Monday, October 26, 2020

Monday of Trinity 20

 The Fruitful Vineyard

Matthew 21:33-46 (ESV) Jesus said, “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “ ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
In the Gospel for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, Jesus tells a parable condemning the legalistic Jewish rulers and everyone who relies on his own righteousness to be saved. He shows that everyone who trusts in his own righteousness actually rejects God’s Son and His bloody sacrifice on the cross. Everyone who tries to save himself is committing violence against none other than Christ Himself.
Jesus says, “There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country.” Often in the Old Testament, Israel is depicted as a vineyard and God is the owner. God chose Israel out of every nation to be His vineyard. He said that they were the chosen race from whom the Messiah would come. He rescued them from oppressive slavery in Egypt and promised to be their God. All He asked was that they not chase after false gods but live in faith, under His gracious covenant. Yet time and again the people strayed. The leaders of Israel were no better than the masses; actually, they were worse. They forgot God’s mercy, ignored His promises, and disobeyed His commands.
But the Lord expected better; He was looking for the fruit of faithfulness and good works from His chosen people, and that is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “When the season for fruit drew near, [the master of the vineyard] sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.” Apparently the lease payments were some of the fruits of the vineyard. These servants represent one of the Old Testament prophets. The Lord of the vineyard repeatedly sent prophets to call Israel to repentance, to speak on behalf of the Lord and tell the people to return to Him. Their message was simple: “If you repent and return to faith in the Lord, He will forgive you and bless you. If you reject Him and continue to chase after false gods and sin, you will be condemned.”
So how did Israel respond to the prophets, God’s servants? In the parable Jesus says, “The tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” In other words, Israel rejected the message of the prophets and often times beat and killed them to show their rejection. Yet God did not give up on His people after one try. Jesus continues, “Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.” These servants represent the hundreds of prophets God sent over the centuries. “Repent, repent, repent and the Lord will forgive you,” they cried over and over again. “Return to the Lord because He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast Love,” they pleaded. But all of these prophets, every last one of them down to John the Baptist, was met with rejection, often accompanied by physical violence and even death.
Jesus goes on, “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” Is the owner insane? Hasn’t He seen what happened to all the other servants? Why would He send His beloved Son to face such evildoers? How could a loving Father place His Son in such grave danger? But that’s exactly what He does, sending His Son to face certain suffering and death.
Jesus continues, “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” As we could have predicted, the tenants won’t listen to the Son, but they even up the ante. They say to themselves, “If we kill the one who is supposed to inherit this vineyard, perhaps the owner will give up and we’ll get to keep it for ourselves.” So they threw Him out of the vineyard and killed Him.
Within a few days of Jesus telling this parable, He would be led out of Jerusalem, bearing His own cross, and taken to Golgotha, just outside the city. The heir of the vineyard, the beloved, only-begotten Son, Jesus, King of the Jews, Messiah of Israel, was sent to a bloody death by the tenants of the vineyard, the Jewish religious leaders. He was a threat to their authority over the people, and His preaching of grace and mercy undermined their obsession with the law, so they attempted to rip the vineyard from the owner’s hands by force.
Yet this was exactly what the Father had planned all along. He used the tenants’ wickedness to bring about the redemption of the whole world. If I were the owner of the vineyard, I would have given up long before sending my son. I would have hired a mercenary force to go in and wipe out those thuggish tenants. But what does God do? He sends His Son to die for the tenants and all other people, to win forgiveness of sins and eternal life for them. Astonishing, inconceivable, profligate love! Yet this is our merciful God! The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). He suffered outside Jerusalem in order to satisfy justice. He placated God’s wrath toward sinners. He was the perfect, innocent one who suffered in the place of the guilty. He died for you.
In Isaiah 55, the LORD says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” We often assume that these words mean that God is a lot smarter than we are, so we should not question Him. True enough. But even more, the LORD is talking about His mercy and how He wants to deal with us. He says, “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” When God says He is far above our ways and thoughts, He means that He isn’t interested in following sinful human ideas of justice, nor does He allow people to justify themselves, but that His mercy is beyond what we could ever imagine, for He loves us so much that He gives up His beloved Son into death, to suffer what we by our sins deserved.
Prayer (LSB 955):
Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord,
And fill to the brim our cup of blessing.
Gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown,
That we may be fed with the bread of life.
Gather the hopes and the dreams of all;
Unite them with the prayers we offer now.
Grace our table with Your presence, and give us
A foretaste of the feast to come. Amen.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Saturday of Trinity 19

 Great Awakenings

Matthew 11:25-30 (ESV) At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

There are at least three eras in American history that have been labeled a “Great Awakening” of religious practice, when supposedly lethargic Christians awakened to new religious zeal. It is important for us to understand the history of these great awakenings, since they account for a lot of the peculiar practices among American denominations. By critiquing these so-called great awakenings, we can see how they have led churches down the wrong path.
The first great awakening started in the American colonies in the 1730s-1740s among the mostly Calvinist churches; you probably have heard of Jonathan Edwards and his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, which is a perfect representation of the nature of the first great awakening. The second great awakening ran from the late 1700s through the mid-1800s; it crossed the country through the work of mostly Baptist and Methodist revivalist preachers who held camp meetings to stir up religious fervor. And the third great awakening ran from the late 1850s through the early 1900s and produced a flurry of new denominations, such as the Pentecostals and Nazarenes.
One of the common threads running through all of these great awakenings is that preachers more and more appealed to the emotions of their audiences and tried to get them stirred up to action by manipulation rather than by simply letting God’s Word do its work. Generally speaking, before the great awakenings, Christians sermons had been focused on teaching God’s Word faithfully and calling people to repentance, with the recognition that people do have the ability to reject the call and go their own way. The preachers of the great awakenings weren’t satisfied with this sort of preaching since they thought it was too focused on appealing to the mind, the human intellect. Instead, they thought that preaching should appeal to human emotions, to feelings, to try to get people to make a decision to change their lives so that they would be more committed to God, or more morally responsible, or more active in addressing social problems, or even committed to totally avoiding things like drinking, dancing, and card-playing.
During the first great awakening, the preaching emphasized the horrors of hell and tried to scare people straight, but the sermons weren’t presented in what we might call a hellfire-and-brimstone style. Instead, people like Jonathan Edwards preached in a calm manner, with relatively little gesturing and voice fluctuation. But even without theatrics, his sermon was interrupted repeatedly by people moaning and crying out, “What must I do to be saved?”, so it clearly had been designed to get people to feel really scared and desperate.
But after the first great awakening, the preachers combined a hellfire-and-brimstone message with a hellfire-and-brimstone style: they got more and more theatrical, more and more rowdy, more and more willing to shout and work their crowds up into a frenzy. They rejected the use of the historic liturgy because they said it was too formal and unemotional. They shied away from using traditional hymns that were sung in a reverent manner and exchanged them for emotional revival songs that brought tears to people’s eyes and softened them up so that they could make their decision for Jesus and rededicate their lives to the Lord. The revivalists wanted people to have a personal experience of God’s presence with them and in them.
It is important to understand this history of religion in our country because it shows why faithful Lutherans have never felt quite at home in this land of diverse and strange religions. Throughout American history, conservative, confessional Lutherans have always been skeptical of and critical of great awakenings and revivalism because we believe that God’s Word accomplishes its purposes in our lives without preachers manipulating our emotions or playing music that makes us feel like God is present in our hearts.
It is a shame that many so-called Lutheran churches today are embracing a lot of the revivalist techniques in their preaching and worship, since none of the great awakenings that happened in our country were truly biblical awakenings. Thanks be to God that He has preserved many of our Lutheran congregations from the errors and excesses of revivalism, but we must always be on guard! The greatest temptation for congregations that do have God’s Word and Sacraments administered purely, and that do worship the Lord rightly, is that we become complacent and so familiar with what we have that we don’t appreciate how amazing God’s gifts in the Divine Service are.

For these things we must repent, and so that we may awaken to what our Lord would have us believe, and how He would have us worship, we need to have the great awakening that Jacob did in Genesis 28: that is, the revelation that we don’t seek God, but that He seeks us out, reveals Himself to us by Him coming and speaking to us, and when He speaks, the words that He really wants us to hear are His Gospel promises, promises that are true and faithful no matter whether they are whispered or shouted or read. And in response, we can exclaim about our Divine Service, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Prayer (LSB 585):
1. Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide,
For round us falls the eventide.
O let Your Word, that saving light,
Shine forth undimmed into the night.
2. In these last days of great distress
Grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness
That we keep pure till life is spent
Your holy Word and Sacrament.
3. To hope grown dim, to hearts turned cold
Speak tongues of fire and make us bold
To shine Your Word of saving grace
Into each dark and loveless place.
4. May glorious truths that we have heard,
The bright sword of Your mighty Word,
Spurn Satan that Your Church be strong,
Bold, unified in act and song.
5. Restrain, O Lord, the human pride
That seeks to thrust Your truth aside
Or with some man-made thoughts or things
Would dim the words Your Spirit sings.
6. Stay with us, Lord, and keep us true;
Preserve our faith our whole life through—
Your Word alone our heart’s defense,
The Church’s glorious confidence. Amen.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Friday of Trinity 19

 The Jesus Ladder

John 1:43-51 (ESV) The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Yesterday, we learned about Jacob’s dream about the ladder (or stairway) to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it, culminating with the exclamation, ““Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” When Jacob’s offspring, Jesus the Christ, came, He showed Himself to be not only the House of God on earth but also the ladder or stairway to heaven that Jacob saw in his dream.
In John 1, Jesus tells His disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The LORD who came down the ladder to visit Jacob has now come in the flesh to save His people. He is the One in charge of the angels who watch over God’s people. He is the One who sends them to watch over us. And He is the gateway to heaven, for on the cross in His flesh He paid for all of our sins and then rose on Easter Sunday to open the Kingdom of Heaven for all believers.
And this Risen LORD Jesus still steps down from heaven today in His Word and Sacraments, as He had done for Jacob, for He comes to dwell with us in His Church and speak His Gospel promises to us. In Holy Baptism, God brings us into His household, making us part of Christ’s Body, the Holy Christian Church, where week in and week out He speaks His saving Word through His called and ordained preacher. When we have sinned and gone astray from our Lord, we confess our sins and receive Holy Absolution, which forgives our sins and opens again the gate to heaven. And Jesus comes down to us in His very body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, where He feeds us with the same sacrificial offering that He made to the Father once and all for the forgiveness of all of your sins.
Yet it requires faith, not sight, to realize these truths. If we look at the Church only with our eyes, we see a sinful man preaching seemingly ineffective words, we see a little bit of water, we see bread and wine. If we look at the Church only with our emotions, we find that we don’t have a mystical experience of God’s presence with us; we can’t feel Him in speech or in music. But if we take our Lord at His Word and recognize that He is truly present with us as our Savior in His Word and Sacraments, where He has promised to be and where He wants us to find Him, then we, like Jacob can shout out in amazement, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
And so, Jesus says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and everything else will be given to you.” Seek out His presence and promises, for they are the greatest gifts we could receive this side of heaven, and they give us a taste of the good things yet to come. And we too may pray with the Psalmist, “How lovely is Your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God…Blessed are those who dwell in Your house, ever singing Your praise!...For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84, passim).
The LORD has done much better for us, since we aren’t merely doorkeepers in His house but are His beloved children, redeemed by Christ and adopted in Holy Baptism. So don’t run away from home, but gladly dwell in His Church and continue to receive your LORD’s gracious presence and promises!
Prayer (LSB 651):
1. I love Your kingdom, Lord,
    The place of Your abode,
The Church our blest Redeemer saved
    With His own precious blood.
2. Beyond my highest joy
    I prize its heav’nly ways,
Its sweet communion, solemn vows,
    Its hymns of love and praise.
3. I love Your Church, O God,
    Your saints in ev’ry land,
Dear as the apple of Your eye
    And graven on Your hand.
4. For them my tears shall fall;
    For them my prayers ascend;
For them my cares and toils be giv’n
    Till toils and cares shall end.
5. Sure as Your truth shall last,
    To Zion shall be giv’n
The brightest glories earth can yield
    And brighter bliss of heav’n. Amen.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Thursday of Trinity 19

 House of God, Gate of Heaven

Genesis 28:10-17 (ESV) Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
In the verses leading up to the Old Testament reading for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, Jacob had just finished stealing Isaac’s birthright from Esau, and he was on his way out of Canaan back to his mother’s land in order to find a wife among his kinfolk, not among the pagan Canaanites. It was a long journey, and the last person he expected to meet was the LORD. As sundown drew near, he knew he had to find a place to spend the night, since travel in the dark was impossible. So in an unnamed place, he laid down to sleep and started to dream.
Clearly this dream was a special revelation from the LORD to Jacob; it does not set up a pattern that we should look for the LORD to come to us in dreams, since this was a unique event God performed for one of the patriarchs. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder—or the Hebrew could also be translated as “stairway”—going from earth up to heaven. God’s angels were ascending and descending on the steps. Then the LORD appeared to Jacob, and the Hebrew could be translated either that he was at the top of the stairway or right beside Jacob. I think it makes more sense and is more comforting to read that the LORD had come down the stairs and was right next to Jacob, since after the fact, Jacob says that the LORD was in that very place on earth.
Either way, the most important things is that the LORD comes down to speak to Jacob, affirming that the LORD, the God of Abraham and Isaac will keep His promises to them by continuing the Messianic line through Jacob. Six times the LORD says that He will perform blessings on Jacob, and not once does the LORD command Jacob to do anything. To put it another way, the LORD comes to preach all Gospel and no Law to Jacob. Then after the dream Jacob awoke from sleep and realized, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” That is, Jacob didn’t know that the LORD was there until He came in the dream and started speaking promises to him. At this point, Jacob was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
This is a grand realization that Jacob and we Lutherans share: while God is indeed everywhere, the only place we have access to Him is when He seeks us out and comes to us. While God is truly omnipresent, He doesn’t want us to find Him in our emotions or inside ourselves or in any sort of personal experience, but He wants us to find Him in His Word, where He speaks to us about how He feels about us and where we can find Him and have access to His grace, mercy, and peace.
The LORD came down the stairs there to be with Jacob and share with him the same promise that He had made to Abraham and Isaac before: that their Offspring, their Seed, the Messiah or Christ, would be a blessing to all people of the earth, and that in the meantime the LORD would give His people the Promised Land as a place where He would dwell with them and continue to speak.
In the verses after this reading, Jacob renames the place of his dream “Bethel,” which means “House of God.” (No surprise that many churches have named themselves “Bethel Lutheran Church,” is it?). There at Bethel, the House of God, the gate of heaven, Jacob promises to build an altar to the LORD. This event points forward to the LORD coming to Israel to dwell above the altar in His houses in Israel, first in the tabernacle and later at the Jerusalem Temple, and then eventually in the flesh of Christ, which is the New Testament Tabernacle and Temple of God.
Prayer (LSB 916):
1. Only-begotten, Word of God eternal,
Lord of creation, merciful and mighty:
Hear us, Your servants, as our tuneful voices
    Rise in Your presence.
2. Holy this temple where our Lord is dwelling;
This is none other than the gate of heaven.
Ever Your children, year by year rejoicing,
    Chant in Your temple.
 3. Hear us, O Father, as we throng Your temple.
By Your past blessings, by Your present bounty,
Smile on Your children, and in grace and mercy
    Hear our petition.
4. God in three persons, Father everlasting,
Son coeternal, ever bless├Ęd Spirit:
To You be praises, thanks, and adoration,
    Glory forever. Amen.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Monday of Trinity 19

 Licensed to Forgive

Matthew 9:1-8 (ESV) And getting into a boat, Jesus crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

Jesus forgives sins. That’s not such a strange proposition, is it? We Christians should be quite comfortable with the idea. But the scribes weren’t. They would have nothing to do with such a teaching. When Jesus said to the paralytic, “Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven!” the scribes looked on with horror. “No human has the power to forgive sins!” they muttered among themselves. “This man is blaspheming!”

The scribes were right about one thing: only God has the power in Himself to forgive sins. The power to forgive belongs to God alone, so a mere man trying to forgive sins on his own authority would clearly be making Himself equal with God. This would have been blasphemy if Jesus were not truly the Incarnate Son of God, who had the power to forgive in Himself. The scribes could not accept this, for they refused to believe that Jesus was the forgiving God in the flesh.

Yet Jesus, the Son of God, could see right into the evil thoughts of the scribes in a way that only God can. He saw the wretched unbelief of their hearts, and their schemes against Him. And He brought the Kingdom of God among them anyway!

Jesus showed the presence of God’s Kingdom when He forgave the paralytic’s sins and made him walk. Jesus certainly wanted to relieve the man’s physical burden, but above all Jesus wanted to show through His Words and actions that His great Kingdom of forgiveness and healing had come. It was not possible for anyone to see sins being forgiven, so Jesus demonstrated His license to forgive by means of a miracle.

Jesus had already given the paralytic the most important gift of all, the forgiveness of sins, when He had proclaimed the Holy Absolution: “Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven!” This forgiveness gave the man salvation, true spiritual healing. Then Jesus showed that His forgiveness was truly God’s forgiveness by healing the man. The creative Word of Jesus made the Kingdom present for that sinful paralytic. His Word brought about the healing, just as it had brought about the forgiveness. By healing the paralytic, Jesus demonstrated His power and license to forgive, and He pointed forward to the healing that He still delivers in the Church to you today through the forgiveness of sins given in the Gospel, in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion.

But forgiveness of sins is not easy; it comes at a great price. The book of Hebrews says, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” In the Old Testament, God ordained that He would not forgive sins without an atonement being made; no sacrifice, no forgiveness. So when Jesus asked the scribes, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Rise and walk?” we can answer that question with the benefit of hindsight, with the benefit of the full revelation of the Gospel. Miracles are easy for God, but we know that the forgiveness of that paralytic and the forgiveness of our sins could only be accomplished with great pain and effort by the death of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who came to earth to save sinners.

Jesus had the authority to lay down His life to earn the forgiveness of your sins, but He also had the authority to take His life up again. The Resurrection of Jesus established that all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth, even the license to forgive sins and open the Kingdom of Heaven to lost and condemned sinners through the Office of the Keys. Before His Ascension, the Resurrected Lord stood upon the mountain in Galilee and told His disciples to go forth into the world, teaching and Baptizing in His Name, proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins in His Name. Jesus sent forth these men to distribute the fruits of His suffering, death, and Resurrection to all nations. What is truly amazing is that Jesus delegated His license to forgive sins to these men so that His righteousness and salvation could be given out through the Word and Sacraments in His Church.

The license to distribute Christ’s forgiveness to sinners continued to be delegated to other men after the apostles were sent out. In every place where the apostles visited and established congregations, they set apart men to serve as pastors, men who were called into the Office of the Holy Ministry in order to proclaim and deliver Christ’s forgiveness through the Means of Grace. Today, Jesus still authorizes rightly called pastors of His Church to deliver forgiveness publicly through those same Means of Grace, and He authorizes you to believe that this forgiveness “is just as valid, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself” (Small Catechism).

In fact, Jesus gave the Office of the Keys to the whole Church, so you are authorized to use the keys with your fellow Christians. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” St. James says that we are to confess our sins to one another and forgive one another. The Key of heaven, God the Son, came down to earth in flesh and blood to win the keys of heaven for everyone. He gave them to Christians to use privately and to his pastors to use publicly, and our keys should be shiny from getting used so much.

Prayer: Almighty, everlasting God, for our many sins we justly deserve eternal condemnation. In Your mercy You sent Your dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who won for us forgiveness of sins and everlasting salvation. Grant us a true confession that, dead to sin, we may be raised up by Your life-giving absolution. Grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may be ever watchful and live true and godly lives in Your service; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Tuesday/Wednesday of Trinity 18

 Of First Importance

1 Corinthians 15:1-18 (ESV) Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

One of my brother pastors was teaching a Bible Class on Luther’s Large Catechism and asked his class, “Why do you think Luther put the Ten Commandments first in the Catechism, and the Apostles’ Creed second.” One of his members replied, “Because the Ten Commandments were given by God, but the Creed was produced by men.”

But try that answer out on St. Paul, who gives us the heart and soul of the Creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 —“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Sound familiar? The divinely inspired St. Paul writes to us the central portion of the Creed almost verbatim, and he describes this “as of first importance,” the most important truth in all the world.

Yes, more important even than the Ten Commandments. And here is why: St. Paul in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch recounts the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and then he says: “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39).” That is, if you want to be justified by God, to be declared righteous, holy, forgiven, saved—then it can only come through faith in the doctrine of the Second Article of the Creed, not from obedience to the Ten Commandments; salvation only comes from the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, not from “the Law of Moses”!

The reason Dr. Luther puts the Ten Commandments first in the Catechism is a logical ordering, not an ordering of importance or to imply that while the Ten Commandments are from God, the Creed is just from men. No, the Ten Commandments are given first to show us our sins and to teach us that we cannot be justified by obedience to the Law. The Commandments must first preach to us to drive us to despair of our own righteousness and instead acknowledge our utter sinfulness. Then we realize how desperate our situation is—we learn how all who rely on the Ten Commandments for salvation are in fact dead in their sins, condemned to hell. As St. Paul says, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). May God forbid that! So we desperately need the most important Word of God, the Gospel, to step in to save us and show us that the death of Jesus is a life-giving one.

Today more than ever it is essential for us to boldly proclaim the Creed that contains the Gospel that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, was truly was crucified, died, was buried, and rose as of first importance. Religions that hold the Law as of first importance have always been and always will be, but they cannot save. In response we must continue to confess the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, the testimony from God that all of our hopes hang on the cross, the body laid in the tomb, and that empty tomb on Easter morn, which testifies that Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Prayer (LSB 548):

1. Thanks to Thee, O Christ, victorious!
    Thanks to Thee, O Lord of Life!
Death hath now no power o’er us,
    Thou hast conquered in the strife.
Thanks because Thou didst arise
And hast opened paradise!
    None can fully sing the glory
    Of the resurrection story.
2. Thou hast died for my transgression,
    All my sins on Thee were laid;
Thou hast won for me salvation,
    On the cross my debt was paid.
From the grave I shall arise
And shall meet Thee in the skies.
    Death itself is transitory;
    I shall lift my head in glory.
3. For the joy Thine advent gave me,
    For Thy holy, precious Word;
For Thy Baptism, which doth save me,
    For Thy blest Communion board;
For Thy death, the bitter scorn,
For Thy resurrection morn,
    Lord, I thank Thee and extol Thee,
    And in heav’n I shall behold Thee. Amen.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Monday of Trinity 18

 True Unity in the Cross

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 (ESV) I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The church in Corinth was falling apart. Paul had founded this congregation on the solid foundation of the Gospel, but now factionalism was threatening to undo everything. So Paul says in the Epistle for the 18th Sunday after Trinity, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

To address the divisions in the Corinthian congregation, Paul basically says: “You are all children of God in Christ Jesus; now start behaving like it! Agree on the doctrine I taught you; don’t be divided over petty things and personality differences; be united under God’s Word as I have preached it and as you have learned it from the Holy Scriptures.”

Notice that Paul doesn’t just say, “Can’t we all get along? Can’t we just put our differences aside?” He says that everyone in a congregation needs to be one in mind and judgment. Those aren’t arbitrary things. He doesn’t give us permission to believe and do whatever we want. In the Christian church, we aren’t all entitled to our own opinions about doctrine. Our unity has to be based in God’s Word, and there is no room for disagreements about the doctrines of Scripture. In other words, believing what the Bible teaches is not negotiable in a congregation, and public disagreements about doctrine cannot be tolerated, even if that means someone has to leave.

Throughout Paul’s letters to congregations, he repeatedly appeals to them to be united under the common doctrine taught to them and also to live at peace with one another through love and forgiveness. To the church at Rome, Paul wrote, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:15-18)

In the church at Corinth, reconciliation was needed. The members had split out into various factions and were quarrelling about which group was the right one to be in. One group said, “We follow Paul.” Another, “We follow Apollos (who was a preacher known for his eloquence, as we learn in Acts).” Another, “We follow Cephas (that is, Peter, another apostle).” And finally, one group said, “We follow Christ.”

When Paul sets out to restore peace to the congregation at Corinth, what does he do? He preaches Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world. Paul takes the attention off of Paul and Apollos and Peter and all the people, and fixes their eyes on the cross. The cross humbles us and keeps us from thinking we’re in control of our salvation, or that this is somehow our own church to tinker with. The cross says to us, “This church belongs to the Lord, because He’s the one who bought it with His own blood.”

But most importantly, on the cross we see that peace has been made between God and us; the word of the cross proclaims forgiveness of sins into our ears, and so also offers us the freedom to live at peace with one another in the church. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we believe that God freely forgives us for Christ’s sake, then we too will gladly forgive those who sin against us. We will be reconciled with each other when sins have divided us.

Embrace the word of cross of Jesus Christ, which saves you and puts you at peace with God and one another. That is where our true unity lies: in Jesus Christ’s cross, by which we have died to the world and the world has died to us. And that unity is one that lasts beyond the grave and extends forever.


Prayer (LSB 617:3):
May God bestow on us His grace and favor
That we follow Christ our Savior
And live together here in love and union
Nor despise this blest Communion!
    O Lord, have mercy!
Let not Thy good Spirit forsake us;
Grant that heav’nly-minded He make us;
Give Thy Church, Lord, to see
Days of peace and unity:
    O Lord, have mercy! Amen.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Friday/Saturday of Trinity 17

 Pray for Wisdom

1 Kings 3:1-15 (ESV) Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt. He took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the LORD and the wall around Jerusalem. The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the LORD. Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places. And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place. Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” And Solomon awoke, and behold, it was a dream. Then he came to Jerusalem and stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings, and made a feast for all his servants.

Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 3:6-9 is a model of gratefulness and humility as he responds to the Lord’s gracious invitation to ask for a gift (3:5). It begins with praise of God for His steadfast covenant love toward Solomon’s father David, recounting what He has graciously done in the past and is still doing for Solomon now. Then he confesses his weakness and inability to serve Israel without the Lord’s help, so he asks the Lord for “an understanding mind to govern” God’s people with discernment between good and evil.

An unbelieving king would ask for “long life or riches or the life” of his enemies (1 Kings 3:11); in other words, a selfish request. But remarkably, Solomon asked for something that would specifically benefit his neighbor: a mind instructed by godly wisdom.

We can learn from Solomon to focus our prayers on the needs of others. This does not mean that we neglect to pray for our own needs (we do this in the Lord’s Prayer), but even the things we ask for ourselves should have the goal of serving our neighbor. St. Paul supports this when he says, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

The Lord was pleased with Solomon’s request, so He multiplied His blessings on Solomon. Jesus promises the same to His followers: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). This does not mean that we seek God’s Kingdom as it comes to us in the Word and Sacraments with the intention of gaining benefits for ourselves—that would be selfish! Rather, we seek the Lord’s grace and mercy in the church, and He superabundantly provides for our every need.

Before Solomon was granted a “listening heart” by the Lord, he would frequent the high place in Gibeon, where he “used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar” (1 Kings 3:4). But with his newfound godly wisdom, Solomon sought out the place where the Lord had promised to dwell: in Jerusalem, above the ark of the covenant of the Lord.

Old Testament sacrifices were never meritorious; they did not earn God’s favor. Solomon’s sacrifices at the ark were thank-offerings, expressions of gratitude to the Lord for His mercies. He offered sacrifices in order to “Praise the Lord!” as the Psalmist encourages us to do in Psalm 116:12-19:

“What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD, I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD. I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!”

And then he held a feast for all his servants, celebrating the Lord’s goodness! We too gather for a feast each Sunday in the Lord’s house, gladly receiving the Bread of Life, lifting up the Cup of salvation, and calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus!

Prayer: Almighty and merciful God, by Your gift alone Your faithful people render true and laudable service. Help us steadfastly to live in this life according to Your promises and finally attain Your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Wednesday/Thursday of Trinity 17

 Strength in God, not in Numbers

1 Kings 18:17-24, 36-40 (ESV) When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.”…

And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.

If Israel’s fate had been in the hands of democracy, the vote would have been: prophets of Baal, 450; Elijah, 1! As it was, Israel was a theocracy, with Elijah as the Lord’s appointed prophet, so the Lord’s will eventually would prevail. Yet Israel had become captivated by the “strength in numbers” of the Baal and Asherah prophets.

As Christians, we are free to defend democracy as the best form of public governance (or even the governance of congregations through voters’ assemblies), but we can never apply a “strength in numbers” philosophy to Christian doctrine, which is strictly defined only by the Holy Scriptures, God’s inspired and inerrant Word. As a favorite saying among Christian reformers in the Middle Ages and Reformation went, a simple layman with a clear text of Scripture could stand against a false teaching of even the Pope!

We also must be wary of drawing conclusions from numbers in religion, as if the fastest-growing sect must be “doing something right” that the rest are not. A growth-analysis of the “churches” of Baal and Asherah would have been quite impressive in Elijah’s day! No one is opposed to the true church growing, but we must be careful to preserve and teach the true and saving doctrine of the Bible, and then let the Lord do the work through His Word as we share the Gospel with our neighbors. “Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given [John 20:22]. He works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3:8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake” (Augsburg Confession, Article V, Concordia, 33).

The only true growth in numbers comes from conversion and repentance, which involves fear, love, and trust in God above all things. The Israelites went from apathy toward the Lord to fear after He exposed Baal as nothing and revealed His incredible power. They were brought to their knees, and onto their faces! Yet this response was not yet true love or trust in God, but only fear. And not just filial fear (as children respect their parents) but servile fear (as a slave cowers at the sight of an abusive slaveholder). It would take further teaching and preaching by Elijah and other prophets to restore the people to a right worship of God, entailing fear, love, and trust in Him above all things.

Our Lord Jesus Christ has rescued us from servile fear by “taking the form of a servant” and “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). Since He has set us free from sin, we fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. At the name of Jesus, our knees bow (or at least our hearts do!) and tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God our loving Father (2:9-11). On the Last Day, believers will already be kneeling when He returns, but unbelievers will be like those Israelites in Elijah’s day: they will be brought low in fear and trembling, and their confession of Christ will not be one of love and trust. They will be lost, for their worship lacked faith in God’s mercy, through which we are saved.

Prayer: Lord God, heavenly Father, through the prophet Elijah, You continued the prophetic pattern of teaching Your people the true faith and demonstrating through miracles Your presence in creation to heal it of its brokenness. Grant that Your Church may see in Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the final end-times prophet whose teaching and miracles continue in Your Church through the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Tuesday of Trinity 17

 Easy as 1-2-3

Ephesians 4:1-6 (ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

In medical care, numbers like oxygen saturation percentage, heart rate, and blood pressure are key indicators of health. In the business world, numbers such net assets or net income are crucial measures of success. But in the Christian church, statistics about numerical growth or average attendance are not necessarily key metrics of health or success.

Just read the New Testament. The Lord makes clear that He does not gauge success on external results and counting. In the Parables of the Sower (Mt 13:1–5; Mk 4:1–12;  Lk 8:4–10) and the Growing Seed (Mk 4:26–29), the sower scatters the Seed of the Gospel all over the place, but then doesn’t fret about the results. God produces results. “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how” (Mk 4:26–27).

St. Paul says basically the same thing in 1 Corinthians 3:6–7: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” The garden and the growth belong to the Lord. So we as Christians are not called to achieve outward success by our own efforts, but rather be faithful to the Gospel and the truth of God’s Word.

In truth, the Christian approach to numbers is easy as 1-2-3. In Christianity, the most important numbers are one and three, with two thrown in for good measure. St. Paul wrote in our Epistle for Trinity 17, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Elsewhere he said, “There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6).

Our one Lord Jesus Christ has revealed to us the one name of God, who is three indivisible Persons. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). Three Persons, one Name placed upon us in Holy Baptism, and the one crucified and risen Lord Jesus present with us forever. Three and one: those are the numbers that count.

But Jesus also throws in two for good measure. The one Lord Jesus Christ has told His church, “Where two or three have been gathered together in My name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). When Jesus is here, the Savior of the world is here, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is here, the King of kings and Lord of lords is here, the whole kingdom of heaven is here, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—all here. When Jesus is present with us, He who has died to achieve forgiveness of all of your sins, you lack nothing. In fact, “all things are yours” (1 Corinthians 3:21), and “all” is beyond any sort of counting!

Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, give us an increase of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what You have promised, make us love what You have commanded; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Monday of Trinity 17

 Opposition to the Proud, Grace for the Humble

Luke 14:7-11 (ESV) Now Jesus told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

A prominent and wealthy Pharisee gave a dinner, and Jesus made it a parable acted out in real life. What is striking is that a Pharisee had invited Jesus at all and that He accepted the invitation. Throughout His ministry Jesus was at odds with the Pharisees, especially with their belief that a person could be saved by obeying the Law. The fact that Jesus accepted the invitation tells us something about Jesus and His Father in heaven. Jesus was a socially indiscriminate person. So is God. Jesus fraternized even with those whose outlook on life was directly opposed to His. But this is the entire story of God’s redemption of the world. In Jesus, God came to a world entirely opposed to Him. He came to save even those who were traitors against him and treated him as an enemy.

Jesus took this ordinary situation in life and developed it into a sermon that stripped His fellow guests down to the core. Even before the food and drink were served, He reprimanded the guests for going after the most prominent seats. Imagine a mob of people standing outside the doors of a restaurant waiting to get in. The doors are opened and everyone rushes for the best tables. The scene must have been chaotic, but it was the right occasion for Jesus to remind them of the embarrassment of taking the wrong seat. In God’s world, putting others first is the only way to get along. To God alone belongs the glory of creating us, redeeming us, and raising us to new heights in Christ. If we try to assert ourselves and claim to be big or important, we make God’s work redundant; we oppose His work. The Bible says that God casts down the conceited and exalts the lowly; He opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.

Perhaps putting others first sometimes makes sense even in this world, but what makes no sense at all is the admonition of Jesus that next time the host should invite only those who could not repay the invitation. In the verses after our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Now that is no way to run a business. Life depends on tit for tat, cause and effect, payment and repayment. The business lunch and entertainment expenses are a fact of life. If I do you a favor, you owe me one. But in God’s economy no one owes anything. Whatever we owed God, Jesus Christ has paid. He invites people to His banquet hall in heaven with no preconditions, nor because He expects to get something in return. Since God has no uncollected debts with us, we can have no uncollected debts with others. We do good to people who are incapable of repaying us because in Christ, God has paid all. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Everything has been marked “Paid in full” because of what Jesus cried out on the cross: “It is finished!”

After the account of the guests struggling for the best seats, Jesus says, “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and everyone who humbles himself shall be exalted.” Here is the picture of the true Christian who asks nothing for himself but acknowledges that before God he is only a sinner and deserves nothing but the wrath of God and the torture and shame of eternal punishment. There is, however, a deeper meaning. “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and everyone who humbles himself shall be exalted.” This is a picture of our Lord Jesus Christ, who always took the lowest positions in life and asked nothing for Himself. St. Paul says of Jesus that, “Though He was God, He took upon Himself the form of a servant and humbled Himself even unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-11). On that account God exalted Him by raising Him from the dead, raising Him into heaven, and seating Him at His right hand. The Son of God, whom the heavens and the highest heavens could not contain, was among us as a servant and never asked and never took any privileges or prerogatives for Himself.

Jesus is the model of humility. Though He was infinitely rich, He came among us as a poor and lowly person, our servant. Now that He has been enthroned as King of all, He invites all to share in His kingdom. In Jesus, God brings to Himself those people who can do nothing for Him in return. He does this to demonstrate to us the riches and abundance of His grace, giving us a participation in the resurrection of the righteous. Whoever is raised with Christ has everything. If we were ever able to do anything for God, then we would take some of the credit away from Jesus. But we are actually so helpless and lost that we can do nothing at all. In our weakness, God’s glory is seen, in that He lifts up the weak and gives them life.

Prayer (LSB 434:1):

Lamb of God, pure and holy,
    Who on the cross didst suffer,
Ever patient and lowly,
    Thyself to scorn didst offer.
All sins Thou borest for us,
Else had despair reigned o’er us:
    Have mercy on us, O Jesus! O Jesus! Amen.