Palm Sunday

Sermon for Palm Sunday based on Matthew 21:1-9

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

The kingdom of God does not come with violence. Jesus does not force anything on anyone. As powerful as He is, He does not come with His legions of angels to force you to believe, force you to behave, or force you in any way.

He comes in humility, so the prideful laugh at Him. He comes in service, so the arrogant mock Him. He comes in weakness to suffer and die, so the strong deride Him.

God’s children, however, receive Him who comes humbly. They sing, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” We sing this as He humbly comes to us in His body and blood, just as those children of God sang it when He came humbly, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Christ comes to His own, and they receive Him. They are His Church, and He gathers them to Himself. The Church is not a group of spiritual people who decide to get together and do religious things. The Church is God’s chosen people of all times and places whom God Himself gathers through the forgiveness of sins to be the body of Christ. To us Christ comes with salvation, which is why we sing “hosanna,” which means “save us.”

Christ came for the very purpose of saving us. He has saved us from sin, death, and the devil. He has saved us from the punishment that we deserve for our sins. He has saved us from eternal death in hell, which is the just reward for our many sins. He saved us from the Evil One who seeks day and night to devour us.

He saved us by His bitter grief and woe, His suffering and agony, His death and resurrection. He saved us not just by His suffering and death, but also by His life and resurrection. During His life, He fulfilled the Law of God which we have broken. In His resurrection, He burst the bars of death for us and all believers.

He comes to us humbly and in weakness to save us. This is a stumbling block for the prideful and arrogant. Earthly kingdoms come with violence and strife. They spread by means of killing others and taking from them. They grow with political manipulation, betrayals, and lies. Those in power get richer and richer by taxing the people into poverty, oppressing them, and by stealing from the public coffers. Bribes are paid and critics are silenced. This is how earthly kingdoms work. They grow and get stronger until the next earthly kingdom rises up and destroys them.

The kingdom of God does not come to earth with violence. The kingdom of God came through the violence done to Jesus. Now it spreads through the forgiveness of sins freely given. It grows through the Word preached to listening ears. It grows through the waters of Holy Baptism and is nourished through the food of the Holy Supper.

The kingdom of God comes so humbly, it can be rejected. You don’t have to fight it if you don’t want to be part of it, you can simply walk away. You can simply cease to care. You can grow cold. You can grow indifferent. You can simply stop listening to the Word and stop being nourished by Jesus’ body and blood and have nothing to do with the kingdom of God.

Because Christ comes in weakness and humility, do not make the mistake of believing Him to be weak or powerless. Quite on the contrary, He is God in the flesh with all the power and authority of God. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. It is for your sake that He comes humbly.

Our Epistle lesson tells us, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

He was in the form of God because He is God. He is of one substance with the Father. Yet He humbled Himself to serve us, and that is the mind we should have among ourselves.

To be Christlike means to serve your neighbour. The strong help the weak. The rich help the poor. Those who have a voice speak for those who do not.

To be Christlike also means to suffer unjustly, which is nearly impossible for us to do without grumbling and complaining. Even when we suffer justly we cannot but complain about our suffering.

If our pride is attacked, we get angry. We want to defend ourselves. We struggle in any way to be like Christ, the Lamb who was led to slaughter without complaint. We cannot bear to hear unkind things said about us. We cannot bear to have our reputations tarnished. We need to repent and follow the example of Christ. We need to turn from our sin and trust in Jesus for forgiveness.

Peter writes, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (I Peter 2:21-24)

Jesus was continually slandered. He is still today spoken against and much evil is said of Him every day. He endures this evil because He desires that everyone would turn from their evil and be saved. He does not return evil with evil, but He grants forgiveness.

The day of His return will be a stark contrast to His first coming. He will not come humbly as a baby. He will not ride into Jerusalem humbly on a donkey. He will not suffer and die. When He returns, Christ Jesus will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. Then every knee will bow to Him, even those who spoke evil of Him. Every tongue will confess that He is Lord, but Christ will divide those who confessed it before His return from those who confess it only on Judgment Day.

Christ will put those who did not confess Him as Lord when He came humbly on His left side and give them the due reward for their wickedness. They will be punished eternally for their sins. That will be justice. They will pay for every sin.

He puts those who confessed Him as Lord when He came humbly on His right side and will give them the kingdom prepared for them from before the foundation of the world. They are not judged for their sins. Their sins are covered by His own blood. They will not be punished for their sins. They are forgiven. To top it off, they are credited for all the good that the Holy Spirit worked through them throughout their lives.

Jesus came humbly on Palm Sunday and He comes humbly today to do everything for you so that you will be on His right side on Judgment Day. He suffered everything for you, so that you do not have to suffer eternally. He has washed you with water and the Word and nourishes you with His own body and blood. He gave His life for you, the sinless dying for the sinful.

What punishment so strange is suffered yonder!

The Shepherd dies for sheep that love to wander;

The Master pays the debt His servants owe Him,

Who would not know Him.

 

The sinless Son of God must die in sadness;

The sinful child of man may live in gladness;

Man forfeited his life and is acquitted;

God is committed.

 

And when, dear Lord, before Thy throne in heaven

To me the crown of joy at last is given,

Where sweetest hymns Thy saints forever raise Thee,

I, too, shall praise Thee. (LSB 439 st. 4,5,15) Amen.

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

Jesus Calms Your Storms

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany based on Matthew 8:23-27

Dear disciples in the boat with Jesus: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

On a nice, calm day, the disciples followed Jesus into the boat. If you would have asked them at that point if they trusted Jesus, they would have responded strongly in the affirmative. Of course they trusted Jesus. They had just witnessed Jesus healing the leper, the centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, and many others. They were of good cheer and content, thinking that because Jesus was with them, they would have no trouble. They had no fear, apprehension, or uneasiness. Jesus, weary from preaching and teaching, laid down to sleep.

Then, the storm hit. A great storm with waves swamping the boat. The disciples were overcome with fear and fright. They were in a panic as the amount of water in the boat increased and increased, even as the howling winds and great waves tossed it back and forth, completely out of their control. Jesus remained sleeping, seemingly unaware of what was happening.

Jesus remained sleeping to bring the weak faith of the disciples to light. Faith is revealed to be true or false precisely through crosses and trials.

Saint Peter had boasted that he was ready even to die with Jesus, but when tribulation came, Peter fell away and denied Jesus three times. We, too, know how to talk big about the Gospel, cross, and patience, but when the cross is upon us, and we get hit by the storms of life, then it becomes clear how weak our faith is.

“Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Jesus asks.

The winds and the sea obey Jesus. This of course means they obey Him not only when He rebukes the winds and the sea and tells them to be calm, but also when He tells them to rise up and storm. Jesus is the one who commanded the storm to start and to toss the boat and swamp it with water. The storm struck because of Jesus. So also our storms strike because of Jesus.

One way to end the storm is to throw Jesus out of the boat. That’s what the sailors did to Jonah. The Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land sent a great storm because Jonah was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. To quiet the storm, the sailors hurled Jonah, the one who was responsible for the storm, into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.

Throwing Jesus out of the boat to calm the storm is the easy way out of affliction. Scripture tells us, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (II Tim. 3:12) So, walk away from Jesus and your afflictions will end. The devil will stop harassing you at every corner. He will stop lying in wait for your thoughts, heart, soul, spirit, and conscience. The world will stop hating you, slandering you, and speaking evil of you. You will no longer have the constant battle with the desires, passions, lusts, anger and pride of your sinful flesh.

This is what many churches have done. They were beaten down by the social justice warriors of the world, so they caved to their every demand. Regardless of what Christ our Lord says on the matters, they wanted to avoid affliction, so they have fully embraced abortion, homosexuality, women pastors, and every other godless doctrine from Satan.

See, the world tolerates all the teaching and preaching of the heathen, the Muslims, and false Christians, but it cannot stand Christ’s teaching and preaching. As long as you preach what the itching ears of the world want to hear, everything will go smoothly for you. But when you begin to follow Christ, every calamity strikes. Then you invite against yourself the devil, the world, and all ungodly men. Then, because of Jesus, you face great storms and fierce winds, and suffer affliction.

But if you throw Christ out of the boat – out of your life – you throw out with Him all grace, salvation, and blessedness. You throw out eternal life.

Instead of throwing Jesus out of the boat, go in your anguish and distress to Him like the disciples did and say, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” Be patient and commit your cares to God until He is roused from sleep by your calling and crying.

The truth is that God never sleeps. Sometimes it seems to us as if God is sleeping. Psalm 44 says, “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Rise up; come to our help!” (vv. 23,26) Psalm 35 prays, “Awake and rouse yourself for my vindication, for my cause, my God and my Lord.” (v. 23)

As a man, Christ did sleep according to His human nature. According to His divine nature, He did not sleep, but was awake. As Psalm 121 says, “Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (v. 4) Even sleeping, Jesus was not only aware of the storm, but commanding the storm. Even sleeping according to His human nature, Christ was awake according to His divine nature and keeping watch over His disciples in the boat.

Upon being roused by the disciples, Jesus did rebuke them for their little faith, but He calmed the storm. The storm and the calming of the storm were to strengthen the disciples’ faith; that they would trust that Christ alone is Lord of heaven and earth, who made the sea and the dry land; that they would trust that, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” (Ps. 34:19) Jesus desired them to know that they can find comfort and help in all dangers, be they physical or spiritual, by water or land, as long as they are with Him in the boat, that is, incorporated into Him by faith.

Even though He sometimes takes a long time, and it seems to us that He has fallen asleep, forgotten us, and will not hear us, we should not therefore despair, but cry out with the disciples, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” Then we will quickly find verification of David’s words, “Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” and “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him.” (Ps. 91:15)

What we should always remember is that our death is our victory. Then we will be in no more trouble. We will face no more storms or afflictions. Because of Jesus’ death for our sin, our sin has been paid for, and our death is precious in God’s sight. Through the storms of this life, Jesus also teaches us to pray for death – that sweet release from the evils of this life. Jesus’ death has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. The kingdom of heaven is thus open to you.

No troubles or afflictions can keep you out of heaven. Sin, death, and the devil cannot keep you out of heaven. Christ Jesus fulfilled God’s Law for you in thought, word, and deed, and He suffered and died for you, taking the full punishment of your sins on Himself. He has defeated all that would bar the gates of heaven to you, and He has promised to be with you until the end, through everything you must face.

With Jesus in the boat with us, the world must rage against us as it rages against Him. Let the world rage and storm. The winds and sea, and all things must obey Jesus. Trial and trouble will last no longer than Jesus wills. He is Lord over all, and He can change it all in a moment. To Him be worship, glory, and honour forever! Amen.

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

[This sermon borrows from Johann Spangenberg’s questions and answers on the Gospel reading.]

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.]

Faith in Tragedy

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 5:21-43

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

When terror or tragedy strikes, it is common these days to claim strength in the midst of weakness and helplessness. For example: “Humboldt Strong” and “Toronto Strong.” It says that we are strong enough to get through this tragedy. We are strong, so we will survive, and life will go on.

What is it that makes us strong? Our resolve and determination? Our self-confidence and smug attitude? Our faith in ourselves to stay strong? These will not help us in tragedy.

Faith in Jesus will help us in tragedy and crisis. Faith in Jesus will get us through.

But this faith is not self-confidence. Faith is not confidence that you are strong and can take on the world.

Faith is humble begging. It is throwing yourself at the mercy of God. It is Jairus falling at the feet of Jesus and begging Him to heal his daughter. Faith is reaching out and touching Jesus’ garment for healing and falling at his feet as did the woman with the discharge of blood. Faith is trusting in God’s mercy even though we deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment because of our sins.

So you see, faith is not strength. It is relying on the strength of another, namely Jesus. Faith comes from weakness.

Ask anyone who says that they have strength in themselves to deal with tragedy. They will say they don’t need faith in Jesus. They have faith in themselves – they have no use for faith in Jesus. If you have the self-confidence to get through anything this life throws at you, you reject Jesus because you say you don’t need Him.

Faith is the opposite of self-confidence. It is denying yourself and clinging to Jesus for salvation, comfort, help, and for everything you need.

We heard of the faith of Jairus and the woman with the discharge of blood. Jairus was a prominent man, one of the rulers of the synagogue. He would have been well known, well connected, and well respected. Then we have the woman, who would have been ritually unclean because she just wouldn’t stop bleeding. She had spent all her money on doctors who were not able to help her at all. In fact, the text says she suffered much under many physicians and her condition only grew worse. According to Jewish law, she was unclean and forbidden from even worshiping in the synagogue which Jairus ruled.

Two people on opposite ends of the spectrum. Both in need. Jairus’s daughter was sick to the point of death. In fact, she died while Jairus was with Jesus. She was twelve years old, born about the time that the woman had started bleeding. Both Jairus and the woman went to Jesus for healing, because both had faith in Jesus.

Faith is rather a simple thing. Faith is knowing God as He is revealed to us in Jesus, assenting to the truth of God’s Word, and trusting in God, especially for the forgiveness of sins because of Jesus’ death for us.

Faith is trust in Jesus, even when we don’t have all the answers. Faith does not ask, “Why did this happen to me?” but simply trusts in God’s mercy. Having faith means realizing that all the bad things that happen in the world are not only because of everyone else’s sins, but our own sins, too. Having faith means realizing that God is justly displeased because of my sins.

This brings us back to faith coming from weakness, not strength. In our weakness, we trust in Jesus for salvation, comfort, help, and for everything we need.

Faith does not come from within us. Faith comes from outside of us. Faith is the gift of God. As Ephesians tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one my boast.” (2:8-9) God gives us faith as a free gift.

We cannot attain faith by our own powers or strength, but we can lose our faith when we rely on our own powers or strength. This is seen most often when Christians forget how God strengthens and nurtures faith. They forget that God keeps them in the faith through His Word. They forget that God nurtures them in the faith through the Lord’s Supper. They think that they don’t need God to keep them in the faith because they are strong enough on their own. They stay away from where God preserves them in the faith, thus they fall away from the faith.

Faith does not preserve itself. Just like faith does not create itself but is given by God through the means of grace, so also faith does not preserve itself, but is preserved by the means of grace. The second you think that you don’t need to hear God’s Word regularly and receive holy communion frequently, you are relying on your own strength and are walking down the road that leads to falling away.

Faith trusts in Jesus no matter how things appear. In the midst of suffering, it appears that God does not care. It seems like He is not listening to your prayers.

You don’t think everything seemed bleak to the woman who was able to get no help from doctors, only suffered more, and now had no money either? You don’t think she had prayed to God every single day over those twelve years, crying on her knees, and begging for help? Yet she still had faith that simply touching Jesus’ garment would heal her! After God had not answered her prayers for twelve years, she still had faith and trusted in Jesus.

Such a faith cannot come from within. The only way she could have such faith was because God had given her the gift of faith.

Jairus’s daughter’s future also looked bleak as she was so ill. Undoubtedly, Jairus also had been praying for healing before he went to Jesus, but instead of getting better, his daughter approach closer to death’s door. Then she died.

But having faith means believing in the resurrection of the dead, because Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Saint Matthew tells us that after his daughter died, Jairus said to Jesus, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” His daughter died, but Jairus still had faith in Jesus.

Your prayers for healing, comfort, and the end of suffering will be answered. No matter how bleak things appear, Jesus will make an end of them as He has promised. You may have to wait twelve years for healing like the woman, or you may have to wait until you die, but Jesus will give you healing, comfort, and end your suffering.

We trust in Him who is the resurrection and the life. We trust in Him because He has given us the gift of faith. He who suffered our sins and sicknesses on the cross will give us healing in His good time. He will save us from our illnesses and sins and even death itself, because He has conquered these enemies of ours.

Jesus continues to preserve our faith through the hearing of His Word and the eating and drinking of His body and blood. He continues to forgive our sins and will keep us in the faith until we die. And then when He returns, He will raise us from the dead like we are merely sleeping and give eternal life to us and all who have died in the faith.

Don’t think you are strong enough yourself to get through tragedies and crises. Rather, in your weakness, trust in Jesus and His promises to you. He will see you through. Pray to Jesus for healing and help even if He has not answered you for twelve years. Pray to Jesus for life in the midst of death.

When you do face tragedy, do not claim to be strong. Instead, in your weakness and helplessness, cling to Jesus. He is the resurrection and the life. 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: Suffering

Sermon for Midweek Lenten Service

Dear people who suffer: 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 suffering. Yes, I said suffering. The true church of God is recognized by the fact that she suffers. The other marks of the church are perhaps more understandable. The true church must have God’s Word and the Sacraments instituted by Christ. The church must have men administering Christ’s gifts to His people and people responding in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. But suffering? Is suffering really a mark of the church?

Certainly more popular is the preaching of the theology of glory; that preaching which says that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy; that preaching that says if you have faith, God will give you prosperity and wellness; that preaching which says you can live your dreams now and live your life to the fullest and make it last. After all, Scripture says, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) Didn’t Christ suffer for me so that I don’t have to suffer?

It is true that Christ did suffer for you. He suffered for you so that you won’t suffer eternally in hell. But God’s holy people must suffer misfortune, persecution, tribulation, and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh. We suffer so that we would be conformed to Christ, our head.

You have undoubtedly heard and seen in all kinds of places that passage from Philippians which says I can do all thing through Christ. Athletes have it on their shirts. Mountain climbers have it on their gear. It’s on motivational posters in sales offices and other places to try to motivate people to accomplish something. Do you know the context of that passage? Do you know what the Holy Spirit was saying through the Apostle Paul? Saint Paul writes from jail, saying, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

The Apostle is suffering in jail, and the Philippian church is concerned for him. Paul writes that he is content even in suffering and in prison, in hunger, and in need because he can do it through Christ who strengthens him. He can face suffering because Christ strengthens him for it. Not quite the stuff of motivational posters.

This Scripture passage doesn’t mean that you can become a professional ball player because Christ strengthens you to do it. It doesn’t mean you can scale Mount Kilimanjaro because Christ will strengthen you. It doesn’t mean you will be the top salesman in your office because Christ strengthens you. Christ has never promised these things to you or to anyone else. It means that you can be content even in suffering and in prison, in hunger, and in need because you can do it through Christ who strengthens you. You can face suffering because Christ strengthens you for it.

Until Christ returns, the church of God will suffer at the hands of the devil, the world, and our flesh.

The devil will not stop harassing and persecuting God’s people. He will not stop prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us. He will not stop causing strife and contention. He will not stop twisting God’s Word. He will not stop his temptations. The devil is the sworn enemy of Christ, our head, so he is the sworn enemy of us, the body of Christ.

The world will not stop its persecutions and attacks against the church. The world hates Christ’s holy people because the world hates Christ. Jesus says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” (John 15:18-21) The world will only stop hating us if we conform to the world and cease being God’s holy people.

Our sinful flesh will not stop its attacks and temptations either. Our flesh will not stop wanting things that are opposed to God’s will and commands. Our flesh will not stop its desires to conform to the world so that we would not have to face suffering. Our flesh will not stop desiring to jump headfirst into every temptation the devil and the world dangle before us.

The church suffers in these ways so that we would cling to Christ and the Word of God, and so suffer for Christ’s sake. Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt. 5:11) First Peter 4[:14] says, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” “Rejoice, insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” (I Peter 4:13)

No, this does not mean that suffering is pleasant, but suffering for the sake of the Gospel is an honour for Christians, who know that our Saviour suffered for us. This suffering tests the genuineness of our faith (I Peter 1:7) and helps kill our sinful flesh so that we might learn patience, humility, meekness, praise, thanksgiving, and gladness. We can rejoice in our suffering because it is momentary and not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).

Suffering keeps us ever clinging to the cross of Christ. It pulls us away from worldly desires and gives us a desire to be with our Saviour in heaven. It crushes out idols and leads us to cling to the free forgiveness which Christ has earned for us. Suffering draws us to the Gospel and leads us to cling to the sacraments where Christ has promised to give us the medicine of eternal life.

It is a mark of the true Christian church that she suffers as Christ her Lord suffered. Where the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh are attacking, tempting, and persecuting, there must be the true Christian church; there must be God’s holy people. Where people suffer for the name of Christ and for the sake of the Gospel, 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).

Blind Faith

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent based on John 9:1-41

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

God is just. He is righteous. He is fair. Knowing this, upon seeing the man blind from birth, the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” God is just. He is righteous. He is fair. Thus, the disciples thought the blind man was obviously getting what he deserved.

Keep in mind that in that day there was no welfare system to take care of this man. There were no disability benefits for which he could apply. There was no centre for the blind, no school for the blind, no seeing eye dogs, no government assistance for the blind. This man was born blind and the only thing he could do for food was beg on the side of the street and hope that enough people had pity on him to toss a couple coins in his direction so that he could eat.

God is just. He is righteous. He is fair. So, the disciples thought this man must have deserved what he got. God punishes sin, and here you can see it. Either his own sins are the reason, or his parents’ sins are the reason he had been suffering in complete darkness from birth, relying on the compassion of strangers just to eat. The explanation for such an awful situation must be payback for something.

Is that how we tend to see things? Any suffering that someone else goes through must be deserved. Any tragedy that strikes others must be divine retribution for their sin. Either they sinned, or their parents sinned, but they are getting what they deserve.

This is easy to understand. Sin results in the just punishment of God. What we do has consequences. This is justice in our eyes. If I don’t smoke, I won’t get cancer. If I eat healthy and exercise, I won’t have a heart attack. If I don’t drink and drive, I won’t be in a collision on my way home. It’s the smokers who get cancer, the unhealthy eaters who get heart attacks, and the drunk drivers who end up in collisions.

The problem with seeing things this way, is that we know that things don’t work out this way. Non-smokers die of cancer every day. Young athletes have heart attacks. Innocent families get hit by drunk drivers.

That must be just bad luck, many will say. You can do things to decrease your chances of getting cancer or a heart attack or being in a collision, but in the end, it just comes down to pure dumb luck. You may not be a high risk for a disease, but if you do get it, it’s just unpredictable chance and bad luck.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples, however, was not that the man was blind because of his sin or his parents’ sin. Neither was His answer that the man was blind out of pure dumb luck. Jesus told the disciples that it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. In other words, God made the man blind so that He could display His work in the man.

Well that’s not fair, we might be quick to say. We prefer to say that God allowed the man to be blind. Whoever did it, it cannot have been God. God wouldn’t do such a thing. But God allowing something is still His doing. Nothing happens apart from God’s will.

Do you remember Job? He lost his oxen and donkeys to raiders as well as the servants who cared for them. Fire from heaven burned up his sheep and the servants who cared for them. Another group of raiders took his camels and killed the servants tending them. A great wind blew over the house of his oldest son and killed all ten of his children. Job was struck with loathsome sores from the bottom of his foot to the crown of his head. And Scripture says that God brought all this disaster upon Job (Job. 42:11). God did it. It wasn’t Job’s sin. It wasn’t coincidence or chance. God did it.

According to our sense of justice, righteousness, and fairness, we say that this is not just, it is not righteous, it is not fair. We don’t just say that about what God did to Job. We say it about what God has done to our loved ones. We say it about what God has done to us.

We say it’s not fair that my loved one died. It’s not righteous that she suffered so long. It’s not fair that I have cancer.

Did we sin or did our parents sin so that we suffer like this? We can go right back to our first parents, Adam and Eve, and say yes, our parents sinned, and that sin has been passed on from generation to generation, so that we also have sinned. That is why we suffer. We suffer because we are sinful. We will die because we are sinful. If we were not sinful, we would never suffer and we would never die.

This does not give us the complete answer, however. The truth is that we will not receive a complete answer on this side of heaven to why we suffer in the ways that we do. We will not know the answer because we are blind.

We might sing, “I once was blind, but now I see,” but that’s not true. We don’t see. Jesus says, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” Don’t say that you see, because you don’t. If you say that you see, your guilt remains.

If you could see, you would never question God’s justice, righteousness, or fairness. You would see that all that you suffer is so that the works of God might be displayed in you. What is the work of God? Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6:29) Everything God does is so that we would believe in Him, but we don’t see it. We’re blind to it.

If you could see, every time suffering came upon you, you would rejoice and rush onto your knees to thank God that He is allowing you to suffer. In the face of loss, you would say, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) In the face of illness and death, you would say, “Thank you God for displaying Your works in me.”

The work of God is that you believe in Him whom He has sent. The work of God is that you believe in Jesus.

This might be easier to understand first from someone else’s suffering. That’s why we have the example of Job. God took away all of Job’s earthly possessions, yet Job still believed in God and trusted in Him. That displays God’s work of faith. God killed all of Job’s children in one great blow, yet Job still believed in God and trusted in Him. That displays God’s work of faith. On top of all this loss, God struck Job with loathsome sores from the bottom of his foot to the crown of his head, yet Job blessed God, he did not sin, and he did not charge God with wrong (Job 1:21-22). God displayed his work in Job.

God displays His work in us also. We suffer in this life. We cannot say it is because of some sin that we committed. We certainly cannot say that it is just random dumb luck. If it is by random chance that we suffer, then it is by random chance that our suffering ends. We suffer at the hand of God, so that He would display His work in us.

God’s work of faith is displayed in us when we continue to believe and trust in Him even when we suffer illness and loss. God’s work of faith is displayed when we, who are blind, trust in what God does even though we cannot see what He does. Faith is by definition in something that is not seen. Hebrews 11 tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (v.1) Romans 8 tells us, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (vv.24-25)

God’s work is displayed in us when we accept that we cannot know all the reasons why we suffer as we do, but we trust that God knows better than we do. God’s work is displayed in us when we accept that we are blind to what God does but we accept from His hand both days of gladness and days of sadness. God’s work is displayed in us when despite what we suffer, we say with firm confidence that God is just. He is righteous. He is fair.

You can trust that everything that God does is for your good. He sent His only Son to suffer and die for you. What more could He do for you? The Son of God voluntarily came to take your sins on Himself and receive the punishment that your sins deserve. Jesus suffered and died for you so that you have the promise of leaving this world of suffering, sorrow, and death. His death gives you the promise of an end to suffering and a reunion with all your loved ones who have died in the faith.

Because of what God has done for you, you can blindly trust Him. Even though you cannot see now, one day you will see clearly that He has loved you dearly. Despite what you cannot see, you can trust God’s promises to you. His promises to you are sure and certain, because Jesus died for you. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and 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.