These are the Scripture readings you will hear this coming Sunday:
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Philippians 2:1-4, 14-18
Click here to read the above lessons and the propers for the day.
The Cross of Christ Opens to Us the Way of Repentance to Life with God
The way of the Lord is righteous and just: “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). However, because the Lord has “no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezek. 18:32), He calls sinners to repentance and faith in His gracious forgiveness of sins. The man who is thus turned away from his wickedness, who henceforth lives by the grace of God, “shall surely live; he shall not die” (Ezek. 18:28). This way of repentance has been opened for us by the cross of Christ. In the righteousness of faith and love, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8), and He was vindicated in His resurrection from the dead. Indeed, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). He has given us this name in our Baptism into Christ, in whom we now “shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15). He uses the authority that He has received from His Father (Matt. 21:23–27) to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, by which even “the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God” (Matt. 21:31–32).
These are the hymns we will sing:
All Praise to Thee, for Thou, O King Divine (LSB 815)
Dr. Phil Brandt, the writer of these devotional thoughts, wrote on Saturday that the smoke of the fires surrounding Portland OR had finally dissipated enough so that he could see the sun. Continue to pray for the folks living on the West Coast as the fires rage.
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, You exalted Your Son to the place of all honor and authority. Enlighten our minds by Your Holy Spirit that, confessing Jesus as Lord, we may be led into all truth; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams is one of the few contributions to the Science Fiction genre which is also comedic. In one scene the main characters of the story land on a planet and find the capital city in a military lockdown. The downtown area has been evacuated; soldiers ring the central plaza with weapons at the ready, all trained on the courthouse. Within that building is a harmless man. He had been summoned as a witness and swore to the tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And he did! He told the whole truth, all of it.
No one could bear that whole truth which he told. At first it was alright, but soon no one could tolerate it. They evacuated the building and called in the military. It was just too much for people to hear the truth. Adams, the author of the story, was noting how convenient the lies are for us and how much they seem to make our lives easier. We can tell ourselves that we are basically OK when we are not. The truth is hard to bear. Adams does not think we can stand it. He wrote that in 1979, over 40 years ago. What would he say about this time in which we have “alternate facts” and wild conspiracy theories abound? Are you truly ready to pray this prayer? We ask God to enlighten our minds so that by the Spirit’s guidance we be led into the whole truth. That truth will have some difficult things to say about you and me. We are not OK. Our problems go very deep and are inescapable. The solutions are unpleasant and, frankly, unbearable. This is where we need the other parts of this prayer. The enlightenment is an act of the Holy Spirit and we are led to the truth confessing Jesus as Lord. We can bear the truth of ourselves and confront reality only at the direction of that Spirit and in the light of Christ’s work. Otherwise, like the people on that planet in Adams story, we must flee the truth.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
I have friends who own and operate a vineyard and winery in Sonoma County, California, near Healdsburg. They had to flee from the fires which have ravaged California. Did their vineyards survive? Was their business burned to the ground? Will there be a 2020 vintage? Will their venerable label pass out of existence? I have not heard. I have regularly prayed for them and all the folks who have had their lives doubly up ended by COVID and now fires and other natural disasters.
There is one thing I know, however. The love of God is completely separated from the economy of our lives. We cannot earn God’s love and we cannot put that love into a scale which corresponds to our situation. Like the workers in the vineyard I find it difficult to get my head around this truth. I would rather like to think that God has in fact seen my consistent worship, my tithing, my service on committees and in activities of the local parish and that this life should make a difference in my status in God’s eyes. He should notice that I am in church and all those folks who drive by on Sunday morning are not in church. That should make me a little bit more lovable to him. It does not work that way. God has seen those good things I do, and he has delighted in them. His love for me, however, is in no way dependent upon them. He loves the self-destructive heroin user who has not ever been in church as much as he loves me.
In these days of turmoil and pandemic there is another side to this which can bring us comfort. The afflictions which we endure in this time are no sign that God loves us less. They may be warnings for this world to repent or simply his providential work, but they are not a measure of his love for us. There is only one measure of God’s love for his people – a cross and an empty tomb. If 2020 has hit you hard, as it has afflicted many, know that I and others are praying for you and God’s people are called upon to come together to help one another. Our prayers will be answered with very human instruments. Do not fear. God has never stopped loving you. I cannot promise how that love will play out in your life. I am no prophet that way. I can, however, assert with all confidence this truth. God loves you. He will never stop loving you. That is a forever promise.
12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
I have long enjoyed the work of Gary Larson, creator of the Far Side. Did you know he grew up Lutheran? The image you see here is one of my favorites. I think Larson must have read this passage from Philippians at some point and been inspired to draw this cartoon. Paul is in prison. He has enemies within the Christian community (vss. 15-17). If you read a little further, he is facing capital punishment. His life might be poured out like a drink offering (2:17). But, like this fellow pushing the wheelbarrow in hell while he whistles, he is joyful.
I want some of that joy and right now. I could really use some of that joy which persists through terrible times. It seems like with pandemic, politics, social unrest, weather, and natural disasters, the world has a desire to deprive me of any joy. We had two days of hot, dry winds not long ago. Some of my favorite plants in my yard got scorched. Was that really necessary?
Now, however, we come to the truth of the matter. What is the secret of Paul’s persistent joy? Perhaps vs. 20 is the best place to find it. Christ has completely displaced Paul as the center of his life. It is as if Paul is a planet which orbits Jesus now, instead of being the center of his own universe. For Paul that meant that the sufferings he endured, even the death which he faced, was not dimming the light which brought him joy. That Light, which is Christ, would shine no matter what happened to Paul and Paul believed that he would once more bask in that Light at the resurrection of the dead. This means that my sorrow at the death of the plant in my back yard needs to be reconsidered. Was it ever my plant and my back yard? Or does it belong twice to God? Once because he made it, twice because he redeemed it. I may not always be able to see how the events of my life or this world work bear their fruit. But it is not about me. It is about the Father and his Son, Jesus. That does not mean I am not important to him, but my rescue will not be on my terms or on my schedule. It may well also be at the resurrection of the dead. But that is OK. No one can steal that joy from me.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.
4 One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.
5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.
6 And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! 8 You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” 9 Hide not your face from me. Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation!
“I’m gonna beat this,” she told me with fierce determination. In truth, her words were somewhat coarser, and this is a devotion, so I will not tell you exactly what she said. The cancer which had been diagnosed and was growing in her body was the enemy. David speaks of evil doers who assail him and devour his flesh. That is a pretty good description of cancer. Luther spoke of three great enemies of the Christian: Sin, Death, and the Devil.
Today we face many foes: the COVID virus, social unrest, the causes of that unrest, and even the very world in which we live. As I write these words an ominous yellow cloud of smoke has descended upon the city of Portland. At least one of my colleagues has abandoned his church building and is wondering if it still stands. People I know have lost their homes to the inexorable advance of flames. By the time you read this, it is likely that the situation will have changed, but may well have been replaced by yet another disaster. Hurricane? Earthquake?
David speaks of confidence. The Lord is his light and salvation. Who will make him afraid now? The enemy will stumble and fall. Here the Christian needs to make a careful parsing. David knows he will spend eternity in the house of the Lord. My friend who gritted her teeth and fought courageously against cancer eventually succumbed to it. Did that mean that God had failed? Hardly. Her resurrected body will be cancer free, and free of any other ailments for that matter. She had a touch of arthritis in her hip. You could see it in the way she walked up steps. On that glorious day, David’s confidence in this psalm will perfectly describe her. Everything, our very lives, hinges upon the grace of God. Look carefully at the final verses of this psalm. David knows it. He can have the best retirement plans, the biggest nest egg, take immaculate care of his health, and all will be for nothing without God’s favor. He has and yearns for the grace of God. Such is the life of the Christian.
By nature, we are bent toward willfulness and disobedience. We want to do things our own way. We are able to counteract our tendencies and learn to be responsive and obedient to God’s calling through the power of His Spirit Who lives in us and works in us through Word and Sacrament.
God brings wisdom into our lives through reproofs. God’s nudges tell us when we’ve done something wrong. Listening to God’s reproofs prompts us to correct our ways and keeps us from further error. When we resist God’s wisdom, we lose. Proverbs 3:11-12 admonishes, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent His rebuke [reproof], because the Lord disciplines those He loves, as a father the son he delights in.”
When we accept God’s discipline, He puts us in the direction He wants us to go. Why do we ignore what we believe are God’s reproofs?
Stubbornness: “But since you rejected Me when I called…” (Proverbs 1:24).
Inattentiveness: “…and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand” (Proverbs 1:24).
Indifference: “…you ignored all my advice…” (Proverbs 1:25).
Defensiveness: “…and would not accept my rebuke” (Proverbs 1:25).
Prayer: Dear Father, help me to accept Your discipline.” Amen.
6 “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
I am a devotee of the dad joke, the terrible pun which causes children to groan. Once, while driving along I-84 in Oregon, I asked my children why the students in Pendleton did not study fractions. They looked at me rather perplexed until I pointed to the large sign advertising the Pendleton Roundup, a major annual rodeo event. My daughter, aiming a look of utter scorn at me, said, “Dad, you are the reason God doesn’t talk to us anymore!”
In terms of dad joke responses, this was golden. It also speaks, however, of an assumption which permeates even our Christian sensibilities. It does sometimes seem like God has rather put an end to the voice from heaven technique which he used in the Old Testament. We are not there with the disciples at Jesus’ feet listening to his parables. God seems so distant. Isaiah urges us to seek the Lord while he may be found and to call upon God while he is near. Did we miss our chance?
It is good to remember that God spoke very little from clouds and mountain tops in the Old Testament. Most of the time he spoke through prophets and writings. Generations of believers were born, lived, and died between those events. John, in chapter 6 of his Gospel account, tells us that after Jesus declared himself to be the Bread of Life many of those following him checked out of the Jesus movement. The 12 remained but many did not. To those who left, Jesus did not appear to be a divine manifestation. The nearness of God is not found in a preternatural voice from heaven. Indeed, the people of Israel at Sinai wanted to distance themselves from the One who spoke. They sent Moses alone up the mountain. The presence and accessibility of God is found in the fact that he welcomes sinners, people like you and me. We may confess to a fellow Christian our sins, our weakness, our fear, our frailty, and know that God hears that. What is more, he promises us that in the words of that baptized Christian who forgives us, comforts us, and loves us despite our condition, God has spoken to us. Seek the Lord. He does not think of sin the same way you do. We know that because Jesus died on a cross to save you from it. He has risen from the grave to hear your prayers.
These are the Scripture readings you will hear this coming Sunday:
Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30
Click here to read the above lessons and the propers for the day.
Disciples Live in Their Vocations by Grace through Faith in Christ
Those who are sent as “laborers for his vineyard” (Matt. 20:1) depict the wide diversity of vocations to which the disciples of Christ Jesus are called. Whatever our particular stations in life may be, we are called to live and serve by faith in His promises. Our labors do not merit anything before Him, for He is already generous to one and all without partiality. In mercy, He has chosen to bear “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” on our behalf, to make us equal to Himself and to give us what belongs to Him, that is, the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 20:12–15). This way of the Lord is foolishness to the world and foreign to our thoughts, but He draws near, so that “he may be found” (Is. 55:6), “have compassion” and “abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:7). So it is that we are found in Christ Jesus, and He is honored in our bodies, “whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20), by “fruitful labor” (Phil. 1:22) or by suffering. It is by faith in His forgiveness that our works are “worthy of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).
These are the hymns we will sing:
With the Lord Begin Your Task (LSB 869)
Hark the Voice of Jesus Calling (LSB 827)
Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face (LSB 631)
Lord God, heavenly Father, since we cannot stand before You relying on anything we have done, help us trust in Your abiding grace and live according to Your Word; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Human beings are trusting creatures, and this trait has only been amplified by the complexity of the world in which we lived. I have a neighbor who believes just about everything that shows up on her screen. The latest is that tomatoes cause arthritis, but we have heard from her any number of ideas which, in the moment, are fervently trusted. But it is not just my neighbor. You probably know someone who so believes in dietary supplements that their innards must surely be galvanized from all the zinc pills they have taken. It is unlikely that they arrived at these ideas or behaviors on their own. At some point they trusted someone.
This has only been exacerbated in these days of pandemic. One credentialed doctor says masks are bad; another says they are necessary. If the vaccine comes, should you get one or is it some means for the government or big pharma to do something wicked to us? News reporters at the recent fires in Oregon reported that they were themselves attacked because the rumor was spreading among rural Oregonians that the fires had been intentionally set by the same liberal forces behind the riots in Portland. The culturally conservative rural Oregonians concluded the media were to blame. Multiple state and local officials vociferously denied this. Even the FBI came out denying this was the case. Who do people trust? Did folks in southern Oregon believe the rumors or the government? Whom would you believe? In times of fear that gets even harder to sort out.The prayer is not so much a prayer for the ability to trust but that God would call us out of our foolish incompetence so that we trust in His abiding grace and act accordingly. The latest health or diet craze will not save me. God will. The latest conspiracy theory about some plot by the government or big pharma or big tech will not grip me in fear but, assured of God’s grace, I can go about the hard work of discerning the truth in this complex world. God has my life in his hands. No one can snatch me from him. That starts with a baptism in which, vulnerable, incompetent, and utterly helpless, we were washed with life-giving water and God expressed his amazing love to us. There is the news to trust, news upon which, aided by the Holy Spirit, you can build a life of joy and confident service.
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
I knew man once who was driven mad by guilt. That can still happen in some parts of the world unencumbered by reality TV and the mentality of victimhood which seems to excuse any misdeed. This man did not claim to have been abused or otherwise the victim of some injustice. He had committed insurance fraud and he knew it. This truth ate at him. Years later he started doing irrational things, mostly around money. He would see a good deal on socks at Walmart and buy whole cartful. He would concoct wild schemes to buy his neighbors farms and radically expand his modest operation.
Finally, his family and friends intervened, and a counselor drew out of him a confession of his sin, now decades old. All his erratic behavior had been attempts to raise the cash to make right his theft of insurance money. The counsellor, being a Christian, realized that this was out of her league. She called his pastor. His pastor heard his confession and absolved him of his sins. And his madness cleared. He was still a little odd, but he had always been a little odd. Everyone was relieved to have his eccentricities back, to be honest. This little story of the man driven mad by guilt hinges on faith. He believed that his actions had consequences, even if he had not been caught in his fraud. He also believed that the absolution spoken by his pastor was a real thing, an action which removed his guilt. The man in this story which Jesus tells does not believe. He acknowledges his debt to be sure, but he does not believe the king when that king forgave his debt. He accosts his fellow servant, demanding money, right now. He is trying to raise funds to repay the forgiven debt. It is a little mad of him. Jesus would have you shake your head in wonder at his foolish behavior. But is not our grudge-bearing, vindictive, score-settling, moral bean-counting behavior any different today? Jesus warns us that such behavior is rooted in a disbelief in God’s grace, and that always starts with the grace He has shown to us. Take a good look at the sins of another person today and remember that Jesus has died for that sin and that person just as surely as he died for you and your sins. Treat that other person today in the light of that reality.