Sunday, July 27, 2008

What Do You Do with Treasure?

If you came upon a treasure beyond imagination, what would you do? You would undoubtedly do all you could to secure it. You would keep it safe and enjoy the fruits of it.

There is a treasure available to us that we do not “treasure” as we should. It is the Word of God. It doesn’t look or feel like a treasure. It’s so commonplace to us that we probably don’t think of it as a treasure. The Word of God is a treasure that cannot be exhausted. In it there are always new “treasures” to be found.

An example of this is Jesus’ parables on treasure: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)

In each parable the person who finds treasure of extraordinary value sells everything in order to obtain the treasure he has found. Shouldn’t we value the treasure of God’s Word more than anything?

But as a treasure of incomparable value, the Word of God yields even more treasure. In the verses before these two parables (Matthew 13:1–43) Jesus tells several parables having to do with the Kingdom of God, with God as the subject. Likewise, in the verses after the two parables about treasure, Jesus tells yet one more parable of the Kingdom, also with God as the subject (Matthew 13:47-50).

Could it be that God is also the subject of the parables of treasure? That He is the one who finds treasure of great value and does all He can to secure this treasure?

What if the “The kingdom of heaven [that] is like treasure hidden in a field” is showing that we are the treasure, and that the “man [who] found [it] and covered [it] up” is showing us that God is that man? What if we have here a picture of God seeing us and rejoicing in His greatest treasure, rejoicing so much that in “His joy He goes and sells all that He has and buys that field”? That He, in fact, gives His very own Son in order to redeem (buy) the world (the field).

And what if “the kingdom of heaven [that] is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, [and] who, on finding one pearl of great value” is showing that we are the pearl of great value, and that man who “went and sold all that he had and bought it” is showing us that God is that man?

What do you do with treasure? You treasure it, of course. That’s what God did. He created us and He has redeemed us. He treasures us and gives us the very vault of heaven. The Word of God is a treasure that is ever enriching with us the Good News that our Lord loves us and forgives us.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Now, But Not Yet

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Most of the words are Jesus’. The parable and its explanation are from Him.

But it’s the reaction of the disciples that pinpoint what this about. This parable of Jesus is usually called the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. But that’s not what the disciples call it. They’re troubled by the parable Jesus says and when they ask Him to explain it they call it “the parable of the weeds.”

Where did these weeds come from? Who is that enemy that planted them? They’re very concerned about these weeds. They will fall to a fate far worse than the wheat. The disciples perceive Jesus is describing to them the end result of all people. They reason that if they’re the wheat then they’re in good shape. But if, on the other hand, they’re the weeds then Jesus has just sent shudders down their spine. Can we get some more explanation there, Jesus, please? Can you please assure us that we’re the wheat and then we don’t need to worry or fear?

What Jesus is teaching here is, in one sense, for everyone. The problem is, those who are the weeds may not listen. They may be offended, they may not care. But in another sense, this parable is for those of us who are the wheat. The problem here, however, is that while we listen to our Lord we fail to take it to heart. What does it mean for us that the wheat and the weeds grow together?

At the Judgment, we know what it means for the weeds—they will be damned to hell for eternity. Likewise, for the wheat, we know it means that we will be welcomed into the eternal Kingdom of glory in heaven.

But that’s what it means then. What does it mean now? What does it mean for us that the weeds will be in torment forever? What does it mean for us now that we will be forever in perfection?

What it means is that we live in the now but not yet. Or we could say the soon but not yet. The reason we might say the soon but not yet is because Christ is coming again in glory on the Last Day, but it’s not far off. It’s soon. It doesn’t seem that way because we’re going on 2000 years now since Jesus ascended into heaven and promised to return in glory on the Last Day. How long is soon in God’s thinking? Well, it is soon but since He is not bound by time it’s not long to Him like it seems to us.

This is so much more important than we realize. When it seems like it’s not soon, what do we do? We get lackadaisical. We think that He’s in no hurry. But this is deadly. And this is exactly why Jesus tells this parable. It’s going to happen. He’s going to come again in glory. And when He does, it will be too late for those who are the weeds.

This is one reason why it’s so important for you and me to know what this parable means for us in regard to the end result of the weeds. If they don’t know, or don’t believe, then it’s tragic if we sit by and let that result happen to them. Not that we’re going to save any of them. We’re not. Only God can do that. But we can tell them what will happen. Jesus makes it clear so that we clearly know of the call we have to warn the people of the judgment that will occur on Judgment Day.

But there’s a warning here for us regarding ourselves. The disciples noticed it right away. What if we’re among the weeds? Jesus begins His parable with the Gospel: He sows the wheat. But there’s judgment hidden even in the purest Gospel message. Behind the Gospel is the reason for the Gospel: the sinfulness of man. The fact that Jesus died attests to our need of salvation. It shows us that we are utterly sinful. That we are, in fact, the weeds but for the merciful action of God. Paul spells out the painful details 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.”

The prince of the power of the air is Satan—the enemy of Jesus’ parable, the evil one, the devil. We belong to him because of our sin. This is the domain of Satan. But Jesus entered into His very own creation. He came down into the domain where Satan likes to prowl around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. He met Satan head on in his own territory. And what Jesus did in the battle is to lay down His life. If it were simply a battle between Jesus and Satan Jesus would simply crush Satan under His feet. But Jesus didn’t go to the cross to prove His might over the evil one. He did it to appease the wrath of God upon sinners. Satan thus had a victory of sorts, he nicked Jesus on the heel.

But what the devil could never have seen because of His blindness to the mercy of God is that Jesus in dying for the sins of the world crushed his head.

When God sows seed He sows good seed. When He makes you His child forever, you are His child forever. You may hear the news that there are weeds in the Church and wonder if indeed that’s you. Maybe you’re not a child of God after all. But know that you are indeed a child of God, even now. Not yet enjoying the fullness of the glory of heaven, to be sure, but a child of God forever, nonetheless.

He sowed the seed in your heart and waters it daily. That’s why we return to our Baptism daily. We are weak and often turn to the desires of our sinful flesh, so daily we go back to our Baptism and repent of our sins. There we are once again drowned to the old sinful flesh and are raised up anew to new life.

He sowed the seed in your heart and tends and nourishes it. That’s why He feeds us with the very Body and Blood of His dear Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We at times wonder if there are greener pastures than the field of wheat that is the Holy Christian Church. But that’s why we hunger and thirst for Christ’s invitation to come and feed upon His eternal Bread and life-sustaining Blood. There we are renewed in heart and mind and soul. There we are forgiven and strengthened.

Can we feel the reality of glory in Christ where there is no sadness or sin, no pain or evil? No, that’s not yet. It’s the promise of our faithful God, but it’s not yet. It’s the hope, but it’s nevertheless in the future.

But even now our Lord gives to us the strength we need. He sustains us. He provides for us and cares for us. He takes our sin and wipes it out. Not because He ignores what we have done, because He has reconciled Himself to us in His holy Son, the very Lamb of God. Behold, He takes away the sin of the world. This promise is for you and your children and all who are far off. It is yours in your Baptism. It is yours in His Holy Supper. It is yours—yes, even now. And forever. Amen.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Palatable Jesus?

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Jesus was not given to the telling of nice little stories. But that is what we’d like to hear from Him, right? We hear it often: Jesus spoke in parables because He wanted to teach in a way that ordinary people could understand. That’s why He told nice little stories about ordinary things.

This is just one way we make Jesus palatable to us. If He tells us nice little stories then we can do the same. We can tell people nice little stories, too. We can tell them things about Jesus that are palatable to their ears. We don’t have to tell them about their sin or about hell, because they might not be too agreeable to those kinds of things. But nice stories about how God loves everybody too much to damn anyone to hell will go down well. We can lead them to believe that God shows His love for us by telling us that we’re okay as we are—after all, we can convince ourselves of what good people we are. And we certainly don’t need to tell them that we’re not okay as we are and are in deep trouble without Him. We can put them at ease by assuring them that Jesus is not so insensitive as to offend us or judge us.

The very notion that Jesus told nice little stories really says a lot more about us than it does about Him. I think the people who say this are well-intentioned. But we take away what Jesus is teaching us if His parables are just nice little stories.

So what are they, then? They’re stories that do in fact use ordinary things. But they’re anything but normal stories. In the parable of the sower, what kind of farmer would throw seeds on a path? This is our first clue that Jesus is not just telling a nice little story but a challenging one.

What Jesus gives us in the parable of the sower is the very same thing He does when He tells it. It seems like no big deal, Him going out on the boat to teach the crowds. Jesus did not come just to do ordinary things. He did do ordinary things, but that’s not why He came. He came to do extraordinary things. But He did them using ordinary means. Just like His parables. He told stories with ordinary things, but they were anything but ordinary stories. They weren’t just nice little stories. Jesus getting into the boat and teaching the people wasn’t just simply Him doing little ordinary things. There’s eternal significance to what He was doing, as with all things He did. The very fact that Jesus has come to earth shows us something important about us. And it’s troubling. It’s that we are at odds with God. We are, in fact, His enemies. Why else would Jesus come to earth? To go on a vacation? To check on how things were going on this earth He created? He could do that just as easily in heaven.

Jesus didn’t come to be a nice little Jesus. He’s not a good luck charm. He didn’t come to make us feel all nice and warm and fuzzy. He’s not necessarily a palatable Jesus. He didn’t come to tell nice little stories.

The one for today is actually rather unnerving. It’s wonderful, this picture of Jesus the Sower. It’s comforting to know that He sows His seed. But then He goes into all that stuff about how the birds eat the seed up, the plants withering and dying under the scorching heat, and the weeds choking out the plants. Not necessarily a nice little story. Is Jesus just a man, a teacher, who came to be palatable to the world? A man who met the need for people who like to hear nice little stories?

In three instances of soil Jesus describes enemies that are against us: Satan, the world as it seeks to demoralize us, and the world as it seeks to entice us. But as sure as those are our enemies, seeking our eternal downfall and damnation, who really is our enemy? Satan comes after us, but why do we let him? The world tries to bring us down, but why do we succumb? The world also holds out its pleasures, but why do crave them?

Jesus pictures Satan here doing what Satan does, taking the very Word of God and snatching it up. He did this in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. “Did God really say?” he asked of Eve. The seed had been sown in Adam and Eve but Satan was right there, ready to snatch it up. He’s always there in our lives, ready to do the same thing to us. Whereas Jesus is the Way and the Truth, Satan is the Father of Lies. He is the Deceiver. Jesus Christ sows His Word in our hearts but Satan will do anything to snatch it away from us.

Satan is our enemy of enemies. People have the ability to take our life—Satan has the power to take our soul. But who is the enemy here? Yes, it is Satan, but what about us? If we fall away, do we get to walk away and be able to blame it on the devil, as Flip Wilson liked to do? Or are we also our own worst enemy? Why did Eve listen to the serpent? Why did Adam even let Satan talk to his wife? Why do we listen to the very same Deceiver? Because he is the Angel of Light and we often like what we see when he comes along and snatches up the Word of God. We begin to listen to him rather than our Lord Jesus Christ.

Some nice little story. It starts off just fine with the Good News of the Sower sowing His eternal Word. But then He tells us about how things don’t always turn out so well. Why would He want to tell us a story about how the devil comes along to crash the party? And then we don’t even get the luxury of blaming him because it’s actually our fault for listening to him. But in this nice little story others come along also to crash our little Christian party. We’re going along just fine, rejoicing in the Word, feeling strong as a Christian when suddenly the world gives what it sees as a reality check. Are you sure you want to believe in something like that? You know that religion is just a crutch. And what about all the problems you experience as a Christian? It doesn’t appear you have it any better than those who don’t believe in Christ. Why not just give up on the little stories that the Bible is made up of.

And do we respond to these voices with the Word of God? Do we stand firm in faith? Or do those taunts stay in our head and trouble our sleep? Do we ourselves begin to question the truth of the sown Seed, the power of it? We again become our own worst enemies.

But the world really knows how to throw a party. If it would have us believe that we’d have things so much better with God and His Word, without Jesus and His talk of sacrifice and love, it also attempts to show us. The world doesn’t just taunt us, it entices us. Enjoy the pleasures of the world. You only live once, don’t miss out. Before we know it, the Word of God becomes like a mist in our memory. We hardly even notice that it’s gone.

Jesus doesn’t make any of this better. If we think it’s bad that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh are against us, it’s even worse that Jesus comes along and tells not so nice little stories. But very troubling stories. Stories that show us who we really are. That’s not palatable. And it never will be. You think Satan is going to jump on that? You bet he will. You think the world is going to ridicule us for believing that we are by nature sinful and unclean—and that they are, for that matter? Without question. You think the world will relish the chance to offer us something that seems far more pleasurable? You can count on it.

Jesus knows all this. But that’s why He tells His story. Because it’s really about Him. It’s not so much about us as who He is and what He does for us. He knows the depravity of our hearts. But you know what He does? He sows the Seed. And when He sows seed, He’s not a proper little farmer. He’s a terrible farmer. He just starts sowing that Seed. It’s more a scattering. Here. There. Everywhere. Good soil. Bad soil. Rocky ground. Paths. Highways. Byways. In season and out of season. Jesus didn’t come at any old time. He came at the right time. He came to save to save sinners. If you hear one thing, hear that. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.

What Jesus loves to do is not tell nice little stories. What He loves to do is come to us. What He loves to do is actually be the Story. John says that He is the Word made flesh that dwelt among us. He took on flesh to die in the place of sinful flesh. He came into the world to save sinners. Along the way He healed some people, He even raised a few from the dead. And he told a lot of stories.

Were they just nice little stories? Do we need just another storyteller? Or do we need a Savior? His stories, His life, tell us just that. It’s Jesus Himself. The Sower. Scattering that Seed. Planting that Seed into the hearts of sinners. A nice little story for Him would never be one in which we don’t hear about who we are and our eternal need for His salvation. His stories are the very Story of eternal love and mercy. His Word does not return to Him empty but accomplishes the purpose for which He sent it. That is to save and redeem. To produce fruit, a hundredfold, sixty, and thirty. In other words, beyond what we could ever imagine. That’s not just a nice little story, that’s the truth. Amen.


Sunday, July 6, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Matthew 11:25-30

Those familiar with Monty Python’s Flying Circus will remember one of their gags: “And now for something completely different.” That would be followed, of course, by something having nothing to do with what had been happening. It was goofy. But it’s true, isn’t it? There are things that are different in life. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad, it can just mean different. A TV show had two best friends confronted with a challenge. The one was going to get married and the other one was afraid this would affect their friendship negatively. The one getting married was straightforward: yes, things are going to be different—but different doesn’t mean bad, it just means different.

We might also think that different means weird. There are plenty of people out there who revel in being so different that it can seem pretty weird. You’d think that acupuncture is just for people. But there’s a guy who goes around Portland, Oregon, doing acupuncture to the city. He sticks needles into the earth in order to help maintain the city’s vital energy.

But different doesn’t have to be weird. It doesn’t have to be bad. It can be simply different. Distinct. Distinctions are inherent in God’s creation. On the first day of creation, He created light. Then He separated the light from the darkness. Do you know what He created on the second day of creation? An expanse. The sole purpose of this expanse was to separate. “He separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And God called the expanse Heaven.” Throughout creation and life we can see that there are differences. That doesn’t mean bad, it means different. Men and women are different. That’s a good thing, they complement each other. Day and night are different. God made it that way. We have time to work and play and time to rest and sleep. Work and play are different. We have time to accomplish things and serve others and time to rejuvenate. Our lives are filled with differences, and this is good; it would be pretty boring if everything were the same.

God Himself is wholly different from us. In our Gospel reading Jesus rejoices in God the Father hiding His glory and grace from the wise and understanding. That might seem strange, even wrong. Why would He be happy about that? We prefer fair play. But God deals in justice and mercy. The cause of Jesus’ rejoicing in was in God’s hiding of His glory and grace from the unrepentant and His revealing of them to the repentant. What do you do when you have done everything you can do? You rejoice in having done everything you can do. Jesus had done everything He could do for the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, all He got was rejection. He preached, He provided miracles. They refused Him. What they would then receive would be judgment on the Last Day.

The Psalm says, “All men are liars.” The Word of God says that God is the God of truth. Whether the truth of God is received or rejected, it is still the truth. The Psalm says, “O Lord, if you should mark iniquities, who could stand?” John in his first epistle says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” They had rejected Him, but Jesus rejoices nonetheless. Though He had done all He could do, God the Father was still God the Father. Though people rejected Christ, God was still the Creator and Lord over all of creation. The one who realizes that the God who has come in Christ is a holy God and that he himself is a sinner and without hope before the holy God, confesses his sin. But John goes on in his epistle to say, “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the Truth is not in us.” God, above all people, agonizes over those souls that reject Him and His grace and salvation. While He is above us and greater than us, He nevertheless appeals to us with His offer of free and eternal life.

Christ’s offer is different from what we may think we need. We may be thinking we need help in our problems. We may think we need healing from our illnesses. We may think we need reprieve from our boss that’s too hard on us. All that would be great, and Christ does indeed offer us help in those things. He gives us wisdom and strength and at times even reprieve. But if that’s all He were to offer, how would that really be any different from what we could receive from the world? Go to any bookstore and you’ll see a self-help section that will offer more than your share of help for your problems. What would Christ really be offering if it were nothing more than that? He would be no God and no Savior at all.

What He offers is something completely different. In his letter to him Paul exhorts the young pastor Timothy to rightly divide the Word of truth. What our Lord does is call us to repentance. This is so different from what our sinful flesh wants to hear it’s no wonder many reject Christ as God and Savior. But this is His first act of love in reaching out to us who have more to deal with than just our problems. We must answer for our sin. We must stand before God. He deals in justice, and we are hanging in the balance and found wanting. Paul in the Epistle talks about how for us Christians, we are who redeemed and forgiven, are nevertheless in a battle against our sinful flesh. Sin lies close at hand. The first person ever born, Cain, murdered his brother, Abel. God said to him, “sin lies crouching at the door, but you must master it.” What happens when we try to stop doing those things that are wrong and hurtful? We think we can just try harder to get better. But who are we fooling? You can’t stop cancer. We, as Paul says in the Epistle, are a body of death. Trying to get rid of our sin is like putting a Band-Aid on cancer. Our disease is sin.

So what does Christ offer? Rest for our souls. Taking His yoke will not make our lives easy, but it will give rest for our souls. We might ask for an easier life, but He offers us what we truly need, refreshment for our weary souls. “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”

In giving us His Holy Supper, our Lord not only commands and invites us to eat and drink, The Large Catechism reminds us that

"there is besides this command also a promise, as we heard above. This ought most strongly to stir us up and encourage us. For here stand the kind and precious words, “This is My body, which is given for you.… This is My blood … shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” These words, I have said, are not preached to wood and stone, but to me and you. Otherwise, Christ might just as well be silent and not institute a Sacrament. Therefore consider, and read yourself into this word you, so that He may not speak to you in vain. Here He offers to us the entire treasure that He has brought for us from heaven. With the greatest kindness He invites us to receive it also in other places, like when He says in St. Matthew 11:28, “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” It is surely a sin and a shame that He so cordially and faithfully summons and encourages us to receive our highest and greatest good, yet we act so distantly toward it. We permit so long a time to pass ‹without partaking of the Sacrament› that we grow quite cold and hardened, so that we have no longing or love for it. We must never think of the Sacrament as something harmful from which we had better flee, but as a pure, wholesome, comforting remedy that grants salvation and comfort. It will cure you and give you life both in soul and body. For where the soul has recovered, the body also is relieved."

Are you ready for something completely different? Rest in the Lord. The yoke of the Law, of sin, guilt, and condemnation, was laid upon Him. In His suffering on the cross, we have rest. Receive His body and blood. Receive His eternal rest for you souls. His promise to His people in the Old Testament is the same to you and me: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Amen.