Go Home Justified

Ash Wednesday + February 14, 2018

Text: Luke 18:9-14

Hymn: Jesus, I Will Ponder Now (Christian Worship, 98)

Wouldn’t it be great to be like that Pharisee?  Just think.  You ooze with self-esteem.  If you were that Pharisee, you would have so much self-confidence you could bottle the extra and sell it.  I envy people like that.  They have loads of poise and tons of self-assurance.

And wouldn’t it be great to come to church with such dignity and composure?  Imagine this fellow walking through the doors of church today.  Everybody looks up to him because he never misses a service—not even when it snows!  He knows the liturgy.  He never mumbles.  He sings with a beautiful, powerful voice.  He also serves on all the boards and committees.  The finance committee loves him because he actually gives ten percent of his income.  And since he is such a talented, hard-working fellow he has a really good, high-paying job.  So, his offerings really help the church budget.

And what is more, this guy is in great shape.  He has such great self-discipline that he can stick to his diet.  He works out.  He gets regular medical checkups. And all his doctor can say is, “Wow.  I wish all my patients took care of themselves like you do.”

Yes, it would be great to be like this guy.  You would be healthy, wealthy and wise.  You would be a vital member of your community and your church.  People would respect you like you deserve to be respected.

And if you were like that Pharisee you would come to church totally at peace and happy.  You would come to church well-rested. That’s because you always get a good night’s sleep. There’s no lying awake at night for you;  no worries about guilt, fear and personal problems keeping you up. Yes, you would come to church with all that confidence. You would come to church with such peace and security. 

But what about when you left church and went home?  If you were like that Pharisee what would your status be after you walked out the church doors?  What change would have happened to you after the service was over?

Well, if you were like the Pharisee, the answer would be, “Nothing.”  You see, that Pharisee did not go to the temple to change or to be changed.  He simply went to the temple to announce to himself, to announce to his neighbors and to announce to God one simple message: “Hey, everybody, I do not need to make any changes. I am A-OK, just the way I am.”

So, no, it would not be great to be the Pharisee.  He came to the temple a self-confident sinner.  He went home from the temple the same way—a self-confident sinner—a damned sinner—an unjustified sinner.

And then we have the tax-collector.  When he went to the temple he was not brimming with self-confidence.  Instead, the tax-collector had a heart filled with sorrow.  He wanted to stay out of the spotlight.  He felt so awful about himself all he could do was say, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." (v 13)

Yes, this tax-collector entered the temple soaked to the bone with grief and shame.  He had spent many sleepless nights reflecting on all the wicked things he had done.  He had fretted over how he had abused his power to lie to and cheat his neighbors.  He felt the burden of his guilt crushing him every day.  He knew that his neighbors did not like him or respect him.  But even worse than that, he knew that the almighty God did not like him or respect him. So, all he could do was offer a quiet but intense cry to heaven:  "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

But what happened to this tax collector?  What happened to this man who was so tormented within his soul?  What happened to this man who was well-known as a sinner, a cheat and scoundrel?   What happened when this man went home?  Jesus says.  "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” (v 14)

He went home justified before God.  That’s what matters.  That’s what counts.  When it comes to eternal life and everlasting security it does not matter how much self-esteem you have.  It does not matter how great of a reputation you have as a pillar of the community.  It does not matter how people judge you.  It only matters how God judges you.

And how does God judge?  Jesus says it plainly: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (v 14)

 Do you want God to exalt you?  Do you want God to make you a changed person?  Do you want to leave church after this service free from guilt, free from sin, and free from the fear of death?   Do you want to go home tonight, crawl into bed and fall into peaceful sleep being able to say, I am forgiven!  I am at peace with God.  I am saved for all eternity.  I deserved hell but now heaven is my home?

Well, of course, you want that real peace and eternal security.  So, do what Jesus says.  Do not exalt yourself like that Pharisee did.  Do not strut around like you are the be-all-and-end-all of what it means to be a Christian.  Do not announce to yourself, to the world or to God, I am A-OK just the way I am.

No, instead, humble yourself before God.  Be like that tax collector.  Examine your life with God’s holy law.  Face the reality of your sin.  Look in the mirror and see that you have cheated and lied.  You have given God half-hearted devotion and inconsistent praise. You have gossiped and lusted.  You have neglected God’s Word and failed to pray continually. 

Yes, admit it freely.  Confess it without holding anything back.  You are a sinner.  Do the only thing that is safe for a sinner to do. Throw yourself on God’s mercy.  Be like that tax-collector:  "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner." (v 13)

But after you have spoken, listen.  Listen to how God exalts you.  God’s Word says, "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." (Ps. 103:11)  God’s Word also says, "the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin." (I John 1:7) God’s Word also says, "you were redeemed from the empty way of life … with the precious blood of Christ." (I Pet. 1:18) And God’s Word says, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:26)

That’s how God exalts every humble, penitent sinner.  God washes away your sins with the blood of Christ.  Washed and cleaned by the blood of Christ, you don’t need the false veneer of your own self-righteousness.  You don’t need to prove yourself to God like that proud Pharisee wanted to prove himself to anyone who would listen.  No, instead, the blood of Christ makes you pure and holy in the sight of God. God exalts you to the status of his own holy saint.  And since the blood of Christ purifies you, you are as pure and holy in God’s sight as Jesus is pure and holy in God’s sight. 

So when this service is over, go home.  Walk out those church doors a changed person, a new person, a person covered with Christ, a person pleasing to God.  Go home in peace and joy with grateful hearts.  Go home justified.  Go home justified in the sight of the only one whose judgment matters.  Go home justified before God. Go home justified in the name of Christ.  Go home justified through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ, your only Savior.



Fix Your Faith on Faithful Jesus

Epiphany 4 + January 25 & 28, 2018

Text: Hebrews 3:1-6

Hymn: Seek Where You May to Find a Way (CW, 395)

“They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”  You say that when a new product fails to work. In many cases, that is true.  But there are exceptions.  Take cars, for example.  Forty years ago, cars were not very reliable.  It was rare for a car to reach one hundred thousand miles.  Cars rusted out after a few years. But now cars are more reliable. Many cars last two hundred thousand miles with no rust. New cars are more fuel efficient and safer to drive.  So, over the last forty years, cars have improved in safety, quality, durability, and value.  

Our text doesn’t talk about cars.  It talks about a house, specifically God’s house.  In the Old Testament God’s house was the nation of Israel, that is, the Jews. In the New Testament God’s house is the Holy Christian Church, that is, those who have faith in Jesus.

The book of Hebrews addressed Jews in the first century who had faith in Jesus. However, these Jewish Christians were facing persecution from non-Christian Jews. These non-Christian Jews were saying, “Why are you abandoning Moses and Abraham and the temple sacrifices? Why are you dabbling in this new-fangled religion. Come back to the true religion on your ancestors!”

To the charge that the Old Testament was better than Christianity, the book of Hebrews basically says, “Jesus is better than anything in the Old Testament. Jesus is better than the angels because he is the Son of God. Jesus is better than Moses because he enacts a better covenant. Jesus is better than the temple priests because he offers a better sacrifice.  That is, he offered himself once for all as the perfect sacrifice.”

Our text specifically compares Moses and Jesus. Jesus is like Moses but better than Moses.  See  our text again:  "Therefore, holy brothers… fix your thoughts on Jesus… He has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. … Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house... But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house."  

Our text does not say that Moses was bad—just the opposite. Moses was God’s faithful servant. When God established the house of Israel as his specially chosen nation, Moses was their first leader.  Moses led Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, to Mount Sinai, for forty years in the desert, and then to the edge of the Holy Land.  Moses was a great and faithful leader. 

Moses was also a prophet. Our text says, "Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future." (v. 5) In our Old Testament Lesson, Moses testifies about how Christ would be an even better prophet.  Moses said, The "LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him." (Deut. 18:15)  So, Moses says it himself.  Moses was good.  Jesus is better.  That’s why the book of Hebrews encourages those Jewish Christians to remain true to Jesus.

Of course, you and I aren’t facing the same persecution as the Hebrew Christians of the first century.  Our friends and relatives are not telling us, “Come back to the synagogue.  Why are you eating bacon and working on Sabbath day? Quit following Jesus. Come back to the law of Moses.”

No, we don’t face that pressure.  But Satan still wants us to stop believing in Jesus.  Satan still tempts us to think, “Some things are better than being a Christian.  Some things are better than Jesus.”  So, even though we are not Hebrew Christians living two thousand years ago, the book of Hebrews still speaks to us.  And it says, Fix your faith on faithful Jesus.

Now, I don’t think you would ever be so bold as to actually say, “I think there are a few things better than Jesus.”  But yet, like the Jews were tempted to think Moses was better than Jesus, we can put great religious leaders over and above Jesus.  For example, we think, I belong to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.  Our synod teaches God’s Word in its truth and purity. So, anything our synod publishes has to be the true and correct way to understand the Bible.

Now, I’m not trying to show disrespect to our synod.  However, if we blindly follow whatever any synod or any church body publishes, then we are “putting Moses over Jesus”, we are putting humans over the one, true God.

We can do the same thing with other religious leaders. We can say, “The pastor who taught me catechism class was the best.  This pastor has great sermons, so he’s the best. My favorite teacher in college really knew how to explain the Bible.  So, he’s the best.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Thank God for faithful pastors and teachers.  Like Moses, they are blessings.  But like Moses, they are only servants in God’s house.  Our text says, "Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house." (v. 5)

So, yes, listen to faithful pastors and teachers but only when they speak the truth.  And you can tell when a preacher or teacher tells the truth because he will be like Moses and point you to Jesus and only Jesus.  Again, our text says, "Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house… But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house." (v. 5-6)  That is, Jesus is God’s one and only Son, true God himself.  So, Jesus is the owner and builder of God’s house.  God’s house is the Christian Church. To use another image from the Bible, Jesus is the head and we are his body.  So, since Jesus is better than Moses or any other preacher or teacher, fix your faith on faithful Jesus.

Now, our text says Jesus is faithful.  That means you can rely on him.  You can always trust him to do what he is supposed to do.  We know that is true because Jesus was always faithful to his heavenly Father. Jesus did everything his heavenly Father asked him to do, without fail. 

Now, can you imagine if everything worked as faithfully as Jesus did? What if your car never broke down? What if your furnace never conked out? What if your appliances ran perfectly without even one glitch? What if your smart phone never got a cracked screen, never slowed down, and always had complete coverage?  Well, all of those things would be great.

But Jesus is better.  Not only did Jesus do everything that his heavenly Father asked him to do, Jesus also does everything that we need him to do for us and for our salvation.  Do you need a prayer brought to your heavenly Father?  Jesus brings that prayer to God, the Father, and Jesus has the power to make your prayer heard. Do you need power to fight Satan’s temptation? Jesus gives you his own power by sending the Holy Spirit to strengthen you when you are weak. Do you need encouragement when you are sad, lonely, depressed, or anxious?  Jesus promises that he is always by your side, sending his angels to guard you, and using his almighty power to make everything work out for your good. Do you need the filth of your sin removed? Jesus faithfully washes away all your guilt by his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.  Do you need to overcome your fear of death? Jesus assures you that because he rose from his grave, you will also join him in victory over death and join him in eternal life.  And do you need Jesus to strengthen your faith in all these comforting, beautiful promises?  Jesus does that by giving you himself through his Word and through his Sacrament.

So fix you faith on faithful Jesus.  Jesus is better than anything or anyone else. Jesus is simply the best, now and forever.


The World Gives Way to God's Kingdom

Epiphany 3 + January 18 & 21, 2018

Text: I Corinthians 7:29-31

Hymn: All Depends on Our Possessing (CW, 421)

Being an actor means that, for awhile, you pretend to be someone you are not. Serious actors really concentrate on their roles. They try to be realistic with their emotions and actions. However, for as real as thy try to act, actors know they are only acting - at least they should. If an actor in a Shakespearian play really thought he was Hamlet, prince of Denmark, his friends would tell him, "You need to see a psychologist." If an actor in an action movie really thought he could jump out of a plane, his friends would tell him, "Snap out of your fantasy. Come back to reality."

In a way, this describes how we Christians must view our existence in this world. All the world's a stage and God is the producer and director. God has assigned each one of us our specific roles: parent, child, teacher, student, friend, citizen, worker, church member, and so on. While w are living on this earth, we must perform our roles faithfully and diligently.

However, as we live in this world, we must realize the same thing an actor on stage realizes. An actor knows that his true life is not his temporary role on stage, but in his permanent existence in the real world. On a larger scale, we Christians know that our real existence is not in this temporary life on earth. We know our real existence is to live forever in the perfect glory of everlasting life in heaven. We Christians know, and believe, and confess: The world gives way to God's kingdom.

Accepting this truth helps us understand Paul's words in our text: 

"What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away."

At first glance, it seems as if Paul is saying, If you are married, get a divorce. If you have an emotion, suppress it. If you have possessions, give them away. However, Paul is not telling us that. All through our text, he keeps saying "as if." In other words, we view our earthly relationships, emotions, and our earthly possessions as gifts of God, but only as temporary gifts.

Now, you might say, How can God's Word tell husbands and wives to "live as if we were not married?" Doesn't the Bible tell us that divorce is a sin? Doesn't God want us to build strong marriages? Well, yes, God does command husbands and wives to love and honor one another> But we dishonor God if we put our spouse in first place instead of our Savior. If we say "I love you" to our spouse every day, but only pray to God once a week, then we have confused our priorities. So we need to repent of putting our spouse ahed of God. We need to pray to God every day. We need to find our greatest joy in his love and in his forgiveness of all our sins by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

God's Word also tells us, "...those who mourn [should live] as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not..." (v. 30) Once again, God is not saying, You should never be sad. And you must never be happy at all. No, it's okay to have emotions. God made us with emotions. However, we must keep our emotions in their proper place. Here are some examples: if we get caught in traffic, we blow our top; if our boss gives us too mush work or if our teacher piles on the assignments, we seethe with anger; if our neighbor's barking dog wakes us up on our only day to sleep in, our blood begins to boil. In contrast to getting upset with such worldly events, ask yourself, Do I get that upset when someone takes the name of the Lord in vain? Do I get that sad when someone rejects saving faith in Jesus? Do I get as irritated over the spread of false doctrine? 

Likewise, just think how happy we get over things that don't really matter: students overflow with joy when a snow day cancels school; we wait all week so we can party with our friends on Friday night; we get hysterical watching our favorite team play. Being happy about these things is not a sin. But ask yourself, Do I overflow with even greater joy because God has cancelled my debt of sin? Do I wait for an eternal celebration with all God's saints and angels in heaven? Do I rejoice because Christ's victory on the cross is better than any sports victory?

Yes, we must admit it. We frequently experience more sadness and more joy because of earthly things rather than because of the Kingdom of God. So we need to repent of our wolrdly obsessions when it comes to misplaces emotions.

This is also true of our possessions. St. Paul says, "...those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them..." (v. 30-31) We must ask, Do I own my possessions, or do my possessions own me? Am I slaving away at my job only to become a slave to the things my paycheck buys? Or do I use my energy and money the way God wants me to? Do I use them to support my family, to donate to worthy charities, and to support my church? 

When we do not use our possessions in the proper way, we need to repent of our worldly obsession. We need God's forgiveness. We need his power to put the things of the world in their proper place. That's because "this world in its present form is passing away." (v. 31) We need to repent of our worldly obsessions because our sinful nature loves this world and everything in it. Our sinful nature doesn't ever want to leave this world.

But think about it. What if this world never passed away? Just imagine how terrible life would be id we had to live forever with aches and pains, with disappointments and frustrations. just imagine how painful life would be if we had to struggle with our sinful nature forever. What if you had to spend eternity repenting and feeling guilty? Just imagine how awful it would be if we had to put up with the sins of others - racism, hatred, stealing, lying, betrayal - and we had to put up with these sins forever.

No, we want this world, with all its evil and sin, to be over and done with. Of course, while this world exists, we will all be like faithful actors, performing the various roles that God has given us to do. While we are on the stage of this world, we will fight against the devil, the world, and our sinful nature. But we want this sinful world to be over and done with.

Thankfully, that day is coming. We will throw off our earthly existence. We will live forever with Jesus is perfect joy, perfect peace, and perfect safety. We Christians rejoice because God promises in Revelation 21, "God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

It's been said, "Christians are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good." That saying blames Christians for concentrating their thoughts on eternity and not contributing to life on this earth. Of course, we Christians must never be lazy, useless, or unconcerned about the needs of the world. But we must keep this worldly life in its proper place. This world is passing away. This world gives way to God's kingdom. So repent of your worldly obsessions. Rejoice in your heavenly salvation, purchased and won for you by the blood of Christ. And if anybody ever tells you, "Christians are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good, don't take it as an insult. It's a compliment.



I Am Pleased with My Son

The Baptism of our Lord + January 11 & 14, 2018

Text: Matthew 3:13-17 

Most of us have had to deal with someone who is impossible to please.  Maybe it was (or is) that teacher.  You study and study. You take notes and participate enthusiastically in class. You do all your assignments on time.  You follow all the directions. But still you only get a “C minus.”

Or maybe it’s your boss.  You work hard. You never complain. You show up early and stay late. You do the difficult jobs nobody else wants to do.  But your boss still gives you a poor job review.

But the worst is to have a parent who is never satisfied. You do everything your parent says. You never talk back. You follow all the rules. You never get in trouble. You do well in school. But your parent says, “Why are you such a lousy kid? Why can’t ever do anything right? I’m so disappointed in you.”

That’s crushing, isn’t it? You want to please your parent. You expect your parent to encourage you and praise you for your efforts. You look for love. But, all you get is criticism.  All you get is anger and rejection.

That’s what our relationship with God can feel like. We think, I try to be good.  I come to church. I say my prayers. I give my offerings. I help my neighbor. I don’t commit any “big” sins. I even tell other people about God’s Word. But I always feel so guilty. No matter how hard I try to be good, God always points out my filthy and impure thoughts.  God always exposes my hypocrisy.  God always confronts me with my failure to put him first.  It’s so frustrating trying to be a good Christian.  Sometimes, I feel like, no matter how hard I try, God will never be happy with me.

Do you know what?  You are absolutely right.  God will never be happy with you. God will never be satisfied with your performance as a Christian.  At the beginning of our service we heard the ten commandments.  And after every commandment we said, “Lord, have mercy.” We need to say that because we fail to keep even one of God’s commandments.  So, as harsh as it is, God has every right to tell you, “Why are you such a lousy Christian? Why can’t you ever do anything right? I am so disappointed in you.”

That’s crushing, too, isn’t it? You want to please God. You expect God to encourage you and praise you for your efforts. You look for love. But all you get is criticism. All you get is anger and rejection.

But God is not a cruel and uncaring Father.  Yes, God has impossibly high standards.  There is absolutely no way that you can ever measure up to the stringent requirements of God’s commandments. And God is brutally honest. God does point out all your failures, all your imperfections, and all your sins.  But God has had mercy on you.  God does not despise you, his imperfect creature.  God loves this whole world full of sinners.  God loves you.

And God proves his love.  God gave us the one human being who did measure up. God gave us the one child who never failed his Father. God gave us Jesus.  In our Gospel lesson, we see Jesus at his baptism. Our text says, "Jesus came from Galilee to be baptized by John at the Jordan. But John tried to stop him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?'" (v. 14)

John the Baptist understood how sinful he was. Even though John had one hundred times more holiness than any of us will ever have, John knew that he was a foul, filthy sinner.  So, John properly confesses how much he needed Jesus to wash him clean of all his sins. John properly says, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?”

 But then Jesus says something profound. Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, because it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (v. 15) In a few short words Jesus explains the whole reason he took on human flesh and came down to this earth. Jesus left his throne on high and became true man…to fulfill all righteousness.

That means Jesus came to do what you and I should do but cannot do.  You and I should keep the ten commandments and all of God’s laws. In our thoughts, words, and actions we should obey God perfectly all the time.  But we don’t.  We can’t.  Our inborn sinful nature makes us fall flat on our face as soon as we leave the gate on the track of holy living.

But, again, Jesus came to do what you and I should do, but cannot do. Jesus kept all the commandments of God. Jesus obeyed his heavenly Father perfectly all the time. That’s why our text says this:  "After Jesus was baptized, he immediately went up out of the water. Suddenly, the heavens were opened for him! He saw the Spirit of God, descending like a dove and landing on him, and a voice out of the heavens said, 'This is my Son, whom I love. I am well pleased with him.'" (v. 16-17)

Jesus never disappointed his heavenly Father, not even once.  Jesus always made his heavenly Father beam with pride and burst with joy. Jesus was the perfect Son, the best child any parent could ever hope for.  So, like any proud parent, God let people know about it. In one of the few times God ever spoke in an open voice directly from heaven, God said, "This is my Son, whom I love. I am well pleased with him." (v. 17)

Wouldn’t it be nice to have God say that about you?  Wouldn’t it make you feel loved and feel secure to have God say about you, “You are my child.  I love you. I am well pleased with you.”

Well, God has said that about you. God has said that to you. 

No, he did not shout it from heaven with his own voice for all the world to hear. But he did something very close to that. God did that on the same occasion as when he did it with his Son, Jesus. God spoke his public approval on you at your baptism. Through the voice of his called and ordained servant, God said to the world, This is my child. I love this child. This is my perfect child.  In my sight, this child has kept my law perfectly all the time. I am beaming with pride and bursting with joy over this child. This is my perfect child.  This is the best child any parent could ever hope for.

Now, how can God say such glowing, wonderful things about you when you are a poor, miserable sinner who can’t even keep one of God’s laws even once in your life?  Well, the answer is baptism, more specifically being baptized into Christ and his perfect holiness.  In our epistle lesson, Saint Peter says, "baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the body but the guarantee of a good conscience before God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." (I Peter 3:13-22)  

Baptism saves us from our sins because of Jesus Christ. In baptism God transfers the perfect holiness of Jesus to you. Saint Paul says in Galatians, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." (Gal 3: 26-27) Also, in baptism, God washes away all our sins by the blood of Christ.  Paul says in Titus, "God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life." (Titus 3:5-7)

So, on the one hand, it is impossible to please God.  No matter how hard you try, no matter how well you behave, God will never be satisfied with you. But on the other hand, by being baptized into the purity of his perfect Son, God is always pleased with you. God is always delighted with you.  So, through the baptismal faith that connects you to Jesus, God says about you, I am pleased with my son. Yes, through Christ, and through Christ alone, you are God’s dear child. You are God’s loved child. You are God’s precious child, now and forever. All glory be to Christ alone, now and forever.