Pentecost 14

Text: Ezekiel 34:11-24

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. Our sermon comes from the Old Testament and Gospel, which were read earlier.

Back in the days before GPS and smartphones, if you wanted to go somewhere you had never been to before, you often needed a map. You would pull out your big map that you could never get folded the right way again and plotted out your course. Your prayer was that there was no construction or anything that would have to cause you to detour from your route, lest you end up getting lost. If you were lucky, you got to your destination with no difficulties. If you were not so lucky, you would end up lost, looking at your map, twisting and turning it to figure out where you were and how to get where you needed to go.

Being lost is not something that like. It causes all sorts of angst in us. It makes us uncomfortable. All we want is to be found, to get to our destination. When it comes to our being lost, lost in our sin and trespasses, God has a plan: “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”” That’s good news for us, that God would go seeking us out because we don’t go seeking Him. That’s the sad and unfortunate truth. That’s not my opinion of who we are, that’s what Scripture says of us. As St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

The fact that we were dead means that we were lost, with no desire of God and His blessings for us. If God is a God who does what is expected of Him, then we should all remain dead and lost. Fortunately for us, God doesn’t do what is expected of Him. One would expect God to just let us remain lost, dead in our sins because we couldn’t do what God told us to do in the Garden. But God doesn’t do the expected thing; rather, He does the most unexpected thing of all: make it possible for sin to be undone. He sends forth a Savior to find the sinner, as we see in our Gospel.

As Luke begins our text, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”” That’s the way that it should be, because Jesus doesn’t come to those who are perfect and without sin. He comes to the weak, the broken, the sick, the, dying, the prostitute, the tax collector, the sinner. For once, the Pharisees and the scribes got something right: Jesus was coming for the people who need Him the most. That’s why He comes to find you, the lost.

But this isn’t the first time we see God going after the lost. He does it in our Old Testament reading, seeking them out, rescuing them from the various places where they have been scattered. God declares He Himself will shepherd His sheep. He will seek them out; He will rescue them; He will save; He will gather them in—in other words, the Good Shepherd will take care of His own sheep. The whole reason why this is necessary is because the sheep have gone astray. We have sinned, we have fallen short of God’s glory, we have failed to keep His commandments. And despite all of that, God searches for us—an example of His goodness.

What a promise that God makes! This promise is unlike any other promise because this one will not fail to be true. This promise is made by God Himself, promising to go and search for His sheep. Just who is God going to look for when He goes searching? He is going to search for you. He is going to search for you when you wander away from Him. He is going to search for you when you have turned your back on Him.

Then the prophet records one of the most beautiful visions in all of Scripture. The Good Shepherd promises to feed His flock and lead them to rest. The rest spoken of here is that eternal rest in heaven. What a glorious vision! Listen again to what Ezekiel records: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak….” God will tend to us personally. He will find us even if we are lost. He will fix what is wrong, and bind up our broken hearts. He will comfort and calm. He will heal the sick and strengthen them. There is no pain, no sorrow, no sickness, no weakness, no death in heaven. God Himself will see to that, and we shall know Him and rejoice in that knowledge at last. That’s the beautiful part. That’s the joy of having God as our Good Shepherd.

This Good Shepherd, the one whom we need more than anything, comes to us in the form of Jesus. He tells us, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Just as this text is comforting to us with God’s promises, so we also have to deal with God’s condemnations as well. We hear from Ezekiel: “and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” The fat and the strong He will destroy. He will feed them with His displeasure and with eternal damnation – for that is what His justice means. What is terrifying is that we tend to be the fat and the strong.We have every advantage. We have the Word of God, clear and plain and in abundance. We enjoy the rich blessings of the earth in abundance. We are fat and lazy spiritually. And we are what the Bible refers to so often as strong. We are the ones who feel no need and fear no evil. Maybe not every one of us, but too many of us. And because of that, our Good Shepherd will come with justice for those who are not of His pasture.

For us, for the believer in Christ, we need not fear what will happen when Christ comes again. We need not fear when God calls us home to Himself. God has forgiven us in Jesus, paid for our sins by His death on the cross, and announced His love and His will to save us by the Easter resurrection of Jesus. Those He will feed and lead to His eternal rest.

More to the point, He feeds us even now. He lays before us the heavenly feast in earthly clothing, giving us the true body and blood of Jesus in, with, and under the bread and the wine. He calls to those who know Him and believe His Word and trust in His promises to come here, and receive Christ Himself in the mystery of the Sacrament. Here is healing and health. Here is rescue and forgiveness. Here, in this precious Sacrament, is forgiveness and life and salvation and everything that Christ has won for us. This meal, and this fellowship and this gathering about the Word and the promises of God and all the gifts He bestows are what the Good Shepherd promised when He promised to gather, bind up, heal and comfort. It is true that there will be more and greater in heaven, but it begins here, hearing His Word, and receiving His gifts, and eating His food.

The Good Shepherd. He feeds and heals, He finds and strengthens, He gives them forgiveness and eternal life. But He also culls the flock. Those who do not want Him, do not love Him or do not need Him any longer – the fat and the strong – He will destroy. These are two sides, both real views of the same Good Shepherd.  For Christ’s sake, He has given to you life, that you may eat the good pasture and clear water that points to Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.

Pentecost 13

Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Old Testament, which was read earlier.

There’s one word in Scripture that makes it appearance over and over again: if, and that word appears front and center in our text today. Today, Israel is faced with a test, to either obey or not: “If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” This sounds promising, good even. If Israel will only do what God commands, there will be rich blessings for the people. Here was life at the crossroads. Would they be faithful to the God of their fathers and to His commandments, statutes, and ordinances – would they walk in the ways ordained by God as good and leading to life, or would they choose the dreaded alternative to obedience and reap the curse of death and evil?

Israel was reminded that her future depended on a choice of single-minded loyalty to God, the God who in His covenant had made His offer of the blessing of life, but expected the obedient response of a people who walked in His ways. The theology of Israel was based on the conviction that faithfulness to the Lord would guarantee His protection and blessing, while unfaithfulness would result in hardship and misfortune.

This choice goes all the way back to the Garden, where Adam and Eve were presented with the choice of following God’s commandment of not eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and living, or follow the prodding of the serpent to eat, and ultimately die as a result: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

But there is also another choice that Israel can choose to make, one with dire consequences: “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” But God adds an even more final statement, one that makes this point even more, well, pointed: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.”

That is the choice to make: obey or disobey God. But the greatest problem we face is that we cannot obey God. Not only can we not obey God, neither could Israel. It is impossible for us to obey because of our sinful nature which is constantly at odds with God and His perfection. It is impossible for us to keep the First Commandment that our Lord gives: “You shall have no other gods.” It’s because we do not “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” No human, even God’s specially chosen people, could keep these commands without the power God Himself supplies in His grace. St. Paul writes, “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Just as Israel had many false gods they worshiped throughout their history, so we have many other gods that we like to worship, gods that we believe will give to us all that we want instead of what we need. We want the pleasures of this earth, but we need the forgiveness that only the God of the Scriptures can give to us. Choose the choice that reflects God’s choice of choosing you because humbly and repentantly obeying God results in life and blessing but arrogantly and unrepentantly disobeying God results in death and curse.

Humbly and repentantly obeying God results in life and blessing. It’s ultimately about obedience. In the English Standard Version of the Bible, the word “obey” appears 113 times, 85 in the Old Testament and 28 in the New Testament. St. Peter and the other apostles boldly preached in Jerusalem that “We must obey God rather than men.” The key to God-ordained obedience is to love God. We do that best when we Keep His commandments, statutes, and rules. But the question is, can we? I mean not most of the time or some of the time, but 100% of the time.

Moses gives to the people a warning what will happen should they turn away from God and worship other gods and serve them rather than Yahweh: “you shall surely perish.” It was cut and dry, no other way to interpret it: worship God and follow His commandments and ways and you will live; fall away from God, worship other gods and you will die. Israel had a problem: they couldn’t follow God’s commandments perfectly and neither can we. We are left with the fact that we have failed to do as God commands and we are left with the dire result that we shall surely perish.

Thanks be to God, that is not how things are left. God in His divine forbearance saw fit to give us a way to defeat death by sending us the gift of life.  He has sent to us His Son Jesus, who by His life, death, and resurrection gives to us the gift of life. While Israel was His chosen people, they could not obey God. While Adam and Eve are God’s creation, they could not obey God. Even though you and I are God’s creation, we cannot obey God and so we die as a result of our disobedience. But for you and all of God’s creation, Jesus chose suffering and death to pay the price we owed God because of our sin and disobedience. Jesus chose death to rescue us. We do not have to choose because Jesus has chosen for us. He has chosen us to be a part of Him so that we would have life and have it abundantly in His name.

For us, we have a great assurance, that while we choose death because of our sin, God has chosen life for us through Jesus. Our Lord promises never to leave or forsake us. That means in this life, because of Christ, those who believe will not be forsaken to eternal death. That means for the believer, Jesus’ death and resurrection secure for you eternal life. For us, God has chosen to give us life, though our sinful nature warrants death. We belong to God, for He has placed His name upon us.

Between the choice of life or death, it would seem as if the choice is an obvious one to make. However, because of our sinful nature, the choice is not ours to make. Adam and Eve made the choice for all of creation in the Garden, and it was the wrong choice. As God’s creation, He chose to give to us another choice. This time, the choice was made by His Son and He chose to give eternal life to all who believe in Him. There is no act necessary on our part, because the choice we would make would be death, because we cannot obey God and His commandments, not even one of them. Because of Christ, life has been chosen, and so we and our offspring may live in the bountiful love of God, our Heavenly Father. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.


Pentecost 12

Text: Luke 14:1-14

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Gospel, which was read earlier.

We have a problem in our Gospel reading today, and the problem is Jesus. At least, Jesus seems to be setup for the problem. Luke records, “One Sabbath, when [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.” Problem number one is that Jesus is going to the house of a Pharisee. All of the guests were Pharisees, except Jesus. Their goal was to watch and test Jesus. “And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”” That’s problem number two: work on the Sabbath. Healing would constitute work. When God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses, it is recorded, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

This meal was not going to be just any meal. The Pharisees were watching Him. They did what any doubter would do: they put Jesus to the test. As Jesus has set His face toward Jerusalem, there has been opposition. Now, those watching are watching Jesus carefully, even maliciously, to put Him to the test and to see how He will act. Their intentions are to find something of which to accuse Him. But in the end, Jesus is ultimately testing them and pointing to their own sinful motivations.

Now that the players are in place, it’s time to set the trap for Jesus. A man appeared before those at dinner who had dropsy, a condition of swelling, called edema today. It is caused by water retention in the body. It was considered grotesque because of the disfigurement it caused. One who had dropsy was considered unclean according to Levitical law.

Just by this man appearing, the food and all present would have been considered unclean. Would Jesus expel the man or allow him to enter? Jesus’ first strike was allowing the man to enter the house. By doing so, all those present knew that Jesus did not abide by Levitical law and customs. When Jesus asked those present a question, Jesus began the first of His tests: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” Those watching Jesus are asking themselves the same question, and they have given no answer, only silence. This man meant nothing to the Pharisees but meant everything to Jesus.

Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter: they’re not going to help the man because he’s not important to them. Jesus brings it to them on a level which they can understand: a son or an ox. Now that it is someone they’re connected to, will they sit and watch and do nothing, claiming that it’s the Sabbath? Instead of answering Jesus, by acknowledging that what Jesus said is right, they continue to sit and say nothing.

For Jesus, this man with dropsy was someone important to Him, someone whom Jesus loved. He must act immediately – there is no waiting until the Sabbath is over. Jesus heals the man and sends him away healed. Jesus doesn’t wait; He doesn’t delay; He acts because He loves the man.

We are no different than the man with dropsy. We have a need of healing. Sin has infected us and is running rampant in God’s creation, a creation that was once good. Jesus sees us and acts. He does not delay in healing us. He does not delay in restoring us. He does not delay in forgiving us. He does not put off our needs, our pain, or our problems until a later date. This is because Jesus acts out of love on our behalf. He willingly gave His perfect life for our imperfect life. He made a sacrifice which we could not make. He died so that we would live.

What exactly does Jesus do for us? He dies and is hastily buried before the Sabbath. On the Sabbath, He rests in the tomb on the Sabbath for you. He descends into hell as the triumphant Victor of life for you.

It is so unfortunate that the Pharisees did not understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. They thought of themselves in a way that set them aside from everyone else, in a way that was superior to everyone else. They were the Pharisees. They were the makers and keepers of the Law. They did not sin. They did not need anything that Jesus came bringing.

It is fortunate for us that 2000 years removed from Jesus, we do not view ourselves like the Pharisees did. What joy there is to know that we are sinners in need of healing, to confess that we are sinners. Wait. We don’t think like that. We don’t think of ourselves as sinners. We tend not to confess our sins because either they aren’t sins or they’re justifiable sins (which just sounds ridiculous, by the way) or we can always point to someone else who is a worse sinner than we are. But there is no sinner worse than I am. There is no sinner that is worse than you. St. Paul knew that and said as much: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” You see, we are all on equal footing because we are all sinners. We are all just as guilty as the next person. Paul quotes from Psalm 14 and 53 when he tells the Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

As Christ goes on to tells of the parable of the wedding feast and seats on honor, we tend to put ourselves in the place of honor, only to find ourselves demoted to the lowest place. That is our sinful pride exerting itself, thinking that we are better than what we truly are. Jesus expanded this idea of taking a lower place into our standing on Judgment Day. He said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” With these words, Jesus teaches us that those who believe they can contribute to their own salvation will hear the words, “Give your place to this person and take the lowest place.” Such people will miss out on the Kingdom of God. Meanwhile, those who confess that they deserve eternal punishment for their sin and trust in God’s mercy will hear the words, “Friend, move up higher.” These people will enjoy God’s presence forever.

Jesus Christ can invite us to move up because Jesus Himself took the lowest of all places. His perfect life without sin earned Him the highest place of all, but He did not take it. Instead, He took the lowest place. He took His place under the punishment of the wrath of God. Even though Jesus was perfect in every way, He took the lowest place on the cross. On that cross, He even experienced the forsakenness of hell as He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” By taking on this lowest of all places, Jesus earned the right for us to live forever in the very presence of God.

We know that this is true because God the Father has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. When Jesus rose from the dead it was just as if God the Father spoke to Jesus and said, “Friend, move up higher.” Jesus Christ became the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. His resurrection assures us all that on the Last Day, Jesus will raise all the dead. Those who arrogantly took the higher places for themselves will hear, “Surrender your place! Go, instead to the lowest place.” Those who recognize their sin and call out to God for forgiveness will hear, “Friend, move up higher! Take your place at My side.”

Jesus Christ who humbled Himself to the lowest depth of the cross is now exalted to the greatest height. He is now preparing the place of honor that He has earned for each of us at His wedding feast. When the time is right, He will come and say to each of His faithful people, “Friend, move up higher.” In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.

Pentecost 11C

Text: Luke 13:22-30

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Gospel, which was read earlier.

When you move outside the Lutheran circle into other denominations, especially evangelical denominations, you’ll often hear a variant of the following question: when were you saved? Or you’ll hear, “Are you saved?” You might give a positive answer or you might get irritated about it and give some sarcastic answer to try to turn the person asking the question off. But at the heart of the matter, there are more questions that are attached to the simple question, “Are you saved?”

As Jesus was going about from town after town, village after village, He had amassed a following of people who for one reason or another, had decided to follow Him. Wherever Jesus went, He was bound to do one thing: teach. In every town and village, Jesus was almost always teaching something to someone. As we find Him in today’s Gospel account, this was no different. As Jesus went about His work, a question was raised which prompted Him to speak the warning and the encouragement in this text: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Who raised this question? He was a nameless someone. He asked whether there would be few who would be saved. It was a rather strange question. It showed concern for how many would be saved rather than how they would be saved. But this man with his strange question went to the right person.

Let me get this clear right now: to ask who will be saved is not wrong. In fact, St. Paul records for us, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” God desires that all of creation would be saved, hence why He makes such a promise of a Savior to Adam and Eve immediately after the fall into sin.

As this man takes his question to Jesus, Jesus is the only one qualified to answer such a question because when it comes to salvation, Jesus is the only answer. Jesus tells the man, and all those who are listening, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” The word “strive” here can better be translated as “struggle in opposition.” The command to “strive” or “struggle” does not mean that moral effort is necessary in order to enter the kingdom, nor does it mean entrance is gained by exercising human responsibility. In other words, the work is not on man’s part. Rather, the struggle through which one enters is repentance, which is a work of God in the human heart. The struggle is produced when the Word of God – such as the teaching of Jesus here – calls one to repent and trust in Christ, but sinful human nature wars against God’s Word. The struggle is resolved as the old Adam is put to death by the Law and the person of faith is raised to new life with Christ by the power of the Gospel.

So how is it that many will seek to enter the narrow door and will not be able to? The many will try the various entrances to the narrow door which the world says will allow them to gain access. These are all things which you, the individual, must do in order to gain access to heaven, eternity, that “better place,” or whatever you would call it. The emphasis again lies on the person doing the work. You become the means of salvation. If you get to heaven, you did it yourself. You are the means of your salvation. Give yourself a pat on the back.

We cannot do the work. Try as we might, whatever attempts we make at earning our own salvation will fail. They can only fail because of our sin. Regardless of what we do to earn our salvation, we fall short of what God demands: perfection. We are not able to keep one iota of God’s law, let alone keep it all and keep it perfectly. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Whatever good we seek to accomplish, whatever means we try to gain access to the narrow door will, in the end, prove to be futile.

As for the man’s question, the answer to whether those being saved are few is a resounding yes, because not everyone has come to faith in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But you, the hearer, need not despair or exhaust yourself attempting to “struggle” through the door by your own efforts. Luke, throughout his gospel, provides examples of those who pass through the door, not by their own merits, but solely by the grace of God. We ask the question, “What should we do?” The answer is nothing, for there is nothing we can do. Rather, the answer is what Jesus has done for you. Christ has lived the sinless life you were meant to live. Christ has kept the Law of God perfectly that you were supposed to keep. Christ has died the death that you were never meant to die. And because of that death, heaven’s doors have been opened to you and everlasting life has been earned for you, but not by you.

The warning that Jesus provides of the master shutting the door is a grave warning indeed. There will be many who will be standing outside trying to gain entrance to the Master’s house, but God will deny them because they have denied Him. Because they refused to repent and recognize Jesus as the One who forgives and grants everlasting life, they now stand on the outside. The door is narrow because there is only one way to God. Again, Jesus Himself said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” Our culture tries to tell us that there are many doors into the Kingdom of God, but Jesus tells us that He is the only way. He offers Himself as the door into the Kingdom of God.

The saddest part of the parable in today’s gospel is that there are many who wait outside the door and even ignore it. They follow the example of the people in Noah’s day. As the door of the ark closed and the water started collecting around their ankles, they suddenly realized to their terror that they needed to be inside the ark, but it was too late. So also, the people waiting at the door to the kingdom watch the door close and suddenly realize they need to be inside the kingdom. In terror they pound on the door, but the master will not let them in. Their fate is sealed. Can you imagine the terror of the people in Noah’s day as they pounded on the outside of the ark until the water rose and lifted them off their feet and swept them away to a certain death? How much more is the terror of these people standing outside the narrow door as they realize that they are doomed to an eternity in hell?

Those people who “strive to enter through the narrow door” are those who became convicted of their sins through the power of the Holy Spirit and struggled in repentance over those sins through the power of that same Holy Spirit. These are the people who had their sins washed away by the blood of the Lamb and were brought to saving faith in Jesus Christ who is our door into the kingdom of God. These are the people who did not rely on their own works to save them, but, by the power of the Holy Spirit, placed all their trust in that same Jesus Christ. These are the people who recline at table in the kingdom of God.

We do not desire to find ourselves on the outside of the Master’s heavenly door, yet there will be those that will find themselves there. “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” because souls will find themselves in the eternal fires of hell rather than the eternal loving arms of the Father. Thanks be to the Father who gives us the kingdom. Thanks be to Christ who strove for us on the cross and opened the door through which we enter the kingdom. Thanks be to the Holy Spirit who enlightens and sanctifies us so we can “strive to enter through the narrow door.” In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.

Pentecost 10C

Text: Hebrews 11:17-31; 12:1-3

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Epistle, which was read earlier.

In a continuation of the theme of faith from the beginning of chapter 11 of Hebrews, our text for last week, the author of Hebrews impresses upon the hearer of his sermon Old Testament examples of faith and what that faith was able to accomplish. We hear of the faith of Abraham in offering his son Isaac to God and the trust that God would raise Isaac from the dead. There is the faith of Isaac towards Jacob and Esau, the faith of Jacob towards the son of Joseph. You have the faith of Moses and all that God used him through with regards to the slavery of Israel in Egypt. Again, when reading the faith of these Old Testament heroes, we find that their faith is never in themselves, but solely in God. And why would you expect to find their faith in anyone other than God?

This sermon on faith that is preached is a great sermon for us to hear, especially in those times where we feel far away from, where we feel that God has abandoned us. Abraham could have felt just like that. He finally received a son, an heir, and God had demanded that he be sacrificed. Abraham could have had that defeatist feeling about himself or about God, that God had granted him an heir, only to take him away. Instead, Abraham had faith that God would provide a sacrifice in the place of Isaac.

These words are by far the best know, most beloved, and most preached on passage in Hebrews, and rightly so. These words offer hope, comfort, and encouragement to God’s people at all times and in all places. It vividly depicts their common experience as people of faith who realize that, even though they enjoy this world as God’s good creation, they, nevertheless, are aliens and visitors here on earth. No matter how much they feel at home here, they know that they belong elsewhere; they know that what they experience here in this world is but a foretaste of the feast yet to come.

The catalog of the exemplary people of faith from the Old Testament teaches that faith is not based on visible phenomena but on God’s invisible Word, His call to receive an inheritance from Him, and His promises of its benefits for His chosen heirs. Faith is nothing more than confidence in God and His promises. It depends solely on God’s faithfulness in fulling His promises through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And yet while none of the people mentioned in our text from last week or today ever saw Jesus in the flesh, they maintained a faith and trust in God that He would make good on His promise of salvation, not only for them but for all of creation, just as He made to Adam and Eve. Faith provides the foundation for the hope that God’s people have in Him. It orients them not only to God’s present providence but also to His future provisions for them, the good that He has in store for them in this world and the world to come. Faith in God’s promises provides reliable evidence things that are unseen. It deals with what is hidden from human eyes but shown by God’s Word.

Hearing all about the faithful can easily make us feel down about our own faith, that we do not or cannot live up to the faith as described here. But it’s not about how much faith that you, or that someone has a greater faith than another person. Jesus Himself says, “For truly I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” This faith that you have, as little as it might be or as great as it might be, is still faith nonetheless. And so the sermon continues: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

This great cloud of witnesses is no less than the Church, both the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. We gather with like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ as we worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we also worship with all the saints who have gone before us, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven….” We see in the Divine Service the crucified and exalted Lord Jesus set before us. He is there for us to see with the eyes of faith. We look to Him as the author and finisher of faith, the be all and end all of faith, for our faith is founded upon Him. And yet, we have great difficulty, sometimes failing to run the race.

For us sinners, we have been given faith by the Holy Spirit in our Baptism. We who are sinners have been united with God forever as His beloved children through what Christ has done for us, through Baptism and through His life, death and resurrection. We have the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ.

So, what happens when our faith is weakened or when it seems that God has given up on us, that He has left us to our sinful vices? First, know that God has not given up on you, His beloved and baptized children. Even when Israel turned their backs on God over and over again, God did not utterly abandon them. Yes, He let evil befall them. They lost their land, their lives, even their identity, but God was still their God and would preserve them.

For you, God is still your God and will preserve you. He will lift you up when you are at your lowest point in your sinful lives. He has promised that in your Baptism, that you have His name placed upon you and that you are His forever. That promise is yours.

So, what sins do you cling to today? What weighs you down in the marathon of your life as a Christian? What sins trip you up? Whatever it is, the text is clear: lay it aside. Get rid of it. Be done with it. How do we do that? Confess it. Speak to God of your sins that He already knows: acknowledge them before Him. And rejoice: rejoice because the Lord has comfort upon comfort in our epistle to give you this day.

For one thing, this grueling race is already won. Every other religion tells you that the prize is yours if you run the race well enough. But this is not so. Jesus has already run the race. He has already become flesh to endure the cross for you. He has despised its shame—the shame of being found guilty of all the sins of all the world, for they were all heaped upon Him. Yet He has endured the cross so that you might be delivered from your sin.

For another, Jesus remains the victor. He sits at the right hand of the throne of God: He is His Father’s right-hand God-man for you. He does not grow weary or discouraged about your soul; rather, He continues to work all things for your good. He is actively preserving you in the one true faith throughout the race.

Your ultimate joy is this: knowing that you are not alone, for Christ is with you now. He is the author and finisher of your faith: it is He who is the source of the faith you have, and it is He who has completed the cross so that your faith and salvation might be fulfilled. He is the author and finisher, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. But He is not far away: He is with you. In your endurance run, who has given you the living, life-giving water of Holy Baptism? It is none other than Christ Himself. Who continues to feed and strengthen you for whatever race remains? It is your Savior, with His own body and blood.

It’s an endurance run, this life of a Christian. Christ has run His course from heaven to the cross and back again, enduring the judgment for sin so that you might be set free. Take heart, dear friends, for your race is run and won already, because you are forgiven for all of your sins. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.

Pentecost 8C

Text: Hebrews 11:1-16

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Epistle, which was read earlier.

It’s amazing what you believe in, even though you have not seen it. For instance, I believe there is a state called California, even though I have not seen it for myself. The reason why I believe in California is because it has been confirmed by a great number of witnesses, by those who live there and have visited there. I have seen pictures of it, I have seen it on a map; thus, it must exist, despite me never seeing it. We can and most certainly do believe in things which we have not seen.

While we believe in things which we have not seen, there is one thing that is far greater than anything else, far different than anything else: faith. We hear in our text, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”

Faith is that wonderful gift that you and I have received from the Holy Spirit. By faith, we are made to believe the Word of God. By faith are we able to trust in the promises God has made, especially the promise of a Savior, one who would undo the damage sin has brought with it. But the incredible thing about faith is I don’t see. Because I have faith, it doesn’t make me glow brighter than the person without faith. Because I have faith, it doesn’t make me look any different than the person without faith. Faith is given so that we may believe. And while a change does occur, it is not one that is visible.

As the writer of Hebrews illustrates, he cites various Old Testament individuals who had faith. But as you read them, none of them have a faith that is found in themselves. Rather, their faith is founded on God and His promises. Each, through faith, exhibited a trust like no other in God. And because of their faith in God, that He would do what He said He would do, they were found to be righteous.

The resurrection to eternal life is something we have not seen. For “the people of old,” Christ Himself, His incarnation, humble service, sacrificial death and final victory were not seen.  Yet they believed, and they were commended for their faith. God spoke well of Abel’s sacrifice.  The Lord credited Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness as we see in the Old Testament reading for the day. Throughout the Old Testament period, believers counted on God’s promises concerning the woman’s Offspring, Abraham’s Descendant, David’s Son. In this faith they were attested as God’s own.

For the writer to the Hebrews, he writes with one purpose in mind: to persuade his readers to hold fast to their faith and not to give up their hope in the atoning death of Jesus Christ. He warns, threatens, pleads, encourages, and interprets Scripture, all in order to convince them that the promise made by God to Abraham has been fulfilled. It’s that faith, he would insist, that is so essential in the Christian’s life.

With the saints of old, it says that they not only lived by faith, but also died in faith. They saw very few of God’s promises fulfilled, but they trusted that God would keep them; therefore, they died believing in what was yet to come. They willingly faced suffering, ridicule, hardship and death in this life because they believed they were just strangers here. They counted their lives and livelihood nothing because they had a different homeland—an eternal, heavenly country.

That is the joy that you have – that your faith in Christ has counted you righteous. It’s not your personality; it’s not all the good things you do in your life. You are made righteous because of Jesus. You are made righteous because the blood of the Lamb was shed and ran over you, washing you clean in that crimson flood.

In short, faith is nothing more than a gift given by God, as it was to the saints in our text. Faith clings to Jesus and His forgiveness, as did the saints in our text. Faith comes by hearing the Word—as you and the saints in our text have heard God’s Word.

You and I have not seen Jesus Christ in the flesh, yet He is present with us wherever we are, wherever we go. He is present in His Word and in His Sacrament in the bread and wine, body and blood. It is through faith that you and I believe this, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We, just the like the people of old, are called to trust the promise of God. Obviously, it’s easier said than done…or is it? When we look at our text for today, we hear about the faith that Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah had. In looking at them, we see that their faith was centered solely on God and His Word which was spoken to them. A Christian knows that God’s Word is true. Still, he may have to contend with doubts. That’s when it is important to go to that Word for encouragement. This chapter was meant to strengthen the battle-weary Hebrew Christians, but they were written for us as well. They present the examples of believers who encountered great challenges and overcame by faith.

In many ways, one can view faith as a container of something priceless. When you don’t have it, you are lost. When you do have it, all you think about is what is inside of it. When a person does not have faith, we say, “They are lost. You can’t go to heaven without faith. Faith is necessary.” But when a person believes, you stop talking about faith and talk only about Jesus. When you confess your faith, you don’t talk about how important faith is. Instead you talk about Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Faith is not a condition that a person must meet in order to earn salvation. Faith receives. Faith simply receives all the gracious promises and blessings of God. Faith is passive. It does nothing. It contributes nothing.

So, what must we do to get this faith? That is the beauty of God’s plan of salvation. We do nothing. Remember when it comes to our salvation, God does all the work. That includes producing the gift of faith in us. It’s a good thing too because we do not have the ability to produce this faith in ourselves. We cannot decide to follow Jesus. We cannot put Jesus in our heart. It is solely the work of the Holy Spirit who works in us faith and calls us to our heavenly Father to be His beloved children.

Because of the faith given to us by the Holy Spirit, the same faith which the people of old had, we are sure of the promise of everlasting life, granted to all who believe and have faith. And because of your faith, “God is not ashamed to be called [your] God, for he has prepared for [you] a city.” In Jesus’ name, amen.  Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.

Pentecost 7C

Text: Luke 11:1-13

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Gospel, which was read earlier.

Everyone knows how to pray. Most of us do it multiple times a day. We pray before meals, after we receive the Lord’s Supper, to watch over our family. Those are all perfectly acceptable prayers. But what about the more selfish prayers? You know, the one for the new car, the million-dollar mansion, a high-paying job, a beautiful spouse hanging off of your arm. Then again, maybe your prayer life has been nonexistent, even disappointing. Perhaps you’ve even wondered why anyone should bother praying in the first place.

In the most recent edition of Luther’s Small Catechism, Question 231 of the Explanation of the Small Catechism asks, “What is prayer?” The answer: “Prayer is speaking to God in words and thoughts.” With a simple explanation as this, everyone should know how to pray, right? As we look at our Gospel reading, we find that that is not necessarily the case. Of all the people who should know how to pray, you would think that the disciples would have prayer down pat, seeing as how they see and hear Jesus praying all the time, in various locations and situations. And yet, Luke records, “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.””

Jesus’ disciples had plenty of opportunity to watch Jesus pray. They all knew that John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray. But now, they wanted Jesus to teach them to pray. But being with Jesus, wouldn’t you think that Jesus would have modeled prayer to the disciples? Surely, they know how to pray? You just close your eyes, fold your hands and start praying, right? That is why the disciples asked to be taught. They knew that their praying was weak and they needed more. Their request reminds us that good praying is something which we learn. We need God’s help to learn to pray properly.

When Jesus taught them to pray, the words were simple. The pattern was simple. There was nothing hard to it. “And he said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’” Not hard, is it? It consists of seven simple petitions and contains three types of requests. The first is for spiritual blessings for all men, the second for material blessings for all men, and the last are requests for spiritual blessings for the people of God.

Jesus immediately answered this prayer by teaching the way and the very words to say in prayer. You can be sure this prayer pleases God and convers everything needed in a prayer. Jesus Himself gave it and spoke it for you to pray – the very Savior who suffered on the cross for you, shed His blood to blot out your sins, and rose again from the grave to lead the way for you into heaven.

Instead of asking for things that we think we need, it contains petitions which seek God’s blessings for all men and petitions which seek His blessings for all Christians. None of its petitions ask anything just for me or for my own. That is part of the pattern Jesus intends to teach us for our prayer life.

Isn’t it interesting that in the Lord’s Prayer, there is only one petition for material blessings? The only thing that we ask for ourselves is daily bread. We ask for what we need to get by in this day, nothing more and nothing less. God will give to us what He deems necessary for our daily bread. Luther says that “daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body….” We do not need to worry about whether the rent gets paid this month or if there will be food on the table tonight at dinner, though our sinful nature will cause us to doubt God’s promise. The Lord provides and He will give to us what we need as He sees fit.

When one learns to pray the Lord’s Prayer, one learns how God has established His hospitality with us in His name and His kingdom and how we respond to this welcoming God by petitioning Him for those things that we need to keep us faithful and from falling into unbelief.  When one prays, one enters into a relationship of hospitality where God is the giver of all things and the petitioner is the recipient of the gift of His Holy Spirit. By that Spirit’s power God’s kingdom comes among us as we “believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” That Holy Spirit keeps the whole Christian church on earth “with Jesus Christ in the one true faith,” and in that church “He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” The grand promise – that the good Father gives the Holy Spirit through Jesus – assures a gracious answer to every prayer.

Every one of the seven petitions uses a verb that is in the imperative, a verb that expresses a command. What kind of boldness does it take to talk to the ruler of this and every other universe and use imperative verbs? We would never think to talk to God this way if Jesus had not taught us to do so. How is it that we can come before God with such boldness? We begin to see the answer to that question in the way Jesus begins the prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven.”

The one who teaches us to pray also makes it possible for us to pray. The one who teaches us to pray is the one who set His face to go to Jerusalem. He set His face to go to Jerusalem in order to tear down the wall of sin that makes us enemies of God. He tore down that wall by offering Himself up as a sacrifice to make the payment that our sin requires. Jesus allowed His enemies to nail Him to a cross so that He could offer those same enemies a place in His family. With His suffering and death on the cross, He makes us His brothers and children of our heavenly Father. This is a certainty because Jesus did not remain in the grave after He died, but He rose from the dead and has ascended to rule at the right hand of the Father.

Every prayer a Christian prays always gets an answer. It isn’t always the answer we are looking for, and it doesn’t always come when we expect it. It may come at the most unusual time, but the answer comes. The answer God gives is always the answer of a wise and loving Father. He gives His answer, not when we see fit, but when He knows best. His answer is how it should be, not how we want it to be. God will not play tricks on us, His children, when we come with a simple request. When we ask for something good and necessary, He will not give us something harmful. God’s promise to answer prayer encourages confidence as well as persistence. We continue to pray with all earnestness because God is the heavenly Father who loves to give us much more than we ask or expect, and we pray because we are now His precious children by faith in Christ Jesus. With a loud voice, we can all say “Amen,” and amen. Now the peace of God, that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.

Pentecost 6

Text: Colossians 1:21-29

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Epistle which was read earlier.

“You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him….” That’s what Paul says to the Colossians. As we saw in last week’s reading, the Colossians remained faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ, despite the outside influences facing the Church at Colossae. But with that being said, the Colossians still had their fair share of problems. One such problem was their sinful nature getting the best of them, as it does all of us.

Once were alienated. Hostile in mind. Doing evil deeds. That’s sin at work, doing what sin does best. Sin got its wrap around the Colossians like a deadly noose. They didn’t always act like churchly Christians should. They didn’t always exemplify the name of Christ which they wore. And even though their sinful nature got the best of them, God forgave them on account of Jesus Christ.

What wonderful news, that wonderful Gospel that is for the Colossians, that despite their sin, they could be forgiven! But, there is a caveat that Paul places: “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard….” That’s right, in order to receive the forgiveness won by Jesus Christ, you must remain steadfast in the faith, faith that is founded, grounded, and securely found in Jesus.

That doesn’t sound like a bad tradeoff, does it? God forgives as long as you remain steadfast in the Christian faith. We can do that, right? We can remain steadfast in our faith in Jesus, right? That’s something that you and I can do, right? Wrong, absolutely wrong! You and I cannot remain in the faith any more than the Colossians could remain in the faith, at least, not on our own doing. You and I cannot believe in Jesus or come to faith in Him by ourselves. The Holy Spirit is what makes that possible. The Holy Spirit creates that saving faith in us in order to believe in Jesus. The Holy Spirit sustains that faith in us in order for us to continue to believe in Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the one at work here, not us.

But let’s examine our lives, to see if we are all that different than the Colossians. We too were once alienated. We too were once hostile in mind. We too once did evil deeds. Actually, those all could still be said of us today. We alienate ourselves from God by absenting ourselves from His gifts. The writer to the Hebrews says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” We continue to be hostile in mind with our sinful thoughts and actions. And most certainly do we continue with evil, sinful deeds. But with all that being said, God has done something for you, the chief of sinner that you are. God has forgiven you. God has washed you in the blood of His Son Jesus Christ. God has clothed you with the Son’s righteousness. God has placed His name on you in your Baptism.

God does this. God does this for you. It is not you who does this. It is not you who does this for God, as if we could do anything for God that counts for our salvation. The work of salvation is solely God’s work for us and to us, but certainly not by us. If that were the case, then it would not be salvation we would be earning but damnation, because our works cannot save us.

If you remember what the Colossians faced from outside of the church, you will remember that I said we face those same things today. What are we to do? What are we to do in the grand scheme of things? If we can’t do anything for our salvation, does that mean there’s nothing for me to do, nothing for you to do? No, there is something that you can do. Live like you’re baptized! What do I mean by that? Live like one who is forgiven all of their sins for Christ’s sake. Live as if God’s name, that name placed upon you, means something, because it does. Live as if you have died with Christ and been risen with Christ. Live as if the Gospel is the greatest thing you could ever hear, because it is. Live as if Christ’s body and blood are the best food you have ever had, because they are.

That’s what it means to be reconciled with God. That’s what it means to be holy and blameless before God. Notice that Paul says the Colossians were reconciled, not that they will be reconciled. It means that reconciliation is complete in Christ’s work. Reconciliation is not something Christ started and we have to finish. Reconciliation is God’s work, not ours. Before, our relationship to God had been characterized by hatred and hostility; but now, that relationship is characterized by reconciliation and atonement with God, a return to what the relationship between God and his people was intended to be and what that relationship was in Eden. It was worked out in the all-sufficient suffering and death of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the Son’s reconciling work was to endure all to present the Colossians and all people holy, cleansed from all sin and separated to God; without blemish, as a perfect sacrifice; and free from accusation by anyone, and especially by the arch-enemy Satan.

In other words, in God’s presence, there is absolutely nothing left against us. The slate has been wiped clean. Christ, who is the power holding everything together through His death and resurrection, brings it all back to God, and clears away the guilt and self-dissatisfaction in the atoning process.

These are words which you think we might enjoy hearing. These are words which you think would bring comfort all of us who are sinful creatures. But these aren’t words which we want to hear. It strikes a blow to our ego. It somehow makes us less of a person to acknowledge that we are a sinner. Paul wasn’t out to make friends or to stroke a person’s ego. He definitely is not doing that here. His goal was to bring the church at Colossae to Christ and turn them from the “better way,” a false philosophy which denied the all-sufficiency of Christ and His work.

The purpose of Paul, of myself all ministers of the Gospel, is to preach to you the Gospel, “to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” You are His saints, the church. You are the beloved children of God which were dead in sin. You are the ones for which God sent His one and only Son, to redeem and make sinless.

The words of Paul, though they may be tough to hear, are important words. Paul’s letter to the Colossians is a reminder to all who hear it of wisdom: where we were without God’s wisdom, “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds.” While we were still in that state of being, Christ died for you “in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach.” His words are a reminder of what God’s wisdom is doing for us now, “[making] the word of God fully known” to us through Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection for us. Because of the Word of God, it reminds us what God’s wisdom holds out for the future: “the hope of glory” in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.

Higher Things Concordia

Text: Hebrews 10:19-25

Preached at St. John Lutheran Church, Seward, NE on June 27, 2019 for the Higher Things Concordia Conference

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

You’re all looking rather dirty this morning, dare I even say it, disgusting, at least, that’s how we look to one another on account of our sinful nature. Try as you might, you wake up and sin. You go throughout the day and you sin. You go to bed at night, and that’s right, you sin. If there’s one thing we’re very good at, it’s sinning. I think we can agree that we have that perfected to a science! But the one thing we’re not good at, the one thing that we are incapable of, is forgiveness of those sins. Try as you might, whatever you attempt to do in your life, whether it be works or multi-step programs or whatever the case may be, you cannot earn your own forgiveness. It is impossible for you to do so, and yet we try so hard to do just that, earn our own forgiveness. And because we cannot earn our forgiveness, something must be done in order for us to be forgiven.

But fortunately for you and for me, that’s not how God our Heavenly Father sees us. He doesn’t see us as the walking and talking bags of sin that we are. No, He sees something, someone, completely different. He sees Jesus. He sees Jesus because His shed blood from Calvary’s cross runs over you. You have been baptized into His name, and that means His name is a part of you now. Jesus has done battle against sin, death, and the devil for you, in order to redeem you, to buy you back from the clutches of Satan. The Holy Spirit has given you a gift called faith, a faith that makes it possible for you to believe all of this that God has done for all of creation, including you.

You might think that this is one of those “duh” moments, that “we already know that, Pastor” moments. But do you? Is it Christ who has forgiven you all of your sins or do you try to do your work and help Jesus out to forgive your sins? It sounds pretty silly that there is anything that you can do to “help out” Jesus to forgive your sins, but if that were not the case, then why would the author of Hebrews make it clear that it is Christ and Christ alone who forgives sins for all time? It’s because you need to know that you can’t save yourself; that your salvation must come from outside of you.

Because of Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf, you can do as the writer of Hebrews says: “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith….” How are you able to do that? How is anyone able to do that? Even when wearing my shiniest clerical collar, I can’t do that. And neither can your pastor. And neither can you, at least, not on your own. So how is it done?

It is done outside of you. It has to be done outside of you. Your sinfulness keeps you from drawing near to God because we, by our sinful nature, are enemies of God. St. Paul tells us as much in Romans 5: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

That’s us — sinners, enemies of God. But that’s no longer the case. As we see in our reading from Hebrews: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus….” It is by the blood of Jesus that we can enter the holy places, and what better holy place can there be than in heaven, standing before the presence of God the Father Almighty.

Through the flesh of Jesus, through His broken body and shed blood, you receive the forgiveness of your sins; you are made right with God once again. No, that’s not the correct word. You are not made right with God, you are made perfect and holy and blameless and without sin. Your great High Priest Jesus has made the sacrifice on your behalf, the sacrifice that you could not make. He sacrificed Himself, Christ the victim, Christ the priest. He dies for you. He rises for you.

So after hearing what Christ has done for us, what is left for us to do? Can we do anything? Yes, we can do something: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” These are not just some trite or empty words. Nothing strengthens our hope for heaven more than the fact of God’s faithfulness. How can God lie or change His mind? He promised the eternal crown of glory, and He will place it on our heads. To such a hope we are to hold to without wavering, holding it near and dear as a promise of God – and we know that if God makes a promise, He keeps His promise. Hold fast the confession of our hope. What is our hope in? Do not dare say yourself, because there is no hope in you, there can never be hope in you. Your hope can only be in Jesus, for it is Jesus who died for you. It is Jesus’ shed blood that covers you.

While there is a lot packed into these verses, there is one point often overlooked today by many: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” What Christ has earned for us upon Calvary’s cross is indeed a free gift. But that free gift isn’t found just anywhere; it is found where God has said His means of grace are to be found — gathered around Word and Sacrament, for here God comes to us with His blood-bought forgiveness of sins. We stand to lose much when we absent ourselves from God’s gifts, forsaking His commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” And so, we gather around His Word, His font, His Table, to receive the gifts which Christ our Lord has won for us. We are encouraged and we encourage one another in Christ our Lord, for He and He alone has won for us the forgiveness of our sins. In the name of Jesus, amen.

Pentecost 5

Text: Colossians 1:1-14

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Epistle, which was read earlier.

It is always a good thing to hear that you are being prayed for, in good times and in bad, when you have plenty or when you are in need. St. Paul tells the Church at Colossae, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” Paul prays and rejoices in the Church, not because they’re fine, outstanding people. It’s not because they are the cream of the crop of the people located in Colossae. Paul prays and rejoices in the people because of the faith they have in Jesus.

What a thing for Paul to rejoice in – faith in Jesus! This was indeed a good and salutary thing, especially given what the Colossian Church was facing. On one hand, they were facing the error of Gnosticism, an idea that the flesh was bad and the spirit was good. This was to be seen in some sort of redemption from the material world into a world of freedom. On the other hand, they also had the Essenes to deal with. The Essenes, combined with rigid devotion to certain Jewish tenets, tried by means of allegory to subject the facts of the Old Testament to the forms of Greek philosophy. Both of these false teachings could have proven divisive to this small church, and yet they had remained faithful to the teachings of Jesus.

If only the Church today could be so lucky. We have things from all angles assaulting the Church, begging for her attention, telling us that they are just as good of an option or better than Jesus: self-help programs, multi-step programs, feel-good programs, and the list goes on. Each one comes with some truth to them, and then comes the false, misleading teachings. While these teachings pervert the true doctrine of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, they do even more – they damn. Whenever anything seeks to supplant or surpass the teaching of Jesus, it can only damn.

It is all the more important that the Church be ever faithful to what is taught, for while it might scratch our itching ears and make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, will the teaching save or will it damn?

For the Colossians, they remained faithful to the saving truth of Jesus Christ and were to be rightfully commended for doing so. They have heard the truth, that is, the Gospel, “which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing….” In spite of the imperfections and dangers at Colossae, the truth of the Gospel continued to prevail.

We, along with the Colossians, have something going for us: our faith. But what is it about our faith? Where did it come from? What is it in? The faith comes not from us but from the working of the Holy Spirit upon us. The faith is not in ourselves, our works, others, or anything else we can think to fill in the blank. True faith is faith in Jesus Christ and no one or nothing else. Fortunately for the Colossians, they had not given up on their faith in Jesus Christ while flirting with the false theology of salvation by works.

Because of all the confusing ideas that were being preached in Colossae, Paul prayed for them, asking that their faith would be increased, that God would fill them with the knowledge of His will. Paul prayed for them so that they would be able to discern between God’s Word and the false teachers. He prayed for them so that as they heard the Word of God, their faith in Christ would increase and be strengthened so that they would be able to withstand the attacks upon their faith from these false teachers.

What Paul writes to the Colossians can just as easily be written to the Church today, perhaps even our own congregation. We have before us the means of salvation, Jesus Christ, and we also have those things of the world which work counter to the Church’s teaching of salvation and promote other ways of salvation. On any given day, Christians are given the option of Jesus Christ for salvation or other means of salvation, and they get to choose what they want for salvation. That right there is our problem. There is no other means of salvation than Jesus Christ, but we are told contrary to that.

So, what do the Colossians do? What is the Church today to do? What happens when you feel as if you are too far gone for God to love you? What happens when you leave God behind and adopt the ways of the world? What happens when you just feel all the way around inadequate to be a believer in Christ? You do what the prophet Joel says: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” You see, even when we are far from God or have turned away from Him, He graciously invites us to return to Him. Even when we forsake God for the newest salvation fad, we can return to Him. That is what He did for the Colossians and that is what He does for you and me as well. God has called us by the Gospel and placed His name upon us in our Baptism, forever marking us as His beloved children. While at times that may not mean much to us, it greatly means something to God. He sees His name on you. He sees the love that Christ has for Him that He would lay down His life, only to take it up again in the resurrection, in order to win for us forgiveness and salvation. That isn’t something to take lightly and God does not take us lightly.

Paul is able to commend the Colossians for their love becauseit is notseparated from the rescue of Jesus, his love. His love has created faith in them and that faith works love. And not in the Colossians only. Paul can claim the Gospel’s deliverance in the whole world and the fruit it bears. The redemption won by Christ delivers all mankind in order that we walk in a manner worthy of the lord, in love.

But who loves first? Man or God? “We love because he first loved us” says John 1, and “by this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.” God’s love precedes our love. Faith precedes love. Faith loves the forgiveness of sin, wherever our Lord gives it. You have heard the Gospel. It has come to you. You have believed it. You are redeemed. You are baptized. You eat your Lord’s flesh and drink His blood, often, for your forgiveness. It is to strengthen your love. Not only is there life in the body and blood of Jesus unto forgiveness; there is strength for the love of God and our neighbor. Nevertheless, our love is not what it seems or what it ought to be. It needs bolstering, improvement. It receives strengthening from the faith given.

At the times in our lives where we think that we need to do something to earn our salvation or feel as if Jesus isn’t sufficient for salvation’s work, we turn to the closing words of Paul’s introduction to his letter: “He [Jesus] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” God’s formula is not Christ and the works of the Law for salvation, but it is Christ alone.

Our adequacy before God and man is not the result of our works but God’s alone. He alone brought us out of darkness into light. He alone cleansed us of all our sins. You and I are not qualified for salvation on our own. God does not call the qualified. Rather, it is Jesus who does the qualifying for us. He alone makes you called to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Rejoice in knowing that you have been qualified to share in the gifts that God has given you through Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.