Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson previously read, sometimes called the parable of the generous landowner.
As we hear this parable, I was reminded in Bible Class on Wednesday of how there is a very fitting interpretation of this, which I think is clear in the story. The interpretation is that the differing workers represent, in a sense, those who come to the faith at varying times in their lives, and so work varying amounts of times for the kingdom of God. So, you get those who are baptized as infants and believe their whole life, then you get those who come to faith at or near their death, like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Despite these varying efforts, the reward is the same: the eternal joy of new life with the Lord. I think that interpretation makes great logical sense. However, if you can remember what I preach on a certain text from year to year, you might not be able to recall me preaching on that understanding. I don’t remember that I have. Why not? Because I don’t think that’s something we really struggle with.
Think about it. How many of you would begrudge some one joining Grace here in their 90’s who had never been a Christian? Knowing you all, I don’t think you would. I think you would rejoice with our Lord that they are receiving the forgiveness of sins and we’ll be with them in the eternal glory of Jesus. That said, I think you can see in the context of Jesus’ preaching why this makes sense. You had the Pharisees who were very concerned about these ideas of works and just rewards for works as they saw fitting. You had the Jews altogether who also had to learn what it meant for Gentiles to be saved in the grace of Christ. Or if you look at the immediate context you see this as a criticism—a gentle criticism, but a criticism nonetheless—of Peter who is talking right before this about he and the disciples having a great reward for leaving everything and following Jesus. Of course, in view of that, a bit of the point has to be understood as saying that we need to not worry about what our exact reward will be and how it might compare to others. That’s something, again, I don’t think I see from you all.
So, then, what do we wrestle with that applies to this? Well, you see this parable is finally about God’s generosity. And the reality is that we don’t like to address that. Now to be fair, this goes back to our sinful nature. We were talking this week in Bible Class about that and our culture. I made the point that I do occasionally that God has made us, has created us to hear a voice of affirmation. In particular, He has made us to hear His voice. Most particularly, He has made us to hear His voice justifying us, declaring us beloved, declaring us right, just, and good. But because of our sin, that’s all messed up.
What I mean is that now because of our sin, we still seek that voice of justification, but we don’t seek it from Him. No, now instead we seek to justify ourselves. However, because God has made us to hear that voice from outside of us, we seek to have the approval of others around us. In other words, we like to make sure that we present ourselves just so so that we will get others to affirm us. If you don’t believe me look at Social Media. It’s a whole phenomenon that is centered around putting things out there for people to see, and often doing so in hopes that they’ll like it, or love it, or respond with comments telling us how smart we are and how we are so right. And beyond that, look at the direction our culture is taking. We have a whole attitude that is becoming so divided because both sides are seeking the back patting of the others in their tribe so as to prove how right and just they are. Or if you look at the cancel culture I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the justification comes in tearing down those who don’t meet an ever increasing standard. This leads to the contest for who can become the standard bearer and prove themselves the most righteous. Why is all of this? Because we like to think we earn righteousness and it’s earned by how much those around us give us approval. And in the midst of this, look at what’s been lost: grace, mercy, forgiveness. There is now no grace, mercy, or forgiveness for those who don’t toe the line. In that mindset we don’t hear the grace of God and receive His graciousness, do we?
Now as I describe that, I’m describing a sort of cultural problem. One that I think results from the removal of God from the picture. How do we approach this from our perspective where we keep God in the picture?
I think we struggle with this in the ways we feel like God isn’t fair. And this is something that in my experience we do in a couple of ways. We do this when we see what we perceive as inequity in this life, and we question how God in His goodness could do such things. For example, we look at those who suffer greatly, and we think that is unjust of God to let them suffer. We see the poor and the starving and we say that’s not fair when so many have so much. Or sometimes we look at something that’s happened to us and we don’t understand why God chose us for such suffering, especially when you have those who aren’t faithful who don’t have such struggles. And that seems unfair. Those are the inequities I think we most often perceive in this life.
But then there are those with regard to the life to come. We know that there are those who have never heard the Gospel. The Bible makes it clear that those without faith in Christ are not saved. The one who does not acknowledge Jesus doesn’t acknowledge the Father, as John says in his first letter. Or as Paul says to the Romans, all men are without excuse. Neither of these qualify that condemnation as only existing for those who have heard and rejected the Gospel. And so, we hear that, and we say that’s not fair. It’s not fair that someone should not be saved never having heard the Gospel.
And as I mention that example, as I mention all of these examples, that’s exactly true. They aren’t fair as we understand fairness. It’s seems inequitable that some are saved and others aren’t, especially when they haven’t heard. It seems inequitable that some suffer more than others in this life. It seems inequitable that some feast for every meal and others die of starvation. So yes, it’s not fair.
So how do we deal with this? Well, on the one hand we deal with it in the reality of sin and the sin fallen world. Why do we suffer at all? Because we have sinned and rebelled against God. Why is there condemnation for any person at all? Because they have sinned and deserved temporal and eternal punishment. And as we look at that fact, we see something about fairness. What would be fair for us? It would be fair for us all to be cast into the eternal darkness with no hope for relief. So, of course, on the one hand it’s not fair that some get less of suffering and others get more.
But why does anyone get any relief at all? Because God is merciful and generous. You see what we deserve is black and white. The Law is black and white. The Commands tell us what do and how we haven’t done it, and so deserve horrible things. But then you have God’s mercy, you have His grace. That’s what makes things gray. So, how do we deal with that?
Those of you who watch my devotions heard the point that I made in those. It was from a commentator that I read. He said we don’t look at those around us, but at the landowner. By that I don’t mean that we don’t look to other people to care for them. I don’t mean that it isn’t incumbent upon us to seek to do our part to fix injustice. There is no disputing that God commands you to help your neighbor. But think about when we have issues with the injustice that we see around us how looking to our Lord fixes the issues we have. Think about how we’re like those who “begrudge” God His generosity, as it says in the reading. Which I pointed this out last year too, but that literally says there, “or are your eyes evil because I am good?” Think about how our sinful eyes are evil and God’s are good.
So, when we recognize that, we look to Him. And what do we see there? Look at the cross. Look at the Lord who shed His blood, who gave His life for you. Look at the Lord who shed His blood, giving His life for the sins of the whole world. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours but the sins of the whole world; the sins of everyone. Look at that love. Look at what’s not fair.
I think I mentioned this in my devotion on this too, but I was talking to my kids about this, and it struck me. Look at this parable. The early workers feel that it’s unfair to them that those who worked less got paid the same. But who was it actually unfair for? Who actually got shorted? Did the workers who worked all day get shorted? No. They got a fair wage for their work. They agreed that wage was fair for their work when they started. Did the later workers get shorted? Maybe just the satisfaction of doing the work and being accountable for that. But who really got shorted here? It was the landowner. He paid all this extra money for this work that didn’t get done.
It’s true of our Lord Jesus. What did He have in heaven? He had everything: comfort; power; honor; might; glory; all of it. What did He deserve? All of that and more. He deserved all good things. And yet what did He get? He got the wrath for our sin, the condemnation we deserve. That was poured out on Him, and you could say it wasn’t fair for Him. That cross for you, so that He could have you with Him eternally. Was that fair? No. But that’s the depth of His love. And as you see Him as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, you see that’s the depth of His love not just for you, but for absolutely every soul who has ever lived. And He is so grand He is capable of that perfectly for all of them.
So that question of why some and not others? We can’t answer it. We can only care for those around us like He tells us to, like He has loved us. But we can say that when we see those arms outstretched on the cross, they are outstretched in that love. They are outstretched in His perfect goodness, in His perfect love, in the love that wasn’t fair to Him.
When you have those issues with fairness, then Christians, look there. Do you feel shorted by God? Look there. Do you feel it’s not fair that some have some things and others don’t? Look there. Do you feel it’s unfair how God works salvation? Look at that cross. Look at Him and not others, that you would see His goodness, His love, and His perfection.
And yes, the benefit of that is given to those who were called in baptism as infants, those who were called in the third, sixth, and ninth hours of their lives. The benefit is given to those who were called even at the eleventh hour of their life. But that love applies to the whole world. Every single man, woman, boy, girl, child ever. Why some and not others? Why the perceived unfairness here? We can’t say apart from knowing it’s our fault as sinners. But we can say that when we see the generosity of our Lord it is good and He is good; good in His perfect love and generosity for all. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Epistle Lesson from Peter’s second letter.
Those of you who have been in my new member’s class could maybe see it. Or maybe who were in Bible Class last week, you could maybe see it too. This Epistle lesson is one of my favorites. I love it because of what we see said here. Look at how Peter speaks: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” What a grand statement! Think about it all that Peter is describing there. We’ll get into a number of the things he says today, but the thing I think it does well for us to begin with is the human aspect here. Look at the human perspective Peter brings in: “we were eyewitness of his majesty.”
Now, hopefully, you grasped that this lesson is paired with the observance of Jesus’ Transfiguration because what Peter is describing is being there with Jesus on that mountain. He’s making sure that people know that he was there. He saw this with his own eyes. And that’s what I think we need to think about for a minute. It’s always easy to think about the great Peter, or the great Paul, or just the disciples, and not think about what that is like from a human perspective. In other words, think about what this was like for them as real people. Put yourself in their shoes. Or in this case, in particular, imagine what it would be like for you to be standing on that mountain and seeing Jesus shine like the sun.
You know we all sort of say, “Oh yeah, that’s something Jesus did, and obviously He did that because He was God in the flesh, and this shows us that and…” Yes. That’s all true. It’s all correct. But take a minute to think about it! Take a minute to imagine you were Peter standing on that mountain. Here this man you know is amazing; He’s performing miracles, after all. We don’t know for sure that the Gospels were written in order, in fact, we think the order to an extent, serves the theological purpose of the writer. But in Matthew before this point, Peter has already walked on water, the disciples have collectively acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God, Peter Himself confessing it in particular just before in Matthew 16. The point here being, Peter knew that Jesus was the Christ. But even still, do you think when they went up that mountain that Peter had any idea what was in store? I’m guessing he didn’t.
You can imagine, then, what that would have been like to be standing on that mountain and suddenly to have Jesus begin to shine like the sun. I always say that’s the sort of thing that would be seared into your memory. It’s the sort of thing that you would remember for the rest of your life. It’s the sort of thing the three disciples likely consulted with each other about after the fact to make sure they really saw what they thought they saw. But you can hear it in Peter’s words how certain he was that he saw it.
As I say that, I think we can all acknowledge that this sort of memory, that sort of experience, is extraordinary. However, my experience with American Christianity has been that there is a stream of American Christians who have the expectation that this will be their experience too. They have the assumption that if they just believe enough, or in the right way, then they will get to have the experience of seeing Jesus in His majesty. Or maybe they’ll be like Moses last week, and God will put them in the cleft of the rock to show His glory to them.
Now, I bring this up, not to just bash other people in their faith, but because we need to look at the broader teaching of Scripture. In fact, I think we should apply that not just to the mentality that we might have in American Christianity that we are Peter or Paul, or that we are Moses, but a certain narcissism that we all have. For example, think about how many people you have heard say, “Well, I would believe in Jesus if He would show Himself to me.” Maybe they even know the story of the Transfiguration and they say, “It would be easy to believe if I was Peter and I was there on that mountain. If God wants me to believe He can just appear to me like that.” It’s a common perspective, isn’t it? It’s the idea that if God is that great, then I’ll determine how He should appear to me, and He can just make Himself do that, isn’t it?
But this is why I love this passage so much. Look at what Peter says here. He’s been talking about this amazing experience. He’s been telling about how he saw this change with his own eyes, how he heard the voice of the Father spoken from heaven lauding this Son, “when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.” Peter was there, and yet, what does he say? “And we have something more sure.” Something more sure than you seeing this man change to shine with the glory of God? Something more sure than that experience on the mountain top, hearing the voice of God from the heavens? Something more sure than that memory seared into your conscience, swallowing the entirety of your existence? Yes. Something more sure than that, Christian.
And what is that? It’s the prophetic Word. It’s the Scripture. These words of the Scripture are more certain than all of that. Why? He explains it. Because although these were recorded by men, they weren’t only written by them. No, these words were written by God. In fact, it didn’t matter what these men thought they were saying, because God was giving them the words, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Yes, these words were recorded by men, but those men were carried along by God Himself, carried along by the person of the Holy Spirit. You want to know about God? Look there. You want to know that God exists? Look there. Stop looking to your experiences. Stop looking to how You think about things, how You feel about things. Look at this Word.
As I mentioned those who say that if God would just appear to them like He appeared to Peter, I’m always reminded of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Do you remember that? Lazarus was the poor man who sat begging at the gate of the rich man’s house. Eventually, both the rich man and Lazarus died, and the rich man was sent to hell, Lazarus to heaven. After realizing the severity of his fate, the rich man finally asks for Lazarus to be sent to the rich man’s brothers that they could avoid the same consequence. Abraham tells the rich man this won’t happen. But do you remember why? His rationale is, “They have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them… If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
Do you hear the implication? This Word is sufficient revelation. If you don’t believe it, you won’t believe it if you see Jesus shine like the sun yourself. You won’t believe if Jesus appears to you risen from the dead. And that’s why Peter speaks of it as he does. Look again at his words, “we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
You see that word comes to you as a light. It brings that light with which Jesus shined to the darkness of your life. It brings the light of His forgiveness to your sin. It brings the love of His suffering for you in the midst of your sorrows and suffering under the brokenness of this life. And His resurrection shines to give you the light to see your own resurrection as He has baptized you and made you His own. His Word does this, works this in you and in your life.
Again, all of this is over and against everything else in the world. It’s “something more sure.” In fact, I think we can draw from how Peter starts speaking in this lesson as we look to think about this concretely in our own lives. Look at how Peter describes his experience, or more so what he says his experience is not: “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What’s he saying? The eyewitness experience he had, the experience which the Scripture is even greater than, is not a “cleverly devised myth.” In other words, this isn’t made up. In fact, the word there for “cleverly devised,” has at its root in the word I, wisdom. This transfiguration was not a wise myth. So, let me connect the dots very explicitly. There are wise myths, things that sound good but are made up. Greater than that is the eyewitness experience of the Transfiguration. Greater than both, however, is the God breathed Word of the Scriptures.
So Christian, why do you still delude yourself with the cleverly devised myths of the world? Isn’t that the reality? We all do. We all have those ways where we inch toward those cleverly devised myths. We think “well, maybe I’ll believe in Jesus, because that’s all that matters, but I won’t believe that Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish. I’ll believe that Jesus is my savior, but I’ll dedicate all of my energy to worrying about the things of this world. I’ll confess that the Bible is that word, but I’ll convince myself I’m too busy to read it or it doesn’t matter how much I do what it says.” Or as we look to the worries around us, we buy into the myth that the things like, old presidential administrations, new presidential administrations, Coronaviruses and vaccines, that these things are greater than God’s Word and the One who has spoken that Word to us.
But Christians, in our time, then we have this comfort of the word spoken as the Spirit carried these men. The Word of the light of the World. Just as Christ shone, this word does too because it’s His Word. It’s the Word that says, you are living in darkness, but this One, this Christ, this One beloved by the Father with whom the Father was well pleased, that One has entered into this darkness and has devoured that darkness by shining the light of His love in it. A true love. Love that will not just make you feel better for a bit. Sometimes it does, but it’s more than that. It’s a love that will save you. That will take you from myth to truth, from darkness and suffering now and eternally to light and life and joy in the resurrection of our Lord now and eternally. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Today we meditate on the Epistle lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans, especially these words: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”
In our society which has become increasingly focused on the individual and the rights of the individual, Luther is often perceived as having been the ultimate champion of standing against authority in view of these rights. And it’s certainly true that without Luther’s courage to make his well known confession of “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and pure reason, here I stand, I can do no other,” individual freedoms would look very different today. However, this stand of Luther gives an incomplete picture of him. In particular, an experience that certainly must be understood to grasp Luther as a whole is what’s called the Peasant’s Rebellion.
If you’re not familiar with the Peasant’s Rebellion, you have to understand that as Luther published his writings in the early days of the Reformation, they caught on like wildfire. Not too long after that, many begin shifting the application of his principles about the necessity of freedom for the individual to believe to the necessity for the individual to have freedom in all realms of life. Eventually, this resulted in the peasants rallying and finally rebelling against their magistrates and lords. This rebellion Luther saw as being marked by utter dishonor of those in authority and a mob mentality. Such a mentality had no place in the lives of Christians. And Luther made that clear in his writings, even to an extent that may have been overreaching.
As I speak of a mob mentality today, I’m assuming you can see the connection to our day. We’ve been seeing a mob mentality operating in the riots that have been going on since the George Floyd incident last summer. We saw a mob mentality operating in storming of the capitol building last week. We see a mob mentality in manifold places in our society.
In fact, I was reading an article last week that spoke about some comments from comedian Rowan Atkinson. You might know Rowan Atkinson in his roles from the show the Blackadder and the movie Johnnie English, and he’s probably best known for being Mr. Bean. Atkinson recently echoed sentiments of many comedians in critiquing what’s called “cancel culture.” If you’re not familiar with “cancel culture,” that’s the phenomenon we’re seeing where when someone says something not deemed appropriate by a particular group, there is a call for them to suffer for it. For example, if an actor says something not considered appropriate by the culture, there is a call for them to lose their jobs on shows or in movies. As I say this, I think this is considered more common for those who of the far left politically to be those calling for the cancellation, but it’s something you see occurring with the right politically as well.
But of this “cancel culture,” Rowan Atkinson said, “what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob, roaming the streets looking for someone to burn.” In other words, the movements to hound and shame others into submission to particular ideals, he likens to a mob.
As we look at this as the Church, I think we can provide some insight. You see what’s happening is what we as Lutherans call a confusion of the Two Kingdoms, or Two Realms. I spoke about this from one perspective in November when I preached about Jesus’ words “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” It’s the understanding that we as Lutherans say sees that God rules over all of creation. In the Church He rules through the ministry of the Gospel, through Word and Sacraments to give His grace. However, in the world, He rules through the governing magistrates.
He does this then, the understanding is that when it comes to faith, to matters of the heart, the Church is involved and that’s her realm of authority. However, the realm outside of the Church, the government, culture, etc., the government’s job in that is to deal with that which is external. It deals with lives and concrete breaking of the law, destruction of property, actions, etc. When we see a mob mentality, often it seeks to evoke a mass response, and in our time we see it as seeking to do that by attacking the thoughts, beliefs, and ideas of people. In other words, this mob mentality and cancel culture in our day say, “if you don’t think like I do, you will be controlled to do so.”
And as we see that, what does this reflect? It reflects the expectation that if we just get everyone to think a certain way and they’ll act in conjunction with that, then we’ll have a utopia. In other words, there’s this confusion that says the role of the government and culture is to exercise consequences on people to believe a certain way, because if they all believe that way, then a utopia will be manifest.
Of course, this is something that has played itself out in other times too, besides the Peasants’ Rebellion at Luther’s time and what we see now. I have been listening to a podcast that talks about the French Revolution. As I have been listening, I have seen so many ways where things are moving in the mob mentality that could create an environment ripe for something like that. But of course, what I found most interesting there is striking. If I recall it was even pointed out in the podcast. It’s that as you look into the mentality of the French Revolution in comparison to American Revolution, there’s a distinct difference. The Revolutionaries in France, especially Robespierre, followed Jean Jacques Rousseau in saying that people are inherently good and merely corrupted by a culture and those in authority.
Now, hopefully you recognize that is not what Scripture teaches. I think you all know that, I hope you’ve all heard me make the point that Scripture teaches that we are all born dead in our trespasses and sins. That it teaches that we are rescued from that and only given new life by the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. But what’s interesting is that people seem to want to view humanity as basically good because they see it as unloving to think otherwise. Yet look at the mob mentality. What does it utterly lack? It lacks love. It’s not loving to browbeat others into submission to your ideology. It’s not love to shame them and to rally people to ridicule them into compliance with your ideas. If there is a real action that’s sinful, sure the government has the right and authority to exercise their arm in punishing people, but this isn’t thought policing.
No, instead the call is to love. Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Christians, this world around us is becoming increasing unloving in it’s mob mentality, but you, you are different. You are redeemed by the love of Christ. You are baptized and owned by Him. Love like Him. Love like the One who has seen your sin and your failing, and He hasn’t cancelled you, but was cancelled for you. He is the One who knows where you have fallen short in your care for your neighbor, in not loving them, or being as generous to them, not explaining everything in the kindest way, and He has been crucified for that sin, rejected by the Heavenly Father, that in His resurrection you would have His mercy.
Now you love like that. You let your love be genuine, literally be unhypocritical. You abhor the evil of sin and hold strongly to that which He calls you. And I love the way Paul says this: “outdo one another in showing honor.” If you remember Paul says in His letter to the Philippians that Christ did not see equality with God something to be grasped, but in humility considered others’ interests above His own. He outdid us in showing honor. And so we should too.
Of course, that’s contrary to this whole mentality right now, isn’t it? Look at the mentality of the mobs now. What are they focused on? Rights, right? It’s my right to have this or that. You can’t interfere with my right to do x,y, or z. And let’s be clear, you have some of this on both sides of the political aisle.
Christians, what about love and honor in this? Are we actually outdoing others in showing honor? And don’t think to yourself, “Yes, pastor, but I do x, y, and z, because I’m right about a,b, and c!” You see in Christ you have freedom. You have the freedom to submit to your neighbor out of love for them. You have the freedom to submit in times even when you know that you’re right. To be clear, I’m not telling you to not speak up for the confession of the faith. God tells us to speak His Word. When the culture tries to prevent that, or to prevent us from speaking what His Word says, we still speak. Or should the government tell us that we can’t meet together at all, we still meet. In fact, that’s a part of our freedom as Christians: we know that we can bear the consequences of doing those things against the wishes of the culture or of the government when they are opposed to God, because we have the God who will care for us eternally. We also have the duty to pursue the actions that protect those under our care, for example as parents. I have the duty as a father to care for my children as God’s Word calls me to, in particular in teaching them the faith. But when it comes to the things that we think of as rights, a lot of times we could be a lot better about showing honor to others.
You see this mob mentality, this cancel culture, this focus on my rights, this is devoid of love and honor to our neighbor. I think you see it. As we’ve confused the two kingdoms, we’ve done this because we think that the Kingdom of the Left, the realm of the state and culture, we’ve thought that our salvation is found in these things. We’ve made an idol out of them. As we’ve done that, we’ve taken God out of His place and put an idol in there. The government will not save us. The culture will not save us. Only Christ will save us. And He will save us in His love. And so, we can bring love to it. We can bring true love to it.
In view of that, Christians, show that love. Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. It’s easy for the stress of these circumstances, the anxieties of how we’ll end up in the midst of things to try to prove how right we are, or how wrong someone else is. But outdo others in showing honor. Even when it’s required for you to confess the faith, outdo others in showing honor. Show the love that has been shown to you. Let your love be genuine, unhypocritical. Love like you have been loved. The mobs will come and they will go. They will flare up and burn out. The consequences may even be dire. But you have the One who will not flare up and burn out, the Christ Himself. His love will sustain you into eternity. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson previously read.
The story is one that we hear annually. We even have the yearly reminder of it in our Nativity Sets: the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. On the one hand we know it like the back of our hands. On the other, if you’re like me, things strike you as unnoticed in it periodically. For example, I remember being relatively old when I realized that these wise men didn’t visit Jesus at the manger in Bethlehem. In fact, the lesson doesn’t specifically say that Jesus was still in Bethlehem. I think he probably was, but if you watched my devotion on it this week, you heard me say that the author I read about this said that he believed Joseph and Mary had returned to Nazareth and the star led the Magi there. But whether in Bethlehem or Nazareth, the thing that makes this the most surprising is that the visit is apparently two years or after our Lord’s birth. If you hadn’t heard or remembered that, you can see it from the section we had last week where Herod slaughtered all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and under. And why? Because that was according to the time he had ascertained from the Magi.
As I say this, though, you might be wondering why I’m spending this time talking about such intricate details. Does it matter that it was two years after Christ’s birth when the Magi came? Well, on the one hand you won’t be damned just for falling into the assumption that this visit is at the manger. But what duty do we have to knowing God’s Word? We all have that duty to know it and have it inwardly digested. Sure, as a pastor it’s my job to know it and study daily for my work, but for all Christians, we should know it. We should also believe it.
Now, as I say that, you might be thinking that’s obvious. And of course it is. But we’ve got a great warning in this reading reminding us of that truth, and of how easy it is either to not know it, or not to believe it. What is that? Look at the details here. When Herod heard that the King was born, what did he do? He assembled “all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” And what did they say? “Oh well, we don’t know.” No! They knew exactly what it said. The got it right. The said that the child would be born in Bethlehem. They even knew where it said so. “For so it is written by the prophet, ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” They knew that the Prophet had said this—which by the way this is mostly from Micah 5:2, although the language at the end about shepherding is from 2 Kings 5. But they knew that the prophet Micah had said it. And why’s that important? What can we take from that?
Well think about where they were and where they weren’t. You have these Biblical Scholars who know their stuff, but when push came to shove—when the Messiah was actually born in Bethlehem—where were they? They were in Jerusalem, not worshipping the child. And when these Magi came, where was the King of the Jews? Seeking ways to destroy the child.
How do we learn from that? Well, first of all, we need to make sure we know that word, because we see that even when you know it, it’s hard to properly cling to it. But that’s the other part, to make sure we cling to it. To make sure we don’t get distracted by the worldly things, by the comforts of palaces or what we feel to be safe. To make sure we don’t get our focus shifted from the heart of that Word to other concerns. It’s so easy to do.
I mentioned those Biblical Scholars knowing that Word, and not taking it to heart, and we can make the clear connection to Academia today. I don’t think I really had that with my professors in seminary. I think they were deeply convicted by the Word, but you see in the Academic world many who know the Bible inside and out, who teach about what it says, and yet they devalue that word constantly and undermine the truth revealed in it.
For us, we need to make sure that doesn’t happen as well. We need to make sure that we cling to this Word and its truth. However, I think we need to also make sure that we don’t become self-righteous about how much we believe the Bible and use that as an excuse to rest on not knowing it inside and out. The Bible is a hard book to understand in many places. That makes it hard to want to read. But the more we read it and seek to understand it, the more we will understand it. And the more deeply it will ground us in our Lord. And the more we will understand its message about our Lord.
And as I say that, that’s something else I personally have been struck by these past couple of weeks. I started thinking about this for the devotions on the Escape to Egypt and the return after Herod’s death. You look at all that, and the attention that God gives to the details and fulfilling those details is amazing. He fulfills the details that Jesus would be called out of Egypt; “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” And then that there would be the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, that Rachael would weep over her sons. Then that Jesus would be called the Nazarene. Detail after detail from the Old Testament fulfilled. And you see it here too. Look at the detail of making sure that Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Look at the detail of making sure that the Magi come to worship him as was promised in the lesson in Isaiah. And the detail that they would bring Gold and Frankincense. This detail foretold hundreds of years in advance, yet fulfilled. God’s attention to it.
It was interesting, here I was already meditating on this and I heard a friend of mine preach on the Epiphany last week. What did He focus on? He spoke of what the theologians of old called it: Providence. He said look at how you see God’s providence in all of this. Look at how you see Him working all of this. I often say that God is playing chess while we’re playing checkers. And that doesn’t even suffice to describe it. He’s doing thermonuclear equations while we’re unable to count with our fingers.
Look at how that plays itself out even in the story here, or in the whole birth. You’ve got Joseph looking to divorce Mary right away, and God reorders that. You’ve got the Magi going to the wrong place, and the Lord redirects them to the Son. You’ve got Herod looking to kill this threat to his power, and the Lord moves the Magi to go back another way. God’s three steps ahead of man in all of it.
And I think we need to look at the world around us in the same sense. Look at the two things we’re most up in arms about: politics and the coronavirus. We’re worried about how things will shake out with race relations or with elections, or the storming of the capitol this week. Do you think God doesn’t have it all in hand? Or the coronavirus. We’ve got the vaccine being distributed and now the virus is changing to spread that much faster. Do we think that if God intends for a certain number to get sick, or even to die with that as the cause it won’t happen?
And of course, I know I’m touching on some very challenging ground in the faith and the mysteries of that faith, but it’s true. God rules over all things and has them working for His good. Does it mean that we don’t try to take care not to get our neighbor sick? Of course not! We still try to honor care with things like social distancing, even here in the church. Do we not hope that vaccines can be created? Of course it’s OK to hope for that, to hope for the virus to end. Do we still vote, do we sill repent of racism and seek reconciliation and care for all peoples? Of course we do! But we understand with David a couple of weeks ago that sometimes pious desires of men don’t fit into God’s mysterious plans for the world. And what I’m referring to, if you recall, was David saying to Nathan the prophet that he would build the temple for God.
Do you remember that reading? David said he was going to do that, and what did Nathan hear as a word from the Lord? “Did I tell anyone I was upset I didn’t have a house? No. Tell David that he won’t build me a house, I will build him one.”
Yes, God has it all in His hands! So why do we rail against it? Why do we seek to push against His rule and trust Him? Why do we not seek instead to know Him and His will? Obviously, as always the answer is sin, but look at what it does to us. Look at how it ultimately draws us to fear and despair.
Christians, we rail against it because we think we know better, but how could we know better? We weren’t there when He created the world, just like He said to Job. I don’t know if you remember all of that. Job went through his whole story and his whole life was toppled end over end. And God said that Job didn’t do anything to deserve it in particular, but the He is God and Job wasn’t. He reminded Job that His wisdom was above Job’s, He was there at the formation of the world, Job wasn’t. How true for us too! And that’s good. It’s especially something we realize is good when we see who this God is. It’s especially good when we see what this Providence works.
After all, I’ve been talking about how God is doing all these things way above us; how He was working this over and against Joseph, and that over and against Herod. And look at what all of the attention to detail was centered on. What was the point of all of it? That there would be this Jesus who saved mankind. God was working all of this to the salvation of the world.
You know that’s something that always strikes me this time of year. We don’t latch onto it much, but the whole New Testament makes the point that this salvation of Jesus is about the whole world. It was promised to the Jews, but given for the whole world. That’s how much God wanted salvation to be brought. That’s how much He wanted salvation to occur. It’s so much a part of His heart, His very being that He wanted to work that salvation, that forgiveness of sins. And He wanted to work it even for those who deserved it least. He wanted to work it for sinners like us.
And He has. Look at how this providence has worked for your benefit. He has worked that providence that you would be brought to the waters of baptism and cleansed under His gracious flood. He has worked His providence that you would be brought to hear His blessed Gospel. He has worked His providence that He would place that salvation upon your tongue in the body and blood of Jesus.
Christians, as we hear this lesson we hear year in and year out, don’t miss that. Those High Priests and Scribes are the warning for us. May we not ignore that Word. We deserve to miss it, but may God keep us in that Word. Why? Because in that Word this God revered by the Magi reveals Himself. He reveals Himself as having all things in His hand. And they are in His Hand for our good, for our salvation; for salvation in His love and His care for us. That stands now amidst political division, amidst pandemics, and even against our own sin. Because He has loved us and worked all things for our good eternally. Amen.