.  And Why?  Because Jesus Christ is our Lord and our Savior.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)