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 which was previously read.
Sometimes when our Lord speaks in parables, the point of the parable isn’t exactly clear. Today’s parable is the opposite. Jesus gives the summary in verse thirteen and we need to hear it, to know it, to inwardly digest it, and to store it up in our hearts: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Jesus’ return could be anytime now, so we must keep our hearts attuned to the faith so that we are ready when that time comes.
But as Jesus makes this point, he does so within the context of this parable, this story, about a wedding. There’s the wedding, there are the attendants, there are the lamps and the oil. I think a lot of it doesn’t make sense to our ears. So, how do we understand all of this?
Well, to start, we have to understand a bit about weddings at that time. You see in the first century in Israel, weddings were a bit different than we have them today, as I’m sure you gathered just from hearing the reading. We think of weddings in view of this context of romance. You have this couple who meets, who finds attraction, who dates, falls in love, and when they decide the time is right, they get married. All the more now, there’s usually this period of testing the waters by moving in together, or even an avoidance of the actual marriage itself, for a commitment just of the heart and what we often call love.
At the time of Jesus, this wasn’t how it worked. Now, to be fair, I think there are some ways that today is better. At that time marriages were arranged by the parents of the pair getting married, something that admittedly doesn’t sound enticing. But, to be fair, parents do care for their children and do want what’s best for them, and in light of that, many marriages did grow into very loving relationships. But lest, we get ahead of ourselves and this parable, it was that arrangement that began the process. The parents would agree to the marriage. Then, there was the betrothal. This betrothal was much more than engagement is for us. In our day engagement is fairly serious, but breaking them isn’t horribly uncommon. At that time, the engagement was contractual. If an engagement was broken, that breaking occurred through a decree of divorce. This is what you see Joseph pursuing with Mary when it comes to his attention that she’s pregnant with Jesus.
After the betrothal period, something that could last up to a year, but with the couple still living in their parent’s homes, then the wedding. Now the preparation for the wedding would have been happening during this year. The husband would have been preparing for them to have their life together. He would have prepared a home for them, like Jesus references when He speaks of going to prepare a place for us in John 14.
And when, finally, the day came, the bride would be brought to the home. She would be brought to the home to await the coming of her bridegroom. In the parable, she’s there already waiting. But then you have the attendants. Apparently ten attendants was a lot, so this indicates the wedding is a really big deal. But you’ve got these attendants and they’re there to celebrate the coming of the groom.
Now, it was apparently also common for these weddings to happen after sundown to aid those traveling in being able to get there, perhaps after working in the light of the day, or if traveling from a distance, being able to travel in the light of the day. So the groom would come later, such that time would be given the guests to arrive. However, things didn’t really get rolling until the groom came.
In this parable, though, it appears the groom was delayed. It’s not clear why, but it must have been important. Just like now, it’s not as though the groom would unintentionally dawdle to delay the start of things. So, whatever is causing him to tarry is necessary. During that time, though, the attendants are to still attend.
And that’s where we come to the detail and heart of the parable. There these attendants are, and you have the ten of them. They’re there waiting and waiting and waiting. They’re waiting so long, in fact, that they all fall asleep. Now, if you watch my devotions, you know I made the point that this falling asleep isn’t the issue. You know, the point of this parable isn’t that we as Christians should never sleep, but try to stay awake all the time. Even as we hear Paul talking about us not being asleep in the epistle lesson, he’s speaking figuratively in the same vein that the parable is speaking. No, the sleeping isn’t the issue. Instead, it’s the preparation. Instead it’s what happens once the bridegroom is at hand.
And what’s that? Well we see in the parable this alarm that the bridegroom is coming. And we see that there are these five virgins who are prepared, having brought an extra flask of oil. These are wise attendants, they knew their jobs and made sure to do them. Then there are the foolish ones. In the Greek, they’re called morai, morons. Why are they morons? Because they didn’t come prepared. They weren’t ready to do their job. And so, they have to run off and get more oil.
Now as we say this we can get caught up in asking questions like, “wasn’t it selfish that the wise virgins didn’t share?” Or “Could they really have gotten oil from sellers at that time of night?” These things miss the point. What is the point? They weren’t ready. The bridegroom came and they had been unwise and so they weren’t ready to welcome him aright. And this was an insult. It was so insulting that when they get back, they aren’t allowed into the feast.
So, how do we translate this for ourselves, then? I think you get the general point, this is telling us that we need to be ready for when Jesus comes back. But what does that look like?
Well I had a great experience with that this week. We were sitting down at the table for breakfast and our older kids told our youngest to repeat what he had just told them. And what was that? He said, “I want to go to heaven.” Actually, he said, “I want to go to Amma and Papa’s” that’s his grandparents, but then he said, “but I really want to go to heaven.” Now, it might be easy to say, “well but he’s just three, he doesn’t understand what death really is or what heaven really is.” And in terms of our rationality, there’s something to that. But when it comes to true faith, he gets it. He trusts my wife and I when we say, “as much as you like treats and fun here, it will be even better with Jesus. And Jesus being there will be the best part of all.” Why don’t we have that attitude? Because we don’t really think it will be better. We think the pleasures of this life are the be all end all. We think that the treats and the toys of this life are as good as it gets. We think that enjoyment that comes from breaking the commandments is better than keeping them, and that the righteousness that comes from being a good person of our own strength is better than the righteousness Jesus gives to us. By that I mean, we like to say that it’s good that Jesus forgives our sins, but we like to think that those sins aren’t that bad and of course He would.
And so how much are we like those moronic virgins? How much are we actually not prepared for our Lord’s coming? Look at us. Like I said last week, look at how we put our trust into politics. Look at the reactions to the virus. As I say this, I hate that I always have to qualify what I’m saying, but especially with the increase in cases, we need to be taking caution. We need to be caring for our neighbors and taking care, especially in view of increased hospitalization numbers. But look at the great fear that dominates this so much. How many of us really look at this say, “I want to go to heaven?”
Sure, it’s OK for us still to want to go to “Amma and Papa’s” or whatever those joyous things we have on earth are. It’s OK for us want to see our children get married, to meet our grandchildren and have time with them. It’s OK for us to want to enjoy some things yet. But it’s not OK for us to want that more than to want to be with our Lord. It’s not OK for us to fear death more than we hope in the joy that is to come with Jesus. It’s not OK for us to fear things in the future more that we trust in Christ’s care for us.
You see, what’s the point of Jesus coming and dying for our sins? What’s the point our bridegroom coming to this world at the first Christmas to betroth Himself to us, dying the death we deserve, but rising to new life and ascending to heaven to prepare the home for us? It’s so that He can take us there. It’s because He is that groom who, despite tarrying for some important necessity, can’t wait for us to be in the feast with Him. He doesn’t want to look through the door and say “I don’t know you.” No, He wants us in the feast with Him.
And as I speak of that feast, I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I’m always reminded of the wedding of some friends of ours of Indian heritage. You see in India, it’s still common to have very grand wedding feasts, lasting even up to a week as was often the case in the times of Christ. And this wedding was a feast. For an evening and two full days we feasted. It was food buffet after food buffet after food buffet. Oh it was glorious. And Scripture tells us our eternity with our Lord will be a feast. It will be even greater. Or as we look at feasting for thanksgiving this week, it will be far beyond that. Isaiah 25 calls it a feast of rich food, of aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well-refined.
And the best part then will be that our groom will be with us. It will be the feast of our eternal union with Him, where we will not be divided from Him by our sin, by the suffering and pain that sin brings, by the division and turmoil that comes with it, nor by coronaviruses. No, it will be us with Him, where He will come to us, having cleansed us from every offense against Him, and He will wipe away our every tear.
Christians, what a joy that will be. We can see why He calls us to be watchful for it. In His love for us, He wants us there and He doesn’t want us to miss out on it. He even blesses us with the foretaste of it in His feast here at His rail. Be prepared Christians. Whatever distracts you from that preparation, strip it away. In place of sins and earthly pleasures, put in your lamp repentance, faith, love, humility, watchfulness and sobriety. And most of all hope for that time. Fill that lamp that you will be ready for the day of His arrival. As the point of the parable says, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” You don’t know when it will be. And sometimes you’ll doze off waiting for it. But keep that lamp full by His Word, by His gifts to you, keep it filled with the things to which He calls you in His promises. And keep it filled with those promises most of all. Because He wants you at that feast with Him, where He can show His love to you in caring for you eternally. 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.
As we hear the predicament of Jesus in the Gospel lesson, I think if we look around it’s one we can relate to. I have been speaking with regularity about the division that we see in our country, how we see it increasingly becoming divided, especially in politics. There’s the left, there’s the right, and the two are going farther and farther apart. In that division, then, the members of both sides want to claim as many as they can. They want this person, or that person to be clearly seen on their side. Or if the person appears to be on the other side, then they become outcasts, personae non gratae. For example, I don’t know if you saw any of the conversation about the rapper Ice Cube just before the election. He had reached out to the campaigns of both candidates in hope of having conversations about how those candidates could help black people with the specific issues they face. He made it known publicly that President Trump’s campaign had reached out and spoken with him, but Vice President Biden’s campaign had not. What was the response? “Ice Cube is endorsing Trump!” And along with that a mass rebuke from those who wanted Biden to be elected! Of course, Ice Cube never actually expressed an endorsement, but that’s the way this went.
But, that’s how social media goes altogether now, isn’t it? Either you’re on my side, or you’re on their side. It appears Jesus could likely identify with that as we see Him in the gospel lesson today, doesn’t it? Here He is, and as seems often to be the case, He’s in a spot where people are trying to trip Him up. Matthew tells us it’s the Pharisees this time. He says, “the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.” They’re setting Him up to fail, the word there is like a snare has been set. The trap is being laid out so Jesus will step in it and be caught up in His own words. In what and how do they do this? They ask Him about how the Roman Empire should be viewed. They say, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” They of course start with some flattery, to butter Him up, then comes the question, “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
Now you might wonder how this is a trap. What does it matter how Jesus responds? To their point, He’s pretty clear about not caring whether or not He upsets the Pharisees. So, what’s the issue? That’s because the Herodains are there too. You see the Pharisees would likely have been aligned with the idea that Rome shouldn’t be there and shouldn’t be paid. They were known for their zeal and purity, and would have wanted freedom from this Caesar who would demand that they follow his rules and would insert his people into things even like their worship. This Caesar would not deserve their taxes. But then you have the Herodians. They would have been aligned with King Herod, the Jewish King. The king who had been installed in that role by this government of Caesar. To them, Caesar would have been AOK. So, if Jesus says to pay the tax, there are the Pharisees ready to pounce. If not, there are the Herodians. If Jesus says to pay, The Herodians call Him their own and the Pharisees will call Him persona non grata. If not, vice versa.
So, what’s the decision? Ultimately, the decision is that Jesus is wise. The decision is that Jesus knows hearts. Matthew says that Jesus responds, “aware of their malice.” Jesus is aware of their malicious intent. He sees right through their façade, He doesn’t look upon their faces, their appearances just like they know He doesn’t—or claim they do. In other words, Jesus is aware of their evil. What evil is that? It’s the evil of their sin. It’s the evil of Jeremiah 17:9; the evil we all bear: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” Jesus knows the sickness that they don’t trust in Him, and Jesus knows the sickness, the evil in which they do trust. They trust in earthly kings and princes to accomplish their salvation.
And so, He responds, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And when they do, what happens? He points out the nature of the coin, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And whose was it? Caesar’s. So, what does Jesus say, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He says give what is deserved to Caesar, and give what is deserved to God. And the people marvel, they go away in awe of the wisdom of this man. And that’s the thing for us to take away most of all from this. There is this wisdom of Jesus. Jesus is the One who is wisdom incarnate, the One who demonstrates the knowledge, the prudence, the discretion described in our reading from Proverbs. That’s absolutely the takeaway here. But as I say that, I think that’s something we all recognize. We all know that Jesus is so amazing as God in the flesh. Of course, we don’t get that in its fullness, but we know this to an extent. So, is that it?
Well if you’re keeping track we’re only about half way of the usual sermon length, so it would seem not. But it’s especially not in view of this division that we have in our country. It’s not even in view of how we ourselves as Christians often respond. You see, we so often get sucked into the same perspective. Either the government is illegitimate, in a sense, compared to God, and so needs to be ignored. Or we think the government is our salvation. And what is the Word for us to hear in this?
First, in view of how Jesus says that there is something to be rendered to Caesar—and this word for rendering has roots in giving what is owed in particular in view of retribution. Return what is owed to Caesar in retribution for what Caesar has done. And retribution has negative connotation, but make that a bit more neutral. Give back to Caesar in payback or justice for what Caesar has done. How do we understand that? Well, Paul uses the same word in Romans Chapter Thirteen. Speaking of the Government—this same Roman government Jesus describes—saying “one must be in subjection [to the government], not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.” So, God puts the government in place and we are to be subject to it—not because it executes God’s righteousness perfectly, but because He uses it. And then Paul uses this same word from Jesus to give: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” There is what Caesar is owed. The government is owed taxes, revenue, respect, honor. Why? Because this is God’s servant for our good, for the ordering of society. Not always perfectly—never perfectly, but that honor is owed.
But then there’s the flip side. However, render to God what is owed to Him too. While we certainly always need to hear that aspect of rendering to Caesar what is Caesars, right now, I think we need all the more to hear that we should render to God what is His. As I speak of this division, I think this comes down to a problem. I think those on the left and those on the right are falling into the trap where they want to render to Caesar what is God’s. You might be thinking, “how so?” You might especially be thinking, “I see how the people on the other side do it, but I’m not!!!” And to be fair you might not be. Afterall, I think those faithful Christians who would be inclined to the left see things like how the left purports to be seeking justice and care for all peoples, and all the more they might see how President Trump has acted in a way that is inconsistent with the Christian faith in His words and life, and they see the right as incompatible with the faith. Then those one the right see how the left in many ways is seeking to do away with a society grounded in the understanding of God’s order for creation and His care for life and the unborn, and they see their policies economically as the most beneficial for bringing us to the closest we’ll be for economic justice, and they see the left as incompatible with the faith. In either case, the decision is being sought in view of things oriented toward the faith. However, look at the reactions we have. Many on the right are distraught at the thought of Biden having won the election. Many on the left were distraught at the thought that Trump was going to win, especially when there was the expectation for a landslide. What does such anxiety indicate?
It indicates that we think the government is our savior. Again, this is found on both sides, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t vote or have passion about political things, but when we are so anxious about political outcomes what does it indicate? It indicates that we are putting our faith in human governments rather than in our God. Think about that explanation for the First Commandment. What does Luther say about it? You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. When we have this anxiety, we are trusting that the government is our salvation, just like the Herodians. Or we’re trusting that God’s kingdom will be of this world like the Pharisees.
Again to be clear, I’m not necessarily rebuking your political views. As I’ve heard many of them, I think they come from a place generally grounded in faith. But we all need that rebuke of our political trust. Christians, the government is not your savior. The promise is not that the government will save you, nor that it will bring about a utopia. If your attitude is along those lines, and to some degree or another, I am guessing it is, there needs to be repentance. It is not promised that the government will take care of you.
It is however promised that God will take care of you. So, as you look at the political situation, remember that: GOD will take care of you. He is the One who will do it. He is the One who sent Jesus as Wisdom Incarnate, who sent the Son into the flesh as Wisdom Incarnate to redeem you. GOD will take care of you, not the government, nor the political circumstance. Likewise, God will take CARE of you. This Jesus who has redeemed you has taken your sin to the cross and taken care of it. The retribution that is owed to you, what should be given to you by God because of your sin, that has been suffered by Jesus that you would be forgiven. And in the promise of His resurrection, it is shown that you are cared for. In fact, in your baptism, in the preaching of the Word, the forgiveness of your sins, in the Lord’s Supper, it’s proven that God will take care of YOU.
Rest, then, in this God, Christians. Don’t rest in being on your side of the political division, rest in Christ. Rest in His wisdom and His knowledge and His care. Render to Caesar in that what is Caesar’s, and Caesar is owed something. But make sure to render to God what is God’s. After all, He is owed much more than we can ask or imagine in His love for you. That love found in the Christ who has taken what should be rendered to you and relieved you of that by His grace in the Wisdom that is His forever. 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, especially these words: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
Today is the feast of All Saints. In this feast we look to the saints. I think you all know, but as much as we might associate the word “saint” with the exemplary people throughout the history of the Church—for example, Saint Paul the apostle, Saint Peter, the disciple, St. John the evangelist—the word saint itself doesn’t have to mean those people in particular. It doesn’t mean just the holiest of the holy ones. No, look at Paul’s letters. He writes to the saints in a particular place. “To the saints who are in Ephesus.” Or he writes to the church. “To the church of God that is in Corinth.” This is because saints are just God’s people. They are God’s people who have been made holy. They have been washed from their sin, and they have been sanctified—or as I tell my confirmation students, they have been “holified”—by the blood of Jesus given to them and received by faith. As Paul goes on to say in that introduction to the Corinthians, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” So, the saints are those who are holy in Christ. This means that as we celebrate this day, we celebrate those who are saints, those who are holy in Christ. Today we remember, in particular, those who have gone before us in that faith, where they enjoy the fullness of holiness in the presence of Jesus.
Now, having said that, as I often do on this occasion, rather than focusing on the dead, I’m actually going to look at the Church altogether. Today, I want to look at something that especially marks the Church: mercy. To be clear, as I say that mercy marks the Church we have to understand something. As Lutherans we use this term Mark of the Church with a specific understanding. We use it to say, if you want to know where the Church can be found look for its marks. I’ll be deviating from that just a bit. How so? Well ordinarily, what do we as Lutherans say marks the Church? Do you know? If you were to look for the Church, properly, if you were to look for where you could find God’s people, what would you look for? Or let’s say you moved and were looking for a new church home, what would you look for? Most of you, I’m assuming, would start by looking on your phones for the nearest Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation. And that’s a good place to start, but not just because we’re Lutherans and we always want to be Lutherans and those other people are just bad because they’re not Lutherans, right? Why is that a good place to start? Well, on the one hand because the expectation should be that if you go there you will hear the Bible taught properly, right? But there is some really good Bible teaching in some other churches, no? And on top of that, you get some guys who are really good public speakers there too. You get preachers who can grasp your attention and not let it go for a sermon that’s a half an hour long. But is engaging preaching a mark of the church? It’s actually not. The reason you go to a Missouri Synod Church is because of the Marks of the Church, properly: The Gospel purely preached, and the sacraments rightly administered according to Christ’s institution. That’s what we say as Lutherans.
You want to KNOW with certainty, without a doubt where God is gathering His Church, where He is making people holy? Find where the Gospel is purely preached. Find where the pastor is telling you that you get to go to heaven, not because you’re good enough, because you deserve it, because of any merit or worthiness in you, but because of what Jesus has done for you, and because of that alone. In other words, that you are saved by grace alone through faith alone in the work of Christ alone. Likewise, find where they tell you that your baptism actually buried you into Jesus’ death and raised you in His resurrection, not because of the certainty of your confession, but the promise of God’s Word. And finally, where they tell you that Jesus’ body and blood come to you in with in and under the bread and wine and deliver to you what He says: the forgiveness of sins. This is where you find the Church. This marks the Church. Why? Because the church is made holy by these things, by the faith that the Holy Spirit promises to give in this Gospel, in Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper and promises nowhere else.
Now having said all of that, I’m not going to focus on those marks today—and you might be thinking, “Pastor you just did.” Well, I did because it’s going to tie back to the mark I am talking about: mercy. Those words: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” tell us that mercy marks us. Now, to be fair, all of these beatitudes, as we call them, all of these “blessings” that Jesus speaks describe the Church. But I’m going to focus on this one for two reasons. First, we need mercy in our day. We need mercy always for ourselves, but in our society we need to show mercy more than ever. We’re increasingly lacking in that mercy, but we need it. The second is because it ties really well to the Gospel Lesson for next Sunday, and we’ll be doing the Narrative Service so I won’t get to preach on it then. What’s that lesson? That’s the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. That’s the story of the man who has the great debt before his master, a debt that’s around two hundred thousand years’ worth of wages according to the note in the ESV Bible. The parable starts with the master collecting debts. And he gets to this servant, and he demands that the debt be repaid. The servant falls down and pleads for mercy. He says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And what does the master do? Does he arrange a repayment plan? No! He forgives the servant of the debt. He doesn’t say, “OK, now if you work this much overtime, and you do this many hours of good work for me, then this debt will be paid up.” No. The debt is forgiven. It’s gone without anything done by the man. This is an abundance of mercy on the part of the master. This man doesn’t deserve it, this man hasn’t earned it, but out of the compassionate heart of the master comes the willingness not to patiently receive repayment, but to forgive the debt altogether.
Of course, I’m sure at this point most of you remember what happens next. The man leaves the presence of the master, goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller debt, something akin to one hundred days’ labor, and he demands it from this fellow. Not only he does he demand it, but he demands it harshly. The fellow pleads in the same way the man had pleaded with their master, but the man won’t relent. The master, then finds out and casts the first man in prison. To this Jesus says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” In other words, those who do not show mercy, will not be shown mercy. In the positive, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
So, we see it then, mercy is a mark of the Christian. Are you then merciful? Be merciful. Be gracious to those around you. Be gracious to those who sin against you. It’s hard. It’s hard because hurt taints us, pain taints us. It taints our conscience. It affects even our standing before God in a sense. I was reading a book this week that was really interesting in what it said about this. It said that when we are wounded that affects us. It made the point that in our society, we treat this wounding an opportunity to love ourselves and build ourselves up. We say, “I was hurt and now that justifies me to act in that same way to others.” We use it as a justification for the self-centeredness that we all are born with as sinners. But this doesn’t do any good. It envelops us in this self-centeredness. It turns us back to ourselves to that “navel gazing” that I periodically talk about. No, our default should be mercy.
In fact, this book that I mentioned is actually about marriage, but its application goes well beyond marriage. Listen to how the author makes that point as he speaks about love and ultimately mercy in general. Now to give context he’s talking about how within marriage you have to have love and truth, not just this love that doesn’t address challenges, especially this idea of love that we have in our day that it is just this mushy feeling. Listen to what he says: “Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. [But] Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourself and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God’s mercy and grace.”
Hopefully in that quote, then, you hear the shift. Seamlessly, this went from the mercy we should show to the mercy we receive. Tim Keller, the author of that quote, makes the great point about truth and love. He makes that point that love and truth go hand in hand. But in a different way of saying it, he says, but what mercy is, what God’s mercy to us is, is that He knows the truth about us and still loves us. That’s why we are marked by mercy as Christians, because we have received that love. God has known just how sinful you are. He has known that debt of 200,000 years’ worth of labor you have to do to repay the debt. And yet it has been forgiven. Yet that debt has been nailed to the cross in Jerusalem in 30 A.D. and buried in the tomb of Jesus. The burning of the note of your debt was made public on the day of His resurrection.
And to tie back to the Marks of the Church, that’s what those mean. Those marks, the preaching of that pure Gospel, the baptizing, the giving of the Holy Supper, in those God has without equivocation given that mercy to you, promised you that this is the case for you. How can you not be merciful in view of that? How can you not forgive whatever has happened to you, no matter the hurt. And don’t get me wrong, there is real hurt.
My wife and I were talking to our kids about that. We were saying that if someone did something to them, then it would be extremely hard for us to forgive that person. But even still there is that call to mercy. How? Because as hurtful as that is to me, God has forgiven me far beyond that. It might not seem like it to my puny, self-absorbed understanding; my sinful self that wants to wallow in all the bad that has happened to me. But it’s true. My debt to God far, far surpasses even the worst sin against me. And yet God has shown me mercy. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
As I say all of this, though, to conclude with one final thought to tie all of this together, this must be understood properly. The merciful don’t earn the blessing of being shown mercy by their own mercy. No, this blessing of receiving mercy comes from God first. It originates from Him to us in Christ. It is the only way we can show this mercy. Our lack of mercy rejects it and denies it. But it always comes from Him first. This how we are holy. This is how we are saints: always by the holiness He gives to us in His grace. But in that, we are holy. In that we are saints with all of those who have gone before us. 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. Especially the word, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
I don’t know if you ever have that where you wake up with a song in your head, but I had that last week. I woke up and I kept hearing a song. The song was called Red Mosquito by the band Pearl Jam. I looked it up and, apparently, it’s about a time when the lead singer got a bout of bad food poisoning and he felt really ill. But the words say, “I was bitten, it must have been the devil, just paying me a little visit, reminding me of his presence. Letting me know he’s waiting. He’s waiting.” Now of course the connection between the food poisoning and the devil is fair. Whether Eddie Vedder believes it or not. As I’m always making the point, something as common and often seemingly minor as food poisoning is a manifestation of the fallenness the devil brought as he tempted and drew our first parents into sin. But isn’t this apt for our day?
Look all around us, the devil is paying us visits, isn’t he? I know I’ve mentioned this before, but the word devil comes from the Greek word diabolos, to cast or throw through. I think it’s hard not to see that and think of how the devil casts through us as people, both internally and how he casts through our relationships with each other and divides us. We’re all experiencing that division now. We experience it in the division of views on how to handle something like the coronavirus. We, all the more, I think see it in our nation. Look at how divided our country is politically. Left and right are becoming increasingly separated. Division is having its way. The devil is paying us a visit letting us know that he’s waiting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as though he’s appearing visibly. One of my favorite quotes is to say that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. If he can convince us that he’s not there, then there’s no need to battle him. But for those who recognize his division and his works, he’s there. He’s waiting.
So, what do we do? Well to start, we have to continue according to God’s word. I was reading Gene Veith’s book “The Spirituality of the Cross” this week for the class I teach at Concordia. I think I’ve mentioned that before, but that’s a great read to understand our lives as Lutherans. The section, in particular, I read centered on what we call the Two Kingdoms, the understanding that God rules the world altogether in His Kingdom of Power, what we call the Kingdom of the Left. But He rules His Church in His Kingdom of Grace, what we call the Kingdom of the Right. And again to be clear, this is not a reference to political leanings of left and right. The political distinction came about with the left and right sections of the assembly in Paris during the French Revolution. The Two Kingdoms was well before that, discussed by Luther himself.
So, what’s the point about these two kingdoms? Veith points out well that as Christians we must ensure that we don’t confuse them. The devil wants us to confuse them, but we need to not. We need to make sure that the role of the government is never understood to be that which will bring utopia. You know I think we see that right now. We see people running on platforms that act as though the utopia is within reach. Well, I think we always see that, but with the division that’s in place, it’s seeming that this perspective is especially prevalent in comparison to years past. There’s the expectation that government, the right one, the right candidate, the right president will bring the needed policy to aid us in bringing about the perfect life, or at least life here that’s that much more idyllic. This on the one hand can be seen in view of the perspective that if we can maintain the ability to say Merry Christmas, or for our country to keep saying, “In God we trust,” this will preserve the ideals we need. On the other it’s to say that if we conform to a certain standard we will eradicate injustice. Christians, it’s bondage to think that the Government will provide the utopia that only heaven will be. Only in the Kingdom of Christ, His final Kingdom of Glory will there be freedom from injustice, from suffering, perfect freedom to worship Him rightly.
So how do we deal with it? In the knowledge that the government’s role should be to serve God’s will, God’s commands. The government should in that protect the interests of the Church. However, when Paul wrote about the honor due the government in Romans 13, or when Jesus said to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, they were describing the Roman empire, which had not treated Jews as kindly and freely as they ought to have, nor did they treat the Christians well in the early days of the Church. But as we observe our civic duties and rightly so, we ought to remember that our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. The injustices that we as the Church endure, or that we endure as individual Christians have their resolution, they are made right, not by our efforts, but in the suffering of our Lord Jesus on the Cross. In Him we have the fulness of all that we need. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
As I say that, this hope that we have in human government is the hope that we have in the presence of the devil, isn’t it? As the devil is around us, as we are “bitten” by him, as he lets us know that he’s waiting, there we see the bondage the devil brings to us. There we see the immanence of the devil and his work around us, and how inescapable it is for us of our own efforts. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
But as we are in the midst of these constant reminders of the devil and his work around us, we have Jesus reminding us what freedom is and isn’t. What do I mean? Well, think about what we think of as freedom. As we are divided in our country, there is an aspect where some of the division comes down to understanding what freedom is. Freedom is viewed in terms of my rights, what’s due to me, what I deserve, what I am entitled to. And to what are we entitled? Whatever we want to set our hearts toward. It can be the most depraved of sin, but my freedom ought to allow me the ability to pursue it. I describe it by saying that we have confused liberty and license in our day. We aren’t seeking to be free, we are seeking license to do commit any and every act that seems pleasurable to us.
I was listening to some quotes from some public figures, one being a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto named Jordan Peterson. Now, Dr. Peterson, I don’t believe is a professing Christian, but there are a lot of things that he says that I think are consistent with what we could call Judeo-Christian ethic. The quote I heard from him was one I really appreciated. He said something to the effect of this: “Over the last 50 years our conversations have focused on rights. Discussion of rights has its place and is good, but we have done this to the detriment of our conversation about responsibility.”
Jesus says it this way, “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” It’s not a sin to have or seek rights. It is a sin to seek to have the right to sin. Therein is a part of our problem. As Paul says in Galatians, “it is for freedom that Christ has set you free.” If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. But, Paul says don’t use that freedom as an opportunity to serve the flesh. This is our bondage. We are bound to this desire to serve the flesh.
I was reading a book this week that described a family in Germany during the days of Hitler this week. The author talked about how one of the members of the family had decided that he should move to Israel in the early thirties—if I recall correctly. Just after the time of Kristallnacht, however, he had some connection in Hitler’s government who notified this man that his family was on the list to be arrested for their Judaism. If he would return and take them with him to Israel, this connection would ensure the entire family had safe passage. When the man went to get the family, however, they wouldn’t go. They denied that things would be that bad for them. They saw Israel as grimy and dirty, and below them. They didn’t want to leave behind the wonderful life that they had in Berlin, with all of its comforts and seeming security. Sadly, the man had to leave without any of his family. They were blind, they were enslaved to their position.
This is us in sin. This is us as the devil divides us. This is us as we seek rights to sin rather than responsibility in serving our neighbor. And this all points to the enslavement that we have under sin, under death, under the devil.
But Christians, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. And He has. We have all of the ways we see the bondage around us, but the resounding message of Jesus is that you have been set free. Your eyes may not tell you that. But the strong word of Jesus promises it to you. It promises you that as Jesus has died for your sin, you have been forgiven, freed from its debt. It promises that very body and blood given and shed for you on the cross comes and touches your lips that you may taste and see the freedom. It promises you that as Christ has been raised your bondage to death has been overcome because He will raise even your body from the grave. It promises you this as you were joined to His resurrection in baptism. That strong word promises that as Christ has done all of this, and has ascended to the right hand of the Father, Jesus now reigns with all authority in heaven and earth. That means that this devil who is waiting will wait in vain for you. He will wait in vain for you because you have been freed. You have been purchased, your life is now found in Christ.
As we celebrate the Reformation today, Christians—Lutherans!—that is what we’re celebrating: freedom. We aren’t celebrating Luther in and of himself this day. No. We are celebrating that freedom of the Gospel. We are celebrating that this devil who would try to impede that word, would attack it, bind us, and divide us, this old evil foe, now not only means deadly woe but knows deadly woe himself from that Christ who holds the field forever; the Christ who saves us by His grace alone, through faith in Him alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.