Monday, August 28, 2017

I AM, the chief sinner [Trinity 11; St. Luke 18:9-14]


Today, we once again hear the Christ speak to us, saying,

More faithful to the Greek, the Tax Collector says, “…atone for me, the sinner.” Not only is he asking for a sacrifice to be made in place of his sins, but that definite article back into the English does two things: 1) it suggests that the Tax Collector is not the only sinner he is praying for, but for all sinners and 2) it gives us the idea that there is someone out there with the title of “the sinner”.

In the first place, the Tax Collector places himself in the category of sinner. Meaning, he has heard the Word of God, has heard that there are such people who are sinners, and assumes that he falls into that group because of his actions in life.

He is right that he is a sinner, but he is also right in that there are lots of them. These people are the ones in need of atonement as opposed, maybe, to the righteous Pharisee.

And it is in one of our more loved hymns that we sing of this actuality. “Chief of sinners though I be” hints at these words of Jesus about atonement for sinners, but the hymn comes more directly from Jesus’ words in St. Paul’s letter to St. Timothy. For it’s there that we hear, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.” 1 Tim. 1:15

Now, by all literary accounts, you assume St. Paul is talking about himself. St. Paul, like the Tax Collector, places himself under the category of “sinner”. And you are right. He has set up all these churches, trained St. Timothy, and placed him in Ephesus all the while being just as big a sinner as anyone else with all the anxiety that goes with it. A humbling act on his part.

And he has ample reason to do so. In Romans, he says, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Rom. 5:8-11)

In order to be saved, then, the Tax Collector and St. Paul see no choice but to label themselves as sinners so as to be on the receiving end of atonement.

This is only half the story, however. The other half lies in the words St. Paul uses in that “chief of sinners” phrase. It could also be read this way: “the Word is faithful and worthy of all reception, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I AM is first.”

Note the use of The Word. It is the Word that is faithful and worthy. It is the Word that came into the world to save. It is the Word Who is the great I AM. I AM is the Name above all names, which Jesus proclaims is His own, but in this context, it means that the great I AM now becomes the chief of sinners.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Heb. 4:15-16

Now, it becomes clear that it is not just the Tax Collector and St. Paul who are “the sinners”, but as in all things, God is foremost and chief, even in the area of sin. For, in order to atone, or make a perfect sacrifice in answer to the Tax Collector’s prayer, God, the perfect being, must be that perfect sacrifice.

Though none of the sin was His own, God became man that He would then be subject to sin’s wages: death. In this death, He would be innocent and an innocent man dying demands justice. This we see in the Easter morning light.

I AM becomes the Chief Sinner so that you would become the Chief Saint. And yet, we see Jesus in both the Tax Collector AND the Pharisee. As the Almighty, Jesus is not like other men. He is wholly other. The word we use for that is holy. The phrase we use behind His back is holier-than-thou.

Thus, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:10. God the Perfectly holy and the perfectly sinful, offers this mystery upon the cross and makes not only the unlovable Tax Collector loveable, but makes a way for the self-righteous Pharisee as well.

And if these two can be given a way to forgiveness, so can we. All now fall under the love that dies on the cross and rises again. All now are categorized as sinner under The Sinner. All now are given the righteousness and perfection necessary to enter heaven, for free. All have all their prayers answered, now that the atonement for sin and death has been made in full, by Jesus on the cross.

So now as we present ourselves in the Divine Service as sinners, we receive everything Jesus has received. Not only His death, but His resurrection also. For He was made man in order to redeem His lost and condemned creatures and to continue to dwell among them in the same way, because Jesus sympathizes with us in His body. This then is the real comfort to Tax Collector and sinner alike: that Jesus has a body, still has a body, and still uses it to commune with you today all in order to bring you His salvation Himself.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Jericho's baptism [Trinity 10; St. Luke 19:41-48]


Jesus speaks in your hearing today, saying,

In baptism we see a wonderful miracle. Not only is a person saved by it, but the Word of God is in action right in front of us. This belief that Scripture is truly God’s Word such that it produces exactly what it says, in this case a Christian born of water and the Spirit, is what is called a “high view” of Scripture.

And, unless you are within a church of one of the ancient faiths, you will not find this belief held. Outside the Church, God’s Word is infallible, except when it comes to salvation, because as well all know, babies can’t believe, therefore salvation through baptism is not literally what Jesus meant.

To illustrate, take the city of Jericho. We all know the story and Jesus today talks of no stone being left upon another. Israel walked round and round the city seven times, blowing trumpets. Finally on the seventh day of doing so, the Lord caused the walls to crumble in order to let Israel conquer the city and thus fulfill God’s promise to them of getting to live in the Promised Land.

And that’s all anyone cares to know about it. Just a display of God’s power in Israel’s life, probably in order to show that you too can conquer your “Jerichos” in life and topple walls of misfortune and sorrow, all with the power of Christ!!

Because that is exactly what Jesus is doing at Jericho…right? Tumbling your metaphorical “walls”. Right.

The Command from God was that Jericho’s walls were to tumble, not a stone upon a stone was to be left, so one way or another, it was going to happen. However, that’s all people know about this story and that is sad, because you miss the big picture. The tiny picture is that God is angry and violent. The big picture is, Christ has come, even to baby Jacob, to give him faith.

Let me explain. Before Israel goes up against Jericho, Jesus appears to Joshua as the Captain of the Lord’s hosts, with His sword drawn, in order to declare that He will fight, not Joshua and Israel. Which is lucky because no one was going to bring those walls down.

The second lesser-known part comes after the battle. Jericho is down and conquered, yet one family out of the entire, humungous kingdom is spared: that is the family of Rahab the Harlot. Poor girl gets a bad rap in the Bible…

They were saved because they had heard the Word of the Lord and sheltered spies from Israel. They were saved, because the Word had come to Rahab, and made her the great=-grandmother of Jesus. You could pretty much say, that the only reason Jericho’s walls had to topple over, was so that Rahab and her family could be free.

The Captain, Jesus, promises to Moses that the Israelites will be freed from Egypt, not to do whatever the heck they want, but to go three days into the wilderness and worship in the way He will instruct them. Jesus promises Joshua that the Promised land will be conquered under his lead, not to become another Alexander the Great, but in order that the Lord’s Chosen would have space to worship.

Yet, Jericho is not the only invincible-city-walls taken down and yet everything on earth comes to an end by destruction or decay. Jericho was just a shadow of things to come, for truly I say to you heaven has been invaded. It has been surrounded by the Captain and marched around until its walls crumbled.

Yes. Heaven has been conquered. Maybe you are more comfortable saying that the way to heaven has been unbarred, but either way, heretofore, heaven was inaccessible to you and me. Even more so than Jericho, heaven kept out all who wished to enter, even those who thought they could take it by force.

But it could not withstand the Captain of the Lord’s hosts, Who, for the salvation of the world took on human flesh and rescued Rahab and her family. Yes, Rahab is one woman who is counted in the family tree of Jesus Christ, which was so important to keep intact, that not even an invincible city could stop it.

Jacob was conceived and born behind Jericho’s walls. He was formed in sin and came out in sin. Only death was his reward for traversing the long and dangerous birth canal. He was held as tightly and securely as Rahab and her family had been.

This was true, until the Crucifixion of Jesus. For now a crucifix is hung on the walls of Jericho, sin, and death and they will never rise again. Even though Jericho was rebuilt and never really wiped out, its sentence was meted out: Christ has conquered.

And in His conquering, He encounters the dead. The walls tumble and He finds He is too late to save His creatures who prefer sin and death. Thus, Jesus follows them into Jericho. He goes down to the depths of hell, pillages and loots its treasuries, and brings them back out again into the light and into His own resurrection, by baptism.

And in traversing back to heaven, the walls restricted His newly obtained loot, so He knocked those down as well, opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers who are baptized.

Thus, it is baptism that now saves you, not because of magical properties or words, but because the Captain of the Lord’s hosts comes through means and these means are fleshy, just like Him. Jesus has declared that His Church shall be built and not even the gates of Jericho or hell shall prevail against it.

Why? Well, its certainly not these flimsy brick walls surrounding us this morning that stand invincible, but faith. The faith that Jesus has come in the flesh. The faith that Christ has suffered, died, and risen again. The faith given by grace, through faith, for Christ’s sake alone.

These walls of the Church will stand, because Jesus stands within them and sin, death, and the devil now no longer hold dominion over Him and, by baptism, neither is there any hold on those who believe and gather in His Name.

It is not our strong conviction or our superior knowledge, it is the strength of Jesus Who rose from the dead and gives His resurrection to the sinful dead who are stuck behind impenetrable walls.

Jesus destroys the walls of sin, death, and the devil which prevent you from finding Him, from gaining forgiveness, and from obtaining salvation through the waters of the Flood and the Red Sea, pooled in this font.

So while the enemy copies Jesus by doing these same things to us as Jesus does to sin, their attempts are vain. For though our enemies of faith surround us, tear us down to the ground, and our children also, in the midst of that the victory remains ours, because it is Christ’s victory He has given us.

Rejoice with me, brethren. Bring out the white robe of Christ’s righteousness. Set the Table with the Lord’s own feast and let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found worthy in the Lord.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Alien work [Trinity 9; St. Luke 16:1-9]


Whom we hear today, speaking to us, saying,

If we do not see and fear that every single one of our works, righteous or not, is a mortal sin, then they become mortal sins.

We have been told by Jesus, these last couple of weeks, that we shall not be entering into heaven. Whether it is because our righteousness is less than the scribes and Pharisees or that we simply cry out “Lord, lord” and are turned away at the gate.

Jesus even says elsewhere that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven before us (Mt 21:31) and today Jesus explains that unless we are a dishonest manager, we will get no praise from Him.

Jesus even finishes off this parable in saying, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (v.10).

More directly, we are dishonest with little things, therefore we are dishonest in much. We will not get into heaven because we are not, nor would we admit to being prostitutes, swindlers, or poor. At least, that’s what it sounds like Jesus is saying here. However, in the real world we demand justice for such crimes.

We make laws against prostitutes and throw them in prison or fine them, because it offends the sensibilities of decent, god-fearing folk. We crack down on the thieves, because how dare someone attempt to relieve me of my private property. And we can’t have the poor living wherever they want; doorsteps, parks, alleys. They need to be kept under control. All for their own good, which of course only we know.

This signals our own virtue. We order and command that life be brought under how we see things and then claim the moral high ground in doing so. Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless mortal sins, if worked without the fear of God. What is necessary to have a pure heart and true fear of God is for God to testify and God to cleanse our hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9)

In contrast, the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits. How can we say that??
Samuel says, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord takes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.” (1 Sam. 2:6-7)
Isaiah says, “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you— his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind” (Isa. 52:13-14)

God’s works are “evil” to us, because “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In the sinner’s eyes, our works are good and God’s are bad. In this way, the dishonest steward gets himself in trouble. He does what is right in his own eyes. Yet, the mercy of God even exceeds our works and thoughts and, though, we muck it all up, Jesus can still work salvation through our misdeeds.

Isaiah calls God’s work strange and alien (Isa. 28:21) and commending a dishonest steward is strange and alien, much less the prostitute and the tax collector. But this is the beauty and wonder of the Gospel: that it is not dependent on how well we do things, but how well Jesus has done things for us. Salvation is a great work that is done outside of us and then brought inside us.

Jesus is not the alien or the stranger that rises from the dead, you are the alien who is dead in your sins. You are the strange thing on earth that has chosen death and the devil over Life and the Creator. Thus, when God comes to earth in the flesh, He is cast out because He is not like you.

That the prostitutes, tax collectors, and dishonest stewards get into heaven before you, is not because of who they are as sinners, but that they confess they are sinners to their Savior. Admitting your sin on earth, gets you 10-20 in the Federal prison. Confessing your sins to Jesus gets you a complete reprieve. Alien.

This is one of the key words in understanding what the Gospel is. It is an alien work. A work that needs to be done outside the sphere of sin, death, and the devil and imported. Your works are not alien to you. Christ’s works are.

Thus for the sake of the Gospel and to give glory to God’s holy Name, Jesus becomes the dishonest manager, taking the debts owed to His Father and paying them off, not just partially, but completely. He takes what is the Lord’s and “misuses” mercy by giving it to those who are “unworthy” and “unloved”. He wastes the Lord’s possessions by casting the pearls of forgiveness and salvation before swinely sinners.

Your debt, before the Father, is zero, for Christ’s sake.

Your works, good or bad, are now sanctified and made holy, for Christ’s sake.

Your heart is now the purest substance known to man solely because Jesus has said its so.

St. James says that if we fail in one part of the Law, we fail in all of it. St. John tells us that if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. And this is the point. Just admit it. Just confess. If you do not, the Law of God will condemn you. If you do, it is Satan who will accuse you, but in the end he will be punished, not you.

In this way; in Confession and Absolution, you agree with the devil. But, only in the confession of your sins; that you are guilty of all and more that you don’t even know. He convinces you in two ways. The first is that you are a horrible sinner, dishonest in every way, undeserving of God’s favor. The second is that you are not a sinner.

This, then, is where Christ disagrees with both of you. Jesus disagrees with Satan that anyone on earth has sin, because He has taken all sin onto Himself. Jesus also disagrees and declares that sin is a part of every inch of this world. This is why salvation comes through the cross.

It is only through the death of the old man; the death of sin and death, that a new man can arise. It is only through the Crucifixion that the dishonest steward is made honest, the promiscuous is made chaste, and the thief is made honorable. Likewise, it is only through the confession of yours sins that the stink of all of them on you may be erased.

For the only unforgivable sin, is a sin that doesn’t exist. The alien work of Christ is Him taking all that sin as His own; being actually guilty of them, before the Father. For it is only Jesus Who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Apples and Apples [Trinity 8; St. Matthew 7:15-23]


The Lord Jesus Christ speaks to us today:

Whenever a religious conversation goes to the topic of work and we hear Jesus talking about fruit, everyone invariably runs to St. Paul where he talks about the fruit of the Spirit. Then we all start singing the Sunday School song and everyone gets along, happily ever after, the end.

This happens because St. Paul is easier to understand than Jesus. Love, joy, peace, patience and the whole lot is easily put into practice and understood by physical and emotional beings, such as us. They are easy to access. Easy to process.

If I were to preach a sermon series on love and tell you that its all you need and its what makes the world go round, you’d nod your head and feel good about yourself. If I were to give a presentation on what joy is in the Bible and say you need to find more of it in your walk with Christ, you’d clamor for more.

If I were to chide you into being peacemakers, or becoming more humble, or committing random acts of kindness and goodness; you would tell me one of two things: either that you have already done those things from your youth up or that you don’t feel like it today.

But Jesus, God in the flesh; made man; creator of both spiritual and physical, is not only making a theological, spiritual point, here. If He were, these fruits would be pretty worthless for the kingdom of heaven, because just about everyone on earth can produce these fruits, though they not benefit from them eternally.

We do not have to be seminary trained in order to read St. Matthew and understand St. Matthew writing as St. Matthew. Meaning, we can let Jesus interpret Jesus, instead of St. Paul.

So, where else does Jesus talk about fruits, in St. Matthew’s gospel, and what does He mean by the word. In the parable of the Sower, we have seed being tossed onto the good soil, dying, and yielding fruit 100 times over. Here, we may see fruit as being those brought into the Church by the preaching of the Gospel. (Mt 13)

In a similar vein, Jesus talks about the wheat and the tares, when a man sows good seed and when the wheat sprouted, it showed its fruit and the tares also.

Likewise, towards the time of His crucifixion, Jesus brings again the fruit to mind when He tells of the last day saying, “when the time of fruit drew near, He sent His slaves to the vine growers to receive His fruit.” (Mt 21:34)

Here, the fruit has already been made ripe and perfect for harvest, is noticed, and is targeted for harvesting.

What then, does St. Paul’s fruits have to do with Jesus’ fruits? In the Gospel, Christ is speaking of the creation and recreation of baptized believers. Does this mean that St. Paul is talking of something else, as in our works, completely changing what Jesus had already said?

I’m presenting a false argument here, but in hopes that you see that one: St. Paul is not against Jesus and two: the fruits spoken of by Jesus are not simply good works, but Christ Himself.

Think about it. Limiting these fruits that Jesus speaks of to mere restraint from evil and sin would only be the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Meaning, anyone can check off all those items in St. Paul’s list and yet be the biggest unbeliever that ever walked the face of the earth.

The false prophet may, and most likely, do no evil better than you can, but he will refuse to be reconciled as is required by Jesus’ preaching here. He will refuse Christ and Him Crucified.

And “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.” (Mt 15:13)

The seed the Father plants is Christ Crucified. He tosses out Jesus into the field of the corrupt world, Jesus falls into the ground, and dies. His death produces fruit 100 fold. The fruit that is produced from the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the salvation of the entire world.

And what does this salvation produce? Church-goers.
When a person has been converted by the Gospel and hears Jesus’ promises made to Him in His Church, that person searches, not for Jesus, but for His Church. This is because the Church of Christ is the only place on earth where God promises to be for you, and not against you, in Christ.

So now that we are in the one, true Church and we have found Jesus in the bread and wine, St. Paul tells us what else we find in this wonderful Savior: Love, joy, peace, etc. St. Paul does not contradict Jesus, but neither does St. Paul make a different way than through Jesus. For, unless you are a part of the only Good tree, you can do nothing.

Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5)

The branch can not produce fruit by itself and the diseased tree only brings forth evil fruit. Without Jesus, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil gave out death. With Jesus, we now have the forgiveness of sins and access to the Tree of Life.

Not just “with Jesus” as some sort of tool. As if we bring out Jesus when He’s useful and set Him back on the shelf when we can do the rest. No, no. “With Jesus” means, quite literally, in Him. Just as branches that are grafted into the Good vine, so are you grafted into the Body of Christ. No longer separate.

It is no longer a matter of “what you can do on your own”, but a matter of what Jesus is doing, despite your sinful nature. In this way, you are with Jesus and you can do all the things that good fruit does. You will especially be brought past that scary bit about saying “Lord, lord” and not being let into the kingdom of the heavens.

So Jesus is the root, tree, and vine. He incorporates you into Himself by baptism and adorns His Church with you. Hanging you beside forgiveness, salvation, love, joy, peace, and patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, meekness, and self-control. All plentiful, all ripe, and already ready for the harvest.