17th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 20) LSB #’s 699, 648, 720
Text – Isaiah 55:9
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways & my thoughts than your thoughts.
There’s a story of a small town in New Mexico that held an auction to raise money for a community center. The townsfolk looked through their closets & drawers, searched their attics & garages. They collected trinkets, odds & ends of furniture, & white elephants, bringing them all to the auction center.
The auctioneer began to hold up the items, one by one, for a bid & so they were sold. The last item to be auctioned was an old violin. It was dusty & dirty, covered with spatterings of paint. It obviously had lain in the back of someone’s garage, unused for many years. The auctioneer held it up, “What am I bid?” There was only silence.
He persisted, “Come on, bid something!” A man yelled out, “Fifty cents,” & everyone laughed. Then, from the back of the group an old man came to the front & asked to see the violin. He took it into his arms & began to play it. A beautiful sound filled the room & touched everyone’s heart. When he finished, he handed it back to the auctioneer.
“What am I bid,” the auctioneer called out again. $200 – $300 – $400, & so the bidding went on. Can you see how each of us is like that old violin? What becomes of us, & of the things we do in life, depends upon who is playing us. Is it God, or is it the Devil?
For example, what becomes of your illness depends upon who plays you. For some, illness is a random tragedy without purpose or meaning, because Satan is playing them in order to steal, to kill & to destroy. Yet, when it is Jesus who is playing your life, not only your illnesses but also your health will have a very different sound to them. When Jesus is playing your life, not only your sins but also your obedience will have a very different sound to them. Illness & tragedy are never fun times, yet the Word of God assures us that our Creator is wise & powerful enough to work through them to accomplish good. He worked through the suffering & death of His own Son to defeat Satan’s efforts to steal, kill & destroy.
Who of you would send to death your only son to pay for the crimes of others? God’s ways are not ours, but God does aim to save sinners. It was the Father’s way to show no mercy to His Son so that He now is able to show mercy to us. That enables Yahweh to remain just & to give us a free & complete pardon.
God’s ways bring life. Satan’s ways bring death & there’s a very definite, absolute difference between them. Our brain, corrupted by sin, can see that difference only because of the faith that God’s Spirit creates within us. Without faith, we are hopelessly lost in the darkness of sin. The chief aim of all God’s ways is to draw us out of the darkness with His marvelous light.
Isaiah was directed to write to people who had the same defect that we have. Yahweh was also then working to create, within people, faith in His salvation promises. God’s people would be in exile in Babylon because they had forsaken God’s ways. They were already in bondage to their sin. Now they’d be in bondage to a pagan king.
God’s people were struggling to understand how being exiled in a foreign land could be the way of God. Even more, they were struggling to believe that God’s way of rescuing them would be through that pagan king. Though our nation was founded for the purpose of religious freedom, increasingly our people have been electing pagan leaders.
The ancient prophet Isaiah wants to assure us, today, that God’s ways will include bringing you & me to salvation even through our own pagan government. We may not be in bondage in a foreign land, but we are certainly in bondage to our sins. Our ways are not God’s ways, & our ways stink to high heaven. Our Creator sees our plight & our despair, which moves Him to come to our rescue. In spite of the several thousand year time gap, our nation has much in common with the ancient people of Jerusalem.
Like them, God brought our people to a land that would become prosperous & overflowing with blessings. Like the ancient Israelites, our people would become dull-hearted & wander off the ways that Yahweh set for us. He set those ways as He created each of us individually for lives of purpose & meaning, for our time in history & for eternity.
Yet, we become bored with God’s blessings & seek other gods to tickle our fancy. We are no longer satisfied with the ways & the purposes for which God created us. We want to strike out on our own to find meaning & glory in our lives. In our nation we don’t bow down to statues of gold or bronze, but we do worship many things that are powerless to help us.
In spite of the all the complaining, we do worship the leaders we try to elect. We turn to them for hope in our lives, instead of turning in prayer to our Creator. As a nation, we devote multiple times more money to sports of every kind than we do to God’s kingdom. We devote multiple times more money to our own entertainment than we do to helping people in need.
Instead of following the ways that our Creator set before us, we deny His creation & the purpose & meaning for which He created us. Our culture now celebrates the ‘courage’ of any who defy the will & the ways of God. You & I would do well to confess that we are drawn to temptation. We are tempted by the music that Satan offers to make with our lives.
In Isaiah 55, the Holy Spirit encourages the people to receive His free gift of grace. We can’t receive God’s gifts if we are actively filling our hands with Satan’s! Isaiah 55 emphasizes the response which brings the benefits of Jesus’ work into our personal experience. In V. 1 Yahweh invites His people to come, & in V. 12 He concludes with the promise that in joy you will go forth. It is time to leave Babylon & come home to Zion because all who are in bondage to sin are in a type of Babylonian exile. God calls us to His ways because salvation has been accomplished for us by the Servant of God in Isaiah, chapters 52 & 53. Jerusalem has been vindicated & Yahweh invites the new Israel to enter into abundant life.
This very morning, again, your Savior is calling you back to His way, for He is the Way & the Truth & the Life. Chapters 52 & 53 of Isaiah speak of the work that Jesus would do as the ultimate Servant of God. He is the One who suffers on the cross in our place, that we might live in His kingdom of everlasting righteousness, innocence & blessedness.
Then, in Isaiah 55, we are called to respond to God’s ways of love, mercy & forgiveness. When Jesus is playing your life, not only your sins but also your obedience will have a very different sound to them. Your sins will be silenced as He washes them away. Your obedience will be joyful because of the new heart that God’s Spirit is creating within.
Yes, those new sounds will not be perfect yet in this life. Our sinful nature is constantly trying to dance to the Devil’s fiddle, but our Lord is faithful & He promises to bring us through all the trials of life in this sinful world. He also promises that the joy of heaven to come will make all the suffering of this life fade into oblivion.
When your conscience burdens you, remember what Isaiah wrote in chapter 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; & the Lord has laid on [Jesus] the iniquity of us all.” On the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished.” He would not have risen from the dead if He had not conquered our iniquity, sin, death & the devil.
As Isaiah calls us to seek the Lord while He may be found, he also calls us to “…return to the Lord, that He may have compassion... for He will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7 ESV) In the Gospel reading, the ones who work only an hour at the end of the day get paid the same amount as those who worked through the whole day & the heat of the day. How do you think the UAW would respond to that contract offer? As a child I remember struggling to “hear” that word of God. The point of the Gospel lesson though is that God’s ways are to show equal mercy to everyone. Some people reject that equality. Jesus paid the penalty for their rejection.
Isaiah 55:9 offers good news when we hear, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways & my thoughts than your thoughts.” (ESV) Some of us suffer longer under Yahweh’s chastening yoke. Others have an easier path. Yet mercy & eternal life is the final word for all of His people.
When Satan is playing our life, inevitably our music turns inward & it turns sour. When Jesus is playing your life, all the joys & all the sorrows will have a different sound to them. Certainly, it will not be perfectly joyful. That will be heaven, but for now we can sing in joy even in our failures, because the perfect life that Jesus lived is what God credits to us. Amen.
See, the streams of living waters, springing from eternal love, well supply your sons & daughters & all fear of want remove. Who can faint while such a river ever will their thirst assuage? Grace, which like the Lord, the giver, never fails from age to age. Savior, since of Zion’s city I through grace a member am, let the world deride or pity, I will glory in Your name. Fading are the world’s vain pleasures, all their boasted pomp & show; solid joys & lasting treasures none but Zion’s children know. Amen. LSB 648:2, 4.
16th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 19) LSB #’s 908, 684, 606
Text – Matthew 18:27
And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him & forgave him the debt.
When you’re invited to a party, it’s normal for the host to wonder how many guests will arrive. Hosting a wedding reception is expensive if you’re paying a caterer to handle the meal. In those circumstances, it’s common for the host to ask the guests to RSVP. Your response to the invitation reveals, to the host, something about you the guest.
In the Gospel reading, a servant of the king owes his master 10,000 talents – the equivalent of 60 million days of labor. It would take that long to work off his debt. You don’t have to be good at math to realize that it’s an impossible task.
Now, in those days, to ‘encourage’ responsible borrowing, you & your family would be sold into slavery for failure to repay a loan. That’s what the king proceeds to do, but the servant begs & pleads for mercy. Out of pity, the king relents & he completely forgives the debt.
Since no one would ever loan the equivalent of 60 million days of labor to anyone, why does Jesus construct this parable with such an impossible debt? It’s because Jesus wants us to be clear that He’s not actually talking about money. The opening verse of the Gospel reading also makes that obvious:
“Then Peter came up & said to Him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, & I forgive him? As many as seven times?’” (Matthew 18:21 ESV) You may struggle with this very issue since, like Peter, you live in a world that is filled with poor, miserable sinners. Like everyone else, even God’s children are unable to stop sinning.
And because sin is what sinners do, & keep on doing, none of us can repay the debt for our sin. Peter was trying to pin down forgiveness to a concrete number of times, yet, seven is nowhere near 60 million. He is so far out of the box that Jesus is not able to give him a simple answer. Peter was focused on the things of man while Jesus came to reveal the things of God. Sadly, that’s where our minds are often focused as well, the puny little details of our lives, details that are here today & gone tomorrow.
If you’re old enough, do you remember the important things you were doing when you first heard about the planes flying into the World Trade Center towers? I think I was working on a sermon. That went puff real fast, & completely changed the direction of the sermon.
Or, how about the recent pandemic. Prior to that we were taking a lot of our freedoms for granted. Next thing you know, a lot of them are illegal, & to top it off there’s no toilet paper to be had anywhere. All the store shelves are empty. How effortlessly we set our minds on the things of man & not on the things of God!
In the Gospel lesson, the king completely forgives the debt of his pitiful servant. He does not sell the man or his family into slavery. They’re set free. The king’s mind is on the things of God, but what about that servant? Where is his heart, mind & soul? Matthew writes:
“But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, & seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down & pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, & I will pay you.’ He refused & went & put him in prison until he should pay the debt.” (18:28-30 ESV)
The servant who was set free has his mind firmly & blindly set upon the things of man. Upon what is your heart, mind & soul set this morning? How have you, how are you, how will you respond to the invitation of your heavenly Father? That is what this Gospel reading is about. How you respond to God’s invitation reveals to Him something about you the guest.
You see, the sermon text is not simply a piece of information that moves Jesus’ parable
toward its conclusion. “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him & forgave him the debt.” Those words are also an invitation. The king invites the servant out of the prison of man’s thoughts & into his kingdom of God’s thoughts. The king invites his former servant into the kingdom of grace & mercy & forgiveness. And to that Jesus also invites you!
What has your response to God’s forgiveness, & to your heavenly King’s invitation, told Him about you? No doubt your response, like mine, has made clear the need for daily forgiveness of a debt that is impossible to repay. If our heavenly Father stopped forgiving at seven times, who of us would have any hope of eternal life?
However, as we accept God’s invitation, there are consequences. For one, the Holy Spirit enters us & we are then expected to live like members of God’s kingdom. If someone hurts us, we are expected to share with them the mercy & forgiveness we have received. However, our old sinful nature will fight that because of another consequence of being in God’s kingdom.
When we accept our heavenly Father’s invitation the Devil becomes our enemy & he will wage war against us as long as we remain in God’s kingdom. That battle, & our ongoing need to be forgiven, keep life complicated here on earth. In many ways that struggle is a blessing, but it sure isn’t easy. We constantly need God’s strength along with His mercy.
Followers of Jesus in every age & place have had to fight their inborn tendency to think like fallen human beings. Confused by the culture around them & the sin within, Christians need continual return to the words of Jesus for correction & for reorientation. His Word comforts us, & teaches us about the way of life in His Father’s kingdom.
Jesus continually invites us to receive His body & blood at Holy Communion. This strengthens our faith in Him & unites us to Christ, & to each other, in ways that surpass all human understanding. Since Jesus shed His blood for our sins, this is one means by which we directly & personally receive that forgiveness. At Holy Communion, God completely erases the debt that we owe Him & sets us free from the prison of our sins. Satan hates this & constantly works to confuse people by telling us we have a ‘right’ to be at the Lord’s table. Yet, because we can never pay the price to make it our right, our heavenly Father freely invites us.
And before we can even begin to discern our need to be forgiven, God’s Spirit will enter us through the waters of Holy Baptism. Here also, the almighty God invites us into His kingdom of eternal life. Before we can begin to fathom the distinctions between His grace & mercy, our Lord showers them upon us because it is only His love that is able to change us for the better.
The wicked servant who was forgiven an enormous debt, refused to forgive his fellow servant. He never allowed the king’s grace & mercy to change his heart. Though this wicked servant was invited into the eternal kingdom, his RSVP was a very definite “No!” Though he was willing to accept forgiveness, he refused to share it with those who owed him a debt.
In God’s kingdom, the most important fellow disciple is the one who has sinned & needs my forgiveness to release him from the devil’s hold & from the punishment that he deserves. Because that is impossible for us to do on our own, God’s Word, Holy Communion & Holy Baptism are the means by which Jesus gives us His Spirit so we are able to forgive.
We see that Spirit at work in Joseph as he explains to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20 ESV)
Forgiveness is a Spirit led choice, an act of the saintly nature. Emotions may follow in agreement or they might need to be dragged along, kicking & screaming. Remember, Satan is at war against us & against God’s kingdom. Living in God’s kingdom is not a walk in the park. We seldom do, instantaneously, what is good, right & salutary. That’s why our heavenly Father is patient & merciful with us. In so doing He is taking the risk that we will refuse His invitation, but that is the price that God’s love for us is willing to pay. We see that most clearly as Jesus hung on the cross for our sins. God invites us to participate in the reign of heaven already here on earth. Jesus came to begin that new age, & He did so at His resurrection from the dead.
Even in that new age, forgiveness is hard, especially when we have been deeply hurt & badly wounded, but those wounds should drive us back even more to our gracious & forgiving Father. Our response to our Lord’s invitation should always be a definite “Yes!” Not because we are worthy, but because Jesus was, & is, & always will be worthy in our place.
Jesus reigns over this earth & over heaven in mercy. That’s how He rules, quite unlike any earthly king or president. God’s mercy & forgiveness, which is our only hope, is unconditional & absolute. To accept His invitation is not merely to attend an event, but to live an entirely new & eternal existence.
If you struggle to forgive, know that Christ longs to help you, strengthen you & comfort you, so that you too may be set free. Amen.
“Come unto Me, ye weary, & I will give you rest.” O blessed voice of Jesus, which comes to hearts oppressed! It tells of benediction, of pardon, grace & peace, of joy that hath no ending, of love that cannot cease. “And whosoever cometh, I will not cast him out.” O patient love of Jesus, which drives away our doubt, which, though we be unworthy of love so great & free, invites us very sinners to come, dear Lord, to Thee! Amen. LSB 684:1, 4.
15th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 18) LSB #’s 965, 966, 579
Text – Romans 13:2
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, & those who resist will incur judgment.
WHAT GOD HAS APPOINTED
In a couple weeks we’ll begin a series of sermons on stewardship. In basic terms, our stewardship is every single decision we make once becoming a child of God. To push the envelope to the extreme, for the moment, focus your heart & mind on this question alone, “What do you have that you can offer to God?” PAUSE
Does that question bring hope & joy into your heart & mind? Did the question bring fear? Has it ever before occurred to you that truthfully there is absolutely nothing you or I can offer to God? We do not own or possess anything of value or worth.
Yahweh’s greatest desire is for us to offer our lives to Him, but not because they have value or worth. It is only in Christ that our lives are valuable to God. You do not possess a single thing that you can offer to our Lord. I do not possess a single thing that I can offer to our Savior. We can only surrender to Him as slaves to a master. Yahweh owns all of creation.
Given that framework, the text from Romans 13 is a terrible Word from God – especially as we see the dysfunction & corruption in our government: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, & those who resist will incur judgment.” (13:2 ESV)
Approaching this Word from God can be done only in humility. We must understand the true value of our lives – that we are nothing & we possess nothing apart from Jesus. As David wrote Psalm 39, he appeals to God for a clear understanding of proper humility: “O Lord, make me know my end & what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (39:4 ESV)
Growing older, we begin to feel life’s fadeaway – the loss of youthful vigor & optimism,
the loss of opportunities & accomplishment. David wants to encourage that recognition of our frailty so that we see all aspects of our lives from a humbling, ground level perspective. All our days on this earth are fleeting & that perspective is needed in order to accept & to understand the sermon text from Romans 13:
“Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, & those who resist will incur judgment.” (13:2 ESV) Sinful human beings cannot help but struggle when confronted with such a black & white statement of God’s will. Verse one makes it very clear, “…there is no authority except from God, & those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Therefore, if we resist the authorities, then we are resisting God. Paul does not qualify that in any way, such as, it’s okay to resist the authorities when they’re corrupt or incompetent. He does not say, we should obey the authorities when they make wise & good decisions. He simply says, “…whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.”
That’s difficult enough to follow in our nation where to some extent we the people get to choose our leaders. Imagine living in countries like North Korea & Iran. Imagine being a slave on a plantation prior to our Civil War. What if you were a slave right now in the sex trafficking industry across our nation & around the world?
Imagine being a child in the womb of a mother who does not want you to be born. You & I were born into this evil world, & we ourselves have been corrupted by evil in every way. For us to rail against the authorities is rather arrogant wouldn’t you say? Fighting fire with fire is the motto of the anarchist. Fighting evil with evil accomplishes nothing good.
You might remember from last Sunday, how St. Paul ended Romans chapter 12, “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (12:20-21 ESV) How appropriate then, that today’s reading begins, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities...” (Romans 13:1 ESV) It’s as if Paul is acknowledging that authorities will be evil, long before this statement became popular: “Power tends to corrupt, & absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Nero was emperor of the Roman empire when Paul wrote the letter to the church at Rome. Nero has been described as the epitome of evil, yet Paul insisted that all authorities have been appointed by God. Jesus Himself, when brought to Pontius Pilate, did not resist that earthly authority. Jesus even acknowledged that God had placed Pilate there:
“Pilate said to Him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you & authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.’” (John 19:10-11a ESV) God’s own Son did not resist the corrupt human authority that had been placed over Him.
If we look at Jesus as our example to follow then we are in a world of hurt. Jesus, as our example, brings only fear because we can’t even begin to follow His example. We are dead in the water; down for the count; up the creek without a paddle. However, the gospel cord that runs throughout Scripture is not Jesus as our example, but Jesus as our Savior.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus is describing Himself when He says, “If a man has a hundred sheep, & one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the 99 on the mountains & go in search of the one that went astray?” (Matthew 18:12b ESV) Jesus, the Lord & Savior of the universe, has come to search for you whenever you resist any of the authorities that God has placed over you.
The authorities may be your parents, police officers & elected officials. They might be your teacher, the IRS agent, even a baby sitter. Regarding the 4th commandment, Luther wrote, “We should fear & love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents & other authorities, but honor them, serve & obey them, love & cherish them.” Those words seem all but impossible given the state of our government today. Yet, becoming an anarchist will not win people to the love of Jesus Christ. No one looked at the riots following the murder of George Floyd & said, “See how the Christians love one another.”
Yes, our governing authorities often looked the other way & they defied the God who placed them into authority by not putting restraints on sin. However, the fact that Jesus came to save us from our sins does not remove our obligation to be subject to the governing authorities.
We are to hold the Law & the Gospel in that tension which sin has created, because you & I cannot fix the damage that sin has done to God’s creation. Instead, we are to wait patiently for our Lord to recreate all things at the Last Day. God’s mercy is the foundation for this text in Romans & His mercy calls forth a certain lifestyle in our response.
We are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, to love one another & obey the authorities that God institutes. We are likewise citizens of two kingdoms & we live in both at the same time. We live already as eternal beings but in a broken & sinful world. In chapter 12, Paul tells us to bless those who persecute you & in chapter 13 he tells us to obey the government.
Both of those have a bad look to them. We struggle mightily to accept these Words from our Lord. There are times when I simply do not like what I hear from the Word of God. Yet, His Word is the source of my life. We can surrender to Yahweh as a slave to its Master because God is good. God is love, & He loves us even while we are sinners.
The only way to approach a Word of God like this from Romans 13 is in the humility of a poor, miserable sinner. God is merciful & our hope rests in His unfathomable love for us. Amen.
Before You, Lord, we bow, our God who reigns above & rules the world below,
boundless in power & love. Our thanks we bring in joy & praise, our hearts we raise to You, our King! Earth, hear your Maker’s voice; your great Redeemer own; believe, obey, rejoice & worship Him alone. Cast down your pride, your sin deplore, & bow before the Crucified. Amen. LSB 966:1, 4.
14th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 17) LSB #’s 869, 783, 861
Text – Matthew 16:25
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Cemeteries are not exactly a hot spot for get togethers. Normally, people gather there only to lay a loved one to rest. On Memorial Day people gather to remember the sacrifice that so many of our military members gave during times of war. Other than that, it’s not the kind of place where people go to have a picnic, or hold a family reunion.
However, cemeteries are still an important place to visit. The Apostle James wrote: “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time & then vanishes.” (4:14 ESV)
There isn’t a better place to receive such a critically important reminder. Nothing speaks about life & death so eloquently in their silence as row upon row of headstones. And nothing speaks of eternity beyond the grave more powerfully than these words of Jesus:
“I am the resurrection & the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, & everyone who lives & believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26a ESV) Finding life – it’s how people spend a lot of their time. It’s what people are constantly seeking. We go to parties & sporting events, or concerts & sky diving to find life.
People take meth & cocaine to feel more alive. They take cruises or go mountain climbing. People travel to places all over the world in search of fulfillment. They strive to fight climate change or racism or abortion, & others endeavor to save stray pets or endangered species of wildlife. There are as many ways of striving to find life as there are human beings.
The examples I listed, & the countless others that people have invented, all have one thing in common. They are centered in the efforts of human beings, & not a one of them will achieve the goal of finding life that is lasting & meaningful. That’s the point the Apostle was making when God’s Spirit inspired him to write, “For you are a mist that appears for a little time & then vanishes.” (James 4:14c ESV) King Solomon wrote almost the entire book of Ecclesiastes to make the same point – we strive to find life & then we vanish. All is vanity of vanities.
Jesus came to earth to correct that, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25 ESV) There are still quite a few people in this country who claim to be Christian. I wonder how many of them are actively losing their lives for Jesus’ sake?
When things take a bad turn in your daily affairs, do you complain about it? When you do, you may be turning away from a chance to lose your life for Jesus’ sake. When I complain about events in my life it’s because I feel like I’m getting cheated out of what’s rightfully mine. In other words, I’m trying to save my life, to save what I feel I deserve. Jesus warns of that:
“For whoever would save his life will lose it…” (Matthew 16:25 ESV) It’s uncomfortable to consider how readily each of us falls into that trap which Satan sets. It’s why this text from Matthew hits home as powerfully as Jesus begins to speak of His suffering, death & resurrection. Peter complains that it cannot be true because he’s feeling like he’ll be cheated:
“Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (16:22 ESV) Peter had given up every worldly thing that mattered to a Jew in order to follow this Christ & now that Rabbi is speaking of suffering & death. The words were so shocking Peter did not even hear the final result – “…& on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:21 ESV)
When events take a bad turn in our lives, do we remember those words? We should, because the Easter morning resurrection changed the entire trajectory of human history. Yet, Jesus had to die to get there. Ever since Adam & Eve rebelled against their Creator, suffering & death have been the lot of all God’s creation. Sin brings suffering & death & that has been our fate as long as human beings have lived. That is why we have this constant urge to find life. Sin is also why you are never satisfied in your search for life that is lasting & meaningful. On your own, no matter where you go, no matter what you do, life will always be hollow.
As Solomon wrote, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8 ESV) The prophet Jeremiah put it like this, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” (15:18 ESV)
In his “life” of suffering, Jeremiah is struggling mightily to trust the promises of God. You & I have those struggles too. Thousands of years ago, Solomon & Jeremiah & Peter had those struggles. Your friends, family & neighbors have those struggles. Cemeteries are not the place to go when you are searching for life, & yet, they can be a good place to start.
Cemeteries ground us in the reality of death; death even for the only-begotten Son of God. If we do not begin our search there, we will always be searching for life in the wrong places. It’s not wrong to enjoy parties & sporting events, concerts & sky diving, cruises or mountain climbing, but we do need to remember that we will never find life in them.
Anything that is centered in the efforts of human beings will fail, because all of those efforts are ruined by the inherent corruption of sin. It is only in Christ, as God’s Spirit works through us, that anything good can come of our efforts. If that seems to you, overly harsh, consider the response of Jesus to Peter’s objections:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23 ESV) In regard to our efforts to find life, we could restate the latter part of that response, “For you are not setting your mind on the efforts of God, but on the efforts of man.” You & I do not need to work at focusing on our own efforts. That comes naturally & we see the failed results of that every single day of our lives. We are born self-centered. So was the apostle Peter, & the prophet Jeremiah & king Solomon. Yet each of them was chosen by God & given a specific role in His plan of salvation.
God has not left you out of that plan. Your Lord has given you a role to play, & He has given you a place to begin. Verse 21 of the Gospel reading stated, “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples…” Jesus has never stopped showing. Each & every day of our lives, Jesus is constantly at work showing you & me, our friends & our family, where to find life.
That life is found only in Jesus Christ, the crucified & risen from the dead Savior. Whenever you lose your life for His sake God will give you life that is lasting & meaningful. So, how do you go about losing your life for Jesus’ sake? The Epistle reading from Romans 12 gives examples. First off is to abhor evil, & we should allow God, not our culture, to define evil.
Through rejoicing in the hope of the resurrection we are to be patient in tribulation & constant in prayer. Only in the certainty of the resurrection do we have any reason to be patient in anything. Contribute to the needs of the saints & seek to show hospitality. In this way we counter our sinful tendency to feel cheated when we don’t get everything we want.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless & do not curse them.” (12:14 ESV) What sinful tendency might that counter? Paul gives the answer, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God…” (12:19 ESV) Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. We should never just write off the joys or the sorrows of those in our community.
Paul wraps up with a general guidance, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (12:21 ESV) Those are some ways in which we can lose our lives for Jesus & in so doing He promises that we will find life. He’s referring there to our saintly nature. Certainly our sinful nature still rebels against the sort of life we find in Christ. Part of losing my life for Jesus’ sake involves telling myself, “No!” We are not greater than our Master & our lives will also not be lives of earthly triumph & prosperity. Our lives, especially as we are faithful to Jesus, will be touched with echoes of the scorn directed at our Savior.
Jesus is rejected rather than embraced & this continues today as it has throughout earth’s broken history. This suffering is not accidental, nor is it coincidental. It is inherent in Christ’s life & calling, therefore in our lives as well. Yet, even as we lose our lives, we are gaining true & eternal life. The difficulty of following in Jesus’ footsteps underscores how fragile faith is.
It’s far easier to follow a leader who promises visible & tangible success such as healing for every disease, money for every want & desire, time for every hope & dream. People follow leaders & devote their lives to them because they expect to gain in the relatively near future. That is painfully obvious in the political realm.
Up until now Jesus’ ministry had been about parables & miracles. There was an occasional confrontation with the religious leaders thrown in for good measure, but it was the kind of ministry that attracts many followers. Then, Jesus drops the bomb, He will be rejected, arrested, suffer, die & finally rise from the grave.
That got too personal & many of His early followers decided that isn’t what they signed up for. It’s like going on a first, long anticipated date & realizing you’re being taken to a cemetery. You certainly will not find life there.
Many people lose interest in attending church because they don’t see what it does for them. They don’t see a direct benefit like becoming healthy, wealthy & wise, so they drift off, drop out, & disappear. Comfort, ease, pleasure, happiness, those are worth pursuing, say the preachers of this world. Suffering is not. Do whatever you must to avoid it. In Christ, however, God’s children see suffering differently. Like addicts in need of detox, we return regularly to the Lord, repent of our false conception of the world, & allow the Holy Spirit to reset our minds on the things & on the efforts of God. We suffer because of sin, of which all of us are guilty. Jesus suffered because He was holy & could pay the price of sin on our behalf.
As God spoke through Jeremiah in verse 21, “I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, & redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” That’s not simply a reference to other people. God will also redeem us from our own sinful nature which is just as ruthless & sinful to us as anyone else may be.
In a general sense, the resurrection of Christ changed the entire trajectory of earth’s history. More important to each of us personally, it changed the entire trajectory of our own lives. This life, is nothing to cling to in desperation because you have another life to come, one that is perfect & holy, filled with joy & with gratitude eternally. As Jesus said:
“I am the resurrection & the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, & everyone who lives & believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26a ESV) That is the hope which puts everything about this life into its proper context, even the picture of row after row of headstones. Amen.
Take my life & let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee; take my moments & my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise. Take my voice & let me sing always, only for my King; take my lips & let them be filled with messages from Thee. Take my will & make it Thine, it shall be no longer mine; take my heart, it is Thine own, it shall be Thy royal throne. Amen.
LSB 783:1, 3, 5.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet