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Tree of Fruit or Apple?

November 29, 2020
By Rev. David French

From beginning to end, the Bible tells but one story: the history of our salvation. But to appreciate the end of that story, we need to understand its beginning. As you know, the story of mankind’s salvation does not begin with the incarnation of Christ, but with the promise of Christ. We see that story in the Jesse Tree—a story that is Jesus’s story, and so is our story as well.

If you look around outside you can most likely see a tree: an oak, a pine, a maple; they’re all around us. And, like you, the mightiest tree in nature began as a small seed, so small that the world takes no notice. More often than not, when we do notice, it’s because they’re bothering us. But still, just as each acorn, helicopter, or seed from within a pinecone that takes root is a continuation of that one tree’s story, so also in Jesse’s tree is one story in which we, and all who believe, have a part.

All of us are familiar with the account of creation from the book of Genesis. With the words “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” humanity’s view of the history of the universe begins. We also know that the crown of creation came on the sixth day when “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). Clearly, creation, including the human race, did not come about by accident or chance, but by an intentional act of the eternal will of God. Again and again, God sees what He had made. Again and again, He called it “good.”

And good it was! Then, God planted a garden we know as Eden to provide for all the needs of the man and the woman. There, our first parents lived a life of harmony and peace with nature, with each other, and with the One who had created them. At that time, sin and its deadly consequences were unknown in the world.

Many over the ages have dreamed of living again in an earthly Eden, a utopia of man’s own making. That goal, however, has never been achieved. In fact, it usually ends very badly. Again and again, we see that only God can create that which is good in a way we, as sinners, will never understand … a true Eden.

The unspoiled paradise known as Eden, more beautiful than we can imagine, did not last. You and I can see the result of that loss by looking around us or by looking into a mirror. We see brokenness and sin. We see hate and violence. We see despair and hopelessness. In other words, our eyes bear witness to what happened to the Garden of Eden. You know the story. The serpent tempted the woman. Adam stood by and watched, and then soon joined with his wife in eating the fruit of the one tree in all of creation that God had forbidden them to eat. But remember, their sin din not begin with the physical eating that was the outward expression of their sin. The sin began within their hearts when they chose to listen to the serpent and disobey the one command, that in effect came that we might have free will. A seed of doubt grew to an act that would close the gates of Eden to all humanity.

What does the Creator do to those who sinned against Him? Reject them? No, God is love itself, and that love reached out to Adam, to Eve, and to all their descendants. So great is His love that He could not destroy His creation or just leave it to destroy itself. In love God created the man and the woman, and in love He would provide a way of redemption, a way that He had known from eternity. It was a price only He could pay, a price paid by (as the King James version so beautifully translates it) a “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8). Sin brings death. And yet, from death springs life. Even though Adam and Eve and all who have been or will be born of them are borne of sin and its curse, still our loving Creator has not deserted us.

In fact, He not only didn’t reject us, he has embraced us and joined Himself to us. Before Adam and Eve ever heard of their punishment, God had already spoken the first promise of salvation, saying to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15). In the Hebrew, the word for “offspring” is also the word for “seed.” That is, with these words, the love of God shines through the newly arrived darkness. There would be one seed that would defeat the serpent. And yet, that seed would not be the seed of man and woman, like we are. No, this seed is of the woman; that is, a divine conception.

The tree of Jesse begins with a seed, a seed present but dormant in Eve. In love, God remembered His promise through every generation of fallen humanity. Through every one of those generations, the Seed that was promised as Eden closed would be present even though hidden to human eyes.

When the fullness of time had come, in the womb of a daughter of Eve, the Virgin Mary, that promised Seed would spring forth and grow. This was the Seed of the woman promised some sixty-three generations before when sin first entered the world. From Mary’s womb would come the Creator himself, joined to His creation in the God-Man, Jesus. He is the Redeemer and Promised One.

The promise and all that was lost by Adam is restored by the Seed of the woman. He is the Christ, the Messiah. The Lamb of God, the one and perfect final sacrifice whose blood reverses the curse of the fall and brings grace and forgiveness to the entire human race. This Jesus, He is the Son of God and the Son of Man. He is the new Adam who bears the sin of the old Adam and every other human being who was, is, or will be born into this world and carried it all to a cross. From the tree on Eden would come death to all humanity, but from the tree on Calvary would come life for all humanity.

This is the Christ of Easter by whose resurrection all the universe is forever changed. This is the Lamb into whom you and I were baptized to share in His death and resurrection. This is the Lamb whose body and blood have sustained us all at altars great and small. This is Jesus, the Seed of Jesse’s tree, and through Him, the Eden that was lost will be restored and open to all who believe for all eternity.

In the name of Him whose return we await, Amen.

Pax Christi

November 25, 2020
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 mediation on this Thanksgiving Eve comes from our epistle text, especially where Paul tells the Philippians, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

The story goes of a young man whose fiancée had had surgery. She’d come through the procedure well enough, expecting a quick (though not painless) recovery, and had gone home that night to recuperate at her parents’ house. She made it decently through the night, but early in the morning, began to feel pain at the surgical site. This pain intensified quickly, to the point where she was crying out in anguish. Though her parents and soon-to-be husband had strictly followed the instructions on her pain meds, it hadn’t been enough. They had under-prescribed her ….

They rushed her to the hospital in order to get the pain under control as the regular meds, hastily and belatedly administered, had had no effect. Over the next four hours in the emergency room, the medical personnel gave her four doses of a pain medication seven times as potent as morphine … it had no effect. And the young lady was still in abject agony. The doctors puzzled, then decided to try something different: they gave her a muscle relaxant, hoping the muscles would relax enough to allow the pain meds to reach the site and do their job.

It worked, because for the first time that morning, the young woman became calm. Then she told her fiancé, “I feel kinda drunk.” Then she passed out. Then the alarms started going off, with the monitors showing her blood-oxygen levels dropping rapidly. The young man rushed to her side, trying desperately to wake her up. She wouldn’t. He pressed the “Call Nurse” button on her bed; the nurse rushed in, also attempting to wake her, but to no avail. The nurse called out in the hallway for help and a doctor and two techs rushed in the room, trying in vain to revive the unconscious young woman. Then … the young man’s heart sank as the heart rate of his betrothed also started to drop.

He stepped out of the now crowded room as the medical professionals worked feverishly over his beloved. Their world came to a screeching halt as they listened in horror to the sound of her EKG flat-lining. He stood helplessly with her parents, watching, waiting. All he could do was pray the hardest prayer he’d ever had to pray: “Father, You have placed this wonderful woman into my life. If You are willing, please don’t take her now… But if You are not willing, let Your will be done.”

After arguably the longest five minutes of his life, thanks be to God, the alarms eventually stopped and the monitors resumed their normal pulsing tones. The technicians walked out of the room, and the doctor soon followed, telling the young man and his future in-laws that they could go back in. He walked up to his fiancée on the bed, stroking her hair in joy and relief; never had he been so thankful or cried so freely. She opened her eyes and, seeing all the tear-stained faces in the room, asked what was going on. All he could do was chuckle, kiss her on the forehead, and tell her, “Don’t you EVER do something like that to me again!”

God had answered that young man’s prayers, and to say that he was thankful for the outcome is an understatement. … What if it had not worked out that way? What if God had chosen to answer his prayers ... by saying “No”? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time in history that supplications on behalf of the dying were not answered in the manner desired. Would he have said, with Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”? Would he have been content and thankful for the time he’d had with her or would he despair, give up hope, become cold and jaded and thankless?

We can never know what could have been, but the question is raised in the minds of those going through incredibly difficult and trying times. Can you say, even in those difficult moments, “Thank You, O LORD”? There’s no doubt that there are seasons of life in which this phrase can be very difficult to speak. At the unexpected death of a loved one … loss of employment … a relationship that sours and withers. “Thank You, O LORD”? Sounds more like feigned optimism, whistling past the graveyard. You may even think that’s what Paul is doing in his letter to the Philippians, but you’d be wrong.

Though we don’t know for sure, it’s very possible that Paul was in prison as he was writing this “thank you” letter to the Philippians. They had supported him, prayed for him, provided for him through his missionary work in the Mediterranean, and Paul makes his gratitude known. He begins his letter, by telling them, “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.” They’d been steadfast in their faith and support, partners with Paul in his ministry efforts to spread the Gospel of Christ Jesus, through good times and difficult times … and Lord knows there were plenty of the latter. In the course of his ministry, Paul had endured much suffering and anguish: beatings, imprisonments, stoning, being shipwrecked and adrift at sea, endangered by nature and sinful men, hunger, thirst, cold, exposure, not to mention his “anxiety for all the churches.” And yet, as he’s sitting there in prison, he writes to his faithful fellow Christians in Philippi, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

This is how Paul is able to remain so joyful, so thankful, in the midst of squalor and ruin and violence and death. He knows that all temporal things are just that: temporal. It is not that they do not matter, but they don’t have the final say. All such things pass, but the forgiveness of sins won for us by the very same crucified and resurrected Jesus that Paul preached is truly universal. To those who believe that He is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” they have the blessed assurance that, regardless of the absurd horrors and pains we will know in this life, THEY CANNOT TOUCH WHO WE ARE IN CHRIST. Nothing in all of creation, good or bad, can snatch us from the pierced hands of our Savior! This is why Paul writes, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

It is Christ who strengthens us to face the trials of living in this broken world, who gives us His peace in the midst of the cacophony by declaring to us, “YOUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN! LIFE ETERNAL IS YOURS! I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” The peace of Christ would have remained with that young man, even if his worst fears had been realized and he’d lost the love of his life that day. The peace of Christ remains with all those who are enduring such trials, even as their eyes are being closed in death. The peace of Christ remains … because His holy absolution remains. On the eve of a rather muted, unfestive, perhaps even melancholy Thanksgiving, we have much to be thankful for. Christ has met our greatest need, given us His great gift of peace; thus, we sing with the psalmist of old, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever!”

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

Too Good to Be True?

November 22, 2020
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 mediation for this last Sunday of the Church year comes from our Old Testament text where Isaiah records the Word of YHWH, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

One year ago, we started doing something we’ve not done before here at St. James: we started utilizing the historic one-year lectionary. With its different readings and emphases, we’ve often seen these texts, and how they connect, in new and unique ways. Looking back now, especially as we approach a brand-new church year and a return to the three- year series, I can say it’s been a fun journey … but let’s be honest, the year in which we underwent this journey was something of a dumpster fire.

I doubt that’s a controversial statement. Thankful as we are for all the blessings God so freely and graciously bestows upon us—chief among them is the gift of His Word—the year in which we’ve gone through the one-year lectionary has been among the most dismal, disappointing, upsetting, unsettling, and trying years in recent history. Without going into the minutiae of why this year has been so rough—as if I needed to—it’s safe to say we’ve all been affected. Overall, we’re more disheartened and depressed, angry that even our holidays aren’t immune (pardon the pun) to the ravages of this terrible year. I’ve said it more than a handful of times, and I’m sure you have too: “2020 can take a long walk off a short pier.”

Thus, it’s understandable to hear the words of our Old Testament lesson and feel somewhat … unconvinced. There seems to be a disconnect between these beautiful words of YHWH through His mouthpiece Isaiah and the reality of living in this broken world. “… be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create”? “… no more shall be heard … the sound of weeping and the cry of distress”? “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain”? Given the current circumstances in our world, this sounds too good to be true, and as Grandpa Heckert was wont to say, “If it seems too good to be true, that’s because it usually is.”

Normally, that is sound advice; I’m assuming everyone would meet the news of a long-lost relative leaving you a massive fortune … with no small amount of skepticism. For good or for ill, suspicion and cynicism are endemic to the human experience. Thus, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the mindset of the people to whom Isaiah was writing: the captive Judahites, trudging their way to, or already languishing in, Babylon. This once proud people had been brought low … very low … driven into the dirt by the hordes of Babylonian conquerors. To be sure, it was not undeserved; they had whored themselves out to false gods, abused the poor and the destitute, abused the power and gifts entrusted to them. The Messianic people … shattered their commitment to keeping God’s covenant. They relished in their hatred for their neighbor, and they adored their false gods pilfered from surrounding peoples. They deserved everything they got and more when God used Babylon as the agent of His wrath … and here they were, reaping the destruction they’d sown in their sin, slogging through the blistering wilderness to captivity.

I can imagine the few faithful amongst that faithless people trying to encourage their brothers and sisters in chains. No doubt, they would have quoted our very text: “I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. … They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.”

We can see how some might hear these words and disparage them.  After all, Jerusalem had fallen, the people were in distress, helpless and at the mercy of their foreign captors. All these words of encouragement, these reminders of YHWH’s eternal faithfulness, the promises He had made to His people … likely fell on many deaf ears. But the words of YHWH given through His prophets aren’t always about the immediate context. He’s not a genie granting wishes at your whims. His words of promise don’t always find their fulfillment in the here and now, and His words may not always seem pragmatic … but that doesn’t mean that they have no value.

On the contrary, YHWH Elohim has a history of making promises … and a strong reputation for keeping them. While many who were marched along that desert highway to Babylon wouldn’t live to see the Persian redemption of Judah, they still had the promise that God would act in His own time. He would keep His promises … and He has, and He does, and He will. He did protect His people through their captivity in Babylon. He did overthrow that wicked nation by using the rod of His wrath, Cyrus of Persia. He did bear His people Judah back through the wilderness to Jerusalem. He did, through the promptings of prophets and leaders, rebuild the city and the temple. And “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

That is, after all, who all of YHWH’s promises pointed to. In the history of the world to this point, there have been no greater promises given – and fulfilled – than those concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ. He was born of a virgin woman, from the line of Judah, in the city of David. He did keep God’s Law perfectly. He did heal and teach and amaze and infuriate. He was lead silently like a lamb to the slaughter in the house of Pontius Pilate, who in turn delivered Him over to be crucified. He was wounded for our transgressions, and He was crushed for our iniquities. Wicked men did cast lots for His clothing, even as they gloated and mocked over His unspeakable suffering. He did die upon the cross of Calvary after accomplishing all necessary things. His lifeless body was placed into the tomb of a rich man, a sinner. He did rise from the dead, just as He said He would. He did appear numerous times to His disciples. He did ascend to heaven, where He is ruling over His people with justice and equity. Does that sound too good to be true? No doubt. But all these promises were foretold … and all were accomplished! Exactly as He said they would be!

God is God, and when He makes a promise, He keeps it. That’s who He is. And there’s one promise yet to be accomplished, one that I’d wager we’ve all been praying would be accomplished in the near future here. “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.” In this COVID-laden, politically unstable, nasty, vitriolic world in which we live, does that sound too good to be true? Probably, but it is true, and it is truly good. We were not promised health, wealth, and happiness. But what we were promised … is that Jesus is coming back, to make all things new, once and for all … and like all His promises, in His time, it’s a promise that He will keep.

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

A Third Option

November 15, 2020
By Rev. David French

To get a feel for how bizarre the situation in today’s gospel lesson is, we need to consider the cultural context of the time. While there are a lot of things that can be said about the Pharisees, one that is relevant for today is that they were extremely nationalistic. They believed that Jerusalem should be ruled by Jews, and Jews alone. After all, the Law of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy [17:15] does say, “One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.” But the Pharisees were also realistic. On the one hand, they understood the Roman army was very powerful and there was nothing they or anyone else in Israel could do to stop them from making whoever they wanted to be king. On the other hand, if someone did bring them a reasonable plan to get Rome out of Israel, they were very willing to help, behind the scenes, of course, in any way they could.

The Herodians however were the exact opposite. As you might guess from their name, they supported King Herod. It was the Romans who had designated Herod the Great as a puppet king and allowed our Herod to stay in power after his grandfather and father died. The problem was the Herod family was not Jewish. The fact that these two groups were working together to attack Jesus speaks volumes about the hate they shared for Him. The idea was to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. They asked Jesus a question that was worded in a way that would cause trouble: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If he answered yes, then the people who hated the Romans would hate Him. If He answered no, then the Herodians would report Him to the Romans and have Him arrested. The trap was set.

The thing is, it’s not so easy to trap Jesus, and He quickly exposes the flaw in their plan. They assumed there were only two possible answers to their question. Jesus came up with a third option: “… render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” You see, these enemies of Jesus created what’s called a false dilemma. That is, they wrongly assume there are only two alternatives. The Pharisees and Herodians suggest that either you pay your taxes or you don’t. Jesus simply exposed their faulty thinking by showing that there was actually a right answer. Give to each of them what belongs to them. That is, Jesus teaches there should be a separation between church and state.

With His answer He instructs God’s children that above all else, they are to give to God the honor, glory, and obedience due His name. That in spiritual matters, things concerning the Scriptures, worship, faith, conscience, and the like, we pay no attention to man. But in earthly matters, things concerning money, possessions, even our bodies, we are to respect and obey the government because as we learn in Romans 13, “… there is no authority except that which God has established” … and what God establishes is good. That means we have to keep in mind, then and now, that an abuse of God’s good gift does not make it evil. That is, the government is due respect even if the people who fill it aren’t. It was a false dilemma.  

Satan, the world, and our own corrupt reasons often present us with false dilemmas. One that endangers the salvation of our very souls is the dilemma between self-righteousness and despair. The lie goes something like this: As we read the Bible, we see that God gives us a lot to do. Do you do what God commands and are on your way to heaven or are you failing to do what God commands and are on your way to hell? This false dilemma, as the result of our sinful condition, is the only thing the unbeliever knows. As we read in 1 Corinthians 14, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” That Sprit, by the way, is the Spirit you received in your baptism.

To the unbeliever, the Bible simply says: good guys go to heaven and bad guys go to hell and here are some rules to judge yourselves by. So, the question becomes: Am I good or bad? And if you answer “good,” how do you know if you’re good enough? You see, I can deny the truth of my sin and insist that I am one of the “good guys” on my way to heaven, but that self-righteous attitude contradicts the word of God we confessed just ten minutes ago: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

My other option, according to this false dilemma, is recognizing the depth of my sin and be left believing there is simply no hope for someone like me. What a joy it is to learn that the two options offered by the Law are not the only options. Just as Jesus provided a third answer to the Pharisees and Herodians, He provides a third answer to this false dilemma of the Law. As you also confessed eleven minutes ago: “But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In this way, God forgives our sin, makes us righteous, and gives us hope. My friends, God has given us a third option through the life and death of Jesus Christ.

Remember, Jesus actually did what God the Father sent Him to do. He kept the law perfectly. He then went to the cross and bore the punishment for our sin which opened the door for that third option to all who believe. Now by grace through faith you are no longer responsible for your salvation. Jesus took that responsibility from you when He came into the world to live and die for you and mercifully gives you the credit as He clothes you with the robe of His righteousness in the waters of your baptism.

The intention of the Pharisees and the Herodians meeting in today’s reading, which takes place on Tuesday of Holy Week, was to make Jesus irrelevant by asking a trick question. When that didn’t work, they gave up on being subtle and decided that the only way to remove Jesus from the scene was to kill Him. During the next few days, they carried out their plan and managed to have Jesus both tried and crucified. As Jesus, with His last breath, gave up His spirit, satan and all the powers of sin rejoiced. They didn’t understand it was all part of God’s master plan and that overcoming death would be Jesus’s and our greatest victory. It’s because of that victory that we receive forgiveness, life, and salvation. It’s because of that victory that even though we die, we will never die.

In Jesus Christ there is a third option, an option that leads to life as God intended it to be. The life He offers to all, but is only received by those who, by grace through faith, believe He is truly our Lord and our beautiful Savior.

In His name, Amen

What Is Good

November 08, 2020
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 mediation on this 22nd Sunday after Trinity comes from our Old Testament text where Micah writes, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

YHWH has a case against His people Israel. The mountains and the hills will hear His indictment, and bear witness to the case. For far too long, the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of YHWH. They acted just as wickedly, perhaps more so, than the nations surrounding them. Their affluence and greed manifested as they stole from the poor and sorely oppressed those who had nothing. The rich got richer, gluttoning themselves on sumptuous morsels while others starved, and they thought nothing of the plight of their brothers and sisters. Oh, yes, YHWH has a case against His people, and Micah, a minor prophet contemporary with Isaiah, bears that message: “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”

There comes a reply, which we heard in our text: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Whether this is asked in contrition, a terrified placation, or snotty disdain, it belies a greater issue. How shall I please the LORD? What must I do to make things right? What’s the prescription? What will I have to do in order to be back in God’s good graces – presumably so that I can go back to my old ways and get the Old Man off my back?

I can imagine Micah being rather indignant at this response. How … could they not know what is good? How could they not know what was expected of them? Too many times had God sent His servants, the prophets, to deliver to them His Word. Too many times had He delivered them from the hands of their enemies, By the time of Micah’s prophesying during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, He had given them the Torah, His instruction. He had given them His Law and the Levitical code. They’d learned the lessons of faithless Israel during the period of the judges. They had seen the victory and defeat of respective faithful and faithless kings. In short, they knew better. Had they forgotten? Had the years of affluence and subsequent hedonism dulled their sense of what YHWH expected from them? How could they not know what is good?

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” YHWH has told you the way in which you should walk. He gave you all this information in His Word, passed down from generation to generation. In that Word, you learned how you are supposed to live amongst one another. You are to do, make justice. You are to be fair and honest in your dealings with your neighbor, not swindle and bamboozle your way into riches at his expense. You are to love kindness – that is, love loving others. It should be your joy and heart’s desire to show chesed, the Hebrew word roughly translated as “steadfast lovingkindness,” loyalty, mercy, faithfulness, to all those around you. And, you are to walk humbly with YHWH your God. Modest, reverential, always cognizant of your place before Him, conscious of your absolute and utter dependence upon Him, and simply receiving from Him His good and precious gifts.

This is what it is good in the sight of YHWH. This is what He wants, expects, demands of His people … and to be sure, the people Israel during Micah’s time could not be further from these descriptors. YHWH does have a case against His people, as the psalmist writes, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” YHWH has a case against His people for not doing the good they knew they ought to do, and gleefully engaging in the evil they knew they ought not to do. They did not do justice, they despised kindness, they walked haughtily hand-in-hand with other nations, but most egregious of all, the source of their lack of good, came from their whoring themselves out to false gods, abandoning the true God for worthless idols. Because of this, they would know the rod of YHWH’s divine wrath, His just punishment. … But, not all.

Throughout all the prophetic writings of the Old Testament, there is indeed doom and gloom proclaimed over the faithless of the nations, including Israel and Judah, but there are also words of hope and promise given to the faithful remnant. Micah is no different. Indeed, after our text, after he proclaims the destruction of the wicked, Micah follows it up with this message of hope: “But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.”

The hope for the remnant, even as they were trudged off to the darkness of Assyria and Babylon, was that YHWH’s light would abide with them. He would not abandon them, and more importantly, He would yet keep His promise given to all the generations to send the Messiah, the Lion of the tribe of Judah. True to His Word, YHWH rescued the faithful remnant of His people from Babylon, and centuries later, He Himself, the eternal Logos, took on human flesh to die for our sins. The prophets pointed to the Messiah, how He would save His people from their sins, and even though the faithful of Micah’s time didn’t see the Christ, they trusted YHWH’s promises concerning Him.

For us, who live after the life, ministry, suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ, we likewise trust God’s promises. We trust that His sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary satisfied the Father’s fully-justified wrath, and even when we don’t see it, we trust that His promises given in the waters of baptism are more than enough to bestow upon us salvation and life everlasting. Because the truth is, we too know what is good, and we are unable to do it. Though we know the good we ought to do, we do not do it, and the evil that we know we must abstain from is the very thing we keep on doing.

Wretched sinners that we are, by God’s grace, we know His goodness in sending One who was perfectly good for us. Thus, we can sing with Micah, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of His inheritance? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” We do know what – better, WHO – is good, and His goodness endures forever!

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

Tags: Micah 6:6-8

Join the Club

November 01, 2020
By Rev. David French

From the time roads and ditches have run together, preachers have been using them as metaphors. Ditches teach us that extremes can get you into trouble and avoiding them is a good thing to do. The Feast of All Saints is one of those festivals that is often seen from a ditch. In the one ditch are those who believe that saints are super Christians, people who were just plain better at living their faith than the rest of us. Some worship and pray to the saints. For them, saints take on godlike qualities. For some these saints are almost viewed the same way the Greeks viewed their gods. A god or a saint for health, wealth, protection, and on it goes.

Then there are the people who are trying to avoid that ditch and veer so hard the other way that they end up in the ditch on the other side of the road. They think things like, “We should focus on Jesus or the gifts of the spirit and just forget about the saints.” This is the ditch that leads us to think things like, “Isn’t remembering the saints sort of a Roman Catholic thing?” To which I would say, “No, remembering the saints is a Christian thing.” You see, if we end up in this ditch, we miss out on many of the lessons that God wants to teach us about Himself through His interactions in the lives of His saints. So, the question is, “How do we keep from driving into either one of these ditches?” And the answer is, keep your eyes on the Word of God as recorded by His apostles and prophets, that is, of course, the Bible.

If you look up the word translated as saint in a Greek dictionary, you find it means holy or morally pure. When Paul writes to the saints in Corinth, the Greek literally says to the holies in Corinth. When we translate that into English, we say to the holy ones or simply to the saints. The point is, God’s holy ones are the saints. But, even then, your thinking about saints is going to be colored by how you believe people become saints or holy. Is holiness some innate characteristic only possessed by a few? Is it something we can work on and, with time and effort, achieve? Is holiness a gift that we receive from outside of ourselves? It is important for us to understand just how it is that sinners become holy, and so, the saints of God?

The devil, the world, and especially our own flesh (pride, in this case), want us to believe that holiness is something we can work on. But then, every false religion in the world teaches that we must work out our own holiness, so the lie seems to be working … it’s at least popular. It doesn’t matter if it’s the five pillars of Islam, the eight-fold path of the Buddha, or following the golden rule. They may use different words, but in the end, they all teach that getting right with God depends on you.

Scriptures, however, speak about a different way of achieving holiness. The elder in today’s reading from Revelation wanted John to know just how a person is made holy. He began by asking John a question, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” (In other words, where did these holy ones come from?) The same elder gives us the answer just a verse later, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” What a beautiful picture this elder paints for John and for us with these words. In chapter 64 of the book of Isaiah [v. 6] we read, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment ….”

In today’s reading, this heavenly elder tells us that the blood of the Lamb removes that pollution making our garments white again. That is, it’s God’s lamb, the Christ’s holy and precious blood, His innocent suffering and death that removes the filth of our sin with its guilt that made them and makes us righteous and holy in God’s sight. Clearly God’s Word reveals it is not sinners who make themselves holy, but sinners who, by the grace of God, received the holiness of His Son through the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith that makes us holy in His sight. And that actually sounds like the way we become Christians. That’s because it is, which means according to the Bible, all Christians are saints and all saints are Christians.

But if you think you’re nowhere near holy enough to be a saint … join the club. St. Matthew was a Roman tax collector. St. Philip doubted that Jesus could feed the five thousand with a little bit of bread and fish. St. Peter denied ever knowing Jesus. St. Thomas doubted that Jesus rose from the dead. St. Paul called himself the chief of sinners because he persecuted the church before the Holy Spirit opened his eyes by creating faith in his heart. Remember when Paul wrote to the saints in Corinth, he had to scold them for quite a few serious problems. For example, they were abusing the Lord’s Supper. Paul wrote, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.” [1 Corinthians 11:20-21]. Now, I know we do things differently than in Jesus’s day, but can you even imagine staying at the Lord’s Table until you were drunk? What kind of a person does that? Well, according to God through Paul’s greeting in his letter to the saints, a saint was doing that.

You see saints aren’t perfect, far from it; but they were holy in God’s sight for one reason, their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. It’s with this biblical understanding of saints that we begin to understand why we should celebrate the Feast of All Saints. It is proper and good that we praise God for the men and women of faith whose works of love inspire us and who have left an example of what a God pleasing life is for us. It’s good that we honor the work that God has done in them with His gift of saving faith. It is also good that we honor the work that God has done through their lives that affected the lives of the people around them. It’s good that we remember and honor especially those from among us who are now a part of the Church Triumphant.

You see, when we honor the redeemed, we are also honoring the Redeemer. The saints who are holy in God’s eyes testify to the One who is holiness incarnate: our Lord Jesus Christ. They remind us it is His blood that covers all sin, and so allows us to stand confidently in the presence of our Triune God. It is being baptized into His death and resurrection that gives us that white robe. It’s His Word and sacraments that will bring us into the throne room of our Almighty God where we will never again suffer or know sorrow.

My friends, while it is true that we and all who believe are already saints, the battle with sin still rages all around and within us. That is, being simultaneously sinners and saints means we are now living our great tribulation. But take heart, by His death on the cross, the Lord Himself clothes each of us with His righteousness, and one day He will shepherd us into everlasting life. And in that blessed place, we and all who have gone before us will live in the eternal joy that is the incomprehensible fullness of God’s holy presence. 

In His name, Amen.

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