Biblically-Based Lutheran Sermons 2019
Mount Hope Lutheran Church
Pastor Christian Preus
Baptism of our Lord, 2019
As it was in the beginning is now and ever shalt be, world without end. Amen. We speak these words all the time and words we speak all the time run the risk of passing through our minds without thinking about them. This is just a fact of language. A perfect example is the word Goodbye. It originally meant, “God be with you.” But people said it so often without thinking about what it meant, shortened it and mumbled it too, that the words “God be with you” eventually morphed into a new word and a new meaning, “Goodbye.” The point is when you repeat words enough without thinking about them, they can become pretty meaningless or at least less meaningful. But with these words, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shalt be, world without end. Amen, we need to learn to say them and mean them, think about them.
This is for two reasons. First, because it has to do with God’s glory. That’s what we confess, right? Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, and then we say, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shalt be world without end, Amen. And so thinking about this beautiful phrase, not just mouthing it, but confessing it from the heart, this is keeping the 2nd commandment, it’s giving God glory, and we need to keep in mind what God says about this commandment, that He will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. The name of God is the most precious word imaginable. The ancient Jews were afraid even to use it because they held it so sacred. Of course, they went too far. They should have used his name, spoken it often. But we have the opposite problem. We are far too free with using God’s name. It should never even occur to a Christian to casually say O my God. Never enter into our minds to blurt out Jesus Christ or God damn it as some exclamation of frustration or surprise. And it wouldn’t, if we were constantly thinking and using the name of our God as we should. And that is actually the point of the second commandment, the negative is obvious, don’t act like a pagan, don’t use God’s name as a cuss word, that’s shameful and God is angry at it, but the positive is a promise, a beautiful promise, that God gives us His name so that we can call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise and gift thanks.
And this is the second point. It’s not simply that using God’s name gives Him glory, it’s that His glory is to save us, to make us His own, to give us His name, to free us from sin, to spill his blood to wash away our shame and our guilt. And so God reveals his name not to impose some arbitrary rule on us, not simply for the satisfaction of his sovereign glory, but to share his name and his glory with us. And so it is never enough for us Christians not to misuse God’s name, we must use it, it is our highest comfort and honor to use it, to call upon the name of the God who has created us and saved us and sought us out to give us his everlasting glory. This is what we’re confessing with those beautiful words, As it was in the beginning is now and ever shalt be, world without end. The confession of God is always a confession of who we are, because God, the Holy Trinity, revealed His name and reveals it now as the Savior of sinners. This is how He defines Himself, not apart from you, but in your flesh and for your salvation. And this, this is what Jesus’ Baptism teaches us.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shalt be, world without end. How was it in the beginning? St. John answers, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Before time began, in eternity, there was God. But he is not a God who, as Aristotle thought, simply sits there contemplating Himself eternally. He’s the God who is Father and Son from eternity. He’s the God who is love from eternity, because the Father has always loved His Son, the Son has always loved His Father, and the Holy Spirit has always proceeded from this love. And this love is always active, it reaches outside itself, it’s not just a thought, a wish, a contemplation, it’s God and God acts. That’s what we are saying when we confess, “As it was in the beginning.” There was no sin, no devil, no death, no hate, no pain, no filthy desires, no guilty conscience, no murder of innocent children, no sexual depravity, there was only this divine love.
This much should be obvious to every Christian. God is Trinity. God is love. This is how it was in the beginning. But then we continue, As it was in the beginning is now. Is now? Here is where our confession seems absurd. Look at the world. What glory is given to God by our world now? What glory to God is there in the million abortions Americans commit each year, what glory to God by the no-fault divorces, by the cheating and adultery, by our selfish ambitions, by the lust of our hearts, by the pain of cancer, by families ripped apart by sin and betrayal and unbelief? What sense does it make for us to say that God’s glory remains the same now as it was in the beginning, when there was no sin, no death, no pain, no guilt?
Well the Baptism of our Lord makes sense of it. It’s no coincidence that here, at His Baptism, God reveals Himself as Trinity, as eternal love. The Son rises from the waters, the Father speaks His love and approval on Him from heaven, and the Spirit rests on Him in gentleness as a dove. Because here is God’s glory, here is who God is. His glory has always been in His love, and His glory is shown here as the Son loves by obeying His Father’s will to become the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s God’s love. This is why we can sing, “But God beheld my wretched state before the world’s foundation, and mindful of His mercy great, He planned my soul’s salvation. A Father’s heart he turned to me, sought my redemption fervently. He gave His dearest treasure.” This is the eternal love of God. That’s what Jesus’ Baptism means. He is baptized to live and to die for you, to do what He planned from before the world’s foundation. Jesus will later call His death His Baptism, so tightly He connects the two. And Jesus here tells John the Baptist that He is baptized to fulfill all righteousness.
And by this He is saying that God joins His glory to ours, His honor to ours, His righteousness to ours. He will do as He is. He will love. He will be righteous not by condemning sinners to hell, not by leaving us in our guilt and abandoning us, so that He can reign alone in majesty and contemplate His own goodness, no, He will be righteous, remain righteous and glorious as in the beginning, by loving us now to His death, by diving into those waters and swearing by Himself that He will bear the sin of the world, that He will become the great sinner, live for us, die for us, suffer His own righteous wrath against our sin, and make us holy and righteous before Him.
That this is who God is, how He reveals Himself, this is what the world, what human reason thinks is so foolish, so stupid, as St. Paul says. The Church chose our Epistle very well today. It answers perfectly to Jesus’ Baptism: “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.” This is not simply to say that Baptism looks foolish, that God chose water to anoint His Son for death, it’s also to say that God Himself looks foolish. His glory is to become a man and humble Himself. His honor is to die for the unworthy. His righteousness is to bear sin.
Immediately after Jesus’ Baptism, in every account we have, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And the devil models human wisdom for us. He says, “If you are the Son of God, show me by your power, show me by turning rocks into bread, show me by satisfying your own pleasure.” Because this is what sinners would expect from God – what would you do if you had all power? What do you dream in your heart you’d do to your enemies if you had enough money? What wouldn’t you do to protect your reputation if you had all glory in heaven and earth? What pleasure would you not fulfill if you could get away with it? But the God with all power becomes weak, He dies for His enemies, He disgraces Himself on a cross, and this He calls His glory. No human wisdom could think up this God. He must reveal Himself. That’s what Epiphany means. You will not know this God unless He shows Himself to you. And He reveals Himself in His Baptism.
As it was in the beginning is now. That’s what you see in Jesus’ Baptism. Here you have no sin, you have no guilt, there is no death, there is no dishonor, no disgrace, no shame that can claim you, because all of it is thrown on Jesus, on God Himself, on the Son, who pays to His Father by the love of His Spirit what He vowed from the beginning.
It is now. That’s the promise of your Baptism. What Jesus swore of Himself in His Baptism He gives to you in your Baptism. You have died with Christ, you have God’s name, you are His treasured possession, free from sin and death, an heir of eternity, in communion with eternal love. It doesn’t look that way. It doesn’t even feel that way. We see sin and death, feel anxiety and depression, our consciences are burdened by hate and anger and selfish thoughts, and we live in a world where it looks like God has lost all control. But as it was in the beginning is now. God’s love has not waned. It has not changed. From all eternity. What He acted out in history, His incarnation, His Baptism, his bitter agony and death, his resurrection from the dead, He did to take you a poor sinner, born without love for Him, born to die and face God’s judgment, to take you and name you His child in your Baptism, to forgive every sin that burdens your conscience, to make you His own, turn your death into the portal of heaven, teach you how to love and live as Christians. This is God’s unchangeable love. It is as He promises through the prophet Malachi, “I am the Lord. I do not change. Therefore you are not destroyed, O sons of Jacob.”
This is how it is now, and it’s how it will be forever. And ever shalt be, world without end. That also is the promise of your Baptism. In eternity, your glory will not be in your ambitions, in your reputation, in your money, in your own pleasures, in your pride. It will be forever in the Trinity’s love revealed at Jesus’ Baptism. And this we make our glory now. That’s what it means to be baptized, to be a Christian. Our glory is in Christ. Sacrifice your pride every day, sacrifice your ambitions, sacrifice whatever it is that draws you away from this God of love, and find your daily rest in Him. Receive His body and His blood, and see that there is no joy, no glory, no pleasure, nothing, that can compare with the glory you have in your Baptism, that you commune with God Himself, that He gives His glory to you. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shalt be, world without end. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
It’s very easy for Christians to become anti-intellectual, because we see the modern intelligentsia, we see academia and college campuses promoting anti-Christian propaganda, championing sexual perversion and abortion and feminism, attacking marriage and family, mocking God’s creation by promoting evolution, associating the history of the Bible with pagan myths, drawing Christians away from the faith, and the list goes on. And so it happens all too often that Christians, in their justified distrust of the progressive propagandists who dominate the universities, and the media for that matter, Christians will become suspicious of higher learning itself, because they see that getting smart or educated in our time usually equates with losing the faith and abandoning the Bible. But this is to react in exactly the wrong way. Being smart, learning the truth, thinking about difficult issues, has never led anyone from the faith. Ever. Being arrogant has. Refusing to humble yourself, your mind and your desires, under the Word of God has. Thinking that you’re smarter than God will definitely make it difficult for you to remain a Christian. But learning never will. In fact, learning is the constant and lifelong duty of the Christian.
Look at the wisemen. They were wise men. Scholars. Very smart, very educated. And they are part of a long history of Christian scholars who studied the world, studied civilization, studied law, studied science, studied history and politics, studied the Bible, and did it all for the glory of God, in order to worship their Lord Jesus. That’s what all the learning of the wise men amounts to. Notice that. They didn’t travel a thousand miles as a matter of course. It’s not as if they did this for every comet that appeared in the sky. Their lifelong goal is summed up in this little sentence, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and we have come to worship him.” To worship Him. That’s the purpose of learning.
I can’t remember where I saw it, I think it was when I was teaching a class at some tiny liberal arts college in Iowa, but on the metopes of the college library, in huge Latin script, were written the words, “Learning for the sake of learning.” I see the same phrase frequently; in fact, I just read an article by that name from the American Counsel on Education. The thought is that you learn not just to get a career, but because learning is an end in itself. Now that sounds really classical and liberal artsy and enlightened, but it’s total nonsense. No one in the history of the world has ever learned for the sake of learning. We learn for a purpose. Sometimes those purposes are bad, sometimes they’re good. Sometimes it’s a little of both. You can learn for the joy of it, because it stimulates you, satisfies curiosity or satisfies pride. You can learn as school children often do, so you get praise or don’t get punished. You can learn, as Herod did in our Gospel lesson, in order to secure your own position at the expense of others. You can learn to get a job and make money. You can learn to help others, as nurses and teachers and mothers often do. But learning is never neutral. We always do it for some reason. And what the wisemen teach us is to learn with clear and unmistakable purpose that the reason for all our learning, finally, is to worship Jesus.
Let me get specific here. The Christian mother who learns to cook, learns to keep a house, learns to tend to crying children, she does these things not for the sake of learning, but to love her neighbor, her children and her husband, and since this is exactly what pleases God in heaven, it’s a form of Christian worship. The Christian electrician who learns how not to get electrocuted when wiring a house should learn it to provide for his family, to help others, to support his church, and so all for the glory of God. This applies to everything you learn, no matter your formal education.
But we will never have this mindset unless we actually spend time, like the wise men, learning God’s Word. And when it comes to learning this, what has happened in the last generation among Christians, including us conservative Lutherans, has been startling. By and large we’re forgetting the Bible. Christians don’t know what it says for the simple reason that they don’t read it. I will never forget teaching a course on classical mythology at a university where I mentioned Joseph and Potiphar’s wife and not a single student out of fifty knew the story. But I can see the same thing happening now, and it’s why I stress so often to read your Bibles, have family devotions at home, eat meals together, put learning God’s Word above sports, above TV, above homework, above everything else we learn. To show ourselves and our children that we humble ourselves under God’s Word and reverence it as the highest treasure in the world.
It makes no sense to decry how bad things have gotten in the world, in the workplace, in the universities, in the media, and then not face the challenge and temptations they pose with the only weapon we have. A mighty fortress is our God, we sing. Rise to arms, with prayer employ you, we sing. We call ourselves the church militant. And St. Paul reminds us that ours is a battle not against flesh and blood but against the powers of darkness posing as the wisdom of this world. And he gives our weapon as the sword of the Spirit, that’s God’s Word. And we have every reason to be confident when we learn and love God’s word at home and at church. There is no philosophy out there, no -ism, whether that be feminism, or socialism, or secular humanism, there is no attack on Christianity, that can stand up against knowledge, humble, faithful, repentant knowledge of God’s Word, love for its beauty and its glory, no wisdom that can compare to the truth revealed to the wise men that the God who created this world has come into human flesh to save it from sin and death and all evil.
So this is our motto. Learning for the sake of worshiping Jesus. This is what the wisemen teach us.
They came from the East specifically to worship the one born King of the Jews. We shouldn’t let this escape our attention. They’re from the East, probably from Persia. If you learn about ancient civilization, you’ll quickly realize that all ancient peoples were what the universities today would call racists. The Persians didn’t care for the Jews, the Jews called all other nations hagoyim, the Gentiles, the Greeks called all non-Greek speakers barbarians and ridiculed them for their practices, the Romans banned Greek philosophers from Rome repeatedly. You get the point. They were ethnocentric, proud of their own cultures and in large part dismissive of other cultures and nations. And so it is a remarkable thing that these wisemen would come to worship not some Persian King, not some King of the East, but the King of the Jews.
But they came because they learned, they studied and they learned from the Old Testament, that the Jews were a special people, not because of their race, but because of their God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who had raised up the Kingdom of Judah and saw it through all its sin and destruction, in order to bring forth a King who would rule over all, the King Isaiah speaks of in our Old Testament lesson, and note, Isaiah is speaking to Judah, to Jews here, in this beautiful prophecy: “Arise shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” This is why the wisemen came to Jerusalem to inquire of the King of the Jews, because as we just sang, he is not only the King of the Jews, but the highborn King of ages, true Son of God and Mary’s Son, who draws his entire creation to Himself. The entire history of the Old Testament, every word of it, points to the reason for Judah’s existence, to bring forth the Savior of the world, the King who comes from the Jews to bring all peoples to himself by his cross, as our Lord Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself.”
And notice the manner of the wisemen’s learning. They are smart, very smart. But they come asking questions, they come humbly. They got the place wrong. They thought they’d find the King of the Jews in Jerusalem, in a palace. Jerusalem, after all, was the city of David, the capital of Judah. But there was another city of David, the city in which David was born, and the wisemen humble themselves and learn again from the word of God, from the prophet Micah, that it will be from Bethlehem that this King will come to shepherd God’s people Israel, to rule over His Church.
And this learning was never just head knowledge for these wise men. Herod had the same head knowledge. He learned too that this King had been born in Bethlehem. But he uses the knowledge for horrible evil. And this we can do too. We can become proud and we can use knowledge, even knowledge about God’s holy Word, to raise ourselves up, to show off our smarts, to look down on others. But the wisemen learned humility from God’s Word, they learned their own sin, their own unworthiness, and they came to kiss the Son, as Psalm 2 says, because they see that only in this Son is God’s anger taken away and sin covered, only in this Son is God’s love revealed. And so the wisemen teach us, not only that learning is good, not only that learning God’s Word is our lifelong objective, but that learning always goes along with worshiping Jesus, with a life that humbles itself under God, and submits all knowledge, whatever it is, to the Word of Jesus, learns to bear his yoke, as he has borne our sins.
The wisemen bear gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And here again we see what the purpose of learning is. We learn of this God who saves us, who becomes a helpless baby to live and die for us, to shed his precious blood, the blood of God Himself to reconcile us to Himself, and make us heirs of eternal life with Him, we learn to love Him. And loving Him means, of course, not simply bearing gifts, but first faith, the highest possible form of worship, first trusting that God is for us, that He is with us, that no matter who we are, no matter our nationality, our family, no matter what sins we have committed and the darkness that has stained our heart, our God’s glory shines on us in Jesus Christ, to forgive us, make us His children, wash us clean and feed us with his own body and blood. And then comes an active love for this God. For Him we can walk a thousand miles, for this God, we can give up our riches, submit our time and our life to him, as did the wisemen, this is a God about whom we want to learn more and more, to meditate on His Word and gives our lives to Him as He has given His for us.
I asked the kids in catechism class the other week whether we can look up into heaven like the wisemen and so find Jesus. The answer of course is no. And the wisemen again teach us this very thing. They found Jesus by listening to His Word. That’s how they knew to follow the star to Jerusalem, how they ended up finding Him in Bethlehem. And this is how we find our Lord Jesus, how He finds us. To be wise, to learn, to be divinely educated, this is to receive the Epiphany of our Lord, which is what we celebrate today. Epiphany, God’s revelation to us, His word to the nations, His enlightening us of His love in Christ Jesus, telling us who we are and what our purpose is, that this Child, true Son of God and Mary’s son, has redeemed us from all sin with his holy precious blood and his innocent sufferings and death, that we may be His own, belong to Him, learn from Him, love Him, live our lives for Him and receive our strength from Him, as a branch is to the tree, His life supplying our life, so that our souls never rest until they rest in Him forever.
Lord grant this to us all. Let us pray:
Thou, mighty Father in Thy Son didst love me ere Thou hadst begun This ancient world’s foundation. Thy Son hath made a friend of me, And when in spirit Him I see, I joy in tribulation. What bliss is this! He that liveth to me giveth life forever; Nothing me from him can sever. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
Epiphany 3, 2019
Faith is nothing if it isn’t humble. Christ calls it God’s glory that the eternal Son becomes a man and humbles himself and suffers the torment of the cross. The Son of God sweats blood in the Garden and says, “Not my will be done, but thine,” and this humility God calls His glory. This is also why Jesus calls the faith of the centurion the greatest. The centurion’s faith is strong, it’s glorious, because the centurion is weak and humble. That’s the paradox of Christian faith. The centurion’s prayer has traditionally been prayed before taking the Lord’s Supper. Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only the say the Word and my soul will be healed. And then the word, this is my body, this is my blood. And you, who are unworthy, who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, who know your unworthiness, know your sin and your shame, know that it is ridiculous and absurd that the holy God should come to you and love you and forgive you and make His home in you, you who have no confidence in yourself that you can stand before God and live, you are exalted to heaven at the Word of your Savior, “Take eat, this is my body. Take drink, this is my blood.”
The centurion’s faith is humble. That’s why it’s great. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t act. Faith does act. As Luther says, “O this faith is a living, busy, powerful thing!” Faith is confident. You are a child of God. This is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast. But you are a child of God. And this is something to boast of, to be confident in. Not in yourself, of course, that’s not humility, but in God. Humility and confidence are not contrary to each other. You can be utterly humbled, shown by God’s law that you deserve nothing from Him but punishment, you can be totally uncertain of yourself, and yet know and be confident that you are the apple of God’s eye, His delight, His child. Because the ground of this confidence is outside of you. It’s in your Baptism. God doesn’t lie. He named you His child. Be proud of it, be confident in it. It’s in the absolution you heard this morning. God doesn’t lie. He never has. And He told you again your sins are forgiven, he created the office of pastor for the specific purpose of telling you that the Son of God did not die in vain, but has suffered specifically for you to remove your sin and reconcile you to God and give you eternal life in Him. It’s in the Holy Supper. God cannot lie. This is the body and blood of the God who took on your flesh to redeem you a lost and condemned creature, to purchase and win you so that you may be His own. That’s your confidence. Faith is nothing if it isn’t confident.
And that’s why faith acts. Because it’s humble and confident. The greatness of this centurion’s faith is not only that he’s humble but that He expects everything good only from the good God. And these two things belong together. Humility and confidence. The centurion pointed at the very same time to his own unworthiness, the objective state of his humility, not just that he felt humble, but that he was, objectively, unworthy of God’s attention, he points to this and at the very same time points to the source and ground of his confidence, that if Jesus speaks it, it is so. The centurion doesn’t even need to see it. He only needs to hear it. He acts. Say the word, he says. Say the word, we say.
The argument is called an argumentem a fortiori. The argument from the lesser to the greater. We know how it works with authority on earth. If the cop writes me a ticket because I’m speeding on CY – which never happened by the way, I mean, I did speed and I did get pulled over, but I never got a ticket for it – but I obey. I pay the ticket. Because I’m under authority. If I tell my children to eat their supper, they are bound to do it on pain of punishment. If I tell them to go to church they do it. Because they understand that I am their father and I am to be obeyed. The world can’t work without this authority. The centurion ordered around his soldiers and they obeyed implicitly. This is what happens on earth with authority with men. How much more with God. Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth. He orders and it is done. He speaks and it is so.
But He doesn’t speak as the law speaks, as a cop who gives a ticket. That’s not the authority the centurion appeals to. He appeals to who Jesus is. He is the God of mercy. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prays to His Father, he says, “You have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom You have given Him, and this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Notice what Jesus calls His authority, His all-encompassing authority over all flesh. His authority, his Kingdom, his reign on this earth consists in taking poor sinners who are not worthy that He should enter under their roofs, and exalting them. What manner of love is this, the apostle asks, that we should be called children of God? But so we are. He imposes nothing on us. He instead imposes everything on Himself, bears our sin and our shame, and promises by His own blood to be our God and use His almighty power only for our good. That’s His authority.
This is why faith acts, because in humility our confidence is in this God. And we pray, “Thy will be done.” That’s what the leper prayed. “If you are willing, O Lord, you can make me clean.” This appeal is senseless, stupid, ridiculous, unless we know the will of this God. I do not pray, “Thy will be done” to a God I don’t know. I don’t pray Thy will be done either to a God who insists on throwing me into hell to be separated from Him forever. I can’t. I learn to agree with God’s judgment, that hell is my desert, what I have earned by my sin, but there is no way for me to say, “Thy will be done” except to the God who I know from His beautiful and everlasting Gospel has taken my hell on Himself and has loved me to His death.
Thy will be done is the humblest and most confident prayer imaginable. The petition only Christian faith can pray. To will simply means to want. And you want all sorts of things. Your flesh wants bad things, wicked things, things that you don’t even want to admit out loud. And your spirit, because you’re a Christian, wants good things, beautiful things, things we bring before God every day and every Sunday. But we commend all our wants to God. The evil things for him to forgive and wash away and free us from. The good and beautiful things for him to do with as he wishes.
This is especially important when we are bearing a cross, when we suffer, when we can’t understand why God hasn’t given us something good, why mom or dad is dying of cancer, why children have rebelled and left the faith, why you are lonely, why you suffer with a sin you’ve prayed God to remove from you and you still are tempted with. Thy will be done, we say. Three times the Apostle Paul prayed that God would remove the thorn from his flesh, some awful torment that God placed on him, and God said, “My grace is sufficient for you. For my strength is made perfect in weakness.” And in the face of things we can’t understand faith acts, it prays, and it trusts in the will that God has revealed, the will that is sure and certain, that He who has not spared His own Son but has delivered Him up for us all, how will He not in Him freely give us every good thing?
Faith acts. When you wake up in the morning, do you pray? Do you? Do you thank God that He has kept you safe in the night? Do you commend yourself to His care? Do you ask that His will be done among you, that you bear patiently whatever He gives you? Pray. Do it. You’re God’s child. He loves you. He cherishes you. He cares what happens in your life more than you do. He does. And He knows better than you do what is good for you, what you can bear, and why you need to bear it.
We are asked the question in our catechism, “How is God’s will done?” And we answer, “God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is His good and gracious will.”
Whatever else you ask for in life, whatever is going on in your life, whatever you are suffering, whatever you are enjoying, whatever you wish for the future, when you pray, “Thy will be done,” you are to focus your heart and your mind and confidence on this, that this is not simply the most important thing, but the only thing, from which everything else flows, all crosses and all joys, life itself, that God’s will is to destroy the plan of the devil and this world and your sinful flesh, which would drag you into misery and unbelief and hell, God’s will is to keep you a Christian, to draw you to Himself to find your confidence in His Word until you die, so that, as St. Paul says, whether you live or die, you are the Lord’s. This is His priority, His will from everlasting to everlasting. And to think of that, that God’s priority, the Almighty’s will and desire, has everything to do with you and your good, that He doesn’t want to lose you, but wants you to remain His child and to defend you from every evil and to teach you to live and love as He has lived and loved you, this is to see into the very heart of God.
We pray Thy will be done to learn to want what our Father wants. And our Father wants us to be His own. To know that in Christ He has made us worthy to live and die as His children, to call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks, to commend everything to Him. If that means suffering, we bear it. If it means happiness, we thank Him. His priority is ours. We are His children. That’s the legacy of our Baptism. He is our dear Father. He said, “I am willing.” He says it. He wants it. Christ’s blood is proof of it. Your Baptism is the guarantee of it. He wants you in his heaven. He wants to keep you from sin and give you a godly life of good works. He wants to forgive every sin that burdens your conscience. He wants to declare you righteous on the last day by the blood of Jesus in whom you believe. He wants you to join and sing forever with the heavenly host. He wants to beat down the devil under your feet. He wants to comfort you in every sadness. And so we pray, Thy will be done from the heart in humility and confidence. God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Let us pray:
Lord, as Thou wilt, deal Thou with me;
No other wish I cherish.
In life and death I cling to Thee;
Oh, do not let me perish!
Let not Thy grace from me depart
And grant an ever patient heart
To bear what Thou dost send me.
Pastor Christian Preus
Epiphany 4, 2019
The disciples follow Jesus into a boat. In Mark’s Gospel it says that Jesus compelled them, forced them into a boat. Jesus made them get in. And of course getting into the boat meant danger and trouble. Following Jesus means danger and trouble. That’s the unavoidable message. And it speaks against any preacher who would tell you, like Joel Osteen, that being a Christian will bring you nothing but a good and happy life here on earth. That flies in the face not only of the Bible but of the obvious experience of every Christian who faces pain and trouble in this world, like the disciples in our Gospel. Now that being said, in the Bible the boat is actually the safe place. Noah’s ark was the only safe place in the world when God wiped men off the earth, because, as He says, the imagination of their hearts was only evil continually. Think of that, the ark was the only safe place in the whole world. And in the history of Jonah, it may not seem like it, but the boat is the safe place. You’ve got two choices - you can be in the boat, or you can be in the water where you drown and die or get eaten by a giant fish. You want to be in the boat.
This is why we have traditionally called the place in the church where the people sit the nave. Nave (or navis) is the Latin word for ship, it’s where you get the word navigate and Navy. Now in a normal church, not that our church isn’t normal, in a normal church the nave, where the people sit, actually looks like a ship, long and narrow. But the reason it’s called a nave, a ship, isn’t just because of the shape of it, it’s because of the ark, and Jonah, and our Gospel for today. The church is a safe, secure place. But it’s a safe place surrounded by trouble, by a flood of sin, by the storms of the world, by the winds of false doctrine.
And that means that when you enter the church, when you follow Jesus into the church, you will at the very same time be in the most danger and the safest you could possibly be.
Christianity is filled with these paradoxes. It’s beautiful. Because we live by faith and not by sight. Seriously, with whom would you rather be in time of trouble than with the Creator of heaven and earth? And yet this Creator explicitly tells you, in the world you will have trouble. He says a disciple is not above his master. If they persecuted the Lord they will persecute those who follow him. He says, pick up your cross and follow me. Following Jesus means trouble. He says so. This is what the history of our Gospel pictures, “When Jesus got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. And behold there arose a great storm.” There arose a great storm. You are baptized, Christ is your Lord, what He is and what He did, is yours. You know the truth that makes you free. And that means the devil hates you, and he attacks you with deception, with lies, to make you doubt your heritage, that God has paid by his own blood for your sins, that you are really God’s child with the promise of eternal life. It means as St. Paul confesses, that you are opposed to the sinful world and the sinful world to you, “Forbid it Lord that I should boast except in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” It means you feel and recognize the severity of sin, God’s anger against it, what it does to you, to people and to their lives. And all this causes a storm in life.
This is always the way of the Christian church. The Christian Church didn’t begin at Pentecost. It began in the Garden of Eden. And the Christians who followed Jesus from the beginning of the world saw that following Jesus brought trouble. Abel was murdered for his faith, he’s the first Christian martyr. Noah was mocked and his confession was despised by the entire world. Abraham spent his life lonely in a foreign land. Jacob fled for his life from his own brother. Moses dealt with a rebellious people for forty years in the desert. David has King Saul trying to kill him and then thirty years later his own son Absalom trying to overthrow him. And they suffered all these things because they were Christians. It wasn’t senseless suffering. They suffered as Christians and because they were Christians.
That’s how we get the psalms. They are hymns of suffering and overcoming suffering through faith in Jesus. How long, O Lord, we cry, Will our glory be put to shame? How long will the wicked prevail against us. Or the words of our Introit, Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. Praying the psalms strengthens faith. It’s how faith acts. It teaches you to recognize that there is suffering in your life and to commend it to God and His will and confess, even when it looks the opposite, that God’s goodness will prevail, that his mercy endures forever, that he sends crosses in your life to draw you to him.
I don’t think there’s a question I hear more often as a pastor than, why is there suffering in my life? It’s the universal question. We all ask it. I’m reading the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov right now and that’s the huge question, what sense can be made of the suffering of children? How does it contribute in any way to the good? How does God allow this? And when we look at the news lately, with state after state legalizing and celebrating partial birth abortion, with the Governor of Virginia even advocating killing a child after it’s born, we cry out How long, O Lord, and ask, why? Why this suffering? And why the suffering in my own life?
Now this can become a practice in self-indulgence. Dostoevsky calls it lamentation or laceration. People feeling sorry for themselves and imagining they’re always the victim, blaming God and other people for their problems, and getting a high from it. This is a danger. Especially among Christians. And especially in our culture where we’re taught to magnify and talk about all our problems as if we were the center of the universe. No, the point of recognizing that we Christians suffer in this life is to turn ourselves away from self-pity, away from any form of self-indulgence, not to lacerate ourselves and dwell on our miseries, but to recognize that God sends our crosses, and our help is in the Lord who made heaven and earth, that He will deliver us from all our distresses, and crown us with joy and gladness.
This is why the Lord Jesus doesn’t allow his disciples to behave like cowards. They say, Save us Lord, we are perishing! And he rebukes them, before he rebuked the storm, he rebuked them. This is beautiful. The storm is still raging around them, they’re still seeing with their eyes that things aren’t good. And before He does anything to still the storm, He tells them to be brave, not to be cowards, not to be men of little faith, to trust that He will be their God and protect them and get them through even when it looks the opposite. Your translation has Jesus say, “Why are you afraid?” But the Greek says, “Why are you being cowards?” It’s as if he were saying, Don’t you know you have to suffer if you follow me? Are you really going to doubt and turn inward and make this all about yourselves when a little trouble comes? Don’t do it. When suffering comes, turn to the suffering of your Lord Jesus. This is the lens through which you see life. I determined to know nothing among you but Christ crucified.
Let me give you three reasons why God allows suffering. These won’t answer all our questions, that will happen in the resurrection, but they’ll tell us God’s answer to the questions we should be asking.
God wants us to hate sin, to avoid it, to fear God’s wrath and not do anything against his commandments, and suffering will teach us this, when we see the heaven-crying sin of abortion, when we see the pain unfaithfulness brings, gossip brings, refusal to reconcile with a brother brings, drunkenness, laziness, sexual perversion, when we suffer because we see these sins around us or we see them in ourselves, we learn that God hates these sins and we learn why. And we realize the beauty of the cross, that God would see a world so wretched, so full of sin and suffering, and love it still, become one of us and take the punishment for the sins he hates, all because of his love for the sinners he wants to be his children.
And when we suffer because of doubt and cowardice, when the devil attacks you with anxiety at what lies before you in life as if you are not the prized possession of the almighty God, as if your life were not in your loving God’s control, it’s again Christ’s cross that strengthens, his suffering that makes you bold, because here he crushes the devil’s head, eviscerates his deceptions, seals the fact that God’s blood cannot lie. If it is God’s will to suffer for you the pangs of hell, if He has loved you so, he will not and cannot forsake you or turn his child away.
And when we suffer because of the world, our reputation tarnished because of gossip, our pride offended because of arrogant words spoken against us, our passions aroused because of the temptations to sex and wealth and fame and the acceptance the world offers, if only you agree with it and follow it instead of Jesus, once again it’s the cross of Jesus that relieves you, to sing as we did last Sunday, Hence all earthly pleasure, Jesus is my treasure, Jesus is my choice. Hence all earthly glory, naught to me thy story, told with tempting voice. Pain or loss or shame or cross shall not from my Savior move me, since He deigns to love me. I can learn to give up my reputation with men if it means I have a good reputation with God, I can learn to give up wealth, if it means to have the wealth of Jesus’ blood. I can learn to endure pain, if it means finding my rest in Jesus. That’s the point. And it’s a spiritual exercise. This danger, this suffering of Christians, we want our flesh put down, we want to look forward to heaven, we want to be forced to pray from the heart to our God, we want to learn to hate all sin, we want to be constantly drawn to Christ our Lord.
And by suffering we learn what the disciples saw that day. They saw it. Who is this man that even the winds and sea obey him? He is God in human flesh. He is the Creator of heaven and earth. But we see by faith what the disciples didn’t see with their eyes that day. It didn’t look like that man sleeping in the boat was in charge. That’s why they were cowardly. And in the suffering of this life, it won’t seem to your eyes that a man suffering on a cross is in charge of your life. But he is. This is where he takes charge. Where he proves that he is not only the almighty God, but your God, who uses his almighty power for you, to bear your sins and take them away forever, to give you everlasting joy not in your sinful pleasures but in His love and in one another, to keep you safe in the ark of his church, to forgive your trespasses, lead you out of the temptation of the world, and deliver you from every evil. In the world you will have trouble, Jesus says, but take courage, I have overcome the world. Not sin or death or the devil, not things present or things to come, not powers or authorities, nothing can stand against the power of our Lord Jesus; we are safe, secure, like that boat was in the raging sea, no matter how it looked different, we are safe because Jesus is with us, with God on our side, with His body given and blood shed, with his instruction and word and wisdom, with His Spirit, his commandments, his promise that He is with us, with His Church, always even to the end of the age. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
The Transfiguration shows Jesus as He really is. He is the God of all glory in human flesh. He appears to his disciples here as we ourselves will see Him in heaven. This is a beautiful thing. St. John says it. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” We will see Him as He really is. That’s how Peter and John and James saw him then and see Him now. But we need to explain this, what it means. Our Lord Jesus is God. He is. And because He is God, because the Son took on human nature, He shares His divine attributes, His divine power, with his human nature. That’s why His body shines like the sun in the Transfiguration. It’s why the body and blood of Christ can be present here in the Lord’s Supper. It’s why Jesus, God and man, can literally be with us always even to the end of the age. Not like we say that our Grandma or Grandpa is still with us in spirit, even though they’ve passed away. Not a sentimental presence. A real presence. Because the flesh and blood of Jesus are inseparably and personally united to God Himself, to the person of the Son, where the Son is, there is Jesus, all of Him.
This is the first thing to wonder at. And we should. God has so exalted our human nature that it now shares in His divinity, is one Person with Him in Christ. That’s why St. John says what He says, “But we know that when He appears we shall be like Him.” Because God’s a man, and that man Jesus is God. What we look forward to is something beyond our comprehension, that we will be like God. Not in the way the devil tempted Eve in the Garden, when he tempted her to sin, told her to desire to know good and evil, to be like God, to take what God had not given her. No, it’s the opposite. We will be like God, because we will take and receive what God has given to us, what He earned for us, what He took on our flesh and suffered and died to give us; we will be perfectly conformed to Jesus Christ, there will be no pride, no arrogance, no selfish ambition, no grudges, no fear of evil, no doubts, no hatred, no fights in the family, no temptation to sexual lust, no shame. We will be consumed only with love, the love of the Holy Trinity, and our bodies and souls will be and do as God created them to be and do forever. We will find ourselves completely in God’s image, see Him, love Him, know Him, as He really is, with a never-ending and always growing wonder that we are found worthy to be His children and live in His Kingdom. All because our God is a man, and we have received from His fullness, and grace for grace.
This is what we look forward to. We look forward to it. This is important. It’s in the future. The mistake Christians so often make is to wish about the past. Wish they could change this or that. Some stupid mistake, some awful decision, some horrible sin, if we could only go back and change it, we think, how much better our life could be. Everyone here knows what I’m talking about. All of us have done it. But it’s always a mistake. The past is there for us to learn from, not to repeat, not to torture ourselves and think and wish a thousand times we could change it. That’s a practice in selfishness and futility. We’re not God. And not even God permits Himself to change the past. Instead, the Bible consistently tells us to look forward to the goal. Look forward to what God puts before us. What we will do, who we will be, as God’s children in this world and in the world to come. And this is precisely what the Transfiguration teaches us to do.
It’s history. It’s in the past. And so we learn from it. You were not there. You shouldn’t dream of being there. And again, we do this. If only I could see Jesus as He really was, then my doubts would go away, then I would live the life I want to live, then I could be full of confidence. No. That didn’t happen for John, for James, for Peter either. They fell into temptation even after they saw Jesus in all His glory. Peter denied Him. They all abandoned Him to death. No, we look at the Transfiguration to learn from the past what we will have in the future.
Because the Transfiguration is not simply Jesus showing that He is God in human flesh. It shows what Jesus does as God in human flesh. Jesus talks to Moses and Elijah. St. Luke tells us what He was talking about. His exodus. His departure from this world. His death on the cross for sinners. Just as God showed His almighty power in the exodus, made the Red Sea part, and saved His people from certain death at the hands of their enemies, so God comes in human flesh to save us by His exodus, to open the way to the promised land, to everlasting life, by using His power again for us. Think of that. When Jesus appears in all His glory on that mount of Transfiguration, He talks about us, how He will use His power to take our sins on Himself and bear them in His body, to suffer hell for us, so that He can free us from the guilt of our sin and make us children of God.
We need to learn to contrast Mount Sinai and the Mount of Transfiguration. On Mount Sinai God gave His law. No one could approach the mountain except Moses. And not even Moses could see God’s face, only his backside. Moses had to wear a veil over his own face, because it shined and terrified the people after he came down from the Mount. This is the glory of God without Jesus. It’s terrifying. And it still terrifies. It demands perfection. You shall be holy as the Lord your God is holy. And it’s not simply your words and your actions God knows and judges but your secret thoughts and sins, that you hide from your closest friends and even from yourself. And so you can’t look this God in the face. Shame and guilt and fear prevent it. As the hymn puts it, “The Law You gave to Moses came with a glory bright, And judgment still imposes on sinners in Your sight; My head in shame is bowing and sorrow whelms within, Because this light is showing My every secret sin.”
But on the Mount of Transfiguration, what do you see. You see God’s glory shining again in the face of Jesus. It’s a brighter light, more glorious than the light on Mount Sinai. But Peter is not afraid. He’s bold. He can stare straight into Jesus’ face. He’s filled with joy. Why? Because here is the God-man who smiles on sinners, who climbs a Mount not to give the law but to pay what the law requires from us, to take away our guilt and our shame by spending his righteousness and glory on us.
This is why Jesus tells Peter, James, and John not to tell a soul about what they had seen until He was risen from the dead. It’s only after the crucifixion that we can confess with Thomas, My Lord and my God. Here you know not simply God, but your God, not simply His glory, but the glory that serves You, the same glory the three disciples saw with their eyes on the Mount and we will see with our own eyes in the resurrection, that God is not our enemy, but our friend and our Brother, that He lays down His life for us, sheds His blood for us, rises from the dead to talk with us, to call us by name as He did Mary in the garden, to be with us always, as He promised, to feed us with living food and make us partakers of His divinity.
St. Peter tells us about the Transfiguration. Not so that we can imagine we were there. But to point us to the sure Word of God that teaches us what this history means for us and our future. Peter was there. He saw Jesus in all His glory. But what He records isn’t the spectacular feelings and the awe he experienced. No, he records only the Father’s voice: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him. Listen to Him. His Word is the word of Scripture, of the Bible, which you can hold in your hands, read, and see, and hear from this pulpit and at that altar. It is more sure than any sight of Jesus shining like the sun. Because it tells you why He shown like the sun. Listen to Him. The Bible is not a book of fables and myths. It is the sure word of Jesus your Savior. It records history, what actually happened in time and space. And it centers on this one beautiful fact, that your God has become one with you and lived for you and died for you, to make you one with Him.
Look forward to the goal. The goal is to see Jesus in His glory. It’s not to leave behind the past. It’s to glory forever in the past. That your God has loved you to His death. That He has taken away all your shame and sin. That He has put His name on you in your Baptism. That He has blessed you through this vale of tears. That He has given you everything you need. That He has given you joys and helped you through the hard times. That He has kept you in the faith, kept you a child of God. That He has fed you with His body and blood. This is the foundation for your future here on this earth, to fight the good fight of faith, to dedicate yourself to reading and hearing the Word of your God, to pray to Him every morning and evening and everywhere in between, to live lives striving to obey Him as dear children obey their dear Father, to sacrifice our sinful pleasures to the pleasure of life lived under His grace, to love Him and one another, until you see Him in the glory which He has had from everlasting, the glory He spent with His blood to make you fit to be children of God, the glory He shares with you now and will be yours for everlasting and everlasting. Lord, grant this to us all. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
It was St. Chrysostom who some 1600 years ago insisted that a parable, the kind of story Jesus so often tells, has one major point to it, that we shouldn’t be so concerned with all the details of a parable, but with the general message that it tells. Now this is very good advice for us to take to heart whenever we read the words of Jesus. His parables are about the Kingdom of God and each parable stresses one thing or another about this Kingdom. If you get too bogged down in the details, you may end up missing the forest for the trees, as they say. And so this is the first thing we need to stress this morning. This parable of the workers in the vineyard has one major point, that the Kingdom of heaven is ours, it belongs to us, by grace alone, solely because of God’s love for us, without any merit or worthiness in us. [Kids, I’m going to teach you a word. Grace means “undeserved love,” when we say we’re saved by grace, we’re saying that God doesn’t decide to love us because of how good we’ve been, but that He loves and forgives people who don’t deserve it at all, who’ve been bad, whose hearts were turned against him, who were his enemies, he loves us still. That’s grace.] Now we Christians should never grow tired of hearing this talk of grace. It’s God’s glory to love those who don’t deserve it and it’s our pride to be so loved. The Christian confesses: I know that I am unworthy, that my sins, as the psalmist says, are grown above my head, that I have been lazy and unmindful of God, that my sinful mind has hated my enemies and my sinful heart has lusted after this world’s treasures, my every sin reminds me of what David had to confess, that I am born in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me, and so what pride can I have, except here in my God, in his grace, that He has loved a world so full of sin, that He chooses not to destroy me but to love me and prepare a Kingdom for me by the shedding of His precious blood, and then He calls me and coaxes me and compels me by His precious Word to live in His Kingdom, under His rule, where I am safe from sin and death and the devil, here in time and forever in eternity.
That is the basic message of this beautiful parable from our Lord Jesus’ own lips. The Kingdom of God is ours by grace. And we need to keep it in our minds as we get into the details. Because the details, which didn’t fall from the Holy Spirit unawares, the details at every point explain this grace of God and how it applies to our lives in the here and now.
The first detail is a warning. Jesus likes to give warnings to us. He’s our Lord and our teacher. And it’s a bad teacher who doesn’t warn his disciples against things that hurt them. What will harm you above all else in this world is to imagine in your heart that your God is fair. He’s not fair. And you don’t want Him to be fair. You want Him to be gracious. I remember being forced to sing a song in grade school, one of those religious ditties that we never teach our children at our church or our school, thank God, that said, “I don’t want to be a Pharisee. A Pharisee? Cuz they’re not fair, you see! I just want to be a sheep, bah, bah, bah, bah…” and so forth. Now besides the fact that teaching children such songs is totally counterproductive, since they’ll grow out of them faster than they grow out of their shoes, and the songs they should be learning are the great hymns that they will sing all their life with their families and churches and finally at their deathbed, that give them comfort in times of trial and pain, the kind of hymns we’re singing this morning actually, besides this, the message of this song is completely and totally wrong. The Pharisees were fair, you see. That’s the point. And Jesus wasn’t. Jesus is the one who told the criminal on the cross, who hadn’t done a good thing in his life, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Is that fair? Jesus welcomed prostitutes, home-wreckers, tax-collecting thieves, to eat with him, forgave them without them doing a thing to earn it. Is that fair? Of course not. And that’s what the Pharisees grumbled about constantly. He receives sinners and eats with them. It’s an offense. God should be fair. He should reward those who do good and punish those who do evil. He should give a denarius to those who worked all day and a couple pennies to those who worked for an hour. But He doesn’t.
And if you want to be a sheep, a Christian, you will adore precisely this about your Shepherd, that he lays down His life for the unworthy, for the sinner, that He gives not according to our works but according to His grace. Now, to be clear, what is fair, and what the Pharisees didn’t get, and what our sinful flesh will never understand, why it needs to be put to death every day in repentance and faith, what is fair is that God send us all to hell, you and me and everyone, away from his presence forever. The law of God is relentless. It is unchangeable, the reflection of God’s own nature and holiness. It demands that we pay for our sins. That’s what’s fair. You don’t want God to be fair.
Those workers in our parable who demanded they be rewarded for their works, who appealed to basic fairness with the owner of the vineyard, they were miserable. That’s the warning. To be a Christian is to love the God of grace. It brings contentment. It brings love for one another. It makes us delight that the sinner sitting next to us who we think should be better, should work harder, should stop annoying us, that this sinner receives the same love of God that we receive, eats the same body and blood given and shed for him, that God makes no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Just look at these workers demanding their fair treatment. They agreed to a denarius, but they’re not content when they get it. They’re filled with resentment against God, they despise their neighbor, they’re told to leave, because those who despise grace don’t belong in God’s Kingdom, and then they complain all the way out. Their hearts are eaten up, their souls are consumed by self-pity and self-righteousness, and wounded pride. This is no way to live. It’s an awful life. And this arrogance, this self-righteous attitude, this enemy of the gospel and of grace, it sits still in our sinful flesh and the devil will be happy to kindle it in us. He wants us to envy one another. He wants Christians to turn against Christians. He wants us judging one another, refusing to forgive one another, holding grudges against one another, thinking we are the righteous ones because of our conduct and in comparison to others. Root it out of your heart. The second you feel resentment because you’re working harder, because you’re the better Christian, because you’ve conquered some sin, because you know more theology, return to the Lord your God, and see you have never expected fairness from Him when you came grieved by your sins, ashamed at your conduct, no, you begged for mercy from the God who promised it to you and sealed it with His blood. And you have never received more joy or more contentment or confidence or security, than when you despaired completely of yourself and received from your Lord’s hand double for all your sins. You love the God of grace. And the God of grace has been so unfair that He has taken all your pain and punishment on Himself and made you a child of God.
Now this is pure joy to know this. And this is the second detail. The Kingdom of God is compared to a vineyard. It’s not compared to a mine, or a factory, or a mill. It’s compared to a beautiful place, full of life, with the sole purpose of producing wine that brings joy to the hearts of men and of God. This isn’t an insignificant detail. Elsewhere Jesus compares His Kingdom to a wedding feast. He compares it to places of joy and happiness. This is why our Lord uses wine in the Supper. What we get in the vineyard, in the church, is not simply what we need for this life – you don’t need wine to live – but the joy of everlasting life. It’s a supernatural joy. And the blood of Jesus He gives in that wine is not simply to get us through the day or the week, but to give us an everlasting joy, to know that we are joined in mystical union with the God of hosts, who swallowed up the demands of the law by drinking the cup of His own wrath and then forgives us and loves us as children of His Father.
The last detail is that everyone works in this vineyard. If you are a Christian you work, period. We aren’t saved by our works. We’re saved by grace. But God’s grace calls us precisely to work. This is what the parable is getting at when the owner of the vineyard scolds the men who were idle all day and didn’t come in till the eleventh hour. There’s no room for idleness in the Kingdom of God. He calls us to work. Now this work includes providing for your family and your church, of course, by working some sort of a job. If a man doesn’t work, neither shall he eat. The Apostle Paul says that he who does not work to support his own family is worse than an unbeliever. But your job, as an employee or as a mother or father or child, is never, ever, disconnected from your call into the vineyard, into the Church. You work as a Christian, period. Your whole life, every bit of it, is as a worker for your Lord Jesus, to do all things for Him and in obedience to His commandments.
But notice how this work is described. It’s a beautiful thing. The pagan, unsatisfied workers who agreed to a denarius, they complain that they worked in the heat and the others, that is, the Christians, worked in the cool of the day. That’s because it’s a miserable thing to work simply for yourself, or worse, to work to make God pay you what you deserve. What does it get you? A denarius at the end of the day, right. To fill your belly till you return to the grave, for dust you are and to dust you shall return.
But the psalmist says, “Arise, O Lord, Confront him, cast him down; Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword, With Your hand from men, O Lord, From men of the world who have their portion in this life, And whose belly You fill with Your hidden treasure. They are satisfied with children, And leave the rest of their possession for their babes. As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness.” This is to say what St. Paul tells us in our Epistle. That we run the race with purpose, with certainty of what lies ahead of us. An imperishable crown of life that will not fade away. Not simply for the pleasures of this world, where moth eats and rust destroys. No, we work under the God of grace, who gave water from a rock to his thirsty people and gives us the water of life that cleanses from all sins. And this lightens every load. Our work is in the vineyard in the cool of the evening. Our Lord Jesus says, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Now look here at what Jesus says, that he does place a yoke on us, that’s to have us work, he does teach us, so that we learn from him, but it is not an awful burden. It’s how we find rest for our souls. And that’s because the work in this vineyard, all your work, all your life, is a work of joy; it begins and ends with the God of grace. This is the light and easy yoke of the Christian. What do we do in Christ’s Church, in the Kingdom of heaven? We hear Christ’s Word, we believe His Gospel, we receive into ourselves the body and blood of God Himself, we despise our sin and run to the God who forgives it freely for Christ’s sake, and in all this the God of grace gives us confidence that we are children of God, the apple of His eye.
I know life can be hard as a Christian. Believe me, I know. Working through family problems, difficulty at work or at home, sins that fester, anxiety and pain, facing down temptations of every kind, all while we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” This is why Jesus says that many are called but few are chosen. It looks, it feels, hard, and if left to ourselves we’d certainly ruin it all and give up the race. But this is also why Jesus’ parable is so comforting. He knows our weakness. He knows that we need his grace. He doesn’t leave us to ourselves. He calls us into His vineyard, gives us purpose in everything we do by rewarding us freely with life and mercy we could never have earned. He earned it. He bore the heat of the day. He shows Himself to be the God of grace. Not only does He cover us with His righteousness and make us perfect before Himself in heaven, He even cleanses all our works, like a father who sweeps the floor again after his little son does an awful job at it. He smiles at us, even at our imperfect works, because His grace covers every imperfection. That’s His grace. Complete and total. And life lived under His rule is the only life worth living
Pastor Christian Preus
St. Paul had a thorn in his flesh. That’s a metaphorical way of saying he had pain. A thorn in the flesh hurts. And Paul was hurting. What his pain was, we don’t know. He doesn’t tell us. Some have thought it was a disease in his eyes, because in his letter to the Galatians he hints twice that there’s something wrong with his vision. Others think Paul suffered from a constant temptation, some lust of the heart that wouldn’t go away or some constant anxiety. But we don’t know. What we do know is that he asked God to take his pain away three times. And God said no three times.
The pain of Christians is different from the pain of unbelievers. It doesn’t look that way always. The sun sets and the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and pain comes to Christian and unbeliever alike. The difference isn’t in the level of physical pain or the rate of mental diseases or cancers or anything like that. The difference is that the unbeliever can only see his pain as meaningless. It’s the brain sending and receiving signals throughout the body. That’s it. Who’s to blame? It’s the random process of evolution that randomly causes it all. This is why the atheist French existentialists Camus and Sartre had to write tracts on why not to commit suicide as the obvious solution to pain without purpose. And it’s the reason the progressives in Europe and our own country are pressing hard for euthanasia, not only for old people in pain, but even for young people who just don’t want to live with pain anymore. Pain hurts. It has no purpose. And life has no purpose in the end. So why live with pain? That’s the question people actually ask, because that’s the mindset without God.
But pain does have purpose. That’s what the Christian knows and the heathen and the practical atheist can’t know. If life has meaning, pain has meaning. The Christian knows life has meaning, because God exists, He created life, He lived our life, He experienced our pain, He died in suffering, and He destroyed what made life meaningless by shedding his blood to take away all sin. More that this, Jesus rose again from the dead to live the human life forever, God united to man forever, and life, human life has meaning. And so does our pain.
God actually sends pain to us. There’s no getting around this. God’s in charge. He rules all things in heaven and on earth. His will is done. This is the struggle of the Christian, precisely in this, knowing that God is in control, knowing this God loves us, and yet we still have pain. God sends it. Why?
Well He doesn’t do this to his Christians because he’s mad at us or because he’s punishing us. That can’t be. All his anger and all his punishment of your sin he has poured out on himself on the cross of his suffering. When you receive the absolution, when you take the Lord’s Supper, when you hear the Gospel, you are not only hearing that your sins are forgiven, you are hearing God’s promise that he will not punish you for your sins here in time or forever in eternity, that he is not angry with you, that he will not make you suffer for the things you’ve done.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t make you suffer. He will. Whom he loves he disciplines. Just as Christ suffered so do His Christians. We, as St. Paul says, are being conformed to the image of our Lord. St. Peter even insists that if you don’t suffer you are illegitimate children, fake Christians. It’s the common experience of all Christians that we suffer in this world. It’s God’s good and gracious will for your life.
Pain and suffering are of course here on this earth because of sin. Read through Genesis chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4 and you’ll see it plainly. Adam and Eve sin and only then does pain come, pain in childbearing, pain in work, pain in marriage, pain in relationships, pain at unbelieving children, pain at death. That’s the history of Genesis. And that’s where it ends for the unbeliever. That’s all the significance of pain. Punishment and a curse from a God they don’t acknowledge.
But the reason God sends us Christians pain is not to punish us, not to curse us, but to save us and bless us. He turns what is a curse for the unbelieving world into a fertile ground of his grace and blessing for His Christians.
He calls his Word a seed. The Word that makes you a Christian, that keeps you a Christian, he calls it a seed. And God plants that seed in hearts that can’t receive his Word without Him preparing our hearts to receive it. And that takes pain. Why is there good soil? Soil needs to be plowed to take the seed deep down and produce fruit. Plowing means digging up the ground, removing rocks and uprooting thorns and weeds. And if the soil could talk it would ask the farmer exactly what we ask God when we’re in pain. Why are you doing this? It hurts. Every rock dug up, every weed uprooted tears me up. But obviously the soil won’t be good unless it suffers this pain. The seed can’t take root and thrive without this pain.
Now I want to focus on a specific pain unique to Christians and universal to us, one that we all suffer. It’s the pain at seeing the unbelief in the world, and that often means the pain of seeing the unbelief in people we love very much. Not that we can see unbelief, but we can see its fruits – we can see the denial of the faith by what people say and what people do. We are our Father’s children, and as he wants all to be saved, so do we. And so it tears us up to see people reject the Word that would bring them eternal happiness and relief from sin and everlasting union with God.
Our Gospel lesson records Jesus’ parable of the sowing of the seed and its rejection by the world, and the Church pairs this lesson very appropriately with our epistle and its talk of the Christian’s pain. It is a painful thing to see the devil rip the seed of the Word from the heart of your loved ones, friends, siblings, even children. It’s a painful thing to witness someone who we’ve seen with our own eyes rejoice at the Gospel fall because God sent him pain, tested him, as Jesus puts it, and he couldn’t understand it or take it. It’s a painful thing to see friends and loved ones and family members succumb to the cares and pleasures of the world and give up on the treasure of knowing the God who died for them.
St. Paul had this pain. Maybe this was his thorn in the flesh. He talks about it. He says he has continual pain in his heart at the unbelief of his fellow Jews. He goes so far as to say he could wish that he be damned in their stead, that if only they would believe, he’d suffer hell for them. I’ve often wondered at Paul’s pain here. It’s a pain born only from Christian love. It’s Christ who suffered hell, who took the pain and punishment of all the unbelieving world on Himself, into His eternal Person. And it’s Christ’s disciples, His Christians, who mimic this pain by grieving over unbelief and experiencing the hell of thinking we could lose those we love to the devil.
But this is where Jesus’ words to St. Paul are so comforting. My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness. What power? What is God’s power? This is, in the Greek, the exact same word, this word “power,” the exact same word St. Paul uses when he speaks of the Gospel. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. That’s the power God makes perfect in weakness. When we see that the Word of God seems to have no effect, that people reject it, when we are made weak because we can’t seem to do anything about it, we have to realize that it is the power of the Gospel that has kept us Christians. It has. Nothing else. Not my works, not my will power, not my superior character and wisdom, only this beautiful treasure that God will not let me forget, what He has planted deep down in my soul, that God is my brother, that He has borne my every pain, that He has suffered for me and has shed His blood not only for me, but for all whom I love, that He loves them more than I do and has proved it by his cross, and this Word that has won me, a poor miserable sinner, and made me a child of God, this Word certainly has the power to win those who are now rocky and thorn-infested soil.
The foolishness of it all, the utter ridiculousness of throwing seeds on a road, on rocks, into thorns, this is Jesus’ illustration of the absurdity of our God’s commitment to sinners, even those who have rejected Him. Remember He is the one who prayed for his torturers and mockers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He is intent on saving the world. That’s why He died for the world. And you know the power of His Gospel, the strength and comfort it gives to you in your weakness. Don’t doubt its power. Pray for those you love who are not Christians. Pray for them and don’t stop, and if you have stopped, start again, don’t stop confessing the truth to them of the God who saved the world He created from the depths of sin and from the fear of death. And then pray again that God’s Word would take root. The same Gospel that comforts you in your pain has the power of God’s own blood and mercy to save all who hear and believe it.
Just look at this Word of God. Read your Bibles and see what it has done. By it Jesus defeated the devil and all his temptations. By it the adulterer David, the thief Matthew, the denier of Christ Peter were humbled and brought back to faith in Jesus. By it the apostles and martyrs suffered the loss of all things, even gave up their lives, for the joy of knowing that not even death could end their gladness, because they were baptized into Christ.
This is why no matter the pain we suffer as Christians, whether it is physical or caused by spiritual struggle, we confess and believe God sends it to us to drive us to His Word, to His power, made perfect in our weakness. This is why Paul boasted in his pain. He could have boasted about his revelation of heaven. He was there. He saw all the joys and the painless and sinless existence before God that awaits all who are found in Christ. He saw things it isn’t lawful for a man to utter. And then he returned to this world and again suffered pain, his thorn in the flesh. And he boasted of this, of his suffering. Because in his suffering he learned the power of God. He learned what angels desire to look into. Think of that, the angels who enjoy eternal bliss in heaven desire to look into the power of this Gospel that we have. This is what gave Paul hope, what gives us hope, not only for ourselves but for this world.
I know how bad it’s become. The temptations of the world and the devil just seem to increase. Cat Stevens sang, “It’s a wild world.” And then Cat Stevens went from being a pot-smoking, fornicating hippy to a radical Muslim enthusiast. That about sums up our world. It’s a wild one. So many temptations. And as we pray for those the world has enthralled and led away from the faith, as we suffer this pain and watch ourselves so that we aren’t tempted with the same, we need to see that whatever pain we suffer we suffer because our God loves us. He hasn’t abandoned us. If we are faithless, he is faithful, he cannot deny himself.
God never says that he won’t give you more than you can handle. People think the Bible says that, but it never does. At least it doesn’t word it like that. It says he’ll always give you a way of release, to fight against temptations. And the point here is that God does give you more than you can handle. You can’t keep yourself a Christian. You can’t convert your loved ones to the faith. You can’t deal with your pain or your weakness by yourself. That’s the point. But God never gives you anything He can’t handle. And so when He sends pain into your life, He’ll handle it. He’ll give you His power. He’ll show you by His Word, by His body and blood shed for you, that He is intent on saving you and all whom you love, that you have joy in Him even in, especially in, the pain of this life. And it’s a joy that will never end. Pain will end. Temptations will be a thing of the past. The devil will not always attack. Sin will not be remembered. Because your God has conquered them all, endured them all, and He conquered them through His suffering. The word of His pain is our strength. It is the power that overcomes the world. As his disciples languished in pain, our Savior said to them, “In the world you will have pain, but be of good courage, I have overcome the world.” And He overcomes it by the pain and death that will end all pain and death and that you now partake of as you cling to His Word. It endures forever, it’s powerful to save, trust in it, confess it, pray for it, and leave the rest to God, to keep you throughout this life until you see your Savior’s face in heaven. God grant it to us all. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
Luke 18:31-43; 1 Corinthians 13
I grew up listening to the oldies, the songs of the sixties that my mom constantly played in our 86 Suburban. I still remember the radio station, 95.7 FM, WZTR, Milwaukee. There came a time that I had listened to so many oldies that they all blended together and I realized they all said basically the same thing. They were all about love. This guy loves that girl, this girl broke that guy’s heart, all you need is love, what the world needs now is love sweet love. And it turns out this is always the case with songs and with poetry. Most of it’s about love. The ancient poets sang about it and the modern poets continue the long tradition. People are obsessed with love.
But rarely do the singers or poets define love. They talk and talk about it, but what is it? Most times it’s what the Greeks called eros, where we get our word erotic. It’s a romantic love, the love that fills the teenager with butterflies and makes her feel good as she gets attention from the cute boy. Or it’s a lustful love, the love that gives me satisfaction, because it’s centered on me and the way it makes my body feel. Or it’s a selfish love, what our modern Oprahs have euphemistically named self-esteem, where the goal is to find fulfillment for myself, not for others.
The Greeks had four words for love. Eros was sexual love. Storge was the love of affection for others, like a child for his mother. Philia was the familial, brotherly love and affection between friends and siblings and spouses. And agape was the love of God, a completely selfless love, self-sacrificial and self-giving. So they distinguish between these four kinds of love.
We, by contrast, have only one word for love, and we try to capture all these different kinds of love under this one word. And this leads to a lot of confusion in our conversations about love today. Just think about it. We use the same word for a teenager’s uncontrollable urge for sexual gratification as we use for a mother’s affection for her child. We use the same word for a man’s lust for another man as we use for a husband and wife’s commitment to each other in marriage. We use the same word for our passion for watching football or for skiing or hunting as we use for Christ’s passion on the cross. We use love for so many different types of emotion and feeling, that the word has become close to meaningless.
A great example of this confusion is the rally cry, “Love wins.” It was first, I think, the title of a book by a heretic named Rob Bell who declared in direct contradiction to the Bible, that no one goes to hell forever and that everyone, no matter what he believes or does, will end up in heaven. Because God’s love wins. Later love wins became the hashtag slogan for the LGBTQ community after the Supreme Court forced homosexual marriage on all 50 states in 2015. Just this week the global Methodist Church voted by a slim majority, mostly because the Methodists of Africa and Asia were there and still believe the Bible is the Word of God, the Methodists voted to affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman and to forbid their clergy to officiate at so-called homosexual weddings. The outrage from the American progressives both inside and outside the Methodist Church has focused in on this one word – love. They announced that the Africans and Asians were against love. And the hashtag lovewins was accompanied all over the internet by statements like, “We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” which of course means that the progressive Bible-deniers need to teach the Africans and Asians to stop believing what the Bible says about love.
But the Africans and Asians at the Methodist convention clearly thought that love had won out. They use the same word, “love,” but with a different meaning. Lovewins could be their hashtag. They voted for agape, not unrestrained eros, not sexual freedom. They upheld the hard love of God’s Word. When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, but when I became a man I put off childish things. It is a childish thing to define love according to what I desire. That’s literally how my one-year-old son thinks. My son Isaac asks for beer every time he sees me drink it. He runs up with a cup and grunts at me. His reasoning is simple. I want beer. Dad should give beer to me. But that’s not the way love works. Love sometimes says no to our desires.
The fact is that the only way we get a consistent, objective meaning for love is if we get it from God, who is love. We have to define love not according to what our culture today wants, because that will change based on our desires, but according to what the Bible says, because the Word of the Lord endures forever. Our Epistle lesson uses the word agape for love all the way through. It’s the love of God for us and the love we then return to God and to one another. It’s a selfless love. And that means we don’t define this love, base what this love is, on our selfish desires. No, among all the things love does, being patient and kind, and all the things it doesn’t do, not envying or boasting or being arrogant or rude, all things that make us check our own desires, we have this beautiful description of agape, of God’s love and our love as Christians – Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Now we know the truth to be our Lord Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life. And to speak of truth is to speak of something objective, something that never changes. The love our culture promotes changes. That’s beyond dispute. 10 years ago every major candidate for presidential office, Republican or Democrat, thought marriage should be between one man and one woman. Now it would be impossible to win the presidential primary in the Democrat party without affirming that it is the most reprehensible thing in all the world, for which we should be utterly ashamed, to say that marriage is only between one man and one woman. Instead we’re told that everyone in every culture in every time since the beginning of recorded history has been wrong, and only the progressive Europeans and Americans are correct. Well, they’ve been correct for precisely 7 years, and who knows what love will be in 7 more years. I don’t mean to be flippant here or political for that matter. Only to illustrate that a truth that changes is worth nothing. Because it will just change again. You can’t base your life on a truth that changes. You can’t base your confidence on a truth that changes, or your hope of things to come. If you want to know who you are, why you’re here on this earth, how you should act, why life matters, you need a truth that is eternal and will never change forever.
This is the truth Jesus speaks today in our Gospel and the truth the blind beggar loves with all his heart. God has spoken. Nothing can change what He says. Jesus Himself, before He took on flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary, inspired the prophets to preach that He would come, that He would be mocked and spit upon and betrayed and killed and rise again the third day. Nothing can change this truth. Jesus Himself submits to it. And let’s be clear about what this truth is. It’s God’s love through and through. But love does not rejoice at wrongdoing. God does not rejoice at sin, at the violation of his creation and his love. Every infraction of love, and that, to be clear, isn’t only the things we Christians are so righteously opposed to in our culture, homosexuality and abortion and fornication, but also our gossiping, our pride, our apathy toward God and His Word, our tempers, our lust, our cowardice in the face of temptation, all of it, God’s love cannot abide, will never rejoice in. You shall be holy as your Father in heaven is holy. And this same love of God rejoices in the truth of God’s love for sinners, which never ignores sin, but puts it on our Lord Jesus. Our Lord Jesus has the spittle of sinners on His sacred face, He bears shame and disgrace, He suffers hell and torment, because His love required this of Him, that His love must win, that sin must be paid for, and that God pays it. That’s love.
Of what this paltering world calls love, I will not know, I cannot speak, I know but his who reigns above, and his is neither mild nor weak. Hard even unto death is this and smiting with its awful kiss. What was the answer of God’s love of old when in the olive grove, in anguished sweat his own Son lay, and prayed O take this cup away? Did God take from him then the cup? No child his Son must drink it up. (Brand, Ibsen)
And blind Bartimaeus, that’s the name of this beggar, he knows it. And nothing can stop Him from confessing it. Love rejoices in the truth. He loves his Lord Jesus. He loves the God who became a man. And so he prays the prayer we learn to pray, what we will pray so often now in the Lenten season, “Lord, have mercy on me.” The greatest part of our Gospel is in blind Bartimaeus’ refusal to let anyone stop him from calling out to his Savior. Stop it, they say. Don’t be so foolish. You’re blind, you don’t know better. Jesus is not such a man that you can trouble Him with your problems. No, the blind man refuses even to think it. The disciples didn’t understand, despite all their learning, after three years with Jesus, they still trusted in their eyes, and refused to understand that this Jesus must suffer and die a miserable death to save them. They were blind to it. But the blind man saw it. They tell him Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. But he doesn’t call Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth. He confesses who Jesus is. He is the Son of David. He is the King Micah prophesies will come out of Bethlehem to shepherd His people Israel. He is the God-man who will have mercy on sinners. And so the blind man sees what no one else does.
And this we need to take to heart. Your senses will not get you where you need to be. Your desires will not show you what love is. Jesus will. His Word will. And it is only when you are blind to everything else, blind to your pride, blind to your unworthiness, blind to everything the world sees and declares right and loving, that you will see what the blind man saw. They tell him not to cry out to Jesus, not to be a beggar. That’s the devil, that’s your pride, that’s your anxiety. The blind man defies them all. Because he sees what no eye can see. That God’s glory is to have mercy on sinners. That because He commits Himself to die for us, He commits Himself to listen to our prayers for mercy on our bodies and our souls.
Joshua once called out to God to make the Sun stop and give light for an extra day. Man spoke and God listened and gave light. The blind man cried out, Son of David have mercy on me, and the Sun of Righteousness stopped and gave light to his eyes. This cry of mercy stops the Sun of Righteousness in his tracks, God listens to man. He stops and pays attention to us, and gives us light, to know His love, to find our salvation in Him, and to learn to love one another.
Jesus speaks with confidence in our Gospel. He knows the truth of the Bible and He speaks it whether people understand it or not. And the blind man imitates Him. He speaks with confidence. He prays in confidence. He brushes off those who mock his confidence. Because he knows the truth. And this is our calling as Christians. We don’t confess to be right, we don’t pray to nurse our pride. That’s not what Bartimaeus did and it’s not what Jesus did. But we are confident. We confess the truth and we pray to our God because we know our need and we love the God who has loved us to His death.
Pray because you know the truth. And that means humility. We are approaching the Lenten season. On Wednesday we will gather again to hear that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And our prayer will be over and over again, Lord have mercy. Have mercy on our nation. Have mercy on those lost in errors’ ways. Have mercy on our families. Have mercy, dear Lord. And this prayer is powerful. We Christians have prayed it since the world began and we’ll pray it till the world ends. It’s powerful because it stands on the truth that will never change, on the God who has guaranteed by His own blood that His mercy will never fail, on the love of God and the truth that endures forever. Let us pray:
Grant, Lord, I pray,
Thy grace each day
That I, Thy Law revering,
May live with Thee
And happy be
Before Thy throne appearing.
Pastor Christian Preus
Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. Why did he do that? The whole idea of fasting seems to us American Lutherans a hopelessly medieval practice, something for monks, something the pope used to force on his followers. And here we do have a point. The practice of fasting has been terribly abused. In Luther’s day the Pope and his priests taught fasting could earn grace and forgiveness from God. And Luther complained that people were taught to fast and yet were never taught to be good husbands and wives, or obedient children, to to work hard at their jobs, or to be respectful to authority, actual good works that God actually commands, that affect our everyday lives. Instead to be religious meant to fast and pray the rosary and make a pilgrimage to Rome, things God never commands. So Lutheranism and Protestantism in general is steeped in an anti-fasting tradition. We don’t tell people they have to fast. That’s catholic.
But this really does need some clarification. We have to remember first of all that to be a Lutheran means to be a Christian, to follow Jesus, and we follow Jesus by following the actual words of Jesus in the Bible. We can’t just say, well I’m a Lutheran and Lutherans don’t have to fast. That’s what we call begging the question. Do we need to fast? That’s the question. And it’s Jesus who needs to answer. Not the last 100 years of American Lutheran tradition. Jesus. That’s the Christian way, the Lutheran way.
Let’s look at what Jesus actually says about fasting. We heard on Wednesday that he condemns the practice of bragging about your fasting, he says, When you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites who disfigure their faces, so that they may be seen by others, but anoint your head and wash your face, which is all to say, when you fast, don’t brag. Notice, though, He doesn’t say if you fast. He says when you fast. He simply expects it to happen. It’s the same thing when the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus and ask why they fast and Jesus’ disciples don’t. Jesus says his disciples don’t fast now, because Jesus is with them and it’s a happy time, but when Jesus is taken away then they will fast. So again, Jesus says there will be times when his followers fast. Fasting comes up again when Jesus returns from the Mount of Transfiguration and finds that his disciples couldn’t cast a demon out of a boy. So Jesus casts the demon out, and his disciples ask him why they couldn’t do it - here they’ve been casting our demons for years and this one they couldn’t cast out - and Jesus tells them this kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer and by fasting. And besides all this we know Jesus Himself fasted, here before his temptation, and other times when he was praying by himself.
Jesus, in other words, not only fasts Himself but expects it of his disciples. And this is reflected even in Lutheran tradition. Despite all the abuses of fasting in the Roman Catholic Church and their horrible teaching that it can merit something from God, still Luther approved of fasting, fasted himself, and fasting even makes it into our Small Catechism, we memorize this in the section on the Lord’s Supper: Who receives this sacrament worthily? Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Fasting is fine outward training, we say, and Luther could have added, not only fine, but godly, something Jesus himself did and approves of.
The old Latin proverb says, Abusus non tollit usum. The abuse of something doesn’t take away its proper use. Everything good can be abused. Sex outside of marriage doesn’t make sex inside marriage bad. People getting drunk doesn’t make alcohol bad. Granola heads worshipping the environment doesn’t make the environment bad. Sinners will abuse everything good. Even church, even the Lord’s Supper, even fasting. But fasting isn’t catholic any more than praying is Catholic. Both come down to us with approval from our Lord Jesus.
Now we’ve talked a lot about fasting without actually saying what it is, why Jesus did it, and why we should do it. So that’s what we’ll do now.
What is fasting? It’s giving something up. In Jesus’ time that usually meant food, but it could be alcohol or anything else the body craves. And this practice, if you look at why it’s done in the Old and New Testaments and when it’s done, you’ll see fasting never happened just for itself, it was never some self-contained religious thing that was just there to make a person feel holy. No, Christians did it at specific times and for specific reasons. Look at King David. When do you see him fasting? It’s after he commits adultery with Bathsheba and kills her husband Uriah, when God tells him that his son born from his adultery will die, that’s when David fasts. But that fasting was accompanied by constant prayer. He didn’t want to eat. He had higher concerns than his belly. That’s the point. He wanted a better thing, and it consumed his life, that his son would live, that God would have mercy. So fasting and praying and reflecting on the God of mercy went together. Look at another famous example. The people of Nineveh, who fast when Jonah preaches that God will destroy their city. Once again their fasting wasn’t a thing in itself. They were praying, calling on God for mercy, mourning over sin, and eating was totally secondary to their minds.
But the best example is Jesus Himself. Why does he fast? Well our Gospel tells us. Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. So he fasts because he’s going to be tempted by the devil. I think most people look at this and think Jesus is purposely becoming weak here and vulnerable. And there’s something to that. He was hungry after forty days. He was weak. And it’s a comfort to us to know that he faced down the devil in our place, becoming weak and vulnerable like us but doing what we could not do, so that we conquer in him. It’s why we can sing, “Satan here this proclamation, I am baptized into Christ, drop your ugly accusation, I am not so soon enticed, now that to the font I’ve traveled all your might has come unraveled, and against your tyranny, God my Lord unites with me.” God my Lord unites with me. That is, he took on my flesh and weakened himself to bear my sin and be in my place, and as my substitute, in my place, a man like me, he conquered you, devil, and He’s given his victory to me.” And this is all true. His fasting did make him bodily, physically weak, and He did conquer the devil in or place. But the purpose of his fasting wasn’t only to make him weak. Remember fasting is never alone.
No, Jesus is fasting precisely to meet the devil in the strength of God’s Word. For forty days he’s meditating on God’s Word. For forty days he’s got better things to do than eat. For forty days He’s praying to his Father for strength to meet the devil’s temptations. For forty days He’s telling His body that bread isn’t as important as God’s Word, that he’d rather go without food than without hearing the voice of His Father. For forty days he’s teaching his soul that His Father is never to be tested but always to be trusted. For forty days he’s training his heart and mind to worship God alone as the giver of all good things and to trust that His good will will be done. His fasting doesn’t serve its own purpose. It serves the purpose of strengthening his soul. And that doesn’t happen without prayer and God’s word. That’s why Jesus so beautifully answers the devil’s temptations. Every time with the word of God, with a quote from the Bible. Because this is what he’s been thinking about, meditating on, for forty days. That’s the point of his fasting.
Now we come to why we should fast. And here I’m not telling you to fast for forty days. I’m not telling you anything specific at all. I don’t have the authority to do that. Neither does the Roman Pope, by the way, because Jesus never says a word about when, how, how often, how long you should fast. So there can be no order not to eat meat on Fridays. Besides, that’s just an excuse to eat deep-fried fish, which is hardly a fast, right? But there is this fact, that Jesus fasts and that he says his disciples will fast. Let’s take that seriously.
Fasting is simply giving something up. It’s to teach ourselves self-control, to deny the body something we want, so that we don’t make a god out of it. But it’s always, and this I can’t stress enough because the Bible stresses it constantly, fasting is always combined with prayer and the study of God’s Word. Otherwise it’s useless. At least it’s useless for faith. It might be quite helpful to deny yourself food if you want to lose weight, but there’s nothing specifically Christian about that, right? Giving up alcohol is exactly what an alcoholic should do, but I know many people who’ve done it without praying to Jesus or believing in him. Fasting can be done, in other words, by atheists, by Jews, by Hindus. It’s not Christian at all unless you combine your fasting with fighting the devil, as Jesus teaches us.
Now the devil doesn’t appear to us as a serpent as he did to Eve. He doesn’t appear in bodily form as he most likely did with Jesus in the wilderness. But he does tempt us with the same sort of things as he tempted Jesus. Turning bread into stones is the temptation of the devil to satisfy our bodies over our souls. There’s nothing wrong with satisfying your body, of course, God wouldn’t tell you to pray for daily bread if satisfying your body’s needs were bad. But it’s this preferring the body’s immediate needs over your body and soul’s need for God and heaven, this is what the temptation is. And this temptation is everywhere. Parents, do you ever not feed your children? Do they go a day without food? I hope not. Don’t make your children fast for an entire day. But do you go a day without giving them God’s word, without praying with them? Jesus answers the devil by telling him, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” That’s how you defeat the devil. Teach your kids not just with words but by example, by regular church attendance and regular prayer at home and regular reading of the Bible, that God’s Word is more important than food, that just as you would never think of denying them food for their bodies you wouldn’t dream of denying them food for their souls. And this goes for all of us, not just parents. We need to teach this to ourselves. And this itself will be a fast for you. When you devote time to prayer, to reading God’s word, you’ll be giving up time for other stuff, whether that’s TV or sleeping in or whatever. That’s a fast. It happens naturally. Fasting and feeding the soul go together.
Jumping off the pinnacle of the temple is the next temptation, to which Jesus responds, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Once again, the devil doesn’t appear in bodily form to tempt us to put God to the test, but it is the devil’s temptation. And we do feel it. Probably the most common one the devil uses over and over again for Christians, because we know our God’s grace, we know His love, we know that He is more ready to forgive than we are to ask for it, we know that He has guaranteed our forgiveness by His own blood, so the most common temptation the devil pushes is to test God’s forgiveness, to pursue some pet sin, to drink the drink that puts you over the edge, to say the words that cut down your neighbor, to look at the filth on the internet to satisfy your lust, all with the thought that God will just forgive you anyway. What does Jesus respond? Don’t put the Lord your God to the test. Don’t do it. It’s the devil’s lie that since you’re a sinner you can’t keep yourself from outward sin. You can’t stop the sin of your heart, that’s true, but you can certainly stop your finger from clicking or your tongue from flapping. Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overcome you that is not common to man. God is faithful. He will not allow you to be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of release, so that you may be able to endure it. Or as St. Paul says in another place, “You stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear.”
But look to whom Jesus says, “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.” He says it to the devil. And this, this, is something we need to learn to do. Say it to the devil. In time of temptation. It’s how we sing, right? Satan I defy thee, we sing. Satan here this proclamation I am baptized into Christ. Satan, you wicked one, own now your Master. Satan’s the tempter. That’s what he’s named in verse 3 of our Gospel. The tempter. Call him that, and you’ll be putting whatever sin you’re tempted to do in perspective. It’s not what I’ve been called to do. That’s what we say. I’m a child of God. I’m not the devil’s slave. For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. That’s what happened to you in your Baptism. And once again, this battle with the devil will work with fasting. Are you gossiping on Facebook? Fast from it. Is the internet causing you to stumble into sexual sins? Fast from it. Is alcohol getting you drunk? Fast from it. But don’t just fast. Replace it. Pray, Jesus says to his disciples when they’re in the Garden of Gethsemane, Pray, that you not be led into temptation.
Finally there is the temptation of pride. That’s what worship of the devil is. The devil is the prince of pride. A beautiful description of hell, if that’s possible to say, is found in the Russian author Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, where a monk says that hell is unbridled pride, where the devil doesn’t care that he can’t win, doesn’t care that God has redeemed the world, doesn’t care that God is superior. He is so consumed with self-importance that even if God offered him an olive branch, even if God would welcome him to join his side, leave behind sin and evil, forgive him, he wouldn’t want it, he’d rather suffer, because then he can keep his pride. And this, this is exactly what he tries to excite in us. Why has God blessed that man and not me? Why has he put pain in my life? If I ruled the world, I’d do better. I’d see that the wicked got what’s coming to them and the innocent never suffered. I’d right the wrongs. No. God will. And He’ll do it in His time and in His way. And every objection to that is simply self-worship, no matter how pious it seems. Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. He is the King of righteousness. He is the provider of every good thing. Or as Jesus puts it, “Away from me Satan, for it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and Him alone shall you serve.”
And it is precisely in worshipping him, the Lord alone, that we will find our protection from the devil and our strength to live the Christian life. Jesus’ last statement to the devil is not just an example for us to follow but his command to us to trust in Him. Worship this God, the true God, and Him alone. He is the One who has defeated the devil in your human flesh. With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected. But for us fights the valiant One, whom God Himself elected. Ask ye who is this? Jesus Christ it is. Of Sabaoth Lord. And there’s none other God. There’s none other God than this one, who defeated the devil in our place, who overcame all his temptations, who lived the righteous life that now robes us in purity, who shed His blood and bruised His heel when He crushed the devil’s head. This is the God who holds the field forever. He is our Brother who fights for us.
So fight against the devil. Fight him with the word of your Savior. Fast and give up whatever you need to give up that leads you into temptation. Conquer with your Lord Jesus. But when you fail, don’t ever, ever listen to the devil’s worst temptation, that God does not forgive and love you. God has really said it. It is finished. This is my body given for you, my blood shed for you. Would Jesus allow himself to be tempted, would God submit himself to fast in the wilderness and study the Word he himself inspired, would he face down the devil in your place, if He were not for you, if He were not only God, but your God, your Savior? If the Son so loveth me, God must have compassion. He’s by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and spirit. And Christian faith cries out, no matter what, through life and death and temptation, His Kingdom remains our forever and ever. God grant it to us all. Let us pray:
Lord Jesus who dost love me,
Now spread thy wings above me,
And shield me from alarm
Though Satan would devour me,
Let angel guards watch o’er me.
This child of God shall meet no harm.
We are a confessional Lutheran congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). Committed to teaching the truth of God’s Word, with Christ crucified for sinners at the center, our worship follows the historic liturgy of the Church. We sing the great hymns of past and present that reflect the reverence, dignity, and joy of the Christian confession.