Ceremonies: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 7:1-13

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

It is good and important that we have ceremonies. Ceremonies serve good order and help to teach. Bowing your head to pray is a good ceremony, because it is a posture of humility before God and helps you not to be distracted by what is around you. Kneeling takes that even further and puts you on your knees before God, acknowledging your status as a humble beggar before God. We do after all approach God not based on our own merits, but the merits of Christ.

Certainly, the Divine Service is full of ceremony. The pastor faces you when he speaks God’s Word to you and faces the altar when speaking to God. Thus, he faces the altar to confess his sins along with the congregation and turns to face the congregation to speak absolution to the people in Christ’s stead and by His command.

Ceremony ensures that our worship is pious, ordered, careful, solemn, reverent, and liturgical. This is because we believe that Jesus is telling the truth when He tells us that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, there He is (Matt. 18:20). We believe that Jesus is telling the truth when He says, “This is my body… this is my blood… do this in remembrance of me.” (Matt. 26:26,28; Luke 22:19) Jesus is here, so we behave like He is here.

Our ceremonies reflect what we believe. We believe that the Word of God and the sacraments are the greatest gifts of God to us, because through them He gives us the forgiveness of sins. We thus treat them with reverence and respect and don’t turn our worship into chaos and disorder or have an attitude of irreverence or indifference. We treat holy things as holy.

Yet ceremony is just ceremony. You do not get the forgiveness of sins from ceremony. You can go through the motions of ceremony without believing or caring one way or the other. Let us not forget that Scripture tells us the antichrist sits in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:4). The wolf puts on sheep’s clothing. Luther’s great Reformation hymn talks of the heretics and false teachers who parade with outward show and lead people to and fro, in errors maze astounded (O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold TLH 260).

This was the case with the scribes who criticized Jesus’ disciples for not following their ceremonial washing of hands. This hand-washing was not for reasons of hygiene. It was a ceremony that was supposed to remind them of the need to be cleansed by God, to receive forgiveness, and to remind them that their food and sustenance came from God (from Rev. David Petersen). But they had become superstitious. They departed from following God’s Word and held to empty ceremonies they themselves invented. They abandoned God’s commandments and replaced them with their own made-up commandments

Jesus said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Jesus uses the example of the Fourth Commandment. The Fourth Commandment commands you to honour your father and mother. This includes honouring “them by your actions, that is, with your body and possessions, serving them, helping them, and caring for them when they are old, sick, feeble, or poor; all this you should do not only cheerfully, but also with humility and reverence, doing it as if for God.” (LC IV.111)

However, the scribes had invented a special offering, called Corban. Instead of supporting their elderly parents and taking care of them, they would give this special offering and not help their parents. It was a sham. They pretended to be piously giving God extra offerings (no doubt with lots of nice attendant ceremony), but it was all a ruse to break the Fourth Commandment and not fulfil their obligations to honour and support their parents. Their made-up commandments and ceremonies made void the Word of God and taught people to break God’s Law and follow the commandments of men.

The chief thing here is to avoid confusing the Commandments of God and the commandments of men. It is thus important to know and study what exactly it is that God commands and to question everything that man commands.

It is also important to understand the importance of ceremonies, why we do them, and how they provide reverence, piety, and solemnity to the Divine Service and to our daily devotional lives. Those who do not understand them are quick to dispose of ceremonies that the church has done for two thousand years.

What we must remember is that ceremonies are just ceremonies. Ceremonies do not save or give us the forgiveness of sins. The Word of God saves and gives us the forgiveness of sins. Baptism saves and gives us the forgiveness of sins. The Lord’s Supper saves and gives us the forgiveness of sins. Ceremonies don’t even help God’s Word and sacraments save and forgive sins. Rather, ceremonies serve to prevent distraction and prevent your attention being drawn away from the Word and sacraments.

For instance, I use the ceremony of holding up the body and blood of Christ for the congregation to see after the consecration while saying, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” Whether or not I do this, you receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. However, the ceremony draws your attention to the body and blood of Christ just consecrated. Here it is. This is for you. It is concrete and real. Christ has His promises attached to this bread and this wine, for they are His body and blood.

This goes together with the words, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” How is it that you get peace? Through the body and blood of Christ you are about to receive. Christ gives you peace that the world cannot give.

Christ showed His pierced but resurrected hands to His disciples, the hands with which He earned them peace and said, “Peace be with you”. So, the pastor stands in the stead of Christ and holds the body and blood of Jesus with which He earned you peace, and says the same to you.

Christ’s body and blood give you peace with God because Christ died for you. He gave His body to be beaten and crucified and He gave His blood to be shed for the forgiveness of sins. He gives you that forgiveness in His body and blood.

You don’t need some hand-washing ceremony that points to purification and cleaning. You receive Jesus’ body and blood which purify you and cleanse you of every stain of sin. You receive Jesus’ body that strengthens you to life everlasting. You receive Jesus’ blood which washes away your sin. Through eating and drinking His body and blood, Jesus will grant you to partake of the greatest ceremonies of all in the feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. Amen.

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

[A note for readers: Beginning in Advent, we will begin using the One-Year Lectionary.]

Render to God

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 22:15-21

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

Caesar was not the democratically chosen leader of the Jewish people. He didn’t win their popular vote or the support of Jewish representatives. Caesar was the leader of the Jews because the Romans had invaded and conquered Israel. The Romans had overthrown Jewish leadership and incorporated Judea into the Roman Republic.

The Romans thus occupied Jewish lands and forced the Jews to pay Roman taxes. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should taxes be paid to the invaders and occupiers of your land? Is it right to pay taxes to the military invaders and conquerors of your people?

The Caesar at the time also happened to be Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius was a drunken pervert who shirked his responsibilities and lived his life indulging his sinful desires rather than ruling. The coin for the tax even claimed Tiberius to be son of god. Is it lawful to pay taxes to this wicked Caesar, or not?

The Pharisees and Herodians wanted to trap Jesus and entangle Him in His words. If Jesus responded with saying that this Roman tax should be paid by the Jews to their occupiers, the Pharisees supposed the Jewish people would stop being followers of Jesus. The Jews despised the tax. It marked them as subjects of Rome. The tax money collected from the Jews paid for the Roman soldiers who occupied their territory and invaded other territories. Paying the tax gave money to the enemy to help them maintain control over you. There’s a moral and ethical question of whether the people of God should pay such tax to the Romans.

On the other hand, if Jesus answered that the tax should not be paid to Caesar, then the Pharisees and Herodians would go to the Roman authorities and charge Jesus with rebellion and treason against the Roman government. Jesus’ enemies would then have a real charge to bring to Pilate against Jesus so that they could be rid of Him once and for all.

Jesus does not fall into their trap. He asked them to show Him the coin for the tax which bore Caesar’s image and inscription, and Jesus responded, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

The coin was minted by Caesar. It had his image and inscription. He was their Caesar, whether they liked it or not. The fact that they had the coin in their possession indicates that they did acknowledge Caesar’s rule over them. They were using his currency. It belonged to Caesar. So, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

Christians are to pay the taxes demanded of us by our government. We can say that there is a moral and ethical question of whether the people of God should pay tax to our government when it is wasted and squandered; when it is used in lavish holidays of self-indulgence; when it is used to pay terrorists. Christians may say that they should not pay tax to our government because it is used to pay for abortions.

It is true that it is wrong that our tax dollars get used in these ways, but it is our duty to pay our taxes. It is the government’s duty to use that money appropriately and wisely. Paying taxes is thus the right and godly thing to do, even if the government is ungodly in what is done with the tax dollars. Those who govern will be held accountable by God for their use of the money, whether it is Tiberius or Trudeau.

Jesus continues in His answer to the Pharisees and Herodians. He doesn’t just say, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” He adds, “and to God the things that are God’s.” Render to God what belongs to God.

Jesus does not put this side-by-side with paying taxes as if to say that the government gets its percentage and God gets His percentage. In fact, paying taxes is giving to God what belongs to God, because He is the one who has commanded you to pay taxes. This also means when you use the money you’ve earned to buy food for your family, you are giving to God what belongs to God. Your wise use of what God has entrusted to you is rendering to God what belongs to Him.

Rendering to God what belongs to Him certainly does include giving offerings to Him, but we need to realize that God does not need our money. He doesn’t use the money given to the Church to buy food for Himself. God says in Psalm 50, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” (v. 12)

Regarding the offerings of animals as sacrifices, God says, “Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.” (vv. 10-11) Everything we have belongs to God. Everything in the world belongs to God.

God does not need our offerings as if He cannot get by without them. Rather, we are the ones who benefit from giving offerings to God. We are the ones who are blessed in giving offerings as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. We are the ones who are blessed by those offerings so that we can have the Word of God preached among us and His Sacraments administered among us. We are the ones who are blessed by having our sins taken away from us freely with no cost to us.

If we render to God what is God’s, that also means we give Him our sin. John the Baptist preached, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Jesus took our sins on Himself all the way to the cross and died for them there. Jesus took our sins in His body on the tree and down into the grave, where He left them for eternity.

Your sins do not belong to you. Yes, you committed them, but Jesus has taken them away from you.

Rendering to God what belongs to Him means rendering your sins to God. Rendering your sins to God means to stop clinging to them like they are still yours. God has already taken them away from you. Don’t walk away from Absolution thinking that you’re still stuck with your sins. Don’t walk away from the altar rail after receiving the body and blood of Christ thinking that you are still carrying the burden of your sins on your back. Your sins have been paid for by the precious blood of Christ, so they do not belong to you any longer. Your sins have been purchased away from you, so they are not yours.

If Satan or someone else dangles your sin in front of your face, tell them the sin is no longer yours. Should a guilty conscience seize you, be reminded that Christ has taken your sin away from you and it doesn’t belong to you anymore. If death lurks with threats and fears, know that even in death you have nothing to fear – you die without sin because Jesus died with your sin.

Yes, render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Also render to God what belongs to God. You belong to God. Christ has purchased you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. God has claimed you in the waters of Holy Baptism so you are His. Because you belong to God, He will raise you from the dead to eternal life as surely as He raised Jesus from the dead to eternal life.

Render to God what belongs to God. Don’t cling to your sin. Jesus, the Lamb of God, has taken away your sin. Your sin does not belong to you. Forgiveness and everlasting life do belong to you. Amen.

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

Fullness of Joy for Mothers

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (Mother’s Day)

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

Mother’s Day has its origin over one hundred years ago. If it wouldn’t have been started back then, it is unlikely it would be started in modern times. Motherhood was valued and held in high esteem one hundred years ago; it was exalted and praised. Not so much today. Today, motherhood is despised and held in low esteem. Everything good and beautiful about motherhood is scorned. Through in vitro fertilization, children are produced in petri dishes. In daycares, children are raised by strangers instead of their mothers. In schools, children learn that they don’t even need a mother – having two dads is just fine. And to top it all off, 315 children in Canada are murdered in their mother’s wombs every day, just because they are an inconvenience to their mothers. A woman’s career is now deemed to be so important that children can legally be murdered just so that the mother can act like she is not a mother.

How backwards our society has become! For women, submitting to and being attentive to a man is praiseworthy so long as that man is your boss and not your husband. Caring for children is seen as commendable and admirable so long as the children are someone else’s, not your own. Motherhood is seen as being the opposite of success. It is in fact seen as a failure. It is scorned and despised.

Indeed, from external appearance it can be understood why this is so. Where is the success in submitting to a sinful husband who is unable to love you as Christ loved the Church? Where is the success in sacrificing for your children who are ungrateful and even unaware of most of what you do for them? Where is the success in the hours of thankless labour in housework, chauffeuring kids to hockey practice, and preparing meals? Where is the success in always putting others ahead of yourself? If the only success for mothers is being remembered on one lousy day of the year for what they have done, that’s not all that great of a success!

But what does God say about motherhood? Eve, although created before the fall into sin and thus the most beautiful, wise, and perfect woman, is not named by Adam for any of these attributes, but for the fact that she is the mother of all the living (Gen. 3:20). She is named for the fact that she is a mother.

Does God not hold motherhood to be the most honourable vocation for women? After all, Jesus was born of a woman, His mother Mary. He was not born of man. Joseph had nothing to do with Jesus’ conception as He was conceived through the Holy Spirit. Jesus had no earthly father even though Joseph stepped into the role of father for Him during His childhood. Yet God gave the Saviour to the world through a mother.

One of the points of contention during the Reformation was that motherhood as well as fatherhood were not considered honourable vocations by the Roman Catholic Church, but inferior even to manmade observances (cf. AC XXVI.8-11; LC.I.4.105-107). The Roman church invented all kinds of supposed good works for women: going on pilgrimages, taking vows of chastity, and joining a cloister and becoming a nun. These were thought to be superior to the God-ordained vocation of motherhood.

The Reformation, however, shed the light of God’s truth on motherhood. The Large Catechism says in the discussion of the Fourth Commandment, “God has given this walk of life, fatherhood and motherhood, a special position of honour, higher than that of any other walk of life under it” (LC.I.4.105). Yes, we have the command of God to love our neighbour, that is, everyone even our enemies. Yet, in the Fourth Commandment, God gives us the command to honour our fathers and our mothers.

This is true for both fathers and mothers, but today, since I am speaking specifically about mothers, I will say that God places mothers next to Himself by commanding we honour our mothers. “Honour includes not only love, but deference, humility, and modesty directed (so to speak) toward a majesty concealed within them. Honour requires us not only to address them affectionately and with high esteem, but above all to show by our actions, both of heart and body, that we respect them very highly, and that next to God we give them the very highest place. For anyone whom we are wholeheartedly to honour, we must truly regard as high and great.” (LC.I.4.107)

A mother is God’s representative to her children. That’s why God commands us to honour our mothers. This is true regardless of how lowly, feeble, poor, or eccentric they might be. They are not to be deprived of their honour because of their weaknesses or failings, because motherhood was instituted by God and He ordained that mothers are to be honoured (cf. LC.I.4.108).

Despite our failings to hold motherhood in high esteem or to honour our mothers as commanded by God, God sent His Son, born of a woman, to die for our sins. Jesus died for our sins against our mothers. He died for our sin of not honouring our mothers. He died for our excuses of pointing at our mothers’ failures as if that was reason to not honour them as God’s representatives.

But Jesus also died for mothers, including His own mother. He died for the failures of mothers to act as His representatives. Jesus died for the times mothers have neglected their children and for the times mothers have not raised their children according to God’s standards. Jesus died for every sinful thought that has despised motherhood and thought of motherhood as a failure. He died for our sins of not seeing motherhood as the most honourable vocation for women. Jesus died for mothers who have aborted their children.

Let’s face it: motherhood is not always easy. In fact, it’s almost never easy. Yet, even in the midst of difficulties and trials, mothers can have fullness of joy. Jesus says, “Abide in my love.” Our Gospel reading immediately follows last week’s where Jesus says He is the vine and we are the branches. So Jesus is exhorting us to remain in Him. Remain connected to Jesus, receiving His forgiveness and strength. That’s how mothers can have fullness of joy, even in the midst of the trials of motherhood. That’s how mothers can have fullness of joy despite their failures to live up to God’s expectations of motherhood. That’s how all of us can have fullness of joy as we receive forgiveness from God for our sins against our mothers.

Remain in Jesus’ love. Jesus is present in His Word, giving you His forgiveness. Jesus’ true body and blood are present in the Sacrament of the Altar, giving you His forgiveness and strengthening your faith. Jesus continually gives His love to you so that His joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. Jesus continually gives His love to mothers so that they may have joy in their sins being forgiven. Jesus continually gives His love to all of us so that we may have joy in our sins being forgiven.

Even though society despises motherhood, God does not. God holds motherhood as good and beautiful; as the most honourable vocation for women. Jesus died to earn us forgiveness for the times we have shown scorn towards our mothers and motherhood. He died to earn forgiveness for mothers and the times they have despised their role as mothers. So abide in Jesus. He continually gives you forgiveness for all of your sins and strengthens you in your life. He continually gives you His forgiveness so that His joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. Amen.

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