Mere Words Save

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 4:26-34

Dear pleasant planting of the Lord: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Talk is cheap, it is said. This is of course true of man’s word. It is far easier to talk of great things than accomplish them. It is easier to say that you care than to show that you care, just as it is easier for politicians to make promises than to deliver on those promises once elected.

We are so experienced and familiar with empty talk and vain words, that we tend to hold words to be of little significance or value. Even worse, we recognize our own gossip, slander, complaining; our own name-calling, cursing, and lying and we may indeed say silence is better than words.

Yet God has chosen to save us through words. Not just any words, but His words. God has chosen to save us not through miracles that we witness; not through astonishing incidents we experience; not through overpowering sensations we feel. God has chosen to save you through the humble means of human words. He has chosen to save you from eternal death and hell by His Word.

They are very particular words that save: words that express the Gospel – that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for your sins on the cross; particular words that tell you that God loved you so much that He sacrificed His Son for you; particular words that proclaim you justified, that is, declared not guilty for Christ’s sake through faith, when you believe that you are received into favour and that your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake.

These words are sown into hearts. The sower sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The sower simply scatters the Word. He’s not worried about the outcome.

Anyway, the growth is not in his hands. The earth automatically produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.

It may seem like a small, insignificant seed. Just mere words. But these seeds grow up and become larger than all the garden plants and put out branches so that birds can make nests in their shade.

God’s Word produces. It produces faith – saving faith which brings us to heaven. It produces works – good works which serve our neighbour and supply the proof that faith is living. God’s Word produces. It does not return to Him empty, but accomplishes that which God purposes, and succeeds in the thing for which He sends it (cf. Is. 55:11)

This is true for Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as well. Without God’s Word, the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of new birth in the Holy Spirit.

Without God’s Word, the bread and wine are plain bread and wine and no Lord’s Supper. But with Christ’s words, “This is my body… this is my blood… given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” He gives us exactly what He promises: His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

God’s Word does what it says it will do. It produces faith and it produces good works, which are the fruit of faith.

Jesus continued the parable saying, “But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Scripture often calls the close of the age or Judgment Day, the harvest. Once the grain is ripe, it is harvested.

There is only one Judgment Day, but in way, it does not come at the same time for all of us because we all die at different times. As the book of Hebrews tell us, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes the judgment” (Heb. 9:27) After death, there is no opportunity to repent or believe or do good works – these are all to be done while we are still alive.

Do not look at death from an earthly perspective. Look at death from God’s perspective. When the grain is ripe, He puts in the sickle because the harvest has come. When God has called His elect to faith and He has produced growth in them so that that are ripe, He harvests them into His barn. He takes them home to heaven.

From an earthly perspective, we sometimes hear it said that it was too soon. My parents were taken too early. My spouse died too soon. My poor little child died too young. God says, when the grain is ripe, He puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.

The earthly perspective forgets that heaven is our aim, our goal, our home. It is God’s aim, goal, and home for us. When our loved ones die in the faith, that is God harvesting His ripe grain. It is God taking His children home.

We have the same aim and goal as all believers – to be forever with the Lord. However, since we are still here on earth, that means it is not yet time for our harvest. It means that we are not yet ripe. We are still here to grow in faith and produce the fruit of faith. Even bed-ridden believers can pray for others while on their deathbeds and provide a witness of hope in God’s promises to their families. We can grow in faith and produce the fruit of faith until we are ripe, and then the harvest comes.

The harvest will come. The time will come when your appointed time to die arrives, and then comes the judgment. Because God’s Word has been sown in your heart and faith has sprouted and grown, you will be ripe for the harvest.

You have nothing to fear in death or on Judgment Day because Jesus has already been judged for your sins. You are baptized into His death and resurrection and you eat His body and drink His blood for the forgiveness of all your sins, so you will receive your promised inheritance of eternal life.

This is not empty talk or vain words. It is almighty God’s promise to you that is sure and certain. Heaven and earth will pass away, but God’s promise to you will not pass away (Matt. 24:35). Man’s words are empty. But when God speaks, it is already done. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Jesus: Crazy, Possessed, or God?

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 3:20-35

Dear goods plundered from Satan: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus is out of His mind, claimed His family. He is possessed by Satan, said the scribes. Whoever does not do the will of God comes to the same conclusions.

You either take what Jesus said and taught, believe it, and do the will of God, or you reject what Jesus said and taught, do not believe, and do not do the will of God. It’s not a game of picking and choosing. You don’t pick and choose what you like out of what Jesus’ said and taught. It’s all or nothing. You must conclude either that He is God and speaks the truth, or He was insane and a lunatic. Everything He said and did He said and did as God, or He said and did for Satan. There is no middle ground.

There was no denying that Jesus had been casting out demons. Satan’s unclean spirits fell down before Jesus, and He showed His power and authority over them by casting them out. Jesus has power and authority demons. He was casting them out either by the power of God, or the power of the devil, the prince of demons.

The scribes argued that Jesus did it with the power of the devil. They said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out demons.” They rejected what Jesus said and taught, so that was the only conclusion to which they could arrive.

His family wasn’t much better. They said that He’s lost His mind. He’s off His rocker. He’s gone crazy. His family went out to seize Him; to grab Him by force and take Him away from the crowds because they were saying, “He is out of His mind.”

The followers of Christ should expect no different treatment from those who do not do the will of God, whether they are our family or not. Where we cling to what Jesus said and taught, they will think that we are out of our minds.

Jesus said things with which our rational minds have problems. The man Jesus says that He is the Son of God the Father, making Himself equal with God (Jn 5:17-18). He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (Jn 6:53)

You must either believe what Jesus says or conclude that He is out of His mind. If you do believe Jesus’ words, then the world will conclude that you are out of your mind, just as they have concluded that Jesus is out of His mind.

To conclude that Jesus is out of His mind is much the same as concluding that Jesus is in league with Satan. Since the work of the Holy Spirit is calling sinners to believe in who Jesus is and trust His work of salvation, those who reject the Holy Spirit’s call to faith and say that Jesus is crazy or demon-possessed are in danger of committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Jesus says that whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.

The calling of the Holy Spirit may take place over a significant period of time, but there comes a time when faith either takes root or is rejected. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is refusing to believe, denying the Gospel, rejecting who Jesus is and what He has done. This is why the sin against the Holy Spirit is mortal and unforgiveable. It is a rejection of forgiveness.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is to reject His call to repentance. It is not about any particular sin, but it is refusing to turn away from any sin and receive forgiveness. Every other sin can be forgiven. No other sin is an eternal sin. We are all sinful and commit sin every day. Some Christians even fall into great shame and vice in their weakness. But these sins are not the same as blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is refusing to turn away from sin when you are called to repentance and faith through God’s Word. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is not any act of sin, however heinous, but a state or habit of sin which someone wilfully choses and in which he persists in opposition to the Holy Spirit.

It is important to note that Jesus did not say that the scribes or His family had already committed the unforgiveable sin. He warned them of the danger of committing it. We know certainly that Jesus’ brothers James and Jude later believed (cf. I Cor. 9:5), and especially James became an important figure in the early church. We know that Jesus’ mother Mary believed and is found at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:26-27).

The warning is that if someone hardens his heart when the Holy Spirit is calling him to faith, he is in a very dangerous place where the Holy Spirit may eventually stop calling him. Death may come. Christ may return. This then is final impenitence and unbelief – the unforgivable sin which is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

However, the Holy Spirit has revealed to us that Jesus is God and He is not out of His mind. We cannot always understand His mind. His thoughts not our thoughts, neither are His ways our ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways and His thoughts higher than our thoughts (Is. 55:8-9).

God does things that don’t make sense to us. He allows things to happen in the world and in our lives that we cannot see as being good.

Yet we trust in Jesus. We trust that He loves us and does everything only for our eternal good. Surely He only wants what is good for us since He has plundered us from the devil.

Satan did not defeat himself. Satan did not cast out Satan. Jesus bound Him and then plundered his house. Jesus rendered Satan powerless and then saved the captured prey from his house.

In our sins, we were hopeless to save ourselves and escape from Satan. Because of our sins we deserve to spend eternity with Satan in hell. But Jesus would not have it so. Jesus is the stronger one (cf. Mark 1:7) who bound Satan. Jesus “took captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8) and plundered Satan’s house, saving us from under his power. Our sin which held us captive under Satan has been forgiven. We have been released from the Law which would accuse us (Rom. 7:6).

Satan’s reign over us has been destroyed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our sins do not keep us captive to Satan. Jesus bound Satan and he is thus powerless to hold us captive. And since Jesus took captivity captive, captivity itself is captured. There is no longer any captivity to threaten God’s people. Christ has conquered sin, death, and the devil and He has made us free. There is no threat of hell for us.

All true believers come to the same conclusion. We take what Jesus said and taught, believe it, and do the will of God. We believe and follow Jesus’ Word even when we cannot completely understand it. We believe and follow Jesus’ Word even when the world rails against us for being crazy. We believe and follow Jesus’ Word, because His Word is eternal life. His Word has given us faith in His death for us, so that we know that we have been plundered from the devil and are safe in His Church where He forgives our sins and brings us to eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Treasure in Jars of Clay

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost based on II Corinthians 4:5-12

Dear recipients of the great divine treasure: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

We take division as a given when it comes to many things in this life. Even within families we are divided by politics and we root for opposing sports teams. We accept this. Aunt Molly won’t get invited to the summer family barbeque because no one wants to listen to her never-ending songs of praise to the Liberal Party. Uncle Jack won’t get invited to watch the football game with the rest because he cheers with a bit too much fervour for the Bombers. We don’t have any problem with this. This makes sense to us. Yet we struggle with the words of Jesus that He brings division; that families and even the visible church on earth will be divided, requiring us not to share in altar fellowship with those who do not believe, teach, and confess what we do.

Show all the zeal you want for your favourite political party. Show passion and enthusiasm for your favourite sports team. That’s all well and good. People have no problem with that. But you had better not show zeal for Jesus and His Word of truth. Doing so, you will immediately find yourself in real conflict. You had better not confidently confess what you know to be true because that will offend people and then you will have conflict of the kind with which people do have a problem.

Most especially, this is the life of the ministers of Christ. If a pastor is going to fulfil his ordination vows, he will deal with and face conflict. Not polite disagreement. Not respectful dialogue. It is conflict of eternal proportions, as we take our place in the conflict between heaven and hell; between God and the devil.

Saint Paul writes that death is at work in pastors. Ministry is deadly. That’s why we are tempted to take the easy way out. Avoid the conflict. Keep the peace. Do not acknowledge division. Just give people whatever they want. In other words, we are tempted to not fulfil our ministry.

Our own unworthiness doesn’t help either. We are not worthy to undertake this task of ministry. We’re poor, miserable sinners just like our parishioners. Saint Paul himself said that he is not sufficient in himself for the task of ministry (II Cor. 3:5). He called himself the foremost or chief of sinners (I Tim. 1:15) and the least of the apostles (I Cor. 15:9).

However, he also writes that our sufficiency does not come from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God who has made us competent to be ministers (II Cor. 3:5-6). We are just jars of clay; earthen vessels. Such vessels are cheap, unappealing, and rather common. They are the least valued and bound to break sooner or later.

Yet, astonishingly, God gives His divine treasure, His own presence of grace which is absolutely priceless and beyond all value in wretched vessels awaiting destruction. Through pastors as jars of clay, God gives His great treasure to His people. God being our sufficiency, we share in Christ’s sufferings (Php 3:10), and as we heard Saint Paul write to the Church in Corinth, “We who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake… So death is at work in us, and life in you.”

Indeed, Saint Paul writes to the saints in Colossae that he rejoices in his sufferings for their sake, and in his flesh, he is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, the Church (Col. 1:24). Certainly, Paul is not suggesting that he is adding to or completing Christ’s work of atonement, but rather, that his weaknesses and sufferings as Christ’s messenger, and the death at work in him, helps the power of Christ and the glory of God truly shine. The jar of clay is seen to be what it is, and God’s divine treasure is seen for what it is.

So also, every pastor’s weaknesses and sufferings are for the sake of the Gospel. Every conflict we face is for our congregations, even when those conflicts come with members of our congregations. Death is at work in us for the sake of our congregations.

We may be afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken by God, or destroyed. Yes, even if are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, it is in order that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

In what way is the life of Jesus be manifested in pastors’ bodies? By us never dying? Certainly not. Rather, the life of Jesus is manifested in what He does through our mortal bodies.

The life of Jesus is manifested in our bodies when Jesus uses our mouth and hands to baptize and save an infant from the devil’s clutches. The life of Jesus is manifested in our bodies when Jesus absolves a penitent using our mouth. The life of Jesus is manifested in our bodies when we distribute His living body and blood to His people, giving them eternal life. Death is at work in our bodies which are made of earth and will return to earth, even while life is at work in you, to whom Jesus gives eternal life through us. This manifests the life of Jesus in our bodies.

Jesus gives His treasure of eternal life in jars of clay. The life of Jesus will also be manifested in your mortal flesh when He raises your bodies from the dead. That is the life of Jesus manifested in you. Sinful men deserving eternal punishment being raised to eternal life.

The light of God has shone in your hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. This is the treasure given to you in jars of clay.

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” If a pastor is preaching about himself, he is proclaiming himself, not Christ. That’s an immediate warning flag and a sign of false teachers. A pastor is to preach Christ crucified and to serve Christ’s bride, the Church, even when it means facing affliction and conflict. He is to proclaim not himself, but Christ, and bring to Christ’s people the great treasure of the life of Jesus.

The life of Jesus is your eternal life, because He lived and died for you. To this treasure we cling even in affliction and conflict; even when we see that it causes division. Christ in His conflict with death, defeated death, so even as death pursues us all the way, we know that the life of Jesus will be manifested in us when He raises us on the Last Day.

Christ sends this message to you in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. Christ and His life for you are the treasure. Cling to that truth with all zeal, passion, and enthusiasm, even if it causes division. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Born of Water and the Spirit

Sermon for Festival of the Holy Trinity based on John 3:1-17

Dear people born of water and the Spirit: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

If there are many ways to heaven, then it doesn’t matter what you believe or to what church you go. Do what you like. Find your own way that suits you. Go to whatever church makes you most comfortable.

Jesus, however, says that the way to see the kingdom of God is through Baptism. Indeed, He says that if you are not baptized you cannot get into heaven. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus said nothing about making a decision to follow Him in order to get to heaven. He said nothing about inviting Him into your heart and making Him your personal Lord and Saviour. He said nothing about praying a sinner’s prayer, being dedicated to Him, making an altar call, or being confirmed. He said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Being born of water and the Spirit is being born again. It is not a physical birth, like our first birth. If this second birth was a physical birth like the first, we would be no better off, since “flesh gives birth to flesh.”

Jesus makes it clear He is speaking of a spiritual birth. You must be born as a new creature and rescued from death and the devil. You must be born of water and the Spirit.  One might be tempted to ask, “How can water do such great things?” Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. Thus St. Paul calls Baptism “a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” and in the last chapter of Mark we read, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” And here Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

You can hear this as pure Law, as a command that you must be baptized along with your family. It certainly is Law, as Baptism is commanded by God. Rejecting Baptism is rejecting God’s promise to you.

Baptism, however, is the most beautiful Gospel. How much better of a promise could God make to you? “Baptism… saves you,” the Holy Spirit tells us through Saint Peter (I Pet. 3:21).

You are not saved by your own works or efforts. You are not saved by your own decisions, commitments, or prayers. If your salvation depended on these, it would never be certain. You could never know that you have worked enough, put in enough effort, made the right decisions, been committed enough, or prayed fervently and sincerely enough.

Thus, God makes salvation so easy for you. Baptism saves. He takes the guess work out of it and takes the work of salvation out of your hands and into His own, so that it will be sure and certain.

Baptism is not magic. It is God’s promise, and it is received by faith. That faith is also given by God in Baptism because He gives us His promise in Baptism. If you do not trust and believe God’s promise of salvation to you, then whose promise do you trust? Those promises that men make to you? Those promises that you yourself make? As opposed to all other promises, God’s promises are certain. Baptism cannot be useless, because what God institutes and commands and to which He attaches His promises cannot be useless.

Baptism was not devised or invented by men. It was not spun out of some man’s imagination, but revealed and given by God Himself, so we can boast that Baptism is no human plaything but is instituted by God Himself.

But here the devil sets to work to blind us with false appearances and to lead us away from God’s work to our own. It makes a much more splendid appearance when man is so dedicated that he goes on a difficult pilgrimage or when man dedicates himself to follow Jesus. It is impressive when someone makes a big donation to a charity or dedicates his life to serve those in an impoverished country. The achievements and merits of man are seen to be great and impressive. Mad reason rushes forth and because Baptism is not dazzling like the works that man does, it is regarded as worthless.

However, Baptism is such a great work because it is God who baptizes. It is performed by the hand and voice of man, but it is truly God’s own act. It is God putting His claim on the one being baptized. It is God forgiving sins. It is God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit putting His name on the baptized and giving His promises.

So great is Baptism that it is the killing of the Old Adam in us and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which continue in us our whole life long. For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever pertains to the Old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth.

What is the old creature? It is what is born in us from Adam: irritable, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, proud – yes – unbelieving; it is beset with all vices and by nature has nothing good in it. Now, when we enter Christ’s kingdom, this corruption must daily decrease so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more we break away from greed, hatred, envy, and pride.

Where the old creature is given free rein and continually grows stronger, there Baptism is not being used, but resisted. Where Baptism is used, there is repentance. What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into a new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in Baptism.

Baptism remains forever. Even though someone falls from it and sins, we always have access to it so that we may again subdue the old creature. Baptism does not fade or wear out.

Baptism remains forever because God’s promises in Baptism remain forever. The Son of Man was lifted up on the cross and there paid for your sins and you receive the results of that payment in Baptism, because you receive forgiveness of sins in Baptism.

When you sin, remember your Baptism. Baptism saves. God has made salvation so easy for you. He has taken the guess work out of salvation by doing it all for you. Jesus died so that you will live, and He gives you this new life in Baptism. Your salvation is sure and certain because Baptism is sure and certain. The promises that God made to you in your Baptism remain true because God cannot lie.

The only true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has claimed you as His own. You have been born again. You have been born through water and the Spirit. Thus, you will see the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

(Some portions of this sermon are rephrased from the Large Catechism, Part IV on Baptism.)

The Holy Day of Pentecost

Sermon for Pentecost based on Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Dear hearers of the Gospel: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Pentecost is one of the three chief holy days of the Church, along with Christmas and Easter. Fifty days after Easter, it is the day that the Gospel goes into all the world. It is the day that the Christmas and Easter message is heard by peoples of different nations and languages. Pentecost is thus considered the day the Christian Church was born.

So that peoples of different languages could hear and understand the Gospel, the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the supernatural ability to speak the Gospel in the languages of the people visiting Jerusalem from all over the known world. It was the miracle prophesied by the prophet Joel.

Pentecost was a reversal of what God had done at Babel. At Babel, God confused the language of all the earth.

The people of the earth gathered together in sinful pride at Babel. God had blessed Noah and his family, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” (Gen. 9:1) but not much later the people gathered in Babel so that they would not be dispersed over the face of the earth (Gen. 11:4). They wanted to make a name for themselves. They saw no need for God to get to heaven. They wanted to build a tower themselves that reached heaven. They trusted in themselves and were united in rebellion against God.

In order to squash their rebellion, God confused their language. No, God was not concerned that they could actually build a tower to reach heaven, but He was concerned at their rebellious attitude towards Him. They did not want to follow God’s instructions to fill the earth, so God confused their language and forced them to disperse and fill the earth. God crushed their rebellious pride as He took even their ability to communicate away.

Pentecost, however, was to unite all the peoples of the earth. It was to unify all nations in the promises of the Gospel. On Pentecost, God overcame the confusion of language, as each person heard the Gospel in his own language. This is because the Gospel is for every nation, for all tribes and peoples and languages (cf. Rev. 7:9). On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit bore witness about Jesus, that His death was for everyone; that He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world; that He rose again from the dead to open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

The Holy Spirit continues to do what He started on Pentecost. He continues to convict the world concerning sin (Jn 16:8).

The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in Jesus for salvation. He convicts us of our rebellion against God and leads us to repentance. He convicts us that by ourselves, we are dry bones, but through Jesus, the Holy Spirit has given us the breath of life so that we will live eternally (cf. Ezk. 27:1-14).

The Holy Spirit must convict us of sin if we are to believe the Gospel. See, the Gospel is only good news for sinners. It is only good news if you need it. If you think you’re not a sinner, the Gospel is foolishness to you. If you think that you’re not a sinner, the Gospel sounds like drunken speech to you, just as it did to unbelievers on Pentecost.

However, the Holy Spirit has convicted us that we are sinners. We know that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

He has also convicted us of righteousness (Jn 16:8). Not our own righteousness, but that of Christ. Christ is the Righteous One, and His righteousness covers our sin. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

That’s why Jesus told the disciples that it is to their advantage if He goes away and would then send the Holy Spirit to them (Jn 16:7).

Consider this: after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the disciples were still mostly timid and afraid. They hid in fear behind locked doors even after Jesus had appeared to them, proving that He has risen from the dead (Jn 20:26). They were still troubled with doubts arising in their hearts, even when Jesus was with them (Lk. 24:38). They still disbelieved and were confused and afraid, even as Jesus opened the Scriptures to them (Lk 24:41).

Then Jesus ascended into heaven and sent them the Holy Spirit, and everything changed. The apostles were no longer afraid, but they were bold.

When those in Jerusalem heard the sound of the mighty rushing wind and gathered together, Peter didn’t cower in fear even when people mocked them as being drunk. He boldly went out and preached to them. You know what he said? He called them murderers! He accused them of crucifying and killing God! (Acts 2:23) Peter knew what they were capable of. He had heard them shout “crucify!” not too many days before. Yet, he preached to them, calling them to account for what they had done.

And when the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees arrested Peter and John and dragged them before the same Council that had just crucified Jesus, even there, Peter did not cower in fear, but he accused them of the same thing as he had accused the crowd – the murder of Jesus (Acts 4:10). The threats of the council only resulted in the apostles praying for more boldness to keep preaching (Acts 4:29).

The apostles were changed. The Holy Spirit had made them bold to preach the truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was to their advantage the Jesus went away and sent them the Holy Spirit.

This is also to our advantage. Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and He there intercedes for us. And He has sent us the Holy Spirit, who has called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts, sanctified and kept us in the true faith.

The Holy Spirit also makes us bold. We may not have to face a council who seeks to put us to death, but we will have to face death. We will have to face suffering, trials, and temptations. We can face all these with boldness and confidence, because this Pentecost we once again hear the Christmas and Easter message that God took on human flesh to suffer and die for us on the cross and He rose again, defeating death for us.

The Holy Spirit grants you to hear this in your own language, a language that you understand, so that you will believe and receive eternal life. Hearing the Gospel message of the Old Testament in Hebrew or the New Testament in Greek would be as useful to you as the instructions of a foreman to a worker at the tower of Babel. Thus, the Holy Spirit causes the message of the Gospel to be spoken to you in English, uniting you with the whole Church in heaven and on earth who have heard the Gospel in their own language.

The Holy Spirit continues the work He started on Pentecost. He continues to work through the message of the Gospel, creating faith which is nothing short of a miracle. Indeed, calling a sinner to faith is a greater miracle than making dry bones live, and this the Holy Spirit continues to do.

The Holy Spirit continues to work through Baptism, which has washed us clean from all sin. He continues to strengthen our faith through the miraculous meal of Christ’s body and blood. He continues to grant us to hear the Gospel in a language we can understand, so that we will be bold unto death and receive the crown of eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Waiting for the Right Time

Sermon for Ascension Day (observed) based on Acts 1:1-11

Dear people waiting for the Lord: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Bible is a book about God’s work in time. It starts with, “In the beginning…” and ends with Christ’s promise, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Time is not some afterthought to God but is intimately related to His work of creation and His work of salvation. Thus, Genesis records God’s work of creation in each of the six days, and it reads, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day… And there was evening and there was morning, the second day…” and so on, for each of the six days of creation. This was no accident, but God’s carefully planned design to create the universe in time.

Regarding God’s work of salvation, we read in Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (4:4-5) When the fullness of time had come refers to the particular year, month, day, and hour set by God the Father (cf. Gal. 4:2). In Titus, this is called “the proper time” (1:3) and in Romans, “the right time.” (5:6)

We read in holy Scripture that God’s plan of salvation was from before the foundation of the world (I Pt. 1:20), promised before the ages began (Ti. 1:2), and indeed we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).

Yet, just before Jesus ascended into heaven, when the apostles asked Jesus if He would then restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus responded to them saying, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

In other words, don’t worry about God’s work – worry about your own work. Don’t wonder or worry about what God’s plans are for His kingdom or when He’s going to do what He’s going to do. Leave it to God.

God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth has a plan and a time for Christ’s return as He had a plan for creation and a plan for Christ’s first coming. We do not know when it will be, but neither do we have to worry about it. Christ will return in the fullness of time, at the proper time, at the right time in the same way that He ascended into heaven.

As we have recorded in Scripture, God has always been with His people through the ups and downs of this life; through the good and the bad; the easy and the hard. He has always been with His people through life and through death.

As God has always been with His people, He is with His people now. Indeed, He has promised you, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” He has also promised us that all things work together for our good (Rom. 8:28) and that He will not leave us as orphans (Jn 14:18).

Christ did not return in the apostles’ lifetime, even though they thought that He might. If it was up to them, they might have waited on the Mount of Olives for years waiting for Jesus to return. Thus, Christ sent them to work, to be His witnesses to the end of the earth, proclaiming the salvation accomplished for us by Christ offering Himself as a sacrifice for sins for all time (cf. Heb. 10:12). The angels also prompted them to move along when they continued staring up into heaven, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”

The apostles then went about their work, waiting for Christ to return.

We join them and God’s people of all time in waiting. The waiting started with Adam and Eve waiting for the promised seed to crush the serpent’s head, and it continues today with us, and will continue until Christ does return.

While we wait for Christ’s return, we are exhorted in Ephesians to look carefully how we walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of our time, because the days are evil (5:15-16).

The little bit of time we have on this earth can be spent wisely or foolishly. In foolishness we can spend all our time in the pursuit of worldly goals and objectives, or in wisdom we can spend time doing the will of the Lord, pursuing heavenly goals and objectives.

There isn’t much time, but we don’t know how much. These days are the days the prophets call “the latter days” and the apostles call “the last days.” These are days of trial and tribulation, days of war, pestilence, and natural disaster, days of false teaching and false teachers. Thus, Scripture gives us so many admonitions to stay awake and spiritually attentive, making the best use of our time.

Now is not the time to seek excuses and justification for our sins, but the time to seek forgiveness and having our sins removed from us and covered. Now is the time to recognize our selfishness, dishonesty, pride, and hypocrisy, and repent. Now is the time to confess our sin of using time poorly, of wasting it, and using it to pursue sinful desires.

Why is now the time to do these things? Because Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” (55:6-7) And Second Corinthians tells us, “Behold, now is the favourable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (6:2)

God is near now, in His Word. God is near now with forgiveness. Christ is not only near you, but in you in His body and blood, given and shed for you.

He comes with forgiveness and healing in His body and blood because in the fullness of time, the proper time, the right time, Christ came into history as a man and saved you from the fires of hell. He purchased and won you with His precious blood and His innocent suffering and death on the cross.

It was God’s plan from before the ages began, but He did it when the time was right.

God’s plan for you was also made before the ages began. God chose you in Christ for eternal life, and He will come to take you to eternal life in the fullness of time, at the proper time, at the right time.

It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority, but Christ will return for you at the proper time, and until then strengthens you with His Word and His body and blood, the receiving of which is the best use of your time during these evil days.

Time is intimately related to all God’s work of creation and salvation, so it is also with your creation and your salvation. Your time is in God’s hands. You are in God’s hands.

Christ’s promise, “Surely I am coming soon” is for you. In the fullness of time, at the proper time, at the right time, Christ will take you to Himself, so that where He is, there you may be also.

“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:14)

Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Chosen

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter based on John 15:1-8 (also confirmation Sunday at Zion)

Dear chosen ones: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Confirmation was not instituted by Christ. Christ instituted Baptism when He sent His apostles baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19). He instituted Absolution when He said to His apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Jn 20:23) Christ also instituted the Holy Supper and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk. 22:19).

The same cannot be said of the rite of confirmation. Confirmation is man-made and was unknown to the church during its first 800 years. The history of confirmation has been aptly described by a current LCMS pastor as “weird and wacky.” (see below) And for good reason.

Further, we have a real crisis in the Lutheran church in regards to confirmation. It has become viewed as some sort of graduation from learning the faith, as if confirmands have now learned everything they need to know.

Confirmands make vows before God and the church that they intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully, and that they intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it. Yet not many Sundays later, countless new confirmands join the large group of people that can only bee seen in church if you look at the confirmation photos on the downstairs wall.

So, why have confirmation at all? Why use this rite that is not commanded by Christ and comes from a history of weirdness and wackiness? The answer is that we don’t have to have confirmation. But we must have catechesis, that is, teaching the faith, and those who have been taught should confess before men that they believe what they have been taught.

How is it that Jesus said disciples are made? He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:19) Disciples are made by baptizing and teaching. You cannot divorce one from the other.

What do you think happens to the faith of an infant that has been baptized but never again hears the Word of God? That faith dies. Faith is a gift of God and must be fed and nourished by the Word of God or it will die. What do you think happens to the faith of a confirmand that has been taught but is never again nourished with God’s Word or holy communion? There is great danger that their faith will die.

Confirmation as we practice it, is a period of catechesis, of learning the things that every Christian should know. It is a period of being fed and nourished by the Word, of learning and growing in faith, with the goal of the confirmand confessing this faith as their own. It is not the beginning of learning, nor is it the end of learning. Indeed, the promise to keep learning by hearing the Word of God is part of the confirmation vows.

Since Jesus said, “Whoever confesses Me before men, I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven”, confirmands also confess Christ before men. They confess that they believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins and that because He rose from the dead, they too will rise from the dead. They confess that they were adopted as children of God through Baptism and that they desire to live a life pleasing to Him.

We heard Jesus say in our Gospel lesson, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” Catechumens are thus taught the Ten Commandments so that they would know how to show love to their neighbour and abide in the love of God.

However, our relationship with God is not established by commandments or rules. It is established by love. Thus, most especially, catechumens are taught the Gospel – the good news that Jesus has taken all their sins away and taken their punishment on Himself.

As we heard in today’s Gospel lesson, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” This Jesus has done for all of us. There is no greater love than what Jesus has shown to us. He shows us true love in being our sacrifice for sin.

We also heard, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” This is not just true for the twelve apostles. It is true also for us, because this is nothing other than the doctrine of election. This is God saying, “You did not elect me, but I elected you.”

When it comes to election, we can easily get tripped up. We can get distracted from the comfort of election by asking, “How do I know if I am elect? How do I know that I have been chosen by God for eternal life? How do I know that I am included when Jesus says, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’?”

Romans 8, in talking about election, tells us, “Those whom [God] foreknew He also predestined… those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” (vv. 29-30)

In other words, when God elected you for salvation, it was not some bare, empty election. God chose you, so He made sure that you were baptized. He made sure that you heard His Word. God elected you, so He made sure to call you to faith.

So, to answer the question if you are included when Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” answer these questions: Did Jesus live for you? Did He perfectly fulfil God’s Law for you? Did He die for you? Did He take every single one of your sins to the cross in your place? Did He rise from the dead for you? Does He now sit at the right hand of God the Father interceding for you?

You know that the answer to all of these questions is yes, so you know the answer is also yes, Jesus chose you for eternal life.

“[God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.” (Rom. 9:15-16)

That is the great comfort of election. If it was up to us in any way to save ourselves; if we had to choose the good and avoid the bad; if we had to choose God; if it was up to our will or exertion, we would be hopeless.

Since God has chosen you, your salvation is secure and certain. He proves it by having called you to faith. Your faith is not some accident. God chose you, so He gave you faith.

God chose you. It is personal. It is for you. You can depend on it. It is eternal. You can rely on it when your sins condemn you. You can rely on it on Judgment Day.

Greater love has no one than Jesus laying down His life for you. He chose you, so He called you to faith and promises you eternal life.

This is what our confirmands confess to be their faith. We don’t have to have confirmation, but we do have to have catechesis to make disciples because teaching cannot be divorced from baptizing. And after having been taught, catechumens should be given the opportunity to confess Christ before men, and confess that they too are God’s elect, chosen by Him for eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

If you are interested in more details of the history and development of confirmation, see Rev. Mark Surburg’s blog found here: http://surburg.blogspot.ca/2013/08/marks-thoughts-weird-and-wacky-history_17.html

 

Branches in the Vine

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter based on John 15:1-8

Dear branches in the true vine: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

When it comes to bearing fruit, do not focus on the branch. There is nothing but despair as far as the branch is concerned. Jesus says that every branch of His that does not bear fruit is thrown away and withers, and is then gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.

This makes sense. If you have dead branches on your fruit trees that produce no fruit, would you not cut them off and throw them away? Dead branches steal water and nutrients from living branches and yet produce no fruit. For the good of the whole plant, you cut off dead branches. A fruitless branch is useless.

But don’t focus on the branch. Focusing on the branch is focusing on yourself and what you produce. Are you producing enough fruit of the Spirit? How have you shown that you love your neighbour as yourself? Have you not rather loved yourself above all others? Where is your joy? Is your joy in the Word of God or in what this world has to offer? Where is your patience? Do you wait patiently for God’s good timing to save you from trials, temptations, and suffering, or do you complain and grumble against God as if He desires something that is harmful for you? The same could be said of peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, the other fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Don’t focus on the branch, because a branch by itself can produce no fruit. Whatever love and care you give the branch, by itself it remains dead. Disconnected from the vine it is worthless. You can water it and fertilize it and prune it. You can give it just the right amount of sunshine and just the right about of shade. Yet, the branch that is disconnected from the vine can produce nothing. Thus, Christ says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

You cannot produce love, joy, patience, or any other fruit of the Spirit by yourself. It’s called the fruit of the Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the source of the fruit. Abiding in Christ, the vine, the Holy Spirit produces fruit in you.

What does it mean to abide in Christ? There is no way to abide in Christ apart from Baptism, the Word, and the Sacrament of the Altar. These are the only connection Christ has with us. Apart from these Means of Grace, we are disconnected from the vine and fit only for the fire.

Through these Means of Grace, we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us. Baptism joins us to Christ, the vine. God’s Word and Holy Communion feed us and nourish us keeping us in Christ. Whoever abides in Christ bears much fruit.

We sometimes wonder why we’re having so much trouble being loving towards our neighbour or being joyful no matter our situation. We wonder why we are impatient or discontent. Yet it is because we have neglected our Baptism, the Word, and the Lord’s Supper. We haven’t been nourished as we should, so we have languished. We have mistakenly thought that God is working in our hearts apart from His Word, thus we have mistakenly thought we are self-sufficient branches with no need for the vine. Apart from Christ, the vine, we can do nothing. Apart from Christ we are dead branches destined for fire.

In Christ, however, we are alive. His forgiveness flows to us through His Means of Grace. Every sin we have ever committed is forgiven because we are in Christ. He died for our sins and rose again from the dead, so in Him, the devil and hell have no claim on us. Death is now our doorway to heaven. We will rise from the dead as surely as Christ is risen from the dead. Christ keeps strengthening our faith through His Word and His body and blood. He keeps forgiving us our sins so that we are blameless and righteous in His sight.

And God the Father prunes us. Pruning isn’t pleasant for us, but it is necessary. For plants, pruning is done to train a growing pattern, to improve plant health, and to increase the quality and quantity of fruit. This is the same for us. God prunes us to train us in godly living, to strengthen our faith, and to increase the quality and quantity of fruit we produce. God prunes things out of our lives to which we cling too closely; things that have become too important for us; things that have become idols for us.

This pruning isn’t for dead branches. Dead branches are thrown into the fire. This pruning is for branches that are in the vine and are producing fruit. This pruning is for you and me.

God the Father prunes us through sending sickness, suffering, and affliction into our lives. He doesn’t tell us why He sends particular trials our way. He doesn’t say, “You lost your farm because you spent too much time working.” He doesn’t say, “You got cancer because you don’t go to church enough.” He doesn’t say, “Your child was hurt because hockey became too important for your family.”

God doesn’t tell us why He prunes us the way He does, but we do know that all His pruning is to train us in godly living, to strengthen our faith, and to increase the quality and quantity of fruit we produce. The pruning of our loving Father and vinedresser turns us away from ourselves and everything in this world. His pruning works repentance and faith in our hearts.

Pruning is painful, but do you know what? We should pray for it! We should pray, “Heavenly Father, prune from my heart every desire for riches and fame. Take away from me everything that is important to me in this world. Destroy everything and anything in my life that I hold dear until I realize that You are my priceless treasure and that when I have You, I lack nothing and have everything. Destroy and burn down everything in this congregation and in our synod that man has built, until all that remains is what You have built.”

We do not pray this way, but we should. We should pray that God cuts from us everything we try to produce on our own and that He would keep us in the true vine so that we will bear much fruit and so prove to be disciples of Jesus.

Fortunately for us, even though we fail to pray this way, the Father still prunes us and keeps us in Christ, the true vine.

In the true vine, we are continually nourished by what Christ gives to us – His body and blood, given and shed for us. Connected to Christ, the vine, we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us.

Abiding in Christ, you will live forever. On the Last Day, you cannot be judged for your sins because you are in Christ. Christ was already judged for your sins in His death on the cross. In Christ, your sins have been taken away from you and drowned into the depths of the sea. In Christ, your sins have been removed from you as far as the east is from the west.

So, do not be weary or angry with God when He prunes you. It is not pleasant, but it is for your eternal good. And don’t focus on yourself as the branch or what you can produce. Focus on Christ, the true vine, who feeds you and nourishes you, and produces much fruit in you to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

An Empty Tomb is not Enough

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter based on Luke 24:36-49

Dear people who eat the risen body of Jesus: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

An empty tomb is not enough.

An empty tomb could mean that Jesus’ disciples did somehow manage to steal the body of Jesus. It could mean that the chief priests and Pharisees took the body and burned it. An empty tomb could just be part of a myth, a metaphor to say that Jesus rises when the hearts of His people come alive with faith. Rubbish.

What the eyewitness accounts provide is proof of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He shows His apostles His scars in order to show that He really did die, that He is the crucified One. He was slain as a substitute, in our place, so that the angel of death would not come for us but pass over. He laid down His life as a ransom for many. He died to satisfy the Law’s demands, to empty hell of its wrath and fury.

He died. He has the scars to prove it. But He has come through death. He is alive in His body.

This is why He eats with the apostles and tells them to touch Him. The point is that He died and He rose, but He is not a ghost, or a spirit, or an angel. He is still a man. They, and we, have an advocate with the Father; a High Priest who has endured all our temptations and overcome them. He paves the way into heaven, not for angels or saints, but for men – and sinful men at that. For He who knew no sin became sin.

Thus the very corpse – the very body born of Mary, nailed to the cross, pierced by the centurion, dead and laid into the tomb – this body has been renewed and reborn. Our God is still a man; still one of us. He died, but is alive, and heaven is open to sinful men.

The disciples disbelieved for joy and were marvelling. They were uncertain. Then He ate with them. Even as in Emmaus where Jesus was removed from the disciple’s physical sight, but they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread, so also here in Jerusalem the apostles recognized their Lord in eating with Him. The apostles ate broiled fish with God in the flesh, back from the dead, and their hearts were full of joy, faith, and peace.

It is not so different for you. Jesus is not apprehended by your eyes, but by faith. As Jesus said to Thomas, ““Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus is not apprehended by gazing into an empty tomb, but in the breaking of the bread under a visual reminder of the sacrifice. It is no accident that the Lord’s Supper is consecrated on an altar under a cross or crucifix. Here you eat with God. He gives you His body risen out of death. You touch Him. It is not a corpse. It is the living, risen, glorified body, true God and true man, which God joins to bread to be your food, to satisfy your soul, to forgive your sins, and to encourage and strengthen your faith.

You eat the body of Jesus, who is alive. Thus, you are alive. His body and blood give you new life now, and eternal life in the world to come. They strengthen you through the trials and temptations of life. Christ’s body and blood give you peace.

When Jesus appeared to His disciples, He said, “Peace to you.” Jesus was not hoping that they would have peace or praying that they would have peace. He was giving them peace with the very words He spoke. He says it, and it is so. Jesus waged war on sin, death, and the devil. He faced God’s perfect justice for all sinners. He fought the war on the cross and won peace. He won peace with God because God’s anger has been stilled. We are reconciled and have peace with God.

Jesus showed the disciples His war wounds with which He won them peace, and He gave them peace. He calmed their troubled and doubting hearts. He comforted their startled and frightened minds.

For you, Jesus’ body and blood are not a hope for peace or a prayer for peace. His body and blood give you peace. He says it, and it is so. Jesus has won peace with God for you, and He gives you peace in His Supper because He gives you forgiveness. Wherever there is forgiveness, there is also life and salvation.

Here at the altar you eat with God in the flesh, so that your heart will be full of joy, faith, and peace.

The empty tomb is not enough. What you need is the risen body of Jesus the crucified. And it is the risen body of Jesus the crucified that the Lord provides. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

(Reworked from a sermon by Rev. David Petersen/Rev. Dr Burnell Eckardt)

Absolution is from Christ

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter based on John 20:19-31

Dear absolved believers: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Many people find Absolution offensive. Only God can forgive sin, they say. How then can you have a pastor saying, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”?

It is true that only God can forgive sin, but in what way has He promised to forgive sin? He sends His ministers to forgive on His behalf, saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you… Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Christ has the authority to forgive sin. He earned it by paying for every sin ever committed through His suffering and death. And Christ gives that authority to His Church on earth. When a pastor speaks the forgiveness Christ has sent Him to speak, it is Christ Himself who forgives sin. Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth, so it is He who decides how He wants to forgive sin. Christ has chosen to give forgiveness of sins through the mouths of sinful men sent to His people for that purpose.

Forgiveness doesn’t do you any good if it is somewhere out there for you to find. Forgiveness doesn’t do you any good if it’s sitting in heaven. Forgiveness of sins needs to come to sinners, where sinners are. That is why Christ instituted the church. The church is the place for sinners to gather and receive forgiveness. Forgiveness belongs to the church.

Since forgiveness belongs to the church, no man can assume the office of pastor without a call from the church. The church, to whom forgiveness belongs, must call a pastor to give this forgiveness to them. No one can appoint himself to be a pastor. This is what it means in Romans 10 where Saint Paul asks, “How are they to preach unless they are sent?” They cannot preach unless they are sent. They must be called by God through the church.

Christ instituted the office of the ministry, or the office of pastor, for the purpose of preaching His Word and giving His forgiveness. It is the office or the position that is special, not the man who occupies the office or position. There is nothing special about the man John Nieminen. He has nothing to say to you. He has no special wisdom, insight, or knowledge to impart to you. Yet when your pastor speaks Christ’s Word to you, it is Christ Himself who speaks to you. When your pastor forgives you your sins, it is Christ Himself who forgives you your sins through the Word He has given your pastor to speak.

This is why pastors wear albs or robes. They cover up the man and remind you and me that it is only according to his office as pastor that he has the right to say one word from God. This is also why pastors are called by their title. It’s not a matter of pride or conceit, but rather a reminder to you and to me that I’m not here of my own doing. I didn’t decide one day that I think I’ve done enough studies, look on a map and say, “I’m going to move to the prairies and serve these two congregations in Neudorf and Melville as their pastor.” No, God called me here to be your pastor. He called me through you, the church. You called me to come and speak God’s Word to you and forgive you your sins in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.

I’m not here as John to do what I want or speak what I want. I’m here as a pastor, doing what God has commanded me to do, and saying what He has commanded me to say.

There are some things I’m tempted to not preach or teach. I’m tempted to avoid saying things that get people upset. I’m tempted to not touch sensitive topics with a ten-foot pole. But I don’t have a choice in the matter, unless I am going to be faithless to the One who has called me to teach and preach to you.

I must preach God’s Law to you. I must tell you what God commands you to do in every aspect of your life. It is necessary, not because you can fulfil the Law of God, but so that you will recognize your failures to do what God commands and repent of your sins. It is necessary for me to preach the Law so that you realize that you need forgiveness and that you would desire to receive that forgiveness.

I must preach the Gospel to you. I must tell you that Jesus died on the cross for all your sins, so that every single sin is forgiven: big sins, little sins, public sins, secret sins. Jesus took the punishment of every single one of your sins so that you have the promise of eternal life instead of eternal punishment in hell.

I must forgive the sins of repentant sinners. I must also retain the sins of the unrepentant.

Those who are offended by a man forgiving sins are even more offended at a man retaining sins. “Who are you to judge?” they say. Once again, we have to go back to the Word of Christ Jesus Himself, who says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you… Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Withholding forgiveness is not done arbitrarily or based on the whims of the pastor. Here too, a pastor must follow the Word of Christ. It is only the impenitent sinners who have their sins retained and are not forgiven; those sinners who refuse to turn away from their sin; those who have no desire to do better.

Every sinner who is repentant is forgiven. The weak sinner who struggles with his sins is forgiven. The repentant sinner who has again fallen and thought, said, or done something which breaks God’s holy Law is forgiven.

This is where Absolution comes in. Absolution gives forgiveness to the weak and doubting heart. It strengthens faith. It is Christ’s Word spoken to you in His stead and by His command.

When you hear the words of Absolution, it may be the voice of your pastor you hear, but you are hearing the words of Jesus. Jesus instituted the office of the ministry for the benefit of His Church, so that through the ministers who faithfully proclaim His Word, Jesus Himself is speaking. When Jesus commands it to be spoken, so it is.

You can thus be confident in the Absolution you receive from your pastor. The forgiveness he speaks is not his own forgiveness, but the forgiveness of God. He is the messenger of Christ, speaking that which he has been commanded to speak; forgiving what he has been commanded to forgive.

Your faith is thus in Christ and His promises, nothing else. Christ cannot deceive or lie, so you can confidently trust His word of forgiveness which He speaks to you through the mouths of His ministers. Ministers come and go, but Christ’s promises to you are eternal. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.