Archives - July 2019

Prayer on the Edge

July 28, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ 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 reading, wherein Moses records, Then [Abraham] said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” [The Lord] answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

The calm before the storm. That’s the best way to describe our Old Testament pericope. Abraham and Sarah have just been visited by three holy guests as they were encamped near the oaks of Mamre. These three visitors tell Sarah that, one year hence, she will be pregnant, in spite of the fact that she is nearly a century old and has been barren all her life. Now the visitors have left, and Abraham’s gone along with them to see them on their way. As they are going, one of the visitors, who Moses refers to as YHWH, reveals to Abraham what He’s about to do, and it is not pleasant to hear. “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”

We can imagine Abraham’s eyes growing large as he hears what is about to transpire. He knows what the people of these cities are like, the delight they take in wickedness and evil and sin. He knows that they are more than deserving of any punishment that the Creator saw fit. Trouble is, he knows that his nephew, Lot, and his family are also down there, living amongst the wicked and perverse people … and that they are about to get caught up in the righteous cataclysm that YHWH was about to mete out. Things are made critical when two of the visitors continue on down the road, while Abraham and YHWH stop, presumably in sight of the cities about to be annihilated.

So what does Abraham do? He prays. I’ll grant you, it doesn’t quite sound like a prayer – truth be told, it sounds more like haggling that you would hear at a bazaar. Abraham begins by saying, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Honestly, sounds a little brazen to be speaking with the Creator in such a manner. However, because of the covenantal relationship that YHWH established with Abraham, the patriarch has the right to question God, to bargain and to argue with Him. Thus it is perhaps unsurprising that YHWH replies, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

But Abraham knows these cities, their perversity, their immorality. Suppose, in the entirety of the metropolis’s population – some speculate in the tens, maybe hundreds of thousands -- not even 50 righteous people could be found? It certainly wasn’t outside the realm of possibility, so Abraham warily asks further if there are only 45 righteous that could be found, if YHWH would spare the cities. Again, YHWH tells him, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Abraham decides to go further, asking for the sake of 40 righteous … then thirty … then twenty … finally, he says, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” Only ten righteous. Two more than the eight souls whom YHWH saved from the great flood. Surely, God would not wipe away the wicked if a few more righteous were found there than were preserved through the deluge. And again, God says, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And they go their separate ways – Abraham back to his tent, and YHWH on to do what He intended.

Yup, that entire exchange was prayer. Granted, it didn’t sound like it, really. But make no mistake: this was prayer, spoken by Abraham as he stood face-to-face with YHWH in theophanic form. It was a prayer spoken upon the edge of destruction. It was a prayer that attempted to blanket the wicked with God’s mercy and grace for the sake of a very few righteous, who did not act as the wicked did. It was a prayer of lament, of intercession, of love.

Ultimately, God remains faithful to Abraham, in spite of there being only FOUR in the city who will heed His warning. He has the two visitors go to the house and rush the family out of the city before the metropolis is literally overturned. But here’s the kicker: those same individuals who are saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? They still act wickedly. Lot’s wife doesn’t even make it to safety with the others; she looks back at the destruction, despite the warning not to, and becomes a pillar of salt. Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him in order to have children and preserve the bloodline.

Did Lot and his family deserve to die in Sodom and Gomorrah, along with the rest of the wicked? Come to think of it, don’t we? Don’t we all deserve the worst hell imaginable? We do. Lot did. Abraham did. Sarah did. All of humanity, from the greatest to the least, deserves what the people of Sodom and Gomorrah got, and worse. None of us is righteous. We’re sinners, through and through. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Abraham prayed as he did, because he recognized his own wretchedness, and feared that the cataclysm would consume him, too. If our prayer was truly that God would spare the righteous from the wrath allotted to the wicked, none of us would be spared. There is not one who is righteous; no, not even one. We are all evil sinners, and we deserve a fate worse than Sodom.

And yet … Abraham interceded on Lot’s behalf. Because he had a covenantal relationship with YHWH, Abraham had the right to boldly beg God to spare his nephew. He interceded on his behalf, and because YHWH is faithful (even when we are wicked), He spared Lot, counting him as righteous for the sake of Abraham.

We also have One who intercedes on our behalf. He prays for us. Asks God the Father to spare us from the just punishment we rightly deserve. He’s both Abraham’s descendant and Abraham’s Lord. What we see in Abraham’s prayer of intercession is a prefiguring, a glimpse of what Jesus would do for all humanity nearly 2000 years later, and the results are the same. Our Intercessor intercedes for us, not because we are righteous, but because He alone is perfectly righteous! The difference is, where Abraham prayed and went back to his tent, Jesus prayed … and went to the cross. He marched directly into the line of fire. The destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim don’t hold a flame to the unadulterated, unrestrained wrath that God poured out upon Abraham’s descendant as He hung on the cross. And still … even as He was bleeding, dying, struggling just to breathe …Jesus manages to pray, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. His prayer is one of pure love – not for the righteous, but for the sinful who need Him. It’s a prayer for you and for me and for all humanity.

God was faithful to His covenant with Abraham, and He did spare Lot and his family, counting them as righteous. God is faithful to us, counting us as righteous for Jesus’s sake. We needn’t fear God’s wrath – we’ve been declared righteous by our great Intercessor!

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

Are You Listening?

July 21, 2019
By Rev. David French

As our lesson begins, Jesus is heading to Jerusalem on a road that went past the village where Martha and Mary lived. You know the story. Martha was busy serving while Mary was busy learning from Jesus. Martha sees this as laziness and asked Jesus to fix it. The surprise is that Jesus commends Mary and instructs Martha saying, “... you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

The big picture lesson is listening to Jesus is more important than anything else we do, which includes serving Jesus. And, of course, that’s because it is faith worked by His Word alone that receives the salvation His Word offers. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write to the Romans: Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. That is, God creates the faith that receives the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation using nothing but the words of Jesus.

But, that doesn’t mean there is never a valid reason to miss church. I mean, in life there are times that the urgent takes precedence over the important. People do get sick, and accidents and natural disasters do happen on weekends. But, we also know that’s certainly not why we (or most people) pass on listening to Jesus on any given Sunday. Especially around the holidays, there are times people miss because they have guests coming and are literally like Martha working in the kitchen. Either way, absence from church is a clear indication that something (be it a trip to the hospital or to the golf course) was deemed more important than meeting with Jesus and receiving His gifts on that day.

Now I am absolutely confident that you believe what happens in church is more important than what happens anywhere else. I’m confident that you understand church is where God comes to serve you as the Holy Spirit works through the Word of Christ in your heart. That, it’s in church that we sinners hear the Gospel of Christ, that God loved mankind so much that He became a man. That, in our place He lived a perfect life and then suffered the pains of hell when He offered his life on the cross as payment for our sins. That, He was sent there to be forsaken by God and to suffer our punishment that He might be raised by the Father, assuring us that forgiveness and righteousness have been purchased in full for all mankind. You know, it’s in His church that those gifts are offered to sinners with repentant hearts who call upon Him for mercy and peace.

You see, Christianity is about Christ. And so, obviously, without Christ there can be no Christianity. His work is not only the most important thing that has ever happened in the world, but all other things shrink to nothing compared to the gift of eternal life freely offered by His word. Remember, only Christ remains with us through life and death. Christ alone is the way through death into eternal life. Mary knew this. Apparently, Martha did not.

Now, also keep in mind there was nothing inherently wrong with Martha’s service to Jesus. It was more of a timing thing. It was wrong at that time because she chose serving Jesus over listening to Jesus whose Word filled the other room. And so, we see how even our most heartfelt works can become harmful to our faith when they become a reason for not listening to Jesus.

Jesus offers us forgiveness, eternal life, and the assurance of our salvation through His doctrines or teachings or Words. We’re taught in Scripture, the Holy Spirit has promised to come to us and sustain our faith in all of God’s promises through that same Word. That’s true all the time, but especially as we meditate or think about what we read. And that can happen any time of day or night.

Many of us first receive God’s word of forgiveness and life combined with the water of our baptism. That He might fill all of our senses with His love and forgiveness as we receive that Word by mouth as the body and blood of Jesus Himself enters us in with and under the bread and wine of His Holy Supper. The Word of God promises the Holy Spirit will deliver His gifts to you, and through these gifts, these Means of Grace, He creates or strengthens the faith in your heart that, by grace, holds to what God has given you in Christ.

The obvious point in today’s gospel reading is that listening to Jesus is not just more important than anything else in life, listening to Jesus is life. There are those who think it would be a lot easier if we could just sit and listen to Jesus Himself. But they either don’t understand, or they believe that the reason the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to write this gospel was so that we could listen to Jesus Himself. Jesus doesn’t come to us in our walks through the woods or in our visions or dreams. He comes to us through the words of the Holy Scriptures, the Bible, the inerrant and inspired Word of God.

In the gospel which we read a couple of weeks ago, Jesus said, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). With these words, Jesus Himself tells us that when we hear a pastor faithfully preach His Word, we are listening to Him. With these words, Jesus also tells us that those who reject the faithful preaching of God’s Word bring His’s wrath upon themselves. And that is because there’s an odd little theological term that applies to today’s gospel reading known as the “Gospel Imperative.” A “Gospel Imperative” is something that sounds like a command, but is really something we already want to do. For example: A hungry family has been milling around the house waiting for something to eat. Finally, the cook calls out, “Come and get it!” Strictly speaking, this is a command. But it’s one everyone looks forward to fulling or obeying.

When Jesus tells us to listen to Him, it also is a Gospel Imperative. As we listen to Him speak words of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith, and we receive the one thing needful for life.

You see, it’s always about Jesus. From time to time, Jesus works through a pastor’s mouth saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” At other times Jesus works through a pastor’s hands and gives you a piece of bread and a cup of wine and says, “The body of our Lord, given into death for you” and “The precious blood of Christ our Lord, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.”

This is the pure gospel as Jesus, working as only He can, through the hands of sinners, places Himself with all His gifts of peace and love into your hand or mouth, that you might eat and drink this blessed gift of forgiveness and life. Eternal life through the forgiveness of sins is what Jesus offers. It’s why He tells us that no matter when or where, listening to Him is the most important thing that we will ever do.

In His Name, Amen

The Compassionate Samaritan

July 14, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ 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 text, where Luke records, “And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

Everyone knows it, everyone loves it. It’s an understatement to say that the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” is well known. For goodness’ sake, it’s even known and cited in secular circles – my public high school had us read it in an English class (the King James Version, if I remember correctly). It’s well-known because it makes sense. Be nice. Do good. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Pay it forward. It’s how we are supposed to act toward one another. Thus, it’s a good reminder to us all of the call that we have to love one another, regardless of differences, and to serve one another. That’s the whole point of the parable! … Right? Not quite. A lawyer, a scribe who is very familiar with the law, has been in the presence of Jesus presumably for some time. He stands up with the purpose of putting Jesus to the test, and asks him the question around which this entire text revolves: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Did you hear it? Did you hear the whole point of this pericope? The parable of the Good Samaritan is less about doing good to others as it is about justification.

This lawyer is making the same asinine – and fatal – move that humans have been making since the Fall. He asks this question with the intent of proving to himself that he is worthy of eternal life, that he did it all by himself, with the added benefit of catching Jesus in a trap. But Jesus isn’t a fool, and He doesn’t fall for it. He asks this lawyer, supposedly well versed in the law, just what is written in the Law about this subject and how he reads it. Easy enough, right? He replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him, Right-o! “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

Not the answer the man wanted to hear. And what do sinful human beings do when they are confronted with a Word of God that they don’t like? They – we – make it go away, which is precisely what the lawyer attempts to do. “And who is my neighbor?” he asks Jesus, still wanting to rest assured that his actions are enough to merit eternal life. And it’s at this point that the Lord tells the infamous parable that, again, we all know and love.

But He’s not just telling the parable because it’s a nice, heart-warming story that encourages Christians to do good to others like the Good Samaritan. He’s actually answering the lawyer’s question: Who is my neighbor? Everyone. Absolutely every person you meet on the street, all the ones across the sea, your enemies, those who are trying to destroy you. Every person on this planet is your neighbor and thus demands from you the same loving action that the Good Samaritan showed to the nameless assault victim left half-dead on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. Who’s our neighbor? Everyone. Say it with me: EVERYONE. And that’s the reason why we are unable to do this.

I have a hard enough time fulfilling all my vocational duties and responsibilities to my loved ones, let alone the starving African child on the streets of Mogadishu. I have a hard enough time getting my vocational obligations to sync without worrying about how I will make the time to minister to the dying Muslim man in Jakarta. I cannot reasonably get to Kim Jong-un’s palace in order to wash the dictator’s feet. But that’s what the parable implies. Everyone is my neighbor, and if the sum of the Law is to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind and love one’s neighbor as oneself, realistically, there’s no way that I’ll be able to keep this! It’s impossible! Go, and do likewise! How can Jesus expect us to do this?!

That’s the point. We can’t. Even if you could do it, you wouldn’t want to. That’s because you’re a sinner, and so am I. We are self-serving wretches who are more likely to act like the priest or Levite, thinking to ourselves, “I’ve got places to be; I can’t help this person right here, right now.” I know you’ve done it because I’ve done it. I’ve driven past someone who’s pulled over on the side of the road, clearly in distress, because I had somewhere to be. That was not being the Good Samaritan. A more famous example of this law in action is the case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered just outside her apartment building in Queens, New York in broad daylight. Many people watched as she was stabbed to death by her assailant, but no one so much as called the police, let alone intervened to save her. How? How is it possible that this would happen? Because we are all incurvatus, in-curved, inwardly-focused, self-preserving, cowardly, lousy, rotten, no-good, stinkin’ sinners. We like to think of ourselves as the Good Samaritan, but we are, in fact, the polar opposite.

The lawyer, the priest, the Levite, and all of us. We are all in the same boat. We cannot, would not, and do not serve our neighbor perfectly. At the risk of mixing metaphors, this is also why we are the unnamed man, beaten up and left half-dead, on the side of the road. Unable to move. Unable to bind up our broken bones. Unable to apply any ointment to our open wounds. We’re hemorrhaging. We’re suffocating. We’re dying. And we cannot save ourselves from what our sin has done to us.

But there is a Good Samaritan who does come along. He is rejected by the people. He’s called a blasphemer, a fool, a demoniac. But He’s the one, the only one who stops, who stoops down, who bandages the lacerations and sets the broken bones, who carries us to a place of rest and ensures that we are taken care of. We are not the Good Samaritan; Jesus is.

That is the whole point of this parable. Jesus is the Good Samaritan, the Compassionate Samaritan, the only One who perfectly served His neighbor – ALL of them – and He did so by the beatings, the ridicule, the torture, the shame, and the agony of what He did in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. His suffering, crucifixion, and death ... all to serve you, His creation and, by His choice, His neighbor. He did all this to save you. Not from temporal death, but from eternal death, the just judgment that was spoken over Mankind, a judgment that we all rightly merited. He took that for you. Because He shed His innocent blood, you are no longer bleeding. Because His body was broken and beaten and killed upon the cross, your wounds are healed. His life-giving absolution, spoken mere moments ago, “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” are words spoken not by us, but by Jesus Himself, and it is a soothing balm and ointment which oil and wine could never be.

Surprise! You’re not the Good Samaritan. Neither am I. Sure, we can and should help our neighbor – that is what we’re called to do. But we would be fools of the highest caliber to think that any of us could do what THE Good Samaritan did. We can never measure up to the standards God has established, but Jesus did. This parable is all about justification, but the answer isn’t what we must do to inherit eternal life; it’s what Jesus has done, and continues to do, to give you eternal life.

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

A New Creation

July 07, 2019
By Rev. David French

Why do Pastor Heckert and I keep insisting you’ve been given a new life in Christ when you’re still feeling so many of the same old things that were a part of the old life you’re supposed to have left behind? Shouldn’t we, as new creatures in Christ, feel on top of the world? Shouldn’t we be living life without a care in the world? We are, after all, children of the creator of all things.

We know and believe that God truly loves us. We know that God has stored up for us more than we can ever imagine. We know that Christ has prepared a place for each of us. I suppose some might expect us to brag or boast about all the things we possess as God’s children and pretend that hurts are no longer a part of our lives, but is that really what the content of our witnessing should be?

St. Paul also possessed these things along with all believers, and yet, as we listen to our lesson, we hear Paul saying the thing he was willing to boast about is not the streets of gold or the sapphire and emerald foundations of our heavenly city. It’s not the eternal punishment reserved for those who persecute the church or even the crown of glory that is given to all who believe in Jesus as their Savior. What Paul says he will boast about is the cross of Jesus Christ.

As I thought about the cross of Christ and the unique claim of Christianity that we have victory over death through Christ’s death, I began to wonder if it wouldn’t be better to talk to unbelievers, and even remind ourselves, about all the wonderful things God has for us instead of the death of His Son. Certainly, we don’t want to ignore the cross, but perhaps the emphasis should be on the things we have waiting for us in heaven instead of the death His Son endured on earth because of our sin.

I decided to look for other things that Paul was willing to boast about in order to make this Christian life we’ve been given more appealing, and what I found was this: to the Romans, Paul would boast about His suffering, to the Corinthians he would boast about his weakness, to the Galatians (as we see in our lesson) he boasted in the cross, to the Thessalonians he would boast about perseverance in the face of hardship, and so it goes.

The truth is, there is no way to make Christianity more attractive when God’s plan is that through our weakness, His power is made perfect; that through our suffering, His comfort is felt; and through His Son’s death, that our life is revealed.

We in the Lutheran church, and more specifically here at St. James, could try to dress up our Christian beliefs to make them more attractive. Many other churches do. But just as a wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf, a person seeking God only to find glory and prosperity is still a person who sees God as someone to be manipulated. One who, if we just do the right things, will give us what we want.

But that’s not the God we learn about in the Scriptures. As Lutherans we don’t focus on the cross just because Christ was nailed to it. We focus or boast in the cross of Christ because that’s where your sins were paid for and salvation is found.

The cross is also symbolic of all the trials and sufferings of God’s people throughout history. People who have not only endured hardships and persecution in cruel and ruthless ways for the name of Christ, but who have also found joy in suffering for His name. But can we as 21st century American Christians even understand the idea of joy and suffering in the same sentence? Is that even possible, or is it only something pastors talk about on Sunday morning? My friends, if it only sounds good on Sunday morning, but has no place in your day to day life, I’ve wasted your time. If, however, God’s promises aren’t just talk, but are a real part of the new creation that you became when you were united with Christ in the waters of your baptism, then we need to again consider the difference between how the world understands joy and how a Christian understands joy.

Consider the joy a child feels when he or she gets that new bike they’ve wanted for Christmas. How does that compare to the joy you would feel if you saved that child from a burning building? You see, the world’s view of joy is selfish, looking out for number one. The Christian view of joy is selfless, looking out for the needs of your neighbor.

When Paul says he’s been crucified to the world and the world to him, what he’s saying is that we, as Christians, see things very differently than the world sees things. We, as a body of believers, have rejected and condemn the wisdom of the world, and the world has rejected and condemned Christ, who is our wisdom from God. We boast of suffering and persecution for His name’s sake; the world boasts in power and honor for its own sake. We rejoice in the righteousness of Christ; the world rejoices in self-righteousness, never seeing a need to be forgiven because it has rejected God’s definition of right and wrong.

But, simply knowing how we should look at something doesn’t mean we can. The reality is that even something as simple as being happy for someone when something good happens to them is often not within our reach. Instead of sharing in their joy, we wonder why they get all the breaks. We know how we should act as Christians. We also know what we feel inside, and there is often disconnect between the two. We simply can’t do it on our own, and that has always been the message of the Christian church.

Paul puts it this way in our lesson, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything ....” By circumcision Paul means the Jews who have Moses, the law, their temple and worship, their priesthood. None of it adds anything to our salvation. By uncircumcision Paul is referring to the Gentiles with all their philosophies, power, and kingdoms. These also add nothing to our salvation. Everything we’re used to depending on: our hard work, our well-thought-out plans, our good intentions, mean nothing in the eyes of God.

What Paul says in the end of that verse is this “... what counts is a new creation.” That new creation or new life where God’s image is recreated in each of us is not added to by any law or works we do. It is the result of  Jesus Christ dying for our sins. Baptized into Him, you are forgiven, a new creation. Through faith what Christ has earned becomes yours. Bringing that faith to each hurting heart is the work of the Holy Spirit who, through Word and sacrament, strengthens and reassures us so that we might live as lights in a world of darkness, remembering even a smoldering wick God will not snuff out.

Why? Well, because that new creation is not always as evident as we might like or even think it should be, not even to us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Remember the words found in Col. 3:3-4, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” It’s then that you will see you are, what God’s Word has always said you are, that is, holy and precious in His sight.

In Jesus’s Name

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