Archives - August 2019

The Way of the Cross

August 25, 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 epistle text, where the preacher exhorts the Hebrews, Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

“God never gives us more than we can handle.” This phrase has become a bit popular in recent years, meant to encourage people who are going through a valley, a time of deep sorrow or suffering, to buck up, that they are stronger than they think and they will be able to endure. It’s a phrase, I have no doubt, that aspires to bring someone who is suffering comfort and strength to face what they must … and it’s a phrase that I have come to abhor and despise.

It’s well-intentioned, I have no doubt, but let’s be honest: it’s not true. God often gives us more than we can handle. God often gives us situations and crises that are overwhelming, devastating. Many here have known what it means to feel like you’re drowning in the cares and sorrows and brokenness of living in this world; some of you are in the throes of such agony right now. “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Ha! That concept is hogwash; God does give us trials and tribulations in our lives, some of which are, indeed, overwhelming. But contrary to the conceptions of atheists and some Christians who view God as some sort of cosmic sadist, these trials and tribulations are actually evidence … of His fatherly love and provision.

Our text comes right on the heels of last week’s epistle lesson, where we read, Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Then comes our text, wherein the preacher writes, Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

This isn’t idealism. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky, rose-colored glasses, bury your head in the sand to the grim realities of this world with a nice Jesus veneer. This is the antidote, the remedy, the hope we cling to during those times when God has overwhelmed us. It’s Jesus, the continual reminder of what He has done for His people, those who trust Him with their lives. The preacher is calling his hearers to recall the greatness and grandeur of the Father’s love – a love so deep, in fact, that He was willing to send His only-begotten son to come into this world, only to endure from sinners such hostility against Himself. With Christ set before their eyes, the preacher is saying they can endure the unendurable, bearing the impossible crosses God has laid on them because He has bought for them with His precious, innocent blood shed upon the cross. In their weaknesses, God shows His incredible strength through them as He carries them through their trials.

The preacher then goes a step further: And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? God bears you through these trials and tribulations, and all the while, He is treating you as His children, whom He loves like a father. In fact, He loves you so much that He is willing to risk your anger and hostility against Him to strengthen you, using said trials and crosses as discipline.

Because that’s what discipline is, right? It is correction, rebuke, training, and strengthening for a life of hardship and trial. If God hated you or if He didn’t care, He’d allow the comforts of this world to lull you into a sense of complacency, to have it easy and be swept away the moment a real crisis rears its ugly head. If He didn’t care, He wouldn’t discipline. The preacher says as much: If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.

Now, this is all well and good, but that doesn’t take away the suffering in the moment. The thought that God is using this trial to strengthen and discipline me for later doesn’t make things any less painful. Well, the preacher recognizes this: For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees ….

The preacher was encouraging and proclaiming these words to Jewish Christians, who bore the cross of persecution and doubt in the early church, but the same goes for you. As you are bearing crosses that God gives, you are walking in the same way our Lord Jesus did. Bearing your crosses, you rest easily knowing that you are participating in Christ’s own suffering, that God is present in your suffering, and that He will use it to discipline, teach, encourage, correct, and strengthen you.

Life isn’t easy. It’s painful and unpleasant. We lose loved ones through tragedy and disease. We are overcome by financial troubles and job complications. Marriages fail, hearts are broken, people fight. “God never gives us more than we can handle,” indeed! What He has given you … is the forgiveness of sins. He’s given you the promise of life eternal with Him and the great communion of all saints in the life of the world to come, where there won’t be any suffering or pain. And yes, He had given us our crosses to bear in life. They are heavy and burdensome, but the One who has given them to you says He will never leave you, nor forsake you, that you are His. So, Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. … lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, for your Lord Jesus died and rose for you, your sins are forgiven, and eternity with Him is what awaits you. God gives us way more than we can handle … and in fact, He has given us infinitely more than we could ever deserve. He gives us the way of the cross.

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

Black and White

August 18, 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 Jesus says, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

This is one of those Gospel texts that, when it’s read, the response is more like a question than a statement – as in, “This is the Gospel of the Lord?” I say that partially tongue-in-cheek, of course; every word of Scripture is God-breathed and inerrant. However, there are some texts that, shall we say, give us pause when we read them, usually because they bring us a modicum of discomfort.

In this case, the entirety of Jesus’s discourse seems … mean. Unfriendly. Antagonistic, even. He’s talking about “casting fire on earth,” about how great His distress is until His cleansing is accomplished, and then flat-out tells His disciples, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Much about this text makes us uncomfortable, but perhaps it’s that bit about “division” that really strikes a nerve …. We, as a people, know what it means to be divided. Let’s face it – we live in very divided times. It’s a true rarity when civil discourse can take place between two people with dissenting opinions. Often, disagreement is construed as a personal attack, as “violence” even. I know you’re thinking about where we see this most often – politics – but it can be found in any and every area of life: relationships, work, education, movies, video games, philosophy … and religion.

But what makes Jesus’s words here so divisive? Yes, we see the word “division,” and we hear the examples that He gives about father being against son, mother against daughter, and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and vice-versa. But what’s the source? What’s the cause of all this division? What could split families in twain and cause hostility between those you’ve known and loved your whole life? Well, it’s not so much a “what” as it is a “who,” and the “Who,” the source of division that Jesus is talking about … is Himself.

The discourse of this entire chapter has gone back and forth between warnings and promises. Jesus starts off by warning a crowd of thousands and His disciples to “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” He goes on to tell them not to fear those who are capable of killing the body, but not the soul; instead, they ought to fear the One who can kill both body and soul in hell. Next comes the discussion that all those who confess Him before men, He will confess before the Father, but the ones who don’t confess Him will be denied before the Father. This is then followed by the parable of the rich fool, the encouragement about the needlessness of worry, and finally the admonition to be ready for the coming Day of the Lord, “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

This is all building momentum, and it’s meant to show why Jesus has set His face toward Jerusalem. Though we are still a ways away from Good Friday and Golgotha, things are becoming more real, as Jesus reveals what He has come to do. I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! Whenever you see “fire” imagery being used in Scripture, usually it’s an indication of judgment, and there is a connotation of judgment in what Jesus is saying here, but it’s more than that. He’s longing for the Kingdom of God to be revealed – not only through this judgment, but also in the grace and deliverance that it brings.

His next statement supports this, as He tells His disciples, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” You can’t really tell in the English, but in the Greek, the latter clause of that sentence implies that Jesus is emotionally torn. He knows that this “baptism” that He is to be baptized with is not going to be pleasant; in fact, it will be torturous and lethal. Not surprisingly, Jesus is dreading what awaits Him in Jerusalem – the betrayal, the beatings, the humiliation, the scourging, the thorny crown, the heavy cross, the piercing nail, and the agony of crucifixion. More agonizing than this will be the unbearably heavy and humiliating burden that He will bear: the full weight of sin from all space and all time. He will be bearing the full brokenness of all creation, the sinless Son of God becoming the embodiment of sin. He will bear an excruciating load that is antithetical to His very existence, and then the immortal God … will die … and He will be buried in the grave of sinners. It is little wonder that His distress is great until He cries out from the cross, Τετέλεσται, “It is finished!”

However, Jesus also knows what will come after He breathes His last, after His heart stops beating and is pierced. He knows that this great distress, this judgment to be meted out upon His own holy and divine flesh will bring full atonement for all sin, the rescue of His people, the glory that is rightly His as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. He knows that His death will bring peace between God and man, and that it will undo the curse of sin that broke creation in Adam’s fall. Jesus’s death will be the beginning of the end of Satan’s reign in God’s good creation. So, yes, He is distressed and torn, knowing the agony to come but also the glory that His suffering will bring. And it is this that will bring division between father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Yes, it is true that Christ unites His people in Himself, as He brings us through His death and resurrection in the blessed waters of Holy Baptism. However, all you need to do is look throughout God’s creation and you will see such divisions abounding, especially in countries that are predominantly of a different religious stripe. When a member of the family is brought to faith in Christ, they are often ostracized, if not worse. There are some places where the penalty for converting to Christianity is death … and sometimes, family members partake in the execution. While things usually don’t get that extreme here in the US, we do still see families and relationships torn asunder because one member of the family is called to believe in Christ’s all-atoning sacrifice.

It breaks my heart when I hear of these divisions transpiring – like the eight Christian converts who were recently condemned to death in Iran. I’m sure that it breaks your hearts as well, but the truth is black and white when it comes to things eternal: “[T]here is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The reality is that those of this world will not accept Jesus’s sacrifice, will not accept His exclusive claim of being the only One through whom the world’s sins are atoned for. They will not accept His gift of salvation, preferring instead to work for a salvation or nirvana that doesn’t exist. So there will be division between those who dwell in darkness and those who have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ Jesus. It will happen. These are the signs of the times. People will not know what to make of Jesus, and they will be divided because of Him and His free gift of grace. But Jesus knows His own, and for those who are called, we are not divided. We are ONE in Christ Jesus, the only Person in whom unity truly, eternally matters.

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

Jesus Got You!

August 11, 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 Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. … Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

I’m about to ask a very stupid question – it’s a stupid question because I already know the answer: have you ever worried about something? See? Stupid question. Of course you’ve worried about things before; you’re probably worried about things now! It doesn’t matter who you are or what stage of life you’re in. Parents, you know worry in an exceptional way, not only for your children, but also for your parents, your spouse, your siblings. Children, you know the worries of school and family life, trying to make things work together. Teachers and professors, heh, you know worry quite intimately, especially as classes begin again for this year. Let’s be honest – everyone worries. And thus it’s not unreasonable for the human ear to hear what Jesus has just said as a very damning word of law. “As a Christian, thou shalt not worry, and if you do, you’re sinning!” Fair enough – we all know we’re sinners, and perhaps our worry is yet another reminder of our need for Jesus. However, I think there’s more to this text than it being yet another needed reminder of our abject sinfulness and the necessity of Jesus’s vicarious work.

We’re right on the heels of the text from last week. Remember? Jesus told a large crowd the parable of the rich fool and his barns, and the lethality of selfishness, greed, and covetousness. Well, now Jesus tells His disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” It sounds like Jesus is tacking on a prohibition against worry to His condemnation of the rich man’s foolishness and selfishness. But Jesus doesn’t end there, just throwing it out there as a universal requirement for humanity to accomplish, “Don’t worry!” He follows this saying up with some rather beautiful words of promise.

“Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” To humans, ravens are not worth much. They’re scavengers, and have, in the past, actually been problematic to certain human populations. But they are nevertheless a part of God’s good-but-now-broken creation. God created them with the rest of the birds of the air. He knows each and every feather and scale. He knit them together as they incubated in their eggs. He’s given them remarkable intelligence – some studies have shown that ravens have problem solving capabilities. They beckon larger carnivores to a carcass, allowing the more capable creatures to break into the carrion in ways the ravens could not. They are able to survive on just about any diet. They mate for life in monogamous relationships, helping each other to rear their young and fiercely protecting them. No, ravens don’t build storehouses, but they are fearfully and wonderfully made, and make no mistake: they are provided for by their Creator.

“Consider the lilies, how they grow,” Jesus says a few sentences later. “[T]hey neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Flowers of the field aren’t exactly pragmatic. They don’t produce anything, really. You can eat rose hips and petals, but that’s not what they’re generally used for. They’re made for smelling, for looking, and none of that lasts all that long. All you need is a week of intense heat with no rain, and usually these little creations will wilt up and die – no longer lovely to the nose (unless one likes the smell of decay), no longer pleasing to the eye. All they’re good for at that point is either to be thrown on the trash heap or into the fire for a tiny bit of fuel. Yet God our heavenly Father went through the trouble to cause the seed to germinate, to take root, to put up their cotyledons, to absorb the nutrients and water from the ground, to receive the sunlight and carbon dioxide for the process of photosynthesis, and to grow into a healthy plant that displays all manner of color, pattern, and fragrance in beauty and splendor. Any gardener, any botanist will tell you the incredible complexity and wonder that goes into the sprouting of a plant. And the Creator made them with care, certainly providing them with all they need to thrive and survive.

“Of how much more value are you than the birds! … if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith!” This is the objective reality, my friends. God takes care of His creation, even those creations we don’t consider as having much value or worth. If God takes care of these “lesser” creatures with such intricate attention and intentional provision … don’t you think that He will care for all your needs as well? You, a human being, created in God’s own image, created as the pinnacle of His creation in order to work with Him to care for His creation? Won’t He answer your needs, as well?

Of course He will! Of course He does, on a daily basis! We confess this in the Apostles Creed; hear again Luther’s explanation for the First Article:” I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.” You’ve got a roof over your head, breath in your lungs, food in your belly, people who love you … you are certainly provided for by the Creator and Sustainer of all things!

All this is well and good, but people still die. There comes a time for all things in creation where food is no longer of any use, where a roof is no longer needed, where air is of no consequence to the lungs that will no longer work and the heart that no longer beats. Pending the eschaton, we will all taste the bitterness of death … and STILL … God provides for our needs. How? By addressing our deepest need: atonement. The One who is speaking with the disciples about the ravens and the flowers and God’s intimate caretaking of those good and beautiful creations is also the One who would, not too long from this point, care for our eternal need. Man brought sin into this world, and through sin came death. We were hopeless, helpless, and damned, but no longer. Jesus made atonement, paying the debt we owed and could never pay. His sacrifice on the cross means that you no longer bear that punishment. You are atoned for, forgiven all your sins! Your greatest need … cared for! The One who knit you together in your mother’s womb with His own hands had those hands pierced to take care of you!

Bearing all this in mind, why worry? I don’t say this with the absurd understanding that we can live worry-free. We can’t; we’re still fallen sinners. But, we don’t need to worry. Why? Because Jesus got you. He bought you with His precious blood, gave His life for yours, and washed you in His death and resurrection in the waters of Holy Baptism. He also provides for every other blessing you enjoy in life! This isn’t blind optimism, “prosperity gospel” nonsense. Neither is this a word of Law, saying “Thou shalt not worry!” It’s a promise, the objective truth: God cares for His creation, including you, and He’s cared for your greatest need, on top of all other needs you have. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom! Why? Because Jesus loves you, and He’s got you!

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

You Can't Take It with You

August 04, 2019
By Rev. Pastor French

It was about a month ago that we read in Luke: Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. As you can see, while He was determined, He certainly wasn’t in a hurry. He took time in every town and village to heal the sick, drive out demons, and proclaim the Kingdom of God. As today we continue to follow Jesus on His journey to the cross, someone in the crowd calls out to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

You do have to wonder if this guy had heard anything Jesus said or if his question was the only thing on his mind as he stood in that crowd. You can work your way back to the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, in fact, you can check all four of the Gospels and you will not find even a hint that Jesus was interested in judging over the distribution of an estate, as He makes perfectly clear saying, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”

The question did, however, give Jesus a teaching opportunity. And so Jesus began to teach about the danger of basing your self-worth on your stuff. He addressed the entire crowd and said, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” That is your wealth or lack thereof does not define who you are.

Jesus then goes on to tell a parable that highlights the foolishness of trusting in the wealth of this world. He began: “The land of a rich man produced plentifully.” In more modern terms, he had several seasons of bumper crops and favorable markets. The Lord has blessed this man so that he never has to lift a finger to support himself for the rest of his life. He is independently wealthy.

God blesses many people with wealth, which I think of as a good thing. The problem is not wealth. The problem is how we look at wealth. In his explanation to the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Luther taught, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” So the question is: Did the landowner in our parable receive his wealth with thanksgiving?

Well, what does he do? Does he talk it over with family or friends? Does he pray to God for guidance and wisdom? No, what we read is, “He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’” Clearly this man’s worldview was centered on himself.

The end result of his earthly wisdom is that God comes to him saying, You fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? The point: You can’t take it with you. He put his trust in his earthly treasures, but his treasures could do nothing for him at the time of his death.

How sad it is that this man, who should have known the Scriptures, failed to learn the lessons of Solomon. As Solomon says, “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon carefully documents his study and exploration of every lifestyle found under heaven. He tried wine, women, and song. He tried hard work. He tried hard play. He tried travel. He tried education. If you can think of a lifestyle, Solomon for the sake of understanding, lived it.

Ecclesiastes, it turns out, at least on the surface, is a very depressing book of the Bible. It’s depressing because all these different lifestyles were without God, and what he found was that if this world is all there is to life, then life is completely pointless, that it would be better not to be born at all. After actually examining life without God, Solomon concludes, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” That is, apart from the one true God, a separation that happened when our first parents sinned, there is no meaning to life.

But remember, the problem isn’t the wealth. Jesus had many disciples who were wealthy. The problem is allowing wealth to become a substitute for God. It’s thinking wealth is the source of our security and comfort. And if you don’t think you do, just remember Jesus’s answer to the young man who asked the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” which was, “sell everything you have and give to the poor … then come follow me.”

You see, you have to know in your heart that we are all guilty and need God’s mercy every moment of our lives. Our sinful nature, which is what we daily fight against, will always turn what we do into a god of its own making. Truly, we are born of sin and sin will always be the desire of the natural heart. The difference is, by grace the believer fights against it, and through the gift of faith holds to the promise of forgiveness for Christ’s sake.

And so, we don’t just focus on wealth. Jesus adds, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” So, people, however we classify ourselves, need to be on guard against the love of things, because things are not what bring true joy and peace into our lives. They can enhance earthly life, but they do not make life.

But in the life we received when grafted into Christ through the waters of our baptisms, we find there is not just meaning, there is freedom, there is value, there is salvation. Jesus closed this parable with these words, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” So, first of all a word of warning.

If we spend our lives so focused on getting ahead that God and church become a nuisance, the end is eternal damnation. But the opposite is also true and gives us hope. When the Holy Spirit creates the gift of faith in us, it will take time, most likely a life time, but all who believe will come to see and give thanks that the treasures of heaven are not like the treasures of earth.

God revealed Himself to us in His Son Jesus, and Jesus has his own value system. Even though He is the creator and owner of all things, He lived among us as One without even a place to lay His head. Even though He had all authority over heaven and on earth, He humbled Himself and lived under the authority of the law.

Even though He is all-powerful, He made Himself nothing and offered Himself in our place to be punished for our sin by suffering and dying on the cross. Even though forgiveness, life, and salvation are worth more than anything we could ever offer in return, Jesus freely gives them to all who come to Him. And even though Jesus deserves our unending service, it is He who comes to you again, right now, that He might lovingly serve you with the gift of Himself through His Word and Sacraments, a gift that by grace through faith makes you and all who believe rich toward God.

In His Name, Amen.

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