17th Sunday after Pentecost – (Proper 21) LSB #’s 594, 543, 919
Text – Philippians 2:2-4
Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord & of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
WHOM SHALL I LOVE & WHOM SHALL I FEAR?
Every time I read the story of the Good Samaritan, new revelations come to mind through the Holy Spirit, helping me to see different scenarios in life. As I prepared to write this sermon in light of the series “Heart Issues are Hard Issues,” it occurred to me that what happened in that story happens every day here in these United States.
Please understand, I am speaking in generalities; what I am about to say does not apply to each & every person. And yet, to question our integrity is part of the process of repentance.
There are two infections that White Americans tend to suffer from. The 1st one is invisibility. They simply cannot or will not see Black America. They can go an entire lifetime – by choice or by circumstance – while having no significant contact with a person of color. The reverse is virtually impossible.
The 2nd infection is immunity – the inherent knowledge that they can do whatever they want because of the freedoms our constitution allows & because they are the majority. This has led many to see themselves as dominant & superior to the minority, at times to the point of not considering them human. The theory of evolution has been used to promote this thinking.
Because of those two infections, White Americans have beaten & bloodied Black Americans, leaving them half-dead by the side of the road, & then passed by on the other side without caring to see or to offer aid. Those infections have become a conditioned response, borne of years of misunderstanding, fed by political & economic agendas & sociological fears. They continue to grow & fester due to lack of real interest in engaging one another with open hearts & minds. As children of God, we cannot allow politics or any other agenda to define what humanity means because humanity has already been defined by God.
Conversely, Black Americans are suffering from “whipped dog syndrome,” which has put many of them in “fight or flight” mode. By flight I mean that many have given up hope of changing or overcoming their circumstances, regardless of political leadership. The temptation is to remain segregated for protection, for trust & for prosperity.
By the word fight I mean that some have chosen to struggle for their rights, survival, freedoms & continued existence. Particularly during the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. these “fights” took form in the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest peacefully.
But when that right is denied, taken away or repelled by physical attacks through the powers that be, is it any wonder all hell breaks loose? Is there any wonder that the frustration of never being heard or cared about will at times lead to riots? The irony is that the victims are usually attributed the blame. All of that tends to be invisible to White Americans.
If we can understand these things about ourselves, maybe then we can build bridges over the black-white divide while learning to love as Christ loves in spite of our differences.
Living in suspicion, fear & hatred of one another is obviously not what God intended for His created image. Philippians chapter 2 clearly shows us that God wants ALL His people to be united in Christ, not divided by Satan. The sermon text can be summed up by the 2nd greatest commandment – love your neighbor as yourself.
And who is my neighbor? Everyone who is not me. Who is your neighbor? Everyone who is not you. We are to love everyone who is not ourselves as we love ourselves & that is the very thing we find hardest to do. Why? The essence of sin is to be turned in upon ourselves & thus away from God & away from anything else He created. So we’ve passed, & continue to pass, judgment on each other for the way we look, walk, speak, think, even for the clothes we wear, just to name a few. Through this we consider some people as not worthy of our love.
We hold ourselves up as the “ideal” of what a person should be, & if you aren’t just like us, you are less important, or even insignificant. Therefore, we don’t have to love you. This has caused people to treat others any way they wanted to, regardless of how evil it may have been. But love is not optional. It is the only way of life. All other ways are death.
Arrogance, hatred, entitlement, impatience, self-reliance, self-gratification, selfishness & self-importance are the tools & devices the devil uses against us, to separate us, to tempt us to hate each other & to draw us away from our faith in, & our love for, Jesus. Those are the same tools & devices Satan used against Cain, tempting him to kill his brother Abel.
In searching for the antidote we need to consider this question: Whom do we love & whom do we fear? Let me share with you a couple of stories:
1. On my vicarage, in a northern suburb of Saint Louis, I was asked by my supervising pastor to walk the neighborhood & invite the people to church. The congregation I was serving was primarily White, but the neighborhood was primarily Black.
This sounded like a great outreach opportunity, especially for the blending of cultures in God’s house. However, the reality did not match the opportunity. Every person I talked to said they had tried to attend the church previously, but were ushered out with the words, “You’ll be happier at the church down the street.”
2. Last month, I met a man outside a store in Ann Arbor. While we waited our turn for service, we struck up a conversation, which quickly turned to Christianity. Although he was White & I am Black, we found a lot of commonality. Again, this sounded like a great outreach opportunity. I invited him to my church, but again, the reality did not match the opportunity. Even though I shared with him that Shadow of the Cross is a cross-cultural church, he declined the invitation. His reason – he was told recently by a Black pastor that White people are not allowed in Black churches in order to maintain their identities as Black churches.
Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as a Black church nor a White church. There is only the Christian church, to which everyone is welcome. We cannot continue allowing the devil to deceive us into believing otherwise. There is no room for “separate but equal” within the Church of Christ; not if we are to be united in Christ.
Jesus died for us all, equally, on the cross of Calvary, where He demonstrated His love equally, to all sinners. “Whom shall we love & whom shall we fear?” The Bible says at Matthew 22:37–39, “And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart & with all your soul & with all your mind. This is the great & 1st commandment. And a 2nd is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
It also tells us at Matthew 10:28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul & body in hell.” God clearly tells us to love Him above all things & to love everyone else 2nd only to Himself. He tells us to fear Him alone. Nothing & no one else can destroy both soul & body.
Knowing this, followers of Christ should examine themselves asking, “Whom DO we love & whom DO we fear?” Sadly, the answer to whom do we love is often those who are just like us. And the answer to whom do we fear is everyone who is not just like us.
I suggest that those who do not love Christ, may not know or understand Him as well as they think. I also suggest that those who do not love people different from themselves, do not know or understand, nor have they taken time to get to know, people different from themselves. The heart of Paul’s message to the Philippians is stated in verses 2–4: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord & of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
If we are to have true unity within the Church, we have to truly believe this: that which unites us is infinitely greater than that which divides us; meaning the love of Jesus Christ for all of His creation. God died in Jesus for every human being, Black & White, rich & poor, etc.
If we are going to have peace, love & understanding between the races, the 1st thing we have to grasp is “it’s not about me.” It is about the Savior. In response to that love, we help our brothers & sisters with whom we share the earth. Feelings of superiority & inferiority are Satan’s way of keeping us separated, infuriated & uneducated about any cultural differences.
Just as conceit breeds entitlement, jealousy breeds contempt. Satan would like nothing more than to keep the races at each other’s throats. As long as we are at each other’s throats, there’s no chance for reconciliation & little chance for the light of God’s love to shine.
But our Lord has not forsaken us. He’s given His Word to study & contemplate. He hears our prayers. He grants us forgiveness. He gives His Holy Spirit for comfort, strength & direction. God has given us the ability to withstand temptation. He’s given us the ability to say no to sin.
James 4:6–7 says, “…God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, & he will flee from you.” Do not be afraid, but trust God’s promises & His providence. The truth is many of us aren’t even trying to resist.
Some people enjoy the chaos of racism. Some of us don’t want the unity Christ desires for everyone in His church. Some of us have hardened our hearts so much that we may not love even ourselves. 1 John 3:15 warns us, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, & you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.”
We thank God, however, that there are many people of all races who are tired of the nonsense & racial injustice; who are willing to lay down their lives, if necessary, like Jesus did, for the betterment of society, the uplifting of the church, the upholding of justice, the encouragement of relationships between all peoples, & for the common good.
God has brought together many who know & love Him to teach, preach, pray & give praise. We come from all races & all walks of life to share the Good News of our resurrected Lord with everyone we come into contact with. We teach that everyone we come into contact with is our neighbor.
The fruits of faith in Jesus are the good works we do to create unity within the church & among the people. We do not glorify ourselves but thank God for creating a burning desire in us to serve. Together, we will serve until His will is fulfilled. I pray that we will be the instruments by which this is accomplished & that we do not grow weary of the work God has called us to do.
God will restore perfect unity to His church when He raises us from the dead. I encourage you to remain faithfully committed to serving the Lord in whatever capacity He has prepared in advance for you. Don’t lose hope when it appears that evil is winning. Remember, Jesus has already conquered sin, death & Satan. Do not be deceived by the devil’s tricks.
Through the power of God’s Word we can learn to build bridges over the Black-White divide, & these are some of the ways we can work toward that goal:
• Treat all people with respect.
• Talk to people who are different & learn to see the society through their experiences.
• Seek to become a prayer partner with someone whose life is very different from yours.
• Visit a congregation that is culturally different or more racially diverse than your own.
• Listen & learn.
This evil age is passing away. Disunity is passing away. Hatred & selfishness will give way to love & unselfishness. Christ will return to make all things new again.
For those given the wisdom, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to separate truth from rhetoric, we can see that all the vileness of the present is the dying gasp of evil. These times are the birth pains of the coming era; the ushering in of the new heaven & the new earth.
If any soldier of the cross who’s been called & enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is asked the question “Whom shall I love?” the answer will be universal – the Lord God, & my neighbor. If any soldier of the cross who’s been called & enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is asked the question “Whom shall I fear?” the answer will be universal – the Lord God alone. Amen.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul! What wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul, to bear the dreadful curse for my soul! When I was sinking down, sinking down, when I was sinking down, sinking down, when I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul, for my soul, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul. Amen. LSB 543:1-2.
16th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 20) LSB #’s 827, 839, 411
Text – Philippians 1:18 (NIV)
But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, & I will continue to rejoice.
ALL THAT MATTERS
The central thought: In the midst of a society imprisoned by injustice & ripped apart by racial tension, followers of Jesus are called & empowered to be God’s prophetic voice as we speak out & live out “All That Matters.”
The Church has every right under our nation’s law, & more importantly, every obligation under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to speak into the political, moral & social issues facing our United States. That’s why God put His people here.
Issues of social-economic inequity, historic or systemic racial injustice, a punitive rather than restorative justice system, poorly performing & poorly funded schools in the poorest neighborhoods that guarantee generational poverty, an atmosphere in which police are more like soldiers in battle than guardians of the peace, & the resultant deaths of black men at the hands of police followed by peaceful protests & vengeful violence all scream for God’s Spirit to speak His peace, His truth, His love, His righteousness, His justice, His hope & His healing into the world our Lord created & died to save.
Our saintly nature, as the people of God, cannot help but speak His Word. His people live as the Spirit-filled Body of Christ & we are emissaries of His new creation & His coming kingdom. How do we go about doing that? How do we lean into our responsibility in this timely opportunity to speak & to live as God’s mouthpiece?
Over the next 7 weeks we will address the message from God to His people in the context of the racial tension in our nation. We’ll address how God’s chosen saints in Christ Jesus can think, speak, pray & act. We seek the Holy Spirit’s wisdom & power to be our best selves as Christ’s ambassadors to a sin-fallen world. We seek to address racial issues that are in the forefront of our nation. In this context, the Word of God may be difficult to hear & accept.
We will discover that 1st we need to repent before God for our own role in racial injustice – whether that is active or passive, intentional or in ignorance, whether one is black or white. We will seek God’s healing through the cross of Christ &, from there, carry the message of His cross into conversations & active engagements with people who are different from us.
This is not new & I’m thinking of one reason in particular – the Concordia Pulpit. They are books containing entire sermons for each Sunday & special day in a year. They were intended to record how pastors had engaged the words of Scripture in years past. It was hoped they would assist the pastor in framing his thoughts & to perhaps borrow an illustration or two.
In reading volumes from the 1950’s through the mid 1960’s, there was no lack of sermons that included very blunt references to the geopolitical issues surrounding the “Cold War” & the threat of nuclear attack. They were intentionally addressing current issues in the context of God’s revealed Word & helping God’s people think Biblically about them.
This series of sermons is meant to do the same. References will also be made to a Concordia Publishing House Bible Study written by Rev. Keith Haney. His work is titled, One Nation Under God: Healing Racial Divides in America. The hope is that you will work through this Bible Study for spiritual growth & meaningful conversation on the topic.
St. Paul wrote in Philippians 1:18, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice!” Did you hear that ending note? Joy is all over this brief letter that Paul wrote to his supportive friends. Yet, as you may know, Paul was in prison as he wrote this letter. He is one who, as a follower of Christ, was on the ragged fringe of society even though he was a Roman citizen. His life could be ended at any time, yet, Paul wrote of joy, & did so with joy in his heart. Living in prison & on that ragged fringe of society, would you say the Apostle was in a position of power or of privilege?
I hope you conclude that the Apostle Paul had confidence, & hope, & courage, & peace, & humility, & power, & position, & privilege, & hope, & joy in the midst of difficulties & suffering because he knew, by faith, “ALL THAT MATTERS.”
You & I can have those same things as we purposefully live in the midst of the racial unrest that we must not ignore as the people of God. And, my friends, we will need all those assurances to effectively participate in conversations & actions that transform people as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”
In His Word, God has given us two foundation truths that matter. 1. Our identity is wrapped up in Jesus. 2. Our life is wrapped up in Jesus.
We may self-identify as black or white, European, African, Middle Eastern, South or Central American, or Asian. We may identify with being American, male or female, employed, unemployed, or retired, city dweller or rural folk, well-educated or street-smart. These & many more could be identifying marks. But “what does it matter?”
Paul was a prisoner, yet that was not his identity. He was “in chains for Christ.” (v. 13) He was a victim of injustice, but that was not his identity. He was victorious “in Christ.” (Romans 8:37) He was powerless to correct those who preached Christ from selfish or destructive motives, yet powerless was not his identity.
He joyfully responded, “What does it matter? …Christ is preached!” Later in the Philippians, Paul confessed that at one time he proudly identified himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” well educated in the Law of God & a devout follower of the legal traditions. He was a “persecutor of the Church,” but he concludes, “I count it all as rubbish that I may gain Christ & be found in Him …having a righteousness that is from God & is by faith!” (3:5–6, 8–9) Paul’s identity was all wrapped up in Jesus!
And like Paul’s, our identity is wrapped up in Jesus. At Baptism, or through hearing the message of Christ, we were made children of God. We bear His name! We are individually & collectively the Temple of the Holy Spirit! All this is only by the grace of God connecting us by faith to the accomplished work of Jesus on the cross!
This single identity for each of God’s children is “ALL THAT MATTERS!” Every other identifying mark pales in comparison! At one time our identity was that of “enemies of God” (Romans 5:10), “by nature objects of wrath” & “dead in our sin” (Ephesians 2:3–4).
Our original identity as God’s personally created image-bearers in His universe has been twisted & trashed by our sinful rebellion, both inherited & personal. Apart from Jesus Christ, that is still the destitute identity of every man, woman & child on the face of the earth. It is ours too without God’s action in Jesus, on our behalf.
The challenge confronting us is the question: “Are we living out our true identity? Do our thoughts, our words & our deeds, that the people around us hear & see, align with our identity in Christ? How this matter of identity relates to issues of race in our society is pointed out by Rev. Haney as he offers these remarks:
“Although God created mankind as one human race, our sinful, selfish natures have created false lines of color dividing that race. Over the years, these false perceptions about different races have been cooked into the recipe of our culture. We have seen them played out in the media, on television sitcoms, & in books. The challenge now is; how do we get around what we believe to be true in order to start seeing people as individuals? The apostle Paul gives a pathway forward – start seeing as God does, not ‘according to the flesh.’ (2 Corinthians 5:16) To bring about true healing, we have to find our identity in the new life we have in Christ.”
As followers of Jesus, we must realize that every neighbor on our planet is a beloved image-bearer of God, a broken sinner under God’s righteous wrath, redeemed by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, & welcomed as a forgiven child only by faith in the victorious, risen Jesus. That is the reality whether you accept it or not.
That is true of everyone whether black or white, rich or poor, Christian or non-Christian, conservative or liberal, citizen or illegal alien, immigrant by choice & opportunity or immigrant by force on a slave ship. Holy Spirit, lead us to repent of identifying ourselves or others as anything else. “ALL THAT MATTERS” is one’s identity in Jesus Christ.
Secondly, the Holy Spirit through Paul teaches that our identity in Christ is to be lived out in daily relationships. On the heels of declaring his ultimate confident faith, in the face of potential death, “For me to live is Christ & to die is gain” (v. 21), Paul gives this encouragement:
“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (v. 27). In other words, not only is our identity wrapped up in Jesus, our life is wrapped up in Jesus. Therefore, it is secure in Christ’s resurrection life for eternity. How we live each day makes a difference in the Church & in the world, even if we don’t see the results.
In just a few strokes of Paul’s letter, the Holy Spirit outlines what “living in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” looks like:
1. “Standing firm in one spirit, contending as one man” (v. 27). We are united. We stand together – all for one & one for all – just as a human body is not meant to be divided. We share a common identity in Christ. That’s true in the Church. In broader society, inclusive of Christians & non-Christians alike, all of us are sons & daughters of Adam & Eve. We’re united, in one human family, regardless of color, position, or ethnicity. In our nation, the focus should be more on unity while celebrating diversity without division. As believers in the God of creation, the Church must affirm the great value that each human being has in the sight of God.
2. “Contending as one man for the faith of the gospel” (v. 27). Yes, we are united, but what unites us is not our willpower. Rather, we are united by common faith in Jesus. We are also united in action. Namely, we are “contending for the faith of the gospel.”
Now that word “contending” is not limited to making sure our doctrine is pure. Indeed, our call is not just to “protect” the gospel. No, we are to intentionally & intensely work together to advance the Good News, to be emissaries of His coming kingdom. Jesus outlined His kingdom mission as He initiated His public ministry by reading from Isaiah the prophet:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, & recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19)
All God’s promises stand fulfilled in the person & work of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). After His victorious resurrection, Jesus said to His followers, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you …Receive the Holy Spirit.” As the Spirit-empowered Body of Christ, we “contend as one man” when we join with Jesus on His kingdom mission.
That includes fighting injustice, being a voice for the disenfranchised, defending the weak, working to release those held captive by poverty & poor education, bringing healing to broken lives, & reconciliation to fractured relationships including those between black & white.
As one of our Lutheran educators put it in a recent blog, “Do I, as a teacher, want to be just the keeper of correctness or be an agent of access?” Such an attitude should also be ours as
we “contend for the faith of the gospel.”
3. The final mark of living in a “manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” is framed by Paul with these words: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him.” Yes, as we dare, in faith, to live out our identity in Christ as the Body of Christ in the society & world, we can anticipate suffering for the sake of Jesus.
Even as God’s Son did not grasp or hold onto His position with the Father, but humbled Himself & became man & was obedient to the Father even to death on the cross (Philippians 2:5ff), so we are called to suffer alongside those who suffer & seek to relieve their suffering.
Did you know that, in 2014, the median income of a white household was $71,300 & the median income of a black household was $43,300? Of households headed by someone with a college degree, a white household’s median income was $106,600 & that of a black, college-educated household was only $82,300?
Did you know that a black man is three times more likely to be searched during a routine traffic stop than a white man? These pieces of information are used to make the claim that “white privilege” is a real thing in our society. This sort of information clearly shows the great disparity among us as citizens of the same nation.
Attending issues of education & job opportunities work to expand the divide. In Christ, we are called by the Spirit to release our grip on white privilege or black victimhood, whichever is your assumed position. Failure to acknowledge & release our prideful posture will only keep us divided, unable & unwilling to have the hard conversations we need to have with one another.
Followers of Jesus can no longer allow black or other marginalized people to be the political pawns of the “Left” or the “Right.” This is not a political issue for us, but a Biblical one. We must engage in the work & enter the suffering of others. The people of God must speak – 1st to ourselves to repent; then also to our neighbor, whatever color he or she may be. We can expect to be misunderstood, mistreated, disenfranchised, muffled & marginalized. We may even expect persecution as we take our stand with Jesus, speaking truth to falsehood while following Jesus’ straight path in a crooked & twisted world.
Nevertheless, our present & eternal identity is always wrapped up in Christ; & our life is always securely wrapped up in Jesus. That’s ALL THAT MATTERS. Amen.
O Christ, our true & only light, enlighten those who sit in night; let those afar now hear Your voice & in Your fold with us rejoice. Fill with the radiance of Your grace the souls now lost in error’s maze; enlighten those whose inmost minds some dark delusion haunts & blinds. O gently call those gone astray that they may find the saving way! Let every conscience sore oppressed in You find peace & heavenly rest. Amen. LSB 839:1-3.
15th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 19) LSB #’s 816, 719, 895
Text – Genesis 50:15
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us & pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”
STARING INTO THE PIT
A lot has happened since the brothers of Joseph left him for dead in the desert pit. They’ve been reunited with Joseph, but now their father, Jacob, has died. It’s as if they’re back in the desert staring into the pit where they left their little brother to die. The brothers are face-to-face with the guilt of their murderous intent. Why does their sin haunt them so?
They’re not in this state because of anything Joseph has said or done. In fact, he’s demonstrated his loving forgiveness & has taken his siblings under his wing. The brothers are in this state because the guilt of their sin remains, & it has generated fear within. Satan is at work causing them to freak out over the possibility that their brother is secretly plotting revenge.
That’s what failing to repent of sin does to you! And repentance has two parts – confessing the evil of your sin – as well as believing that, on your behalf, Christ pays all of the penalty that ultimately matters. You hear these words so often that maybe their message doesn’t truly sink in so let’s apply them to the sermon text.
“Now, may this body & blood of your Lord & Savior Jesus Christ strengthen & preserve you, steadfast in the one true faith, unto life everlasting. Depart in joy & in peace.” What is it that the brothers of Joseph are missing? It’s peace, isn’t it? They are not at peace because their sin is still troubling them. The devil still has a foothold in their heart.
Let’s refresh our memory about what’s causing them so much distress. This is from the 37th chapter of Genesis:
When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming, they recognized him in the distance. As he approached, they made plans to kill him. “Here comes the dreamer!” they said. “Come on, let’s kill him & throw him into one of these pits. We can tell our father, ‘A wild animal has eaten him.’ Then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams!” But when Reuben heard of their scheme, he came to Joseph’s rescue. “Let’s not kill him,” he said. “Why should we shed any blood? Let’s just throw him into this empty pit here in the wilderness. Then he’ll die without our laying a hand on him.” Reuben was secretly planning to rescue Joseph & return him to his father. So when Joseph arrived, his brothers ripped off the beautiful robe he was wearing. Then they grabbed him & threw him into the pit. (37:18-24a)
This is basically the story of Cain & Abel, all over again. Only this time, Cain has multiplied from one into many brothers. They were plotting the cold-blooded murder of Joseph, but this plan also reveals the hatred they had for their father: “How dare he favor this little snot-nosed kid over us, the older children who are bearing the workload of their father?”
Though this plotting against Joseph had occurred many years before, as the brothers bow before the 2nd most powerful person, in the most powerful nation on earth, they are still staring into the pit of their sins. Their relationship with their brother Joseph is just as broken now as it was on the day they plotted to kill him.
Now, the tables are turned. Filled with fear before the power of Joseph to kill them, & in the absence of their father Jacob to protect them, they come face-to-face with the temporal consequences of their sins. Ultimately, they are moved to repentance before Joseph, & he grants them forgiveness. This time they believe it, & they can now depart in joy & in peace.
Is there a pit out there somewhere containing sins of which you have not yet repented? Is there a place in your heart that you have walled off, where you’ve imprisoned your own guilt so that it cannot be forgiven? It’s not uncommon for people to get hung up on regrets that tie them down so they can’t move forward & live the life of joy & peace that God calls us to.
Yes, much has happened since Joseph’s brothers left him for dead in the desert, but only now has the sin been confessed & absolved. Despite their wickedness, Yahweh worked for the good of his people & provided for their needs. Then in this text, God enables Joseph to forgive his brothers even as Joseph has been forgiven of his own sin. The devil has a way of using sin to keep us in fear & guilt. Satan does not want us to receive the full & free forgiveness that Christ offers. He works diligently to make us doubt that the forgiveness is real. He creates the same fear within us that Joseph’s brothers had.
The Devil wants us to believe that God is out to get us, to kill us, & to make us pay for what we have done. The Devil wants us right where Joseph’s brothers are in the sermon text: filled with fear & anxiety, not knowing where to turn, & scrambling to find protection with our own wisdom.
The Creator of heaven & earth, & everything in them, does not look upon us in our sin in such a way. Rather, He looks upon the filth of our sin, desires its punishment & our salvation! So He sends His Son to bear the punishment. No human being could conceive of such a thing.
God sends Christ to be left for dead in the wilderness, to suffer the pains & torments, even death on a cross for us, & to be buried in a pit. From that pit of death & despair, God raises the same Christ from the dead. Despite the evil of our sin, He overcomes sin & grants us full & free salvation. He removes our fears, replacing them with life & joy & peace.
We can, & we will be, tempted to look into the pit of whatever was done wrong to us. Or, like Joseph, we can learn to look upon what God will accomplish through that wrong. We could stare at the cross & surrender like the disciples did, who refused to believe what Jesus had told them, that He would rise from the dead. Or, we can learn to trust that death will not win.
Death may come early for you, or for someone you love. You can stare into the pit of their absence, or you can look upon Jesus & the new & perfect life that He offers in a place called heaven. Regardless of the decay & brokenness we see around us, & the pain we have experienced from relationships, or from disease, none of this is permanent or eternal for those who trust the Words of Jesus Christ: “Come unto me all who are weary & heavy laden & I will give you rest.” You & I can forgive even when we suffer because we know that the God who created us is powerful & wise enough to bring good out of any evil in this life. Joseph learned that though the intentions of his brothers were evil, God intended it for good.
Yahweh gathered a remnant from among all the nations, saved by His grace through faith in Jesus. One day we will gather before the Lamb to give Him thanks forever. What a glorious existence that will be. Amen.
God knows what must be done to save me; His love for me will never cease. Upon His hands He did engrave me with purest gold of loving grace. His will supreme must ever be: What pleases God, that pleases me. My God desires the soul’s salvation; My soul He, too, desires, to save. Therefore with Christian resignation all earthly troubles I will brave. His will be done eternally: What pleases God, that pleases me. My God has all things in His keeping; He is the ever faithful friend. He gives me laughter after weeping, & all His ways in blessings end. His love endures eternally: What pleases God, that pleases me. Amen. LSB 719:2-4.
14th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 18) LSB #’s 496, 579, 707
Text – Ezekiel 33:8
If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, & you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.
WARNING THE WICKED
Jerusalem the golden, with milk & honey blest – the promise of salvation, the place of peace & rest – we know not, oh, we know not what joys await us there: the radiancy of glory, the bliss beyond compare! LSB 672:1
Within those walls of Zion sounds forth the joyful song, as saints join with the angels & all the martyr throng. The Prince is ever with them; the daylight is serene; the city of the blessed shines bright with glorious sheen. LSB 672:2
Around the throne of David, the saints, from care released, raise loud their songs of triumph to celebrate the feast. They sing to Christ their leader, Who conquered in the fight, Who won for them forever their gleaming robes of white. LSB 672:3
Although written almost 900 years ago, those words are still one of the most poetic & lovely descriptions of heaven in existence. A Benedictine monk, by the name Bernard of Cluny, wrote them. Better known for his writings that condemned humanity’s search for earthly happiness, he criticized the immorality of his day, including the moral decay of the church.
That criticism fits hand in glove with the beautiful image of heaven he portrayed with the lyrics to Jerusalem The Golden. And even longer ago than Bernard of Cluny was a prophet named Ezekiel, about 2000 & 600 years ago. Yahweh called Ezekiel to warn the immoral people of his day with these words, “O wicked one, you shall surely die…” (Ezekiel 33:8 ESV)
But 1st, before sending him to warn the wicked, God called Ezekiel to a vision of heaven: “Then I looked, & behold, a form that had the appearance of a man. Below what appeared to be His waist was fire, & above His waist was something like the appearance of brightness, like gleaming metal. He put out the form of a hand & took me by a lock of my head, & the Spirit lifted me up between earth & heaven & brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court… And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there...” (Ezekiel 8:2-4 ESV)
That is Jerusalem the Golden, in the words of Ezekiel the prophet. What I’d like you to consider is this – why did God show Ezekiel a vision of heaven before He sent him to warn the wicked? From our perspective, it seems more effective to experience a taste of hell before you warn someone to stop their wicked behavior.
Scared Straight is a program where hardened convicts from maximum security prisons tell their stories about the truth of prison life in order to convince juveniles that no crime is worth the risk of being locked up in prison. Whether you feel that is appropriate or not, the logic makes complete sense.
There is all manner of chaos right now in numerous cities across our nation. Rioting & looting are nightly occurrences & the debate involves what to do about it. Some are saying that the rioters have a right to be angry so we should let them vent their anger until they’re satisfied & will finally agree to negotiate.
Others are saying that all such activity is wrong so everyone involved should be locked up. And, there are a million varying degrees of opinion between each of those two points. Regardless of human opinion, Jesus spoke the truth when He said, “The thief comes only to steal & kill & destroy; I have come that they may have life, & have it to the full.” (John 10:10 ESV)
It should be clear that Jesus is contrasting Himself as the opposite of those who steal, kill & destroy. However, what is relevant to the message from Ezekiel is this – Jesus highlights what it is that He offers – life & that to the full. If you boil it down, what is Jesus offering? It’s what we think of as heaven! In other words, those who have life to the full want no part of stealing, killing & destroying. In heaven, to sin will never enter your mind.
Bernard of Cluny criticized the immorality of his day & wrote a beautiful hymn about heaven. Ezekiel was sent to warn the wicked, but 1st God gave him a vision of heaven. Jesus tells us that He brings heaven & it is the opposite of the wickedness in our world & the opposite of the wickedness in the heart of every sinful being.
So, why does God call Ezekiel to warn the wicked after showing him a vision of heaven? It has to do with motivation. The glories of heaven are why we warn the wicked – not because they are bad – so are we. No! We warn the wicked because heaven is so amazing! And that makes an eternal difference in our warning!
If we approach our task, & it is your task as well as mine, with a heart that says, “I’m going to warn them because what they are doing is evil,” by the letter of the Law we are correct. However, there’s a huge temptation to do so with the motivation of self-righteousness. We’ll be tempted to think in these terms:
“I’m not rioting so why are you? Stop! You’re hurting people!” In that scenario, our motivation leans more to a self-centered impulse.
On the other hand, if we begin our task with a vision of heaven, we are more likely to view things from an other-centered perspective. We’ll be more likely to encounter them from a perspective of sadness over what they’ll miss than from one of anger at what they have done.
All of us are evil & deserve to be destroyed, so we should, like the angels in heaven, rejoice when a sinner repents & returns to the Good Shepherd. After all, the Christian life is one of daily, personal repentance. The baptized are called to die to self, with Christ in order to be raised with Him, daily, to new life. When God’s children hear of & see great numbers of people suffering from sin, the primary response is grief, not anger. Vengeance is God’s work, not ours.
If we survive the upheaval of our nation, grief is our form of death in this time. It is deep contrition over the inescapable & universal reality that, as heirs of Adam, you & I are dust & to dust we shall return. This is not fatalism which panics, despairs & gives up at the sight of death. Christians grieve, yet not without hope. We look through death to resurrection.
As heirs of God’s promise of new life in Christ we are called even in the worst times to hope in God’s deliverance from the corruption of life that is brought by sin & death. This hope against all odds is a bold confidence in the promises of our Lord & Creator & Savior.
In Ezekiel, just 13 verses after God calls him to warn the wicked, word arrives that the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed. God’s judgment had fully arrived for a stubborn & obstinate people who refused to follow Him in life. Instead, they chose death. To end their misery Yahweh brought it upon them.
The task of sharing the Gospel is still a matter of life & death, fraught with the greatest responsibilities both for the preacher & for the hearers. Words of warning to the people of our nation will also, certainly, be connected to the destruction that will one day come upon our land.
That is why our Lord has given each of us a picture of the glories of heaven. Having a glimpse of what an amazing place it will be helps motivate us to tell others about it – to warn them that they do not want to miss the paradise to come. We do not have to warn people out of anger, nor out of a sense of vengeance. As the Holy Spirit lives in us we warn them out of love.
That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ at work. This Good News has created faith in Jesus in us, & the plan is for it to be spread around the world, or just to our friends & neighbors, through us. When we fail, Jesus has already paid for those sins so we don’t need to lose hope & despair. Salvation is a done deal. Heaven is waiting in all of its amazing glory. That is something we can celebrate & share without reservation. If people reject the love of God, that is not our sin. As we live in the saintly nature created in us, we long for more people to join us in knowing that peace that surpasses all human understanding. Amen.
The Law is good; but since the fall its holiness condemns us all; it dooms us for our sin to die & has no power to justify. To Jesus we for refuge flee, Who from the curse has set us free, & humbly worship at His throne, saved by His grace through faith alone. Amen. LSB 579:5-6.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet