Fragrant Sacrifices and Offerings
October 12, 2014
“And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2) This is our text.
In a sermon on the Epistle for today proclaimed on the Third Sunday in Lent by Dr. Martin Luther these words were spoken, “This expression Paul takes from the Old Testament. There the temporal sacrifices are described as being ‘a sweet-smelling savor’ unto God: that is, they were acceptable and well-pleasing to him; but not, as the Jews imagined, because of the value of the work or of the sacrifices in themselves. For such thoughts they were chastised by the prophets often enough. They were acceptable on the ground of the true sacrifice which they foreshadowed and encircled.”
Dr. Luther well understands that none of our works reach God as fragrant sacrifices and offerings. Luther, following the footsteps of St. Paul had come to the realization what all the faithful in Christ have come to understand under the power of the Holy Spirit. We understand that none of our labor is acceptable to God. We understand that none of our carnal, fleshly work is acceptable in His sight. All our works are as filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6) although some men may be very pleased and impressed with our achievements. None of our works rise to the Lord Jesus as fragrant offerings or are acceptable to our Father in heaven as pleasing sacrifices.
Dr. Luther continues in saying, “They [Israel’s sacrifices] were acceptable on the ground of the true sacrifice which they foreshadowed and encircled. Paul’s thought is this: The sacrifices of the Old Testament have passed. Now all sacrifices are powerless but that of Christ himself; he is the sweet-smelling savor. This sacrifice is pleasing to God. He gladly accepts it and would have us be confident it is an acceptable offering in our stead.”
Once again we are faced with the reality of our fallen condition. We are at once sinners and saints. We have the terrible stain of sin upon us and at the same time have the wonderful promise of resurrection glory upon us through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This wonderful sacrifice on our behalf is the one that God receives as a fragrant offering and sacrifice. This is the ultimate sacrificial offering but there are many others worked by our Lord Jesus in obedience to our Father.
In the beginning the Holy Spirit comes to a virgin named Mary and a Son is born to her and Joseph who is named Jesus. Prophecy proclaims the birth of this Child and angels sing the birth of this Child. The shepherds and wise men rejoice at the birth of this Child and our Father receives this miraculous birth as a fragrant sacrifice and offering. This Jesus at eight days old is dedicated back to His Father in the rite of circumcision, a fragrant offering to the Lord. There is a wedding that is running a bit short on wine. Jesus turns water into the best wine and the Father catches that scent as a fragrant offering. And there’s more!
Blind people see, deaf people hear, lame people have their limbs restored, sick people are healed, lepers are cleansed, seas are calmed, demons are cast out, mute people speak, the hungry are fed, demon possessed are delivered, captives are set free, severed ears restored, and if that were not enough, resurrection and life become the new normal. The perfect offering of Christ is so sweet and fragrant of a sacrifice to the Father that it has the power to cover and remove the sin of all humankind for all time.
That is the plan and design of God. That Jesus Christ, the perfect fragrant sacrifice and offering, the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world in whose book the names of all who live and die and rise by faith in Christ Jesus have been written (Rev 13:8). And not only are their names written in the book of the Lamb and in the heart of the Father but their works of faith, good works prepared beforehand in which they walk, rise to the throne of our Father as fragrant sacrifices and offerings.
Our baptismal faith rises up to our Father as a fragrant sacrifice. St Luke delivers Jesus’ words to us today, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” Blessed are you, Lutheran Women in Mission. Blessed are you Zion Lutheran Church. For you have heard the Word of God, and faith in Christ crucified, purifies and sanctifies your keeping of it.
Blessed are you daughters of Zion in the LWML, when you give your pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars in the interest of missions, our Father receives every single sacrificial mite as a fragrant sacrifice and offering. When we all in faithful obedience, study the Word of God to show ourselves approved, when we dwell together in unity, when we faithfully hold the confession of the church in this perverse generation, when we speak faith, when we love one another, fragrant sacrifices and offerings rise up to the nostrils of our merciful, holy, and gracious God and Father.
So that every act of obedience, every work of the saints of God, every act of faith, every word spoken in faith rises up to the Father as a sweet-smelling savor and sacrificial offering. This is not simply following Christ’s example of love, but enabled to love because of what He has done, and still does, for you. You may stink, but through faith, Christ sanctifies you to be a fragrant and sacrificial offering. You have the awesome privilege of bringing joy to the heart of our Father by our works and deeds made sweet and good by the blood of the Lamb. So, dear saints of God, let’s strive with all our Holy Ghost-inspired and Spirit-filled faith to infuse the heavens with fragrant sacrifices and offerings by being those sacrifices and offerings to our loving God and Father.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds on Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
* This semon is adapted from the LWML Sunday sermon provided through lwml.org.
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
The Fairness of God
September 28, 2014
Last week we heard about Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard. Jesus answers the complaint that God isn’t fair. He does so by using the parable of the laborers in the field, explaining how the first will be last and the last first, highlighting the generosity and grace of God.
This week we hear a similar issue, one where God’s people still complain that He isn’t fair to them. Last week we focused on how from our point of view, God is not fair, but He is gracious. This week we hear God’s answer that He is fair, He is more fair and just than you or I could be, repaying evil with evil and good with good.
When it comes down to it, that is what we really want. We want God to be fair, we want justice in the world and in life. We want consistency so we know where we stand before other people and before God. This is what we want, yet this is also the very fact that scares us. God is just and fair, but we are not. We are unfair. We sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have no loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve God’s present and eternal punishment.
God makes it clear in Ezekiel that sinful man must stand before a holy God at the judgment. God is holy and cannot condone sin. He is righteous and has promised to punish sin. This is the kind of Judge we need, one who is fair and just, who punishes evil and rewards good. But this is also the kind of Judge that we fear, who makes us squirm in our seats, uncomfortable with who we are as sinners against God’s holy and righteous Law.
It’s not that God isn’t fair, the problem is that He is fair. If a man is righteous, he shall live. If a man is wicked, he shall die. It is that simple, that fair. Our problem comes in the reality that we are not righteous by our own merits. As Isaiah says, All our righteous acts are like a polluted garment (Isaiah 64:6). When faced with God’s judgment, with His standard of perfect holiness and righteousness, we don’t like where that leaves us – deserving the consequences for your sinful thoughts, words, and deeds.
Yet God is also merciful. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance and believe in the Lord Jesus (Romans 11:32; 2 Peter 3:9). He is merciful in not giving you what you deserve, but instead giving you what Jesus deserves. God solves this with the cross. For on the cross, God’s justice and His wrath against sin are satisfied. On the cross, Jesus takes the punishment that you deserve. On the cross, the judgment is “guilty!” for Jesus, so that for you who believe in Him may hear from the judgment seat of Christ, “justified! Innocent! Free!” In the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all our sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.
Where does the authority come from that God can do this? That is the same question that is asked of Jesus in our Gospel reading today. What gives God the right to be my judge, to decide what is good and what is bad. His right, His authority comes from being God, from being your creator. The authority comes from the fact that since God created all, He guides and directs His creation. You see, “God isn’t like you. He doesn’t think like the way you think. His ways are not your ways. And He doesn’t owe you, or anyone, anything.”
When we begin to think that the Lord somehow owes us a special status and owes us grace for what we have done and what we have not done. We too sin when we think that we can somehow manage, manipulate, control, and domesticate the Lord’s grace, as if His grace must respond to who we are and what we do. As sinners, we deserve only punishment. As Christians, we get only Jesus.
The Lord pleads with His people, He pleads with you today, to repent of your sins, to turn away from all the transgressions you have committed, to live in Christ and to not die! This is not just turning around in circles, but it’s a turning to Jesus. It’s a turning to the One who takes all your punishment, all your guilt, all the death and the hell that you deserve, so that eternal life may be yours. For His righteousness is perfect and holy and He gives it to you freely through the Gospel of His Word and Sacraments.
Soon, we will sing our offertory song, “Create in me.” Psalm 51, a song composed by King David after the prophet Nathan had shown him his sins and guilt and unfairness with Bathsheba. These words do not just belong to David, these words are the Lord’s. These are the Lord’s words that He gives to you today, to hear with the ears of faith, to sing with repentant joy in the sacrifice of Jesus for you. “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Cast me not away from Your presence and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with Thy free Spirit.” This is our prayer of faith, our response to God’s gift in Christ, and our witness to the world about the fairness of God. Amen.
The Unfairness of God
Proper 20 A
September 21, 2014
“That’s not fair!” How many times have we heard, have we uttered or thought, those very words. Life isn’t fair, This is nothing new, even when it comes to God’s people. The Jewish leaders grumbled about Christ’s gracious offer to sinners. Even the 12 disciples thought they should get more than those who had not left their homes and jobs to follow Jesus. And can you blame them?
Jesus answers the cries of faith toward injustice, the whines, and the accusations with a parable. In the parable, the owner of the vineyard hires workers to work his land. He hires them up to the 11th hour, that’s 5 pm when there would have only been about an hour or daylight left to work. Then he pays the workers. Notice, he tells the first workers they will get a full days wage, but the others he only says they will get “whatever is right.” As he starts paying the workers, you can almost feel the anticipation and the excitement that the first ones felt. If the owner was so gracious to give those who only worked one hour a whole days wage, how much more are they going to get! But when the owner doesn’t live up to the first workers assumptions, they grumble to the master. A loose translation might be “they whined like babies.” It’s not fair, how come they get the same as us who worked longer and harder!
Now, we like to go to this parable for comfort in deathbed confessions of faith, for those who have lived lives without faith but as they approach their death, God’s Word shatters their hardened heart. But is this parable is really about them? Yes, and no. It is about God calling people to be His through faith in Christ and that He does so sometimes even right at the end. But it’s also about you. It’s about you who have been working in the field of this world for a fair amount of time, and the jealously and envy you are tempted with in regards to those who get the same reward of grace as you, without all the work.
We know we ought to be happy that God is gracious to all, but all too often we do our fare share of pharisaical grumbling over others receiving the same reward that we get. O, the unfairness of it all! Other churches have more people, more resources to do more and bigger things. Their church services seem so alive, the Sunday School and Youth Group more active, the members more devout. It often seems as if that other person has more faith, or less problems, or better spiritual gifts or easier temptations to overcome. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, it is said. God pays out the same grace to all, and we think we somehow deserve it more, and more of it, than the other person who just isn’t nice or very “good”, or we simply wonder why we don’t get as many earthly blessings as someone else.
In the parable, the workers lament, “you made them equal to us.” There is the rub; the Lord makes no distinction between His workers. This is what is offensive, even scandalous, about Jesus’ parable, and the kingdom of heaven. All hands work the vineyard purely because the owner hired them. In the end, all receive the same wage, not based on their work, but based upon the fact that they were hired, and even that isn’t deserved. As the first group stands in line and waits their turn, their gaze falters, leaving the master who hired them and gave them meaningful work and promised a fair wage. They stop looking at the master, and start looking at their fellow workers, and that’s when they get into trouble. And it is where we get into trouble – when we fixate on rewards and comparing ourselves to other disciples instead of focusing upon our Christ crucified and God’s grace of calling us to faith in Him.
We deserve nothing good. We do not deserve Jesus, nor His grace, nor His death for us. The Gospel is what we need and not deserve. The Law helps frame this perspective and shows us to be poor miserable sinners. But it is the Gospel heard in our ears, felt in the splash of baptismal water, and tasted in the bread that is Christ's body and the cup of His blood. His life is given for the life of the world, yes, but it is given for us men and for our salvation. How beyond our thoughts and ways are those of God, who loved us wretched sinners so much that He would send Christ to stand in our place, to suffer for our sins, to die the death we earned, and to live to bestow life beyond imagination.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts your thoughts,” says the Lord. This is the Lord we have, and the Lord we need. We don’t really want a God who is fair according to my standards, but One who deals fairly with us according to His higher standards, even when we are unfair to Him. We don’t deserve to have Jesus blood make me righteous in God’s eyes, and yet that is the grace God gives. We need a Lord who is much more forgiving and gracious and merciful than you or I could ever be because when we look inside ourselves, sin is there crouching at the door. We should thank God everyday that we do not get what we deserve, but instead we get Jesus.
The reign of God is already happening through Jesus, who brings in men and women and children from all over to become workers in the kingdom. There is no room for self-promotion, no need for competition, no basis wherein one disciple can say to another, “I am more important than you are.” On the Last Day, the reign of God in Jesus will come in all its fullness. All who have been called as workers in the vineyard, all disciples of Jesus, without distinction, will receive from the Master what He deems just in accordance with His pledge when they were first called. All comparing must be put aside, for the last will be first and the first last.
Living in Christ’s Eternal Rule
September 14, 2014
This morning, we conclude our series of sermons and focus upon St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. As we do so, we hear St. Paul’s words that sound a little strange to us. Strange, in that he joins two very different things together. In just a few short verses, Paul moves from talking about food and holy days to talking about the return of Christ. From the small and the temporal to the large and the eternal. This raises a question: What does eating have to do with the judgment of Christ? How are these things joined together?
For Paul, the return of Christ is not something distant from God’s people. This reign of the kingdom of heaven in Christ is experienced in our daily lives. As Paul writes, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we died to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7-8). In baptism, God has claimed you as His own. He has joined you to Christ. This Christ has risen and ascended and promises to come again. Until that day when He returns, His loving reign is expressed in the details of your daily life.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus gives us an example of this. In His parable, Jesus contrasts two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world. In the kingdom of heaven, all debts are forgiven. In the kingdom of this world, all debts must be paid by the one who owes them. A servant is brought before his master with fear and trembling. He comes with fear and trembling because he lives in the kingdom of this world. He comes before his master in fear because he lives in a kingdom where debts must be paid and there is no way he could ever pay this debt. His wife and his children could be sold into slavery, his property dissolved, his life ruined and it still wouldn’t be enough.
The master, however, lives in a different kingdom. A kingdom where debts are forgiven, solely out of mercy. That moment of forgiveness is not just a transaction. It is an invitation. An invitation by the master to live in a new kingdom where debts are forgiven. When the servant leaves, however, he forgets that he lives in this new kingdom. Coming across someone who owes him a little, he demands it all. And without knowing it, this servant has walked into prison himself, choosing to live in a kingdom where everyone pays his or her debt and he too, now, must suffer in prison until his debt is paid. Forgiven by God and invited to live in a kingdom where debts are forgiven, this man chooses to live in a world of judgment where everyone has to pay their own debt.
With this parable, Jesus is inviting you to live in God’s kingdom, a kingdom where your debts are forgiven, your sins are paid for not by their own hard work and effort but by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not your bookie. Jesus is not your loan shark who repays your debt to the Father only to turn around and make you pay it off to Him instead. In Jesus, your sins are forgiven, your debts are paid, and God has opened the door for you to live in His kingdom. Yet, like the foolish servant, we sometimes choose to live in a kingdom where people have to pay their own debts. We try to make up for past failures, for past mistakes, for past sins. The problem is that no matter what we say or do, we can’t pay off our debts.
That’s the issue for St. Paul. God’s people in Rome have all been forgiven in Christ. God has brought them to new life and they live in Christ’s eternal kingdom. But, for them, Christ’s kingdom doesn’t change how they live with one another. They no longer see it, nor live it, but despise and judge one another, not according to God’s Word, but according to their bellies.
Unfortunately, such in-fighting didn’t end with the first century. It continues even today. We have martyrs in the church as well as without, martyred in their own congregations. People who were once quite active in the church but now mysteriously have stopped coming, and even more mysteriously no one asks why. Were you to ask them, I am sure they could tell you. They have stories of battles they fought within specific congregations, battles over the appropriate hymnal, additions to the building, the color of paint in the sanctuary, even something as small as a church recipe that never made it into the congregational cookbook. Yes, the things over which we fight can be small, almost inconsequential, like eating vegetables or meat, but the damage that is done, the division of Christ’s body when God’s Law and Gospel are not properly distinguished and applied, is huge and can lead into people turning away from God and being lost for eternity.
Repent. Repent of trying to live peaceably by your own ability and without Christ. Repent of making others pay off their debts and sins and not forgiving them freely as you have been forgiven. Repent of not following up with those whom you have sinned against and failed to be reconciled. Repent of your lack of humility and living only to yourself and not to the Lord.
Repent and believe in the Christ came in humility and gathers about Himself those who had accumulated great debts. Tax gatherers who were stealing from God’s people, women who had taken their bodies and sold them. Those who had wandered far from God’s ways and were living in a distant country, in debt, and unable to set themselves free. These are the ones that Jesus gathered around Himself and these are the ones for whom Jesus died. Although he had no debt of His own, Jesus used his priceless life as payment for sin. Not His sin, but ours. Our lack of love for one another. Our willingness to judge and despise those for whom Christ died rather than forgive and forbear. These sins... all sins were laid upon Jesus and He died in payment of your costly debt. Jesus Christ died and lives again for you that you might be His own and live under him in His kingdom. As the apostle Paul writes, “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:9).
Until that day of His return, live by faith in the One who was crucified and has paid your debt. He gathers you to hear His word and live by His proclamation. He offers you Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and He sends you forth to share His love in your daily lives with others. Whether you live or whether you die, you are the Lord’s. And one day, Jesus will come and bring about a new creation, for you and for all who trust in him. Until that day, in life and in death, we say “To this God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Living in Mercy and Faithful Obedience
September 7, 2014
At the time Paul wrote this letter, Nero publicized his rule as the dawn of a golden age. Yet, privately, there were rumors that his mother had poisoned Claudius, her husband and uncle, to secure the throne for her son. Nero himself joked about the poisoning, saying that Claudius became a god by eating a mushroom. A poisoned mushroom. While there were suspicions of assassination and conspiracy and a fearful use of power, Nero pictured himself early on as one who promoted peace. What the public heard about Nero is that he was a peaceful man, but privately what poeple whispered about him revealed their darkest fears.
Imagine the difficulty this posed for Christians. How do you relate to the civil authorities when publicly they say one thing and privately do another? How do you obey, as a Christian, when it seems like the rulers you are asked to obey are obscured by propaganda so you never know the truth? The question is as relevant for Christians today as it was for Christians in Rome. In many countries around the world, this is a struggle that Christians have to face. Unfortunately, our is become more and more like ancient pagan Rome.
Look at our political landscape and the struggles of Christians. Some refuse to have anything to do with politics. They withdraw from the political world, from the responsibilities that they have as citizens, because politics are corrupt and they don’t want anything to do with that world. Others want to use the political realm to create a Christian nation. Turning away from God’s gift of the church, where God gathers His people through the proclamation of the gospel, they turn to the nation, wanting the nation to take the place of the church, proclaiming the gospel from political offices and enforcing God’s word through the power of the sword.
The apostle Paul, however, offers another way. Paul knows of two kingdoms, two ways in which God is at work in the world. Earlier in the letter, Paul has recognized God’s gift of the church. The church is the means whereby God proclaims salvation to the world, that good news that the kingdom of God is here in Jesus. This is not earthly kingdom, but a heavenly one, an eternal one. Through the Gospel, God has called you into that kingdom and, though this world and Satan himself should fight against it, the gates of hell itself will not prevail. When you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, this Jesus is with you. Through Him, you live. In Him, you die. And by Him, you will be raised to eternal life.
But this does not mean that God simply deals with you spiritually. Often times, God works through even those who reject Him, using His established earthly authorities to maintain peace in the world. As a Christian, one looks to such authorities not for a proclamation of the gospel but for an enactment of God’s good rule in the world.
Paul could have spoken like any other propagandist. He could have argued for obedience to earthly rulers because of their character, because they showed mercy, or because they had sheathed the sword. But Paul anchors Christian obedience not on something as temporary and fleeting as the person in office or the laws of the state. No, Paul anchors obedience on God. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (v. 1). All authority comes from God, to whom ultimate obedience is due. Present authorities are masks of God, offices that God has established in His rule of the world. This is part of what the 4th Commandment is about, “Honor your father and your mother.” Our relationship to these authorities, however, is not based on their person but on God’s work. Within their offices, we see the power of God, establishing order for all people in the world. They have been given the power to restrain evil and promote good. Sometimes they use it wisely. Other times not. But that does not diminish their office, or the fact that their authority stems from God.
So what are we to do? We are blessed to live in a country where we can freely gather to receive God’s gifts and worship Him. We obey the governing authorities, unless they contradict God’s Word. We give due honor to those in authority over us, whether it be parents, teachers, employers, or government. Not blindly. Not stupidly. But, as Paul says, faithfully, as we seek to do good, to avoid evil, and to honor these rulers as “ministers of God” (v. 6). And through our service, we bear witness to the One who rules over all.
This is one of the main reasons for having a Lutheran school and a daycare like we have. It is to help guide children, by God’s Word, to be good citizens of our country and good citizens of God’s kingdom. There is no better thing for a church to do than this, for we are simply bringing the Gospel to our community. Of directing people to the cross of Christ, where meaning and purpose and direction are made clear, and most importantly, the only place where our sins are forgiven, eternal life is created and sustained, and salvation is delivered through Word and Sacrament.
Therefore, as Christians, we trust in God’s mercy for our salvation and we live in faithful obedience to civil authorities, knowing that they have been instituted by God. And in all things, we look to the rule of God in Christ Jesus, by whose death and resurrection, has authority of your death, and of your resurrection by the power than enables Him to subdue all things to Himself. Amen.