Sunday, October 26, 2008

Will You Please Get Out of the Way?

Reformation Day [Observed]
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Matthew 11:12-19

I think it’s fair to ask the question why we still cleebrate the Reformation in our day. Is it because we want to honor Martin Luther? Celebrate sixteenth century German culture? Lutheran theology? Maybe it’s a reason to have another festival on the Church Year calender, or a party, which we will be later on today with our Oktoberfest.

If these are the only reasons we’ll be celebarting Reforemation Day then we should get rid of the festival. Because the Reformation is not primarily about these things. It’s about us gettting out of the way. That’s what today’s Gospel readng shows us, as if it’s saying to us, will you please get out of the way? The Reformation is nothing if it’s not about Christ. The Reformation is all about Christ, which means that we need to get out of the way.

Some may think the Reformation is about Martin Luther. In a similar way, some might think that the ministry of John the Baptist was about John the Baptist. But what these men did was not about themselves. It was always about Christ. God sent them to point people to Christ. You could describe their message as, “You need to get out of the way.”

Has it ever happened to you that you read a passage in Scripture and you think it says something and then you come to find out that it really says something else? That happened to me with what Jesus says in the Gsopel reading: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” I had always took this as “from the days of the beginning of the Church until now” God’s Kingdom has suffered violence. The history of the Old Testament bears that out. But what Jesus actually says is that in the short time between John the Baptist coming onto the scene until now, when Jesus was speaking these words. This was just a short period of time, a few months, maybe a year or so. Of course, it’s true that the Kingdom of God has suffered violence from the beginning. But it’s as if Jesus is saying, as much violence as has been suffered in the Kingdom of God, you’d think it would stop when the Messiah has come on the scene. But no, it’s just the opposite.

That’s because people weren’t getting out of the way. The whole purpose of this is to see Jesus. Take John, for example. Jesus said that “the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” So was it about John the Baptist? Was his role as God called him to be the Forerunner of the Messiah about himself? No, Jesus says that he’s Elijah. It’s not about John, it’s about Jesus. John knew that he had to get out of the way. He wasn’t sent for himself, he was sent to call people to get out of the way and point them to Jesus. That’s why he said of himself that Jesus must increase but I must decrease.

This is what Jesus wants us to hear. He who has ears, let him hear, He says. What are we going to hear? Will we expect Jesus to tell us what we’d like to hear, or what He has to say? Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ. If we get out of the way then we will hear. If we’re in the way we won’t be hearing what He has to say, which is that it is in Christ that we have life. Not by hearing what we want to hear about ourselves. That’s getting in the way. We need to get ourselves out of the way.

What does Jesus say about those people He’s talking to? “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’” They know the rules, but even though they want to play the game, they want to play by their own rules. When children are calling others to play along with them the others refuse because they don’t want to play by the rules. If a dirge is being played, then mourning is called for. If festive music is played then dancing is in order. But people don’t want to get out of the way, they want things on their own terms. So do we wonder why we need to talk about Reformation? Are we any different than the generation that Jesus spoke to in our Gospel reading? Don’t we need to get out of the way also?

If we look at John the Baptist and Jesus we see what it means to get out of the way. John came not for himself but to point to Christ. And yet that’s not what everyone saw. For his strange ways, some accused him of being demon possessed. On the other hand, Jesus came and He certainly couldn’t be the Messiah, as He said He was, because He didn’t live in the circumspect way that the Messiah ought to. He’s no Messiah, He’s nothing but a glutton and a drunkard. And look at the kind of company He keeps, He associates with disreputable people. In each case the problem was that people couldn’t get out of the way. They wanted John the Baptist on their own terms. Jesus, on their own terms. When we refuse to get out of the way, we miss Jesus.

Oh, we might see Him. But we will miss Him. We won’t see Him for who He is. Because we won’t see our true need for Him. “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Because this is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about us getting out of the way. True wisdom is Wisdom incarnate, wisdom in the flesh. Jesus Himself is wisdom made known to us and it’s by His deeds on which all of this turns. If we simply get out of the way we will see this. We will see that getting out of the way is the only way.

How do we do it? Do we stop coming here, into the House of God? That might seem a logical way to “get out of the way.” But no, this is right where we need to be. It might seem like an odd thing to do, to preach to the choir. But the choir is exactly who needs to be preached to, along with everyone else, of course. Why do we, who are here week in and week out need to be exhorted to be here week in and week out? Because we need to get out of the way. The way to do that is in being in the place where you’re not doing the work. Where you are receiving. Where God is gracing you with His gifts, blessing you by His action—through Word and Sacraments—by getting you out of the way and getting Himself into your life. So that it’s all about Him, not about you.

It’s most fascinating that when it’s all about Christ, and not about us, that with Christ it’s all about us, and not about Him. When He served, when He suffered, when He died, it wasn’t for Himself. It was for you and me and the world. If we get out of the way we’ll see that. We’ll see Him. For who He is. For what He has done. For who He has called us and created us and saved us to be. Amen.


Sunday, October 19, 2008


Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Matthew 22:15-22

It seems that the Church Year, which has been around for a lot longer than our country, has brought us a timely topic in the Gospel reading. Jesus’ famous saying to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s shows that God has something to say about our relationship to government. A timely topic with the election just weeks away and our nation facing a financial crisis. The Bible is clear that we are to obey government. God has instituted government for the good of society. Taking Jesus’ teaching on giving to the government what is owed it and to God what is owed Him doesn’t help us out much in who to vote for and how to get through the financial crisis.

There’s something bigger going on here. You and I could each give a list of all the big things going on in our lives. At the same time, we collectively are facing an onslaught of issues and disagreements and views on how best to run the country. For months we faced skyrocketing gas prices. When it seemed we were finally getting a break from them we were hit with a meltdown on Wall Street. Last year we were reeling from out of control fires, as if we hadn’t gone through enough three years before. As some are again flaring up around the region we wonder if we’ll be hit again. People are facing uncertainty with employment or with the value of their house, or if they’ll even get to keep their house. We live in uncertain times on the world stage with wars that don’t seem to have an end in sight and economies crumbling around the world and the continual threat of terrorism.

Sometimes the big problems may not seem to press down on us. They may not seem to affect our day to day decisions. The relentless pace of our lives may give us more than we can handle without having to worry about what’s going on in the world, let alone the nation. If we’re struggling with problems with our kids, facing stress at work, in conflict with our neighbors, constantly bombarded with health problems, we may wonder when we’ll get a break. When you’re living in a fallen world, the problems you face can seem relentless. When you’re surrounded by sinners along with yourself there will be no end to difficulties.

But Jesus has something to offer you. And it’s much more than a trick for knowing how to walk into the voting booth on November 4 or whether to buy or sell stocks. He has something to offer you in the barrage of difficulties you face.

If we weren’t flies on the wall, as the Holy Spirit has allowed us to be with Matthew’s comment that the Pharisees were trying to bring Jesus down, we might think that the men who came up to Jesus posed a legitimate question. In the same way, if Jesus weren’t God and had simply taken the men’s words as they stood, He would have had reason to believe that they were asking Him a fair question. After all, isn’t what they said about Jesus true? “Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and You do not care about anyone’s opinion, for You are not swayed by appearances.”

It’s true: He’s genuine, He’s the real thing. And, yes, He does teach the way of God faithfully. At the same time, He is not swayed by the mere opinions of people. He is God. He is a Rock when it comes to being the source of truth and acting on it. The question they ask is indeed a legitimate question. We have those same kinds of questions today. The campaign this year has shown that there are many disagreements about the role of government in society. Even among us Christians, what does it mean to obey government while still being faithful to God?

The men who approached Jesus weren’t interested in His opinion. They didn’t care about His teaching on the matter. This was one more attack on Him, one more attempt to bring Him down. The religious leaders were relentless in their attempt to get rid of Jesus. And He knew it. His answer silenced them. They couldn’t believe it. They had been foiled again. How could they bring this guy down? Matthew says that they left Him. Did that mean that their relentless pace was finally slowed down? No, it means that they left Him at that moment. They would emerge again at an opportune time. We know that they would finally be successful in bringing Jesus down as they would arrange things so that He’d be hanging on a cross by the end of the week.

No, the relentless pace continued. Jesus’ entire three year Ministry was a constant barrage of attacks from them, of being tempted by the devil, and of facing struggles and problems. I don’t know how you’re feeling today, and how you’re doing with all that’s going on on the big stage of the world and the nation or in your personal life, but I don’t imagine it’s any worse than what Jesus had gone through in His Ministry.

What was different is why He went through it. You’re stuck. Sometimes you can’t get out of the mess you’re in. When life’s relentless pace seems to kick it up a notch, you may feel like you’re just hanging on. Jesus put Himself in the thick of the problems and sin of this world. When you’re struggling to overcome a habit that’s causing you heartache, before you can get a leg up on it, new temptations overcome you. If the issues facing our society are enough to cause you to despair, you may wonder what hope there is for you to be a Christian. When all the little things in your personal life pile up so that you’re racing like mad to put out fires here and there, you may wonder if there’s any solace in the new life Christ has given you.

Don’t walk away from here today glad that you have a better attitude about how you’ll vote or what you can better do to manage your money. Walk away from here rejoicing that you have received what Christ gives you. And that is Himself. With everything God commands us there is a blessing involved. When Jesus says to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s we can rejoice that God cares enough about us that He doesn’t leave societies to their designs but institutes order for the well being of people and the punishment of those who cause others harm. Before you wonder about our government, just think about the government of Jesus’ day, the government of Caesar—he declared himself to be God. When we pay our taxes we also have the opportunity to pray for our government, pray God to guide and bless our leaders, that they would lead in a godly way.

When Jesus enjoins us to render to God what is God’s we can rejoice that no matter what condition we live in, whether we live in a free country or not, all that we have is from God. Blessings in this life are granted freely by God because He loves us. But if the relentless pace of life has you wondering if there’s more to life than simply trying to keep your head above water, then know that rendering to God what is God’s means that all who we are and what we have is from Him because He has reconciled Himself to us. It’s easy to put blame on others or government for our problems, but we are too often like Caesar, putting ourselves before God. If the financial crisis has you down, do you trust that God will keep you in His care—no matter what? When you’re facing one thing after another in your personal life and you just want it all to go away, are you refusing to rejoice in the blessings God gives you even in the midst of trials?

Let us not test God. Let’s instead render to Him the confession due Him. Confessing our sins, acknowledging our lack of trust in Him, seeking our solace in Him alone. The relentless pace of problems in our lives is unmatched by the relentless pace of God in loving us and serving us. Rendering to God what is God’s is done through the Son of God. Living in peace is not being free from difficulties but in thanking God for salvation in the one who was marred beyond recognition. When all you see around you is things falling apart, look to see the one who is in the center of it all, the precious Lamb of God, the Son sent by the Father to rescue us not from financial collapse or even sickness but sin and hell. Our country may rise or fall, but God has prepared a place for you in heaven which will remain. God is relentless in His love for you, His unfailing love upholding you through the temporal things and gracing you in His presence for eternity. Amen.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Warning: Gospel Ahead

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Matthew 22:1-14

Warning concerns judgment. Warning concerns bad things to come or least things to be aware of so you don’t fall into trouble. But today’s Gospel reading shows us of another warning: there’s Gospel ahead. It’s clear that the Judgment of God is severe and He indeed warns us of that. But it almost seems to be saying: Warning, God is about to do something good. He’s about to give you a Gift beyond imagination, so you’d better watch out. Why would this be a warning? Because if someone does something nice for you you now have the opportunity to reject it.

When Jesus is telling a parable, you know that He is teaching something spiritual. So when a king gives a wedding feast for his son, you can think about the Heavenly King God giving a wedding feast for His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. He is the groom and we, His Church, are the bride. In English the king tells his servants to go to those who were invited to the celebration. But what Jesus actually said was, go call those who were called. This is Gospel language. That’s what God specializes in, the Gospel. When He calls, that’s a Gospel thing. Invited is okay, but when you’re called, that means that you’re in. You have a front row seat in heaven, you don’t even need to RSVP.

But when the servants went to the called, they were refused. This is the warning we need. When God calls, He is doing His Gospel work. When He does His Gospel work, we become aware that it’s not just me in my own little world. The King of the Universe is calling me into His eternal Kingdom—I can no longer remain in a state of ignorance that I’m fine here in my own little world. But God doing His Gospel work, never gives up. When He calls, that means you’re in. So He’s going to reach out again.

What will He tell you? That you are called. You’re in. The servants said to the people: I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. All is prepared. There is nothing for you to do. There are no forms to fill out. No background checks. No hoops to jump through. You’re called. You’re in.

But let me warn you now. When God decides that He’s not going to give up on you, that means that He’s not going to give up on you. You might just as soon that He leave you alone. You might have better things to do. But surely you don’t treat Him the way the people in the parable did. Some ignored the servants. Some went back to their own business. Some even had the audacity to treat them shamefully and even kill them. We may not want what God gives, but at least we don’t react in such an appalling manner.

The warning is here. Whenever a gift is given, there is always the opportunity to reject it. There’s even the opportunity to scorn it. Whenever God works His Gospel work, we have the choice of renouncing it. We may do this by ignoring it. We may just go about our business. We may even blatantly mistreat God. The danger would be for us, though, to think that as long as we’re not in outright denial of God’s gift of the Gospel, then we’re okay. We would be missing the warning entirely. The ones who ignored and the ones who went about their business outright denied the king just as the ones who killed the servants did. Because all of them were called. They were all in. But they all said, no thanks, I’d rather be out. I want to have nothing to do with you.

The king’s response, of course, is a warning. The king’s response was swift. In his anger, he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. The warning here pertains to the Day of Judgment. When a person dies, there is no more calling, no more reaching out. In this life if you reject the grace of God and die in that state you are separated from Him and tormented for eternity.

But God is still about the business of the Gospel. The king tells his servants that the wedding feast is ready, but that those were called were not worthy. When characterizing what it is that makes one called, there is only one thing that can be said: you are called because God calls you. There is no worthiness in you. There is nothing you have done or will be expected to do. You are called freely and solely by the grace and mercy of God. That is His Gospel work. He gives freely, not on the condition of something in return. It’s all completely one-sided.

So why does the king tell his servants that the called were not worthy? Did they somehow mess up between the calling and the actual wedding feast? No, it’s because they rejected their worthiness. In and of themselves they were not worthy. But the king called them. Therein was their worthiness. They were counted as worthy because the king wanted them to be at the feast of his son. There is no worthiness in us. God calls us and that is how we become worthy. It is Christ alone who is worthy. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain is the acclamation of the Church. Christ takes on our unworthiness and replaces it with His worthiness, His righteousness.

That’s why God does His Gospel work. His Gospel work is to call sinners to righteousness. Not by calling them to reform or try harder or live in an exemplary way. By calling them to righteousness. What that means is that when He calls you He gives you the righteousness of Christ. When He calls you, He saves you. His calling work of the Gospel brings about in you the very thing He calls you to, which is eternal life.

To drive the point home, He pictures it in this way. The king commands his servants: “‘Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 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.” His call goes out. It is not partial. It goes out far and wide, to the high and the low. There’s no sign on the door of heaven that some need not apply. If the first group of people don’t convince you that God has called you to eternal life in His Kingdom, this second one ought to. Because it’s the call to everyone.

The Son is the Groom and celebrating His Wedding Feast because He has laid down His life for His Bride. When you’re called, you’re called. When you’re called, you’re in. The celebration is eternal. It is fully realized in the glory of heaven but begins now. This altar is the place where our husband, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ celebrates His Wedding Feast with us. Guess what’s for dinner? He is the Host and the Meal. He celebrates our salvation by giving to us what He has accomplished our salvation: His Body and His Blood.

But warning: this is no namby-pamby invitation. This is a call. There’s Gospel ahead, and rejection of it brings disaster. An eternity of being separated from the one who has called you is real. Those who are not worthy should not partake of the Meal our Lord has prepared. While we are never worthy because of anything we have done, we are indeed worthy because our Lord has called us. Because we have confessed our sins and believe that Jesus’ Body and Blood given and shed on the cross is the only sacrifice which accomplishes our salvation and grants us righteousness, we are considered worthy by Him.

The wedding feast of the king was filled. So is heaven. But there’s still room for all of us. In fact, because God continues to do His Gospel work, we share even now in the Communion of our Lord Jesus Christ with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. Those who deny that Christ is actually present in and with the bread and wine are not in true communion with Christ and His heavenly and earthly Church. If they partake of the Lord’s Supper they receive the Body and Blood of Christ, but to their harm.

Do you wonder why the man who somehow got into that wedding feast was speechless? We know what the king would have done if met with an excuse or a defense. But do you wonder what the king would have said if the man had realized his guilt, apologized, and repented of his sin? We know what kind of a king he was. He was a king who called. He was a king who wanted people to share in the joy of the wedding feast. Many rejected his gift. There was a guy who was in there physically, but not really in, because He didn’t want to be in there on the king’s terms. He held on to the fleshly clothes of his own worthiness. It is only by stripping those off that we’re truly in. It is only clothed with the righteousness of Christ that we celebrate in full communion at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Our God is a giving God, He is a Gospel God, He is the God who does His Gospel work. If you are ever in doubt; if you ever sin to such a great extent that you don’t see how God can forgive you; if you ever wonder if it’s all just too far above your head; if you have any question or objection whatsoever, be warned. We’re prone to these thoughts because we want to wrap ourselves in our sinful flesh. But there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. There is Gospel ahead. There is Gospel here, for you now. It was given to you in your Baptism. It is delivered to you here, at His altar, often. He has called you. Everything is prepared, He has done it all. You are in. Welcome to the Feast. Amen.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

It’s Good to Be In the Vineyard

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Matthew 21:33-46

The parable of the Tenants of the Vineyard presents us with the grand scheme, the very Plan of Salvation God has laid out in the Bible. As God has given Himself in taking on flesh so in everything Jesus does He is giving us Himself. God created human beings and yet we often attempt to step outside of God’s providential care and make a name for ourselves.

A famous example of this is the tower of Babel. Man reaching up to heaven with all of his power only to be foiled by God in causing them to speak in different languages, causing them great confusion. It also happens in subtle ways. The world began in a garden. The Garden of Eden was perfect. Adam and Eve lived in paradise and Adam’s taking care of it was not a burden. But upon the Fall man’s work in caring for himself and his family would be toil.

Not long after God had brought Noah and his family to dry land after the Flood Noah began to be a man of the soil. He planted a vineyard. With a new lease on life, could there have been some thought that in planting a vineyard he could establish a new paradise? Even if it were possible, he ruined it soon enough in taking a good gift of God in wine and indulging in it. Just as Adam and Eve had done, taking the good gifts of God but wanting more.

When it comes to God, the problem is never with the Gift. Nor is it ever with the Giver. When Joshua and Caleb and the other spies sent by Moses came back from checking out the land of Canaan they brought with them a cluster of grapes they had cut down. God had promised them the land of Canaan, but as the Promised Land it would by no means be a restoration of Paradise. Sadly, that’s what they were looking for, just like Noah had done.

But that didn’t mean God wouldn’t restore Paradise. Our Old Testament reading shows us how God describes His beloved people, as a vineyard. When God does something He does it right. He created the Garden of Eden in perfection. Upon the Fall into sin He immediately set in place a Plan—the Plan of Salvation for all people. He planted His people, His vineyard, with great care. He did everything He could to nurture it and care for it.

But what happened? He says in Jeremiah, “Many shepherds have destroyed My vineyard.” What did God do? Just as the owner of the vineyard in Jesus’ parable sent servant after servant, God had sent to His people prophet after prophet. As the tenants in the parable mistreated the servants and even murdered some, so the people of God did to the prophets. God anguishes—What more could I do for My Vineyard that I have not done?

What He could do and did do is send His Son. As the owner of the vineyard sent his son as his last effort, so God our Father has sent His only-begotten Son as the fulfillment of His Plan of Salvation. We know what happened. We know that He, too, was brutally murdered. And we know why. Jesus is speaking this parable specifically to those religious leaders, the shepherds Jeremiah had been talking about, who were to be nurturing the Vineyard—the people of God, not destroying it and persecuting the prophets.

This, now, was the last chance. They would get rid of Jesus, they would be done with Him once and for all. But what will He do to them? The chief priests and Pharisees answered the question, indicting themselves: “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.” The Vineyard has been let out, my friends. You and I are the recipients of God’s care and nurture of His Vineyard. Because of the promise given to our father in the faith, Abraham, all nations of the earth are blessed. God sent His very own Son as the Redeemer for the world.

Will we go the way of the people of God over all the centuries? Constantly kicking against the goads. Always seeking greener pastures. Thinking that somehow we can restore Paradise in our lives apart from the Word of God and His Sacraments and the Holy Christian Church. After all, what do vineyards do? They produce fruit. Vineyards well tended overflow with wine. If you and I simply take for granted that the promise has been extended to us and we’re good to go, then not much fruit will bear.

But we must not also trap ourselves into thinking that bearing the fruit God desires of us and delights in is something we can produce on our own. If anyone could have—apart from Christ, that is—it would have been the Apostle Paul. He makes his case in the Epistle reading:

"If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the Law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith."

We could make our own list. We’re proud of our achievements. We produce good results at work, we help out in our communities, we raise good children, we get them involved in all kinds of activities that make them better people. But before we know it, it’s all about us, and all the activities we’re involved in. God gets crowded out. Being in the House of God, being dedicated to Bible Study and the daily exercise of prayer and devotions, meditating on the good Gifts God has given us Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper go by the wayside. Here we are, attempting to build our own little paradise on earth and the righteousness of Christ becomes an afterthought.

But God has placed us in His Vineyard. We count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. The grand and eternal plan of God, His Plan of Salvation, is met in this One, the Son of God, the Savior of the world. When Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden after they fell into sin Adam was given to working the ground in toil. But restoring Paradise would not come through this toil. It would come through the suffering of the only-begotten Son. It would come through His own flesh and blood. His body given, His blood poured out for the sin of the world. There is no toil we do that will restore Paradise for ourselves, get us in favor with God, gain us entry into heaven. But His sacrifice will.

And He will nurture His Vineyard. He will sustain you in the faith. He will continue to offer You His Son, often, as He does today in His Son’s Holy Feast. He will once again give His Body to you and pour out His Blood for you to eat and to drink and be refreshed in your soul. He will strengthen and keep you both in body and soul, both now and to life eternal. It’s good to be in the Vineyard. Amen.