Second Sunday in Advent - Series A
Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Title: “Live in True Repentance!”
Date: Sunday, December 8, 2019
Pastor Steve Bocklage
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Mt. 3:2) But what exactly does John the Baptist mean by that? What exactly does God have in mind when He calls all people to repentance through John the Baptist and others?
That is the question which God Himself answers for us in our sermon text. Our God is calling us to live in true repentance that works on us from the outside in and changes us from the inside out. The Greek word that God uses to describe true repentance is: metanoia. That word means: “a change of heart, turning from one’s sins,” (UBS Dictionary) which also includes “a change of mind leading to change of behavior.” (Friberg Lexicon)
John the Baptist is well aware that this kind of radical change…this kind of true repentance…isn’t something people can produce within themselves by nature. Why? Because even from the first moments of their lives all people conceived by sinful, human beings inherit a sinful nature from their parents. That means…even at the point of conception, all people are spiritual wastelands, devoid of any true spiritual life.
A British Columbia-based nursery was trying to track down people who bought poisonous plants that were incorrectly labeled "tasty in soup." Valleybrook Gardens, which distributed the plants, worked with government officials to locate the buyers of 17 improperly labeled perennials sold at stores in British Columbia and Ontario. Only eight of the plants had been accounted for. The label should have read: "All parts of this plant are toxic," but an employee changed it to "All parts of this plant are tasty in soup," said the nursery's general manager. "The employee was making a practical joke and thought it would be caught by a horticulturist." The devil has done the same to you and me. God put a warning label on sin that declared: "Do not eat from this for you shall surely die." But our enemy switched labels. The label he attached to sin reads: "Looks good…tastes great. It’s desirable to make one wise."
This spiritual reality that all people are spiritual wastelands, devoid of any true spiritual life is reinforced by the physical surroundings in which God calls John to address his hearers. John preaches to them in the wilderness in Judea…a rough region of barren cliffs near the Dead Sea. And he is a living illustration of how little people really need for physical survival on this earth. His plain clothing and his Spartan diet are a powerful preaching against the natural, sinful preference that humans have to be consumed by the pursuit of earthly prosperity rather than focusing on the true and lasting treasure in heaven.
Clearly a radical change is necessary. John the Baptist understands plainly that the only way for this radical change, this conversion, this true repentance to take place is if God Himself brings about the change. That’s exactly what God intends to do through His powerful tools…His Word and His Sacrament of Baptism. Just as Isaiah foretold, John the Baptist makes use of these powerful tools of God. As he does, listen to what happened: “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.” (Mt. 3:5) As they listen to the spiritually empowering and enriching words of God, the Lord transforms them from the outside in. As His Word enters their ears and speaks to their hearts, something marvelous happens. A radical change takes place in the hearts and lives of these people. They begin confessing their sins and fess up to their guilt!
Author, professor, and current president of Princeton Theological Seminary, Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes, once told this story: “When I was a child, my minister father brought home a 12-year-old boy named Roger, whose parents had died from a drug overdose. There was no one to care for Roger, so my folks decided they'd just raise him as if he were one of their own sons. At first it was quite difficult for Roger to adjust to his new home--an environment free of heroine addicted adults! Every day, several times a day, I heard my parents saying to Roger: "No, no. That's not how we behave in this family." "No, no. You don't have to scream or fight or hurt other people to get what you want." "No, no, Roger, we expect you to show respect in this family." And in time, Roger began to change. It was tough for him to change, and he had to work at it. But he was motivated by gratitude for the incredible love he had received.”
Similarly, true repentance…the kind that comes from God’s incredible love through His Good News Word…can’t help but change us, both in the attitude of our hearts and the actions of our lives. It isn’t only something that God works in you. It’s also something that defines who you are by the way you live. Strictly speaking, true repentance isn’t something you do…rather, it is something that affects and effects what you do. True repentance is something that changes you from the inside out.
We hear the fruit of true repentance coming from John’s lips as he speaks the truth of God’s law to the Pharisees and Sadducees, who consider repentance to be nothing more than going through some ritualistic motions. John speaks the truth of God’s law to them in order to knock them from their false sense of spiritual security. “You brood of vipers!” he exclaims. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Mt. 3:7-8) He also exposes the emptiness of their “spirituality” that is nothing more than a twisted sense of nationalistic pride in disguise. (cf. Mt. 3:9) That’s why John tells them: “The ax is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mt. 3:10)
So, what does all of this mean for you and me? Well, we learn that the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees aren’t innocent little mistakes. They are faith-destroying, repentance-preventing errors. That’s why John speaks the harsh condemnations of God’s law to them. Either their lives will be marked by the fruits of true repentance as evidence that God’s Spirit has baptized their hearts through His Word. Or they will face the fire of His judgment because they have rejected His Spirit as seen in the lack of the fruits of repentance in their lives.
And speaking of the fruits of repentance, the reason we’re here today is because we’ve come to confess our sins to our Savior and seek His forgiveness. The reason you attend this particular church is because you are confident that here is where God’s pure Word is preached and taught and that here His Sacraments are properly administered. What’s more is that as LCMS Lutherans we know God’s law convicts us of our sin and kills off the control of our sinful nature over our lives. And we know that His gospel is what creates and strengthens true repentance in our hearts and lives.
For that reason, we know going to heaven doesn’t depend on how much time we give in service to our congregation…or how much money we donate to support this congregation…or how much work we do to invite others to attend this congregation. The ONLY reason we’ll be in heaven is because of the One who is mightier than John who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Mt. 3:11b-12) Jesus died in our place and rose again to assure us that He has conquered death. (cf. Jn. 14:6) Through baptism, you have been raised to live a new life…a life that loves to serve Him…a life that loves to give to Him…a life that lives to love Him!
That’s what it means to live a life of true repentance! It’s that reality…that confident truth…which causes you and me to produce fruit in keeping with true repentance! And not just produce it…but actually overflow in producing the fruit of true repentance. May our gracious Savior strengthen you in this kind of living throughout your life to the glory of His holy Name! Amen.
Advent Midweek 1
Text: Luke 2:8-20
Title: “For You and All the World”
Date: Wednesday, December 4, 2019
Pastor Steve Bocklage
The son has wandered far from home. He’s lived as if his father were dead, collecting his inheritance prematurely. He’s squandered it all and has sunk to the depths—feeding pigs and even longing to eat their food. The son returns home ready to be less than a son, ready to be a servant. But the father will have nothing of it. He runs to his son, embraces him, and orders the best robe, a ring, and shoes be put on him. It’s time to feast upon the fattened calf, for his son was dead and now he’s alive.
That’s peace! It shouldn’t be surprising to you that these words from Christ are so well-loved. The reunion of father and son without anger, without retribution, without scolding…that is beautiful. This is just the sort of thing that Dr. Luke loves. Throughout his account in the Gospel, Luke delights to recount how Christ embraces the outcast so that those who have been alienated are now brought near. This is just the sort of account that you need because you know what it is to be an outcast and alienated from others. Don’t get hung up on such an account because it resonates with you. Hang on to it because this is the kind of God you have. Hang on to it because Christ comes to bring peace between you and God the Father.
So we hear in Luke 2 that the angel of the Lord sounds forth: “Behold, I bring to you good news of a great joy. For unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Lk. 2:10-11) This good news of joy is quite personal. The angel speaks first to a select group of shepherds and says that Christ is born “for you.” That message is echoed by the heavenly host, who praise God, saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Lk. 2:14)
Peace. It seems so foreign. These days of preparation hardly seem peaceful. There are presents to buy, pageants to attend, halls to be decked with boughs of holly, and here you are with another Advent service to attend. But it’s not an overstretched schedule that robs you of peace. You are robbed of peace by the absence of certain people. There are family members with whom you once spent these days, but they have long since been alienated. They said things that should not have been said. And so have you. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. The more time that passes, the more entrenched you become. While others gather with loved ones, the cold shoulder and silence from parent, child, sibling, friend makes the absence of peace all the clearer.
Yet the Lord is true to His Word. Jesus comes with peace for this season and all seasons. He brings peace because you and I don’t know what truly makes for peace. We are apt to take on the role of Jerusalem, over whom Jesus weeps, saying: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!” (Lk. 19:42) We don’t know what makes for peace. But Jesus does. So the message of the angelic host to the shepherds is echoed as Jesus enters into Jerusalem as the crowds praise God, saying: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk. 19:38) Oh, there will be peace because Jesus comes into Jerusalem, knowing the things that make for peace. He was born for this. He was born to suffer and die that there might be peace.
How beautiful that the birth of the Prince of Peace was proclaimed to shepherds. Though we may have a romanticized view of shepherds, the ancient world did not. They were seen as lowly, even despised—the very kind of people who need good news. Luke’s account of the Gospel finds the good news being proclaimed to the poor. (cf. Luke 4:18; 7:22) Whether it is the lowly shepherds or the poor who receive the good news, one thing is certain. You cannot claim that good news of peace is for others and not for you. No matter how lowly you might be, Christ knows the things that make peace for you.
The great theologian St. Augustine has said: “our soul was created by and exists for God and is therefore never quiet till it rests in God. It is with a person’s soul as with Noah’s dove in the [Great Flood]. The dove, after it left the ark, found no rest for the sole of its foot in the world till it returned to the place from which it had come. So there is no sure rest for the fallen soul in the world till it returns to [God] from whom it came.”
Rejoice in the scope of the peace Christ delivers. At His birth, the heavenly host says: “And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” It’s a blessed connection with peace coming to earth, proclaimed by the heavenly host. Peace has come to earth from heaven in this child who is born. And the angels say that it is for all humankind, not a select few. Everybody…and that means it is for you and for me! Everybody…and that means it’s for the crowds on Palm Sunday when Jesus enters Jerusalem. It’s the crowds who believe in Christ and proclaim: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk 19:38b) They know what God has promised through Christ…peace in heaven. There is peace between you and the Father in heaven. It’s yours on account of Christ…who took on human flesh and was born to bring you peace…who died in that flesh to reconcile you to God…who rose in that flesh to proclaim peace to you, and who is coming again in that flesh. You are at peace with the Father. Your sin that alienated you from the Father has been overcome. You have been the prodigal, but in Christ, the Father receives you back in joy without anger, without retribution, without scolding. That is beautiful!
That spills down to earth. You are not waiting to be at peace with the Father. You live here on earth in that peace. And so Jesus also knows the things that make for peace between you and those from whom you have been alienated. His peace is for you and all the world, including that estranged family member. Christ has forgiven him; Christ has forgiven you. That is what makes for peace.
So our lives are overcome with joy…and for good reason! The angels sing: “Joy, great joy and tidings glad we bring from heav’n resounding, For you, for you and all the world abounding.” The joy is not only for shepherds but also for you and all the world. The praise sounds forth not only from shepherds but also from you and all the world. For God’s own Son is born a child and “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.” (Rom. 5:10) Amen.
First Sunday in Advent – Series A
Text: Matthew 24:37-44
Title: “Are You Preparing or Procrastinating?”
Date: December 1, 2019
Pastor Steve Bocklage
Our lives are filled with the unexpected. There are unexpected bad things that happen. Our lives are also filled with unexpected good things…receiving confirmation that you are going to have a baby…maybe a surprise birthday party, or a surprise bonus from your place of work. Indeed, our lives are filled with the unexpected. Just think back to nearly a month ago…what was the unexpected big thing in the news? An unexpected presidential winner!
In talking about unexpected things…the second coming of Christ will be one of them. You won’t see it coming, but it will happen. It’s on the calendar but we just don’t know when. (cf. Mt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32) Of all the unexpected things that take place in our world, this one will be the biggest surprise of them all.
Today begins a new church year…the first Sunday of the Advent season. The word Advent means “coming” or “arrival” and points to Jesus arrival. Instead of focusing on His first coming as a humble divine king…a baby born in Bethlehem…we will focus on when He comes again as a powerful, divine king…divine royalty. That’s why the Advent colors of the church year are blue or purple. Both are the colors of royalty…colors of a king.
This morning, I want you to seriously consider and ask yourself: Am I prepared for that unexpected day when Jesus returns?” Or, am I procrastinating? In our Gospel reading, our Lord tells us to “be ready”. He tells us that most people won’t be ready and compares the world at Judgment Day to the world at the time of the flood: “As were the days of Noah,” Jesus says, “so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Mt. 24:37-39) What was wrong with the people at the time of the flood? They weren’t ready. They had no relationship with God. Their entire lives revolved around earthly things and nothing else. They likely knew about Noah, the man building the boat in the desert. But they ignored that. They ignored having any real type of relationship with God. And then the flood came, and swept all of them away.
This is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus also says: “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.” (Mt. 24:40-41) People will be left behind when Jesus arrives. It is interesting how an entire series of fictional books, known as the Left Behind series, have been based on these verses. The basic idea in these fictional books is that the world will keep on running but people will disappear. And while that’s interesting to think about, you have to remember that the Left Behind series is fictional, not Biblical!
When you take this passage and line it up with all the other passages in the Bible about the end of the world, you get a very different picture of what will happen. Imagine that the end of the world would take place at 5:00 this afternoon. What do you normally do at 5:00 on a Sunday afternoon? At that moment, everything will stop. Everything is done. You will hear the trumpet call of God, the voice of the archangel. According to the Bible, all the dead will be physically raised to life and have spiritual, glorified bodies enjoined with their souls. You and all the other believers will be caught up into the sky to be with Christ. (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16-17; 1 Cor. 15:44)
And what about the unbelievers who are left behind? Jesus tells us in John 5 that He will judge them and throw them immediately into hell. (cf. Jn. 5:28-29) Then the world as we know it will be destroyed, and some kind of new heaven and earth will be created…a place where believers can worship God free from sin. That’s how God describes the last day in His Word.
Are you preparing for this day? Or, are you procrastinating? A spiritual procrastinator is someone who’s not ready…who says, “Eventually I’ll get my act together spiritually. But not right now. I have too much going on.” Is our world ready for Jesus’ second coming? The truth is most people are procrastinating and still unprepared for His arrival.
A fable is told about 3 apprentice devils who were talking with Satan about their plans to destroy all of humanity. The first apprentice suggested that they would succeed, if they told people that there was no God. Satan rejected that suggestion, because he realized that most people know that there is a God and would not be convinced otherwise. The second apprentice suggested they could succeed by telling people that there is no hell. But Satan rejected that idea because he knew that too many people know that there is a hell. Then the third apprentice devil spoke up: “Let’s destroy all humanity by telling them that there is no hurry!” The fable concludes that Satan loved this suggestion because he knew that people would procrastinate in their spiritual lives, and would be destroyed by the millions.
What about you? You struggle with this too, don’t you? “I will grow in my spiritual life,” you might say, “but I will grow later. I will pray, but I will figure out how to do that later. I will live like a child of God, but later in my life. I have plenty of time. It’s OK for me now, to not grow, to not pray, to live like my unbelieving friends. I have time.” Yet, what happens when you live this way? Your relationship with God falls apart. And then Jesus comes when you least expect Him, and it’s too late! Time’s up! It will be too late for you on Judgment Day to spiritually get it together! And then you are left behind, judged, and sent to hell for all eternity.
But that’s not how it will be for you, is it? You can pray to your Savior. You can repent, and then rejoice that Jesus forgives you for your lack of watchfulness…your lack of readiness. That’s why Jesus was born. His whole purpose is to take away your sin and mine. He did that by living a life that perfectly glorified God and then giving you credit. He did that by taking all of your shortcomings…your spiritual procrastination…all of our sins…onto Himself and paid for them by dying on the cross. He rose from the dead to prove to you and me that we really are forgiven…that we really are going to rise from the dead someday and glorify God in the life to come. You are a child of God…a modern day Noah. Because of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for you…you are one of those people who will be with Him on the Last Day.
Until that day, Jesus tells you and me: “…stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Mt. 24:42) Jesus compares Himself to a thief in the night saying: “…be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Mt. 24:44) A large number of Christians today don’t believe that Jesus will come during their lifetime. But in these verses, Jesus clearly tells us to live as though He is coming now! Prepare…always be watchful…always be ready for the moment when Christ returns. Do the things you normally do with Jesus being number one in your life. “So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”, says St. Paul. 13Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom. 13:12b-14) Your relationship with Jesus becomes number one in your life. This is reflected in eagerly worshipping Him, reading and studying the Bible, praying, and serving the Lord and your neighbor.
Yes, our lives are filled with the unexpected...including the unexpected arrival of Jesus Christ that is just around the corner. And in this Advent season, focus on it being a joyful time…a hopeful time for you…a time when you recommit yourself to being a watchful, prepared, ready Christian. Amen.
Thanksgiving Day - Series A, B, C
Text: Deuteronomy 8:1-10
Title: "Remember to Give Thanks"
Date: Thursday, November 28, 2019
Pastor Steve Bocklage
“Remember to give thanks.” That’s the mantra of Thanksgiving Day. And truthfully, you and I need to be reminded not only today but each day…each month…each year because we forget to give thanks. For instance, we demand and expect service instead of thanking others for it. Thank you notes are becoming a thing of the past. When we don’t get what we think we should have coming to us…feelings of resentment surface and giving thanks is nowhere to be found.
But you and I are not the first to forget how to give thanks. In the Gospel reading concerning Jesus and the ten lepers…all ten have this good thing of healing happen to them by God, but only one comes back to give praise and thanks. Even centuries before Jesus is born, the people of Israel forget how to give thanks as well. Moses recognizes the problem so he tells the people to remember, for remembering is the key to giving thanks and will lead to lives of thanksgiving.
That’s why Moses tells them: remember the Lord’s leading in the wilderness; remember His testing; remember His provision of bread and meat and water; remember your clothes and shoes lasting far longer than they should have; remember His discipline; remember His Word and His promises.
Remember, Moses says, and you will bless the Lord. Moses doesn’t use the word “thanksgiving.” Instead, he uses the word “bless”…a word that includes thanksgiving but means much more. It includes faith, trust, and worship. “Bless” includes praise, honor, and glory. To bless is to acknowledge the gifts received and to make known the goodness of the Lord, who gives us such gifts. This is the highest form of thanksgiving…not just to thank the triune God, but to make known what He has done.
And did you notice that all the things the people are to remember are not just pleasant memories? They are to remember also the rebellion that caused the additional 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. They are to remember the episode with the fiery serpents…to remember the fears, the hunger, the humbling, and the struggle.
Isn’t that what you and I find in our lives as well? When you look back and remember this past year or throughout your life, you will remember such times as well. Not just good times, and times of plenty and joy…but also times when things were difficult. Times when there was fear and doubt…times of sadness and testing and humbling. In your life, all has not been a bed of roses.
While I was a serving a congregation in Chicago, one of the pastors in our circuit meeting spoke about a member of his congregation who had lost his house in a fire that summer. He said the insurance company had been slow with a settlement and his family was living on a mattress in the home of a relative with a few clothes hanging in a closet. Knowing that Thanksgiving Day was close, the pastor asked how he could assist this man and his family in such a difficult year for them. The man said that this year has helped him to remember how little he really needs. And more than that, it has helped him to remember how much people care for one another in times of crisis. That was not a typical Thanksgiving Day for him and certainly not one he would have chosen for himself. But it was one where he remembered to be thankful.
In spite of having difficult times in your life or even devastating times…you are here today because, through it all, the Lord is faithful. Yes, you grumble and complain like the people of Israel. Grumbling that what you have is not good enough…complaining that help didn’t come fast enough. Moaning about the humbling and discipline you received, which you would rather not have had.
Yes indeed, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it? It goes from Adam and Eve…to the people of Israel…to the ten lepers…and to you and me today. But along with remembering things both good and bad…you and I are to remember what is most important of all. And what might that be? What’s most important of all is that the Lord remembers you. He remembers His promises. He remembers to have mercy on you and to provide for you. You are never far from His mind. He never forgets you. And even though He may seem to delay or not act fast enough…His love never fails! Even though you may not always understand His ways, or get answers to all the “why” questions you want answered…His love never fails!
His love never fails in providing you with “daily bread such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” (Small Catechism, Explanation to the Fourth Petition) His love never fails in defending you “against all danger, and protecting you from all evil.” (Small Catechism, Explanation to the First Article)
And most of all, His love never fails in sending His Son to hang on the cross in your place…to lay down His life for you…to atone for, not just some of your sins, but all your sins! Sins including your forgetfulness, your ingratitude, your rebellion, and your grumbling and complaining. He knows the desperate condition of your body and soul. That’s why, over and over again, you receive the true body and blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, where a sacrifice once made is a gift that is constantly given to you by the Lord, who commands: Do this in remembrance of Me.
Then you are to bless the Lord by acknowledging the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. You’re to make known the goodness of the Lord, who gives you such gifts. This is the highest form of thanksgiving…not just to thank the God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but to make known what He has done.
This leads to one other blessing, whose importance should not be underestimated. It’s the blessing and gift of contentment and peace. In Philippians 4, St. Paul writes: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:11b-13)
Since the Lord remembers you…you can do all things through him who strengthens you and supplies your every need. No cry from His children is unheard…no pain is unknown…no trouble is too great…and no enemy is too strong. And remember to give thanks daily to God for His forgiveness, for His salvation, and for His love for you that endures forever. Amen.
Last Sunday of the Church Year – Christ the King - Series C – Proper 29
Text: Luke 23:27-43
Title: “The King on the Cross”
Date: Sunday, November 24, 2019
Pastor Steve Bocklage
Have you ever considered the United States paradise? Compared to a lot of other countries, it certainly seems it is paradise. When you look at some other countries, you realize what a blessing it is to live in our country. But is it truly paradise? Of course it isn’t. Planes crash sometimes because of terrorism, and for other reasons too. The weather can suddenly destroy homes and lives. Loved ones suddenly become sick for no apparent reason and die. Terrible accidents happen instantly and lives are silenced. Yes, the United States is still a nice place to live, but it certainly is not paradise.
This morning, Jesus tells you and me that there is such a place as paradise…a place of peace…a place of beauty…a place of joy and contentment and love…a place where you can go and never have to leave. There is such a place as paradise, and this morning, Jesus extends to you an invitation to this place. Today is the Last Sunday of the Church Year, also known as Christ the King Sunday or Sunday of the Fulfillment. We will focus on the truth that Jesus Christ is a King…King of our world…King of our lives…the King of Paradise.
First, we find two criminals and Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, which means “the way of pain and grief.” The two thieves are each carrying a cross and Roman soldiers order Simon, a man from the North African city of Cyrene, to carry Jesus’ cross behind the Lord. This procession of cross-bearers is being led outside the city of Jerusalem to the place called “The Skull,” which is Golgatha in Aramaic or Calvary in Greek. As you would expect, this procession draws a large number of people, including women, “who [are] mourning and lamenting for [Jesus].” (Lk. 23:27)
You see, it’s Good Friday…that terrible, yet good day when Jesus Christ goes to the cross and dies there to take away the sins of the world. In our text, Jesus is called Christ and King more than once, but not in a worshipful way. The Lord is being scoffed at or sneered at…and mocked…and railed against or insulted. People are ridiculing him: ‘Save yourself, if you are the King, if you are the Christ, the Chosen One!’ (cf. Lk. 23:35-37) Even the sign above Jesus’ head is a form of mockery. (cf. Lk. 23:38)
What’s the problem? During His life, Jesus made it very clear that He was more than just a teacher of the golden rule. “I am your God,” He tells the people. “I am your King.” He backs up what He says with His perfect life and with His miracles. He tells the people “I am your King” but they don’t want to accept that. He is not the God…the King…that they want to see. He’s too humble. And they’re too proud. So they sneer at Him. They mock and insult Him.
In today’s unbelieving world, how is Jesus Christ viewed? Is the world neutral or is the world like the people we see in our sermon text? As long as you portray Jesus as just another teacher, the world is neutral. There’s Mohammed, there’s Buddha, and there’s Jesus…take your pick. The world says they are all the same. If that is how Jesus is presented, the world doesn’t have a problem with Him.
But the Lord doesn’t allow Himself to be presented this way. He calls Himself God. He calls Himself the King of the universe, who governs His Church with all authority in heaven and on earth. In John 14:6, Jesus says about Himself: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” This is not politically correct in our current culture. When Jesus is presented this way, there is a great deal of mockery, sneers, and insults…much like the atmosphere that surrounded Jesus on the cross. Even one of the two thieves hanging on a cross on one side of Jesus sees how everyone is mocking Christ and joins in. It’s hard not to be affected by the world around you. There is a great temptation for every Christian to minimize the significance of Jesus Christ. It’s OK to talk about God, but do you hesitate to talk about Jesus? God bless America you say loudly and proudly, but do you whisper the name of Jesus, even though Jesus is God and God is Jesus, who blesses America? You and I are tempted to hide our true faith…to minimize the significance of Jesus Christ…because it’s politically correct to do so. If you do this, it is a silent mockery of Christ, which makes you no better than those who mocked Jesus outwardly at the cross.
Remember in times such as this…that Jesus is the King of Grace and the King of Mercy. The Lord is the King of Forgiveness who prays: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:37) We see God’s grace in the way Jesus treats the second thief on the cross. It’s an act of mercy on the part of Christ to send His Spirit into that man’s heart and convert Him. Listen to what this man says to the other thief who is mocking Christ: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Lk. 23:40-41) These are words of a man who has been humbled in his heart. Then he says to the Lord: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Lk. 23:42) Remember me. These are words of faith. He’s ignoring the mockery of the world and looking past the blood and the bruises of Christ. With his eyes of faith, this man sees a king, and he prays a wonderful prayer to that King who is dying for his sins at that very moment. “…[R]emember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
Responding to this criminal, Jesus reveals His mercy to this man with a promise: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43) In other words…“This very day, all your guilt, all your sorrow, all your pain will disappear, and you, a thief, and I, a King, will be together in My kingdom…in Paradise.” The King of Grace and Mercy speaks a wonderful promise to this man who found his salvation in the least likely place.
In 1959, a Buddhist monk assassinated the prime minister of Ceylon, a place better known as Sri Lanka. One night, this condemned man sat alone in his cell waiting for dawn and his own execution in two days. Suddenly from his somber despair, he awakened to ask that a certain Christian missionary, who was an Anglican priest, be summoned to his cell as quickly as possible. When the astonished missionary arrived, he was even more surprised to hear this Buddhist monk ask to be baptized immediately in the Christian faith. Certain that the man knew and understood the basic implications of his request, the missionary finally asked why he wanted to be baptized at that moment. With conviction, the condemned man replied: “Since I must die, I wish to die in a faith by which I can come freely to God…unrestrained by personal unworthiness and confident that I can [receive] forgiveness simply out of love and mercy.” Then the Anglican priest baptized him.
What’s interesting about this Buddhist monk and the thief on the cross confessing Christ is that…it’s also YOU and ME! Through His Word, Jesus graciously sends the Holy Spirit into your heart. He overcomes your pride. He gives you eyes of faith…eyes that ignore the mockery of the world…eyes that see Jesus as your King and your God. Through the humble Means of Grace of God’s Word and Holy Baptism and Holy Communion…the King of Grace blesses you with faith and forgives you. Through the way which God gives you His love and precious gifts, He promises you that someday soon you will be with Him in Paradise…a place unlike any place you have visited on this earth.
So yes, this world…including the United States…is filled with sin, death, and evil. But like that thief on the cross, you have something special. In your heart…which no one can touch…you enjoy a sense of peace and comfort and hope that only the King on the cross can provide. In repentance, you are assured that all of your mistakes in life through thought, word, and deed have been forgiven because the King on the cross died for all of them! By the grace of God in being baptized, you are assured that you belong to Him and that “God is [your] refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Ps. 46:1) And the King on the cross promises you that He is with you each and every day…and that you will be with Him forever and ever in Paradise. (cf. Mt. 28:20a) Amen.
Nothing can destroy this fact. All kinds of disasters may happen to us in our lives and to our world, but that one fact stands forever. God loves us, and his saving work will not be interrupted.
When Jesus could see only death ahead interrupting his life on this earth, he turned to the heavenly Father in prayer. He was led to see that there was no way he could avoid what was about to happen, but he was strengthened by God and enabled him to endure what had to be endured. Likewise, we are strengthened.
22nd Sunday after Pentecost – Series C – Proper 27
Text: Exodus 3:1-15
Title: “Who Is God?”
Date: Sunday, November 10, 2019
Pastor Steve Bocklage
For a moment, think about the answer to this question: “Who am I?” How would you describe yourself? The student asks: “Who am I? Where do I fit in at school?” The new parent asks: “Who am I? How will I ever properly care for this child?” The widow or widower asks: “Who am I now that my spouse is in heaven?”
This question “Who am I?” is a question that Moses must have certainly asked himself. “Am I a Jew or an Egyptian?” “Am I a slave or royalty?” Although he grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, Moses never managed to shake his humble Jewish roots. However, by the time he turned 40, Moses believed he had the answer to the age-old question of who he was. He thought he was to be the leader of his people, the Israelites. He made his bid to be the leader of the Hebrews when he killed one of the many Egyptian slave drivers who were making life miserable for his people. But while Moses was certain of who he was…the children of Israel, whom he had hoped to rescue, were not.
When Moses later tried intervening between two quarrelling Israelites they turned on him and challenged: “Who are you? Are you going to kill us like you killed that Egyptian?” (Ex 2:14) Terrified that his secret was out, Moses fled to the wilderness of Midian where he lived as a shepherd for the next 40 years. You can be certain that during this time the age-old question came back to haunt Moses: “Who am I?” Who was Moses? He was a political failure, a murderer, and now ostracized from his people.
However, an encounter with a burning bush would challenge these perceptions. With his father-in-law’s sheep, Moses ascends the highlands of Mt. Horeb, better known as Mt. Sinai, to look for green pastures. What he finds is a bush fire. The fact that a bush is on fire in the middle of the wilderness does not seem to faze Moses. What catches his attention is that the bush does not seem to disintegrate in the flames. When Moses moves closer to investigate, a Voice speaks from within the fire. “Moses, Moses! And [Moses] said, “Here I am. Then [the LORD] said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:4b-6) Upon hearing the voice of God, Moses thinks he has at least one more answer to the age-old question: “Who am I?” Moses realizes how imperfect and unholy he is as he stands before the holy God who speaks to him in the midst of the flames. As Moses hides his face, too terrified to look at God…he is probably thinking: “I’m a dead man! God has finally caught up with me to punish me for the murder I committed in Egypt!”
The truth is…God did not come to destroy Moses. Instead, the LORD announces: “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Ex. 3:10) You can just imagine what is going on in Moses’ mind. “You want ME to do WHAT?!?” “Who am I,” that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11) In addition to being a political failure, a murderer, and a loner, Moses may have figured he was over-the-hill and well past the prime of his life for such an endeavor. Seriously, what kind of confidence could an 80-year-old shepherd instill in the Israelites when he announces to them that he has been handpicked by God to be their leader? Now, no offense to 80 year-olds or older…but if you were caught in a house fire, would you want your 80-year-old neighbor attempting to rescue you…or a young, fit firefighter dressed in all his gear? So wouldn’t God do better to find a strapping, young warrior-type and equipping him with an army for the rescue of His people from Egypt than calling Moses to this task?
Obviously from our sermon text, God does not think so. It does not matter to God. Moses could have been crippled or blind. He could have been a child. What is important is this…who God is! God reassures Moses, saying to him: “I will be with you.” (Ex. 3:12a) The LORD even gives Moses a sign as a pledge. “That’s great, God,” Moses must be thinking, “But who are you?” “What are You like?” “…[W]hat shall I [tell] them?” (Ex. 3:13) God tells Moses, and us too: “…I AM WHO I AM….” (Ex. 3:14) Hmm. Don’t you wish God would have described Himself as something more exciting like the “Dominator,” or the “Enforcer”? What kind of name is “I AM”? How is this revelation suppose to give Moses any confidence for his mission?
Well, let’s think about this Name for a moment. When God calls Himself “I AM,” He first reveals that He is a personal being and not a nebulous force, like electricity or magnetism, that has great power with no feelings. The Voice in the burning bush is present with Moses. He is the pre-incarnate Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. He comes to help and save His sons and daughters. He hears the cries of His people. The pre-incarnate Christ sees their misery and is moved to do something about it. The great “I AM WHO I AM”…known as Yahweh in Hebrew…is the God of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. He distinguishes Himself as the God above all other gods…a God in whom one can have absolute confidence.
So if God really cares about the children of Israel in our text, couldn’t he have found a better person than Moses to rescue them? To answer that question, we will go back to God’s Name. Note how God calls Himself “I AM” and not “I WOULD BE if only you would….” In other words, the name “I AM” emphasizes that God is active in the lives of His people and absolutely independent. The LORD knows all about Moses. He knows of his past arrogance and of his impulsive act of murder. Moses certainly doesn’t deserve this honor of being chosen as the one to lead the Israelites…whom, by the way, do not deserve to be God’s people. But this isn’t going to stop Yahweh from using this undeserving, lumpy piece of clay named Moses for the purpose of bringing up the Israelites out of Egypt. Not only does this imply power on God’s part. It also signifies His grace and mercy.
The pre-incarnate Christ…the “I AM”… “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End…who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev. 1:8) chooses Moses for His purposes because…God is God. Being unchangeable and constant, Yahweh or the LORD keeps the promise He made to Adam and Eve thousands of years ago to send a savior. Now, had you and I been God, we would have pulled the plug on that plan a long time ago. It’s one thing to save people you know will be grateful for what you have done. But it is quite another thing to save people who will spit in your face for going to the trouble of saving them. Although “I AM” knows that sinners will frequently be ungrateful for His forgiveness, He sticks to the plan and the promise of salvation.
“I AM” also sticks to the plan and the promise of being holy or set apart. In fact, so much so that as Moses draws near the burning bush in God’s presence, the LORD tells him to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Since God is there to meet with a sinner, Moses is to treat the LORD and His surroundings with honor and respect, just as you and I are to do. God makes Himself known to you, not in a non-consuming burning bush, but in His holy Word…in the waters of Holy Baptism…and in, with, and under the bread and wine in Holy Communion. As His son or daughter, you stand in the presence of the crucified and risen Christ, who hears your cries and prayers, knowing what pain and misery you are experiencing. He calls you by name, as he did Moses, and says: “It doesn’t matter who you are. What matters is I AM. I AM with you. I AM for you. I AM your shield, your joy, your hope. I AM your redeemer…to save you and deliver you. “I AM WHO I AM”, who loves you and cares for you very much.”
Now, heed His call…like Moses did…and boldly serve Him and your neighbor. Amen.
All Saints’ Day (observed) - Series A,B,C
Text: 1 John 3:1-3
Title: “Bottom-Line Issues”
Date: Sunday, November 3, 2019
Pastor Steve Bocklage
It is said if a person really wants to know what Christians believe, teach, and confess…then they need to attend a Christian funeral service and see and hear what’s going on. To look at what the pastor does. To listen to what he says. A funeral tells you so much because it is there in the funeral service where the ultimate questions of life and death are to be addressed. It’s there in the funeral service where the ultimate questions about God, salvation, and eternal destiny are dealt with.
Ultimate questions like…Are the bereaved family members left uncertain about the eternal destiny of their departed loved one? Are they worried if their loved one did enough to earn a place in heaven? Is the pastor’s focus on the good life and good deeds of the deceased, who was a fine person and did his or her best?
OR…are answers provided for ultimate questions like: What joy and hope is expressed in the Son of God? Are the bereaved comforted by the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ? Is the pastor’s focus on the love and work of “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”? (Jn. 1:29)
These funeral service questions bring to mind what someone I know once said so eloquently…“a funeral service is about bottom-line issues. These kinds of questions…these bottom-line issues…are relevant for you and me today as we observe All Saints’ Day. When referring to someone as a saint, it is the Reformation understanding of sainthood that we’re after. It’s where a saint is not someone who is perfect. No, sainthood pertains to sinners who are made pure because they are forgiven and saved “by [God’s] grace…through faith” (Eph 2:8) in Jesus Christ. A saint is someone whose sins have been forgiven and who has been made holy…who has been set apart by God to lead a godly life of repentance and good works. That’s what God has done for you, dear saints, and what He has done for me!
In celebrating the festival of “All Saints,” we remember all of God’s faithful servants, especially those who have gone on before us to be with Jesus in Paradise. We remember the saints of this congregation, or their spouse, who have died in faith and have entered the Church Triumphant…especially those saints since observing All Saints’ Day last year. Among those saints of God, we remember Chuck Rullman [pause…A.W. Harrison [pause]…David Dianis [pause]…Gene Seward [pause]… James Boswell [pause]. We give thanks to God for them and all the “children of God” (v 1) who now rest from their labors and have gone on to that great scene described by St. John in our first reading from Revelation 7.
As you think about these saints among the “great multitude that no one could number,” (Rev 7:9) you should also remember that these bottom-line issues of life, death, salvation, and heaven are relevant for you and me right here…right now. What the pastor and church really believe, teach, and confess are relevant and important…eternally important! Addressing these bottom-line issues is the apostle John in our Epistle reading. The FIRST bottom-line issue is this: God is the One whose love for you and me is beyond human imagination. (cf. 1 Jn. 3:1) The human way to see things is “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” The human way to see things is that one should pay for breaking the law or the punishment should fit the crime. Thankfully, God loves His creatures even while they are sinking in their sin. You and I find ourselves locked in a vicious cycle. You think you have to do things you perceive are pleasing to God to make up for your sins. But the more you struggle and depend on yourself, the more deeply you find yourself sinking. The Good News is…Jesus has provided the way for you and me to become “children of God,” which is beyond the world’s understanding. (1 Jn. 3:1b) As you are probably aware of, Christians are often called “hypocrites” because we are called “children of God” while sin is still evident in our lives. The world can’t understand how God can call you and me His children because the world doesn’t know God for who He really is or how He really works. But God’s love is so marvelous that “while we were still sinners,” proclaims St. Paul, “Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) This is a love far deeper than anything humanly possible. (cf. 1 Jn. 3:1)
That brings us to the SECOND bottom-line issue and it’s this: God is the One who provides hope that is certain. (cf. 1 Jn. 3:2) You and I often see hope as related to wishful thinking. When you “hope” for something, it is more like, “I sure hope so,” rather than, “Yes, I can be certain of it!” Some see hope as the mindless chasing of utopian dreams that are impossible to attain. And sometimes, you can even lose sight of God’s promises and feel that your situation is “hopeless.”
Hope within Scripture, however, is not merely the power of “positive thinking.” It’s a spiritual gift from God. He’s the One who gives you true hope! In Christian Cyclopedia, “hope” is defined as “The well-grounded expectation of things desired.” The foundation of Christian hope is the Word of God and God’s divine promise. Hope is yours because the Lord has not only called you His child, but He’s made you His child through the work of Jesus Christ. (cf. 1 Jn. 3:2) This doesn’t mean you will become God or a god, like some religions teach. What Biblical “hope” means is that you will see God as He is. It means that you can be certain that you will be enjoying bliss, immortality, and blessedness in the Lord’s presence. That’s why in our temporal, limited three-dimensional world, this can only be described the way St. John does in our first reading from Revelation 7. (vv. 9–17)
And then the THIRD and final bottom-line issue is: God is the One who purifies you for real freedom. (cf. 1 Jn. 3:3) Because you’ve been made pure by faith in Christ, you are free to serve Him here and now. You are purified because, in your baptism, you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. You are purified because your sins are forgiven, which Christ’s body and blood have won for you on the cross. That means you are free from the enslavement of sin…and from the power of sin. That means you have real freedom to truly do good works and love and serve your neighbor. What does it mean to do a truly good work and to truly love your neighbor? Is it only possible with the right and true motivation? Loving because you are afraid of punishment if you don’t love or because you expect something in return isn’t true love, is it? Love is possible ONLY because you have been freed from the tyranny of fear or compulsion. Love is possible ONLY “because [God] first loved us.” (Jn. 4:19)
That, brothers and sisters in Christ, is real freedom…freedom to love your neighbor and serve him or her…freedom even to love yourself. You can enjoy the real freedom of a clear conscience that is yours by faith in Christ…and not be tormented by feelings of guilt and shame. Since God’s love for you is so deep…believe and know that He has washed you clean of all your sins. Christ loves you very much and has removed guilt and shame from you by taking them upon Himself when He died on the cross. All this isn’t just some kind of “pie in the sky” wishful thinking. It’s God’s absolute and solid truth on which your life, in the here and now, can be lived.
So on this All Saints’ Day, you and I have the answer to life’s bottom-line issues and death’s bottom-line issues. FIRST: God is the One whose love for you is beyond human imagination. (cf. 1 Jn. 3:1) SECOND: God is the One who provides hope that is certain. (cf. 1 Jn. 3:2) And THIRD: God is the One who purifies you for real freedom. (cf. 1 Jn. 3:3) On this All Saints’ Day, we also give thanks and rejoice for all of God’s saints from years past who are now in the presence of our crucified and risen Lord in Paradise. And we give thanks and rejoice for God’s promise to you and me and to all His sons and daughters now in this temporal life of being saints in Christ. Amen.
Reformation Day (observed)
Text: John 8:31-36
Title: “Reformed By the Truth”
Date: Sunday, October 27, 2019
Pastor Steve Bocklage
Hundreds of years ago, a French philosopher once wrote: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Despite the fall of totalitarian governments…despite advances in medicine, technology, science, and knowledge…despite the “progress” of humanity toward equality, justice, and individual empowerment…people are in “chains” more today than ever. The shackles of modern life are heavy and unmistakable. The shackles of ignorance, immorality, and political correctness are weighing down societies. The chains of poverty, addiction, and oppression stretch far and wide. Everyday on cable or dish channels, you regularly see and hear things linked to our self-centered, felt needs…things that endorse consumerism and materialism, and promote an entertainment-based life…things that get people to seek security by amassing wealth, or to embrace personal self-realization, or to seek happiness through bigger government.
Rarely do you see and hear things on any electronic device that pertains to your needs from God’s point of view. The absolute truth is…the opposite of relative truth, where your truth is not my truth and my truth is not your truth. Relative truth has put us in leg irons and imprisoned our society. Why would anyone want to tolerate this inadequate, false truth when there is absolute truth?
Dwelling with us here today is the Truth Himself, (Jn 14:6) our Lord Jesus Christ…the One who brings absolute truth, (cf. Jn 1:17) “the truth [that] will set you free.” (Jn. 8:32) The questions that we must seriously face today have to do with this truth. Questions like: Will you accept and submit to absolute truth? Will you remain in it? These are questions that will make the difference between merely remembering the Reformation and experiencing it! The Reformation of the church is not an event confined to October 31, 1517 and the months and years that followed. No, the Reformation of the church is what happens whenever God’s Word gets hold of you! His Word of truth is the only thing that can free you from your bondage to sin and bestow on you the status of God’s freed son or daughter.
Before we move on, lets unpack that term ‘bondage to sin.’ Jesus explains it best when He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn. 8:34) St. Paul follows up in Romans 3 saying: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) Our problem is this: you and I are sinners enslaved by sin. As slaves, we are powerless to change our status. This is an absolute truth you and I simply don’t want to face. Not wanting to face this truth, you become an obedient slave to the lie that you “have never been enslaved to anyone” or anything. (Jn. 8:33) This imaginary freedom blinds you to your true condition. In our sermon text, the Jews “who had believed in [Jesus]” (Jn. 8:31a) refuse to acknowledge their political enslavement to the Roman government and army, and they refuse to acknowledge their spiritual enslavement to sin. (cf. Jn. 8:33)
You and I are no different. We are always in danger of being spiritually blind to the slavery of sin, which controls us. As Martin Luther’s Reformation descendant and a child of God, you must listen to this warning: There is absolutely no substitute for faith in Christ and there is absolutely no alternative for abiding or remaining in God’s Word of truth! None! Only the Truth of God in Christ Jesus can free you! You have to face the cold, hard fact that you are a slave to sin and you have no power to free yourself! Take someone addicted to drugs or alcohol or even cigarettes or chewing tobacco. Someone addicted to one or more of these might say: “I can quit whenever I want to.” But the truth is…this person can’t and will not be truly free until the truth of his or her addiction enslavement is faced and meant head-on.
As your pastor…in calling the congregation to confession earlier in the Divine Service this morning, I did not say: “All right, ’fess up! We’re not leaving until each of you come clean!” No, as your pastor…as the under-shepherd of Christ…as the “called and ordained servant of Christ”…I said this: “Since we are gathered to hear God’s Word…call upon Him in prayer and praise…and receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the fellowship of this altar…let us first consider our unworthiness…and confess before God and one another…that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and…LISTEN CAREFULLY…that we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition….” Did you catch that? You and I cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition. You and I aren’t telling God something He doesn’t already know. You are telling yourself something that you refuse to face practically every day of your life…that you are enslaved to sin. As a sinner, you are chained and shackled!
But there is Good News and it is this: God’s absolute truth reforms you and sets you free from those chains. God’s Gospel truth in Christ Jesus gives you freedom to confess your sin (cf. 1 Jn. 1:8–9) and freedom to inherit Christ’s righteousness. (cf. Jn. 8:36) Christ is the One that assures you that His forgiveness is not a groundless wish…but a divine reality. The Son of God, with His own absolution spoken through His “called and ordained servant,” (cf. Lk 10:16; Jn. 20:23) sets you free by giving to you the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus…and NOT in yourself. (cf. Phil. 3:9) It’s a righteousness you can never, ever gather for yourself or earn for yourself. It’s a righteousness in which you are absolutely and truly free from sin… absolutely and truly free from eternal death…absolutely and truly free from the evil adversary, Satan. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” declares St. Paul, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2:8)
By the grace of God, Martin Luther himself believed and experienced the joy of forgiveness in Christ. He experienced full freedom from the curse and burden of the Law. Through various writings, Luther relates his story saying: “I anxiously and busily worked to understand the word of Paul in Romans 1:17…The righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel…. But as often as I read this passage, I wished that God had never revealed the Gospel; for who could love a God who was angry, who judged and condemned people? This misunderstanding continued until, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, I finally examined more carefully the word of [the prophet] Habakkuk: “The just shall live by [God’s] faith.” (Rom. 2:4) From this passage, I concluded that life must be derived from faith…. Then the entire Holy Scripture became clear to me, and heaven itself was opened to me.” (What Luther Says)
Martin Luther’s “breakthrough” signaled the end of a frantic search for certainty in salvation. It also marked the beginning of a dynamic life of faith and productive ministry. For the first time in his life, Luther knew and understood God only in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. This kind of freedom that God gives you in His beloved Son is what the Reformation and being Lutheran is all about. As Martin Luther says in his little book titled "Christian Liberty": "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. [And] a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." (repeat) Luther is saying you are free because of the freedom you have in Christ…but at the same time, you are a servant…a servant to Christ and to the people you serve in Christ’s name.
So, yes indeed, the Truth Himself, (cf. Jn. 14:6) our Lord Jesus Christ…is the One who brings the absolute Gospel truth to you and me. (cf. Jn. 1:17) For each one of you, the Reformation of the church is an ongoing reality as you hear and remain in God’s Word of truth…spoken in Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. By remaining steadfast in God’s Word and the Sacraments, you are remaining steadfast in faith and in His absolute truth. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,” promises Jesus, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jn. 8:31b-32) Amen.
THE NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST – Series C – Proper 24
Text: Luke 18:1-8
Title: “Persistently Pray and Never Give Up!”
Date: Sunday, October 20. 2019
Pastor Steve Bocklage
Cable television tycoon Ted Turner…who founded CNN, the first 24-hour cable news channel…has often been cited as being critical of Christianity. Many years ago, Turner made some very revealing remarks at the American Humanist Association banquet in Orlando, Florida. Turner shared that he had a strict Christian upbringing and at one time considered becoming a missionary. "I was saved seven or eight times," the newspaper quoted him as saying. However, he said: “I became disenchanted with Christianity after my sister died, despite my prayers.” [Spokesman-Review, May 1, 1990]
How many of you here this morning have been discouraged because you believed your prayer wasn’t rightly answered by God? If I were to take a prayer survey of all the members of this congregation…both active and inactive members…many would probably admit that they pray on a regular basis. Others would say they pray when they need to pray. Some would say they have quit praying for certain things. Still others would admit that they have given up on prayer all together. They have stopped praying because, deep down inside, they wonder if prayer really makes a difference. They are discouraged or full of doubt. So why should they keep on praying when they feel that it does not work?
The answer to this question lies in our sermon text. “[Jesus tells His disciples] a parable [of the Unjust Judge] to they effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart,” (Lk. 18:1) which is another way of saying…do not give up. But why does Jesus even need to say this? If we look back to Luke 17…immediately prior to today’s parable…we hear Jesus talking to His disciples about the coming of the Kingdom of God. After hearing His final judgement message, the Lord knows that a believer might very well get discouraged, and in time, desire to quit praying. As evil increases in the last days, (cf. Lk. 17:26-30) it will often seem as though God’s ears are deaf to the prayers of His people. It’s easy to become weary in your prayer life when you begin to think God doesn’t care or your prayers are not doing any good.
But in spite of how things may seem to you…if Christ’s return seems like a long delay to you…the Lord reminds you and me that He is definitely coming back. (cf. Lk. 17:24; Lk. 18:8b) The Lord doesn’t want you to grow weary or to give up! Jesus warns you that if you DO NOT persevere in prayer to God, you WILL eventually “lose heart” and give up. He knows you even down to the last hair on your head. He knows your sinful nature. Who among us has not felt that if our prayers are not being effective, we might as well just quit? Perhaps the question you should consider is this…What happens if you give up praying? “In the 1800’s, the founder of a great Christian orphanage in England was a powerful man of prayer. George Mueller knew how important it was to keep praying even when the answer seemed delayed. When he was young, George began praying that two of his friends might be converted to Christianity and spiritually saved. He prayed for them for more than sixty years. One of the men was converted shortly before his death. The other was converted to Christianity within a year of his death.” What do you think might have happened if George Mueller had given up? [James Montgomery Boice. The Parables of Jesus. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983) p. 158]
Indeed…always keep your faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…the One who is always faithful to you. Persistently pray and always have an attitude of prayer, which “is inseparable from the spiritual life of a believer. [Prayer] is the heartbeat of [one’s]faith.” (Koehler, Edward W.A., A Summary of Christian Doctrine, 103) There is simply too much at stake for you not to be in it! That’s why Jesus encourages all His disciples in our Gospel reading to continue praying with the assurance that our persistent prayer will be heard by Jesus, the Righteous Judge. Contrast the Righteous Judge to a wicked, unrighteous judge in the Parable of the Unjust Judge, who’s unfit for office. He refuses, at first, to listen to the pleas of a poor widow for justice against an adversary who is giving her trouble. This judge seems to be a man with no principles…no sense of justice…and no conscience. As hopeless as the widow’s situation seems, she’s tenacious and persistent. She’s forced to overwhelm the judge with requests until the judge cannot take the constant pounding of her petitions any longer. “…I will give her justice,” he says, “so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” (Lk. 18:5) The judge finally does the right thing and listens to her. He moves to help her…not out of a sense of justice or compassion for her…but only for self-preservation. Our Gospel reading makes it clear that the judge does the right thing in the end, if only to get rid of the widow for his own peace of mind.
You and I have to admit that there’s a part of each of us that’s a lot like that judge. Our sinful, corrupted nature is TO NOT fear God and TO NOT care about anyone else other than ourselves. Theologians throughout the centuries have often defined sin as being turned-in on one’s self. When we see someone in need, how many of us turn the other way? “Oh, it’s not my problem,” we say. Or “I don’t want to get involved.” How many of us are oftentimes like this judge and give in only when we see it’s in our best interests?
In sharp contrast to this judge, how much more quickly will Jesus Christ, the Righteous Judge, bring about justice for His chosen ones who keep on praying to Him? When it comes to the One True God, you have His assurance that He listens to your prayers. You and I can be certain that He will grant justice to the ones who cry out to Him “day and night.” God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is compassionate and merciful to us sinners. Because of who you are in Christ…Jesus not only wants you to be persistent in prayer, but He also wants you to have courage and to act on your faith. For instance, in our Old Testament reading, picture Jacob wrestling with God throughout the night. It took courage on Jacob’s part to refuse to let go until he received a blessing from the Lord. (cf. Gen. 32:22-30)
Likewise, it took courage for the widow to be persistent in her request even in the face of injustice. She could’ve given up…but she refused. And like this widow, you and I are to be persistent in prayer and to trust God…even when it appears to be futile…even in the midst of our troubles. God calls you and me to be persistent in prayer…to trust Him even in the sufferings and the tragedies we endure in our lives.
As for Jesus…when He tells this parable to His disciples…He is still outside Jerusalem. The time will come soon enough when He will arrive inside Jerusalem and experience injustice Himself at the hands of Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod, and the crowds of people who will shout, “Crucify him!” “Crucify him!” Even then, Jesus will live out the kind of trust He speaks of in this parable. Jesus keeps faith with God the Father all the way to Calvary and His death on the cross. We witness this when you and I hear the Lord cry out on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk. 23:46) This is the language of relationship. When he teaches about prayer in his Small Catechism, Martin Luther says that you are to be confident when you pray. Be confident and “ask [God] as dear children ask their dear father.” You and I are God’s children and the Lord desperately longs for us to approach Him. He wants you to describe to Him the needs of your life and the longings of your heart. Do you do it once? Twice? No! Jesus earnestly urges you to persistently and fervently pray to Him in faith.
So…you can be like Ted Turner and turn from a life of faith because of seemingly unanswered prayer. Or you can be like the widow who persisted in asking for what she needed. Do not lose heart because YOU BELONG TO GOD and GOD LOVES YOU VERY MUCH! EACH ONE OF YOU IS HIS BELOVED CHILD. And unlike the judge in today’s parable, God eagerly wants to hear from you. He wants you to “[Cast] all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) Pray…pray…pray even more…and never give up! Amen.
LWML Sunday & 17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)
Text: Luke 17:1-10
Title: “Moving Mulberry Trees”
Sunday, October 6, 2019
Pastor Steve Bocklage
We hear a lot of talk these days about how difficult it is to be a Christian. Is it any wonder? The world has changed. The nation has changed. Increasingly, people are walking away from the church or choosing never to be a member of a Christian congregation because we Christians are seen as irrelevant, judgmental, or hypocritical. We’re told the more secularized we become as a nation, the less impact we Christians seem to have.
All this talk about the challenges of living in “a post-Christian world” can lead to timid, fearful, even doubtful disciples of Jesus Christ. Truthfully, our world isn’t that different from the world of Jesus’ first disciples. Their world has been described as a pre-Christian world in which people didn’t know Jesus or His teachings or His mission.
That phrase “pre-Christian” may be a better description for our world today, better than “post-Christian.” It says that Christians are not participants in a dying institution but a movement. It says that people are watching us…wondering what makes us tick. To call our world “pre-Christian” is to say we can still have an impact by the way we live. It says that our stories and songs matter and that our everyday life means everything to the way the world sees Jesus Christ.
This is exactly what is happening with Jesus and His first disciples in Luke 17. Christ is constantly teaching about everyday values and practices. Here in our sermon text, the Lord tells His disciples that they need to forgive others, even if they have been wronged seven times in a single day. He isn’t talking about some institutional health here. He’s talking about a way of life. He is referring to the simple but challenging act of confronting another with their sin and voicing forgiveness. After all, this is the stuff of everyday relationships.
It’s hard to confront another person, isn’t it? And it’s hard to forgive. The roots of bitterness run deep and last long…like tree roots…like mulberry tree roots, which are stubborn and strong. No wonder the disciples responded to Jesus’ challenge to forgive with the words: “Increase our faith.” (Lk. 17:5) They could have said: “Lord! You expect us to forgive like that…to forgive that often? Now that’s challenging! We need greater faith for that! Give us greater faith, Lord!”
It was one of those teaching moments. So when His disciples say “Increase our faith!” did Jesus say: “Sure, presto! May you have greater faith?” No! What He says is: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Lk. 17:6)
Jesus doesn’t explain His response. Luke, who records Jesus’ words, doesn’t interpret them either. You have to admit, it’s quite an image isn’t it? With just a little faith, Jesus is saying…faith as small as a mustard seed…with the faith you have right now…you can uproot a thirty-foot mulberry tree and plant it at the bottom of the sea. Can you imagine a Christian saying to a mulberry tree: “Pull up your roots and head for the ocean, tree! You will be the first mulberry tree successfully transplanted to the ocean floor!” Then we see, of all things, this mulberry tree flying off to its new surroundings, 4,000 feet below sea level!
What is Jesus saying here? For one thing He is saying that it’s not helpful to focus on the quantity of our faith. Yet, His disciples are doing that with their request to “Increase our faith!” In other words, “Jesus, give us more faith, heroic faith, enough faith to do the hard thing in hard times.” Jesus’ response says that it’s not helpful to make faith a measureable possession. Have you ever caught yourself saying: “If only I had enough faith!” “If I could just believe enough!” Or, negatively, you may say: “I guess I just don’t have enough faith!” Notice how the weight of each of those statements has on you. Can you believe enough? Can you trust enough? Do you have enough faith to make things happen?
So if faith is not to be quantified, how do we understand Jesus’ words “faith like a grain of mustard seed”? (Lk. 17:6a) How can faith send mulberry trees flying into the sea? I believe that Jesus’ concept of faith puts the whole matter of faith into our relationship with Him. “Faith like a grain of mustard seed” is simply to trust and live every day in Him…a trust that abides in Him...that depends on Him. It’s only in Christ that you move mulberry trees, even the deep ones, like bitterness or a lack of forgiveness. It’s only possible as Christ lives in you.
“Faith like a grain of mustard seed” says that you can forgive not so much because you have enough faith to do it, but rather because you live and make decisions inside a strong relationship with Jesus Christ. “Faith like a grain of mustard seed” says you already have what you need to live your Christian life and witness. In other words, you have Christ…and better than that is…Christ has you! The One who came and died for you…the One who broke through death and came to life for you…the One who called you in Baptism and made you His own…it is He who makes seemingly impossible things possible.
In Christ, you confront the person who has wronged you, and you offer forgiveness. You do the hard thing and share your faith with your neighbor. You make time to pack food for the hungry when you thought you were too busy. You drop a quarter in your LWML mite box, believing it will make a difference. You hold the hand of a neighbor in the hospital, maybe not your favorite neighbor. You phone a friend who has become distant.
On a broader scale, in Christ, our church could take on a new ministry, knowing that it will be a stretch, simply because it’s what Christ would have us do. You and I should see our community not as the enemy, but as our mission field. And underneath it all, you hear mulberry trees moving — hard things, seemingly impossible things, happening because Christ lives within you…because Christ lives within us!
Take, for example, the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League that has always lived by mustard seed faith. Little gifts and mites combined across our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod make big things happen in mission across the world. Christ has been moving mulberry trees through the LWML since 1942. What a model they are for Christian discipleship! If our congregations are the soul of the LCMS; if our pastors, workers, and missionaries are the beautiful feet of the LCMS; if our seminaries and universities are the mind of the LCMS; if Lutheran Hour Ministries is the voice of the LCMS; then the LWML is the heart of the LCMS. The women of our synod have taught us what it means to move mulberry trees with just a little faith.
May that be your attitude the next time you say it’s difficult to follow Christ. In your relationship with Jesus, you have what is necessary to do difficult, even seemingly impossible, things. And why should that be so hard to believe? Christ has moved you from death to life…from being an orphan to being His. The God-man has moved you from guilt to cleansing…from conflict to reconciliation. And because Christ abides with you, the difficult thing can be done with joy. It may not be easy, but it is possible in the King of kings and the Lord of lords…our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen