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.