Crying for Mercy

Sermon for Reminiscere based on Matthew 15:21-28

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

Jesus did not answer her a word. The Canaanite woman begged for help for her daughter. She knew she had come to the only one who could help. She had heard of His healing of others. She had heard that He is kind and loving; that He is full of compassion and pity. She knew He had the power to help, so she cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But He did not answer her a word.

When we experience silence from God in response to our prayers, our flesh responds with thinking that what we have heard about Christ must not be true. The flesh grows impatient when things go wrong. The flesh trusts what it sees and feels, but does not trust the Word of God.

The Canaanite woman would not believe that Christ did not hear her. She would not believe that He would forever remain silent. She would not believe that He would refuse to help her or deal harshly with her. His silence did not drive her away. She continued to beg Jesus for mercy.

The disciples got embarrassed. They were probably confused. Why is Jesus not helping this poor woman? Why is He not even answering her? He’s been teaching us, “Ask, and it will be given to you,” (Matt. 7:7) but here is this woman asking and Jesus is not giving. He’s just ignoring her.

Then she started to call after them. The disciples are perhaps embarrassed for her. She seems so pathetic. She’s being ignored and everyone can see it, but she’s still crying out for help. So the disciples ask Jesus to send her away. What good does it do anyone to have this public spectacle as they travel along their way? If Jesus is not going to help or even respond, why should she keep calling after them? If He is going to help, then do it already so that she will stop calling after them!

Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” So, the woman got a response, but it went from bad to worse. She called Him the Son of David, acknowledging Him as the promised Saviour of the world, and when He finally responded to her, He said that He did not come for anyone except the house of Israel. She has no right to expect help from Him.

The Canaanite woman did not claim the right to expect help. She fell down before Jesus and begged Him, “Lord, help me!” She knew that He could help her. There is no one else who could help. She had no right to expect help, but she still believed that He would help. She believed that He is merciful.

Still, it only got worse. Jesus responded, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The bread which belongs to the children of Israel is for them to eat. It is not for the unclean Gentiles, like her.

Where all we hear is insult, she hears hope. Where we hear no, her faith hears yes. She is not a child of Israel, but she belongs in the house. Even the dogs get fed in their master’s house. It may be scraps that fall from the children, but that was enough for her.

She was unclean. She was sinful. She was unworthy. She did not present her prayer to Jesus based on her cleanness, sinlessness, or worthiness. She presented her prayer based on Jesus’ mercy and compassion. She knew that with Jesus, there is no shortage of bread. The children can all eat enough, and there will still be some for her. She was content with the crumbs from the floor, knowing that even they would satisfy her; that they would be more than enough.

Jesus did come to save the lost house of Israel, but He also came to save the whole lost world. He came to save you.

He came to save you from your uncleanness. He came to save you from your sin. He came to save you in spite of your unworthiness. Jesus’ death in your place covers your uncleanness, sin, and unworthiness. He doesn’t just give you crumbs on the floor. He doesn’t just give you bread for children, but He gives you Himself, His risen body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of all your sins.

Jesus’ forgiveness is not finite. It is infinite. It doesn’t run out. He is the Bread of Life. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever (John 6:51).

Your uncleanness, sin, and unworthiness will not prevent Jesus from hearing your cries for mercy or your prayers. Repent of your sins and throw yourself upon the mercy of Christ. He is merciful. You know that He is merciful because He has had mercy on you. Instead of punishing you for your sins as you deserve, He took your sins on Himself. He suffered and died for your sins. He has saved you eternally and you have no punishment waiting for you when you die from this life.

Since Christ has earned eternal life for you, do you think He will withhold lesser things from you? After grief, He will give relief. He will strengthen your faith through the trials of this life even if you experience it as silence, insult, or harshness. Throw yourself upon His mercy. He will bring you through it all to the joys of eternal life.

Yet even though I suffer The world’s unpleasantness,

And though the days grow rougher And bring me great distress,

That day of bliss divine, Which knows no end or measure,

And Christ who is my pleasure, Forever shall be mine. (LSB 713 st. 6) Amen.

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

 

The End of Suffering

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany based on Matthew 8:1-13

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

“Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” With this short, simple phrase, the leper prayed to Jesus. “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

By calling Jesus “Lord” the leper confesses that he believes that Jesus is Lord and ruler over all creation; that He is the Lord of heaven and earth, the Lord of sickness and health, the Lord of life and death.

By saying, “if you will” the leper is submitting his will to Jesus’ will. He is praying for cleansing from his leprosy only if God so wills it.

By saying, “you can make me clean” the leper confesses that Jesus has the power and the authority to heal him. He confesses that he is unclean and only Jesus can make him clean.

In other words, he is saying to Jesus, “You are God. Because I have leprosy, you obviously willed me to be a leper and I deserve my illness. You have given me this illness because of my sin or to reveal your glory. I deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment and I would rather have this illness and your favour than to be healthy and have your wrath. I know you can heal me, but thy will be done.”

This is a prayer of faith. True faith trusts in God even when He does not heal you. True faith trusts that God knows better than you about what is good for you.

Jesus responded to the leper with the words, “I will; be clean.” Jesus willed him to be clean, so he was cleansed by the word of Jesus.

Can Jesus still heal today? He healed many during His earthly ministry from various illnesses and diseases. He even raised the dead. Can He still do it today?

Scripture tells us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8) so we know that He certainly can still heal.

Jesus said that He willed the leper to be clean. Does He will any less for you? Does He love you any less? Assuredly not! Jesus wills you to be clean of all illnesses and diseases, and He promises you that you will be cleansed. But He has not told you when. He has given you no firm date or time. He can heal you now. He may heal you now. He will most certainly heal you in the life to come. In heaven, you will have no ailments of body or mind.

He will bring you into heaven and give you a new body and mind not because you deserve it. You don’t. You deserve only temporal and eternal punishment. Jesus will bring you into heaven because He died for all of your sins. Jesus will raise your body from the grave because He has cleansed you of the dirt of your sins in your Baptism. Jesus will bring you into heaven because He continually absolves you of your sin and gives you His body and blood to keep you cleansed.

As the Roman centurion realized, Jesus has the authority to do this. As the Roman centurion had authority to send his soldiers to come and go according to his orders, he knew that Jesus has all authority in earth and heaven (cf. Matt. 28:18). This means that if Jesus commands a leper to be clean, he will be clean. If Jesus commands the centurion’s servant who was lying paralyzed and suffering terribly to be healed, he would be healed. If Jesus commands His minister to forgive you your sin in His name, it is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with you Himself (SC V.6).

He does cleanse you of your sins so you will be eternally in heaven with Him, and He will ultimately cleanse you of all illnesses and diseases and save you from every trial and tribulation.

When you pray, be careful that you don’t desire to be released from your trial against the will of God. Say joyfully, or at least firmly, “Not my will, by thy will be done.”

In fact, Scripture says we should rejoice in our suffering because God works through our suffering to strengthen us, to form us, and to increase our faith (Rom. 5:3-5). We should thank God for suffering because suffering teaches us to pray and pay attention to God’s Word. If we only knew the great good for us that is hidden under our trials, we would gladly give up all our days of joy for them.

Do not for one moment think that you are the only one under great trial. In First Peter 4, you learn that such trials are common to Christians, and in the next chapter that sufferings come upon all your fellow Christians who are in the world (I Pt. 4:12, 5:8-9). When a person begins to imagine that he alone is suffering, or that his sufferings are greater than those of others, it is a sign of a vanity and of being self-absorbed.

Finally, do not resist God when He drives you to His Word in suffering. Do not avoid His Word and thus sink and entangle yourself in your own thoughts or feelings, throwing yourself into the enemy’s camp that is besieging your soul. Cling to the words of Scripture. Ponder them in your heart. Repeat them again and again and direct the thoughts and emotions of your heart to them. Sing them in hymns of comfort and praise.

And pray. Pray saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. If you will, you can heal me. If you will, you can remove my trial and my affliction. But not my will, but thy will be done. If you know that this affliction is for my good, grant me to accept it, to rejoice in it, and to thank you for it. For I know that you desire only my eternal good – that is why you gave your life for me; that is why you suffered and died for me; that is why you have granted me to be baptized, and to hear your Word and absolution, and receive your body and blood in my suffering and affliction. And according to your promise to me grant me the resurrection of my body and life eternal according to your good and gracious will. Amen.”

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

[Portions of this sermon are adapted from “Brief Counsel for the Suffering and Afflicted” by W. Loehe.]

Praying for Healing

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on James 5:13-20

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

We should pray to God because He has commanded us to pray and because He has promised to hear us. But sometimes we are a little sheepish with our prayers. We are timid with our requests to God.

Is it because we are not sure that we’re praying for the right thing? Perhaps. We heard last week that if we ask wrongly, to spend it on our passions, God will not give us what we ask (Jas 4:3). This should actually comfort us in the sense that if we are asking God for something that is not good for us; something that would lead us into sin; something that would lead us away from Him – He will not give it to us. So we don’t have to be afraid of praying for the wrong thing. If it is the wrong thing, God will not give it to us.

Perhaps we are timid to pray because we are worried that God won’t give us what we are praying for. We are worried it might crush us not to have our request granted. This should not be a worry either. Because God only gives us what is good for us, if He doesn’t grant our request, we should not be crushed, but rather understand our request was not for the best. If God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way we would like, it is because He is answering our prayers in the way He would like – He who knows better than we what is best.

Perhaps we are timid to pray because our conscience is bothering us over our sin. If that is the case, James writes, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

Then we are given the example of Elijah. He prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three and a half years it didn’t rain. Is it because Elijah was a great prophet with a special connection to God that such a prayer was answered? Our lesson makes a point of saying that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours – a nature that is human; a nature that is weak; a nature that is sinful. Yet, the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Was Elijah righteous in himself? No, Scripture tells us no one is in himself righteous in God’s sight; none is righteous, no, not one (Rom. 3:10,20).

This is why James writes of confession. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Certainly confession and absolution is always available from your pastor. Confess your sins and “receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.” (SC V)

When we have sinned against our neighbour, we should also confess that sin to them. That’s why James says, “Confess your sins to one another.” It is reciprocal. Sins should be reconciled and forgiven so that they will not hinder our prayers being answered. This is why we also pray in the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.” (SC III)

Absolution makes you righteous before God, because Absolution covers a multitude of sins. Absolution forgives transgressions and covers sin. Absolution declares you righteous so that the Lord will count no iniquity against you. Because your sins are covered by the blood of Jesus who gave His body to death and shed His blood for your sin, Absolution declares you righteous.

As righteous, your prayers will be heard by God. “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

Especially in this context, our lesson is talking about prayers for healing from sickness. “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” Do not be timid to pray for healing from sickness. Declared righteous, your prayer has great power as it is working. It is not your power at work in prayer, but the power of God almighty who can heal the sick and raise the dead. Pray for healing. You have the command from God to pray and you have His promise that He will hear you. God can heal where doctors fail.

Tell me though, what healing is best? Healing in this life where God saves you from sickness and raises you out of your sick bed? Or healing in the next life where God saves you from your sins eternally and raises you from the dead? Healing in this life where you will get sick again, or healing in the next life where you will be healed and never again get sick?

“The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” Confess your sins and receive forgiveness and you will be saved and the Lord will raise you up on the Last Day.

Since God answers our prayers in the way He knows is best, we may be praying for healing in this life, but He is going to give us something far better. He is going to give us eternal healing in the life to come. He is going to give us eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth that Jesus ascended to prepare for us.

After accomplishing our salvation through His innocent suffering and death, He ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us. After taking the guilt of our sins so that the multitude of our sins is covered, He ascended to prepare a place for us without sickness, sorrow, or sin. After dying our death on the cross, He ascended to prepare a place of life for us – eternal life.

Pray boldly for healing, and know that God will answer your prayer and save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. Because your sins are covered, your righteous prayer will be heard. Your prayer has great power when it is working. You will be saved, and God will raise you from the dead to eternal life. Amen.

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

[A note to readers: starting in Advent, we will be following the one-year lectionary.]

Praying with Faith

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 15:21-28

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

We want to put God in a box. We want to contain Him. When we come to church, we want to open up the box for a little bit, but then quickly close it again on the way out as if God has nothing to do with the rest of our lives. Here in church it’s okay to talk about the Ten Commandments, but out in the world and in our lives we think it’s a different story. Here in church it’s okay to talk about God’s design of marriage until death, of male and female, of wives submitting to husbands and husbands loving their wives to the point of giving up their lives for them, but out there in the world we think we should keep quiet because the world is a free-for-all, as if God’s will doesn’t apply.

When it comes to life in the world, we want to put words in God’s mouth. When we hear something that we don’t like, we say, “God wouldn’t say that.” When we see something we don’t like, we say, “God wouldn’t do that.”

We’ve got it all backwards because of our sinful nature. We want to make a god in our image, but it is God who made us in His image. We can project our ideas of who and what God should be, but God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is. 55:8-9)

Our thoughts and our ways tell us that if a woman is pleading to Jesus for her daughter who is severely oppressed by a demon, Jesus would answer her. Our thoughts and our ways tell us that Jesus would tell her that He came to save her and her people. Our thoughts and our ways tell us that Jesus would give her the best, answer her prayers, and not treat her like a dog begging on the street.

Yet, Jesus answered the woman not a word. She continued to plead for mercy, but Jesus did not respond, so the disciples told Jesus to tell her to get lost. That’s basically what Jesus did. He said that He did not come for her, her people, or her daughter; she’s not one of God’s chosen people, Israel. Even this did not deter the woman. She kept pleading. Jesus then told her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, it is not right to take that which belongs to the chosen children of Israel and give it to those who are not.

We cannot say Jesus wouldn’t do that. He did. We cannot say Jesus wouldn’t say that. He did.

We don’t have God in a box. We do not have Him contained. We do not even understand His ways and His thoughts. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts.

At those times that we do not understand God’s ways or thoughts, we would do well to focus on what we do know about Him; what He has told us about Himself. He has promised us that He hears our prayers. He has told us that He is loving, merciful, and gracious. He has told us that even though Jesus came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, all nations will be blessed through Him (Is. 56:6,7).

When it seems to us like God is not listening to our prayers, we know that it is not true. He always hears our prayers. When Jesus told the Canaanite woman that He didn’t come to save her and that she is an unworthy dog, He said this to humble her, because we are indeed all unworthy dogs, undeserving of being saved. That’s why we should pray like the woman, acknowledging our sins and unworthiness. We don’t pray to God because we deserve that for which we pray. As we confess in the meaning of the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.” (SC III.5)

If we pray to God like He owes us something or we deserve that for which we pray based on our own merits or worthiness, we may well receive an answer that seems like God is calling us unworthy dogs so that we would realize our unworthiness and pray to Him not on account of our worthiness, but on account of His love and mercy, and His promise to hear us.

When we pray and God does not answer; when we pray for help and we still get hurt; when we pray for solutions and we only get more troubles; when we pray for rain and we only get more drought; when we pray for an end to rain and we only get more rain – these times when we do not understand God’s thoughts or ways, we need to cling to those things that we do know: God’s promises to us.

When God seems to be distant from us and not answering our prayers, He is working faith in us. When God does not immediately answer our prayers with help and grace, He is working faith in us. When we cannot understand God’s thoughts and ways, God is strengthening our faith in what we do know about Him, so that despite what we see and feel; despite what we do not know or understand, we would still cling to His promises to us.

God has promised that He will hear our prayers and never leave us or forsake us. He has told us that He loves us and wants everything only for our good. He has promised that even though we are unworthy to receive anything good from Him, He gives to us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. He promises us that because of Jesus’ death on our behalf, our sins have been paid for and we are declared worthy of eternal life.

Cling to these promises when God seems distant or angry. Cling to these promises of God when you do not understand what He is doing. Cling to these promises of God when you realize you do not have God in a box and do not have Him contained. Even cling to these promises when you do not understand why God has given certain Commandments and rules and how or why they are best. Even all of God’s Commandments are good for us and for our society, whether we understand it or not.

There are things that we cannot know or understand. There are things God has hidden from us. Every time we face troubles and tribulation, we do not have an answer from God as to why, or even for how long. That is why we cling to what we do know; what God has given us to know and understand. We cling to His promise that He is with us and will never leave us or forsake us. We cling to His promise that everything we face is for our eternal good. We cling to His promise that after grief, He will give relief, whether it starts already in this life, or if it is when we receive eternal life. We need fear no harm, because God will keep us safe in His arm, so we can trust in Him, and submit to His holy and perfect will. He who has given us faith will also keep us in the faith, whatever we must face. Amen.

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

Jesus’ Prayer for You

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter based on John 17:1-11

Dear disciples who have been given to Jesus by the Father: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus’ prayer recorded in our Gospel lesson took place on Maundy Thursday, the day He was betrayed and arrested. Jesus knew what was about to take place. He had even told His disciples, including Judas, that one of them would betray Him and that He would be killed.

Jesus knew the pain He was about to face. Jesus knew the rejection and mockery, and the brutally difficult task He would undertake. Yet Jesus prayed for His disciples. He wasn’t concerned about Himself even though He is the one that was heading to suffering and the cross. Jesus prayed for His disciples, for whom He was going to die.

When you have some weighty matter on your mind; some stressful matter; perhaps some difficult decisions, or some upcoming medical diagnosis or procedure, do you pray for others at such a time or for yourself? Our tendency is to think of ourselves first in every situation, most certainly when we are facing something difficult or trying. We tend to turn inwardly in every situation and think about ourselves first. Not Jesus. Jesus prayed for His disciples when He was just about to undergo more suffering than anyone in the history of the world. Even as He hung on the cross He prayed for those who crucified Him, saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

In the prayer for His disciples on Maundy Thursday, note the words that Jesus prayed. He speaks of His disciples as a gift from the Father: “Yours they were, and you gave them to me.” Jesus considers the disciples to be a gift from the Father to Him. He considers this sinful bunch of misfits to be a wonderful gift!

Jesus further says that the disciples have kept God’s Word; that they know that everything that the Father has given Him is from the Father; that they have received God’s Word and know the truth; that they believe that the Father sent Him.

You may well wonder what on earth Jesus is talking about. Is He talking about the same disciples we’re thinking He’s talking about? Those disciples who did not understand the things He taught them? Those disciples who didn’t trust Jesus to keep them alive in the boat during a storm, whom Jesus asks, “Where is your faith?” Those disciples who questioned what Jesus said and did, from saying that someone in the crowd had touched Him to telling them to feed the five thousand? Those disciples who could not cast out the demon from a boy, resulting in Jesus words, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” Those disciples who argued about who was the greatest, got jealous over other disciples, and wanted to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village? Those disciples who opposed God’s plan of salvation, including Peter to whom Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan,” and who would deny knowing Jesus three times? Is Jesus really talking about those same disciples who would all abandon Jesus and flee that very night when He was arrested?

How can Jesus say that they have kept God’s Word, that they have been faithful and know the truth? How can Jesus speak of these disciples like they are some great gift from the Father?

Jesus just overlooks their sins and their failures. The disciples didn’t always keep God’s Word, but Jesus says that they did. The disciples didn’t always trust Jesus in what He said and did, but Jesus says that they did. The disciples didn’t always bring glory to Jesus, but Jesus says that they did.

That’s what God’s forgiveness is. Forgiven sins are taken away from you like they’re simply gone, like they aren’t there now and never were there. Forgiven sins are not remembered by God. Yet those times when the disciples did what was right are remembered. Thus Jesus says that the disciples have kept God’s Word, know Him and the Father, and know the truth.

Jesus hasn’t changed the way that He prays for His disciples. He is your mediator and intercessor and you are His disciple, so you know that He prays for you, and you know that He prays for you in the same way as He prayed for His disciples years ago.

He prays to the Father saying that you are a gift to Him. You are a gift to Jesus! Jesus looks at you and says, “What a wonderful, perfect, gift! A dear disciple who keeps God’s Word, knows the truth, is faithful in all things, and brings glory to me.” That’s what Jesus says about you.

Jesus does not see your sins because He has completely taken your sins away from you. His death on the cross was for you and in your place. Through your Baptism you have put on Christ and His perfection covers your imperfections; His righteousness covers your unrighteousness; His holiness covers your unholiness. Through His Word and holy Supper He continues to give you His perfection, His righteousness, and His holiness.

Every good work that God has done through you even gets credited to you. Your sins are covered and forgotten and your good works are piled up and remembered. When Jesus prays for you, He prays for you like you are a gift from the Father to Him, and like you have done everything God has ever commanded you to do.

Jesus prays for you this way. He doesn’t pray for the world in this way. He prays to the Father, “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” Jesus doesn’t pray for those who are under the power of the devil, but for those whom He has claimed as His own through the waters of holy Baptism. Jesus doesn’t pray for the multitudes of unbelievers; He prays for those who are separated from the multitude of unbelievers by being Baptized into His death and resurrection.

Jesus prays and tells the Father that He will give eternal life to everyone the Father has given Him, so He tells the Father that He will give eternal life to you. Jesus gives you eternal life because He has paid the price of your sins, so when He prays for you He says that you are a gift from the Father; that you have kept God’s Word; that you know that everything that the Father has given Him is from the Father; that you have received God’s Word and know the truth; and that you believe that the Father sent Him. Amen.

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

The Marks of the Church: Prayer, Praise, and Thanksgiving

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear people who pray, praise, and give thanks: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The true Christian church, or God’s holy people, is recognized by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God. God has given the command to pray, and He has given His promise that He will hear the prayers of His people. Thus, the church prays. God has sent His only Son to die for our sins and He gives us eternal life, so the church praises God for His salvation. God has poured out on His church both temporal and eternal blessings, so the church responds in thanksgiving. Therefore, you can recognize the true Christian church by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God.

The church prays. Not with unintelligible babbling that is fruitless for the mind. Not with lofty words of show. The church prays humbly, but with all boldness and confidence asking our heavenly Father as dear children ask their dear father. We can pray to God with all boldness and confidence because He has commanded us to pray and has promised to hear us. If even sinful fathers know how to respond to the requests of their children with good gifts, do you think God will do worse? If even sinful fathers won’t give their children things that are harmful, do you think God will give us what is harmful for us? Thus we can pray with all boldness and confidence. God will hear our prayers and answer in the way that is best.

The church praises God. Not with unintelligible babbling that is fruitless for the mind. Not with empty repetitions of meaningless nonsense. A great problem in Luther’s day was that the church conducted worship in Latin, even though the common people did not know Latin. Even nuns and monks who memorized services never knew what they were saying, so Luther called it droning that is not prayer or praise to God because they could not understand what they were saying and consequently could learn nothing from it.

The church in our day doesn’t have that same problem. Rather, we have everything in our native language, but so much of it is nonsense that it might as well be in a foreign language since we can learn nothing from it. Many congregations have discarded the divine liturgy and replaced it with the weekly whims of a music band. The best hymns that point to Christ and His means of grace have been replaced with empty songs that emphasize feelings and emotions. The best hymns that tell us about what Jesus has done for us have been replaced with songs about us.

We also have not been immune to this, even though we have been working on learning good hymns and weaning ourselves off the empty sentimental stuff, but it is a work in progress. It is an important work in progress, however, because it is important what the church of God sings.

Hymns teach, so it is important what they teach. Our hymns of prayer are prayers to God, and it is important what we pray. Our hymns of praise and thanksgiving are prayers to God, and we need to remind ourselves why we praise God and why we give Him thanks. We need to pay attention to what the hymns teach. Otherwise, with some hymns, we will be tempted to just look at the number of verses and complain that the hymn is too long and it will feel like a chore and burden to sing it.

The church of God prays, praises, and gives thanks. We gather primarily to receive God’s gifts to us in Baptism, Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar, but we also respond with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. If our prayer, praise, and thanksgiving is a response to God’s gifts, it should sound like a response to God’s gifts; it should draw our attention to God’s gifts.

Prayer, praise, and thanksgiving is not confined to the Divine Service, however. Prayer, praise, and thanksgiving also take place in the homes of the people of God, in hospital beds, in cars, wherever they are. First Thessalonians says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (5:16-18)

It is not easy to pray without ceasing. John Bunyan said, “Prayer will make a man cease to sin, as sin will make a man cease from prayer.” This is true. Sin is the reason why we don’t pray as much or as often as we should. When we fall into sin, we are hesitant to approach God immediately in prayer because of our guilty conscience. We struggle to pray to God for the removal of sin that our sinful flesh wishes to retain.

However, when we are in a continual spirit of prayer, we are always ready to pray. When good things happen to us, our first reaction is to pray. When bad things happen to us, our first reaction is to pray. When temptation comes, our first reaction is to pray. Prayer is critical for our relationship with God because it keeps Him and His will for us in mind, and reminds us that we are His holy people.

Only God’s holy people can pray. Romans 8 says, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” (v.14) How can someone pray to God when they do not know God? They cannot. Prayers to someone out there up high in the sky are not prayers to God. Only God’s children can pray to God.

Prayer is based on God’s promises in Christ Jesus. We can pray to God only through Jesus, because only He has died to forgive us our sins. We cannot pray to God on our own merits. The only reason why God hears our prayers is because our sins are covered by the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. God hears our prayers because of Jesus, and only because of Jesus.

Thus, it is a mark of the true Christian church that she prays, praises, and gives thanks to God. These all flow from the forgiveness of sins that God’s holy people have. Because we are forgiven, we pray. Because we are forgiven, we praise God. Because we are forgiven, we give thanks to God.

The Christian holy people is recognized by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Where people gather to pray, praise, and give thanks to God according to His Word, there is God’s holy people; there is the true Christian church. Amen.

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

*Our midweek Lenten series is based on Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, as found in the primer A Christian Holy People, which is available from Lutheran Press both affordably in print and free electronically (lutheranpress.com).

God, Be Merciful to Me, the Sinner

Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost based on Luke 18:9-17

Dear people gathered in the house of God: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

When you come to God’s house, you can come as the Pharisee or you can come as the tax collector. You can come as one who relies on his own works, or you can come as one who relies on what Jesus has done. You can come to thank God how good you are, or you can come praying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”

Our trouble is that we have a hard time seeing our own sin. Our eyes are blinded by our own sin so that we do not always recognize it to be sin. It is easy for us to come to God’s house thinking about our own good works: how we help our neighbour; how we give offerings to God; even about how we come to church in the first place while so many others don’t.

It’s easy to look at the world, to listen to, read, or watch the news and think, “The world is full of horrible people. The world is full of awful sinners. Thank God I’m not one of those murderers, arsonists, or terrorists. God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” It’s easy to trust in ourselves that we are righteous, while treating others with contempt.

Scripture, however, teaches that “whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” (James 2:10) The same Law that says you shall not murder tells you not to sin when you get angry (Eph. 4:26) and to help your neighbour in every physical need (SC I.5). The same Law that says you shall not commit adultery tells you not to lust (Matt. 5:28) or even speak crudely or foolishly (Eph. 5:3-4). The same Law that says you shall not steal tells you not to be dishonest and to actually help your neighbour improve and protect his possessions and income (SC I.7).

You cannot come to God on your own merits because you don’t have any. You cannot rely on your own good works because they cannot save you. Scripture says that our good works are like filthy rags (Is. 64:6) so how polluted do you think our evil works are; how polluted our sins are? If we come to God relying on our own works, we will not go home justified.

If you take the case of the Pharisee praying in God’s house, the Temple, you will see that he wasn’t lying in the eyes of men. He was not an extortioner in the eyes of men. He wasn’t unjust in the eyes of men, nor was he an adulterer in the eyes of men. He didn’t sin in these open ways that others could see. He kept his sins hidden. He did such a good job hiding his sins that he had even convinced himself that they weren’t sins. All he came to God with was his own merits, his own works: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” He claims to be doing even more than the Law demanded of him. He’s fasting more than the Law demands and giving a tithe of more than the Law demands.

The Pharisee’s prayers were a charade. Prayer is an act of worship, but the Pharisee wasn’t worshiping God. He was worshiping himself. He trusted in himself as righteous and treated others with contempt.

Since prayers were normally spoken out loud, whether in private or in public, the Pharisee also prayed to be heard by others. He wanted everyone else to see how good he is and worship him, too. Maybe even the tax collector could hear him saying, “Thank you God that I am not like this tax collector.” He hides his own sins and compares himself to those whose sins can be seen by the whole world, so that in the eyes of men, he would be justified and righteous.

But Jesus says that that Pharisee did not go to his home justified. God did not declare him righteous. He could fool men, but no one can fool God.

The tax collector, however, came to God’s house in humble repentance. Were there worse sinners than him in God’s house? He didn’t care. They weren’t his concern. He didn’t compare himself with others or his sins with others. He hung his head in shame and prayed saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” He actually uses the definite article, not calling himself “a” sinner, but “the” sinner. God, be merciful to me, the sinner, like he is the only sinner on earth. No one else’s sins mattered to him. Why should they? You cannot use someone else’s sin as an excuse for yours. It benefits you not at all that someone is a worse sinner than you.

We should all say to ourselves, “My sin is why Jesus died. I crucified Him. My sins are the reason Jesus came and suffered. My sins are inexcusable and undeniable. God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”

True worship is not being in church so that others can see you. True worship is not pretending to be good or trying to get men to think that you are good.

True worship is receiving the gifts of God. True worship is believing God’s promises and receiving blessings from Him. True worship is coming in humble repentance to God’s house and praying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”

Praying “God, be merciful to me” is praying that God would be propitiated to me. God set your anger aside. Do not deal with me in your anger and wrath. Be merciful to me.

God is merciful. He has never and will never refuse to forgive a penitent sinner. He has never and will never charge a repentant sinner with his sins because Jesus was charged with and paid the price all sin. God has never and will never reject the sinner who comes to Him relying not on his own works, but on what Jesus has done.

We can rely on what Jesus has done. Jesus never failed even in one point of the Law, yet He was held accountable for all of it. He was held accountable for all our failures to fulfil the Law. He was held accountable for all of our sins of thought, word, and deed. Jesus was held accountable for the sins of the entire world, and suffered the wrath and punishment of God for all sin.

You can rely on what Jesus has accomplished because He has accomplished everything for your salvation. The price of your sins has been paid in full. God is not propitiated to you because of your pleas for mercy, but on account of Jesus. Jesus bore the punishment and wrath of God for your sin. That’s why the Bible says that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins (I John 4:10). Jesus turns God’s anger away. On account of Jesus, God is merciful to you.

So you can say, “Jesus’ death on the cross was for my sin. My sins are forgiven. My sins are forgiven whether they are known to others or if they are secret. I have peace with God. God has been merciful to me, the sinner.”

You will go home justified. You will go home declared righteous. In God’s house you receive the forgiveness of sins that Jesus earned for you by His life, death, and resurrection. Through Absolution you have been declared righteous. Through the true body and blood of Jesus you will be justified because you will receive forgiveness. Through the Lord’s Supper you are united in communion with Christ, so when God looks at you, He does not see your sin. He sees Jesus. God sees His own Son who has fulfilled the Law.

God, be merciful to me, the sinner. Don’t make excuses. Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t tell God what good you’ve done. Rely on what Jesus has done for you. Rely on the forgiveness you will receive in the true body and blood of Jesus, and you will go home justified. Amen.

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

Teach us to Pray

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Luke 11:1-13

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

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus teaches us to pray. Yes, He teaches us the words to what we call the Lord’s Prayer, but He also teaches us the right attitude with which to pray. Jesus tells us to pray with impudence, that is, with persistence and shamelessness.

Jesus provides an illustration to teach this attitude of prayer. Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and ask for three loaves of bread to set before a traveller that just arrived at your house? Who would do that? Who would bother their friend in the middle of the night for some bread? That’s pretty shameless. And on top of it, once the friend says no, who would keep on banging on the door? You’ve already bothered him in the middle of the night, and now he says, “No, keep quiet. I’m in bed. The children are in bed. The baby finally fell asleep. I can’t get up to give you some bread at this hour.” Who would keep banging on the door and ringing the doorbell? Who would keep knocking and asking for bread in the middle of the night so shamelessly? It’s embarrassing enough to go to your friend in the first place at such an hour and then to impudently, persistently continue to ask, that’s just shameless.

The thing is you wouldn’t do that to a friend. But if you did, he would not get up because he’s your friend. Jesus says he would get up because of your persistence and shamelessness. He’d get up and give you whatever you need because you won’t leave him alone. Your friend will give you what you need because he wants you to stop banging on his door in the middle of the night.

Jesus says that is the attitude with which we should pray to God – the attitude of persistence: praying without ceasing (cf. I Thess. 5:16). If you don’t receive that for which you pray, keep praying. Shamelessly continue to pray to God that He would give you what you need.

We can pray to God persistently and shamelessly, because when we pray to God, we are not praying to Him as to a friend. We are praying to our Father as His sons – and not just as any sons, but when we pray in Jesus’ name, we are praying as the Son; we pray as Jesus. We don’t pray in our own name; we pray in Jesus’ name.

If we prayed in our own name, God would have no reason to answer us. We have sinned against Him in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved Him with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. We justly deserve His present and eternal punishment, not to have our prayers answered.

When we pray in Jesus’ name, however, we do not pray as sinners. We pray as those who are baptized into Christ, and thus clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27). When we pray in Jesus’ name, God has every reason to answer us, because we pray as His Son; we pray as Jesus. Jesus never sinned in thought, word, or deed. He did everything that the Law demands and left nothing undone. He loved the Father with His whole heart and His neighbour as Himself. Praying in Jesus’ name, our prayers will be answered. As Jesus Himself says, “Ask, and it will be given to you.”

What then about the prayers being offered up by God’s children who are suffering? Those prayers from nursing home beds and hospital beds? Those prayers from cancer wards and palliative care? What about their loved ones crying to God on their knees for healing and recovery? What about those who cried out to God for help but He did not answer them in the way they thought He should?

The answer for this is not to be found in the attitude of impudence that we should have in prayer. If impudence were the only attitude for prayer, we would have to conclude that whenever God does not answer our prayers, it is only because we didn’t pray hard enough or often enough or long enough. We’d have to conclude that God is the reluctant friend who we have to pester until he finally gets out of bed to give us what we need. But that is not what Jesus says. God is not reluctant to help us. God does not ignore our pleas until we finally have bothered him enough.

This is where the second attitude of prayer comes in – the attitude of trust – trusting that God knows what is best for us, and that He will give it to us. God is not going to give us anything that will harm us or be bad for us. He is not the father who gives his son a serpent when he asks for a fish. He is not the father who gives his son a scorpion when he asks for an egg. What sinful, earthly father would even do that? If even sinful fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, do you think God our heavenly Father will do worse? God will never give His children anything that will harm us or be bad for us. That is His promise to us.

We may not see or understand. What we see and understand is clouded by sin. We see illness; God sees the strengthening of faith through illness. We see need; God sees the increase of patience and contentment. We see the death of a loved one; God sees the opening of the gates of heaven to our loved one.

God will never give His children anything that will harm us or be bad for us. The Epistle to the Romans puts it this way, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (8:32) If God gave you the greatest gift of all, sending His only Son to die in your place for your sins, do you think that He will withhold lesser things from you? You think He gave you the greatest gifts ever and now He’s being stingy?

No, dear friends in Christ, God is not withholding anything good from you. He is giving you what He knows is best for you, whether you see it or not; whether you understand it or not. He has given you the forgiveness of sins because of Jesus’ death for you, and He gives you the promise that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so you too will rise to eternal life. If God has given this wonderful gift to you, you know that everything that He gives to you is for your eternal good.

God will answer the prayers of His children praying for healing and recovery, even if it is not on this side of heaven. Jesus suffered and died so that we will not suffer or die in the life to come. Our suffering will end. Our prayers will be answered in the way and at the time God knows to be best.

As the hymn says:

What God ordains is always good: His loving thought attends me;
No poison can be in the cup that my physician sends me.
My God is true; each morning new I trust His grace unending,
My life to Him commending.

What God ordains is always good: Though I the cup am drinking
Which savours now of bitterness, I take it without shrinking.
For after grief God gives relief, My heart with comfort filling
And all my sorrow stilling. (LSB 760 st. 3, 5)

Amen.

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