27 August 2017

Homily for Trinity 11 - 2017

"Lifetime Lesson for Living by Grace"
Luke 18:9-14

Listen here.

Two men walk into the temple to pray. No, it’s not the set up line for a joke. It’s Jesus’ way of teaching just how we live all of life as His justified and forgiven people.

First, let me give a rather literal rendition of today’s Gospel, and let’s see what pops out for us to behold:

“He [Jesus] spoke this parable to some who have convinced themselves that they are righteous and [thus] look down on the rest of people: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. Upon standing up the Pharisee prayed these things with reference to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not just like the rest of the human race—those who are greedy, those who do wrong, those who commit adultery, or even like this tax collector [here]. I fast the two required days of the week, I give the exact tithe of everything that I acquire.” But the tax collector, standing far off, was not even willing to lift up his eyes to heaven, but he kept beating his chest saying, “God, let Yourself bring about forgiveness for me, the sinner.” I tell you, this one went down to his house having been declared righteous [by God] and in an ongoing righteous state, rather than that one—because everyone who raises himself up will be humbled [by God], but the one who humbles himself will be raised up [by God].”

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been sparring with the Pharisees quite a bit. First, they criticized Him for healing a man on the Sabbath Day. Then they grumbled about Him receiving sinners, and that led to the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons. Then Jesus had to confront them with their love of money, and He rebuffed their request for signs of the coming kingdom. After all, Jesus Himself is the kingdom and they should have recognized Him when He came. Now, in our Gospel, Jesus confronts the Pharisees with the very disease that infects us all: convincing ourselves that we—in our own efforts, in our own endeavors, in our own egos—are righteous and thus elevating ourselves above the rest of the hoi polloi around us.

It’s really a simple lesson to discern mentally from this parable, but it takes all of our lifetimes to learn it and live it in everyday experience. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Easy to read; easy to say the words; but very difficult to live.

Notice how the Pharisee exalted himself above the rest of the human race—all other people. Notice how he proudly prayed to God, trying to offer his religious resumé. Notice how he looked down his nose at anyone and everyone who did not measure up to his high standards.

That same urge dwells within our breasts. We can see it on the small scale of the individual. We may not be as bold or brazen as that Pharisee; usually we try to be more subtle about it. We may simply be thankful that we do not suffer as much or as badly as others around us. We may try to comfort ourselves with how long we’ve been blessed to be in Jesus’ Church more than with Jesus’ cross-won grace and mercy in and of itself. We may cling to our own virtue, more than to Jesus, in the face of a world careening off the road of respect and morality. We may even hope that God smiles on us just a bit more for our faithful attendance at church or our faithful giving in the offering. Yes, the same urge of self-exaltation dwells within our individual breasts.

We can also see this on the larger scale of groups or even mobs. One group thinks it is superior to the other, and so the other must assert its own superiority in counter protest. One group with one color of skin views itself as supreme; the other group with a different skin color wants to assert its rights instead. Is not our ongoing problem of racism in our land a sore and sensitive symptom of what infected the Pharisee’s heart…and what infects our hearts? “God, I thank You that I am not like those other people.” That urge dwells within the breast of every human being descended from Adam.

But notice what the tax collector does and prays instead. Let him—yes, the conniving, despised tax collector—be your role model for Christian faith and life. He knows he does not deserve to come into God’s presence. So he stands far off. He knows the urges that dwell within his breast. So he can’t even dare look up to heaven, and he keeps beating his breast repeatedly. With these two actions of humility he recognizes his ego and his sin.

Even more striking is his prayer. He doesn’t just pray the “Kyrie eleison”—Lord, have mercy—as we do in the Divine Service. No, his prayer is much stronger, much more vivid. First of all, he does not merely call himself “a sinner”—as in one among many, in a misery-loves-company sort of way. No, he calls himself “the sinner.” When he compares himself to others, he realizes that he himself is “chief of sinners”; he is the guilty one; he is the worst of them all. And he is the one Jesus commends for telling the truth! May it be so for each of us as well.

The second more vivid thing of the tax collector’s prayer is this: he does not merely pray for a generic sort of mercy; he pleads for God Himself to make and to be the atoning sacrifice for him. “God, let Yourself bring about forgiveness for me, the sinner.” He prays for the very thing that Jesus came to be and to do on the cross. As Hebrews 2:17 says, “Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation—to be the sacrifice and means of forgiveness—for the sins of the people.” This Jesus “is the propitiation—the sacrifice and means of forgiveness—for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). This is how Jesus Himself declares sinners righteous and keeps them in an ongoing state of being right and righteous before God. May it be so for each of us as well.

The two men in our Gospel teach us the lifetime lesson of living by God’s grace. One prays and lives in prideful non-repentance. That's not the way to live in Jesus’ kingdom. The other man prays and lives by telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…and by throwing himself on the mercy of the heavenly court. These two men also show us the two people who live within each one of us—the “old Adam” and the “new man” of faith. One wants to exert his superiority; the other strives to confess the truth and receive the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

And the Catechism reminds us how we get to spend our whole lifetimes learning to live on the receiving end of God’s grace in Jesus. Remember what your baptism with water indicates: “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (SC IV).

Because of Jesus, because of His atoning sacrifice, and in your Baptism, you get to go down to your house and live all of your life “having been declared righteous [by God] and in an ongoing righteous state.” Amen.

20 August 2017

Homily for Trinity 10 - 2017

"Why Jesus Weeps"
Luke 19:41-48

Listen here.

Jesus weeps. Almighty God in the flesh cries and sheds tears. A strange combination! “Almighty power” sounds so strong and assertive, even forceful. But “showing mercy and pity” sounds, well, weak and pathetic. Yet Jesus weeps. He weeps with great strength. In fact, His weeping shows the great, almighty power of His loving mercy and pity.

We can almost see the tears flowing down God’s face in our first reading. As God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, He truly laments the “perpetual backsliding” of His holy people. “They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return,” God says. He has paid attention to them, but they returned the favor by ignoring Him. As God says, with tears streaming down His loving face, “Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle. Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but my people know not the just decrees of the LORD.” And His “just decrees” are not just His holy Commandments, His divine design for all of life. His “just decrees” also include His message of victory over sin, death, and the devil. They include His message of justice in forgiving our sins. But His tears flow because His own people don’t pay attention. They don’t live in repentance and faith!

And our Lord weeps not just for His people in the pew who may pay little attention to His words of justice in forgiveness; He also weeps for those He calls to proclaim His words. “From the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.” Yes, our Lord weeps when His pastors and preachers heal “the wound of [His] people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” You see, there is no peace—no true and genuine peace—when sins go unconfessed, when tears of repentance refuse to flow. There is no peace when God’s people, both in the pew and in the pulpit, do not cling to His gracious promises in faith.

In our Gospel reading we most certainly see our almighty, powerful God-in-the-flesh weeping with freely flowing tears. “When [Jesus] drew near and saw the city—that is, Jerusalem, His holy city, His beloved city—he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’” Oh, how He wants His people to have Him for their peace! Oh, how He longs to shower them with His mercy and pity! But their rejection of Him, their lack of repentance, and their unbelief—they all forecast certain doom. For Jerusalem that meant an invading Roman army surrounding the city and tearing it down to the ground. Our September 11th was child’s play compared to that. The historian Josephus tells us all about it. He saw the city leveled to the ground. He saw the people who survived the slaughter carried off in chains. Yes, God would orchestrate the destruction of His own “holy city.” Why? “Because [they] did not know the time of [their] visitation.” They did not know that the peace of God—peace almighty and powerful, peace in divine mercy and pity—had come to them all wrapped up in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The people in Jeremiah’s day refused to return to the God who loved them and wept for them. The people in Jesus’ day refused to receive Him, the Son of God, as their peace with God. What about us, the people of God today? Do we turn away from God in a perpetual backsliding? Yep. At least every day, when we think we matter most and God, as well as other people, matter least. Do we not know the time of our gracious visitation? Nope, not all of the time. Think of the times we neglect to thank God for the food on our table, the money in our bank account, the car we drive, the house where we live. Even more, we forget our gracious visitation when our mind wanders during the sermon, or when we come to the Lord’s Table more out of habit than from hungering for our Lord to come and give His peace into our mouths. And what of God’s “just decrees” in teaching us to be content with the spouse, the family, and the goods that we already have? What of God’s “just decrees” that tell us to protect the reputation of others, or to protect their money and possessions? What of His decrees to keep the marriage bed pure, to protect all human life from womb to tomb, and to honor every authority that He has graciously given us? And most importantly, what of His “just decrees” to gladly hear and learn His Word of forgiveness and life, to call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks, and to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things?

Yes, our Lord weeps. He weeps because He gives Himself so completely to us in mercy and pity, even as He shows us how life works best according to His design. He weeps and says, “Oh, how I long to enjoy life with you now and into eternity! Oh, how I long to shower you with My peace, My promises and My heavenly treasures!” And you know what? That’s exactly what He does to bring you back to Himself—each and every day, especially each and every Lord’s Day.

Thank God that your Lord weeps over a Jerusalem that had gone astray! His weeping shows His almighty, powerful love and mercy. It’s the same love and mercy that led Him to weep over the grave of Lazarus. “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35) because of death’s cruel, suffocating tyranny—not just for Lazarus, but also for us and all people. Oh, how He longed to free Lazarus and all people—including us—from the clutches of sin and death! And Jesus would do just that as He hung nailed to the cross, and as He burst forth from the grave. Perhaps we can picture Jesus on the cross with tears flowing freely as He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).

Yet our Lord of almighty power would transform that cross of bitter rejection into His greatest tool for showing mercy and pity! And what happened when Jesus burst forth victorious from the grave? His tears did not cease. No, they changed. In His almighty, powerful mercy and pity His tears changed from tears of lament to tears of joy, eternal joy, that is. They are the joyful tears of Him who says to you, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5), both now and on the Last Day. In His death and resurrection, our Lord Jesus makes us new, because “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

So, let the tears of Jesus weeping be your source of comfort, strength, renewal, and hope. He wants you to know the day of your visitation even here today, at His Table. Yes, He comes yet again in His almighty power to visit you and show you His mercy and pity. Just as He entered the Temple to cleanse it of the buyers and sellers, He enters you with His Body and Blood to cleanse you from sin and death. Just as “all the people were hanging on his words,” you can also hang on His words: “Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” It’s how He brings you back from your backsliding. It’s how He shows you the things that make for peace—true peace, peace with Him, the peace of His mercy and pity.

Jesus weeps…for you…showing mercy and pity. As we will soon pray at the Table:

Lord, by love and mercy driven,
You once left Your throne in heaven
On the cross for me to languish
And to die in bitter anguish,
To forego all joy and gladness
And to shed Your blood in sadness.
By this blood redeemed and living,
Lord, I praise You with thanksgiving. (LSB 636:7)