Sunday, February 20, 2011

Matthew 5:38-48; Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany; February 20, 2011;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. ” (Matthew 5:38–48, ESV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Over the last few weeks we’ve had some tough texts to look at. And Jesus is relentless. He pushes the law on us to the nth degree. And now, today he says we have to be perfect. Let alone that we are to love our enemies. But that’s what he says we are to do today. Love our enemies. This is getting harder every day isn’t it. Our world is becoming increasingly hostile to what we hold dear, what we believe, teach and confess. If you don’t believe me just try speaking out publicly against homosexual marriage. If I were to say right now even in this room, God is not in favor of homosexual marriage and he considers homosexual activity sinful, I can feel the cringe. You know what it’s like in school, work, and all around. You just don’t want to even cross the topic. You disagree with what people are saying but you dare not speak out because you don’t want to be accused of being homophobic. And that’s just the tip of the proverbial ice burg. Women pastors, closed communion, seven day creation, the lodge and more. Some of you in this very room have problem with the way we believe, teach and confess about at least one of these topics. You don’t have to leave this room at all to find trouble in the world with the things of the church. But, even so you’re pretty safe here, but out there! Well, it can get downright hostile. And Jesus says love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This is exactly what he’s talking about. The people who hate you because of what you believe. He wants you to love them. So what does Jesus want? Does he want us to be the target of persecution? Does he want us to be relegated to kook status?

Actually, Jesus is calling us to something quite radical. He is asking something even more than just disagreeing with the politics of the day. Jesus says our lives are to be lives that are lived with a reckless generosity. Sure he’s speaking a bit stronger than he means here to make the point. But Jesus really does mean we should be giving to people who need it. And look he doesn’t say anything about making sure they use it for the right purposes, either. The whole thing about the going two miles had to do with Roman soldiers. They were allowed to conscript anyone to carry their packs one mile. Their purposes weren’t always good. But Jesus says carry it two instead. The point isn’t how what is given is used. The point is to serve… “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” After all just look what he does. He gives good things to all people, even those who are openly hostile to him. He sends rain on everyone. He gives good high paying jobs to people who only use them for their own selfish purposes. We are called to give with this sort of naïve attitude, simply because there is a need.

Saint Paul makes some sense of this for us. In Romans he writes:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. ” (Romans 12:14–21, ESV)

It’s that overcome evil with good part that conforms most to what we are talking about here… “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” This is very much who God is. He loves and gives us what is needed without any merit or worthiness in me and you, or even those who live down the street in direct opposition to God’s commands. And if we are God’s children, this is who we are also. There is, of course, no better example of this than God becoming man in Jesus Christ. In fact, even though in this text Jesus calls us to this radical naïve way of life, the text isn’t really about us it is about him. Out of his radical grace and mercy he causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust. Out of his radical love and mercy he does exactly what this text says.

Listen to how Isaiah describes Jesus work, hundreds of years before Jesus walked in human sandals.

But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. ” (Isaiah 53:5, ESV)

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. ” (Isaiah 53:7, ESV)

…because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. ” (Isaiah 53:12b, ESV)

He pours out the rain of forgiveness on all transgressors. He dies on the cross for sinners who don’t deserve it. He dies on the cross for you and for me. Even though, so often, we treat people as they deserve instead of the way God would have us treat them. We gladly accept God’s kindness to us but turn around and place conditions on our kindness to others. Such is the life of a sinful person. Such is the nature of God’s great love in Jesus Christ. In that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Back to Romans and St. Paul:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 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. ” (Romans 5:6–11, ESV)

You see how this applies to everyone, not just our friends, not just those who agree with us politically, or culturally, but it applies even to God’s enemies. Because actually that’s what we were too, God’s enemies. Sinners living in a broken relationship to God. But we have received reconciliation. We have are God’s children. We are called to be God’s children in how we interact with the world, especially our enemies, those who persecute us, those who hate us…

Back to what Jesus says about being perfect. I know the text here says you must be perfect. But without going into a grammar lesson, I believe a better translation is “you shall be perfect.” Why does this make a difference? It sounds an awful lot like Leviticus 19:2. God is speaks to the people through Moses giving them the Ten Commandments. “You shall be holy” because I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. Certainly God is giving law here. You shall be holy. You shall be perfect. Jesus is certainly saying he wants us to keep the commandments. He wants us to love God and our neighbors. It is a very strong word of law, one that we fall well short of keeping. But it is also a very strong word of Gospel. He’s talking about what happens to those who by faith cling to Jesus Christ crucified. You shall be holy. You shall be perfect. This is God working in us through his Word, through his Sacraments, to be exactly what he has already declared us to be. We are forgiven sinners, perfect and holy in God’s sight because of Jesus. And yet we struggle to do what is good and right even love our enemies. But we do what we are. Forgiven sinners cling to Jesus in faith, looking to him alone for forgiveness. And then doing what he calls us to do. Saint Ambrose (a church father, bishop of Milan in the 4th century) said “Faith is the mother of a good will and doing what is right.” Saint Paul says the same in Ephesians,

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. ” (Ephesians 2:8–10, ESV)


The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Matthew 5:21-37; Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany; February 13, 2011;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. ” (Matthew 5:21–37, ESV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is being very difficult here. He pushes the law to the point where no one can possibly keep it. I mean, just look at the “You shall not murder” commandment. None of us is as bad as a guy who would kill a convenience store clerk, mother of 10, in cold blood for a few measly dollars, Jesus isn’t happy with that. He says you can’t be angry with anyone. I don’t know. I’ve been angry already today! How about you? Kids or wife not get around as fast as they should have this morning. Did someone hog the bathroom and prevent you from getting your business done? And though we don’t have much traffic here in Howard, how about the last time someone did a bonehead thing while you were driving. You know the thing that almost put you in the ditch. Oh, but even that isn’t good enough for Jesus. He pushes even harder. You can’t say people are fools. Everyone knows how foolish most people are. Author Douglas Adams said, “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” ( Just open your eyes and look around it’s hard, maybe impossible to not say something about foolish people all around. Why is it that the folks who can least afford pets seem to have more pets than they need? It seems that every respiratory therapist I’ve ever met smokes like a chimney. Seems pretty foolish for someone who should know better. And Jesus says, I can’t point this odd fact out without breaking the commandment? And condemning myself to hell! And then there’s the adultery commandment. Now Jesus is getting really personal. It’s not just running out and having an affair I have to worry about. It’s not just sleeping together or living together before getting married that’s the problem. Just looking and getting the idea is enough to damn me to hell. Talk about utter helplessness. I mean, guys, you know what Jesus is saying here. Just walking down the street on a summer day is gonna wind you up in hell. I wonder what he’d say about stealing, coveting, speaking false witness. Jesus makes the commandments impossible to keep.

At first we may want to take the teeth out of what Jesus says here. It just seems a bit too much. Obviously no one can do what Jesus says. And the divorce thing just seems to be pouring salt on the wound. The “d” word has become common place in our society. We think it’s the solution to whatever ales a marriage. But Jesus speaks very strongly. A man who divorces his wife makes her (the innocent party) an adulterer. (It goes the same for the woman too!). The only ground that that God gives here is “except on the ground of sexual immorality.” It’s way to narrow for us. Actually our participation in divorce makes us guilty of adultery, weather it’s being silent, or giving our consent. And adultery, Jesus says, makes us bound for hell.

Actually, this text is deadly serious. Jesus isn’t pulling any punches. All too often we take our sin lightly. We tend to sweep it under the rug of forgiveness and pretend that it’s nothing. But sin isn’t nothing. What our sin deserves is exactly what Jesus says, the fire of hell, God’s ever lasting burning anger over our rebellion. We can’t ease our way out of it. We think that just because there are no bodies buried in our back yard, just because we’ve managed to keep out of the wrong bedrooms, just because we’ve not been divorced we aren’t really all that bad. And God forgives anyway. We think our sin isn’t really all that big a deal. That’s why sometime we think that Jesus is talking metaphorically when he says to gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin. We think he really can’t mean it. Well, he’s dead serious. The problem is that getting rid of our sin isn’t that easy. We could cut off our hand and then we’d have to cut off the other one, and then our feet, and then our elbows. We’d gouge out an eye and be guilty of the same sin with the other before the bleeding stopped. Our tongue would have to go next and still we’d be suffering under our own sin. It runs deep, to the very heart. That’s why Jesus says what he says. There is no cure for sin that we can accomplish. There is no cutting it out because it’s more than the things we do, it’s more than the things we think. We say it in the confession, we are by nature sinful and unclean… we have sinned in what we think, do and say, by what we have done and not done. And we stand condemned under Jesus words. Whoever does these things is subject to the hell of fire.

If it were possible for us to gouge out an eye to save ourselves we had better get gouging. Thank God he saves us from that. It is when we stand at the edge of hell looking in, facing our own deserved punishment, realizing that we are lost and condemned creatures that we see clearly what God has done for us. It is when we see our utterly lost state that the good news of Jesus has its full impact. Cutting off our hands and gouging our eyes won’t do. It takes so much more than that. It takes God himself, to sacrifice himself. It takes God become man in Jesus Christ to set our relationship with God on a proper footing. It takes God, in Jesus Christ, not cutting off his hand but allowing his hands to be nailed to a cross. It takes God, the Father, turning his back on his only son Jesus, and allowing him to suffer the full anger of his punishment, far more then the pain of nails and suffocation on the cross. It takes God, declaring that Jesus suffering and death on the cross is enough to cover our sin. It takes God giving us credit for the perfect life lived by Jesus. It takes God’s grace and mercy and only that to cover up our inability to do anything at all to save ourselves from hell.

Now listen to Saint Paul’s experience. Some people will tell you that he’s talking about himself before he was a Christian. But he’s not. All of his verbs are in the present tense. He’s talking about his life now as he’s writing. He’s talking about the attack of the law on him. He’s talking about Jesus’ words of law cutting him to the very heart.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. ” (Romans 7:15–25, ESV)

No room for eye gouging, it wouldn’t work. The sin runs too deep in Paul, it runs too deep in you. There is only one thing that saves you from this body of death. There is only one thing that saves you from the fires of hell so well deserved. It is God, though Jesus Christ our Lord. His life, death and resurrection for you are what you need. His perfect life; his loving God with his whole heart soul and mind; his loving his neighbors, feeding them, healing them, caring for them; his shed blood on the cross; his death and burial; his three days in the tomb; his resurrection from death and his coming again to claim you and the whole world again for himself. All of this is yours, oh baptized Christian, beloved child of God. All of this God did for you in Jesus Christ because you are helpless to keep the law, any part of it. All of this God did for you out his Fatherly divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in you. No eye gouging necessary, only faith. Faith that what was done by our Lord he offers to you freely. Unearned. Uncoerced. Unforced. His loving gift for you. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Monday, February 07, 2011

1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany; February 6, 2011;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. ” (1 Corinthians 2:1–16, ESV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It is difficult for a pastor to talk about Christian maturity. The problem, for a pastor, is this: many of you will think you are spiritually mature. Your first thoughts on this topic are to think that you’ve obtained some spiritual level higher than your brothers and sisters in Christ. You’ll think you’ve put away certain sins evidenced by the fact that you no longer struggle with them. You joyfully participate in the activities of the church, give your fair share to the budget, say good things about your pastor, and pray through the whole prayer list in the bulletin. You’ve weathered the storms of church politics, pastors with problems, and a long vacancy. You look at the blessings of your church, life, family, work, security as proof that you’ve been blessed by God because you are spiritual, because you have stood firm, because you have run the race and won. Obviously those who struggle to give anything to the church with joy haven’t reached that level of maturity. Obviously those who struggle with sexual temptation haven’t reached that level of spiritual maturity. Obviously those who… how does the saying go? “I don’t smoke, drink or chew and I don’t date girls who do.” If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a million times. “Before I came to the Lord, I insert your favorite sin here, but now I don’t even have the desire to insert your favorite sin.” It just all sounds vaguely familiar.

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. ” (Luke 18:10–11, ESV)

You see, the Pharisee thought he was spiritually mature. He’d conquered all those sins. The tax collector hadn’t. Obviously, he was spiritually lacking, immature. Maybe if he just worked a little bit harder, attended church on a more regular basis, dropped just a bit more in the collection plate, sat closer to the front of the church, worked on the youth board, maybe then God would clear all those sins out of his life.

You see, that’s the problem with talking about spiritual maturity. Whenever we, sinful human beings, begin to think about growing up in the faith we naturally turn to ourselves. We look to what we must do to make it all happen. And then we boast in our accomplishments and congratulate ourselves on our spiritual maturity.

Paul calls this the “spirit of the world.” And it had invaded the church at Corinth. There were divisions in the church. Some claimed to be more mature because they followed Paul or Apollos. Some thought that they were spiritually mature so they could do whatever they wanted (one man even married his father’s wife!). Paul’s letter to them points out these errors in thinking. He doesn’t go easy on them either, calling for excommunication for open unrepentant sin. It is chilling, “Hand this one over to Satan.” (5:5) he says. For a Christian to live according to the “spirit of the world” is a very dangerous place to be. For a Christian to live in unrepentant sin is to be on the path to denying Jesus Christ. Our own confessions say, But those who walk according to the flesh [Galatians 5:19–21] retain neither faith nor righteousness. [1]

Paul’s warning comes from a firm hand, as does my pastoral warning to you. Beware of your sin, beware of your pride, and beware of your natural tendency to put others in their place while ignoring the log in your own eye. There is only one thing that can be done with a sinner. He must die. Shall I say it even stronger? There is only one thing that can be done with a sinner. He must suffer hell’s punishment. So beware of your sin, Christian. It can only lead you to one place, eternal separation from the Holy God.

Now, dear Christian, I would be neglecting my job as your pastor, if on the heels of that strong law I would direct you to yourself as a solution. “Try harder!” “Do these ten biblical principal and you’ll remove temptation to sin.” “Read your bible every day and God will make you strong enough to overcome.” “You can be victorious if you pray everyday.” “Of all the things Jesus talked about he talked most about money. The bible tells you more about managing your money than anything else!” These are actually more of the same. These are reflections of the wisdom of the world creeping to the church. In fact, if I preached these kinds of sermons you’d soon be nodding your head in agreement. “Yea, that’s what I need some practical stuff to make a difference in my life.” But that’s not Paul’s solution to the problems of spiritual immaturity in the Corinthian church. What does he say?

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (2:1)

In fact, this is exactly what St. Paul calls spiritual maturity. It is seeing the foolishness of the cross of Jesus as the solution over and against the wisdom of the world. Not our doing anything. Not our working out our own way out of sin. But clinging to the cross, to Jesus and Jesus Christ crucified as our solution for sin. Spiritual maturity is here at the font, here at the altar, here in the pew when Jesus’ forgiveness from the cross is poured out on you and spoken into your ears. The two most important words you will ever hear in this church are “for you.” This is the Spirit of God at work against the spirit of the world.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (2:12)

So what are the things freely given? The forgiveness of sins won by Jesus on the cross, life and salvation. For as the Catechism says, For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.[2]

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. ” (Galatians 2:20, ESV)

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. ” (Galatians 6:14, ESV)

So there it is spiritual maturity as defined by God’s Word. It is not my victory over sin; my improving life. It’s not my best life now or my pursuing the purpose God give me in my heart. It is not thinking that there is something I can do to deal with my own sin. It is seeing that my sin is over my head. It is seeing the absolute danger of my sin and fearing the eternal consequences of it. It is also seeing that God has done what it necessary to remove it. It is seeing Jesus Christ bleeding and dying on the cross as the only answer. It is clinging, in faith, to Jesus as my savior and boasting in Jesus Christ crucified for me. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (135). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[2] Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (343). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.