The Lord Who Saves

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, 5 January 2014
Text: Matthew 2:13–23
You can listen to the sermon here.

La fuite en ÉgypteWhat’s in a name? For us moderns, not a lot. Names are labels chosen from a stock of traditional or (increasingly) non-traditional stock. We name children after relatives or celebrities, or we pick a name that we like the sound of. We avoid names that we dislike, or names that bring back bad memories. Yes, there are all sorts of more or less complicated reasons for our names, but in the end, it’s all about our preferences and tastes.

In the Bible, however, names have a far greater significance. Numerous times in the Old Testament, when a person is named, a little explanation is added to tell us the significance of that particular name. Adam called his wife Eve, which means life-giver, “because she was the mother of all living”. God took Abram, whose name meant ‘exalted father’, and re-named him Abraham, which means ‘father of a multitude’, “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Likewise, God took Jacob, whose name meant ‘he deceives’, and gave him the new name Israel, ‘he strives with God’.

And this Israel, the man who strove with God, gave his name to all his descendants, to whom God promised to give all that He had promised to Abraham and Isaac, all the blessings He had intended for His creation. In Israel and through Israel, God would do His work of restoring the creation that had fallen when Adam and Eve disobeyed the Creator.

It didn’t take long, however, before it seemed that God’s promise to Israel would be snuffed out before it had even begun to manifest itself. Jacob and his sons were on the verge of extinction, because there was a great famine about to fall on the land. The curse on the land that their forefather Adam had earned for himself and all his descendants, was about to undo the promise to the woman’s seed, that the serpent’s head would be crushed and the curse lifted.

But God’s promises will not be thwarted. God turned the evil intentions of the ten older brothers for His own good purposes. When they plotted to destroy their younger brother Joseph, God used their evil plot to send him ahead of them to Egypt—so that he might feed them and their families there. And so it was. Joseph, the younger brother, rose to power in Egypt just in time to feed his father and his brothers when they ran out of food, and to give them a home in the rich land of Goshen. He who was the son and the younger brother to Jacob and his sons, became a father to them, and under his care and by God’s blessing, they were fruitful and multiplied. For his name was Joseph, which means, ‘he will add’.

In the fullness of time, God took Israel out of slavery in this foreign land and led them home to the land He had promised them, a land flowing with milk and honey. During their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, they proved to be an unworthy bearer of their forefather’s name. For they strove not with God but against Him, again and again.

Nor did their rebellion end when they were safely established in the Promised Land. Time and again, they contended against God and the prophets whom God sent them to call them back to His good and gracious care. They were busy forfeiting the promised redemption through their idolatry and disobedience. Judge after judge, things got worse, until God gave them kings to be shepherds of his people. But king after king, things degenerated yet further. The kingdom was split, brother against brother after the image of Cain and Abel, and then first one, then the other half of the kingdom was destroyed by their enemies—a just punishment for the rebellion of Israel, their insistent striving against God. The nation that had been called to be a kingdom of priests, to shine the light of God’s truth in a fallen world, instead left her God and went the idolatrous way of the world.

And so Israel embodied in her history the history of all humanity: a called, redeemed creation refusing to heed the call of Him who made and redeemed it. Insisting on its own way, the broad highway of death, over the narrow way that leads to life. Rejecting the wisdom of God, preferring instead the folly of this world. Heeding the siren-call of what our eyes see and ears hear, here and now, rather than receiving by faith what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.

Separated from the Lord, whose name is יהוה, ‘the one who is’, the world is rushing head-long into oblivion.

But this name, יהוה, tells us something more about God than a mere label would. He is the one who is, the being one. And as He is, so is His word. As the one who is, He will endure forever. As He is, so is His word: it will endure forever.

Therefore, once He has made a promise, He will by necessity keep His promise. Otherwise, His word of promise would fail to endure. And so in the fullness of time, God sent His Son, born of a woman, and gave Him a name that would change everything: Jesus.

The English name Jesus comes to us from the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Hebrew name Yehoshua, or Joshua. This name is made up of two parts, God’s own name, יהוה, plus the verb, ישׁע , which means ‘he saves’. God sent His Son, and called Him, יהוה saves’, ‘the one who is saves’, ‘the Lord saves’—for, as the angel told Joseph, He was to save His people from their sins.

And in this Jesus, all the promises to Israel were to be fulfilled: the promise that Israel were to be His chosen people, that Israel were to be blessed through the keeping of God’s Law, that Israel were going to receive an eternal heritage from God in a land flowing with milk and honey, that Israel’s prayers were going to be pleasing to God, that Israel was going to have a means of atonement and God’s forgiveness forever—and that through Israel, all the nations of the world would be blessed.

And what Israel according to the flesh, Jacob and his offspring, failed to do, the Son of God undertook to do. And so God took the evil intentions of Herod who wanted to destroy the beloved Son, and used them to take Joseph to Egypt. There, Joseph became father to the one who was his creator and his elder brother, by taking care of his wife’s son, Jesus. And having been taken to Egypt, Jesus traced the way of the Israelites: from exile in Egypt back to the land of Canaan. There, he grew in Galilee, the land of the people living in darkness, obedient to His earthly parents and to His heavenly Father.

In the fullness of time, He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world by taking on the sinners’ baptism of repentance from John the Baptists. He faced the wilderness for forty days, but resisted the temptations of the evil one, repelling Him with the word which both Adam and the people of Israel disregarded to their own peril. Keeping the Law to the end, He strove with God in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking the cup of suffering to be taken from Him, but only if it was the Father’s will. Thus, having been obedient to the point of death, He was crucified and destroyed for all of Israel’s transgressions—and for the sins of the whole world. When the first Israel, Jacob strove with God at the brook of Jabbok, God relented and let Jacob go with His blessing and the new name. When the second Israel, Jesus, strove with God on the cross of Calvary, God did not relent but forsook His obedient Son, so that He might bless all the disobedient sons and daughters of Adam and Israel who had incurred His wrath by their disobedience. Thus, the cross of Christ was set up as the beacon for the world, where those weighed down by sin may leave their fatal burden and find a gracious God, and the crucified Saviour was the priest who brought the light of God’s truth to all the people.

But what has all this to do with you?

Everything. When you were baptised, you were truly Christened: you received the name of Christ and were made a Christian. Your incorporation into Him by the circumcision of the heart in baptism made you a member in Him—a member of Israel. Thus, all the promises of God to Israel throughout all of Scripture are His promises to you. He striven with God for you, so that you need not strive but to rest in His salvation. You have been brought from the Egypt of slavery to sin into the freedom of the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom, where you are not a slave but a son and heir. You, a member of His body, are as beloved as the head. He has defeated Satan, and all of Satan’s accusations and temptations, for you. He is your mighty fortress, to which God has gathered you from among the nations, as we sang in the  Gradual.

In short, יהוה, the Lord, has saved you. Now you are a member of that nation of priests, Israel, called to proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. He who has done this, He who has promised all this, is the one who is and stands forever, whose word stands forever. Whatever temptations, anguish, discouragement, persecutions come your way, He will see His promise through as long as you stay in the One who has done all this and who has won the victory for you, Jesus, the Lord who saves.

May God give you His grace in this New Year to enjoy His great gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, seeking His kingdom in the joyful knowledge that all other things will be added to you as well.

In the holy name of ✠ Jesus. Amen.

Jesus’ silence

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Reminiscere Sunday
Genesis 32:22–32 Matthew 15:21–28
24 February 2012

A recording of the sermon is posted here.

In the name of ✠ Jesus.

Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”

Why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?

The Canaanite woman was not alone. Her need so desperate, and her only hope implacably silent. Jesus is silent, and when he opens his mouth, he speaks only to discourage and to repel, seemingly impervious to her cries, showing no interest in her plight, determined only to push her away.

In her plight, she joined that dark place inhabited by king David, the author of the psalms you have just heard, and the patriarch Jacob himself, the man named Israel, in whose name Jesus was driving her away: “I have come for the lost sheep of Israel—only for the children of Jacob. Why do you bother me?” That dark place where our desperate prayers are met with rebuttal or, worse, with complete silence. She may well have wondered with the Psalmist, “Has forgotten to be gracious?”

Continue reading Jesus’ silence

Non, je ne regrette

[Health warning: the first part is mildly technical and a little dry, but ‘contemporary application’ follows further down!]

In today’s NT reading in the Lutheran Service Book Daily Lectionary (Matt. 27:1–10), the ESV tells us that Judas, seeing that Jesus was condemned to death, “changed his mind” and attempted to return the 30 pieces of silver he had been paid for betraying the Lord.

Reading this, I was intrigued by the weakness of the expression. He merely “changed his mind”, yet this was enough for him not only to throw away the considerable sum of money but his very life. For he went and hanged himself.

The earlier translations in the tradition to which the ESV places itself, namely the Authorised (‘King James’) Version and the RSV, as well as the NRSV, plump for the opposite end of the spectrum, by telling us that Judas “repented [AV adds the reflexive ‘himself’]”. That doesn’t seem right, either: repentance is within the NT and consequently in Christian theology a technical term with connotations that are incompatible with Judas’ subsequent actions. In short, repentance properly understood will never lead to suicide.

So ad fontes it was: what does Matthew actually tell us? Well, he tells us that Judas returned the pieces of silver, μεταμεληθεὶς (metameletheis).
Now that word can mean a change of mind (as in Mt. 21:30 ff.), and it can mean repentance (several places in the Septuagint, for example). But its root meaning is something different. According to Liddell & Scott, the basic meaning of the verb is to regret or to rue something.

Hence, the NAB rendering of this verse: “Judas deeply regretted what he had done”. Which, to my mind, is right on the money. He regretted, rid himself of his unjust wages, and, full of regret, tragically took his own life.

Had Judas not merely regretted (μεταμέλομαι, metamelomai), but repented (μετανοεῖν, metanoein), the story would have ended very differently. Judas wasn’t the only one who messed up with Jesus. Peter did, too. Later, Saul played an even more directly violent part against Jesus. Judas regretted what he had done. Peter and Paul repented. He died. They were resurrected.

When it comes to human sin, to the errors of which people are guilty against one another and against God, the worse thing you can do is to harden your heart and deny your guilt, and thereby declare black white and white black, and call God a liar and yourself a god.

But spiritually, you are no better off if you recognise your faults, but your only reaction to them is regret, guilt. Because regret is only a recognition of the problem, but it can offer no way out of it. If you merely regret, you are faced with your guilt, and then left to wallow in it. It is wholly negative.

This is presumably why it has become so fashionable for people to look back on their lives, in autobiographies, on Desert Island Discs, and in casual conversation, give a frank description of the follies of their past, and then conclude that of course “I have no regrets—all those things have made me who I am”. Frank Sinatra, who surely had much to regret, speaks for whole generations of moderns.

And I agree: we should not regret the past. I would like to encourage you to sing with that rough-edged sparrow, Édith Piaf, Non, je ne regrette rien.

Do not regret. Repent!

Confess your sins, and receive absolution! Move on, not in spite of your guilt, but without it.

When Peter explained to the people of Jerusalem that they were guilty of the death of God’s Messiah, they were horrified, cut to the heart: “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) As well they should have been.

What Peter didn’t say was, “Feel guilty, very guilty.” He didn’t tell them to feel or express mere remorse and regret. Nor did he tell them to pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes and move on, like some modern-day politician caught with his pants down.

Instead, he told them: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Repent! Acknowledge your sin. And then run to the Lamb of God who deals with the sin of the world. He deals with your guilt by removing it. Not just the feeling of guilt, but the actual guilt. So that you are no longer guilty but innocent. With a colourful past, but no regrets, because your past is buried with Christ, and your present is the resurrected life His forgiveness gives you.

What does such baptizing with water signify?
— Answer: It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever. (Small Catechism: Part IV, Question 4)

Hanging on like a pig to a loaf

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Reminiscere Sunday, 4 March 2012. You can listen to the audio here.

Readings: Genesis 32:22–32 1 Thessalonians 4:1–7 Matthew 15:21–28

The Christian faith has recently been in the media more than usual. In addition to the usual disparaging voices by various loud atheists, several benign outsiders have come to the defence of the faith. Newspaper columnists and even one atheist philosopher have given their support to the positive effects of religion in general and the Christian faith in particular—at least in its tolerant and woolly mainstream Anglican forms. At first glance, this is a nice change from the usual cynicism and scepticism. However, the party was very quickly spoiled by the atheist Times columnist and former politician Matthew Parris. He argued convincingly that these new defenders of the faith were hardly desirable company for genuine Christians. Above all, they want a social Christianity for the sake of social harmony and stability, without Jesus. Although he does not believe in the teachings of the church, Parris argued that it’s hard to doubt the existence of Jesus of Nazareth for the simple reason that if he did not exist, the church would never have made him up. Jesus is far too disturbing and unlikely a character to have been fabricated by people who were out to invent a religion out of their own heads.
There are few Bible passages that confirm Matthew Parris’ judgement better than today’s Gospel. How many times have you heard of, and told others about, the loving Jesus who does not turn away those who turn to Him? Of the loving Jesus who fulfilled the prophet’s word about not destroying a broken reed or snuffing out smouldering wick? The one who came to care especially the weak, the powerless, and the outcasts? You can imagine someone inventing a Jesus like that. But it’s hard to imagine anyone inventing a Jesus who ignores a woman who personifies the powerless and weak, who in her desperation turns to Him for help. And when He finally does open His mouth to reply to her, we hear these harsh words that have caused so much embarrassment for Jesus’ subsequent disciples: “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs.”
Continue reading Hanging on like a pig to a loaf

Sorcerers from the East

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on 5 January 2012
Epiphany (observed)
Matthew 2:1–12
To hear the sermon, click hear to go to the Our Saviour website.

It’s commonly known to anyone who cares to notice: the Western world is changing, it’s changing rapidly, and much of it is not for the better. Society is fragmenting, families are breaking up, the economy is a mess, immorality and godlessness march on at speed. Darkness is called light and light darkness. These are the classic signs of the beginning of the end of a great civilisation.

But perhaps the one thing that worries many people most is the feeling that our civilisation is being taken over by another. Many Christians are among those who are particularly concerned about the threat from Islam, the growing number and influence of Muslims in this country and in the West in general. While churches are being abandoned, Mosques are being built. Immigration past and present have brought a once-distant and ‘foreign’ religion to our doorstep and into the centre of our communities. It may not be particularly visible within a square mile of the present location, but you only have to drive a few minutes along the coast to encounter the reality.

Continue reading Sorcerers from the East

Do not be anxious

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Trinity 15, 2 October 2011.
Text: Matthew 6:24–34
A recording of the sermon can be found here.

There’s no denying it: today’s Gospel reading is a difficult text. But it’s not your typical difficult text. Usually we find passages of the Bible difficult because we find them hard to understand, or the point they seem to be making is hard to fit into the rest of the Bible’s teaching. However, Jesus’ teaching today is difficult precisely because we do understand it and because it does fit in with the rest of the Bible’s teaching:

Do not be anxious about anything. Do not worry about food and drink, clothing and shelter: your heavenly Father knows your needs, so your anxiety is misplaced. Trust in God, and leave everything to His care. This is the consistent message of the God’s word in the Scriptures.

Peter writes, “Cast all your anxieties on Him and He will take care of you.” Paul writes, “Be anxious about nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And King David sings, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”

But why is this a difficult text? It’s supposed to be comforting, making your life easier and less burdensome, not more? Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s difficult because we don’t think it’s true. A young girl called Rosie whom I taught early in my teaching career put it with admirable clarity when she declared: “Sir, that’s just stupid!” You wouldn’t put it so bluntly, but many of you probably think the same. It’s stupid because it’s so blatantly not true: people in the Horn of Africa don’t have enough to eat, and Christians are not excepted from the effects of the drought and famine. The houses and possessions of Haitian Christians were in no way exempted from the effects of the earthquake there. Streams of lava and clouds of ash don’t magically pass over Christian homes when volcanoes erupt, and wars are no better. Yet thousands upon thousands of Christians in those situations are praying for their daily bread, for protection, for shelter.

So it’s just stupid, isn’t it, when Jesus tells His disciples not to worry but to trust in their heavenly Father. Because His track record isn’t exactly brilliant, is it?

This is only natural—and this is precisely why Jesus teaches us what He teaches. Our attention is naturally drawn to the promises Jesus makes: of material sufficiency. And then we look at the material circumstances of people around us and make a judgement on whether that promise is reliable or not.

Now, let’s be clear about one thing: if Jesus’ promise at the end of Matthew 6 isn’t reliable, then that means that He isn’t entirely reliable. Which means that we can’t always trust Him. Which makes Him a pretty dangerous Saviour. Which of His promises are you willing to trust, and how will you decide? When it comes to trusting in Jesus’ promises, it’s all or nothing, because it’s a matter of eternal life and death. You can’t pick and choose, because Jesus is Lord, not you. God is God, and you are not.

And this is precisely the point of Jesus’ teaching. The real point isn’t about our material well-being at all. How does He begin?

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt. 6:24)

The main problem when we are anxious about our material well-being is not that we are being anxious, which is both miserable in itself and bad for us. The real problem is far more serious: idolatry, the worship of the false god of Mammon.

Do you remember the explanation of the First Commandment in the Small Catechism? You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. And as the Large Catechism explains in greater detail, your god is therefore that things which you fear, love and trust in above all things. If it isn’t the Triune God, YHWH of the Scriptures, then it’s something else. And the chances are that it is Mammon:money, possessions, material well-being.

If you don’t trust God to provide for you, it’s not just that you are anxious about your well-being. It also means that you don’t trust God to be God—in sickness and in health, for better for worse, for richer and for poorer. It means that you don’t trust God to make the right decisions about your life, to give you what you need when you need it. You don’t trust that all things work for the good of those who love God. All—even poverty, deprivation, sickness, hunger and, yes, even death.

To judge God’s competence or the value of His promises on the basis of whether you, or your neighbour, or the people of Ethiopia or Haiti, are being well-fed, clothed and housed, and preferably in rude health for good measure, is to place yourself in the place of God as the judge of what is good, right and salutary. It is to have eyes only on this world, this life, and to equate God’s kingdom and His righteousness with how things are going in a fallen creation. It is to desire to lay up treasures on earth.

But as Jesus teaches us, there is no place in a human heart for two gods. There’s plenty of space for any number of idols, but there is only room for one God. If it’s Mammon, that leaves no room for YHWH. You cannot serve God and Mammon.

Besides, what good is worry? How does it help? Martin Luther uses the illustration of a short man sitting in a corner and hoping by his anxiety about his height to grow taller. How daft. Likewise, when it comes to our daily or bodily needs, we can worry to our hearts’ content, but it won’t help us one bit. God will provide in the way that He sees fit. Call on Him in all your troubles. When you hand them to Him, they cease to be your problem, and you can be assured that all things work out for your good, because that’s what He promised. You may be blessed with sudden relief, like the widow of Zarephath was, or perhaps your heavenly Father has an even better plan for you.

* * * * *

It is a simple question of trust. Whom do you trust. Or better still: whom can you trust? Can you trust your own strength, skill or ingenuity? How far will they serve you? Can you trust your health? Can you trust the market? The government?
Or do you trust the God who sent His Son not only to tell you about God’s love but to put God’s love into action by dying for you in order to bring you life that lasts far beyond the passing pleasures and pains, riches and deprivations of this world? Would you trust a Christ, through whom all the world was created, suffered hunger and thirst, rejection and loneliness, and ultimately death by torture, so that your hunger and thirst for righteousness and the favour and friendship of God can be satisfied.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Seek first that life where God no longer reckons your sin to your account but instead makes the righteousness of Jesus yours. Seek first His kingdom, which is not a matter of eating and drinking earthly food and drink—things that can only sustain for a time—but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus has commanded us to pray for our daily bread. In so doing we are released from anxiety, because by commanding us to turn to Him, He makes Himself our God, and takes responsibility for our needs. And as we receive our daily bread with gratitude, whether in abundance or in meagre portions, we continue to receive food and drink that of the Kingdom that is coming: the incorruptible, inexhaustible food and drink of heaven, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. You may spend the rest of your days with your stomach full and satisfied, or you may die of malnutrition or even starvation. You may face the rest of your life in warmth, comfort and shelter, or you may die of exposure or violently at the hands of your enemies. Either way, in the Kingdom of God, you will always be filled and satisfied with the bread of heaven which will never run out; your cup will overflow without end; and you will sit permanently under the shelter of God’s wings, at the table prepared in the presence of your enemies.

And all these other things will be added to you as well, according to God’s will.

May the Holy Spirit strengthen us in faith that we may always trust our heavenly Father’s abundant goodness and mercy so that at our lives’ end, we are received into His everlasting kingdom, where we will be able to walk by sight and not by faith.

In the name of the Father, etc.

Leaving your gift at the altar

I grew up in Lutheran circles in Western Finland that can only be described as pietist orthodoxy. For many (most?) English-speaking Lutherans, that’s supposed to be a contradiction in terms, but take my word for it, it isn’t necessarily. My experience is of a rich, deep spirituality rooted in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. (My cousin Juhana Pohjola explains this background briefly but clearly in his lecture at the excellent recent Symposium on Scandinavian Lutheranism at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, ON. You can listen to it here.)

As you would expect, though, the ‘pietism’ bit of that equation can cause occasional problems. One of them used to be infrequent Communion. I say, used to be, because things have changed much in my lifetime.

Strictly speaking, the problem isn’t a pietistic one anyway, since infrequent celebration of the Sacrament was pretty universal in those parts, not only in pietist circles. However, pietists added their own peculiar reasons for such infrequency, some of which are still around and which are far well beyond pietist circles. One of my pet irritations among them is the desire to commune infrequently so that it feels more special. I challenge anyone to take that approach to other forms of eating and drinking and see how it works out!

Another, more biblical argument, comes from the Sermon on the Mount:

[Jesus said,] “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23–24, ESV)

The way this has traditionally been read by many is that it’s a reference to the Lord’s Supper (“altar”), and that you shouldn’t come to receive the Lord’s Supper if you are in conflict with someone, or at any rate with someone in the church (“your brother”), but rather be reconciled first (“leave your gift there before the altar and go”). And so many people have stayed away from the Sacrament because they are angry with, or have had an unresolved argument, or worse, with someone. And they have also preferred infrequent Communion, in order to give them time to do the rounds and prepare for right reception by seeking reconciliation first. I have even witnessed near-hysterical scenes just before the start of the service as members of the congregation have tearfully done the rounds with one another, confessing whatever bad thoughts they have harboured towards one another and forgiving one another so that they can come to the altar and receive the Lord’s Supper.

I’m all for people being reconciled with their brothers and sisters—in fact, with the world and its dog, so far as it is possible. Confessing our sins to one another and receiving and giving forgiveness is a thoroughly good thing. Likewise, to come to receive the Sacrament of the world’s reconciliation to the Father while refusing to be reconciled with a fellow-believer is a fairly obvious sign of impenitence. Impenitence is never a good state to be in when coming to the altar!

However, I contend none of this has anything to do with Matthew 5:23–24. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking of someone bringing their gift to the altar. What, I ask, has that to do with receiving the Lord’s Supper? Yes, it has the word ‘altar’ in Matt. 5, and Lutheran and many other churches have an ‘altar’ in their churches as the locus of the celebration of the Sacrament. But, as Norman Nagel would probably say, it’s not what word are being used but how they are being used that matters.

What Jesus is referring to is ‘bringing gifts to the altar’. And his audience is Jewish. So, what exactly is he referring to? My suggestion is that he is referring to the—ready for it—bringing of gifts (offerings) to the Temple. He is saying that if you are in a murderous state on account of your anger toward your brother, it’s not a good time to bring gifts to God. Better to acquire a broken and contrite heart first, to do justice and show mercy first, before bringing gifts and sacrifices to Him. Because the sin of the heart will stain the gift in the hands.

To translate into 21st-century church life, what Jesus is in effect saying is: don’t put money on the plate, don’t bring flowers on the altar, don’t sweep the car park, until you are reconciled. Repent first!

What he isn’t saying is: don’t come to the Sacrament. Because if that’s what he was saying, no one could come to the Sacrament, because there is plenty of sin of all kinds in all our hearts, and if we were to wait till it was all dealt with…

No, wait: that’s precisely why we come receive the Sacrament in the first place! Because we are sinners in need of forgiveness. To receive ‘forgiveness, life and salvation’: to be forgiven, to be strengthened in the new life (including the power to forgive), to eat and drink salvation from sin, death and the devil. So if you have sinned against your brother, withhold your offering if your conscience demands it. But by no means stay away from the Sacrament of forgiveness. Instead, seek absolution from the pastor, eat and drink the forgiveness wrought and brought by the body and blood of Christ. If you find it impossible to forgive, seek absolution for that, and eat and drink forgiveness, life and salvation for that. How better could you overcome the power of the sin in you? And what could you possibly need more when you are stuck in this, or any other sin, than forgiveness?

So, don’t stay away. Oh, and if you do withhold your gifts, it’s probably a good idea to set them aside to be given later when everything’s sorted out…

[There’s a really good discussion on forgiveness with Pr. Bill Cwirla on Issues Etc. Listen to it here.]

HT: My thinking on this subject got going some years ago when listening to a talk by Douglas Wilson.

It’s not fair

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Septuagesima Sunday, 20 February 2011.
Text: Matthew 20:1–16

www.jesusmafa.comIt’s not fair! It isn’t even nearly fair.

A group of men had been working in the same vineyard. Some had worked the full day, probably nearly 12 hours; some for 9 hours, some for six, some three, and some just about an hour. And at the end of their respective shifts, everyone got paid the same, a denarius. That means that the last workers to join the working party in the vineyard got paid twelve times the hourly rate of the ones who worked the whole day—even though they got to do their bit in the cool of the day, while the others had laboured in the heat of the Mediterranean sun. Even though the fact that they had not been employed by anyone all day suggested that they were the dregs of the local labour market, like the one-legged footballer who always gets picked last by the team captain.

The only justice that could possibly come out of this strange story is what Jesus doesn’t tell us: what happened the next day. I’m pretty sure that the vineyard owner had a great deal of trouble getting anyone to work for him, at least not without some firm guarantees about fair rates of pay. In short, this is no way to run a business.

Now, we might sympathise with the vineyard owner’s reply when the first men complain about the wages of the late-comers—“Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? … Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? ” After all, technically, he is quite within his rights and is allowed to pay people as he wishes. But he is being unfair, effectively penalising those who have worked hardest and rewarding those who have been idle all day. What would the union rep have to say about that?

More to the point, what would the church have to say about it? According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican, a just wage is the legitimate fruit of work and therefore “They commit grave injustice who refuse to pay a just wage or who do not give it in due time and in proportion to the work done.”

In other words, the vineyard owner’s defence is no defence at all. It certainly wouldn’t wash in an employment tribunal. Yes, technically he may be within his rights to pay whatever he pleases to whomever he pleases, but that doesn’t excuse the injustice.

A fair employer pays a fair wage, in proportion to the work done.

Which begs the question: what precisely is Jesus trying to teach us in this parable? That God is arbitrary and, ultimately, unjust in His dealings with us, blessing some in greater proportion than others?

It may certainly seem so, and, let’s be honest, it often feels so. Like the disgruntled workers, we are quick to envy the fortune of others. Some people just sail through life upon calm waters and under constant sunshine, while others leap from struggle to struggle. If the blessings were given in proportion to godliness and piety, perhaps it would be more acceptable. But as the Psalmist points out so frequently, just as often it’s the wicked who prosper while the godly struggle. It seems so unfair. And, if we are being more honest still, we sometimes find it hard to accept that while we may have laboured for years, perhaps all our lives, in the heat of the sun, bearing Christ’s cross, others sneak in to God’s kingdom at the last minute with a deathbed conversion, perhaps after a life life of great wickedness or even as enemies of the very cross for which we have suffered. It’s not fair.

However, let’s think a bit more about what the nature of the injustice in this parable is. In what way has the vineyard owner wronged the disgruntled workers? After all, they received their contractual pay. Moreover, the pay that had been agreed was a fair one. One denarius was the common daily rate of pay for casual labourers such as the workers in the parable. It was indeed a just wage, given in due time and in proportion to the work done.

No, their problem wasn’t with their wages. Their problem was with the wages of the other workers. It wasn’t that they were being paid too little for the work done—it was what they could expect from any employer. They grumbled because the others were being paid more than the just wage. They hadn’t minded being paid a denarius for 12 hours’ work—until someone else got paid a denarius for an hour’s work. Their reward was just fine by itself, but it suddenly seemed pitiful when compared to the reward of others.

In just the same way, it’s much easier to bear our own burdens when others are having a hard time, too. It’s when we feel that our lot is harder than that of others that we begin to grumble. How often have you consoled yourself with the thought that at least you know that there’s someone even worse off than you? If that is your hope, then what will you cling to when you run out of people who are worse off than you? When you lose everything—when life itself is taken away? After all, if not before, the moment you die, no one will be worse off than you, because at that moment you will get to the point from which there is no way out and no way up.

You see, the real problem is the attitude that says that what I have isn’t good enough unless I can be convinced that things couldn’t be better. It’s the old heresy that infected Adam and Eve when the serpent hissed in their ear: “You will be like God”—He is holding you back, He could be giving you more, but you won’t get it unless you take it. It’s the same heresy that poisoned Cain’s mind, so that he murdered his brother because he felt that God hadn’t given Him the recognition he deserved. It’s the same heresy that infected the people of Israel when, dissatisfied with God’s promise of salvation and all the mighty works He had done to save them, they yearned for the flesh pots of Egypt. It’s the heresy that had infected many Jewish people of Jesus’ time who were jealously guarding God’s word as their exclusive possession, so that no Gentiles would sneak in on their promised reward. The same heresy that still infects us today—us, who are quite happy with our denarius, provided no one else gets more, or no one less deserving gets the same.

But can you see what’s behind this attitude? What is the assumption made by everyone in this sorry saga: Adam, Eve, Cain, the Israelites, first-century Jews, you and me? We all assume that we are the 12-hour shift, the ones who actually deserve the denarius, and that no one deserves more, and that a great many people deserve less.

Even those of us who have begun to learn the meaning of the last words Luther wrote before he died—“We are beggars, this is true”—are still hard-wired to assume that there is a direct correlation between effort and reward; that there should be a just wage in proportion to the work done.

The truth couldn’t be more different. None of us is a 12-hour labourer. The work of the vineyard has been going on for a long time. Since creation was perverted by the sin of our forebears, God has been calling labourers into His vineyard, through whom He has been setting it right. When the Son of God became incarnate, died and rose again, the world entered that final hour that is traditionally called the end times. When the curtain of the temple was torn in two, and the full, final sacrifice was complete, the eleventh hour began, at the end of which the workers will be gathered and given their wages. It is 2000 years into this final hour that we have been called into the work of the vineyard. Those who began the work perished long ago; we labour but a few moments in God’s great project of restoring the garden out of which man was ejected for his own disobedience.

What should your reward be for your few moments? What have you deserved? Not even the meagre wage of the casual day labourer, the minimum wage of the denarius that will scarcely suffice to keep body and soul together.

And what is the reward that God has prepared for you? It is something that that no eye has seen and no ear has heard—a reward beyond your wildest dreams, far beyond your imagination. Not the fraction of a denarius that you may have earned, but the infinite riches that Christ has earned and now gifts to you. Already, we are enjoying the advance payment: the gifts of grace in the word of forgiveness, in the washing of new birth, in the medicine of immortality being offered at this altar.

What, then, are the troubles and trials of this life, compared to what God has pledged to give to us? What are the hardships in comparison with the joys that await us? Certainly they are far less than we deserve. Even when our lives turn into a living hell, we can be assured that, having been washed in the blood of the Son of God, this life is the only hell we will ever have to endure.

For Christ on His cross has endured all the torments of hell in your place so that you may enjoy His reward—and so your wages are being paid in proportion to the work He has done.

And so it is true: It really isn’t fair, thank God!


A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the feast of the Holy Innocents, 2 January 2011, by Pastor Charles Varsogea.

Text: Matthew 2: 13-23

I’m not from here. Which means that I need you to answer the following question for yourselves. Do you think of yourself as a country at war? You’re shrinking the Ministry of Defense and your Navy has given up fixed wing aviation for now, which aren’t the kinds of things warring nations do, yet Herrick 14 is about to begin. In a few months Royal Marines, young Englishmen, people, are going to begin dying. At home the death toll is a constant presence. The names of the dead are solemnly read on the news at the end of each week and yet we Americans still need to be reminded that ours is a nation at war.

This has been such a long war and so unusually fought that we’ve begun to get used to it. My youngest children have never known even a day during which their country was not at war. They have no idea whether peace is any different. They have to take it on faith that there is something other than war, some other way to exist. The same is true for many children in the world and for most of those children it is a much more personal and terrible experience. The war is waged in and around their homes and they are far too often casualties themselves. Once you get used to waging war though it is easy to forget what your goals are. It can be difficult to remember what victory is. All you want to do is get through the current misery and find some comfort before the next wave of fighting starts.

We’ve gathered here this morning, a bunch of nice people with kind hearts, to encourage one another and to worship God. This hall belongs to the Boy Scout, the very epitome of neighborliness and helpfulness. We’re all busy trying to stay well and pay our bills and keep our families together. It doesn’t feel like were at war. But even if the Taliban were to suddenly blink out of existence and all of our soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines could home we’d still be at war. Today’s Scripture lessons all serve to remind us of the endless war that the devil, the world and our flesh wages against God , His Word and, alas, His people.

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Fulfilling all righteousness

Homily preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Sunday 9 January 2011.

Text: Matthew 3:13–17

Baptism of JesusIt really made no sense. John the Baptist had been preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in anticipation of the coming of the kingdom of God. The Lord’s Messiah was coming and he would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, with his winnowing fork in his hand to separate the wheat from the chaff.

And so they came. Matthew tells us that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”. It was one mighty washing: the waters of the Jordan being stained with the crimson sins of the repentant sinners of Jerusalem and Judea, all of them eager to be found to be gathered as wheat into the Lord’s barn at the coming of His kingdom, not be burned up as chaff.

So what was Jesus doing, asking to be immersed in these same waters of the Jordan, to receive the sinners’ baptism? The pure lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, asking to be baptised by John, who has come to prepare the sinners of Israel for His coming? John’s reaction is not only understandable; it’s the only reaction that makes sense: “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me? ”

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