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Safety (Not) Guaranteed

November 19, 2017
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Safety (Not) Guaranteed
Matthew 25:14-30

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Gospel reading, the parable of the three servants, but especially the third servant and his sheepish reply to his Master, … ‘I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

“Safety first!” I’m sure we’ve all heard this old adage before – from sweet grandmothers and mothers looking out for the children under their care, to the driver’s ed classes and the reminders of what happens when you’re NOT a safe driver (I’m sure some people here were forced to watch “Red Asphalt” at some point), to the mandatory meetings and videos I’m sure people are required to attend and watch to fulfill the requirements of the human resources department where they work. Perhaps, though, the maxim of “Safety first” is seen in no place better than on playgrounds. I’m sure people my age and older remember playing on equipment that, by today’s standards, would have been condemned as horrific “safety hazards.” The jungle gyms and forts at my elementary school were made of wood and metal, with tire swings and a giant stride (if you even know what that is), and do you know what? It was AMAZING; not surprisingly, all that equipment has been gone for at least a decade now. The classic wood chips that we had to empty from our shoes has been replaced with cushioned mats, the metal slides that baked our backsides on sunny days have been replaced with plastic ones, and the tire swings and giant stride are just … gone. Gone in the name of safety. Safety first.

That seems to have been the attitude of one of the servants mentioned in our Gospel reading. The story goes like this: a Master had three servants and, before leaving on a journey, He entrusted to them His wealth. To one, He gives a small fortune – five talents, equivalent to 5-years’ salary. To the next, He gives two talents, and to the final servant, He gives one talent, and lest you think He’s being unkind in not distributing His wealth equally, this Master is being smart – Jesus says that He gives to them each according to his ability, so that the one who has more financial know-how has more to do with as he sees fit.

The Master goes on His journey, and in His absence, the servants carry on being stewards of what the Master had given them. The first servant is apparently quite savvy, even though he is, undoubtedly, a risk-taker, investing the Master’s five talents and in the process, doubling what he had been given. The one who’s given two talents has a similar idea, with similar results – doubling what he had been given. But that third servant … the one entrusted with only one talent … leans upon the axiom of “Safety first!” and does nothing. Granted, he doesn’t do anything bad – he doesn’t take that one talent, that one year’s salary, and blow it on pleasurable company or gambling. However, neither does he do anything good with it. He doesn’t even place it in a bank, where it could have accrued interest! He plays it safe, burying it in the ground, and as sometimes is the case, “playing it safe” comes back to bite him in the tuchus. The Master returns from His journey, and is delighted to see that the first two servants have done exceedingly well with the riches He entrusted to them. They made Him richer, and for this, He gives them highest praise – Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master!

Then … He comes to the third servant. You can imagine the sheepish look on that servant’s face as he fesses up, Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours. He thought he’d taken the safe route; neither did he make anything additional, but at least he didn’t lose it, either! Safety first, right? That should count for something, right?

You can imagine the surprise and, really, the horror that must have fell upon that servant as the Master spoke. You wicked … and slothful … servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? You know that, do you? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest! So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away! And cast this worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Wow. Harsh. Perhaps it sounds uncharacteristically harsh for a parable coming from the lips of our Lord, but here’s the thing: the Master is fully justified in carrying out this sentence on the wicked servant. That guy had one job to do … and because he feared for his safety, because he feared the retribution of what would happen if he failed … he ended up failing. His fear paralyzed him, preventing him from doing what he had been given to do. Safety first? It’s a nice sentiment, but safety is not guaranteed in this parable. Perhaps a better take away here is another well-known adage: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” or perhaps a similar one, “No sacrifice, no victory.”

So that’s our parable for today, and obviously, as a parable, it’s not meant to be taken literally; again, the different things, different characters represent something else in order to convey an eternal truth. We should not read this as Jesus giving us financial advice, or Jesus saying that CPA’s and investors are the crème de la crème in the kingdom of God. No, we need to look at who Jesus is speaking with in order to get the full gravity of this parable.

Our Gospel lesson is a continuation of a discourse that began in Matthew 24, where the Gospel-writer records, As [Jesus] sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” In our parable, Jesus is speaking with – and to – His disciples, those soon-to-be apostles, soon-to-be “sent ones,” who would be going out into the world to proclaim the resurrection of Christ from the dead and the coming of the kingdom of God, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and condemnation for the unrepentant! This parable is meant for them, for all those who are tasked with spreading this Gospel message. Thus, Jesus is also speaking to all who follow in His train, to all Christians throughout time and space. Yes, my friends. He’s speaking to us, and the “talents” that Jesus has entrusted us with is the same good news that was entrusted to the apostles those centuries ago. So, of course, the question becomes, which of the adages have you followed? “No sacrifice, no victory”? Or, “Safety first”? If we’re honest, I think we can all say that we’ve erred on the side of “Safety first” more than we’d care to admit. I know I have.

If you’re like me, there have been moments which were perfect opportunities for witness … and you kept silent, for fear of rejection, or anger. When you had the opportunity to reach out to help someone in body and soul … you stayed put and lifted not even a finger. When you had the opportunity to comfort a nonbelieving neighbor … you played it safe and said nothing. Even the most fervent missionaries among us, I’m sure, have had moments like this where we follow the path of least resistance. And for this, we should be ashamed. We ought well to be ashamed and contrite for our lack of compassion, choosing complacency and comfort over the necessary awkwardness that comes with addressing sin. We should be ashamed of our love of comfort, our reviling of things that make us work harder in service of God and neighbor. “God forbid that we have to actually sacrifice something in our lives for our faith! God forbid we actually have to make time for devotions and prayer! God forbid we give something up, like a pew or parking space, for visitors!” Friends, for this, we should be ashamed. We, like the third servant, have failed. We should be ashamed that we choose safety over mission. Make no mistake, we will not hear “Well done, good and faithful servant!” because we stay silent and unmoving! Safety is not guaranteed if we play it safe!

We are, instead, called to be bold, daring even. We are called to be risk-takers with the gift our Lord has given us, to follow the adage, “No sacrifice, no victory!” After all, Christ Himself did not play it safe. He is one Servant, a suffering Servant, who did not take the path of least resistance, but rather walked the Via Dolorosa. He endured the worst suffering imaginable, forgoing any comfort that could have been His. Far from pursuing safety, He died the cruelest death ever conceived, and He did all this … for a people who, by their very nature, hate Him. That is a the more difficult path, to be sure. Safety was not guaranteed by any means for Christ our Lord, but “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” “No sacrifice, no victory.”

I say this, not to exhort you to be more like Jesus, as if He’s a mere example to follow. No, I say this to encourage you with the reminder that, because of His risk-taking, because of His boldness in the face of suffering and death, your safety, in one sense, is guaranteed! Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, you can rest in security and safety, knowing that you rest safely in His hands, and that nothing in this world can separate you from your Savior! You can rest in the knowledge that, in spite of your flesh which aspires to nothing but complacency, comfort, and safety … in the waters of holy Baptism, you were given the Spirit of the living God who, by no virtue of your own, enables you both to will and to do what you are called to do! We have our moments of weakness, of putting safety first instead of the daring investment we know is required of us, but thanks be to God that the suffering Servant did so in our stead, and for His sake, on the Last Day, we will hear the Master declare to us, Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Master!

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Urgency and Comfort

November 12, 2017
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Urgency and Comfort
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The text for our meditation is from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, especially where he wrote, But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. … Therefore encourage one another with these words. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

Sutherland Springs - 26. Las Vegas - 59. Hurricane Maria – 66. Hurricane Irma – 134. Hurricane Harvey – 77. It seems as though death has been running roughshod lately. Obviously, death is literally an everyday occurrence the world over regardless of how it happens, but lately, it seems to be exceedingly prominent in our country, and this is to say nothing of the tragedies experienced on the individual level. A revered grandfather who was supposed to leave the hospital that day … suddenly taking a turn for the worse. A father who had been doing quite well and improving … suddenly being called to rest. A lovely cousin, the last of her family, being called quite unexpectedly to her Savior. A beloved mother whose steady decline finally culminated in her falling asleep in Christ.

With this in mind, to be perfectly frank, these past few weeks and months have been rather odious. They’ve been terrible, gnarly, seeing the wages of sin paraded before our very eyes as people speak their last words, breathe their last breaths, make last final confessions, and close their eyes before soul and body are torn asunder in a way that was never meant to be. Death is the reminder that we are, all of us, sinners, equally worthy of the temporal and eternal judgment of God. We never know when death will come a-knocking; if you’re familiar with the first Thor movie, you’ll remember the god of thunder’s line, “I have no plans to die today,” to which the guardian Heimdall replies, “None do.” There are few things as intrusive, as abrupt, as seemingly final, as death.

After all, there is no reincarnation (thank God!). There are no second chances after death, especially in terms of salvation. One life, one chance, one death, then the judgment, as the writer of Hebrews essentially once wrote. Never knowing when death may take us, never knowing when death may take a loved one, indeed, never knowing at what point in time Christ will return for the final judgment, rightly makes us uneasy, never mind the grief that those of us who are left here are left to deal with. We mourn, rightly so, not only from the physical absence of that loved one, those family members who have gone before us, but it also causes us to mourn because their deaths also tend to give us all pause, to contemplate our own temporal existence, and how fast that time is fleeting.

Death is atrocious; it was not meant to be in creation. It is the natural consequence of sin, both on the individual level, and on the corporate level. We die – we are, even now, dying – because we are sinners. We are dying because of the sins we commit, but more than that, because of our inherited sinful nature from our first parents, Adam and Eve. We know this, we confess it, and we mourn when our loved ones pass – but that is not where we stop.

We have a hope. That hope is found in Paul’s words again to the Christians in Thessalonica. Hear those words again: [W]e do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Yes, our loved ones are gone, and rightly so, their physical presence in our lives will be sorely missed, but we know it is not the end. The souls of those who have gone before us in the faith live on in the presence of Christ the King. They rest now – rest from their earthly labors and vocations, rest from pain and rest from wrong. Rest from sin and all of sin’s effects, never again to be tormented by things left unsaid or undone. Never again to be hounded, as Paul was, by the good that we ought to do and do not, and the evil that we ought not to do, and yet persist in doing. There is rest from sorrow, rest from tears. Rest from heresy and wrong teaching – since they are in the very presence of their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, they see Him rightly in a way we cannot imagine but nevertheless greatly anticipate!

Sounds good, right? Sounds blissful and wonderful beyond all compare, right? Well, certainly to those of us who dwell here in this broken world, absolutely. It is little wonder that Paul wrote to the Philippians, I am hard pressed between the two [options]. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Some days, rest from … well, all of this, certainly sounds preferable. To be with Christ is preferable; that is why we treasure the Lord’s Supper so highly, since it is literally Jesus coming to us, to give us Himself in bread and wine, body and blood. But eternity is not the ethereal, spiritual floating in bliss and joy. Eternity is not life-after-death, but rather life after life-after-death.

Therein lies our hope, dear friends! We are whole persons, body and soul, and we are not meant to remain simply soul after death. No, our hope lies in the fast-approaching time that Paul goes on to describe in our Epistle lesson: For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

It is worth briefly mentioning here that the return of Christ will not be as it is popularly portrayed by dispensational premillennialists, like those who wrote the Left Behind series, with the “secret returns of Jesus” and people being suddenly snatched out of thin air, leaving unbelievers behind to make their decision for Christ. No, the text here actually says, a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. Doesn’t sound very secret or quiet to me! Further, the ones who will be left behind, as told in the text, are Christians who wait their turn, since they’re still alive, for the faithful dead to be raised and caught up into the air to join Christ. Only thereafter will those who are still alive likewise receive the glory and be joined with Jesus, where they will remain eternally!

At times of death, when our loved ones who confessed the faith in life depart to rest with Christ the King, these are the things with which we encourage those who are left behind to grieve! Christ IS coming back! And when He does – whether we are still alive or are at rest with the rest of the Church invisible – life will be made right again! Death, the adversary, will be done away with, swallowed up forever in life! No one knows the hour – not the hour in which the Lord would call us to rest, or the hour in which Christ will return. But we have nothing to fear, my friends! Christ lived, Christ died, Christ rose again, Christ departed, and Christ is returning soon! I’ll leave you, as a lover of poetry, with the words of John Donne in his holy sonnet, Death, Be Not Proud:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
 
And it is Jesus Who will swing the axe.

+ In His holy and powerful Name. + Amen.

Be Still in the Fortress

October 29, 2017
By Pastor Peter Heckert

See the Weekly Bulletin

Be Still in the Fortress
Psalm 46

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation for this, the 500th Anniversary of the start of the Reformation, is from Psalm 46 (in case you were wondering why we spoke the psalm at a communion service). We’re going to focus on where the Psalmist writes, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. … “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

You may not have known, but this very psalm is the text upon which Luther based that famous hymn which we all just sang, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. It is thought that Luther wrote that hymn in 1527, and around the same time that he wrote those now renowned words … a terrible disaster fell upon Wittenberg. The black death, the bubonic plague, had come. You’ve probably heard of the black death before, how this disease wiped out a quarter of Europe’s population during its height, and make no mistake – the moment the people of Wittenberg started to see blackened toes and fingers, they knew that death had come to visit their town.

John, the Elector of Saxony and a personal fan of Luther’s, exhorted the Reformer and all the students and staff at the university to flee to Jena, about 100 miles away. Five days later, the university did do just that, but Luther…remained unmoved. He, his family, and that of Johannes Bugenhagen, close friend and pastor to Luther, all chose to stay behind and suffer alongside those who faced the black death. At one point, the Luther’s turned their house into a makeshift hospital of sorts; you can imagine the suffering that the Luther’s saw, including their eldest son Hans (then only about a year-and-a-half old). People suffering from extreme flu-like symptoms. Mothers, include pregnant mothers, losing the baby and then losing their own lives. Otherwise healthy young men stranded in bed as their eyes sunk deeper into their sockets and developed black rings around them as death approached.

Luther was distraught – understandably so. Writing to a friend, Nicolaus Amsdorf, he finished his letter by writing, “So there are battles without and terrors within, and really grim ones; Christ is punishing us. It is a comfort that we can confront Satan’s fury with the word of God, which we have and which saves souls even if that one should devour our bodies. Commend us to the brethren and yourself to pray for us that we may endure bravely under the hand of the Lord and overcome the power and cunning of Satan, be it through dying or living. Amen.” This was considerable suffering which Luther witnessed, and it was around this time that Luther commentated on our text for this day, Psalm 46. Hear what he wrote:

The 46th psalm is a psalm of thanks, sung by the people of Israel because of the mighty deeds of God. He had protected and saved the city of Jerusalem, in which was His dwelling, against all the rage and the fury of all the kings and the nations and preserved their peace against all warfare and weapons. And, in the manner of the Scriptures, the psalm calls the character of the city a little stream that shall not run dry, as opposed to the great rivers, seas, and oceans of the heathen – their great kingdoms, principalities, and dominions – that shall dry up and disappear.

Luther understood well what the Psalmist was expressing. No doubt, the author had seen his own fair share of atrocity, as Jerusalem was besieged time and again by foreign powers, by heathens who hated YHWH and His people. Nevertheless, rage though the nations would, they could not win. Regardless of how many lives were taken, how much suffering the people had to endure, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would not completely abandon His people. He would guard them, vindicate them, and save them. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; [YHWH] utters His voice, the earth melts. Even in their wandering and sin, YHWH still kept His promise that a remnant would remain, and that the Messiah would come. So the people sing their praises for God’s righteousness, as Luther wrote, He “preserved their peace against all warfare and weapons.” He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; He burns the chariots with fire.

And in the midst of all this violence, in the midst of the blood and the battle, the illness and the dying, the Psalmist writes, Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exhalted among the nations, I will be exhalted in the earth. The LORD of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress. The residents of Jerusalem had nothing to fear! Sure, the Philistines, or the Amorites, or Hittites, or Assyrians would rage and try to break down the walls of that great city, but YHWH would preserve His people. Why worry? The LORD God, our true fortress with walls that CANNOT be breached, is our God, and He is our fortress!

I confess this to be pure speculation, but I could imagine Luther reflecting on the bubonic plague’s three- to four-month stroll through the streets and homes of Wittenberg as he read this psalm. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. It was certainly true for the Israelites, because they were not completely annihilated for their transgressions and Christ was born from the tribe of Judah, just as YHWH had promised. For Luther, God certainly had been a refuge and strength, even as he was hidden behind the walls of Wartburg Castle, protected from the inquisition and bounty hunters who sought his head after he boldly spoke, “Here I stand” at the Diet of Worms. And miraculously, Almighty God preserved Luther and his household through that devastating epidemic; indeed, about a month after the plague had begun to noticeably recede, Katie gave birth to their second child, daughter Elizabeth.

God was, to Martin, a refuge and a fortress throughout all his life. It was how he could be still and know that YHWH is God, even as two of his daughters died at a young age. It’s how he was able to endure the vehemence, the hatred that came from Rome and his other many enemies. It’s how he was able to stand firm to the end, even confessing with his last words, “Wir sind Bettler; Hoc est verum.” It’s little wonder, then, that he wrote the words – again, based on Psalm 46 – Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us. We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpower us. This world's prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none, He's judged; the deed is done; One little word can fell him.

The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress! That is an eternal truth, my friends. It was the same for Adam and Eve, for Israel, for the early Church. It was the same through the time of the Reformation, for our LCMS forbears when they left Saxony for unknown dangers of the Missouri wilderness, and let me tell you, it’s the same for us, here and now, as we face a world of uncertainties, of new dangers, and insecurity and anxiety. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. For all of human history, God has preserved His people with His promises. He has given them the means by which sins are forgiven, and they are preserved within His flock. Israel had the sacrificial system and the promises of the Messiah, both of which were fulfilled in Christ Jesus, Who was and is the singular sacrifice, once for all. Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross was all-sufficient, to redeem you and me and all of humanity. It’s done! We bear the burden of our sin no more! The walls of YHWH’s fortress is painted in the blood of the Lamb of God, and you are safe within those walls! He has claimed you as His own, and no one will be able to break down those blood-cleansed walls to snatch us away!

It's true, there are many things that distinguish our time and place from that of Luther’s. Still, though, there’s a reason why we hold to the truths Luther rediscovered: it’s because they’re timeless. He finished his commentary on Psalm 46 by writing, “We, on the other hand, sing this psalm to praise God for being with us. He miraculously preserves His Word and Christendom against the gates of hell, against the rage of the devil, the rebellious spirits, the world, the flesh, sin, death. Our little spring is also a living fountain, while their puddles, pools, and ponds become foul, malodorous, and dry.”

It doesn’t matter what the world, the devil, and our own sinful flesh tries to do. We are covered in Christ’s blood! Our sins are forgiven! The Word they still shall let remain Nor any thanks have for it; He’s by our side upon the plain With His good gifts and Spirit. And take they our life, Goods, fame, child and wife, Though these all be gone, Our vict’ry has been won; The Kingdom ours remaineth. Whatever this world can throw at us, we can bear because the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. And what a mighty Fortress He is!

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

United

October 01, 2017
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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United
Philippians 2:1-18

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Epistle lesson, where Paul writes to his beloved friends in Philippi, So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

One watches the news at one’s own risk these days. If you dare to brave those channels and websites, you’re likely to be bombarded by messages bemoaning the current state of affairs in our world, proclaiming a doom-and-gloom message in a sort of twisted anti-Gospel. There are murders … epic and spectacular natural disasters … and everywhere, there is division. On the international stage, countries continue to debate over the best way to disarm a belligerent North Korea, as some proclaim that “more extreme economic sanctions” will pummel the hermit-state into submission, while others worry that the only language Kim Jong Un understands is force. Europe is tearing apart at the seams, with Britain having left the European Union and others contemplating similar action. The Spanish region of Catalonia is seeking secession, and the Spanish government is pulling out all the stops to ensure that doesn’t happen, even deploying soldiers to barricade polling stations.

In our country, terror groups like Antifa, the KKK, and BLM are causing an uproar, seeking to stoke the flames of revolution and anarchy. You see movements from atheist and LGBT-whatever groups seeking to end any protections of conscience one may enjoy by forcing them to affirm actions that are contrary to nature. Most recently, I’m sure you’ve seen our nation divide over the actions of NFL players as they protest … well, something. I remember what Colin Kaepernick was protesting about a year ago, but honestly, it’s anyone’s guess as to what they are protesting now.

Our nation is divided, in ways that we haven’t seen since the mid-19th Century and the bloody Civil War that tore our country apart. I wish I could say that this is something new, but it’s not. Division among humanity has always existed, even in the early Church. Congregations split on different issues – in Galatia, it was whether or not radically Jewish Christians should be supported in their “Judaizing” efforts to make keeping the Jewish customs also a prerequisite for salvation. In Corinth, the congregation there had numerous issues, to say the least, among them what to do about Christians who engage in sexual immorality. Idolatry and sexual immorality, likewise, snuck into the church at Thyatira, and Sardis is described as appearing to be alive, but due to the lack of faith, was actually dead. Divisions in the Church were then, as they are now, deadly serious business. So it’s little wonder, then, that Paul has such a love for the congregation of believers at Philippi, who seem to have been united.

Paul starts his letter to this incredibly generous church by saying, I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. These people were wholly committed to Paul and his mission, but more than that, to the purpose and focus of his mission: the propagation of the Good News of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ Jesus alone. These are people that Paul had known to be united in their commitment to missionary work, in their area and abroad, and Paul could not be more relieved.

This is why, in our text, he writes, So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. We may be tempted to read ourselves into those “if” statements, as if we are the ones who have these things among us of ourselves, but it would be wrong to do so. The subject of all of these verbs – the comforting from love, the communing in the spirit, having affection and sympathy, mercy and pity, these are all attributed to Christ. It is Christ’s love that is comforting, and it is the result of this fact that the Philippians fill Paul with joy, with relief, with removal of a burden that he would feel for them, because they are adhering to this Gospel and not another. They are acting with one mind, thinking on Jesus, and by doing so, they are being harmonized, united by Christ in their belief and confession.

They are being encouraged, as Paul later says, to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. That may sound suspiciously like works-righteousness, but that word “to work out” in the Greek carries with it another meaning – one, frankly, that the editors should have selected instead. It can also mean “to produce,” the same way that a farmer produces a crop. It’s not him actually doing anything, since he is at the mercy of the elements, but simply gathers the fruits. The Philippians are being encouraged to produce their faith, their salvation by making confession of this and nothing else for their salvation. That is where their unity comes from: their common confession. Paul is encouraging them to let nothing and no one come in the way of the congregation’s desire to make this clear Gospel confession the most prominent thing that they are known for: We believe that Jesus died for our sins and we believe that He’s coming again. That was Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, and history shows that his prayers were answered and his hope was well-founded.

Paul’s words certainly transcend time and space, as we sit here today and ponder his words of encouragement, but I’m sure they may carry a twinge of sting with them. It’s very easy to allow divisions to creep in. After all, we are all sinners, and like all sinners, we do often have self-seeking agendas and ulterior motives. We are prideful, self-serving, turned inward upon ourselves – I suppose we take the American ideal of rugged individualism and bring forth the worst of it. We look to how things can better our stations in life. “That’s great,” we think, “but what do I get out of it?” Perhaps that’s the reason that Paul also includes, 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. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. Knowing what we do about our sinful selves, understanding and acknowledging our sinful and helpless estate, how could we do other than to count ourselves as the chief of sinners, utterly ashamed and thankful for God’s love for us in spite of our sin. True humility is the remedy for the egocentric, just as unity of confession is the cure for division – not in and of itself, but only and always when the reason for the humility and confession is Christ, and Him crucified and resurrected.

Our world is divided to be sure, with every Tom, Dick, and Harry looking to their own interests, and to hell with everyone who stands in their way. We are not to be this way as Christians; however, when we are, we have been given a different heart and mind – one that repents at wrongdoing, rejoices in service to others, and confesses the hope we have in the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ, who will return. At that time, when Jesus finally does return, Paul tells us of the unity of all flesh in resurrection, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. May He preserve us in this one true unifying faith, this single confession, so that we bow, not in terror, but in reverence, with the rest of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Absurd

September 17, 2017
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Absurd
Matthew 18:21-35

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Gospel lesson, especially where Peter asks the question, Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? and Jesus’ response, I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

The story goes of a young man who worked at a nursing facility, and how he provided care for an older woman. In the course of his work, he had done something he should not have done – I’ll refrain from saying what it was, but suffice it to say, he had transgressed against this elderly lady. While certainly a sinner in this regard, this young man did have a conscience, and soon it burdened him enough to the point that he had to confess. He went to the lady, told her flat-out what he had done. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I was stupid and foolish, and while I know I don’t deserve it, I hope you will forgive me and give me a chance to make it up to you.” The woman stared at him, a mild frown on her face as she studied his. “Hmm…” she said at length. “I forgive you, young man … but NOT a second time.”

Maybe we all know why this older woman said this. After all, we’ve all been on the receiving end of someone promising to amend their ways, promising to do better, only to face disappointment as they fail yet again. The frustration, the anger that such broken promises bring to bear is enough to drive us mad! “You said you were going to change! Why haven’t you?! I thought we were past this!”

We’ve all been in those shoes. We’ve been there, whether it’s a child promising never to do “it” again (whatever “it” happens to be), a student who promises to never again not do their homework, or the parent who says they’ll never cave to their addiction again. Broken hearts from broken promises, and at a certain point, we may certainly ask with Peter, Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? It’s reasonable, we think. Fool me seven times, shame on you; fool me eight or more times, shame on me. We can’t be expected to forgive again … and again … and again … right? At a certain point, the one who asks for forgiveness must not be forgiven if they keep on making the same mistakes again and again … right? Forgiveness, at that point, seems absurd, right?

WRONG. And not just wrong – it’s DEAD-wrong. “Not seven times,” Jesus corrects, “but seventy-seven … or seventy-times-seven … times.” Regardless of what the Greek actually meant, it’s a symbolic numbering meant to show Peter and us the absolute absurdity of keeping number of the times we are sinned against. Jesus is saying, “STOP COUNTING! Knock it off! Stop keeping track of the offenses and simply forget; don’t do the math!” I don’t’ think that He could be any clearer here, and I don’t think the emphasis is wrong. It is simply absurd to think that we should do otherwise! And Jesus’ parable which follows shows us why.

We’re told about a king who is attempting to settle accounts with his servants. In the process, he comes across one servant whose account is short by ten thousand talents – to put it in modern fiscal terms, that would be as if your average Joe owed the government between $7 - and $12 billion. It’s an absurdly high debt which the servant could not settle, not with an entire lifetime of surrendering 100% of his pay. Even more absurd is the servant’s promise that, given time, he would make good on this insane debt. Instead of calling shenanigans on the servant, the king takes pity on him, and forgives that massive debt. All of it. Not a shekel does that servant owe any longer. He’s free.

And what does this, undoubtedly, relieved and unburdened servant do? He goes out. He zeros-in on a fellow servant who owes him a pittance by comparison: a hundred denarii, or close to $6,000 – a sizeable debt, to be sure, but by comparison, to the billions of dollars the first servant owed, it’s a drop in the bucket. That first servant finds this fellow servant who owes him a few grand, and almost verbatim, the second pleads for mercy from the first. He promises to pay back the debt (a more realistic feat, honestly) if he is just given more time. But the second servant finds no mercy here. Instead, he finds himself thrown into the debtor’s prison until the total amount would be paid off.

You can imagine the fury of the king when news of this happening gets back to his ears. He summons the first servant, castigates him for his lack of mercy, and orders him, not just to be thrown into debtor’s prison, but to torture, until he pays back that entire $12 billion debt. It’s a parable that should make us a bit uneasy, especially when Jesus caps it off by saying, So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

Jesus’ point here? Our personal experience of God’s forgiveness should shape our attitude of forgiveness toward others. Because, let’s face it, we’ve all been in the shoes of the person who’s fallen for the same old trap, the same old temptation yet again. Whether it’s something as mild as being a clumsy oaf yet again, or that you’ve fallen off the wagon yet again, the disappointment, the heartbreak, the frustration with one’s self, the desire for forgiveness and the chance to try again, is something we are all familiar with. We’re familiar with it because we come to that same place at the end of every day, as we look back and reflect how we have sinned against God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. I have no doubt that, some days, you find yourself thinking, “Wow, did I really do that again?” So knowing this, how often we all consistently fall for the same temptations and vices, the question becomes, “Do you really want God doing the math for your sins??”

No, of course not. To imagine God as vindictive, to imagine Him holding grudges the way that we sometimes do, is terrifying. But the plain and simple fact is that He does not do this to those seeking His pardon, mercy, and grace. When one repents of one’s sin – it doesn’t matter if it’s the first time or the fiftieth time that one has fallen into that trap or caved to that temptation – for the sake of Christ, our heavenly Father announces His great Te absolvo – “You are absolved. Pardoned. Forgiven.” And the more we hear how we are forgiven in spite of our insurmountable debt, the more that forgiveness rubs off on us. He who is forgiven much, forgives much. That’s part of the reason why we have confession and absolution week in and week out – to proclaim that “Because of Jesus’ sacrifice of His own life on the cross on our behalf, your sins are FORGIVEN” and because you are forgiven, you should be as quick to forgive others as our heavenly Father is quick to forgive us. Will you do it perfectly? No, but that’s the beauty of living in repentance – we’re always confessing before God our sins and recognizing His life-giving absolution for the sake of Christ and His all-atoning sacrifice. That is why we partake of the Lord’s Supper, receiving Jesus’ very body and blood in those supper elements, receiving – not only the forgiveness of sins incarnate in that bread and wine, but also knowing the promise of the Holy Spirit to soften hearts to no longer bear a grudge, but rather to harbor forgiveness toward our fellow servants.

Let’s go back to our story from the beginning. The relationship between the older lady and the young man working at the nursing home was healing. However, one day, wouldn’t you know it, that idiot of a young man did it again; he transgressed against the lady once more. What’s worse, this time, he remembered her words from before: not a second time. Understandably, he was terrified of the repercussions of what awaited him as he approached her room to confess. Was he going to lose his job? Get arrested? What was she going to inevitably demand happen to this multi-transgressor? He entered her room, bearing the full weight of his guilt, not even able to look her in the eye. “Ma’am,” he said, “I’ve got to tell you, again, I have transgressed against you. Even though you warned me that you would not forgive me a second time, I did it again. I know how this looks, and I know I have absolutely no business asking it, but I must, once again, ask for your forgiveness.” He finally looked up and saw, instead of anger, a look of confusion, puzzlement, on her face. “What do you mean, ‘once again’? I forgave you for what you did before – that’s wiped away, gone forever. We’re starting over again! Of course I forgive you – but I won’t … a second time. That would be absurd!”

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit + Amen

 

For My Sake

September 03, 2017
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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For My Sake
Matthew 16:21-28

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Gospel message, specifically where Jesus tells His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

Ours is a faith rife with paradoxes, isn’t it? Many things which are set forth in Scripture seem contrary to what one would reasonably conclude. For example, we are, at the same time, sinners, lowest of the low … and saints, justified fully by God! How both can be true at the same time is beyond our comprehension. Israel stood condemned because of their success, their affluence … and it was their captivity, their languishing under foreign oppression, that turned out to be the best thing for them! The worst persecutor of the Church, Saul of Tarsus, the man who stood by as Stephen was stoned to death and gave his approval … ended up becoming the greatest missionary to the Gentiles, even dying for his faith in Christ!

It’s the last thing you would expect! Certainly, it’s not what we, in our humanity, would guess as to the ways of redemption and salvation. At times, our faith is downright unreasonable. We see these paradoxes, these issues that grind against the grain of our humanity and mortality, and the rest of humanity usually concludes, “Well, the Bible must be wrong. What it’s saying goes against our sensibilities, our reason; ergo, it must be wrong…” As Christians, we would do well to remember that it is not our reason that rings true in those situations. The Scripture is what is true, regardless of what our reason wants to believe. After all, human reason is … well, human. A wonderful gift from God, meant to be used in service of the Scriptures, our reason is flawed, tainted by sin, so that we can’t expect it to lead us to godly, biblical conclusions.

So in our text, when we hear the interesting and not easily explained paradox of saving the soul to lose it and losing the soul to save it, we’re tempted, thanks to our broken reason, to explain it away. That’s not what we’re going to do today, lest we wander into heresy. Instead, let’s get at this critical teaching of Jesus by pitting one side of the paradox against the other.

Let’s tackle that first side, when Jesus says, whoever would save his life will lose it. To “save one’s life,” or “to save one’s soul,” as some translations say, means that the person decides he or she has to do something, whatever it might be—to work hard enough, do the right things, not do the bad things, toe the line—so that he or she will end up in heaven. We call this pietism. We call this self-righteousness. Please note the word self, there. It means that, by some sort of criteria, one has to do or perform or complete some actions by which God will accept that person into the glories of heaven when this life is over.

If that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to you, that’s good. We, as Lutherans, should recognize – and recoil from – such false teaching! In fact, whenever we hear that phrase “self-righteousness,” the red flags should be flying up in your minds. We see it all over the place – from well-intentioned Christians who think to themselves, “I don’t drink, smoke, listen to heavy metal – I’m golden!” That’s on an individual level; you see it institutionally in the form of what’s called, “decision theology,” where you must make the decision to “ask Jesus into your heart” in order to be considered saved. You have to make the conscious effort, using your own willpower and emotions, to pray and invite Jesus into your heart so that you will be accepted by God and have eternal life. That may sound reasonable enough, but the focus, the responsibility, falls on the individual to be saved.

It’s this theology, this false teaching, that Jesus is speaking against. The harder we try, the further away we get. Luther’s Small Catechism echoes this; in his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, we read, I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. Without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, we’d be just like those misguided Christian brothers and sisters who are missing out on the fullness of Gospel.

But that’s not a problem that we, as Lutherans, have, right? That’s just a problem that all those other denominations out there have, right? Wrong. As sinners, every one of us has the exact same inclinations, temptations, to try to save ourselves. This clinging to self-salvation, self-righteousness, self-justification, is what it means, in Jesus’ words in our text, to desire to save one’s life, or soul. We can’t, just can’t, save ourselves. Were it not for the Holy Spirit, we would all be like all the other world religions – all of which believe that to save oneself, one must do something. We would be the same way, because it’s the way every human being by nature is hardwired to think. Our sinful nature knows only this as the way of salvation, to do whatever it takes to save ourselves. It’s in our DNA, if you will, to try and be self-savers. That’s what we would be, and we would be lost. We would be damned. In the same way that a dead man cannot charge up an AED and start his own heart again, we cannot save ourselves from being spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God.

‚ÄčSo that doesn’t work. Now let’s take a look at the flipside of our paradox. What does it mean when Jesus says, whoever loses his life for My sake will find it? What does it mean to lose one's life, one's soul as some translations put it, for Jesus’ sake? The answer is not found in martyrdom, literally losing your life for the sake of the Gospel. That is its own thing; certainly, it’s something to be honored, but unrelated to what Jesus is talking about here. The answer for how it looks to lose one’s soul for Jesus sake is found a few verses earlier when Jesus says, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.

Denying, disowning oneself. That means, with the help of the Holy Spirit, confessing that we cannot save ourselves. That means admitting that we are entirely reliant upon God Almighty, the very fearful Judge of our souls, for our salvation. One does the ad in denying one's ability to save on self. Recognizing that we are entirely holistically sinful, that we cannot redeem ourselves from our sinful conditions and relying entirely thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit upon Christ. It's an air of repentance it's an attitude of repentance. It is humbling. It is intimate. It is scandalous to our reason, but it is the truth. This is why the Gospel is called a “stumbling block.” We want to do it, and we cannot. We simply let Jesus do it for us. The one who loses his soul is the one who denies himself and his own ability to save himself and rests solely upon the cross of Christ. He is the one who finds his soul, his life., or perhaps, rather, he is the one who is found.

But note the reason why one would “lose one’s soul.” Christ says, “Whoever loses his soul for My sake will find it.” Salvation can only be for the sake of Christ. Self-denial is great, but unless one trusts in what Jesus has done for the forgiveness of sins and salvation, unless one follows Him in that way, it’s all for naught. Only Christ lived the perfect life and died the sinless death. Only Christ stood in our place as the worst of sinners, even though He was holy and blameless. Only Christ made the complete and full payment for all our sins when He died on the cross so that all sin would be removed. Yes, Jesus did all that. Yes, He died and rose and gave you eternal life, just as the Spirit has brought you to believe. It all hinges on Christ.

Having come to know all this by faith, through that blessed gift of the Holy Spirit, we rejoice and rejoice greatly that salvation is indeed for the sake of Christ. Since we are incapable of doing anything for ourselves, this is an out-of-this-world gifting. An unreasonable gift, given for free, for Jesus’s sake.

+ In His Name. + Amen.

Scraps

August 20, 2017
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Scraps
Matthew 15:21-28

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Gospel lesson, especially where Matthew records the Canaanite’s woman’s response, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table," as well as Jesus’ response to her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

This lesson…is a lot like life. What I mean is that, in life, there are a lot of questions, a lot of issues that we want, even feel that we need, answers to, but that we will not get answers to. Why is it that this disease has hit my loved one? Why did that tornado hit my home, and not my neighbor’s instead? Why can’t I be better at volleyball, even though I try my hardest? Why can’t we seem to have kids? Why can’t I seem to kick this sinful habit, this addiction? Why can’t I be a different person? Why are people so ugly to each other? What will it take to reunite the people of our country? When will the wars, the violence, finally come to an end? Lots of questions … not a whole lot of answers.

So it is with our text; there are plenty of questions that likely rise to the forefronts of our minds, but are wanting for any answers. Why is Jesus acting like this? To say that He is acting out of character is an understatement; He sounds downright cold! He doesn’t even acknowledge the presence of this pleading Canaanite mother, let alone give her what she desires: relief for her demon-afflicted daughter. His silence is deafening! That’s not Jesus, we think to ourselves; why on earth is He behaving thusly? You can guess, by all means, but you won’t find the answer.

What was the tone of voice of the disciples in this interaction? Were they dismissive of this pagan nobody? Were they just wanting Jesus to give her what she wanted so she would leave them alone to do more important things? No answers. And Jesus simply responds, "No, I was just sent for the lost sheep of Israel," and does nothing. Why? No answers.

How about the woman herself? It’s safe to assume that she’s a bit of a wreck at this point; anyone who has experienced the mere presence of the demonic, let alone hostile activity and oppression, know how terrible an ordeal it is, but she keeps pursuing, keeps trying to talk to Jesus. How does she react to His apparent apathy? What about His remark about not giving the children’s bread to feed the dogs? Obviously, it’s not a very flattering statement, but does she feel insulted? Hurt? No answers. There is, however, one question that I do believe our text does seem to spell out for us quite clearly, and it’s this: what does great faith believe about Jesus?

If you’ve looked through the Gospel accounts with a close eye, you’ve likely noticed that Jesus doesn’t often hand out compliments to those around them regarding their faith; let’s face it – He’s just not that impressed. With this Canaanite woman, however, Jesus exclaims, O woman, your faith is great! That may sound odd to us as Lutherans, knowing that faith is a gift from God, not something that can really be quantified in any way that we know of, but still. We have the Second Person of the Trinity here, Jesus Himself, saying of a Canaanite woman, "great is your faith." So, again, it begs the question: what does great faith believe?

We’re blessed to be given the answers in our text, and there are two. The first is this: great faith knows and believes who Jesus really is. This woman is a Canaanite – nothing about her should have, according to contemporary standards, been held up as a paradigm of faith and trust in the one true God! She’s a Gentile, she’s a woman (remembering that, at that time, a woman’s testimony wasn’t permissible in court), and she’s a Canaanite! Three strikes, you’re out, according to 1st Century Judean sensibilities. Nevertheless, here she is, addressing Jesus the way a disciple would by calling Him "Lord." In Matthew’s Gospel, calling Jesus "Lord" was something only His disciples would do, and yet, here she is, the only exception to that rule as she calls out after Him, Have mercy on me, O Lord.

She also addresses Jesus like a true Israelite would, calling Him the "Son of David," using a very loaded term describing David’s heir, the King who would come to rule in righteousness and to save His people. Is she just parroting what she’s heard other people say, or does she know exactly what she’s saying in addressing Jesus in this way? … She knows. Her words are intentional. She knows to Whom she is calling after, and this becomes clear after Jesus tells her, in essence, that

it is not right to give Israel’s gifts to the Gentiles. He is, after all, the Son of David, and He comes from a specific people and a specific God – YHWH, the only true God. He has come to fulfill specific purposes and promises related to a specific plan which YHWH had set in motion. Jesus is a specific Messiah; you can’t just decide to have the Jesus that you want. He is the Lord over all, and if Jesus is Lord, that means that she … is not. If Jesus is Lord, that means much more than she or anyone else around Him could have possibly known until after He had taken up His throne in the cross, died at the hands of evil men, and been vindicated as He showed Himself to be Lord even over death in His resurrection. Lord over death, and thus, Lord over everything.

Does she know what she’s saying when she calls Him "Lord?" Yes, absolutely she does, and one little word proves it definitively. I am unsure why, but it seems as though many English translations of the Bible actually mistranslate a word in the Canaanite woman’s response. Our ESV records her response, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table. The word they translate as "yet" is the Greek conjunction gar. It means "for," it means "because." She’s not arguing with Jesus, or otherwise appealing to Him to make an exception to the rule in her case. That’s what the mistranslation seems to indicate. There’s no "yet." There’s no "but," or "however." She’s not arguing with Him; she’s agreeing with Him! She’s agreeing with Him, and she explains why it is that she agrees with Him.

She knows that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, that He has a specific plan to carry out and promises to fulfill, and she believes Him to be the Lord. She knows that God is keeping His promises to Israel, and that Jesus’ authority is all that matters. Yes, Lord, she says, because even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table. Did you hear the difference? She’s saying, You’re right, Lord; it’s not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs. Yes, Lord, it’s not right because the dogs … get to eat, too, from the crumbs and scraps that fall from the master’s table. The dogs don’t need the children’s bread because they’re already taken care of. That’s all I need, Lord – so rich and filling and gracious is the table of Israel’s Messiah and King, that the crumbs are all that I need … and I know that there is something here … for me. That’s the second thing that great faith believes: she knows who Jesus really is … and she knows that He’s got something for her, too. Jesus responds, O woman, your faith is great, and He gives.

Dear Christian friends, here are truths that we, too, believe. Jesus is the Messiah, David’s royal – and greater – Son. He is the King who was hailed … and then rejected, tortured, crucified … died, with all the world’s sin and brokenness, on a Friday. The world was dark. But overcoming every plot and dark dream the world and the forces of evil could concoct, God raised Him from the dead, and He lives eternally, exalted, at the right hand of the Father. And He is the Lord. And He has something for you.

This doesn’t make great faith easy; indeed, often it makes things considerably more difficult. If Jesus is Lord, then I am not, much as I may want to be sometimes. If Jesus is Lord, and He has something for me, it’s possible that what He’s got for me is something that I might not have wanted. Nevertheless, the Son of David is risen from the dead, thus He is the Lord, and He is for you. You have a place with Him? Yes. You belong to His people? Yes. He forgives you of your sin? Yes. He gives you peace, a purpose for your living, and the promise that, one Day, there will be full healing of all, and eternal life of body and soul with Him? … Yes.

Great faith knows who Jesus is, and believes that He has something for you, scraps and all.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Good Eats

August 06, 2017
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Good Eats
Isaiah 55:1-5

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen

The text for our meditation is from our Old Testament lesson, from the Prophet Isaiah, especially where he writes, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. … Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

If you are looking for some source material for your own personal or family devotions, I’d like to suggest to you that the prophetic words of Isaiah are excellent for such purposes. If you’ve never read the whole thing straight through, it’s a fascinating book – originally a scroll. It’s written about the falls of both the northern kingdom of Israel, and of the southern kingdom of Judah, and the Prophet even writes of the release of Judah from the Babylonian exile – and all of this is written proleptically, written about future events as if they’ve already happened, written about a century before Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was even born. It’s a beautiful blend of story and prophecy, of Law and Gospel, of debauchery and exile, as well as forgiveness and redemption There is a reason why some theologians have dubbed Isaiah’s writings as the “Fifth Gospel Account.”

Now, we don’t chop up the book of Isaiah, as the more skeptical theologians do by separating the book into four or more parts, written by four or more authors. No, we hold that Isaiah was written by the historical prophet of YHWH named Y’shaehyahu, a later contemporary of the prophet Amos, but we will say that he wrote in two different styles. About the first 2/3 of the book are words of condemnation, words of warning against both kingdoms of Israel, but there is a significant shift at the beginning of chapter 40, starting with the words, Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. If you will, the first portion is written for stiff-necked, arrogant, sinful pre-exilic Israel, and the latter portion is written for the broken Judahites who have languished in a foreign land, surrounded by a pagan people, threatened with mistreatment and even death on a daily basis. These broken people are the ones who are going to be redeemed by YHWH their God, and it is in this section of Isaiah that our reading falls.

More specifically, it’s thought that the 55th chapter is written to the Judahites after Babylon has fallen to Cyrus the Great of Persia. He has conquered the conqueror, acting as YHWH’s mighty and just hand against the wicked nation He had used to punish His people. Cyrus had conquered, and now the Judahites were free. They were free from the oppressive Babylonian captivity, and they were free to return to their own land. Indeed, according to the post-exilic prophet Ezra, Cyrus issued a decree which said, YHWH, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel. The people of Judah were being encouraged to return to their homeland, to pick up the pieces and rebuild their shattered civilization, but for whatever reason – whether it was lethargy, or what Red from The Shawshank Redemption calls “being institutionalized” – they did not want to leave.

I think it was a lack of belief on the part of the people. They were YHWH’s chosen people … and they had been hauled off into captivity, to a pagan nation with customs and traditions very foreign, and oppression quite severe. Now, along comes a new conqueror – and you know the saying courtesy of The Who, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” But he’s not like the old boss. Cyrus says to return, to go back to Judah. It all sounds too good to be true, and as my Grandpa Heckert was wont to say, “If it seems too good to be true, that’s because it usually is.” The people needed some words of encouragement, words of comfort, words of reassurance that their time of chastisement was now over

So like a street vendor in a bazaar or a boothman at the state fair, YHWH invites His people, Come! Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. Come, you who have no money, come, buy and eat! The time of punishment, of castigation, was over – and it wasn’t because of anything that they had done that it was over. It was purely by YHWH’s grace, His mercy, His steadfast lovingkindness, that the time was over, and Judah was welcome to come, once again, to the founts of His love, to return to the land flowing with milk and honey, to return to the comforting embrace of His mighty arms. His invitation echoes what the Psalmist wrote long before: Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!

This is the same message that Jesus gave to those 5000+ people. They had nothing to bring to the table, no riches with which to buy food that temporarily nourished the body. They were entirely reliant on their Teacher, their Lord … and boy, did He ever deliver. As He did centuries prior for the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness, as He has done throughout history by sending rain on the just and the unjust, Jesus provides His people with food for the physical body. Likewise, He gives them spiritual nourishment, as He did through Isaiah when He said, Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David

See, this is what YHWH does. He provides for His people, according to their various needs, and while we are neither Judahites in Babylon lacking the motivation to return to Jerusalem, nor 5000+ men, women, and children in the Judean countryside with aching bellies, we ourselves still are entirely dependent upon our Lord. The United States of America in 2017 is not the physical Babylon, but you can certainly hear echoes of that pagan nation here in our own land, and you can certainly see images of a similar oppression of the people of God. You can hear similar groanings from those who, for whatever reason, don’t wish to return to Jerusalem the Golden, to the true Temple that was torn down and rebuilt three days later. The plight of God’s people is the same throughout the ages, as we wander, pilgrims in a strange land, looking for the promised deliverance to come from God’s own hand. But He is faithful, and if He has promised it, you can be sure that He will, in His own time, bring it to fruition!

So YHWH’s invitation is the same now, here in this place, as it was back in the iterations that came before. Come, My people! He says. Come for the good eats that I provide! Come, you who thirst for forgiveness, and I will give you the cool waters of absolution! Come, you who long for spiritual milk and nourishment, and I will strengthen you with My Word. Come, you who hunger for righteousness, and My Son will give to you Himself, His own holy, precious, body and blood in, under, and with bread and wine, given and shed for you! Don’t worry about payment; your green money cannot pay the infinitely high toll, but My Son has paid it! Simply come and partake of what He has purchased, what I now give to you! Come, incline your ear to Me; listen to My words of Law and Gospel, that you may repent and believe that My Son died for the forgiveness of all your sins and secured for you salvation and life eternal! I have made, in Him, an everlasting covenant that no one will be able to break! Come, partake of these good eats, now, where you are, and enjoy them in eternity at My Son’s marriage feast, which will have no end! Come, taste and see, that I, YHWH, the Lord your God, am good!

 

Nothing

July 30, 2017
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Nothing
Romans 8:28-39

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Epistle lesson, Paul’s letter to the Romans, especially where he writes, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

So about a week and a half ago, the world of hard rock was substantially shaken, as news came of Chester Bennington’s unfortunate death by suicide. If you have no idea who he was, Chester was the lead singer of the alternative rock band, Linkin Park. He wrote most (if not all) of the songs the band sang. Their work has won numerous awards and accolades, heralded by many people as a voice for those struggling through difficult times. When all you wanted to do was scream, Chester did it for you, and as I said, pardon the pun, his loss has rocked the world of rock music.

I must confess, I was hit hard by his death, as well – growing up (especially in those awkward teenage, high school years), Linkin Park was one of my favorite bands, though I confess to being a fan of their earlier work, prior to their music becoming less tasteful. I hated the fact that he, and many others in recent years have been so overcome by sorrow, depression, despair, that they felt their only way to escape the pain was to end their own lives. I can’t speak intelligently about Chester’s faith life, where he was spiritually – though, of course, we pray that he had been given the gift of faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins. If he did, if he was a child of the promises of God – or, for that matter, if any Christian becomes so overcome by pain and sorrow that they do as he did, would that separate them from the love of Christ?

Well, what about our brothers and sisters in Christ, the world over, who know intimately all too well the words of Jesus when He said, If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you ... If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you? These are folks who believe on Jesus Christ as the only Savior of the world, the only One who has delivered us from the just punishment for our sin, and for that, they are thrown in prison. Have their livelihoods destroyed, their children stripped from them. They are people who are beaten, cursed upon, spat upon, forced into “re-education,” tortured … killed. They are found under the most oppressive governments and brutal dictatorships … and they live in “free” societies. What of them? Will the persecution they endure separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus?

Remember back to when you were children, and I’m sure that we’ve all had a parent or some other authority figure chastise us for not finishing our food, reminding us “There are starving people in Africa” or “China” or “insert-impoverished-peoplegroup-here.” Unfortunately, they may not have known how correct they were. There truly are people starving in all corners of the world; not for lack of food – to be sure, there is plenty – but rather because they are too poor to receive it. In some of the most impoverished regions of the globe, where the bellies of children have become distended from malnutrition, miraculously, many hold on to faith in Christ Jesus, their Savior from sin, death, and the power of the devil; indeed, it is in some of these areas that the Church is simply booming. So, what about famine? Will this nullify the Father’s declaration of our righteousness and innocence for Jesus’ sake?

How about war? Lord knows there’s enough violence throughout the world, even as we live in these current days of terrorism and renewed anxiety over prospective nuclear holocaust. The European Union is in disarray. Nations like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are becoming bolder, more bellicose in their sabre-rattling, daring our country to make the first move in a highly dangerous game of chicken. The United States herself has never been more divided, with speculations over when some states would possibly secede from the union. Domestic terror groups target the very people charged with our protection, and senseless acts of violence have become commonplace, to the point almost where we have become blasé. I just met a lady who had to flee from the south side of Chicago with her son because the neighborhood in which they lived was becoming too dangerous; when asked if she could help find a neighbor’s niece, she was shocked to find the girl’s body behind her garage, in the alley, shot to death. They left nearly everything they owned to escape the bloodshed and danger that is that urban jungle, more reminiscent of Sarajevo in the mid-90s than what one would expect of the American heartland. What of this? Can these days of wars and rumors of wars strip Christ’s love away from us?

There’s a theme that runs through all of our scripture readings for today. The love of God for His people is evident throughout all of His written Word, but it is really thematic in the words we’ve heard today. YHWH did not need to choose Abraham and his descendants to be the messianic people; out of His infinite wisdom, mercy, and love, He made them the chosen race from whom the Messiah would come. For that reason, and that reason only, they were as Moses puts it, a people holy to the Lord [their] God. YHWH had chosen them, and they became His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was His grace, His favorable disposition in spite of their works, that God kept them as His people. The Psalmist likewise reminds his readers that YHWH surrounds and protects His people with His grace and love, even as he implores the LORD to not allow his people to fall into sin. And of course, in His parables, Jesus reminds us that YHWH would spare no expense when it comes to acquiring us, His pearls of priceless worth, His treasures hidden in the fields. He spared nothing … not even the only-begotten Son … to acquire such highly-valued treasures.

Now, we should look at ourselves and think, “There’s nothing special about me; I’m a lousy, rotten, no-good, stinkin’ sinner.” And we’d be right to think so. If I can borrow from Bo Giertz, our hearts are rusty old tin cans sitting upon a trash heap – certainly nothing to write home about. However, “a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him.” That’s the love that God has for us in Christ Jesus.

So, rightly, Paul asks the Romans, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Who or what in all of God’s creation will cut us off from His amazing grace? What of any of our trials or tribulations? Getting laid off from work? Struggling to make ends meet, as the bills stack up? Family divides and impertinent, boorish children? Diseases like cancer and AIDS? Addictions? Government policies? Will any of this separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior? … NO. Paul makes it exceedingly clear that nothing from outside of ourselves will be able to wrench us from God’s holy kungfu grip. Nothing and no one will be able to snatch us from His hands.

This is not to say that we cannot leap from His hands, that we cannot walk away from His grace, mercy, and love. His love remains, and in His love, He gives people who want nothing to do with Him exactly what they want: His absence. But we who remain safely in His care pray that this day would never come, that the Holy Spirit would keep us steadfast in the faith to life everlasting, and we trust that God, who has begun this good work in us, will bring it to completion in the Day of our Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Thus really, to trust that the Holy Spirit will preserve us, to trust in God’s Word and His promises given to us in holy Baptism, the promises received in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, truly, even in our sin, we can say with St. Paul that we are convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. So, I ask you, dear Christian friends, what can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? NOTHING.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

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