31 July 2004

Homily for Trinity 8 (2004)

Homily for Trinity 8 (2004)

Beware is not a word we use all the time. It’s a special word reserved for marking off situations of high and usually hidden risk. It means: “Watch out – danger ahead and it might not be obvious, but you have been warned.”

So when our Lord speaks to you in today’s Gospel and says: “Beware of false prophets” he is warning of a great danger that each of you must be on our guard against.

And you must not sit back and say to yourself: well, that’s the pastor’s job. It is not to the pastors alone that Jesus speaks this word. Just a few verses before He had said: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – and we all know that in saying that He was speaking to ALL of His disciples – so just three verses later when He says “beware of false prophets” He is still talking to ALL of His disciples. That means, he is warning you, putting you on the alert, telling you that there will come to you those who will tell you what is false and deadly – and you had better take the care to learn how to recognize them – your salvation depends on it!

Look, you take care to make sure that no one scams you financially, don’t you? You don’t just take anyone’s word when it comes to where to put your money. How can you then be so lackadaisical when it comes to spiritual matters – to eternal life? You would dare to trust your eternity to another person’s judgment? To do so would be fool-hearty, wouldn’t it? Do you really think on the last day saying: “Well, pastor said so” or “Martin Luther said so” or “Billy Graham said so” will carry any weight? I don’t think so. On that day you had better be able to say: “I am standing firmly on what You have promised in Your Word, O Lord.”

And there’s the rub. Sheep’s clothing is what our Lord says these false prophets come in. Dr. Luther, rather perceptively, nailed that one down. For a false prophet to come in sheep’s clothing is for a false prophet to come using the Sacred Scriptures, but using them in such a way that he falsifies their message so that instead of leading people to turn from theirs sins and to believe in Jesus, the false prophet either leaves secure sinners unalarmed in their sins or drives frightened sinners to despair of ever finding forgiveness. Either way, the false prophet, the wolf, accomplishes his purpose: people end up separated from God for eternity, they end up in hell.

So how can we recognize these false prophets? Jesus doesn’t leave us to guess. He tells us: “You will know them by their fruits.” That doesn’t mean, that you can recognize them merely by how they live. After all, how can you know how they live? No. The fruit of a false prophet is his teaching. So Jesus is saying, you can recognize these false prophets by seeing what results when people believe their message, when they take it to heart and build on it.

As I said, this falsification can go in one of two ways. First, the false prophet can tell sinners who are not the least bit alarmed over the sin in their lives: “Peace! Be of good cheer! God loves you! Nothing ever shall harm you. God is a God of love and mercy and tender-kindness.” What happens when that message sounds forth from the pulpits of Christian Churches? I’ll tell you what doesn’t happen: repentance. People instead imagine that they really are believers even though they are living in manifest, unrepented sin. This is the situation God rebuked through Jeremiah. He said: “If these prophets had stood in My counsel and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from the evil of their doings.” (Jer. 23:22)

Let me make it very clear: saving faith cannot and does not exist with the intention to continue in sin contrary to one’s conscience. If you know that something is forbidden by God, if you know that it is contrary to the Ten Commandments, and you choose to continue in it, thinking that God will just have to forgive you, and that you are a true believer, you are deceiving yourself. Listen to Paul’s words: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolator), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” (Eph 5:5,6)

Whenever you hear a preacher or teacher telling you that God’s mercy and grace mean that you are not called to repent of your sins and amend your life, I don’t care what Scriptures they adduce and try to sell you, you have there a false prophet. Jesus did not come for you to remain a slave to your sins but that you might be forgiven and freed from them. Or, as St. John said in his first epistle: “He is faithful and just to forgive our sins AND to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But if that’s the danger of the false prophet on the one side, there is the danger of the false prophet on the other. The one who would make sinners who feel their sin and are frightened by it, despair of the mercy of God by directing them not to the finished work of Jesus Christ but to their own doings for the completion or assurance of salvation. St. Paul had to battle them in Galatia. He speaks a stern anathema against anyone – even an angel of God – who would dare to say that the Gospel is forgiveness plus something you do – no matter how big or small that something may be. Anyone who tells you that you are saved when you DO anything, has poisoned the Gospel and falsified God’s Word. Not your doing, but God’s work on your behalf, delivered to you in His means of grace, is what saves you. To any of you who are alarmed over your sins and truly wish to amend your sinful lives, the good news of God for you today is that your sins have been forgiven. Christ’s death on the cross has paid for them in full. And that forgiveness your God delivers all the way to you in Baptism, in the Holy Absolution, and also in His Holy Supper. You can’t add to it if you tried! It’s a perfectly finished salvation and God delivers it to you Himself in just the same manner He won it: pure gift!

Beware, then! Beware of false prophets on either side! Either one is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing, for both seek to lead you away from Him who died and rose again to forgive you your sins and to free you from them, and to Him alone, our blessed and only Savior Jesus, be all the glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.

20 July 2004

Homily for Trinity 6 2004

Homily for Trinity 6

When we first hear the Ten Commandments, they don’t sound too threatening, do they? I mean, if we dwell on the surface we can congratulate ourselves about not sticking knives into people – at least, not usually. But when our Lord takes hold of the Ten Commandments everything changes. He takes “you shall not murder” and by the time he’s done with it, we realize that the anger in our heart and the words we say that cut and batter and leaves others bleeding inside, are violations of the fifth commandment! And our Lord is only revving up – he opens up the other commandments too. He declares anyone who even thinks about sexually using another person is an adulterer. Anyone who needs to say: “I swear” is a liar. It gets worse and worse! Luther had a term for what Jesus does to the commandments of Moses here – he said he outmoses Moses (mosisimo)!

Jesus’ entire treatment of the commandments follows upon his assertion that the only way into the Kingdom of heaven is to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. That’s radical! The scribes and Pharisees were pretty good keepers of the Law – at least if you looked at it from the outside. But that’s just the problem. God doesn’t look at our keeping of the Law from the outside – he looks at it from the inside. What he requires is not only that we don’t kill, but that in our heart we never even want to harm another, and even more, that we always want to help others in their every need. What he requires is not only that we don’t commit adultery, but that in our hearts we never even want to have sexual relations with a person other than our spouse.

Jesus once described the Pharisees as “white-washed tombs.” Outside, they were bright and gleaming white, but the inside was full of dead-man’s bones. And the Pharisees were the folks who tried hard to please God, to keep his laws, to obey his commandments. If they are judged as totally inadequate, what on earth about the rest of us?

This is no mere academic problem, then. Each of us will one day stand before the Judgment Seat of God and our entire life – the thoughts of our hearts, our words and deeds – will be an open book. Who can endure that day? Jesus says we need a better righteousness than the best that any human can do. Where will we get it?

Thanks be to God for the One who speaks in today’s Gospel! If any of us will pass muster on the day of judgment it will only happen by Christ giving us the gift of His own righteousness. The righteousness that we could never come up with on our own – that is the righteousness He freely gives. And He can give it, because He lived it! When you look at the Ten Commandments and all that they require not just outwardly, but inwardly, there has only been One in the whole history of our race who has kept them: our Lord Jesus. And He kept them for you and for me and for all. And most marvelous of all: when we trust that He has kept them for us, then God credits us as our own His own righteousness, His perfect heart and keeping of the Law! So when we come to the day of Judgment, we will stand before God clothed in the obedience and righteousness of Christ himself.

And how does He give this righteousness to you as your very own? Where does He clothe you in Himself? Where but in the font of living water: Holy Baptism! As Paul says in Galatians: “For as many of you has have been baptized into Christ have been clothed in Christ!” (Gal. 3:27). That’s why when a person was baptized in the ancient church they were always clothed in white. It was a confession that now Christ has now put His own perfect keeping of the Law on the baptized; they stand before the Father “wrapped” in Christ himself.

But if that is so – and it most certainly is – then we can understand today’s Epistle, where the Apostle urges the baptized, clothed as they are in the righteousness of Christ, NOT to contradict their Baptism by willfully sinning against their consciences. Since Baptism unites us to Jesus’ death and resurrection, it enables us to leave the old sinful self buried in the tomb with Christ and rise anew each day, not as a slave to sin, but as a slave to Christ!

Paul is obviously not saying that the baptized never sin – that would be silly and contradict not only the Scriptures but the experience of every baptized Christian. What he is warning against is the folly that runs like this: “God loves to forgive and I love to sin; what a deal!” Can we ever forget the terrible price that our Lord paid on Golgotha for our every sin? For it is only one-half of the story to speak of Christ’s perfect keeping of the Law for us; the other half is His paying the penalty for our sin. God has not and will not overlook a single sin you or I have evercommitted. He demands that every one of them be paid for.

But this is what our Lord Jesus has done for us and for all the world! His suffering, His death – this was the ransom price He paid for our freedom from God’s condemnation. He stepped in and paid what He did not owe. And God the Father publicly declared that payment sufficient for all by raising His Son from the dead! Forgiveness won at such a price surely means that we, the baptized, dare never give in on the side of sin and gleefully embrace the slavery Christ died to free us from.

So we go back to the Ten Commandments, where we began today. They have an important and ongoing job in our Christian life. They are the mirror by which we constantly recognize the sin of our heart. Whenever we grow complacent, whenever we forget how much we continue in need of a Savior, meditation on the Ten Commandments is in order. Through that meditation the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to show us how serious is our sin, how terrifying is God’s wrath, and how helpless we are to do a thing about it. Through the Gospel the Holy Spirit then directs us back to our Crucified and Risen Lord for the gift of His forgiveness. So we flee to Jesus in confession and absolution, we run to Him in the Supper. In both, our Lord places upon us again and again the mantel first bestowed in our baptism, the robe of His righteousness, His holiness given us as a gift –the gift which alone will save on the day of Judgment. To Him, our Lord Jesus, with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all glory and honor for His grace and love to mankind. Amen.

15 June 2004

Ordination Homily for Brian Holle

Delivered at Messiah Lutheran Church in Lebanon Illinois on May 23:

Ordination Homily for Brian Holle

“Whoever speaks, as the Words of God.”  Thus St. Peter wrote in our epistle today. Brian, you may be relieved, then, to know that what God is looking for you to be to the people of Messiah is nothing but a big mouth! 

But what He would have coming out from that big mouth is not the product of your own wisdom – considerable as it is – but rather simply what He puts into it. As the Lord said to Jeremiah: “Behold, I have put My words in your mouth!” Or as David prayed: “O Lord, open thou my lips and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.” Said simply: the Lord is putting you here to speak His Words so that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.  

Logia tou theou, not logon tou theou. His WordS, not His Word. For His Words are not one, but two. He would use your mouth to speak to the people of Messiah words both of law and of gospel, of judgment and of hope. Your mouth filled with the Word of God that strips us of our fig leaves and exposes our nakedness, and your mouth filled with the Word of God that clothes us in the righteousness of Another and presents us before the Father, blameless, holy, beloved. You’ll know you have delivered those Words of God aright when all the glory goes to God alone through Jesus Christ, our Lord, and none of the credit goes to your hearers or to the preacher.

Luther said of this verse “whoever speaks, as the Words of God” that “here Peter has closed the pope’s mouth!” The pope at the time, you will recall, wanted to have his own say so added in and counted among the Words of God. Sadly, popes live not only in Rome. They are forever rising up in pastors’ hearts. It happens whenever we try to foist our will and bright ideas on others as though they were actually God’s – when in fact, they’re sadly just our own. 

Against such incipient papacy in the hearts of pastors, stand the words “whoever speaks, as the Words of God.” That protects the lambs of Christ’s flock. For though they must indeed follow the injunction of Hebrews: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who must give an account;” yet to the lambs of Christ’s flock here at Messiah, the Holy Spirit speaking through St. Peter says that in big mouth of your pastor let there be found only the Words of God. 

And so should you think that Pastor Holle forgot himself one day and trotted out with some smart ideas of his own which he would lay on you as from God himself – God teaches you to come to him respectfully and earnestly with a simple question. It’s a question Lutheran children are exposed to early and often as they learn their catechism. “Where is this written?” Can you show me from the Words of God? Now, if what he has said is indeed from the Word of God – that ends the discussion. Whether you like or whether you don’t. God has not placed Brian Holle here to tickle itching ears, but to speak the words that kill sinful self-sufficiency and that raise from the dead those who are killed through the forgiveness of sins in Jesus. Jesus warns in today’s Gospel that people can get kind of riled about that – he tells his apostles it just goes with the territory of being His witnesses. God, after all, is God, not us. What He says goes, no matter who objects, no matter what suffering it brings.

But suppose Pastor cannot demonstrate that what he is calling you to do or to believe is from the words of God, then it is he and his pride that have to die and it will be your forgiveness that will raise him to new life. As Peter also said in today’s epistle: “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

“Whoever speaks, as the words of God” is thus the death of the papacy – of any sinful human being trying to have the say so over Christ’s people or over Christ’s ministry. God does not set this man over you as your boss, nor you over him as his boss. Rather, both he and you are under Him who alone is in charge of His Church – the Lord Jesus. And the Lord Jesus plops him down among you to speak His words – and the louder and clearer he speaks them, the better.

And the words God puts into his mouth are not empty sounds. They are not mere information. They live, they crackle with the power of God; they are strong to give what they say.

When he stands in this pulpit and points you to your Jesus, and tells you that all of your sin has been carried away by the Lamb of God, so that the judgment that was against you has fallen squarely on Him and He has borne it for you, so that your sins are forgiven, forgotten, gone that word He preaches to you is alive with the power of God to give faith and to keep faith going. 

When he at Christ’s command takes a handful of water and with the name of the Triune God splashes it upon some little heathen’s head, the Word of God does exactly what it says. As we heard in the first reading: that water washes all filthiness away and gives a new heart.  

When at Christ’s command he stands before a sinner whose heart is broken over how he has failed God, and Pastor speaks over such a one the word of absolution with the laying of hands, that word is just as valid and certain in heaven as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself.

When at Christ’s command your pastor stands before this holy altar and speaks the words of His Savior over the bread and wine, those words are powerful to bestow what they say: the body and blood of Jesus, which your Jesus offered up for you on Calvary, now in your pastor’s hand and then in your mouth for the forgiveness of all your sins. That’s how the powerful, gifting words of the Lord do their job.

And that is how the Church is sustained – from those Words. Vital, then, that we give them free course among us, that we hear them and let them do their job on us. As Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders: “I commend you to God and to the Word of His grace which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” 

“Whoever speaks, as the words of God.” Be about it, then, Brian! Open that mouth and fill that mighty chest and sound forth the Words of the Lord in this place! And you, people of Messiah, cling to those words and let them live in you and give you life! Then all the glory will go to God through Jesus Christ for His strong Word. Amen.

12 June 2004

Homily for Trinity 1

Homily for Trinity 1 (2004)

“And Abraham believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6) When the Lord made the promise to him, Abram did not stumble in unbelief. He knew that God was not only powerful enough to carry through – even though Abram had not the first clue HOW He would do it – but that God was gracious, merciful to carry through and bring forth this Seed who would bring blessing to all nations. Such faith alone saves. But such faith is never alone.

John wrote: “This commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:21) Let no one comfort himself that he shares the faith of Abraham if he is without love toward the brother. Faith alone justifies; but the faith that justifies is never alone, it is always accompanied by the fruits of the faith, the works of love.

Did the Rich Man in the Gospel reading have faith? He surely thought of himself as having faith. Even in the torments of Hades he lays claim to being a child of Abraham, and Abraham owns him as his own, calls him, “Child.” But that his faith was a sham is revealed by this: that he could walk right by the poor beggar Lazarus, thrown at his gate like a piece of garbage and left there to rot, pitied only by the neighborhood dogs who sought to alleviate his suffering by licking his sores. What sort of faith is this – that a man has less pity than a dog? But he not only walked by – he feasted in Lazarus’ sight and poor Lazarus would gladly have joined the dogs to lick up the crumbs from under the table, but no one gave him a thing. And this rich man had faith?

It is entirely probable that the rich man rarely missed the opportunity to attend the Synagogue. He might even have had a special seat of honor – the rich and famous often did. But when it came time to read the words of Moses and the prophets aloud in the Synagogue, he listened but did not take them to heart. He did not let the words sink into him and reduce him to fear. He did not realize that God meant exactly what he said: “Cursed is he who does not continue in all that is written in the book of the law to do it.” To him it was either a form of entertainment, a nice break during the week, or maybe it was just a boring social obligation he had to fulfill. Whatever. He came and listened, without heeding. And so he was a man without the faith of Abraham, the faith which alone is reckoned for righteousness, the faith which is never alone, but always breaks forth into deeds of love for the neighbor.

How do I arrive at that? From this. That when the rich man in torment in Hades asks Abraham to send Lazarus back as a warning to his five living brothers, Abraham responds that they have Moses and the prophets and they need to hear them. The rich man dismisses such a thought. “No, father Abraham,” he pleads, “but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Even in hell, the unbelievers despise the Word, think little of it, and don’t accord it the power that it truly has.

Abraham, though, is no unbeliever. He knows the power of the promises of God, the might of God’s Word. That Word called him from unbelief to faith. That Word brought him from death to life. That Word gave him a child and through that child the promise of the One who would bring blessing to all. That Word sustained him all the days of his pilgrimage. That Word kept him humble before God and so he never trusted in his own deeds, but that Word made him fruitful in good works. And that Word brought him at last to a place of bliss and joy. It was not a Word to be despised. So he says: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”

Here we sit. Richer in the Word than they were. For God has given us the witness of Apostles and Evangelists to add to Moses and the Prophets. We have not merely the foretelling of the One who would bring blessing to all. We know His story! We know how He came to us who could not get to Him. We know how He shouldered the burden of our sin and carried it to death on the tree. We know how the Father raised Him from the dead and glorified His body with a life that never ends. We know that that sharing that life is what the Word of God is spoken to us for. We know He has a bath that robes us in glory. We know that He spreads a table where we may eat a food that yields eternal life. The riches are laid out every week.

But are there any here who are like the Rich Man? Any who merely hear and do not truly receive the Word that is spoken? Any who imagine they have faith when their hearts remain cold as stone to the needs of their neighbors? Know for certain that such faith is just fake faith. Not real. Useless on the day of judgment. Historical knowledge of Bible facts is not what God reckons to anyone as righteousness. Why, as James points out, even the devils believe like that!

What should a person do wonders if he is like the rich man and his brothers? Abraham points the way. He doesn’t tell you to get busy showing love in your life as though deeds of love are what brings faith alive. No. He tells you to listen to what the Word of God says. To take it to heart. For, says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My Word.” (Is 66:2)

Let the Word do its work. The Spirit is eager to give faith to all who will only listen. And such faith cannot help but break forth into deeds of love – for faith lays hold to in the Word and in the Word is God Himself, who is Love. Let him move in and watch out! Love will just burst out! And so we pray, having received Him who is love in the Holy Eucharist, that this salutary gift of Christ’s own body and blood would strengthen us in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. In such faith we can indeed be confident of dying a blessed death and being welcomed to the Feast that never ends in the Kingdom of the Father to whom with the Son and the Holy Spirit be all glory and honor unto the ages of ages. Amen.