Friday, March 29, 2019

Life in the Spirit

The following is an excerpt from Romans: A Devotional Commentary written by Bo Giertz and translated by Bror Erickson (1517 Publishing, 2018).
Paul concludes, “There is, therefore no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This condemnation that hung over us is suspended and will never manage to fall upon us. This is completely and wholly because of what Christ has done. We may believe and receive. To believe means to come to Christ and be united with him. Then one is “in Christ Jesus,” and then “the law of sin and death” has expired. It is this law that says, “He who sins shall die.” It has been suspended by “the law of the Spirit of life.” This is the new order: we do not need to die because the Spirit “gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). He creates faith in Christ. His Word says, He who believes in the Son shall not perish (John 3:16).
So the impossible has become possible. The law could not make us into children of God. It stood powerless before our depraved nature, our “flesh,” which could never be changed and freed of sin. For this reason, God intervened. He sent his Son in human form, like us, exposed to the same temptations, the same suffering and death, but without sin... To read more click here.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Just a Hallmark Holiday

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Eph. 6:4
“Just a Hallmark Holiday”
That is the initial response, and that is the problem.
Let me explain. I’m fairly involved with my church body and district. I’m not much the political type, at least I’ve never seen myself that way. But shortly after I was ordained as a pastor and much due to the influence of Bo Giertz in my ministry, I determined to do what I could to help promote the cause of the Lutheran faith where and when I could. If that meant volunteering to serve in otherwise undesirable jobs, so be it. I’ve been a pastor now for fourteen years. I have been a circuit visitor for nine or ten of those fourteen years. It’s a rather thankless job in which you get involved with mediating conflicts between pastors, and pastors and their congregations. They don’t even pay mileage at the business rate. It ends up costing you money to serve. But then, I rather enjoy being able to do it anyway.
Doing what I can to promote the Lutheran faith also means attending conventions when possible. We have them every three years. People pass resolutions to try fix problems and chart the future efforts of the church to get the gospel out to people who need to hear it. Most of the time I think the resolutions are badly worded, and full of misspent energy. Three days of monotonous drudgery interspersed with tense discussions and arguments on the floor. Perhaps a few beers in the evening with friends. Still, I care about my church and so I like to go. Also, I generally like the pastors I serve with and seeing the elders from other congregations. Most years I don’t write resolutions and somewhat resent most of them I see. This year I wrote three and I’m up for a few elected offices. But I’m not attending the district convention in which these resolutions will be debated, and where I may or may not be elected. The reason? It’s over Father’s Day weekend, the Hallmark Holiday.
Actually, that is one of my resolutions. I resolve that we never make that scheduling blunder again. Let me explain. First off, my issue is much more acute then it is for most of my brothers, but then it also highlights a societal problem. I’m divorced. My son lives with his mother in another state. I don’t get to see him often. I can’t much afford it most of the time. I’m drowning in debt brought on by court fees, child support and my efforts to see him when the court says I can see him. I fought hard for that time with my son. I paid through the nose for a good lawyer. I work like crazy trying to find ways to make the ends meet. I write. I translate. I speak. Despite having a great lawyer, I still lost last time I went to court because having not moved to California meant that somehow I had moved away from California. I say I lost, but my son is the one who really feels he lost. I’ll spare you the details. I now get to see my son about three times a year. Sometimes for not much more than a day and a half.  However, Father’s Day weekend was one weekend the court said I could have my son. It normally starts my summer with him. I look forward to that weekend. So I was to say the least, a little incensed that this weekend was the weekend they decided to have the convention this year. I guess because the original date conflicted with the dates for a Lutheran Women’s Missionary League rally. I see irony in that, somehow.
So I wrote three resolutions. One was purely administrative. My current circuit is split between two political regions within the district. It needs to be consolidated into one. The second has to do with actually paying mileage so that our circuit visitors are compensated properly for their work. The third is regarding Father’s Day. And that is the most frustrating. I have come to see that the issue is actually much bigger than me and my particular case.
I am actually disheartened by it. Every time I discuss this resolution with fellow pastors they initially laugh. And this in a synod and church body in which one of the social hot buttons is that so many children these days are deprived of fathers. Supposedly, school shootings happen because there are no fathers in the lives of children. Yet when I discuss this resolution concerning Father’s day I get: It’s just a Hallmark holiday, and the convention isn’t even on Father’s Day. It quits at noon the day before.
Yes, it quits at noon the day before Father’s Day, so that at least half of the participants can make it home in time to work on Father’s Day. A good many of them have to drive or fly for the better part of that day to make it home in time to do that. So they cannot very well be expected to celebrate Father’s Day on Father’s Day. Perhaps a fishing trip should be out of the question for everyone on any Sunday. Perhaps a father’s greatest joy should be to have their family in church on Sunday. I know I cherish the Sundays I see my boy in church sitting with his stepmom. But now they cannot very well take their family fishing the day before either, can they? I could care less about fishing, but fill in your own favorite family outing if you like. Then imagine that this convention was planned for Mother’s Day weekend.
Add to that this. I mean, how do I say this? Ever wonder why PKs are notorious? I do not. I was a notorious pastor’s kid. I know full well the resentment a pastor’s kid easily develops because family takes a back seat to pastoral work. When Billy Graham died a few days ago, I read with a turning in my gut stories of Billy Graham not recognizing his children when they came to see him on the road. This is not a problem isolated to famous pastors. This happens to pastors in small towns. This happens to pastors in large congregations. It’s pretty easy for a pastor’s kid to get the feeling everyone is more important to their dad than his own kids. Pastors rarely get a weekend off to begin with. Mondays tend to be the days that pastors take off. Maybe a Friday, or a Thursday. Some take Tuesdays. Saturdays they have Bible Studies, LWML rallies, Funerals and weddings. A good half our congregations have Saturday evening services, which means dad is at the church about four o’clock getting ready, while his son is playing the last soccer game of the day for that weekend tournament. Or, the son is told he cannot play on that league because their games are on the weekend. The pastor rarely considers taking his children out of school to spend time with them on the day they take off. School is important, don’t you know. They might miss a test or mess up their perfect attendance and not get into Princeton or some other college the kid could care less about attending. The pastor is rarely even aware that this is what is happening. They have a job to do and they do it. The congregation is unaware of it too. After all, there are so many family-oriented events going on at the church. Of course, the pastor’s family just sees this as one more dog and pony show they have to endure. Maybe this time they will light the hoop on fire before the kid is asked to jump through it. You can imagine how long it takes for this to start sowing seeds of conflict between a PK and the fourth commandment.
The sad fact is that this sort of dilemma is not confined to pastors. I think it is pretty common for Fathers to wrap their identity up in work etc. I mean most of the male population knows the song “Cats in the Cradle” by heart, and usually begin to hold back tears about the second verse. It’s epidemic. Pastors and their kids are not the only victims. Perhaps that is why we, especially as pastors, should stop considering Father’s Day to be a Hallmark holiday, and start respecting it a bit more.
I mean, it is not too often that our society does something like honoring mothers and fathers, which actually celebrates anything enshrined in the Ten Commandments. However, on this day society asks children to honor their fathers, to do something special for them for the mere fact that they are fathers. Buy them a tie, and a cheesy card. On this day, society asks fathers to remember that they are in fact fathers to take their kids fishing or paint their daughter’s toenails. And that same father says, “It’s just a Hallmark Holiday.” Laughs at the tie and goes in to work.  This is the same society in which it is commonly known the father has no chance of winning custody of children in court, and fathers are told they are being selfish and foolish for even trying. This is the same society that often laughs and mocks men as being deranged if they point out a correlation between the lack of fathers in homes and the rate of incarceration of those same fatherless children. This is the same society in which abortion on demand is popular because being a teenage parent is regarded as worse than suicide. Is it any wonder that this is the attitude of society when the one day that that society sets aside to honor fathers is the day that fathers even in the church where the fourth commandment is supposedly honored, is a day that is laughed at and marginalized as “just a Hallmark holiday?” Just another day in which the fathers are asked to go in to work. A request to which they obediently comply because that resolution about contemporary Christian music at the youth events is more important than the pastor’s family, yet again.   
Father’s Day. It is still a few months off. I honestly do not know what I’ll be doing. I’ll probably have to give my son $20 so he can go buy a tie I will never find occasion to wear. One thing I do know. I will not be recovering from a convention. Somehow, I just think Our Father has other business for me to be about that weekend, a different house he has given me to tend to.      

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Follow Me

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 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.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, zin whom there is no deceit!” 48 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.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 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.” 51 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.”
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “follow me.”
This is how Jesus normally went about calling his disciples during his earthly ministry. With the simple words of follow me. It is what a disciple did. They followed their master, their teacher, their rabbi. Philip drops everything to follow the one whom he has heard John the Baptist call, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He only finds his friend Nathanael and asks him to come along. “We have found the Messiah!” He says. When Nathanael finds it dubious that the Messiah could come from such a small backwater as Nazareth, Philip only answers, come and see.  These are the words, follow me, and come and see, that Jesus himself has uttered to us in baptism when he called us to be his disciples.
It was a great honor to be called to be the disciple of a rabbi. Paul, even later as a Christian could boast about having been the disciple of Gamaliel. He counted it as worth nothing in comparison with the gift of grace and salvation in Christ, but it often meant something yet to those he was trying to reach with the gospel. It would often be that there was something of a waiting list to become a disciple of such a prestigious teacher. Or perhaps we should say a trial period. It was never a matter of mere money and who could afford the lessons. If students were bright enough the Rabbi’s would find a way to take them on. But would be disciples would often hang about a rabbi, try to impress him as opportunity came along. Show up when he was preaching in various synagogues, and ask the right questions, repeat the right buzzwords. Only after the would-be disciple had proved himself would the Rabbi then select him to be his disciple with the words “come follow me.”
With Jesus the matter is quite different. No one needs to prove themselves to him. I often cringe at this way this word discipleship is used today in Christian circles. I tend to blame Bonhoefer’s book, “The Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoefer did and wrote some great things, but that his most popular work, was not one of them. It was that book that coined the phrase cheap grace. Used in such a way as to imply you are supposed to purchase grace with your life and works, or at least somehow increase the value of grace in your life by such things. Grace cost Christ his life, worth far more than gold or silver, or anything we might offer him in return. We can’t add value to the blood of Christ. So many pastors and others use “discipleship” as a tool to load people up with a burden. Asking baptized Christians if they are being real or true disciples. Offering to train them in Christian discipleship, which is usually a lot about you and very little about Christ. There is and always will be room and need for improvement in our lives, as long as our feet are planted on the green side of the sod. Philip and Nathaneal would learn that. Philip, here he is so confident that he has seen the messiah and encountered the Messiah, and at the end of the story as John tells it Jesus is asking him, “have I been with you so long? And you still don’t know me?” I mean it is crazy isn’t it? It’s almost the complete opposite of everything we would expect.
You know what is crazier? Jesus. Philip may have spent three years with Christ and known less about Christ at the end of his earthly ministry than he thought he knew at the beginning, but Jesus knew this about Philip from the very beginning and still said: “Follow me.” He didn’t care that Philip was a hard headed and confused dolt that was slow on the uptake, he loved Philip and called him to be his disciple any way. He knew what was in Philip’s heart, he knew what Philip’s capabilities and incapabilities were. He knew that Philip would be one of those who would run for the hills when the soldiers came into the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as he knew it about Peter and John, and Nathanael too. He knew they would prove to be faulty disciples. He knew their hearts. He knew they would prove to be unfaithful, but he was more concerned to be faithful to them. If Philip was confused at the end of Christ’s ministry as to who Jesus was, then he would eat those words he spoke to Nathanael. Come and See: and he would see the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. He would see the bowls of the earth burst with Life as Jesus rolled away the stone to say, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and See. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you See that I have.”
So it is for us as his disciples. We too have our ups and downs on this road of faith, in our journey of discipleship. But it isn’t about us, near as much as it is about Christ. He is faithful even when we are not. And we want to be faithful, right? We strive to be good Christians, but so often we find our spirit willing and our flesh is weak. Perhaps, we thought we were doing real well, and then find we were merely blind to the depth of sin in our lives. Though we were doing the right thing and it all blows up in our face, when we finally realize we have been standing in judgment of others for doing the very things we ourselves were guilty of. Yet we are still his disciples. Jesus knew all this about us when he called us in the waters of baptism with which he makes disciples of all nations. Then it is that we learn what a great honor above all honors it is to be disciples of the Messiah himself, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. What an honor it is to have Jesus as our rabbi, who even after, especially after we have proven to be such shoddy disciples, looks at us with his faithful eyes and says “take eat, this is my body given for you. Take drink, this cup is the New Testament in my blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Keep Your Clothes On!

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, 3 and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ 5 But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. 7 The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
“Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
“For as many of you who have been baptized have put on Christ.” Gal. 3:27 Or maybe we can go with the great Zinzendorf hymn, “Jesus they blood and righteousness, my beauty are my glorious dress, midst flaming worlds with these arrayed with joy shall I lift up my head. The righteousness of Christ is our wedding garment. So don’t take it off.
Of course, this parable is delivered again in the temple before Jesus is arrested. And it is spoken to those who will murder him. The king had sent his invitations, little save the date memos. The wedding would be a joyous occasion.
But when the time came, everyone thought they had better things to do. I mean, we know these people. God offers them the greatest gift imaginable, the forgiveness of sins. He offers it in baptism, he distributes it in the Lord’s Supper, the great wedding feast, the foretaste of the feast to come. He gives it in the absolution and through the sermon. And they are indifferent to it. They have way too many other things to keep themselves occupied. They don’t think they have anything to worry about. They reject the invitation. Of course, rejecting a king’s invitation is to insult the king. It isn’t the right thing to do.
Some, are downright hostile to the invitation. Of course, here we have the Chief Priests and Elders, the leaders of Israel for generation after generation, the kings and politicians who would beat the prophets and stone those who were sent to them. It’s a tradition that continues in this world wherever the church is persecuted with violence and oppression. God will not let that go unanswered. On the last day, legion upon legion of angels will descend upon the earth and mop up that situation rather quickly. Right now he holds them in check out of mercy, to show grace, to bring about the repentance he seeks. But the time comes. Their cities will be burned.
But it is then, when the guests reject the invitation that God sends his messengers out to invite whoever they might find to the wedding feast. Those he had invited have shown themselves to be unworthy, so he decides to invite everyone anyway.
But then comes the tricky part. He gave everyone festive clothes to wear. The clothes he wants them to wear. He’s rich. He doesn’t want people coming into his party wearing street clothes, work clothes, ratty rags worn and tattered. He gives them the clothes he wants them to wear. And most of the guests are quite happy to shed the oil stained clothes they have. Not only do they get invited to a wedding but they get the nicest robe they have ever seen handed to them. I mean, it’s fun isn’t it? Who doesn’t like to dress up from time to time. Put on a nice evening gown like the one you wore to prom. Or a tuxedo, even a fine suit. Not the kind a guy wears to go sell insurance, but a nice one that makes you stand out and look good. I keep thinking I need to buy a couple of those again. Somehow, I outgrew all the ones I used to have.
But now one of the guests is a little too proud of his own suit. It wasn’t what he was asked to wear, but he paid good money for it so it has to be acceptable, right? Of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way. He sticks out like a sore thumb. Everyone wearing white, and he is in black. He ruins the aesthetics of the whole event.
So it is with this picture of the church. Jesus is our wedding garment. His blood, his righteousness they are our glorious dress. He is given to us in baptism. There are some out there who don’t think they need Christ. They can do just fine with their own righteousness. Some of these are people who actually refuse to ever be baptized. They come to church. But just don’t see the need to repent. They think they are righteous enough on their own. Others, well they put on Christ. They were baptized. They had put on Christ, but then they didn’t think that righteousness was good enough. Maybe they were duped into believing that that just got them to the starting point, but they couldn’t rely on it. Instead of receiving forgiveness where forgiveness is given and when forgiveness is given, that by which the faith in Christ, lives, that by which the robe of Christ is ever kept free of the stain of sin, they begin to think they are righteous in and of themselves because of their work rather than Christ’s work. And so they shed the righteousness of Christ and put on their own righteousness which is no righteousness at all.
Don’t take your clothes off. Don’t change your clothes. Wear the righteousness Christ gave you. Wear your wedding garment. It’s kept clean by the forgiveness of sins received in absolution, received in the body and the blood shed for you in Christ Jesus.

Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Stone the Builders Rejected

33 “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. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 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.”
42 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’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.”
“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.” Thus the leaders of Israel, the chief priests and the elders, answer Jesus. Jesus pulled a Nathan. Nathan was the prophet who spoke to David. Nathan convicted David of adultery by telling a parable similar to this in that it asked a question by which those answering condemn themselves. It’s the whole judge not lest ye be judged bit. It is the meaning of Romans chapter 2 when Paul shows that when we condemn others we condemn ourselves because we are guilty of breaking the same law.
Jesus tells a parable. The chief priests should have been smart enough to know Jesus was laying a trap for them. They should have heard the echoes of Isaiah chapter 5. They should have known that the vineyard was Israel, that the tenants would end up being them. But if they knew this they pretended not to. They think maybe Jesus is just asking a question concerning law. They answer it as such. Then Jesus lets the hammer drop. He lets them know he speaks about them. They are the tenants. They are the ones who beat those who call for repentance and murder them.
The prophets, men like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Elisha the list could go on. God had told them how to judge prophets In the 13th chapter of Deuteronomy and the 18th chapter, If they entice you after other gods, they shall die. If they speak the in the name of God but what they say does not come to pass they shall be put to death. So prophets would have to be able to show they were prophets by something immediate that the people could see and they would have to be faithful to the word of God. But it was the ones that were faithful to the word of God that were beaten and abused, ignored and marginalized, imprisoned and stoned. The people would not hear the word of God. It was the false prophets the kings listened to. The ones who told people what they wanted to hear. It didn’t matter if it continually failed to be true.
I often wonder if we are any different today. Not that pastors are prophets in the sense of the Old Testament. But then us Christians in general who have had the Spirit poured out on us in baptism, who can point people to that which the prophets of the Old Testament could point to. Who like John the Baptist point to Christ and say behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Isn’t that just too harsh a pill to swallow? Sinners need forgiveness. I’m not a sinner. This is what our hearts want to say. We would rather listen to the man who tells us if we pray in this manner we will receive this. If we behave in this manner we will avoid that pitfall in life. We want to believe we are the masters of our own destiny. Churches that speak of Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins remain empty. Churches that reveal that this world only has tribulation to give to the followers of Christ but that our hope is in the resurrection? Those churches are maligned even by other so-called Christians. Churches that give you rehashed self-help lessons in the place of “Jesus Christ and him crucified”, the only thing that Paul would know among those to whom he preached? Well those churches overflow. They have a good youth group, you know. Yes, they do, because the parents don’t know the word of God, or don’t care about the word of God beyond what it can do for their children in this world. They may teach the commandments, but they don’t teach the gospel. They want to move beyond the gospel, by which they mean they turn away from the cross, and look at themselves and what they should do instead. They reject Jesus. They reject the cornerstone. And so it crushes them.
This is what Jesus lets he priests and elders know. The vineyard will be taken from them and given to others. So it is that many on the last day will say “Lord, Lord!” and will not enter the kingdom of heaven. They will say that they did many great things in his name, but the Lord will say he did not know them. So it will be for those that read scriptures like the Pharisees thinking that in them they have eternal life, and not realizing that they speak not of they need to do for themselves to earn eternal life, looking for rule after rule and becoming ever stricter in their own walk. But these scriptures speak of Jesus Christ, the stone the builders rejected, the stone the Chief priests and elders, the stone you and I crucified with our sins, but who in that crucifixion became the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and broke the bonds of death with his resurrection that we would be raised anew with him to walk in the newness of life even now serving him in everlasting innocence, righteousness and blessedness.
Now the Peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

That Your Heart would Be a House of Prayer

23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was ga prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?
The people asking this of Jesus represented the highest authority the land knew next to God. The Chief priests and the Elders made up the Sanhedrin, the great council. And they had not given Jesus the authority to do these things.
Of course we only have a little section here. What are these things that the Chief priests are asking about? Well, he drove out the money changers and those selling the sacrificial animals. That hurt. He healed the sick, the lame and the blind, and he allowed the toddlers and infants to praise him as the Son of David. At these things Matthew tells us they were indignant.
No one intervened when Jesus ran the money changers out, which is incredible enough. The Chief priests knew how unpopular they were, so they remained quiet and let it happen. They were afraid of the people. Perhaps, they thought that his authority came from popular support alone. If that was the truth then the trap they laid with their question might have worked. One could understand them asking about that, who gave him the authority to forbid what the highest authority in the land allowed, indeed what the highest authority gained their income from. They made a prophet charging rent for the space, a percentage on the exchange rate, a percentage on the animals sold. That hurt their pocket books.
But it is strange what makes them indignant. He heals people. By what authority do you give the blind sight? One wouldn’t think a person should even have to answer for that! You allow the lame to walk? How dare you! And this wasn’t a matter of anything occurring on a Sabbath when it was forbidden to work. It was the sheer audacity that he was able to do it at all.  And the infants crying out that Jesus was the Son of David? Jesus answered them with a Psalm hinting that he was the Messiah.
This is what they are after. If Jesus would say out right that he was the Messiah, they would catch him in a trap. Instead they find themselves caught in the trap. Jesus asks them about the baptism of John. The Chief Priests don’t want to answer. They had rejected John, but the people knew he was a prophet. John had told them that the Messiah was coming, that the Kingdom was near. They had all gone to repent and hear him, and then wait for the Messiah to come. But this sort of answer couldn’t be used in a trial. Jesus had evaded the question. The Priest’s couldn’t answer him. The people knew John was a prophet. If they said he operated by man’s authority they would be stoned to death for blasphemy. But they had not gone to repent. They had not received John’s baptism of repentance. So they could not affirm that he was a prophet, it would be to condemn themselves and their own unrepentance. Because they had not recognized John they had not recognized the Messiah. Because they refused to bow before the Law as John preached it, they could not see the gospel that stood before them.
It’s a strange thing that the priests did not bow before the law. This wasn’t just a matter of them being liberals, cultured or educated. The Pharisees were conservative cultured and educated and they didn’t receive John’s baptism either. This was something deeper. This had to do with a whole different understanding of the law. Some believe the law is something that can be kept by sinful man if he tries hard enough. Some had understood that they had not kept the law, they were broken before it. For some it was the law, the creation, and not the law giver, the creator that had become their god. It is what they had put their trust in, and they were blind to the many ways they had broken the law, the many ways in which the law had betrayed their sinful flesh. Why should they submit to a baptism of repentance? They were not publicans. They were not harlots. They were not those who had been raised without the law like the soldiers that John also baptized. To join in a baptism with them would be to make themselves equal with the likes of these sinners who needed repentance. They thought they had managed to keep it, they were above it.
Of course, that was the stinging accusation behind all he overturned tables and spilled coinage in the temple square. These men who profited off the piety of the poor, who turned the temple from a house of prayer into a den of thieves. These men who stood before the altar to sacrifice what they sold, were as unclean as the publicans and the girls they employed on a Saturday night.
It’s the same today. There are those who think the law can be kept with just a bit more effort. There are those who have allowed the law to become their idol. They trust in it. They think it will set them free. They stake their lives on it. Perhaps they needed forgiveness once or twice. But now they are better, now they are obedient. Some think therefore they are too good for church. They don’t need it to be good. Some go to church as a matter of keeping the law. And by keeping the law, they keep God at bay. They have no need of forgiveness. They do not recognize the authority of Jesus to do these things, and the things that he does they think are blasphemous, they think they have become our idols they can’t believe that we should think our salvation, the forgiveness of sins can be given in such things.
But we have a priest whose authority is higher than that of the chief priests. We have a priest  by the order of Melchizedek. He was not above the law, but subjected himself to it. First when he was eight days old and the knife cut into the most tender flesh. Then when he fulfilled all righteousness and was baptized with publicans and harlots, though he had no sin. It was love that compelled him. Love is the highest of the laws. It was the law that the priests, the rabbis, the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees could not fulfill. It was the law that the publicans broke, and the harlots sold. It is what makes sinful flesh incapable of fulfilling the law. But it is what compelled Christ to finally die on the cross for you. His love. His love for you fulfilled the law with his blood that we could be saved by grace through his word, that the righteousness of John’s baptism would be fulfilled by his love.
So he baptizes us, not with John’s baptism but with his own death and resurrection, a circumcision not made with hands, but which puts off the sinful flesh, and restores us to love through his love. So he feeds us with his love in a feast of forgiveness, and receiving his forgiveness, by kneeling here at this altar and receiving the benefit of the sacrifice our priest made in his house of prayer, here we, here we acknowledge our sin and bow before the law, even the law that John preached that we may recognize a greater presence, even our Lord Jesus Christ who flips over the money changing tables in our hearts, who drives out all the beasts the law requires for sacrifice to say I and I alone am needed, and then he purifies your heart that you would be his temple, no longer a den of thieves, but once again a house of prayer filled with love.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Becoming Children

18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the fhell3 of fire.
10 “See that you do not despise gone of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So lit is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed6 in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:1-20)
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus loved little children. Let me rephrase that Jesus loves little children. Jesus died for little children. It’s why he wants them to be baptized. It’s why he wants them to be raised up in the faith they are given in baptism. It’s why the church always has such concern for little children, because we are the body of Christ, here to do his work in this place, at this time. So we have Sunday school started today. We love it.
But I think we idealize children from time to time, and we let that get in the way of understanding what Christ has to say here. Children are not innocent. Most parents can tell you this of their own children, but they lose sight of this when it comes to the concept of children. Children need to be instructed in the faith because children are just as much prone to sin, to selfishness, to guile and so forth as adults. There probably isn’t a one of us in here who can’t tell of the embarrassment they caused their parents at the grocery store when mom told us we couldn’t have the candy bar, so we just stuck it in our pockets and walked out, only to be brought back in by our mom’s and having to return it to the grocer who let us off the hook because as children our good looks could let us get away with anything. But we knew it was wrong, that’s why we were so secretive about it. So it is that Jesus is not pointing to any virtue in children when he says we must become like one if we are to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Children, there was no difference between a child and slave, except that if the child wasn’t sold as a slave the child would eventually be free. Children were told to do things that no one else wanted to do, and they took orders from everyone. They didn’t have time to think about being great, greater or greatest. That was the point. Children weren’t great. Jesus is telling the disciples to stop their stupid game. They aren’t serving God, they aren’t making themselves great in the kingdom of God. They are making themselves great in the kingdom of men, and in their own eyes. They become haughty. And God humble the haughty. He despises the haughty, the self-righteous. But he loves the humble.
The game is still played. This game that the disciples played. The who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The real problem with it is it is self-defeating. It shows who the person really being loved is, and it is not your neighbor. That’s the hard thing with this game, trying to earn rewards in the kingdom of heaven, to be better than the person next to us and be recognized for it, by our neighbors or by God.
This isn’t to say that we should shun any recognition for good works. Life is full of paradoxes, and one of them is sometimes the humble have to receive thanks for the good they do.
The question is, what’s the motive? Good works done for selfish reasons are not good in anyone’s eyes. Now thankfully for us, motives can’t be seen by us. They can be suspected from time to time, but they cannot be seen. They can be seen by God. And so we have this conundrum. How do we do them? How do we do good works? How do we serve God in a God pleasing way? Well, we become like little children, and stop worrying about ourselves. We recognize ourselves to be unworthy servants who have never gone above and beyond what God has demanded us with his law of love.
Love is not selfish, arrogant or rude. Love is selfless. Love is not concerned about itself, but about the person it loves. So love does not take care of the poor in hopes for reward either temporal or eternal.
See this was a thing in medieval society before the reformation. The poor were needed and the needed to remain poor, so that the rich would have a way of earning their salvation! So you did just enough to help them stay poor so you could have some way of getting yourself out of your jam. You weren’t helping them, but yourself. This is one of those things that got Luther to see the whole hypocrisy surrounding the Medieval Catholic system of salvation. He began to see that good works done in such a manner were not good.
So it is that when people are told that they increase their sanctification by works, or that they receive extra rewards in heaven for their works the motivations appealed to ruin the chances for good works. Their sanctification isn’t increased by such efforts, it is decreased! Christians taught such things are actually robbed of their good works by the very people admonishing them to do good works.
So it is that out of his selfless love, Jesus Christ makes us all into children, children of the heavenly Father. He purchases us out of the kingdom of the law, the kingdom of death, the kingdom of the devil that promises rewards and punishments, offers us the carrot and beats us with the stick. He does this by dying for us on the cross. He purchases us not with gold or silver but with his holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death. He pays the price for all out sins. He washes us clean and makes us white as snow. And he does it so that there is nothing left for us to worry about. And I mean nothing! He totally levels it for us. And this is how we become children in his kingdom.
This isn’t to say that while we live in this world he won’t discipline us from time to time, and reward us from time to time. The law is still at work in this world and in our lives. But death can no longer claim us, and we are freed from worry, from anxiety, from having to wonder if we have done enough, or playing some game with other about who is doing what, who is better than who. We live in his grace. We live in his love. We love in his love. And from that love and for that love we love others that they might know the love of Christ, who with no hope of reward, who with no care for glory suffered and died even for those who despise him, who reject him, and who still find themselves playing games to see who is greatest in the kingdom of God.

Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.