Psalm 107 (31-43)

31Let them thank the Lord for his | steadfast love,*

for his wondrous works to the chil- | dren of men!

This psalm appears to be about daily bread, but since man shall not live by bread alone but by the words that proceed from the mouth of God, it must also be about that Bread that comes down from heaven.

32Let them extol him in the congregation of the | people,*

and praise him in the assembly of the | elders.

Here is the call to worship. It is a call to gather. The children of men are to congregate in order to praise the Lord for all His steadfast love. They are to come together with the people and the elders, those who teach. This is the assembly of the godly.

33He turns rivers into a | desert,*

springs of water into | thirsty ground,

34a fruitful land into a | salty waste,*

because of the evil of its in- | habitants.

But here is a warning. It is not chiefly concerned with geography and landscaping but with the word of God since all things are sustained by the word of God. Therefore, the rivers are the places of abundance and good fruit and so forth. This is where the word of God is preached and hearts hear and are glad. But these places are allowed to dry up and become wastelands because of the evil of those who live there. In other words, the Lord allows His gospel to be preached but there comes a time when the wickedness of men causes Him to remove from them His pulpit and church. Then, even if the land seems to be prosperous and full of plenty, it is really a dry riverbed and a salty flat upon which nothing grows. This, again, is speaking of the spiritual estate of men. Their evil prevents and inhibits the preaching of the word of God and His gospel so that they become as those who are left to their own devises and turned over to their own evil.

35He turns a desert into pools of | water,*

a parched land into springs of | water.

On the other hand, where there was no pulpit, no watchtower, the Lord establishes one. Just like when He sent forth His Son, Jesus, to be the preacher and teacher of the people of Israel and then the whole world even though the world did not know Him and did not receive Him. He was sent to a desert and to a parched land and it became a place of pools of water, oasis where the thirsty could drink and be refreshed and rejuvenated.

36And there he lets the | hungry dwell,*

and they establish a city to | live in;

37they sow fields and plant | vineyards*

and get a | fruitful yield.

It is here, then, that the hungry dwell. They establish a city here, that is a congregation and assembly of hearers because that is the way of things. When travelers and sojourners come across an inhabitable land they do not continue on in search of what is right before them but they stop and settle and build a city. This then is a picture of those who hear the word of God and are uplifted by it and rejoice in it.

They were starving and here they have found the land flowing with milk and honey. They were thirsty and here they have found springs of water that don’t stop flowing and do not dry up. So they settle. Again, this has nothing to do with agriculture or the ways of nations, but rather is using this imagery to reveal truths of God and His word and congregation. His people hear His voice and settle in where He preaches. And in hearing and believing, they get a fruitful crop of faith and eternal life. This is the Master calling workers to His vineyard that He may pay them out the generosity of His heart.

38By his blessing they multiply | greatly,*

and he does not let their livestock di- | minish.

His people multiply by His blessing. But His blessing is not like blessings the world gives. His blessing is the death and resurrection of Jesus. His blessing is the sacraments that flow from this and that are established by it in His blood and by His testament. For where the true word of God is not preached, where the cross is emptied of its power and the sacraments stand neglected, there nothing will grow and no blessing remains and the land will go back to being a parched and dry waste land.

That is why it is incumbent that the assembly gather around the elders, that is the preachers and apostles. That way they will receive and continue to receive the truth and will be well nourished by it. But if they gather around false preachers or if they ignore the true preaching as Israel did so often, then there stands again the warning from above. Let the hearer rejoice in what he hears and all the more let the preacher preach what he has received and nothing more.

39When they are diminished and | brought low*

through oppression, evil, and | sorrow,

40he pours contempt on | princes*

and makes them wander in | trackless wastes;

But trouble always comes no matter how pious and holy and good a congregation and its preacher are. Trouble is stirred up in the midst of it and from outside of it. As a result many true believers and Christians are brought low. Their reputations are tarnished and they are the butt of jokes and the refuse of the land, even as the Lord said, “If they hate you, they hated me first.” And, “My friend lifted his heal against me.”

The Christian church, and so all of her congregations who are truly congregations of the same, will always suffer persecution from without and betrayal from within. She will always be scorned and hated and abused by outsiders and robbed and lied about by those among her ranks. This is the pattern we have seen since Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery and suffered abuses in Egypt. The same pattern established by the Lord Jesus Himself who was mocked and jeered by outsiders and was betrayed by a close friend, even abandoned by all the men He called “friend”.

But the Lord does not leave alone those who abuse and try to destroy His church and scatter His flock. Not at all. Instead He pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes. It is a small thing if His Christians die by persecution, for they shall receive the crown of life. We often think that it is the greatest evil when Christians die and are martyred, but in truth is a great blessing. For precious in the sight of the Lord are the death of His saints. Those who kill them think they are ridding the world of wicked and perverse men when really they are allowing these faithful men and women to do what is blessed: remain faithful unto the end.

But those murderers are then bereft of that which would have saved them from the fate they wish to give the Christian. Once the Christian is dead or driven out of the land, who is there to preach the word of God for salvation? Who is there to pray to the Almighty for the good of the land? Therefore, the rulers are drenched in the contempt of God who removes from them His Church and pulpit. They are left to wander around without knowing what direction they are headed.

We have seen this time and again in history, especially the history of the Church which has been driven out of land after land only to have that land fall to chaos, death, and the tyranny of evil. But we Christians should not be alarmed or troubled. Not at all! We should rejoice that we are allowed to live in peaceful times, knowing that it is peaceful times that are the exception rather than the rule. We should always, as our Lord bids us, expect persecutions and hatred from the world that eventually leads to our death or exile.

41but he raises up the needy out of af- | fliction*

and makes their families | like flocks.

42The upright see it | and are glad,*

and all wickedness | shuts its mouth.

The needy are not those who need daily bread, though they certainly need this also. The needy are those who are in need of salvation and the comfort of the Spirit of God who is the chief preacher in the Church of God. For the preaching office is truly the Office of the Holy Spirit who opens men’s mouths to both confess and proclaim the truth about God in Christ. Therefore the Holy Spirit is the rescuer and comforter of the needy.

This is true chiefly, as was said, in preaching the gospel of Jesus and making sinners into saints by the forgiveness of sins bestowed through and by the word of God and the blessed sacraments. This is the real soup kitchen and bread line, the real homeless shelter where the poor in spirit go to be fed and relieved of their hunger, thirst, and exposure.

By His word then, and always by His word, the Lord raises the needy out of there affliction, which, again, is not merely the affliction of the body, which is fleeting anyway, but the affliction of the soul. He sets the solitary in families and makes their families like flocks. Once again, this is not speaking of earthly families but of the heavenly families called congregations or of the heavenly family called the Church of God. Here are truly the mother and brothers and sisters of Jesus, gathered to the Father in heaven and loved and protected by Him. Earthly families fight and bicker and are torn apart, but the heavenly family is never torn apart, even if the visible congregation is torn apart by dissention and lies and greed.

Once we are baptized we are born again into a heavenly family; adopted children of God by the blood and will of Christ. When the world sees this – and it has seen it in every age, the building up and strengthening and fortifying of the Church, just as in every age it has witnessed the destruction and scattering of the same – it must shut its mouth in wonder and astonishment that this little band of helpless people have yet risen again despite all the hatred and abuse they and their forefathers have endured. This is no nation of men or country of men, for no nation or country is God’s nation or God’s country, but this is the Church of God, the nation of priests who has as its border no border and has as its land every land. For the meek shall inherit the earth.

And that remnant that is there when the Church rises again and is established, that remnant that remained faithful and which the Lord blessed with perseverance so that from them would flower again the Church before all the world – this, too, we have seen time and time again – they rejoice and are glad as they begin to see small sprouts become strong stalks. They rejoice in the Lord and give thanks with a glad heart.

43Whoever is wise, let him attend | to these things;*

let them consider the steadfast love | of the Lord.

This is what we are to consider then, that as surely as the sun and moon and stars set seasons and months, and the changing of seasons, so there is always a changing of seasons with the Church and the world. Sometimes it flourishes in this or that part of the world and in another part at another time. But always it has the promise of its Lord and Master that He will never leave nor forsake her, that He will be with her until the end of the ages. Let the wise, those who have placed their trust in the Lord Jesus for resurrection and eternal life, think on these things for they are from above. Let us gather to the elders in the great assembly and hear and be glad. Let us thank the Lord for His steadfast love, for His wondrous works among the children of men.

 

 

 

On Dogs and Mercy

(Matthew 15:21-28)

I don’t want to talk about faith. I’d rather talk about Jesus.

Jesus is your salvation from death, O man. He is your redemption. By His stripes you are healed. He has undone the curse of sin and death and has ushered in the kingdom of grace in which you find yourself in, having been washed by His blood and marked as one of His own.

Jesus is the Son of God, but almost more importantly, He is the Son of Man. He is your advocate and defender against the evil one, against that ancient wicked foe who first tricked our first parents and who has been lying and murdering ever since. Jesus defends you against him, calling you holy though you are not; calling you sons of God though you were born sons of Satan. Jesus defends you against the accusations of the devil, claiming your sins as His own and telling the devil and His heavenly Father that you, in fact, are holy, washed clean and made spotless so that the accusations fall on deaf ears and your heavenly Father is well pleased in you.

That’s Jesus. How much more could be said! There are not enough words and there isn’t enough time to do Him justice in praise and honor. Our speech is woefully shallow in singing His praises and our lives are woefully lacking in living by His mercy and grace.

But then comes sickness and disease. Then comes demons and the hordes of hell to torment you. Then comes failed marriages and sham marriages. Then comes wayward children and faithless children. Then comes ruined reputations and ruined lives. Then comes defilement. Then comes death itself. And in the face of all this who is strong enough to cling to Jesus? Who is strong enough to hold fast to the promises of mercy and grace, life, even abundant life? Who is strong enough to take hold of Him who is the light of the world and the salvation of all men and not let go until He gives a blessing?

Not me. Not you. We are not strong enough. We so often doubt the mercy and goodness of God that we are driven to lie to protect our reputations. We are driven to lie about our marriages. We are driven to lie to justify our sinful wants and shameful desires. We are not strong. We are weak. We have nothing to bargain with, nothing that He wants. If He were hungry He would not tell us. If He were cold He would not come to us for warmth. If He were tired He would not ask us for reprieve. Who is man that He is mindful of him? Who are we that the Lord would take notice? Are we not sinners and vagabonds, all of us? Have we not caused mayhem and chaos in the lives of others for nothing but our own pleasure? Have we not abused others and used them to our ends and then sloughed them off like yesterday’s dirty clothes? Do we not take advantage of others to bolster our reputation, saying this or that but with no intention to follow through or do what we’ve said? Then when we fail on our promises and in our duties we blame others and talk about how they are worse than us and how they have sabotaged us and how if it weren’t for them our lives would be good, our homes would be happy, and our wallets would be fat. Do we not think so often that hell is other people?

No?

Then what of those who have avoided this week? What of those you have looked down on and even slandered with your fair-weather friends? What of those you have rejected because of their poverty, their color, or their sin?

Or are you the lone righteous one in the teeming masses of humanity? Are you the sole good person in the sea of wicked men? Do you alone possess the wisdom of God and are you alone His equal in doing what is right so that He would use you as the standard of righteousness and goodness? Isn’t that what we think? Isn’t that how we treat ourselves? As if we alone hold the key to true righteousness and everyone else is playing catch up? Do we not think of ourselves as good and right and pure, even while we lie and slander our brothers; so accustom to it that we don’t even know we are doing it?

Yes, that is who we truly are. Dogs. Lapping up our own vomit and selling our souls for a warm bed and some scraps of food. That is what we truly are. Dogs. Unable to care for ourselves. Dogs. Beasts of opportunity; shamelessly waging our tails when we are treated well and shamelessly biting the hand that feeds us.

But even dogs eat the Master’s food that falls from the table. Lord, have mercy. Your faith, O Christian, has saved you. Not your goodness and works of charity. Not your pedigree of Lutheran or American or being white or middle class. Your faith. And what is your faith? Is the tenacious grasp you have on the promises of God in Christ that He will save you and forgive you and love you to the end. So that even in the midst of your sin and shame you cry out with full assurance of being heard: “Lord, have mercy!” Even though you feel as though you don’t belong and that others are begging you to be silent and go away, you cry out with tenacity and boldness: “Lord, have mercy!”

You have caught the ear of the Savior. He has turned His attention to you. Here is His mercy. Your faith has saved you. Here is the Master’s table. And far from mere scraps, from it falls the Master’s body and blood for you. No matter your station in life, your income, your pedigree, or your sinful ways. Here His blood is poured out for you and here is Body is given to you that you may be whole; that you may be holy.

For that is why the Son of Man appeared, to undue the works of Satan and to gather to Himself His chosen people who look to Him for all good, crying out, “Lord, have mercy!”

Waiting for Redemption

Here is the truth: your redemption is drawing near. It is indeed nearer to you now than when you first believed. (Romans 13:11) The fig tree has sprouted leaves, and the fruit will soon follow. That is to say, the proclamation of life in Christ – the preaching of the gospel – has gone out and has entered your ears and has been planted in your hearts – in your will and devotion. It has taken root and the fruit will soon follow. And the fruit, as the apostle tells us, leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Romans 6:22)

The redemption you are waiting for is the redemption from sin and shame. You have sinned and are a sinner. And your sin brings you shame. It’s not just that you do things called “sins”. Or that you refrain from doing things and so commit so-called sins of omission. It is that you are a sinner. You are one that misses the mark. Again, not so much that you are aiming at a mark and you sin by missing it, as an archer with an arrow. Rather, it is that you are the arrow that has been released from the Supreme Archer, and you have missed the mark He was aiming for. That’s what it means to be a sinner. And like an arrow that misses its mark is shamed, so the sinner is full of shame for having failed the Archer.

Now we can say that arrows don’t really feel shame and that it’s the archer’s fault that the arrow missed. And we wouldn’t be wrong. But changing the parable to defend ourselves only shows how far a field we are from the target. You are children of the light and know the truth. It does not become you to pretend that this sin and shame business is not your fault. For even if it were not your fault in terms of cause and effect, you are not thereby acquitted, for you are born sinful and unclean. You can blame Adam and Eve or whomever, but in the end, the piper pipes for you and calls you to account for what you have and have not done. Let the shame of your sin drive you to repentance and to Christ who brings with Him His flesh to cover your shame as the skin of a goat covered the shame of Adam and Eve.

For that is why He came the first time: to take away sin and shame. He became sin for us and the reproaches meant for us fell on Him. (Psalm 69:19-20) The Son of God became for us the chief of sinners so that we would be free from condemnation. And thus by His blood, He redeemed us from sin and its shame. And the redemption you wait for now is when the redemption won on the cross becomes the redemption shown to the devil and his angels as well as to all those that do not believe. You long for and expect your redemption as one on death row longs for and expects the pardon promised. Your redemption is drawing near.

But the redemption you wait for is also the redemption of your body. It is the redemption from sin and shame, and the redemption of your body. For your body has suffered for your sin and is itself sinful. For you are not a soul with a body, but you are a spiritual being of both body and soul. And you don’t go to heaven in spirit only, but your body will be raised from the dead and translated to be as Jesus is: immortal and incorruptible. And thus shall you rise, body and soul, to be with the Lord forever.

So just as you strive against the temptations and sins of the mind and heart, so you should strive against the temptations and sins of the body. For sin belongs not only to the mind and heart but in the members of the body sin wages war against the will of God. And sins of the body are sins against the temple of God in which His Spirit dwells. But His temple is to be a house of prayer for all nations, and not a den of thieves and robbers. So let your body be a house of prayer; bring it into submission by daily prayer and meditation; by conforming your will to the words of sound instruction; by not despising preaching or His Word but holding it sacred and gladly hearing and learning it.

For you know the times. The days are drawing short. Your redemption is drawing near. By these things – by disciplining your body and mind in the ways of the Lord – you stay awake and through His word He gives you the strength to withstand temptation and shame. So that you wait patiently as with the prophets of long ago, waiting for God to send His Christ to redeem you, body and soul.

You have been redeemed. In fact, the whole creation has been redeemed by the blood of Jesus. He makes all things new. He redeems mankind, and in so doing, He re-orders all creation so that this heaven and earth shall pass away, as shall this body of sin. But His word will never pass away. And His word is that He is coming again to take you where He is. He will return as a king from a far and foreign country returning to His own people to bless them with the riches and wealth he has gained while on campaign. For right now the Lord is campaigning for you before the Father, holding you in Himself while He gathers all the elect from every tribe and nation, preparing to present His whole Church, His Body, to the Father as a spotless Bride.

The Chief Article, One Article Among Many

Lutherans get all worked up when you mention the “chief article”. It had better be justification or else you’re in danger of hell-fire. And if you grew up in the Lutheran church, or have listened to three or more Lutheran sermons – especially at synodical or governing body gatherings – then you’ve probably hear the phrase, attributed to Luther: “Justification is the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls.” Interestingly, we don’t actually have Luther saying this quote anywhere quite like this. What he have him saying is:

Quia isto articulo stante stat Ecclesia, ruente ruit Ecclesia – or – Because if this article [of justification] stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses” (WA 40/3.352.3)

Apparently, the phrase, “The article of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls,” was a proverb attributed to Luther by one, Balthazar Meinser. (See here for the research upon which I stand or fall.) Of course, the two phrases are very similar and can easily be seen as the same, and I wouldn’t really argue otherwise. So why point it out? Because as often as this phrase is thrown around by Lutherans, especially when they’re defending the Lutheran church against other altars, using it as a kind of a priori bedrock of being orthodox, it can become stale and even meaningless. It is good to remember that the article of justification does not stand alone, but is part of the corpus of doctrine, an article, albeit a chief article, among many.

The Smalcald Articles; specifically Part II, Article I: The Chief Article, reads thus:

The first and chief article:

(1) That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4:25.

2) And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1:29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53:6.

3) Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace,through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3:23f

4) Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3:26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.

5) Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.

[Book of Concord, http://www.bookofconcord.org]

The point is to say that there is no way other than by the works and merits of Jesus by which we are justified. It rightly proclaims and teaches that the faith of the Church is that we are justified only by the work and merit of Jesus Christ who alone is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. For His sake only are we made righteous. It echos the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession. This is the faith of the Church. Any teaching that puts anyone else’s works or merits up as a reason or part of the reason or even a help in our salvation and justification is contrary to this chief article that Christ alone justifies.

It is easy to see why the proverb that “justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls” so easily makes it’s way into sermons and blogs and all things Lutheran. But in truth, this chief article quoted above, which is the faith of the Church, can’t be distilled to that oft-quoted (or perhaps misquoted) phrase. It can’t be distilled to such because part and parcel of this article is the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It echos article IV of the Augustana, but only after first echoing article III: Of the Son of God. In order to be justified one must first have the justifier.

In fact, justification (by grace alone through faith alone) is only significant if one first encounters Jesus. Jesus must come first. So the St. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “There, that man, He is the justifier.” Oh! There is a justifier! What needs justifying? You do! Now the sinner can thank God that the justifer justifies, and that without any effort or merit on the part of the sinner. In other words, by grace alone. But Jesus comes first.

This probably doesn’t rock anybody’s world. As I said, it’s all sort  of self evident. To have justification one must have Jesus, and when one encounters Jesus, one encounters justification. But that’s just it: one must encounter Jesus. As often as we Lutheran types poo-poo the charismatics for their talk of encountering Jesus, or the mystics of all denominations and altars of talking about encountering Jesus, it’s not actually untrue. One must encounter the Son of God for forensic justification to matter.

It is the way that one encounters the Son of God that may be untrue. One does not encounter the Son of God by his or her own preparations, as if we can bring ourselves into His presence or raise ourselves up to His throne room. No, quite the opposite; the sermon the incarnation preaches loudest is that He must come to us and make His home with us. He must come and unlock and open heaven’s doors to us. The trouble with the mystics is not that they want and seek to encounter Jesus, but that they suppose and teach that such encountering happens in ways not given in the apostolic teachings. The only way we encounter Jesus is for Him to present Himself to us.

He does this through and by His Church by the proclamation of the Gospel (AC V). The Gospel is the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead. This is chief proclamation of the Church, proclaimed by all (“for as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes in the future,” 1 Corinthians 11:26). First proclaimed by the faithful women of the tomb and then spread abroad by the apostles and held fast by the Church catholic. Jesus is risen from the dead! We encounter the risen Christ through this proclamation. But we have not thereby entered into fellowship with Him. For that to happen the Spirit must open our ears so that we believe (trust) that not only is Jesus risen from the dead – a forensic fact – but that His resurrection means something for us. It means that we, too, will be raised from the dead. And if we are raised from the dead, then there is something more than this life that ends in death. That something more is to be with the One who is risen, and reigns over life and death, heaven and hell, and all things in between.

This faith (trust), isn’t an academic faith that faith alone justifies or that justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls. This faith – trust in the promises of God in Christ via His work and merit – is our participation, as St. Peter writes, of the divine nature. Not to become divine ourselves but to participate in the divine nature, namely to escape the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (2 Peter 1:3-4).  This is really nothing other than what St. Paul writes when he teaches us that when we partake of the table of the Lord we are participating in the body and blood of Jesus – participating in Christ – who is risen from the dead and incorruptible.

We are led then, from outside where the proclamation that Jesus is risen from the dead – a proclamation all creation proclaims, eagerly awaiting the reveling of the sons of God (Romans 8:19) – to the inside of the Body of Christ wherein we are united to Christ through the mysteries that unite us to Him. The mysteries (the sacraments), which include and find their source in the proclamation of the gospel, are how we encounter the living Christ. In these encounters, believing on Him whom the Father sent, that He is the Son of God who has redeemed mankind from sin, death, and the power of the devil by His work and merit, we are justified. But apart from Him we die. Apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Him we are unknown. Apart from Him we are damned.

That is why sacramental participation is so vital. That is why the mysteries can never be separated from justification. That is why to say that what we really need is Jesus without also meaning that what we really need are the sacraments is to divide the Christ from His work and to put asunder what God has joined together. That is why to say that Sunday morning preaching is more important or better than the sacraments is to put a stumbling block before those that would believe. In truth, the sacraments are the sermon and the Divine Homily is in, with, and under them.

It would not be too bold to say that there is no justification apart from the sacraments because their is no justification apart from Christ. And to have Christ is to have His sacraments. And there is no Christ apart from His sacraments (1 Corinthians 4:1), which means that forms matter. Not every form must be uniform, but every form must conform to the Christ who encounters us when and where He has said He will encounter us. What of faith? Faith is not absent in any of this, but is the trust that God does not lie based on the truth that Jesus is risen from the dead.

One objection remains: does this mean that unless I participate in the sacraments I cannot be saved? Like many such ultimatums, this is a false dichotomy that serves only to sever. The answer is both yes and no. If the faith one has is that participation alone justifies; that would make the ritual the justifier (the Latin ex opere operato). But the ritual is not the justifer, but Christ. But if the faith one has is that the sacraments are Christ, as the Scriptures teach, then He is the justifier. This is why it is important that we make the distinction in our teaching that participation in the sacraments is an act of true faith in Christ, and not of faith in our participation.

She came to test him with hard questions

In 1 Kings 10, we read the account of the Queen of Sheba hearing of King Solomon’s great wealth and wisdom, his fame concerning the
name of the Lord, and that she came to test him with hard questions.  We’re not told what those hard questions are, but they shouldn’t be that hard to imagine. One can imagine that the great and wealthy queen came to ask this world-renown king of Israel, known for his astounding wealth, prosperity, and wisdom, questions such as:

“What are your views on women ruling countries?” After all, she was the queen and he a king.

“Why do you think that your God is the one true God?”

“What is your position on men sleeping with men or women with women?”

“What makes you think that the temple you’ve built in Jerusalem is the dwelling place of God?”

“How do you reconcile the history of your warring and conquering people with your poets’ words about God loving all mankind?”

“Why do you think tragedy happens to those that are seeking to be good?”

“If God is God, why can’t he stop babies from dying and sons from rebelling, and spouses from abusing?”

Remember, they were hard questions. She didn’t come to ask the great king easy questions. They were questions born of the travails and trials of this life. They were questions heretofore unanswered by anyone. Now comes this king who is supposed to be the wisest ever to have lived, powerful in wealth and influence, and she’s going to put him to the test. She wants to know the answers to those questions that haunt your soul at night and cause your heart to be weighed down. She’s wants to ask those naughty questions about the existence of God and of the truth of His love and whether or not He really gives a hoot about mankind. She wants to ask if he plans on conquering her land and making her and her people slaves.

She’s come to ask the hard, life-bending questions that we all ask because she suffered the same evils we all suffer; the evils of betrayal, death, defilement, hatred, envy, greed, loneliness, guilt, not too mention our perverse thoughts that we so desperately hope and pray never come to light before others. We all want to know, like the Queen of Sheba, why God made us this way; what’s His end-game; why has He made it so hard and terrible on us.

Verse 3: “And Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her.”

That’s rather profound. He answered all her questions. Her hard questions. Would that some king answer our hard questions. Would that something greater than Solomon were here. Would that the truth would be known and would set us free!

But the queen hadn’t simply asked her questions and bagged out. She didn’t email the king or send a letter. She went and saw him and stayed a while in his kingdom. Most likely the Queen of Sheba remained in the presence of Solomon and in his kingdom of no less than six months, and probably much longer. Why do I say this? Because the text reads that “the queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his official, and the attendance of his servants. their clothing, his cup-bearers, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord.” (1 Kings 10:3-5) Considering that Solomon only offered the burnt offerings in the house of the Lord three times a year, which, as she saw and considered them, suggests that the queen was in Jerusalem for an extended stay. Moreover, the distance she traveled to get to King Solomon, and the cohort she brought (v. 2), in addition to all that she saw and pondered strongly suggests that she wasn’t there for an evening or just a few days. Rather, it was in hearing the kings answers in consideration of all that she saw and witness, that she was answered.

She came to test him with hard questions and wanted to know that his answers weren’t canned answers that had no true bearing on the way he lived. You don’t ask the hard questions without wanting to know that the answers given are answers that will stand the test of time and strength of opposition. You wait around and consider not only the words but the fruit of the words. The queen was no dummy. She heard the answers but also took stock and consider King Solomon’s reign, his wealth, his subjects: his kingdom.

Verse 6-10: And she said to the king, ‘The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the report until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me! Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, He has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.”

We are as wise as the Queen of Sheba. We’re not so easily fooled by the answers of others. We hear the answers but also consider the evidence. God is love, yet there is great evil in the world. God created all, yet creation – and we, too – die and decay. God loves us, yet we fight and kill and destroy each other while God seems to sit quietly by shaking is ancient, powerless head going, “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Don’t do that.” God is good, yet we are called evil and our desires and choices are called evil. God answers prayer, yet all we hear is the empty promises like a child holding a seashell to his ear: the sound is there, but no substance. We have hard questions, too. Perhaps harder than the great queen’s; if for no other reason than that they are our questions and not hers. So she was satisfied by the wise king, but we are not. Where is the wise king that we can put him to the test and ask the hard questions and receive true answers?

He is on His throne, as Solomon was on his throne. And if we want His answers, we must enter His kingdom. We must consider His actual answer rather than the pre-canned answer we expect to hear.

But this is no metaphoric, poetic rhetoric designed to stir the heart so that the hard questions soften or to pacify the questioner long enough to escape their weary gaze. Not at all. This is only to put the quest into context. If you want answers, you must ask the King. You must ask the King and you must stay to consider His kingdom: His wisdom and prosperity; His men and servants who continually stand before Him and hear His wisdom. You must enter the courts of the King and put your questions to voice. Only, consider His answers in light of His reign and of His kingdom. Do not seek to find the answers you want, but the answers He gives. You will find that they, like your questions, are hard answers. But their hardness is not in their exacting difficulty or in their intricate novelty and twisted paths of some ancient logic. Quite the opposite. They are hard in that they are stronger than your questions. They are harder like a rock that is harder than glass, able to dash the glass to pieces. They are not hard because they are exacting, but because they are everlasting.

To the troubled heart they are easy answers; to the conscience they are light and airy and carry no weight. To the suffering questioner His answers are quiet peace and calm salve. His answers don’t fight your questions or reason with them or win them over by argument. His answers are bigger than your questions as His kingdom is bigger than your world.

But the asking is the thing. You ask your questions, whatever they may be, however hard or inappropriate you might think them. Ask and hold nothing back. Ask in anger, ask in fear, ask in hopeful expectation of an answer. Or ask expecting only silence. But when you ask, know that He has answered. He has answered your questions – all your hard and difficult questions. Whatever your questions, no matter how hard and seemingly unanswerable they might be, no matter how many before Him have not been able to answer, He has answered. He answers with His virgin birth and His obedient life. He answers your questions with His passion for sinners and His quiet suffering at the hands of sinners. He answers your questions with His bloody cross and His three-day burial. He answers with His resurrection and with His ascension to the right hand of Power. He gives His answers when He washes you with His water and word; when He absolves you by the mouths of His servants; and when He feeds you from His table, food richer and more plenteous than all the tables of the impoverished king Solomon. His wisdom is wiser than men. His answers are absolute.

His sacraments are His kingdom. Not your knowledge of the Bible or your eagerness to pray (or lack thereof). His gathering is His throne room and His banquet hall. The pondering of His kingdom isn’t naval gazing or long walks on dusky trails. His kingdom isn’t knee deep in good works or swaying to the rhythm of the beat. His kingdom isn’t our efforts on putting on a worship service or our efforts at making sure the altar flowers are pretty, the babies are quiet, and no one does anything stupid or embarrassing. His kingdom is His reign through His mysteries. To ask the King and remain in His kingdom to have to go where He has promised to be and to see what He puts before you.

Ponder His answer, which is Himself; ponder and meditate His answer given, and take stock of His kingdom. Remain in His kingdom a while and consider it. Happy are His men, for they do not fear their sins, nor death,  nor darkness! Happy are His servants that stand daily before Him and hear His wisdom! His wealth and prosperity and greater than you have been told, than you have imagined. He is ruler of all that is seen and unseen. Heaven is His throne and the earth is His footstool. His wealth is not the wealth of nations, but everything belongs to Him.

Something greater than Solomon is here. The Great King reigns in peace and grace amid  a world of hard questions. They have all been answered. But that is not the end.

When the Queen of Sheba left the city of King Solomon, she gave him a token of her gratitude in gold and spice and rare wood. Added to his wealth it was but a pittance. This is our pittance of giving whatever we might give. Meanwhile the king gave to her “all that she desired, whatever she asked besides what was given her by the bounty of King Solomon.” (v. 13) The queen returned richer and wiser than she had come; full and satisfied by the king. So, too, you. Hear His answer and meditate on His kingdom, and He will give you the desires of your heart and you will be richer than the kings of earth, more satisfied than the wealthy among men. and wiser than the sages of this age. For the King’s bounty is eternal life and His gifts are everlasting peace, and He sets you free.

The Cross Your Bear

Our Lord said that whoever does not take up their cross and follow Him cannot be His disciple.The cross we bear

The cross our Lord speaks of is defined by His cross. His cross was taken up by Him to carry the wrath of God on His shoulders for other people – for all sinners. His cross was the stripes He received for the healing of other people. His cross was the chastisement meant for other people. His cross was reconciliation between God and sinful man, not between God the Father and God the Son. His cross is divine love.

In short, Jesus’ cross was not for Himself. It was not for His good. It was not for His growth. It was not to strengthen Him. It was not to make Him a stronger child of God. His cross wasn’t for Him at all. It was for us.

So your cross is not for you. It isn’t there for your good. It isn’t there for your growth. it isn’t there to strengthen you or make you a stronger child of God. Your cross is there for other people.

Which means your cross is laid on your shoulders by and for other people. As St. Peter preached to the sinful men on Pentecost Day that they crucified the Lord of Glory, so we are crucified by the sins of others. Our cross does not bring divine atonement, but  it does bring 1 Corinthians 13. Love bears all things.

This also means that your sickness; it’s not your cross. Your debt; it’s not your cross. Your lack of a job; it’s not your cross. Your broken down car; it’s not your cross. Your hard class at school; it’s not your cross. All the crap that seems to be going wrong in your life; these aren’t your crosses. They are the fiery trials of which you are not supposed to be surprised that they are upon you. They are the testing of your obedience. They are the forming of your character. They are the temptations that are sure to come. Tempting you to question your heavenly Father’s love. These produce endurance and hope and all godly qualities as you patiently endure them, trusting in your heavenly Father. These trials are for you, but they are not your crosses.

But when you learn obedience by what you suffer, then you will take up your cross and bear its load for other people. Your cross is what you suffer because of the sins of others. Your cross is your forgiveness as your heavenly Father has forgiven you. Your cross is when you patiently suffer for the sins of others so that you can forgive them. Your cross is when you are kind to those that hurt you. Your cross is when you do not boast in yourself, but wait for the vindication of the Lord when your reputation is smeared or your body is violated or when your family deserts and hates you, knowing that a better and more permanent glory awaits you. Your cross is you not insisting on your own way, which would be to call down lightening and thunder on those who would do you wrong and are your enemies. Your cross doesn’t resent those for whom you are crucified, but rejoices in the truth that your sins are forgiven as are the sins of those that hate you. For the Lamb of God bore the sins of the whole world; not for us only, but for all humankind.

And having been tested and found faithful, having born the cross for others, forgiving as you have been forgiven and loving as you have been loved, then there awaits for you the crown of life. For the Lord did not simply say to take up your cross, but to follow Him. Follow Him through the temptations and fiery trials. Follow Him to Golgotha. Follow Him into the tomb. Follow Him out of the tomb. And then follow Him to eternal life and the glory of God.

A Sermon on the Ten Lepers

On Trinity XIV
Luke 17:11-19

We hear today of our blessed Lord Jesus healing ten lepers between Samaria and Galilee on His way to Jerusalem where He would give His life as a ransom for many and forgive the sins of the whole world by the shedding of His blood and by the death of His body. Inside Jerusalem, that holy city, or rather, just outside it’s gates where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, the blessed Lord of glory, that child of Mary, the man of God, would undo the curse of the man of earth, that first patron of sinners, and by His obedience bring light and life to all mankind. And outside the holy city His blood would make all things holy and usher in the kingdom of God on earth.

But first He is met in the in-between, somewhere in the wilderness, outside the holy city were there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, He is met by ten lepers who are crying out to Him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” What is it they want? They want to be cleansed of their leprosy. They want their flesh restored. Why? So that they might live! A leper was not simply on his way to the grave, a leper was in the grave. He was the walking dead: cut off from family and friends, often sent to live out in the wilderness such as between Samaria and Galilee; under threat of immediate death should he wander to close to a city of the clean. A leper must cry out night and day to any who might draw too near, “Unclean! Unclean!”

But to the One that drew near that day they forsook their usual cry of warning and self-abasement and rather cried out in prayer, “Master, have mercy!” And the Merciful Samaritan does what He came to do: He has mercy. “Go and show yourself to the priests.” This was what one did when one was cured of leprosy and other diseases of the flesh. They would go and show themselves to the priest on duty. And the priest, being the man that separated the clean from the unclean, would declare the leper either clean, welcoming the dead back to the land of the living; or pronounce death and declare him unclean, sending him back to the in-between where the living dead roamed.

“Go show yourselves to the priests.” It was a word of healing. Not for the one who would return to worship the Lord, but to all ten. For that is the boundlessness of the Lord’s mercy: it is for all, even the ungrateful and wicked. Even for those that know not where their good comes from. The Lord is merciful.

But what of this exchange between the living dead and the one that gives true life? Our diseases are not usually so healed. Our troubles are not usually dealt with, with such finality. Like leeches sucking us dry, our diseases and troubles cling to us with great tenacity even though we are here crying out with the walking dead, “Lord, have mercy upon us! Christ, have mercy upon us! Lord, have mercy upon us!”

Well it is simply this: it is not the healing that is the act of mercy, but the receiving. And the receiving doesn’t happen when that one faithful though foreign ex-leper returns, but rather when he with his fellow nine cry out for mercy in the first place.

In other words, the Lord is not merciful to you when He heals your diseases and cures your cares and washes away your troubles. The Lord is merciful when He receives you. For He receives and eats with sinners. The healing, the restoration, is the product of being in the presence of the Healer and Restorer. It is a given. There is no question just as there was no question on the lips of those ten lepers when the Lord said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” They did not ask if they had been healed, but heard the word of Him who heals and saves and by His word they believed. For if the faith of the one made him well, then did not the faith of the nine do the same? Since it says that as they went they were cleansed (v.14).

So on that final Day, there will be no lepers or sinners, for the Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world. He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brings us peace, and by His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5) Healing is a done deal. It is finished.

What there will be on that last and final Day are the nine that do not return to give thanks to God and fall at the feet of Jesus and worship Him. To them He will say, “Were there not ten? Where are the nine?” Or to say it another way, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” But this foreigner, the Samaritan, a Gentile sinner, him I know. He has fallen at my feet and worshiped me, thanking God for salvation and healing and restoration. He will go his way, which is the way of life, for his faith has saved him.

I can’t help but wonder if part of the thanksgiving offered by that ex-leper wasn’t thanksgiving for leprosy in the first place. For were it not for that death-ridden disease that so cut him off from the living, he would not have cried out for or been granted such mercy as to be received by Christ. If it was not part of his thanksgiving then well it should have been, for we rejoice in our suffering as the apostle writes. For when we are weak – such as one infected with leprosy with one foot in the grave – then He is strong, able to lift us out of the grave since He Himself has conquered the grave.

Count it all joy, my children, when you face trials of many kinds, and do not consider it strange. For these trials and troubles drive you to prayer and to the Christ who answers prayer. They drive you to call out to the Lord, “Master, have mercy on us!” And behold, the Master has had mercy. He has received you, for here you are at His footstool, worshiping at His feet. Here you are receiving His blessing and His word of healing for the body and the soul; His word of life and resurrection. Here we, the walking-dead, are received by the High Priest who declares us clean and leads us in the way of life, into the holy city from above, the heavenly Jerusalem.

Go your way, your faith has saved you.