Friday, October 30, 2020

Friday of Trinity 20

 When You Fast...

Matthew 4:1-11 (ESV) Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

As we read yesterday, in Matthew 6, the third and final “practice of righteousness” that Jesus identifies is fasting. This one is probably the least commonly practiced—and understood—of the three. Doing mercy to others? Check. Daily prayer? You bet. But fasting? That doesn’t sound very Lutheran! But check your Small Catechism (known as “the Layman’s Bible”), as well as the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18, where Jesus says when you fast, not if.

At the same time, He does not make this into a new law that allows us to justify ourselves before God. Nor is he imposing an impossible burden on Christians that could harm them physically (for example, the church has traditionally discouraged fasting among pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and the infirm, for whom it might be detrimental). Rather, Jesus is inviting us to participate in a Christian discipline that He Himself took part in and that He promises to be a blessing to us (“your Father who sees in secret will reward you”).

Martin Luther commends fasting to Christians in the Small Catechism: “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training” before going to Holy Communion. But he then goes on to emphasize that these are not the elements that make us worthy of receiving the Sacrament. Only faith in the forgiveness of sins distributed in the Sacrament prepares us to receive it for our benefit, and only unbelief disqualifies.  

Nonetheless, fasting can teach us several things. Most obviously, it shows us that we are mortal. We begin to hunger quickly and recall that we need food to survive. We would perish without it. This reminds us to prepare for death by living in repentance. But above all, it reminds us of where true life is found: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). Fasting leads us to hunger for true bread that satisfies, especially that bread that is Christ’s body, along with the wine that is His blood, in the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst… This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:35, 50–51). May we constantly hunger for this Bread and be satisfied as He comes to feed us in His Word and Sacraments!

Prayer (LSB 544):

1. O love, how deep, how broad, how high,
Beyond all thought and fantasy,
That God, the Son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortals’ sake!
2. He sent no angel to our race,
Of higher or of lower place,
But wore the robe of human frame,
And to this world Himself He came.
3. For us baptized, for us He bore
His holy fast and hungered sore;
For us temptation sharp He knew;
For us the tempter overthrew.
4. For us He prayed; for us He taught;
For us His daily works He wrought,
By words and signs and actions thus
Still seeking not Himself but us.
5. For us by wickedness betrayed,
For us, in crown of thorns arrayed,
He bore the shameful cross and death;
For us He gave His dying breath.
6. For us He rose from death again;
For us He went on high to reign;
For us He sent His Spirit here
To guide, to strengthen, and to cheer.
7. All glory to our Lord and God
For love so deep, so high, so broad;
The Trinity whom we adore
Forever and forevermore. Amen.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Thursday of Trinity 20

 When You Pray...

Matthew 6:1-21 (ESV) Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
To be justified means to be “declared righteous” by God for the sake of Christ’s own righteousness, and we receive this declaration of God passively, by faith. When we are justified, however, we also receive the Holy Spirit, who regenerates us and leads us to an active life of practicing righteousness, as Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
In Matthew 6, Jesus clearly teaches that various aspects of “practicing your righteousness” are humbly giving to the needy, praying, and fasting, all of which are simply assumed to be part of the Christian’s life (“when you give…when you pray…when you fast”).
Without this section of Matthew’s Gospel, we would not have the whole Lord’s Prayer (the version in Luke 11 is abbreviated), about which Jesus specifically says, “Pray then like this…” The gift of this prayer liberates us from the typically pagan notion that the more words one uses in prayer, the more likely you are to be heard by the gods. Rather, the one true God provides us with a short prayer to use every day (“give us this day our daily bread”) that identifies and asks for our greatest needs, with a special emphasis on God’s forgiveness of our sins and our forgiving of others.
Jesus also assures us that our Father in heaven knows everything that we need so that we don’t have to “cover all the bases” by manufacturing our own prayers. Furthermore, the corporate nature of the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”) helps us recognize that Jesus’ injunction in 6:4–6 about avoiding a public show of our prayers and praying in private does not mean that all public prayer is forbidden. Rather, we gather together as baptized children of the heavenly Father week in and week out to pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Prayer (LSB 766:1-4, 9):
1. Our Father, who from heav’n above
Bids all of us to live in love
    As members of one family
    And pray to You in unity,
Teach us no thoughtless words to say
But from our inmost hearts to pray.
2. Your name be hallowed. Help us, Lord,
In purity to keep Your Word,
    That to the glory of Your name
    We walk before You free from blame.
Let no false teaching us pervert;
All poor deluded souls convert.
3. Your kingdom come. Guard Your domain
And Your eternal righteous reign.
    The Holy Ghost enrich our day
    With gifts attendant on our way.
Break Satan’s pow’r, defeat his rage;
Preserve Your Church from age to age.
4. Your gracious will on earth be done
As it is done before Your throne,
    That patiently we may obey
    Throughout our lives all that You say.
Curb flesh and blood and ev’ry ill
That sets itself against Your will.
9. Amen, that is, so shall it be.
Make strong our faith in You, that we
    May doubt not but with trust believe
    That what we ask we shall receive.
Thus in Your name and at Your Word
We say, “Amen, O hear us, Lord!”

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Wednesday of Trinity 20

 Repentance into Forgiveness

Luke 24:44-53 (ESV) [Jesus said to the apostles], “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.

The ultimate disaster would be to die without your sins being forgiven, which would lead to eternal damnation in hell. Thanks be to God that Christ Jesus suffers the punishment that our sins deserve, so that now repentance “for the forgiveness of sins” is “proclaimed in His name to all nations” (Lk 24:46–47).

In fact, “for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 24:47) could be translated “into the forgiveness of sins”; that is, forgiveness of sins is already an accomplished fact that we repent into.

How is it possible that God’s forgiveness of our sins has happened even before we have repented? Consider the following passages:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:18–21)

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (Romans 3:23–25)

It is a great mystery, but also the greatest joy for the Christian: we are forgiven of our sins and justified even before we have repented. Of course, this does not mean that we receive the benefits and comfort of this forgiveness and justification without repentance, since repentance always includes faith, and God put forward Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:25). A propitiation is something that turns away the wrath of another, in this case “the Man” Jesus Christ, who by His holy, precious blood and innocent sufferings and death has turned away God’s wrath against the whole world.

For our sake, God made Christ “to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), which means that the sinless One suffered in our place to win “the righteousness of God” for us. While “all have sinned,” at the same time “all are justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23–24). Since God’ has reconciled “the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them,” we now have “the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19) to receive and enjoy by faith—and to proclaim as the gracious promise of God that all sinners can repent into.

Prayer: Most merciful God, You desire everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Grant that by the preaching of Your Gospel we may be given the wisdom that leads to salvation. By the working of Your Holy Spirit keep us attentive to all the teachings of Your Word. Enlighten our minds, control our wills, and purify our affections. Let Your Word be a light for our path that neither the pleasures nor the honors nor the pains of this life may turn away our thoughts from the fullness of life that is found only in You. Enable us in sincerity of heart to follow You, the only true God. By Your holy Word enlighten all who are in error, doubt, or temptation with the sure and certain knowledge of Your truth that all who live in sin may be led to repentance. Show mercy and grace to all those suffering any distress, to those who are sick or hospitalized, and to those facing death. Let them know the sure comfort of Your holy Word. We commit ourselves and all for whom we pray to Your fatherly care and benediction. Be gracious to us and defend us by Your power. Direct us by Your Spirit that we may daily grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Savior until we shall stand before You in the joy of everlasting glory; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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.