Comfortable in Christ

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The text for our sermon this morning is the first two verses of the Old Testament reading we just heard. There prophet Isaiah recorded these words: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received double from the Lord’s hand for all her sins.”

I want to start out this morning by asking you a question. It’s a question that I’m almost afraid to ask because I already know what the answer likely is. The question is this: Have you ever, while sitting in church listening to a pastor (me or someone else) preach, wondered what the point of all this preaching really is? To put it another way, have you ever wondered why Sunday after Sunday, week after week, service after service, pastors like me get up and preach a message to you that sometimes is eerily similar to the one you heard last week and the week before? Have you ever wondered what the point of this preaching really is? Why do we bother?

Like I said, I think I have a pretty good idea what the answer to that question is. You have, more than likely, thought thoughts like that at some point in your life while sitting in church listening to the pastor drone on and on. How do I know? Because I’ve had those thoughts myself. I’ve sat in the pew thinking the same thing. Even as the one up preparing sermons and up here preaching them I have sometimes wondered what the point of all this really is.

Believe it or not, however, there is a rhyme and a reason to Christian preaching. There is a purpose to all of it. It may seem as if pastors just step into the pulpit every Sunday without any purpose, without any goal, and just talk until their tired of talking about things that the average person does not care about, but deep down there is a purpose behind what we do. The purpose is this: To afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

Let me explain what I mean by that. The purpose of a Christian sermon is not to make you feel good or to uplift you, to energize you or to pump you up, to teach you how to live the right way or to give you instructions. A Christian sermon might do any or all of those things, but those things are not the main point or purpose. The main point or purpose of Christian preaching is to show us our sinfulness (to afflict the comfortable) and then show us our Saviour (to comfort the afflicted).

This pattern for preaching is not something that we have just made up on a whim. This is how the Bible talks and preaches to us. This is how people in the Bible preach. The best example of that is John the Baptist.

We meet John in our gospel reading today from Mark chapter 1. Mark doesn’t give us a ton of details about John here, but the other gospels do. John is a preacher and a baptizer out in the wilderness of Judea. People from Jerusalem and all over flocked out into the wilderness and down to the Jordan River to hear and see John. There, in the wilderness, they found a preacher who afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted.

Almost everything about John was kind of uncomfortable. He wore clothes made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. Even in those days that would have been quite the outfit. Today if we saw someone like that walking towards us on the sidewalk we’d seriously consider crossing to the other side of the street! He ate locusts and wild honey, the Bible tells us, strange food to be sure. Just being around someone like that has to make a person at least a little bit uncomfortable. But John’s physical appearance and the food that he eats really doesn’t matter. It’s his message that is designed to make people uncomfortable.

When John saw some Pharisees and Sadducees coming out to him to be baptized John called them a brood of vipers, the children of snakes. They were comfortable in their sin and so John afflicted them. He called what they were. He called them sinners.

It wasn’t just them, however. When the crowds came out to see him John called them to repent too. He told them that if they have any extra clothing or food they ought to be more willing to share it rather than hoarding it all to themselves. To some tax collectors who were there he said that they ought to start being honest in their dealings and stop stealing from people. When soldiers came out to him he said that they ought to treat people more fairly and be content with their wages. To all these people who were comfortable John preached repentance. He called sin, sin. He called on them to change their ways. He afflicted the comfortable.

That is only the first half of John’s preaching though. John did more than just make people uncomfortable, afflict them, and call them sinners. He also preached the good news, the good news the comforts the most troubled and afflicted heart, the good news that Christ has come to save sinners like us. One day when Jesus walked by John and his disciples down by the Jordan River John pointed at Jesus and shouted, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This preacher who called out sin, who afflicted the comfortable and called them to repentance, now comforts the hearts of those who have heard his preaching. Look, behold, the one who saves you, the Lamb of God who takes away all of your sin.

The pattern is still the same today. Following in the footsteps of John the Baptist pastors step into their pulpits every week and try to do the same. Admittedly, we do it better some weeks than others, but the goal is still the same: to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

So which are you? Are you comfortable? Have you become so comfortable with mistreating others with thoughts, words, and actions that you don’t even notice you’re doing it anymore? I have. Have you become so comfortable with the ways of this world and the ideas of this world that there suddenly is little room for God and His Word? I have. Have you become so comfortable with loving yourself that you have convinced yourself that loving yourself is more important than loving other people? I have. I’m pretty comfortable. How about you?

If any of that applies to you then you are comfortable and need to be afflicted by God’s Law. You need to consider your life according to the Ten Commandments. You need to look at that first commandment that says that we should have no other gods and you need to realize that you have not loved the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. You have not kept God’s name holy. You have not loved and cherished His Word the way you should. You need to look at the other commandments too, in particular commandments four through ten. You need to realize that you have not loved your neighbor as yourself. You have not honored everyone who has authority over you. You have not done everything you can to help your neighbor keep his possessions, income, and life. You have become preoccupied with yourself. You have covet what other people have. You have not always loved others. You and I we are sinners, it is true.

When we realize that. When all the comfort that we think that we have is stripped away. When we have been thoroughly afflicted by God’s Word we can finally get to our sermon text today. To afflicted people like you God says this: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

To troubled hearts, to burdened consciences, to broken spirits God has one word: comfort. Not comfort that you can find for yourself. Not the comfort of a nice warm bed, a soft sweater, or a pair of slippers. Not the peace of mind that comes from temporarily forgetting our problems only to have them come rushing back again. But the comfort that comes from Jesus Himself. The comfort of knowing that our struggle with sin, our struggle with our own thoughts, words, and deeds that so often leave much to be desired, is over. The struggle is over. The warfare is finished. The victory is won. Christ, our Saviour who is coming to us born in a manger, has won that victory and has given that comfort to us. Our warfare in ended. Our iniquity is pardoned. We have received double from the Lord’s hand for all our sins.

That last part, the double part, might be my favorite part of this whole text. What have we receive “double” of from God for all our sins? Double punishment? Double consequences? Double judgement? Nope. Double comfort. “Comfort, comfort (twice over!) my people says your God.”

Are you afflicted? Is your heart troubled? If it is take this to heart. Your God comes to you to give you comfort. This is what we are celebrating in Advent and Christmas. This is what the Saviour in the manger is all about. He comes to give you comfort, double comfort. He comes to take the sins that burden and afflict you upon His shoulders and to die for them so that you can live. He comes to take you up out of the afflictions of this life into the comfort of His presence eternally. He comes to life you into His arms and carry you into life everlasting. He comes to give you His comfort. Comfort, comfort my people says your God. He has done it. Thanks be to God. In Jesus name. Amen.

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Wonderful Counselor

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7 and Matthew 21:14-17

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” You don’t have to go very far to hear those words at this time of year. Weeks ago already I heard those lyrics ringing through the speakers at different stores and shops. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

It’s true, isn’t it? It is, in many ways, the most wonderful time of the year. The song says it all, there are “kids jingle belling, and everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer.’ With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call. There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow. There’ll be much ‘mistletoeing,’ and hearts will be glowing when love ones are near.” Truly, there is much that makes this the most wonderful time of the year.

It is the most wonderful time of the year, however, until it’s not anymore. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until the stresses of preparation and meeting the expectations of others become overwhelming. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until those long hidden family conflicts and arguments are bubble up to the surface during what should be a season of peace, joy, and love. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until we start to wonder why we bother with all of this stuff still. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until the bills start to roll in and we wonder how we spent that much this year when we were trying to cut back. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until there is an empty place at the dinner table for Christmas dinner. An empty place that really represents an empty place in our hearts, a gaping hole left by the death of someone we loved. It’s the most wonderful time of the year until reality comes in and crashes the party tearing down our delusions even before the stores have turned off the Christmas music and the “most wonderful time” comes to an end for another year. It’s a wonderful time until it’s not.

And yet, in the midst of our delusions about what makes one time of the year more wonderful than another there is a concrete reality grounded in the truth of God’s Word that makes this time of year a wonderful time. It has nothing to do with our holiday traditions, our gatherings with friends, the gifts we give and receive, or anything else that we think might make the Christmas season wonderful. It has nothing to do with how we celebrate the holiday. Instead, it has everything to do with what our God has done to cause this time, even these gray and latter days that we live in, to be the most wonderful time.

“To us a child is born,” Isaiah says, “to us a son is given. And the government will be upon His shoulders. And His name will be called: Wonderful Counselor.” In the weeks to come leading up to our celebration of Christmas we will work our way through some of the names that Isaiah presents for us here. Names for the Messiah. Names for Jesus. Wonderful Counselor. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace. Today: Wonderful Counselor.

Depending on who you ask, there might actually be two names there. The old King James Version of the Bible says “Wonderful, Counsellor” with a comma in between so that they are two different names. Bibles today often say “Wonderful Counsellor” without a comma meaning it’s just one name. Either way the point remains the same: this promised Messiah is wonderful.

By calling this Messiah, the Christ child, “wonderful” Isaiah means more than just “he’s really great” or “super special” or that we really “like” Him. When the Old Testament talks about someone being wonderful it means that the one being called wonderful literally does or performs wonders. It is God Himself who does these wonders. He alone is truly wonderful. The “wonders” of the Old Testament are God’s acts of salvation on behalf of His people. God saved His people from slavery in Egypt. He led them through the Red Sea on dry ground. He fed them in the wilderness with bread from Heaven. He led them into their new land. He conquered their enemies and established their kingdom. He acted wondrously on behalf of His people.

Now, Isaiah says, a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us, who is literally wonderful. He Himself is a wonder. He is God in human flesh born of the Virgin Mary. He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and in Him the fullness of God dwells in bodily form. In a bag of skin and bones like you and me dwells the fullness of God Himself. He Himself is a wonder and He does wonders. The people in our second reading today saw it. Jesus was there in the temple in Jerusalem and the blind and lame came to Him. Jesus healed them. He gave sight to the blind and caused the lame man to run and jump like a deer. He did wonderful things in the sight of the people. They saw these things and they praised His name. “Hosanna, save us now, Son of David!” they shouted. This is the Christ, He has come to save us.

This “Wonderful Counsellor” has done wonders for us and for our salvation as well. By His death He has set us free from our slavery to sin. By the water of Baptism He has brought us through the flood and made us His people. By His rising from the dead He has brought us up from the grave to new life in Him. By His Word He leads us through our lives in this world. Through His Supper He feeds us on this journey. And, when our last hour comes, His promise carries us into life eternal where we wait for the day when He will raise us and all His saints to life everlasting. He truly is wonderful. He has performed wonders for us and through us all the days of our lives and will continue to do so even now as we prepare to celebrate again His birth and wait for Him to come again. He is our wonderful Saviour.

Does it feel like a wonderful time of the year to you? If it does that’s great. Rejoice and be glad. Your Saviour has done wonderful things for you! This is a reason to celebrate!

If it doesn’t, if the wonder of the holiday season is wearing thin, I don’t blame you. You are not alone. But remember this, your God has come to you in human flesh. He has come into a world where the wonder seems to be all worn out, into the misery we know all too well. He has come to save you. By His death you have new life. There is wonder in Him. He is the Wonderful Counsellor born to you. In Jesus name. Amen.

Waiting

Text: Isaiah 64:1-9

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Waiting is the hardest part. For weeks now, since Halloween really, the kids have been asking me, “Is it Christmas Eve yet?” on a semi-regular basis. Knowing that Christmas is the next major holiday after Halloween and being excited for the celebrations to come the waiting seems to go on forever. The countdown is on now. Advent has begun, Christmas is just around the corner, but for the kids the waiting still seems like it might go on forever!

In many ways waiting is a constant reality in our lives. Last week I had to call our telephone company. I was on the phone for half an hour waiting to talk to someone before I finally gave up and decided to call another time. Knowing I’ll have to wait like that again I haven’t gotten around to making that call. We wait in line at the grocery store or at Tim Hortons or at the bank, we wait for packages we ordered to arrive in the mail, we wait for taxis and buses, we wait, we wait, and we wait. And the longer we wait the harder it gets.

This is also true in our lives as Christians. Much of our lives in this world as Christians is filled with waiting. We prepare in Advent to celebrate our Saviour coming, but we also look forward and wait for the day when He comes again. In the meantime we pray. He has blessed us with the gift of lifting up our cares and concerns to our Father in Heaven through Him, so we pray. Even then, however, we have to wait. We pray and we wait. We pray for a solution to the problems in our lives, we pray for an end to our pain, we pray for healing, we pray for comfort, we pray for wisdom, we pray for peace, we pray for happiness, we pray and we wait. And sometimes the waiting seems to go on forever. As we wait we start to wonder, “Is anyone really listening to these prayers? Is God ever going to do something about the problems I am having? Is He going to save me?”

For us who wait and maybe begin to wonder if the things that we are waiting for will ever come to fruition Isaiah has some wonderful words of comfort for us today in our Old Testament reading: “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you who acts for those who wait for Him.” The Lord our God acts, He does things, for those who wait for Him. There is no other god who acts, who does things, like the Lord our God.

In the midst of all the waiting and all the questions and doubts that come with it those words call us simply to wait and trust in our Lord. These words don’t call us to action. They don’t tell us to stop waiting around and take matters into our own hands. They don’t urge us to pull up our socks and get down to business. They call on us simply to wait. The Lord our God is the one true God who acts for those who wait for Him. So, we wait.

But waiting is hard and we don’t like doing it.We’d rather have an answer to our prayers right now. We’d rather our problems go away immediately. We’d rather see God do something about whatever ails us instantaneously. We’d like to see Jesus come again now and bring an end to all this waiting.

The prophet Isaiah understands that feeling too. Our Old Testament reading starts out with Isaiah praying to the Lord and, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” Isaiah wants God to break into human history definitively and powerfully and bring about a solution to the plight of His people. “Come down from heaven and save us!” Isaiah prays, “Rip apart the heavens and come down now!” Isaiah prays, Isaiah asks God to intervene and come down, but God doesn’t do it. Not yet. Isaiah has to wait. The people have to wait. We have to wait. But we wait with that promise, “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you who acts for those who wait for Him.”

But how do we know that God is going to act? As we wait and pray and trust how do we know that God is actually listening and going to do something? How do we know that this waiting will not go on forever? Well, first of all we have God’s promise, His Word assuring us that He will act on our behalf. We have these words in our reading today from Isaiah and many more. In Psalm 46 the Lord says, “Be still (ie: wait!) and know that I am God.” In another place, in Lamentations 3, the prophet Jeremiah writes, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Again and again God’s Word urges us simply to wait, to trust, to know that He is God and that He will act on our behalf. Even with these promises, however, doubt creeps in. but Isaiah also remembers here how God has acted in the past.

Isaiah had seen, first hand, how God acts for those who wait for Him. In Isaiah’s day the kingdom of Israel was under siege. The king of Assyria, a man by the name of Sennacherib, threatened to invade and destroy the city of Jerusalem. He camped around the city with his massive army and threatened to destroy the city and all the people in it. In the face of such threats and danger God spoke to His people through the prophet Isaiah and called on them to wait. They were tempted to run out and try to find help from other nations. They were tempted to find a solution to their own problems. They were tempted to give up in fear and despair. In the face of these temptations, however, they trusted God’s Word that they heard through the prophet. They waited and God acted. God saved His people. God defeated Sennacherib’s army. God acted. Isaiah remembers these things and is sure that the Lord, the one true God, acts for those who wait for Him.

The same is true for us. We have God’s Word, His assurance and promise, that He hears our prayers and answers them. However, if we begin to doubt His Word and His promise we can recall the acts that our God has done in the past, the acts we have seen in our own lives and, most importantly, the acts that we have read about in the pages of Holy Scripture. Above all, we recall how the Lord our God acted for those who waited for Him by sending His one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to save those who waited for Him.

Earlier we talked about that verse at the beginning of our Old Testament reading where Isaiah said to the Lord, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” Well, God did rend the heavens and come down. Two thousand years ago in Bethlehem the heavens were rent, torn apart, and God Himself came down. He came down as a little baby, a helpless, innocent child, born in a manger, born of a virgin. God acted in human history by becoming one of us. The heavens were torn open and angels poured out to praise the God that would do such a thing for us.

Why did He do it? Why would God rend the heavens and come down for us? Why would He act on our behalf like that? Because, as Isaiah says it in our text today, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” God rent the heavens, tore them apart and came down because He loves His broken people. He loves broken sinful people like us who have nothing righteous in ourselves. He loves dirty, polluted sinners like us. He loves His people who can do nothing but wait for Him.

All we could do is wait for Him. We could not save ourselves, we could not set ourselves free from our sinful condition. So, out of His love for us He came down and acted for us who had no choice but to wait for Him. On the cross our sin, our uncleanliness, was placed on Him and, washed in His blood we are clean, forgiven, restored children of God.

The birth of this Saviour, the rending of heaven as God came down, is what we prepare to celebrate at Christmas. The people in Old Testament times waited thousands of years for this Saviour to be born. Ever since Adam and Eve humanity had been waiting for God’s decisive act as He would come and save His people. In Bethlehem it happened. We don’t have to wait thousands of years to celebrate that, but we will wait a few more weeks. Waiting is hard, but it’s good for us. Waiting makes us appreciate the gift even more.

As we wait in life for other things, for answered prayers, for healing, for joy, we have this assurance as well. The Lord our God acts for those who wait for Him. This is even more certain because we know how God has acted for us in and through our Lord Jesus. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Will our God act for us as we wait for Him? Of course He will, because He already has. So we wait. In Jesus name. Amen.

Twice Righteous

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

A few weeks ago I was at a meeting with a number of the other pastors from around the Hamilton area and we were talking (as pastors do) about what we did in our congregations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation about a month ago. Eventually, however, the discussion came to be more focused on the fact that all of us pastors were kind of glad that the occasion was over. We were kind of “Martin Luther-ed” out. We, myself included, had been talking about, teaching about, watching movies/tv shows about Martin Luther for much of the last year and had all had enough. So, this week when I sat and looked at our gospel reading I was somewhat disappointed with myself when something about Martin Luther kept coming to mind. So, reluctantly, I want to talk just for a minute or two longer about Martin Luther.

One of Martin Luther’s profound insights into the truth of the Bible at the time of the Reformation was his concept of “two kinds of righteousness.” Now that word, “righteousness,” is the kind of word that a pastor uses in a sermon and then watches as the eyes of the congregation glaze over and people begin looking around the church for something more interesting than what is about to come out of the pastor’s mouth, but hang in there with me for just a minute.

The word righteousness itself just means goodness or being right. In the Bible we could add the word holiness to that definition. Being righteous means being holy or right or good. In particular it means being holy, right, and good in the eyes of God.

Martin Luther came to correctly understand, however, that there is more than one kind or righteousness talked about in the Bible. There is the righteousness that is given to us by God for the sake of Jesus through faith and there is the righteousness that we live out, by the help of God’s grace, in our day to day lives as Christians.

The first kind of righteousness is totally a gift. For the sake of Jesus and despite everything in us that would suggest He do the contrary, God declares that we are righteous (good, right, and holy) in His eyes. Even though our actions prove otherwise and even though no one else who knows what God knows about us would in their right mind ever call us righteous; God, for the sake of Jesus who died for us, looks down from heaven at sinners like us and declares that we are righteous, that we are good, right, and holy. That is the first kind of righteousness.

The second kind is like it, but it is different. The second kind of righteousness is also a gift, it would be impossible without God, but it does include some effort or work on our part. This second kind of righteousness is the righteousness that we live out in our lives day by day. The righteousness of Christian living. God’s declaration that we are for the sake of Jesus (the first kind of righteousness) changes who we are. It makes us Christian people, children of God, in the words of our gospel reading today: sheep. And as these Christian people we live a particular way. We struggle against the desires that we have that are contrary to God’s Word and we endeavor to love our neighbor as our self the way that God has commanded us to do. Do we do these things perfectly? Of course not, but as Christians and by the help of the Holy Spirit we try. This is the second kind of righteousness that Martin Luther identified in the Bible.

So what’s the point of all this, why do I bring this up today? Well, this understanding of the two kinds of righteousness can help us a great deal as we unpack our gospel reading today. It can help us take a daunting, potentially overwhelming, and maybe even terrifying reading and make it something we can truly understand and rejoice in.

Jesus tells us the final parable in a whole series of parables about the end times and what it will be like on the day when He returns. After a whole bunch of parables about His “delay” and our waiting for that day when He comes we finally in today’s parable get to the big day when Jesus comes again. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory,” Jesus says, “and all the angels come with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” This is judgement day, the day when Jesus comes again, the day when the deeds of every man, woman, and child will be judged. The sheep will be separated from the goats. The goats will go to eternal punishment and the sheep will go into eternal life.

All of this begs the question, then, what is the difference between the sheep and the goats? Well, verse 37 and verse 46 of this gospel reading tell us what the difference is: the sheep are “righteous” (there’s that word again!) the goats are not. This is where Luther’s understanding of the two kinds of righteousness is important.

It would be tempting for us to read this gospel reading and think that the sheep were simply “righteous” because they did good things. Jesus tells us here that they fed the hungry, gave a drink to thirsty, visited the sick, welcomed the stranger, and even visited those in prison. Not only that, but Jesus goes on to say that whenever they did these kinds of things for other people they were really doing it for Him. These sheep really seem to have their act together, they live the right way.

The goats, on the other hand, don’t do these kinds of things. Apparently they did not feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, welcome the stranger, or visit those in prison. And when they didn’t do it they also did not do it for Jesus either. The goats did not live the right way.

If this is all we knew about God and about Jesus and about Jesus judging the living and the dead we would have a pretty clear picture of what we need to do. We need to be righteous. We need to live the right way. We need to do what sheep do. Otherwise we are goats.

But our lives and the rest of the Bible paint a different picture. We all know that we have not done a perfect job helping others when we have the chance. We’ve all passed up opportunities to serve one another for some reason. Not only that, Romans 3:10 says, “No one is righteous, no, not one.” No one, nobody, none. No one does what God commands, no one is good or holy or right, no one is a sheep. We are all goats. So now what?

Well, we come back to Martin Luther and the two kinds of righteousness. What kind of righteousness makes a sheep a sheep? The righteousness that God gives as a gift for the sake of Jesus or the righteousness that we do? Our righteousness can’t do it, our righteousness can’t turn goats into sheep, but God’s righteousness can!

This is the purpose for which Jesus came into this world, He came to make a goat like you into a sheep that is prepared and ready for life in the Kingdom of God. He is our Shepherd, He is the Lamb, He takes away our sin and makes us sheep. He gives us His own righteousness so that we, who have no righteousness of our own, can be called sheep and on that last day when the sheep are separated from the goats we know with certainty that we will be with the sheep because we are with our Shepherd Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and gives us His righteousness.

But that’s not all. We are called sheep for the sake of Jesus, but sheep like us don’t go on living like goats. There are, remember, two kinds of righteousness. Now, having been declared righteous sheep for the sake of Jesus, we are called to live like sheep. Sheep do sheep things. Sheep feed the hungry. Sheep give a drink to those who are thirsty. Sheep visit the sick. Sheep welcome the strangers. Sheep visit those in prison. Sheep do sheep things. Sheep, the people of God in this world, love their neighbor. Sheep see the needs of the people around them and respond in love. This is what we do. This is the second kind of righteousness. This is what we are to be going about doing until the day when Jesus comes again. This is who we are to be each and every day of our lives on this earth.

Do we do these things perfectly in this life? Of course not. Do we fail? Everyday. The way Jesus tells it here, however, makes it clear that on the day when He comes again those failures won’t be remembered. We, the sheep who are declared righteous because of His death on the cross, will be forgiven. Even better yet, we will be given credit for the good that we have done (as insignificant as it may seem). Though our mistakes may seem to outnumber our correct responses, though our failures would seem to outweigh our successes, though our feeble efforts would seem to be of no significance, these deeds of love will be all that is remembered. The failures, shortcomings, weaknesses, and sins of our lives will be forgotten, forgiven for the sake of Jesus, and we will be righteous twice over. Righteous for the sake of Jesus and even righteous for the sake of the good that we have done. Twice righteous, doubly righteous, even though we don’t deserve it.

You are a sheep. When you read this gospel reading you need to understand that. You are a sheep for the sake of Jesus. But sheep live like sheep. Sinful though we are we are called nonetheless to live as sheep in this life. The righteousness of Jesus allows you to do this, to live as a sheep. May we see the needs of people around us and respond to them in love, may we live like sheep, for the sake of Jesus. Amen.

Knowing our Master

Text: Matthew 25:14-30

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our gospel reading this week is another one that talks to us about the end times and the day when Jesus comes again. Last week our gospel talked about the time of “delay” that we live in now waiting for the day when Jesus comes again. That reading encouraged us to have our lamps full of “oil” so that we are ready on the day when Jesus does finally come again. Today our gospel talks about that “delay” again, the delay waiting for Jesus, but this time the focus is on what we do in the meantime, how we live our lives in the “delay” as we wait for Jesus’ return.

In this parable there is a master who has three servants. The master is going away on a journey, so he entrusts his possessions and property to his servants. In particular, he gives them each some of his money. To one servant he gives 5 talents, to another he gives 2, and to another he gives 1. It is important to remember that these talents are a type of money, we aren’t talking about talents like special skills or abilities or anything like that. The master gave money to his servants. Then, after his property was entrusted to the servants, the master left on his journey. He was gone for a very long time, maybe even longer than the servants had anticipated him being gone, but finally one day he comes back. Now that their master has returned the servants are required to give an account of what they have done with his money while he was gone.

The first one, the one who was given 5 talents, has used the money entrusted to him to earn 5 more talents. He presents 10 talents to the master. The master congratulates this servant by saying, “Well done good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

The second servant, the one who was given 2 talents, has likewise used the money entrusted to him to earn 2 more talents. He presents 4 talents to the master. The master congratulates this servant in the same way saying, “Well done good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

Finally, the third servant comes forward. He has not made any profit. In fact, he didn’t even try to make a profit. Instead, he buried the 1 talent that he was given in the ground. He dug up that talent and presents it to the master. The master is not pleased. “You could have at least invested it in the bank,” the master says, “at least that way I would have made some interest on it!” This servant is not rewarded. He is not congratulated. He does not enter into the joy of the master. This servant is cast out into the outer darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The master in this story is Jesus and we are the servants. And like the servants in the story, our master has entrusted us with His gifts. Each of us has been given “talents.” Remember, however, that these “talents” are not skills or abilities, but a type of currency. This is not a parable about the different talents, gifts, and abilities that we all have and how we use them. These “talents” don’t belong to us, they belong to the master. These “talents” are the gifts that the master gives. They are the love, mercy, and forgiveness that our Lord Jesus has given to each of us through His death on the cross and our baptism into His death. We, the servants, are called to us these gifts (God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness) that have been entrusted to us in a way the benefits and extends God’s kingdom in this world.

As we look at this parable the question we need to ask is: What makes the two servant that the master rewards and calls “good and faithful” different from the one servant who is cast out into the outer darkness?

Our first instinct as we read this story might be to answer that question by saying that the first two servants, the ones that get rewarded, simply do a better job using that master’s gifts than the third servant who buried the money that was entrusted to him. To a certain degree that’s true, I guess. They do, in fact, do a better job as stewards of the master’s property. They make a profit. They double the money that was given to them. They do good work. The accomplish something. They are good servants. For this they are rewarded. However, there is more going on here. This is not just a story about living the right way and being a good servant.

We need to look at the third servant, the one who buries the 1 talent entrusted to him in the ground, a little more closely. Why does he bury that talent in the ground? When the master comes back and this poor servant has to give an account of the money entrusted to him he says, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you do not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid and I hid your talent in the ground.” Why did he hide that talent in the ground? Because he was afraid. What was he afraid of? His master. This servant believed that his master was a “hard man,” maybe even cruel. He thought that the master’s expectations and demands were unfair and unrealistic, he thought of his master as someone who expects to reap/harvest a crop even when he has not sown any seeds. So, in fear, fearing that he would fail, lose his masters money, and suffer the wrath of his master the servant buried that talent and did not even try to make a profit. This is the crux of the parable. This servant does not have faith that trusts in the goodness of his master.

What do we think of our “master”? What kind of man is He? Our Lord Jesus, the one who is coming again and will call in the accounts of what we have done in His absence, what kind of master is He? Is He a cruel and hard master who punishes and destroys servants who fail in their service of Him or is He a master who forgives time and time again our shortcomings and our failures? The answer is clear and was shown forth in all its beauty and clarity on the cross as He bled and died for you and me and for our forgiveness: The Lord Jesus, our master who is coming again, is a loving, forgiving who abounds in steadfast love.

In the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, the part of Jesus, we say that we believe that He will come to judge the living and the dead. If that is all that we knew about Jesus, that He comes to judge us, He would be a terrifying master. If that is all we knew about Him we ought to be afraid of Him. We underestimate, I think, what it means to be judged like this; to have our whole life (the things we have done and the things that we have not done, the things we have said and the things we have not said, the thing we have thought and the things we have not thought) spread open like a book and judged not by human standards of goodness, but by the divine standard of God’s righteousness. That is a terrifying thought. If that is all we knew about our Lord Jesus we would do well to be afraid like that servant and bury our “talent” in the ground. But we know better.

Unlike that third servant who buried the talent entrusted to him in the ground, we know that our Lord Jesus is not a cruel, hard man with unrealistic expectations. He does not delight in punishing His servants like us when we fall short of His demands. Instead, He is a master who would Himself become our servant and give His life for poor, pitiful servants like us so that we would be forgiven our shortcomings and failures. Do we fall short of His commands? Yes, every day. Do we fail to use His gifts of love, mercy, and forgiveness in our lives? Yes, every day. Do we need to fear our master at His second coming because of our failures in this life? No, because He rejoices in forgiving sinners like us. Unlike that servant who buried the master’s talent in the ground we have been given faith by the Holy Spirit to know that our master, our Lord Jesus Christ who is coming again, abounds in love, forgiveness, and mercy.

Having this faith, knowing this truth about our Lord Jesus, how then should we live in this time of His “delay”? Like the first two servants we ought to use the gifts Christ has freely given to us and entrusted to us to extend and benefit His Kingdom. We ought to recklessly spread the love, mercy, and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus to everyone around us. Not worrying about failure or what might happen if we do something wrong because we know our Lord and Master is forgiving we ought to love our neighbour as our self. Knowing that our Lord and Master is forgiving and has already forgiven us for more than we could begin to imagine we ought to forgive one another. Knowing that our Lord and Master has had mercy on us and came into this world to save us and will come again to save us eternally we should have mercy on those around us. This is how, like the faithful servants in our gospel today, we spread, increase, and extend the kingdom of God. This is how we make a profit for our master.

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ comes again we can be confident that He will say those beautiful words to us, “Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over little, I will set you over much. Enter into My joy,” because this same Saviour bled and died for us. In His Holy Name. Amen.

Running on Empty?

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

There are two kinds of people in the world, I think. People who when they are driving their cars see the gas gauge get down to about a quarter remaining and instantly feel an urge to find a gas station and fill up and those, like myself, who watch the gauge slip down past a quarter and don’t worry about it until the little light on the dash comes on to tell you that you really ought to stop for gas sometime soon.

As I said, I fall into the latter category. I remember one time before Leah and I were married that we were driving from Edmonton to Lloydminster (the town where I grew up). We were about an hour out of Edmonton at a place called Vegreville and Leah suggested that we ought to stop for gas. Not wanting to get off the highway and believing that there would be cheaper gas about 45 minutes down the road in a place called Innisfree I suggested that we press on a little farther. Sure enough, 15 minutes on the other side of Vegreville the little light on the dash came on. We should have stopped back there. We did, in the end, make it to Innisfree, but I am sure we were running on fumes by then. As I said, there are two kinds of people in the world, foolish people who tempt fate and wise people who take precautions. You can guess which category I belong in.

Jesus talks similarly in our gospel today about wise and foolish people. Jesus told a parable about some foolish and wise young women. These young women were unmarried, they were virgins, and they were all slated to serve as something like bridesmaids in a rather grand wedding. It was undoubtedly a very exciting time. One problem remained, however, the groom had not yet arrived! The feast could not begin until he did and the evening was pressing on into night!

As night set in these young women all took oil lamps and went out to wait for the bridegroom to arrive so that they could go with him into the wedding feast. 5 of the young women were “foolish,” Jesus tells us, because they were so sure that the groom would be showing up any minute that they did not bother to bring any extra oil for the lamps with them. They did not think that they would need it. The other 5 young women were “wise,” Jesus says. They weren’t so sure that the groom would be showing up right away. They were aware that nobody knew when the groom was actually going to come. He could show up right now or it could take hours for him to arrive. Just to be safe they took some extra lamp oil along with them.

Sure enough, the groom was delayed. He did not arrive right away and hours passed and it got later and later. Slowly but surely all ten of the young women fell asleep waiting for the groom to arrive.

Finally, hours later, in the middle of the night the groom showed up. The watchmen on the city walls called out in loud voices so that everyone in town would know that he is finally here. The wedding celebration can begin. The ten young women who had all dozed off were woken up by this call from the watchmen and they all set about getting their lamps ready to light the way to the wedding hall where the celebration will take place. The five “wise” young women who had brought extra oil all topped up their lamps and were ready to go. The others, the “foolish” ones who did not bring extra oil, they were in trouble. They could not get their lamps to stay lit, they were out of oil. They would not be able to light the way for the groom. They asked the others is they could share some of the extra oil, but there was not enough to go around. They went to try and find some oil to buy, but it was the middle of the night and they were out of luck. By the time they made it back the groom had entered the wedding hall and the celebrations were underway. The doors were locked and they were too late. They knocked, but the groom would not open the door for them. They would not be allowed to enter the wedding feast.

What is the point of this story? What is the message for you and me today? To figure that out we need to look at the “foolish” and “wise” young women and think about what made the young women “foolish” and “wise.” The foolish young women were foolish because they did not take extra oil and were unprepared for the possibility that the groom’s arrival could be delayed. The wise young women were wise because they took precautions to prepare themselves for the possibility that the groom might be delayed. The point of this story for you and me then is that we don’t know when Jesus is coming and we need to be prepared for the fact that it might not happen any time soon.

In this story the groom represents Jesus. Jesus will come again someday to take us with Him into the wedding feast in His Kingdom which will have no end. When Jesus ascended into heaven the angels who appeared there told the disciples that, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Jesus, the groom, is coming but He hasn’t come yet. Like the groom in the story, Jesus is “delayed.”

Jesus isn’t really delayed, He’s not held up in traffic somewhere or caught up in some other kind of unanticipated problem. He simply hasn’t come according to our schedule. To us 2,000 years seems like a long time to wait for Jesus to come back. We feel like he is delayed. Jesus will arrive, however, precisely when he means to. For you and me right now, however, we live in the “delay” waiting for that day when our Saviour returns. Like the wise young women we need “extra oil” for our lamps as we wait for Jesus so that we have enough with us to endure the delay and be ready when He arrives.

There is a folk song about this parable and our need for this “oil” that became popular in the 1950’s or so. It goes like this: “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning. Give me oil in my lamp, I pray. Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning. Keep me burning till the break of day.”  It’s a catchy little tune, upbeat and repetitive so it sticks in your head. The song misses the point, however. In the song the singer prays that God would give us this “oil” so we would be ready for the day of His coming. What’s missing is any mention of where, when, or how God does that. The “oil” that we need is not hidden somewhere for us to find. God freely and gladly gives it to us through His means of grace.

The “means of grace” are simply God’s Word and Sacraments. The Scriptures, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. In each of these God is working to give us “oil” to completely and totally prepare us for the day of Jesus’ coming.

When someone is baptised we give them a candle. This is perhaps (aside from the baptism itself) my favorite part of the baptism service because the pastor says something like this as he gives the candle to the family or the sponsors: “Receive this burnings light as a reminder to live always by the light of Christ and be ever watchful for His coming that you may meet Him with joy and enter with Him into the marriage feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom.” When we are baptised, even as little babies, we are prepared completely and totally for the day of Jesus’ coming. From that day forward we are “ever watchful” so that we can enter with Him into that glorious feast.

In the same way, in the Lord’s Supper we are again being prepared for the day of Jesus’ coming. Paul says in His letter to the Corinthians “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). There, as we kneel side by side, we proclaim the death of Jesus too each other, the good news the forgives all our sins, and together we are made ready for the day Jesus comes.

Finally, in God’s Word God Himself is speaking to us, working by the power of the Holy Spirit to make us ready. To reassure us that our Lord is indeed coming and to assure us that we are forgiven by His blood shed for us on the cross.

If we neglect these things we are no better than the foolish young women who were unprepared for the groom’s arrival. We run the risk of running on empty and not having enough “oil” for that day. On that day it will be too late to get filled up with oil.

When they were caught out of oil the “foolish” young women asked the “wise” ones to share. That was not possible, however. In the same way, it will not be possible to share someone else’s faith on the day when Jesus comes again. Each one of us will, by God’s gracious work through the Holy Spirit, have to believe for ourselves.

The foolish young women also tried at the last minute to go buy more oil. That also failed because there simply was not enough time. In the same way, it will not be possible to take up God’s Word and believe on the last day once Jesus has already come. By then it will be too late.

What then should we do? We should take up God’s means of grace, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and His Word, here and now. Those who receive these things, the gifts of God, are already fully prepared for the day of Jesus’ coming. They are like the wise young women who were woken by the call and were ready to enter the feast with the groom. You and I, as we receive these gifts, are filled with “oil” and ready for the feast. In Jesus name. Amen.

Died in Christ

Text: Revelation 14:13

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

One of the neat responsibilities that pastors have is tending to the church record book and the membership roll therein. In case you were unaware, there is a book that has the name of every member of the congregation past and present listed in it. When people are baptized or when new members transfer in their names are added to the list.

Every once and a while I like to pull out the church record book and just flip through the pages looking at the names. To me it is like a family history book and since I have not been here and part of this family for very long it is a helpful thing for me to see the names on those pages and get a glimpse into the story of this church, your story.

There are many stories that you can find in those church record books. There are happy stories. There are baptisms. Many baptism. Blessed days when children and adults, young and old, are gathered into the family of God by Holy Baptism. There are confirmations recorded there. Days when teenagers, after years of preparation, confessed the faith into which they were baptized as babies. There are weddings recorded there. Days when husbands and wives stood before the Lord and pledged their lives to each other.

There are sad stories too. There is a whole column in the record book dedicated to how people leave our church family. Those who have transferred away to different churches (which is a good thing, but still a loss for our congregation). Those who have chosen to not be a part of our Christian family anymore. And, of course, those who have died.

Beside each of the names in the record book of someone from our congregation who has died the following words are written: “Died in Christ.” Then there is a little cross. This might sound strange, but those “died in Christ” parts might be my favorite part of the record book. I have written those words in there a few times myself over the last few years when dear members and friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, have passed away. When I see those words or when I have had to write them in the book myself I am reminded of something from the book of Revelation chapter 14 where the apostle John writes this: “I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’”

John hears a voice from heaven and that voice commands him to write down these words: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” Blessed are the dead sounds almost impossible. How could the dead be blessed? How could death be a blessed thing? Sure, there are times when we might see death as a blessing. When someone has suffered for many years or when dementia or Alzheimer’s disease has robbed them their awareness of the world around them we think that their death is, in some small way, a blessing perhaps. Even still, death is not really ever a blessing. Those of us left to mourn and grieve know that best.

Death, contrary to what we might think, is not a natural part of life. Death is an unnatural, unintended ripping apart of God’s perfect creation. In the world God created death was not a natural part of things, death was the result of rebellion and sin. Adam and Eve sinned and death entered the world. Death is not a blessing, but a consequence.  And yet the voice from heaven says to John, “Blessed are the dead.”

Nothing about death itself is blessed, but death in Christ truly is a blessed thing. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,” the voice from heaven says. Having died in the Lord is what makes the dead blessed, not death itself. Dying in the Lord means dying in the hope, peace, joy, and love that comes from knowing and trusting a God who is so loving that He would send His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. Dying in the Lord means dying with Jesus.

We died with Jesus the first time when we were baptised. We were baptised into His death. When we who have been baptised into His death come to our own death we complete what was begun in our baptism and we literally die with Jesus. How is this a blessing? It is a blessing because we die in the hope that just as Christ is risen from the dead we will rise with Him. When we died with Christ we are buried with Christ. We know what happened to Christ when He was buried. The grave could not hold Him, not even for three days, and He rose. If we are buried with Christ we will rise with Christ.

That’s not all, however. After John hears the voice from heaven say, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,” another voice pops up. This time the voice is not a random voice from heaven, but the voice of the Holy Spirit Himself. What does the Holy Spirit say? “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them.”

The Holy Spirit confirms it, the dead who die in the Lord are indeed blessed, but He also adds a little bit of an explanation. Why are they blessed (aside from the sure and certain hope that they have for the resurrection of their bodies)? Because they rest from their labours, and their deeds follow them. Let’s look at each of those things in turn.

First, the Spirit says, “they rest from their labours.” In the gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” It’s a beautiful promise and Jesus speaks it to us right here and right now. He delivers His rest to us as He comes to us in His Word to tell us that our sins are forgiven and as He feeds us with His own body and blood to again assure us of that forgiveness. However, the ultimate rest from our labours comes when Christ once and for all calls us to Himself. To the thief on the cross being crucified beside Him Jesus says these words, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” In other words, “Today you will be with me in my rest.”

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about what happens to our souls when they die, but we know this: our souls go to heaven to be with Jesus where they will enjoy the fullness of His rest until the day when He comes again to raise our bodies from the dead. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord because they enjoy the fullness of the rest, peace, and quiet that Jesus gives!

The Holy Spirit also says here that the dead who die in the Lord are blessed because “their deeds/works follow them.” Just a few days after Reformation Day it might sound kind of strange to hear a text talking about the good works that we do following us, but that is what it says here. We know that we are not saved by works of the Law that was Luther’s great contribution to the Church as he rediscovered that truth, so what does it mean that “their works follow them”?

First we need to think about where good works come from. Real good works, good works that please God, don’t come from our own strength or ability. They come from God who through Christ and His forgiveness won for us on the cross works in our hearts to transform our lives to be the holy, righteous people of God. God recreates us through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit to do good works that please Him. These works include loving our neighbour and serving those around us in need. God makes these works good.

This is a remarkable thing, because we can’t claim these works as our own really because it is God doing them in us, but He still lets those good works that He does in us “follow us” it says here. These good works don’t save us, we are saved by God’s grace (His free forgiveness for the sake of Christ) through faith, but God rewards us for the good works that He does in and through us. In the life to come we will be rewarded for what God has done in us. Again, what a blessing for those who die in the Lord!

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”

It is my prayer for myself and for each of you that one day a pastor will write those precious words beside our names in a church record book somewhere: “Died in Christ.” It truly is a blessing to die in the Lord, to die in the hope of the new life that we have in Him, to die and enter into His rest, to die and to have the good that God has done in and through us follow us into life everlasting. This is a blessed death. This is what it means to die in Christ. This is hope for you and me and joy for those who have died before us. May we remain faithful unto death, by God’s grace, so that these blessings may be ours. In Jesus name. Amen.

Reformation Freedom

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our gospel reading today, the gospel traditionally appointed for Reformation Day, presents us with a story in which something that Jesus says upsets people. This, of course, is nothing unusual. Jesus said a lot of things that upset people. I think it is interesting, however, to notice what exactly the people were upset about in our reading today. Let’s look at what Jesus said.

In verse 31 and 32 of our gospel today Jesus said, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That sentence is quite profound when you actually stop and think about it. I just one sentence Jesus says 4 very important things; 4 things that could very easily upset the people who were listening to Him.

First Jesus says, “If you abide in my word you are truly my disciples …” We don’t use that word “abide” much in our talking today, but “abide” means to stay or remain, to make our home somewhere. So what Jesus is saying here is “If you make your home/live/stay in my word…” That is something that could upset people. Jesus is telling them to abide/live/dwell/stay in HIS word. He is putting His word on par with the Old Testament, the Sacred Scriptures. I could imagine people getting upset about that. Surprisingly, no one seems to care about that detail.

Then Jesus says, “…and you will know the truth…” The implication of what Jesus is saying here is that they don’t know the truth right now. That alone could upset some people. They don’t seem to care about that either though.

Finally, Jesus says, “…and the truth will set you free.” That part, the part about being set free, gets people upset. It’s like they ignored everything else that Jesus said before that, but this part simply cannot be ignored. It is offensive to them. That is amazing because this part of the sentence is completely and totally a promise. He is not asking them to do anything in this part of the sentence. He’s not asking them to living in His Word, He’s not suggesting that they aren’t truly His disciples, He’s not even saying that they don’t know the truth. He is simply saying that His truth will set them free and they get upset about that. Why do they get upset? Because they think they are already free.

The people respond to what Jesus has said by saying, “We are offspring/children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will become free?’ We are already free.” Jesus’ words offend them because they suggest that they are not free people. They, by virtue of their ancestry, believe that they already have special status in the eyes of God. They are children of Abraham, children of God’s promise, God’s chosen people. They are free, they are not slaves of anyone, or so they think.

Jesus has something different to say. His words are plain and simple. Responding to their assertion that they are already free Jesus simply says, “You are not free.” He said it to those people who heard Him way back then and He says it to us today. “You are not free.”

“Anyone who sins,” Jesus says, “is a slave to sin.” Anyone. That “anyone” doesn’t mean that some people are and some people aren’t. In another place in the Bible (1 John 1:8) it says, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Anyone who says that they don’t sin, that they have not done the evil that God forbids, that they are innocent, is lying. Plain and simple. They are lying to themselves and they are lying to God. So, anyone who sins, which really means everyone, is a slave to sin. We are all slaves to sin. Slaves are not free. We are not free.

That offends us just like it offended those people who heard Jesus say it in person. It offends us because we don’t think our situation is that bad. Like an addict in denial we think that we could stop any time if we wanted to. We aren’t that bad after all. Sure we sin, we do things wrong, but we aren’t slaves to sin. This whole concept paints a much bleaker picture of humanity than we would like. But, before we can understand the Reformation and what it means, before we can understand the cross and what it means, we need to understand the simple truth that we are not free. We do not have free will to choose to do the good that God requires of us.

In the year 1525, 8 years after he had posted the 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg and 4 years after he made his stand in front of Emperor Charles V, Martin Luther got into a debate with a scholar named Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus was a kind of celebrity in those days. He was an accomplished writer and a respected teacher and theologian. Erasmus admired Luther and his stand in many ways. He also felt that the church needed to be reformed, but he felt Luther had gone too far. In particular, Erasmus disagreed with Luther on sin and free will. Erasmus insisted that human beings like you and I have free will and that we can choose to do that good things that God requires of us. Luther, on the other hand, strongly disagreed. Luther insisted that we don’t really have free will. We are free to decide how to spend our money, what to eat for supper, or what we want to do tomorrow, but we are not free to choose to do what God requires. Like Jesus says in our gospel reading today we are slaves to sin.

Luther insisted so strongly that we are not free because he knew it to be true from firsthand experience. Luther had spent much of his adult life trying to break free from his bondage to sin. He entered the monastery and became a monk for this very reason. He wanted to dedicate his entire life to breaking free from his own sinfulness. Try as he might, however, it never worked. When he broke free from one sinful habit another appeared. When he confessed all of his sins to a priest and was forgiven moments later he would sin again. And he could never break free from the sinful thoughts that were constantly popping up in his mind even when he was sleeping. Luther, better than most of us, understood what it means to be a slave of sin. Failing as a monk, failing to break free from sin, Luther fell into despair. He really, truly believed that there was no hope for a sinner like him. Then the light of the gospel dawned.

On day when he was studying the Scriptures preparing to lecture to students at the university of Wittenberg on Paul’s letter to the Romans (Remember what Jesus said, “If you abide IN MY WORD you are truly my disciples…”!) Luther came to a remarkable discovery. He realized that God does not require us to break free by our own power and might from our slavery to sin (Remember what Jesus said, “…you will know the TRUTH”!). Instead, God’s purpose in sending His Son, in sending Jesus to be born into human flesh, born of the virgin Mary, and in sending Him to the cross to suffer under Pontius Pilate was so that we could be set free by His power and might from sin (Remember what Jesus said, “… the truth will set you FREE”!).

This is how Luther described his discovery (better yet, his rediscovery): “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other [words and phrases in the Scriptures] an analogy [of] the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God” (LW 34:337).

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the heart of it, what God does in us. Not what we can do, try to do, or think that we can do. But what God has done. We are slaves. We are trapped in sin unable to free ourselves. We are unable to do the good that God requires. Even if we did manage to put together our best efforts and by some miracle perform a good work that was truly pleasing in the eyes of God it would be worth nothing compared to the weight to which we are enslaved. But Christ has come to set us free.

In the Old Testament in Isaiah 61 this is what it says about Jesus hundreds of years before He was even born in Bethlehem: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Christ came to set you free from sin. By His death this is what He has done. The chains of sin which once held you have been broken to pieces and shattered by His power and might as He took upon His shoulders the sins of the world and crucified them in His body on the cross. There, as He died your sin, the sin that enslaved you and took you captive, died with Him.

Christ has set you free. Free from sin, free from guilt, free from death. He has set you free to live your life without fear of God’s wrath and punishment waiting at the end. He has set you free to live your life and love your neighbour as yourself, not out of compulsion or demand, but freely from a joyful heart. Christ has set you free and “if the Son sets you free (which He most certainly has) you will be free indeed.” Amen.

Entangled

Text: Matthew 22:15-22

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

In our gospel reading today Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is God’s.” It’s a beautifully simple answer to the question posed to Him. Some people called the Pharisees and Herodians (we’ll talk about who these people are in just a minute) had come to Jesus with a question. “Is it lawful (that is, is it good/ok according to the Bible) to pay taxes to Casaer, the Roman emperor? Jesus takes the coin for the tax, holds it up, and asks them whose face they see on the coin. It’s Caesar’s face, of course, just like the queen on our coins today. So, Jesus responds, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s. It is so simple, so straightforward that I have often found it a little surprising that the ones who asked Jesus this question are left marveling as they walk away.

There are some details here, however, that make the situation a bit more complicated than we might first have expected. The two groups of people who came to Jesus with this question are kind of an unlikely coalition. On the one hand we have the Pharisees, we read about them in the Bible all the time. They are the serious religious leaders of their day. Their goal is to ensure that all the people do whatever they can to avoid breaking God’s commandments. They are so zealous in their desire to ensure that the commandments of God are kept that they make up commandments of their own to make sure. For them pay taxes to Caesar is a sticky issue. You see, Caesar is a pagan. He is not a faithful believer in the God of Israel, the one true God. He worships other gods. Worse still, he allows other people to worship him as a god. He puts himself in the place of god. Is it really ok to pay taxes to someone like that, to support them with money and to give them honor?

On the other hand we have the Herodians. We don’t hear much about the Herodians in the Bible, but they are the supporters of Herod. This Herod was not a king, per se, but he was the political ruler in Galilee where Jesus lived and taught during most of his ministry. Herod had been put in charge by the Caesar himself. As a result he owed his allegiance to Caesar. For the Herodians pay taxes was a given, to suggest that taxes should not be paid to Caesar was treason.

These two groups of people, the religious Pharisees and the political Herodians, did not have much in common, but they shared a common disdain for Jesus and they came together to trap him. When they asked “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” they knew that they had Jesus cornered on way or another. Jesus’ answer, however, is so simple and clear that it leaves them all speechless and they walk away in shock.

It is important that we realize that there is more going on here than simply a tricky question about religion and politics and a simple clear answer from Jesus. To be sure, Jesus teaches us something here about how religion and politics relate: “render unto Caesar what is Caesars and unto God what is Gods.” We are taught by Jesus here that we are to pay taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, and honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13:7). Our faith is not an excuse to not pay taxes or disrespect our political/worldly leaders. At the same time, we are called by Jesus to render unto God the things that are God’s. Still, there is more here than just that.

The purpose for this unlikely coalition between the Pharisees and the Herodians, Matthew tells us, is to entangle Jesus in His talk. They want to trap Jesus in what He says. They want to entangle Him in the controversy that they have created over paying taxes. They want to draw Him away from the work that He has come to do (accomplishing the salvation of all mankind through His death on the cross) and tie Him up in the man-made controversies of the day. This is nothing short of the work of Satan himself.

When Jesus answers the question that the Pharisees and Herodians bring He says, “Why do you put me to the test, you hypocrites?” That word “test” tells us something. When Jesus was out in the wilderness after being baptized and had been fasting for 40 days and 40 nights He was “tested” by the devil. Now the devil has come again to test, trap, entangle, and snare Jesus.

It is important for us to realize this because Satan us up to the very same work in the world today. He seeks constantly to entrap us and lead us away from the Kingdom of God that Jesus has brought to us by His death and resurrection. He tries to entangle us and lead us away from the salvation accomplished for us by Christ. He tries to snare us and distract us so that he can take away the hope that we have in Christ and leave us in despair.

Jesus told a parable one time about a sower who went out into his field to sow seeds. Some of the seed fell on the path, Jesus said. It did not grow. Other seed fell into rocky soil. It grew up, but died quickly. Still other seeds fell among thorns or weeds. These seeds did grow up, Jesus said, but they were choked out by the thorns and weeds and did not produce fruit. The weeds and thorns, Jesus explained, are the cares and the concerns of the world which threaten to choke out the faith that has been planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

The devil is at work constantly to choke out the faith in our hearts. Like he did with Jesus in our gospel reading today, he tries to entangle and snare us in the controversies and debates of our age hoping that they will lead us away from faith in Jesus. We are bombarded on TV, on the internet, in the newspaper, and everywhere else with controversies, debates, and quarrels that threaten to distract us from faith in Jesus. For this reason in his second letter to Timothy the apostle Paul says, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him… So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.”  We have been enlisted, brought to faith, by the Lord our God as He redeemed us through the blood of Jesus and gave us faith through the working of the Holy Spirit. The aim of our lives is not to get “entangled” in worldly, civilian affairs, but to strive to please Him, the one who called and enlisted us. So, Paul says, don’t get caught up in debates and controversies that breed quarrels. Pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace along with all your brothers and sisters in Christ who do the same.

What we see in this gospel reading today is that it is Jesus Himself who cuts through the entanglements of this world for us. He does not do it, however, with a pithy one liner here or there or with quick witted answers to the most complicated questions of this age, but with the good news of the salvation that He has won for us. This salvation goes far beyond whatever debates, controversies, or entanglements that this world and our enemy the devil can come up with. This salvation extends into eternity where the quarreling of this life will be brought to an end once and for all as the people of God, redeemed by the blood of His Son, join with one voice to sing His praises.

Of course, this salvation is only possible because Jesus our Saviour rendered Himself to us. He told the Pharisees and the Herodians to render unto Caesar what is Caesars and unto God what is God’s, but more importantly, Jesus has rendered and given Himself to us. He has given Himself to us through His death on the cross and today He gives Himself to us again as we come to the altar. Here we receive Jesus again. As we come to His table the debates and controversies, everything that divides one person from another, fade away as we are brought together, in communion, into the holiness of the God who has called and redeemed us looking forward to the life eternal that we will all share.

Because we have been cut loose from the entanglements of the world by our Lord Jesus we can render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars. We can freely and joyfully give what is owed to our government and leaders because we know that the things we have in this life are not worth comparing to the life we have to come. More importantly, we can also at the same time render unto God what is God’s. Like that coin that bore the image of Caesar we, having been created in God’s image and redeemed by the Holy blood of Jesus, bear the image of God. Our lives and everything in them belong to God. Because Christ has cut us loose from this world we can render our lives and all that is in them to God for the sake of Jesus who rendered Himself to us.

Satan seeks to entangle you in this world, but Jesus has cut through those entanglements for you. By His death He has opened the gates of heaven for you. Satan, this world, and the debates and controversies that rage on cannot hold you or entangle you. You belong to Christ. In Jesus name. Amen.

A Generous Invitation

Text: Matthew 22:1-14

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

This morning in our gospel reading Jesus gives us two very solemn warnings in the parable of the wedding feast. They are warnings that we all ought to take to heart. Beyond those warnings, however, Jesus is also telling us a beautiful fundamental truth about God our Father. Each of these needs to be considered in turn.

First let’s talk about the warnings. In this parable that Jesus tells there is a father who is giving a wedding feast for his son. This father also happens to be a king. That means that this is no ordinary, run of the mill, wedding. This is a royal wedding. It might not quite live up to the big royal wedding a few years ago in England, but that event might help give you some idea what is going on here. It’s a big wedding.

As Jesus tells the parable the big day is here. It is now time for the wedding feast. The king sends out his servants to gather in the guests who have been invited. They had all received invitations, but now they need to be told that everything is ready. It is time for them to come to the feast. So servants go out to bring in the guests, but something strange happens. The guests won’t come to the feast. For some reason they simply refuse to come to the wedding.

The king is baffled by this. Why won’t the guests come to the wedding? Who would reject the invitation of a king like that? Who would turn down such a marvelous banquet? There has to be some kind of misunderstanding. So the king sends out the servants again (different ones this time just in case that might help) to bring the invited guests in for the feast.

Like the servants before them, these servants go out to bring the guests in. “Everything is ready,” they say, “The dinner is prepared. The finest animals the king owns have been slaughtered, prepared, and cooked. A truly remarkable feast is waiting for you. Come.” But again, the guests who have been invited refuse to come in. Jesus says that they “paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized the servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.”

Understandably, the king is angry. Not only have those who were invited to the feast killed the king’s servants (as if that were not bad enough on its own!) but they also continue to refuse to come to his feast. The king has laid this generous offer before them inviting them into his own home to feast with him and celebrate with him the marriage of his son, but they could not care less. So, in response to what his wicked and rebellious subjects have done, the king sends out his army to punish and destroy those who killed his servants and those who refused to come to the feast that he had prepared.

This is the first warning for you and me today: Do not spurn, reject, or shun the generous invitation of the Lord your God. The king in the story is God. God has invited us to His feast, the marriage feast of His Son, the eternal feast in heaven. He has invited us to that same feast and continues to call us, but our sinful hearts are inclined to decline the invitation. Instead, we become preoccupied with other things.

Notice in the parable what the people who rejected the invitation were doing. Aside from the ones who killed the king’s servants, the others were all just too busy to come. Some went off to their farms, Jesus said, and others to their businesses. Farms and business are not bad things, but these other things, day to day life things, seemed more important to them than heeding the king’s call to come to the feast. So the question falls to us, what stands between us and the Lord’s call to come to His feast? Is life too busy? Are other things more important right now? Would we let such trivial things come between us and the great feast that the Lord our God has prepared for us? That would be foolishness. That is warning #1.

Now warning #2. After the first list of guests all refuse to come to the feast the king sends out his servants for a third time. This time he sends them out to the street corners, the gates of the city, the highways and the byways, to bring in everyone that they can find. They catch the attention of random strangers walking by and they invite them in to the marvelous banquet that is ready and waiting. These guests, the ones who were not invited originally, they do come. They gladly come to the feast that the king has prepared. Never in their wildest dreams did they ever think that they would be invited to a celebration like this! Who in their right mind could decline an invitation like that! The wedding hall is filled with guests.

The king, after all of these guests have been brought in from the highways and street corners, comes down to check on how they are all doing and see this motely crowd that has gathered in his banquet hall. But as he looks at the crowd one man stands out from the rest. None of them are wearing the latest fashions, none of them have the kind of fine clothing that the king’s original guests likely would have had if they had bothered to come, all of these people came in from the street, but this one man is different. His clothing is terrible. He is filthy. He didn’t even bother to change into something clean before he came to the feast. The king might have even had clothing ready for these unexpected guests to change into, good wedding clothes, but this guy didn’t bother getting changed. He didn’t think it mattered. To make matters worse, when the king confronts him about it this man has nothing to say. He doesn’t even say, “I’m sorry, please forgive me” or offer to go change. He just stands there. So the king has him thrown out of the wedding feast.

This is the second warning for you and me today: Do not abuse the generosity of the Lord your God who has invited you to His wedding banquet. Let me be perfectly clear about this, this part of the story is not about clothing and what we wear. It is about our lives and how we live. This man understood the generosity of the king and assumed that generosity meant that he did not need to change out of his filthy clothes. We know of our Lord’s generosity as well, His forgiveness that has no end, His steadfast love the endures forever, that generosity and that forgiveness and that love is not an excuse, however, to not change out of the filthy, dirty, sinful rags of our lives and be transformed into the people of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s forgiveness for us, His love for us, is not an excuse to keep on living in sin. We are called to live a new life, to put our wedding clothes on. To put on the new clothes that God provides. To do anything less would be to abuse and take advantage of God’s generosity and love. That is warning #2.

The warnings we hear in this parable are strongly worded. The king’s reaction to the people who do not come to his banquet and the way he casts out the man who entered the feast without wedding clothes might seem harsh and heavy handed. Maybe it seems that God in this parable is just and angry king who hands out punishment after punishment. But there is more going on here than just warnings and punishments.

The most important part of this parable is generous invitation that the king continues to extend time after time to everyone who will listen. After the invited guests refuse his first invitation the king invites them again. The king desperately wants his guests to come enjoy his feast. Then, when those original guests refuse and demonstrate by their actions that they have no love for the king at all, the king flings his doors wide open to everyone and anyone. The good and the bad, Jesus says. Everyone is welcome in the marriage feast that the king is throwing for his son.

This constant, repeated generous invitation is what we learn about God our Father in this story. He invites time and time again. He calls time and time again. He does not desire the death of any sinner. He does not want anyone to be left outside the wedding feast. He come again and again to each and every one of us with the simple invitation to come into his wedding feast.

This invitation, the Father’s invitation for us to come to His feast, is the whole reason that Jesus came into the world. Jesus came into this world to be our invitation into the feast. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, the “bad” people of His day. He ate with Pharisees and religious teachers, the “good” people of His day. He eats with you and me, just as we are, when we gather at His table and eat and drink His body and blood. He came to bring us into the feast. And then, when the world (you and I included) demonstrated most clearly that we had no interest in His offer, when He was sent to be crucified, when He was treated Him shamefully and when He was killed, He was in fact making a place for us at the feast. Covering us with His own blood so that we would have wedding garments (garments provided by Jesus himself, not something we bought or brought from home), so that we would be fully prepared for the feast in the kingdom of God that will have no end.

This generosity, the generosity of a loving, forgiving king who reaches out again and again to lost sinners like us is the real meaning of this story. This king is your King. He is your God. And in His steadfast love He is reaching out to you today with His love and forgiveness for the sake of our Lord Jesus. Thanks be to God in Jesus name. Amen.