Look Closer

Trinity 15
St. Matthew 6:24-34
September 9, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

2.

At some point in school everyone learns some basic geometry. For instance, a triangle is an object with three sides. You can measure each side of a triangle, add it together, and get the perimeter. If you multiply the base by the height and divide by two, you get the area. And in high school you get to prove why this is true. And this sort of thing holds for all Euclidean geometry (Euclid was that Greek guy a long time ago who first put all of this into a system).

The only problem is that none of these shapes actually exist in the world. If I asked you to measure the perimeter of the little island in the middle of the pond at Camp Trinity, you’d have a much more difficult time than with a triangle. There are all these little nooks and crannies on the outside, and the closer you look at it, the more things you have to measure. This is the strange and wonderful world of fractal geometry, where some interesting and sometimes paradoxical things happen.

Take, for instance, the Koch snowflake. This is constructed by taking a regular triangle, and extending another triangle off of each side, so that it looks like the Star of David. Then you do the same thing for each of the sides of the new triangles, and then again and again. It starts to look like a snowflake. The paradox is that its area is finite, but its perimeter is infinitely long. So if you started tracing the figure at one corner, you’d never be able to trace all around it. The closer you look, the more you have to trace.

This is the curious thing that happens with Elijah, though not with a geometric figure. His prophetic ministry coincides with a severe famine. God first preserves him by a hidden brook and sends ravens with food for him. But after the brook dries up, he is sent to Zarephath to a widow and her son, who have one meal left. Listen again.

Then the LORD spoke to him: “Leave and go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and stay there. I’ve ordered a widow there to feed you.”

He left and went to Zarephath. As he came to the gate of the town, a widow was gathering wood, and he called to her: “Please bring a little water in a jar for me to drink.” As she was going to get it, he called to her again: “Please bring me a bite of bread.” “As the LORD your God lives,” she answered, “I don’t have anything baked; only a handful of flour in the jar and a little oil in the jug. I’m gathering a few sticks. I will go and prepare something for myself and my boy so we may eat it and then die.”

“Don’t be afraid,” Elijah told her. “Go and do as you said, but first make me a little cake of it, bring it to me, and after that prepare something for yourself and your boy. The LORD, the God of Israel, says this: ‘The jar of flour will never get empty, and the jug will never lack oil until the LORD sends rain on the land.’ ”

She went and did what Elijah told her, and so she, he, and her family ate for a long while. The jar of flour never got empty, and the jug never lacked olive oil, as the LORD had promised by Elijah.

Now this is pretty cool. It’s not that new flour and oil suddenly blinked into existence, but that the closer she looked, the more there was.

It’s important to remember that God’s miraculous gift shouldn’t be limited to the abundance of flour and oil, but also to its scarcity. The final measure of flour and oil, which the woman had by natural means, is as much a gift of God as the multiplied flour and oil—and as much of a miracle. The fact that you have flour in your cupboard is a gift of God, and miraculous that it’s there. It’s also miraculous that flour does its thing when you make pancakes, or a rustic loaf of bread, or a béchamel sauce.

But not only do we tend to overlook the miraculous of the everyday, we also tend to consider God’s gifts insufficient at first glance. This is why stewardship is so poor in LCMS congregations. I heard this week a statistic that the average LCMS giver gives 2% of their income. That’s a bit shy of the 10% standard established in the Old Testament (although if you count up all of the tithes required of God’s people in the Old Testament, it works out to more like 30% of your income goes to the Church. Go home and do that calculation, and give thanks to God that you live in the New Testament dispensation of grace).

But stewardship of God’s gifts is not a zero-sum game. It’s not that in order to give more, you have to make do with less. The more the widow gave, the more she had. As Jesus said, “To the one who has, more will be given, but to the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” At first glance God’s gift may look insufficient, but the problem is not with the gift—it’s the way we look at the gift. And because we don’t look properly, we lose trust in God to provide. It’s a First Commandment problem—we do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

1.

In fractal geometry, if you put the figure under the microscope, more and more opens up. But that’s not how the gift of God works. It doesn’t reveal its abundance under scientific investigation. The gift of God needs a different kind of investigation. But, if you take a closer look at God’s gift, you’ll find everything that you need.

The view of God’s gift demonstrated by the widow of Zarephath was the view of faith. And that’s not predominantly a vision of the eyes, but of the ears. The prophet, the man of God, spoke God’s Word: the flour and oil would never be empty. God would provide. And every time she looked, she found more.

An optimist sees the cup as half full; a pessimist sees it half empty. But faith sees that it’s all that you need to support this body and life. And then some. That’s the way God gives gifts. Good measure, shaken together, pressed down, and overflowing. He gives and gives and gives until He can’t give any more and then He gives some more. Our God is superabundantly generous with His grace.

Take a look at the Lord’s Supper. Just bread and wine. Kind of a plain meal, and certainly not enough to hold you through the rest of the day, much less till lunch. And if you were to put it under the microscope, you’d find tinier and tinier bits of bread or drops of wine. But, if you investigate according to your ears, you hear, “This is My body; this is My blood.” The closer you look, the more you have.

This also extends to stewardship. You have to think less Euclid and more fractal. God gives gifts that at first glance appear insufficient. “One hundred dollars isn’t enough, much less ninety. I can’t afford to give ten to God’s work.” But if you give ten, God will ensure that ninety is more than enough. This is not my word, folks. Thus says the Lord, “Your Father in heaven knows you need [these things]. Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you, too. So, don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

The sufficiency of God’s gift finally rests in the cross. A plain man, suffering indignity and a slave’s death, is the sufficient means of reconciling the entirety of the human race to God. Jesus is not a zero-sum game. He doesn’t become less God or man to become more man or God; He is both. He doesn’t subtract from the Law to give the Gospel. He fulfills the Law and then gives the grace of forgiveness. He doesn’t just die so that we would live. He also lives so that we might live. At first glance, God’s gift looks insufficient, but take a closer look at God’s gift, and you’ll find everything you need. Because,

With God, the Closer You Look, the More You Have

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA

Fruit

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Galatians 5:16-24
September 2, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

In Paul’s language, the distinction between the flesh and the spirit is a distinction between the old life of sins—the Old Adam as our catechism calls it—and the new life in Christ born of the Holy Spirit—the new man. The spirit of man (the new life) is only possible with the gift and work of the Spirit of God; you don’t naturally come by the spiritual life.

The flesh and the spirit are diametrically opposed. I say, follow the Spirit, and you will not do what the flesh wants. What the flesh wants is against the Spirit, and what the Spirit wants is against the flesh, because they are opposed to each other and so keep you from doing what you want to do. But if the Spirit leads you, you are not under the Law.

There is an inversion that happens. As a Christian, you have no law that condemns you. Everything is lawful. But if you do the works that are against the law, you will end up right back under the law where you began. On the other hand, to be governed by the Spirit means that there is no law against anything you do, because

There Is No Law Against the Fruit of the Spirit

I.

Paul’s commentary on the works of the flesh is interesting. We’re accustomed to dividing the Law into Ten Commandments (even though the Bible never calls them that). But the Ten Commandments are a convenient summary of different ways to put the Law of love into action. They are not an exhaustive list of everything that is contrary to God’s will. Even though there are Ten Commandments, St. Paul gives 15 examples of works of the flesh; they are opposed to the Spirit.

 Now, you know the works of the flesh. They are: sexual sin, uncleanness, wild living, worshiping of idols, witchcraft, hate, wrangling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, quarreling, divisions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, those who do such things will have no share in God’s kingdom. Let’s take a closer look at these 15.

Sexual sin. From the Greek, porneia, from which we get our words fornication and pornography. Better understood as prostitution, derived from a word meaning “to sell.” Related to slavery. The rebuke of porneia is as much about raising the dignity of women as it is about morals. Women are coheirs of the Gospel of Christ, not a lower class of citizen to be bought or sold like property.

Uncleanness. Akatharsia. The opposite of cathartic. It refers to cultic impurity, which we’re going to cover extensively in our fall adult Bible study on Leviticus that begins next week. It’s the state of complete separation from God and thus the realm of death and destruction.

Wild living. License, in this context, likely sexual license.

Worshipping of idols. Eidololatria. Idolatry. Service of idols. In many cases the service to idols was a sexual service, cultic prostitution, connecting this work of the flesh to the previous three.

Witchcraft. Pharmakeia, from which we get our word “pharmacy.” It has the connotation of magic and sorcery, but also of poison. Hermann Sasse wrote an essay showing that the “pharmacy” of the ancient world was abortion by taking a poison that would kill a fetus in utero. You might see how this would be a necessity for temple prostitutes to continue their trade.

Hate. Hostility as an inward disposition. Against fellow man, but most often between man and God. Its opposite is filia, or “friendship.”

Wrangling. Strife, discord, contention. In pl., quarrels.

Jealousy. Zelos. In a good sense, zeal. In a bad sense, jealousy. A consuming passion for that which is not yours. Which brings us to:

Anger. Thumoi. Literally, passions; anger or wrath. Noun form of the verb used in prior verses. The flesh desires against the Spirit and the Spirit desires against the flesh.

Selfishness. Used in Aristotle to denote “a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means” (BAG, 309). Selfish ambition.

Quarreling. Aka, dissentions, division, disunity, contention. Party spirit.

Divisions. Haireseis, or, heresies; sectarianism. Irenaeus wrote Against the Heresies in the second century, and he was writing against gnostics who say that the body is evil, and that Jesus only appeared to be incarnate and suffer and die.

Envy. It speaks for itself.

Drunkenness. Methai. Related to ecstatic frenzy and mysticism. Prevents preparation for the Parousia, or Christ’s second coming. The world thinks the Gospel to be the invention of drunken men (see, Acts 2).

Carousing. Excessive feasting, revelry. Think Fat Tuesday on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Along with methai (drunkenness) related to the Dionysius cults. The opposite of the Lord’s Supper.

The works of the flesh are, at their heart, false, idolatrous worship. Such worship does not impart the Spirit of God.

II.

On the other hand is the fruit of the Spirit. When I was in elementary school, I had to memorize these. I’ll never forget them. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The works of the flesh are found throughout the worship of the ancient world. But there is nothing analogous to the fruit of the Spirit, because there is nothing analogous to Christian worship. It’s something completely new. And it depends on the crucifixion of Jesus. The fruit of the Spirit grows from the tree of the cross.

The first distinction to recognize is that flesh produces works, but the Spirit produces fruit. Like a tree and its fruit, the qualities described here are spontaneous and natural, not forced under compulsion of punishment. Furthermore, they are conditions of the person rather than discreet works. These conditions govern every aspect of your (new) life. Let’s take a closer look.

Love. Agape. Of the three kinds of love the Greeks have a word for, agape is the most thoroughgoing. It’s unconditional, sacrificial love. It’s love that gives of self for the sake of the beloved. It’s the kind of love that drives you to the cross for the life of the world.

Joy. Chara. Deeper than a superficial happiness. Often used as a greeting and connected with persons.

Peace. On two axes. First, before God, there is nothing to fear for the sake of Christ. Peace is the first word He speaks to His disciples after He rises from the dead. He shows the marks of His crucifixion, and gives them the Absolution. That is peace with God. Second, peace between individuals. Harmony. Concord. Not just with fellow Christians, but especially with fellow Christians.

Patience. Makrothumia. If anger (thumia) is having a short temper, makrothumia, means being long suffering. It means not avenging wrongs done to you, or seeking to get even. It means giving God the time to act. This fruit is sorely lacking among God’s people in 21st Century America, where we are trained to get what we want when we want it. God will train us otherwise.

Kindness. Refusing to go on the attack. Kindness includes in writing and speech as much as it does in physical matters. Christians can speak so cruelly of others, but we are called to put kindness into practice. To be kind is to be meek and mild.

Goodness. Connected to righteousness and truth. It’s a general goodness of person and character. Such goodness does not come from doing good things. Rather, a person is made good by the Spirit, and being good, performs good works. Like a tree bearing fruit.

Faithfulness. Being faithful is being full of faith. Faith is not a work that you produce. It is a gift of the Spirit. He fills you with faith to believe the Word of God; and consequently, you become faithful person, holding fast to the confession of faith, such as is expressed in the Apostles’ Creed.

Gentleness. Its opposite, displayed in the Corinthian congregation, is disputatiousness, or arrogance. It means that you are quick to correct people whom you deem to be wrong, quick to get into arguments. This does not mean that Christians should not correct error, but they should do it with gentleness and respect. Because, after all, you might be the one who is erring.

Self-control. To have dominion over yourself. Self-control was a big part of Greek ethics—it’s what divided the nobility from the lower classes of human. But in the Bible, it is not self-control for the sake of being a better person, but for the sake of your neighbor.

Just as the Ten Commandments, or even Paul’s list of the works of the flesh, is not exhaustive of the ways to act outside of God’s will, so also the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit is not exhaustive of all the good that God gives by His Spirit, and which is manifest in the new life in Christ. For instance, the Samaritan leper in today’s Gospel came back to Jesus, rejoicing. Chara—joy; a fruit of the Spirit. But his joy also manifest itself in eucharistia—thanksgiving.

Fruit grows from trees, and so the fruit of the Spirit blossoms from the tree of the cross. There is no fruit, and there is no Spirit, if you are not firmly planted in the death of Jesus. “I am the vine;” says Jesus, “you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). And in the words, of St. Paul: If we belong to Christ Jesus, we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA

Law & Gospel

Trinity 13
Galatians 3:15-22
August 26, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

One of the things that distinguishes us Lutherans from the variety of different confessions of the Christian faith is our focus on the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel. It’s a major part of our confessional heritage, and one of our spiritual fathers in the LCMS, Dr. C. F. W. Walther, wrote a book called The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel.

But there is always a danger that your theology will become a cliché, and that often happens with Law & Gospel. Law & Gospel has the danger of turning into a mathematical formula, so that if you say first a bit of Law, and then follow it with a bit of Gospel, that you’ve made the proper distinction. But that’s not it at all. Law & Gospel isn’t a formula, but a way of reading God’s Word. This is Jesus’ response to the young lawyer: “What is written in the Law?” and, “How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). It’s the second question that people get hung up on. They give the Law priority over everything.

St. Paul has the very same issue in mind when he writes to the Galatians about the Law and the Promise (or, Gospel). And he makes a very interesting observation. The Law doesn’t come until quite late, relatively speaking, in the history of Israel. Therefore, he concludes that,

The Promise Has Priority over the Law

I.

The first part of Paul’s deduction comes from the history of Israel. It’s a human example, drawn from the affairs of household and society. Just as a person writes a will to direct his assets and last wishes—and the law merely serves to make sure the promises made in the will are enacted—so God’s will and testament was first given as a promise to Abraham. The Law—the Ten Commandments, the civil laws, and the ceremonial laws—did not come until much later. Thus, the Promise has temporal priority over the Law.

The Law was given to Moses, its mediator, when Israel—at that time a great nation—was delivered from slavery in Egypt, as they wandered in the wilderness, awaiting the delivery of the promised land. It wasn’t just the Ten Commandments. In fact, the Ten Commandments weren’t even the most significant of the laws given to Israel. There were also the civil laws that governed Israel as a people, and the ceremonial laws that governed their worship. It also included the institution of the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles, which were required of every practicing Jew. There weren’t hard and fast divisions between the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws, either. For instance, the ceremony for healing a leper was also part of restoring the sick to the social order of Israel.

But Israel had been a people long before the Law. They got their name from Israel, whose name was changed from Jacob. And he received the promise and blessing from his father Isaac (by some rather duplicitous means), who, in turn, received it from his father, Abraham. Abraham walked with God and spoke with Him face to face and was the first to receive the explicit blessing and promise that all nations would be blessed in his offspring.

The time between Abraham and the Law was over four centuries, which doesn’t quite hit you as it should in this account St. Paul gives. But think about what has happened since 1588 (430 years ago). Things were much different than they are now. God’s people were His people for all of that time (and even before, if you count back from Abraham) and they were His people without the Law! This is Paul’s argument:

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his Descendant. He doesn’t say: “and to the descendants,” in the plural, but in the singular: “and to your Descendant, Who is Christ. Now, I say this: First God confirmed His covenant; and the Law, which came 430 years later, doesn’t set aside and cancel its promise. If we get the inheritance by the Law, we don’t get it by a promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

Why was the Law given? Not to make a people. Not to make believers. Not to make saints. The Law was given because God’s people were wicked. It was given because they didn’t believe. It was given because they grumbled, and rebelled, and broke faith, and chased idols. That’s the thing with sin—if you insist on doing it, God will turn you over to it. He’ll increase your sin. You know how this works, right? You put a child in front of a big red button and give them the commandment, “Don’t press the button,” what do they want to do more than anything else? Press the button. The Law is to show that sin is not an occasional misdeed, but the corruption of our entire nature.

St. Paul: Why, then, was the Law given? It was added to arouse transgressions until the Descendant would come to Whom the promise was made. And it was given through angels in the hands of a mediator. A mediator deals with more than one, but God is one.

The Law is so that no man, woman, or child would think he or she stands before God righteous. It was given to serve the promise. It was given to drive us to the Descendent, Jesus Christ. That promise came before the Law, and so the Promise has temporal priority over the Law.

II.

St. Paul uses the historical illustration to demonstrate something else about the relationship of the Law to the Promise. It’s not just that the Promise preceded the Law in time, but that is also has another kind of priority over the Law. As a matter of focus, a matter of importance, a matter of what is the greater good, the Promise also has priority. The Promise takes precedence over the Law.

This does not mean that the Law has no importance. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that the Law, written on stone, has a certain glory. He also calls it a ministry of death. Nevertheless, it had a glory that made Moses’s face shine with light. No classic text written by men has the ability to make its readers’ faces shine with light. But the Law does. It’s is God’s Law, and therefore it is good. But its goodness ought never to imply that it is in itself the end to which the Promise is the means. It’s not that the Promise leads us into the Law, even though the Promise comes first, and the Law 430 years later.

We shouldn’t look at the Law/Gospel (or Law/Promise) distinction as a line—on the left side you start at the Law and then move to the right to get to the Gospel (or the other way around, if you want to be an antinomian and start with the Gospel to get to the Law). The Law isn’t the opposite pole from the Promise; if it was, then the Law would be somehow opposed to God’s Promise. But St. Paul also writes, Is the Law, then, opposed to God’s promise? Never! If a law had been given that could make us alive, it certainly would have given us righteousness. But the Scripture has said that everything is a prisoner of sin, so that the promised blessings might be given to believers through faith in Jesus Christ.

This is the subtle art of distinguishing Law and Gospel. It’s Dr. Walther’s twenty-fifth and final thesis on the proper distinction between the two: “the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.” The Gospel, or the Promise, brackets the Law. It has priority, and it takes precedence. It has a glory, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, that far surpasses the first glory, so that it’s as if the first glory—that of the Law—has no glory at all.

The glory of the Law is to give way to the glory of the Promise. Like St. John the Baptist, who had to decrease so that Jesus would increase, the Law points us to Christ as the greater glory. Jesus does not give way to Moses.

So, St. Paul teaches us that the Promise has the priority over the Law. This is shown in Israel’s history, because the Promise was given to Abraham 430 years before the Law was given. The Law was only to emphasize the nature of sin until the time when Jesus came as the fulfillment of the Promise. He is Abraham’s Descendent, through whom all nations are blessed. Thus, the Promise also takes precedence over the Law in our faith. The Law cannot give us the inheritance. Our inheritance comes from God’s will, and His will alone. Our inheritance comes from the Promise.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA

Keep Talking

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Mark 7:31-37
September 11, 2011
Emmanuel Lutheran Church—Dwight, IL
Revised and updated August 19, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

1.

            In 1994, Pink Floyd (minus Roger Waters) released a song on The Division Bell album called “Keep Talking.” After a bit of guitar introduction, the song takes a sample of physicist Stephan Hawking’s electronic voice saying, “For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk.”

Stephen Hawking, even though he was one of the most intelligent men ever to have lived, cannot place his faith in anything other than his own reason. He makes the brilliant observation that the ability to talk is what separates mankind from the animals, even though he attributes it to evolution. We, however, who place our faith in God’s revelation, know that this ability to speak is no accident from the universe, but a gift from God.

God creates by speaking. Let there be light, and there was light. Everything is on account God’s Word. But man He fashions in His own image. He takes more time. Of everything God creates, humanity alone is given the ability to speak, just as God speaks. Speaking is man’s dominion over creation; God brings the creatures to man, and the man speaks their names.

2.

            When sin invaded God’s creation, it corrupted the image of God that Adam and Eve enjoyed, and thus it also corrupted speech.

            Today’s Gospel brings to Jesus a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Unlike many of the other diseases that were brought before Jesus, this one isn’t particularly life-threatening. No one has ever died from deafness or the inability to speak. It does, though, carve out a gaping hole in what is unique about human nature. Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who is deaf and mute? It’s difficult, although many deaf are good-natured about it, since it’s part of their life.

            Sin manifests itself differently in each person, and it’s no surprise that in some people it affects speech. This particular man in the Gospel had no ability to speak, but other speech impediments simply hinder speech.

A good friend of mine has a stutter that he’s dealt with his whole life. He’s explained to me that often it’s because his mouth doesn’t move as quickly as his brain. If he speaks in rhythm, he can say what’s on his mind. By the way, I think this is one of the reasons why worship has historically been chanted. Chanting helps to connect the brain to words through tones and rhythm. I also find myself on occasion speeding through my own speech and chanting is a way for me to slow down and connect my brain to God’s Word.

Muteness and speech impediments are not the only ways that sin has corrupted speech. Even those who speak fluidly have a corrupted speech in what they say. St. James writes, “The tongue is a fire, a world of wrong! Set among the parts of our body, the tongue soils the whole body and enflames the course of life as it gets its fire from hell. A human being can tame and has tamed all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and creatures in the sea. But no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We praise the Lord and Father with our tongue and with it curse other people, who once were made like God. Praise and cursing come from the same mouth. We mustn’t do that, my fellow Christians.” (James 3:6-10).

Most faithful Christians do manage to avoid the gross, scandalous sins. But dear God! how we speak to one another. It’s as if we think we’ve done our job if we wrap our insults in platitudes or mask our hatred with politeness. But it is a thin veneer. You may have chanted on the playground when you were young, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But you don’t say that any more as an adult because you know that it’s not true. Words hurt more than sticks and stones and leave deeper scars. And we know this! Yet we continue to bless God at Church and then walk out these doors to curse others with our gossiping and griping at our barbershops and coffee shops, on our front porches and back alleys. The digital age has only made the problem worse. A recent study revealed that people are much less inhibited to speak evil when they are sitting behind a keyboard and an internet router. This is what fuels the Twitter mob.

Jesus said, “What comes into his mouth doesn’t make a person unclean, but what goes out of his mouth makes him unclean.”” (Matt 15:11). What comes from your mouth reveals what’s in your heart.

3.

            When the deaf-mute man meets Jesus, he meets much more than a man who can speak. The Son of God is also called the Word of God, and He has come to redeem us and our foul speech by speaking to us.

Jesus Restores Holy Speech

4.

            There are only a few places in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is recorded in His native language of Aramaic. Whenever it does happen, though, the evangelist is making sure that we focus on His words. “Taking him away from the crowd to be alone with him, He put His fingers into the man’s ears. He spit and touched his tongue and looked up to heaven and sighed. Then He said to him, “Ephphatha!” which means, “Be opened!” His ears were opened, his tongue was set free to speak, and he talked naturally.” (vv 33-35).

            It was one simple word, but that word had the power to release this poor man from his afflictions. Although, if you notice, it wasn’t just the Word that Jesus gives him, but also physical signs. Jesus’ way is the way of sacrament—bringing His Word to bear in a very earthy manner: a finger in his ears, spittle on his tongue.

            Though this man’s affliction is located in his ears and his mouth, Jesus doesn’t speak to those two members. He speaks to the whole person. “Be opened!” Not just your ears and your mouth, but your whole self. He speaks to your heart. Be opened!

            The words of Jesus cut through the man as a surgeon’s scalpel, removing the malignancy that originated in Adam’s sin. The corruption that had stopped his speech Jesus removes by speaking. This was his Absolution.

            Jesus’ Ephphatha is also a Word for you. He calls you to be opened, that is, to confess your sins before God, holding nothing back for your own attempts at self-justification. He places His Word and Spirit in your ears to daily drive you to repentance. But He also has a Word of Absolution. His forgiveness begins to restore the image of God in us—the image that will be fully restored in the world to come.

5.

Luther baptismal first baptismal rite after the Reformation got rolling included a ritual where the pastor would touch the infant’s ear and say, “Ephphatha.” This ritual was symbolic of what happens when Lord combines His Word with water. He restores His image and the ability to hear and speak rightly. Today, when Cora was touched with water and God’s Word, she also heard God’s “Ephphatha.”

Because God’s image is restored in the justified, we are also set free from corrupted speech. After He healed the deaf and mute man, Jesus ordered the people not to tell anyone. But the more He forbade them, the more widely they spread the news. They were dumbfounded. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the speechless speak.” (vv 36-37).

            When Jesus opens ears and mouths, He does so in order that they be used. The services of Matins and Vespers both begin with a verse from Psalm 51. “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will praise You.” (Ps 51:15).

            Jesus touches your ear with His Word and your tongue with His body and blood, and He does so to open your lips to declare His praise. And not only in the church, but in the barbershops and coffee shops, on your front porch and in the back alleys, on your social media feeds and your emails. Don’t say anything harmful but only what is good, so that you help where there’s a need and benefit those who hear it. And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit, by Whom you were sealed for the day when you will be set free. Get rid of all bitter feelings, temper, anger, yelling, slander, and every way of hurting one another. Be kind to one another and tenderhearted, and forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Eph 4:29-32).

Another recording of Stephan Hawking ends Pink Floyd’s song: “It doesn’t have to be like this. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.” I’m sure that neither Stephan Hawking nor David Gilmour had the Gospel of Jesus Christ in mind with these words. But it won’t always be like this because we have a God in Jesus Christ who keeps talking. And when He speaks, His words restore God’s image and holy speech.

In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA

God, Forgive Me, a Sinner

Trinity 11
Luke 18:9-14
August 12, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

Jesus told this parable to some who were sure they were righteous and so looked down on everyone else:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed by himself: ‘God, I thank You I’m not like the other people: robbers, wrongdoers, adulterers, or even like that tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income.’

“But the tax collector, standing a distance away, wouldn’t even look up to heaven but was beating his chest and saying, ‘God, forgive me, a sinner!’

“I tell you, this man, and not the other, went home justified. Everyone who honors himself will be humbled; but if you humble yourself, you will be honored.”

In the name of + Jesus.

Two men. Two prayers. Two very different outcomes. It’s one of those ironic moments in Scripture, when the one who should be commended is condemned and the condemned is commended. What separates the two is not the outward act, but the content of the prayer. What separates the two are the words,

God, Forgive Me, A Sinner

I.

This parable is for an audience of “some who were sure they were righteous and so looked down on everyone else.” This is a human problem, whenever humans start to get religious. After learning a few technical terms or reading a couple of books, they begin to feel as though they are masters of religion, and that everyone else is somewhere beneath them. But what they fail to realize is that in the upside-down that is the kingdom of God, when you raise yourself up, you raise yourself up to the bottom. Here the greatest is a child, the first is last, and the Master puts a robe around His waist and washed His disciples’ feet. This parable is put our relationship to God in its proper perspective within the framework of the kingdom of God.

“Everyone who honors himself will be humbled,” says Jesus. This is the Pharisee. He goes to the temple to pray, stands apart from the riff raff, and extols all of his virtues. He avoids all of the Big Sins—robbing, wrongdoing, adultery, tax collecting. (Tax collecting, by the way, was not just collected taxes, which is irritating enough. But tax collectors were known to be overall scoundrels, who were experts in bending the law to their own benefits.) In addition to avoiding the Big Sins, he is also a practitioner of some religious virtues—fasting, tithing. Do any of you commit yourself to regular, ritual fasting? Do you tithe?

But where is the problem? It’s not that he avoids adultery. It’s also not that he fasts or tithes—Jesus speaks elsewhere of fasting and tithing as if they are actually expected! The problem is the attitude with which the Pharisee addresses God. The Pharisee stood and prayed by himself. Actually, if you’d take peak behind the English, you’d find that Jesus says something more like, “The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself.” In the Pharisee’s prayer, God is the recipient of all of the Pharisee’s good. But, as St. Paul writes, “Who has found out how the Lord thinks? Or who has become His adviser?” Or who has first given Him something for which he must be paid back? (Rom 11:34-35). It’s not God who is the subject of the man’s prayer, but himself. Thus, the prayer is really to himself. ‘God, I thank You I’m not like the other people: robbers, wrongdoers, adulterers, or even like that tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income.’

This man does not go home justified. He stands condemned, even though he commends himself. This parable stands as a warning for every Christian. If you ever find that there are people who seem to be below you, there’s probably a bit of this Pharisee’s blood flowing through your veins. And chances are pretty good—100%, in fact—that you’ve felt this way about someone else. “God, I thank you that I’m not like that guy, at least.” As I said, this is a human problem.

Sin doesn’t just cause us to do wicked things, but it’s a complete corruption of our nature. Sin also pushes us to justify ourselves before God. We whitewash our works, and offer them to God with the hope that He would reciprocate with some praise for us. But when we expect to be the subject of our own prayers, and the object of God’s praise, we have turned ourselves into gods. You will be like gods, the devil told Adam and Eve. And that empty promise has echoed down through every generation since.

This is a human problem, but it does not have a human solution. Everything in the world works like the Pharisee’s prayer. You want to get paid more? Do a better job. You want people to like you? Don’t treat them wrong. You want to have a happy marriage? Don’t commit adultery. But in God’s kingdom, things get turned upside down. And when you honor yourself, you get humbled.

II.

So what is the divine solution to the human problem? At first blush, it also looks like a human solution. Jesus concludes the application of the parable with the words, “but if you humble yourself, you will be honored.” Is this one activity that gets God’s approval? Is this one work among all the others that succeeds in securing God’s favor? By no means! The activity of consequence is not the person humbling himself, but the act of lifting him back up again. He will be honored. That’s what we call a divine passive. The action is God’s; He does the honoring. The one who humbles himself will be honored.

Still, it could be construed that humbling yourself is the trigger that brings on God’s favor. But the parable shows us what it means to humble yourself. “But the tax collector, standing a distance away, wouldn’t even look up to heaven but was beating his chest and saying, ‘God, forgive me, a sinner!’” There is nothing the tax collect has to offer to God, and what he does have, he knows is unacceptable to God. He stands apart, beats his chest, and lowers his eyes.

The posture of the tax collector is a picture of his attitude. His offering to God is void. It’s nothing. It’s empty. He is a vessel needing to be filled. This is humility. Truly, you can’t humble yourself. At least, not by doing something. Because as soon as you do something, you have something to boast about. The Pharisee had a lot to offer, but he too could have taken the stand of the tax collector. Like Solomon of old, he could have called all of his works, all of his accomplishments, vanity.

This is the tax collector. Everything is vanity, he says in effect. The only thing that matters is the work of God. God, forgive me, a sinner. And it is precisely the mercy of God by the forgiveness of sins that raises the tax collector out of his humility. “This man,” says Jesus, “went home justified.”

Justified literally means, “made right with.” Like when you click right-justify on your word processor and everything lines up on the right side of the page. To be justified is to be made right with God. This is not something that we can do. If we are honest with ourselves, we should always be hunched over, staring at the ground, not willing to lift our eyes. But God justifies the humble. He makes you right. And He does so by the right angle created by two beams of wood, on which hung the Son of God.

The prayer, “God, forgive me, a sinner,” was answered by Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. There forgiveness was earned. But it wasn’t distributed there. For the distribution of the forgiveness of sins, you go to the Sacrament. Dr. Luther wrote, “We treat of the forgiveness of sins in two ways. First, how it is achieved and won. Second, how it is distributed and given to us. Christ has achieved it on the cross, it is true. But he has not distributed or given it on the cross. He has not won it in the supper or sacrament. There he has distributed and given it through the Word, as also in the gospel, where it is preached. He has won it once for all on the cross. But the distribution takes place continuously, before and after, from the beginning to the end of the world.”

So, pray with the tax collector, “God, forgive me, a sinner.” And trust the word of forgiveness proclaimed to you. And go to the Supper to receive the forgiveness won for you on the cross.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA

A Holy Lament

Trinity 10
Luke 19:41-48
August 5, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

When He came near and saw the city, He wept over it and said, “If today you only knew — yes, you — the way to peace! But now it’s hidden so that you can’t see it. The time will come for you when your enemies will put up ramparts against you and surround you and press against you from every side. They’ll dash you and your children to the ground and not leave one stone on another in you, because you didn’t know the time your help came to you.”

Jesus went into the temple and proceeded to drive out the men who were selling things there. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.’ ”

Every day He was teaching in the temple. The ruling priests, the Bible scholars, and the leaders of the people were trying to kill Him, but they couldn’t find a way to do it, because the people were all eager to hear Him.

In the name of + Jesus.

2.

The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, Jesus wept. You might know that from Bible trivia games, but did you know that the context of Jesus weeping was the death of His friend Lazarus? And that this was not the only time that the Bible reports Jesus crying? Today’s Gospel is a story of Jesus weeping, not over a friend, but over a city. Jerusalem, to be specific. The city of kings, the city of the temple, the city of God.

This was Jesus’ last approach to Jerusalem. An angry elite awaited Him, who would stir up the crowds into a murderous rage and conspire to have Jesus executed. Three days later He would rise, but He wouldn’t go back to Jerusalem. This was it for Him. And He saw something that made Him break down and cry.

When He came near and saw the city, He wept over it and said, “If today you only knew — yes, you — the way to peace! But now it’s hidden so that you can’t see it. The time will come for you when your enemies will put up ramparts against you and surround you and press against you from every side. They’ll dash you and your children to the ground and not leave one stone on another in you, because you didn’t know the time your help came to you.”

Why the lament? Much of pop Christianity thrives on keeping you in a perpetual state of happiness. If you are sad, or anxious, or trepidatious, then you’re not believing hard enough. As if faith was something you had control over! Like a volume knob on your radio! But here, Jesus isn’t lacking faith. It is precisely His faith that leads Him to lament. And he’s not alone. Read through the Psalms. There’s 150 of them, and some of those 150 are serious laments. And our prophet today, Jeremiah, is known as the Weeping Prophet. He also wrote a book of the Bible titled—wait for it—Lamentations.

That’s not to say that there is no such thing as a wicked lament, or a lament of despair because a person has lost faith. But holy people can offer holy laments. Like Jesus over Jerusalem. In fact, Jesus is the model for holy lamentation, as well as its answer.

Jerusalem was a powerful and cosmopolitan city, and the temple in its center was one of the ancient marvels of beauty and architecture. It was the location of God’s activity on earth. But long before Jesus set His first foot inside the temple, God’s glory had left. The temple had been destroyed and rebuilt, desecrated and rededicated. But on every occasion, it was because God’s people had forsaken proper worship, introduced their own customs, and refocused worship on the efforts of the people rather than on God’s gracious activity. Once again, the temple was filled with robbers, who sold the sacrifices of God to earn a wage. They had turned the free gift into an object that was for sale.

So Jesus knew it wouldn’t be long before this whole thing came crashing down. It didn’t take a prophet to see that. But what Jesus did predict was the nature and the complete desolation of this next fall of the temple. Children dashed to the ground, every stone toppled. History records the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., about 40 years after Jesus uttered His prediction. The historian Josephus gives a detailed report of all of the events surrounding Jerusalem’s destruction. Let’s say that Jesus is actually putting the horror of that time lightly. The siege of Jerusalem drove people to such hunger that they did revolting things. The account is long, but here’s how it ends:

Now at the time that the mighty, renowne, and holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed, 4,034 years had been numbered from the beginning of the world, and 823 years from the founding of the city of Rome, and forty since Christ’s suffering. And thus Jerusalem, the most renowned city in all the east, was brought to a miserable and piteous end. (Walther’s Hymnal, p. 386, translation by Matthew Carver).

The lament that Jesus utters is because Jerusalem is on the path of strife, enmity, and, finally, destruction. It hadn’t quite arrived, but the seeds were sown. We can see the same thing today, can we not? There is no corner of the world, no corner of the Church, where sin and its effects cannot be felt. But when we approach Jerusalem, either from the perspective of an earthly city, or of the church, we are faced with a crisis. A decision. We can either jump into the fray and join in the battle, or we can lament. There was a little-known group in Jerusalem called the Zealots. One of Jesus’ disciples was Simon the Zealot. These guys were angry with the Romans, and incited a rebellion 4 years before the destruction of Jerusalem. They thought they were fighting for God, even putting together a group of Jewish ninjas called the Sicarii, responsible for assassinating Romans and their sympathizers. It was their revolt, according to Josephus, that brought the hammer down from the Roman Empire.

1.

Now, it might seem that Jesus is going that way. Immediately following His lament, Luke reports Him going into the temple and driving out the sellers. It looks like a rebellion, but Jesus indicates that it’s for a different purpose altogether. “My house should be a house of prayer,” said He. And, Every day He was teaching in the temple. The cleansing of the temple wasn’t about inciting a rebellion, or meeting violence with violence. It wasn’t about evening the scales of justice and making things right. It was about setting the stage for the way of peace. And that was by prayer and God’s Word.

Contrast the cleansing of the temple with Peter’s bearing arms a few days later. When the mob comes to arrest Jesus, Peter pulls his sword and cuts Malchus’s ear off. But Jesus returns the sword to its sheath and Malchus’s ear to his head. This is not peace, but a sword.

Jesus’ lament outside of Jerusalem also shows us something else about a holy lament, which separates it from wicked or despairing laments. Even under His tears, there is joy. The book of Hebrews presents it like this: For the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, thinking nothing of its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.

Jesus’ lament was that Jerusalem was on the path to destruction, but His joy was that He was blazing the way of peace. That path, though, goes directly through the cross.

It was, in fact, the third day after enduring the cross that Jesus appeared before His disciples and delivered His peace. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven. That is the path of peace. It goes through the pierced hands of Jesus. This is the joy that answers lamentation—the forgiveness of sins.

“If today you only knew — yes, you — the way to peace!” says Jesus. If only you knew the way of the cross. If only you knew the way of forgiveness. Then you would avoid this tragic destruction. These words were first said over Jerusalem, but they are also uttered over you today. If you only knew—Jesus makes it known. He shows His hands and side. He breathes His Spirit. He sends absolvers. He gives His body and sheds His blood. He washes in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.

So Jesus answers His own lament by going to the cross, and by bringing the cross to sinners. Jesus answers with peace. His is a holy lament, because

A Holy Lament Seeks the Cross, Where Lasting Peace Can Be Found

In the name of + Jesus.

Slaves to God

Trinity 7
Romans 6:19-23
July 15, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

I talk in a human way because you are naturally weak. But just as you once let uncleanness and wickedness use the parts of your body as slaves to do wrong, so now let righteousness use the parts of your body as slaves in order to live holy. When you were slaves of sin, you weren’t free to serve righteousness as your master. What was your advantage then in doing the things that make you blush now? For they end in death. But now that you’ve been made free from sin and have been made slaves of God, your advantage is that you live in a holy way and finally have everlasting life. The wages paid by sin is death, but the gift given freely by God in Christ Jesus our Lord is everlasting life.

In the name of + Jesus.

2.

There are four conditions in which we can consider the human will—before the fall into sin; after the fall, but before conversion; after conversion; and in the resurrection and new creation. But since we can’t go back to Eden, and Genesis gives us precious little information about what life was like before sin, and since the resurrection is something we hope for, but has not yet been revealed, it is profitable for us only to speak of the the human will in the middle two conditions—the human will after the fall and before conversion, and after conversion. This is what St. Paul writes about in today’s Epistle.

And he pulls no punches. When you were slaves of sin, you weren’t free to serve righteousness as your master. What was your advantage then in doing the things that make you blush now? For they end in death. Sin isn’t just an occasional misdeed, a few little slip-ups here and there. Sin isn’t a minor, superficial flaw that can be buffed out with a little elbow grease. You were slaves to sin. The natural state of the human will since Adam’s fall into sin is complete and utter bondage. There is no such thing as a free will for a slave.

Now it’s at this point that we must make another distinction in addition to the four conditions, and that is of the human will in relation to what it is able to do. In things that are below it, the will has some measure of freedom. High schoolers are free to choose what college to go to. People can consider whether to accept a new job offer or not. You make decisions all the time. And you are free. There is no fatalistic, deterministic force pushing you to choose Cheerios over Frosted Flakes.

But at the same time, much of your conduct isn’t a result of your will, but of habit. Did you will yourself to brush your teeth this morning? Not likely. You probably ran on autopilot. It’s something you do almost by nature. There is a pre-conscious part of you that does things seemingly apart from your will.

All of this is to say that the powers of the will are not as far-reaching as we’d like to believe. Because we have the ability to choose Cheerios over Frosted Flakes does not mean that we have freedom to choose every single outcome of our lives. And this is the second part of this distinction. In spiritual matters, the human will is completely bound to sin, unable to make even the slightest move towards its own improvement, since Adam’s fall into sin.

Yet the illusion of freedom remains. People think that, because we have some measure of freedom in smaller things, then we must also have freedom in higher things, things that are above us. But the bondage of the will means that even when the natural person does good works, they are evil and utterly corrupted by sin. They are done for selfish gain, out of pride, at the expense of others.  There is no advantage in doing any of these things. They end in death. That’s the trajectory of the human will’s every move. Every time you exercise your will, you are taking one more step toward the grave.

And then the will ceases. Dead mean can’t make decisions, not even in thing below. They can’t choose Cheerios over Frosted Flakes, they can’t choose to accept a new job, they can’t choose which college to attend. And they certainly can’t choose to life again. So, there need to be a change to the human will that doesn’t involve the human will at all. We need a will that is able to be done in heaven even as it is done on earth.

1.

But now that you’ve been made free from sin and have been made slaves of God, your advantage is that you live in a holy way and finally have everlasting life. The wages paid by sin is death, but the gift given freely by God in Christ Jesus our Lord is everlasting life. Now something has changed. You’ve been set free from your sin! But don’t mistake this freedom for an absolute freedom. You have been set free from sin and have been made slaves of God.

After conversion, the human will is bound to God’s will. In spiritual matters, it is God who wills and works salvation. This is the paradox. If there is salvation, it is completely God’s work, given as a gift. If there is condemnation, it is completely the work of the human will. Death is the wage, the earnings of sin. But life is the gift of Jesus Christ.

So, being united with the will of God, the human will also begins to change in the things in which it is capable of acting, in the lower things. But this is in very great weakness. This is on account of the sinful flesh, which still hangs around the neck.

So St. Paul begins this section, I talk in a human way because you are naturally weak. Actually, the better translation would be, “I am speaking to you in a human way, because of the weakness of the flesh. He’s writing to Christians, those who have been baptized, those who have the Holy Spirit, those who have been converted. The new man and the new will has begun in them. But he still has to remind them of the flesh, which is the term Paul uses not for the material stuff of the body, but for the corrupt nature of sin. The flesh is contrasted with the spirit in a person, which is born of the Holy Spirit.

So even with the new creation and renewed will, there is a battle between it and the desires of the flesh. This is the topic of St. Paul’s next chapter. The good that I would do, that I do not. The things I do are the things I don’t want to do. It’s a paradox, that a person can be saved from their sinful flesh, yet continue to go on sinning. The tension of flesh and spirit continues throughout this life until the flesh is put in the grave.

Death is the only thing that can put an end to the corrupt and sinful will. And death is what Jesus delivers. In the verses just prior to this, St. Paul writes his marvelous theology of baptism: For we know that whoever is baptized into Christ Jesus is baptized into His death. We were therefore buried together with him, through baptism, into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we would in this way also walk in a new life.

Baptism is the death of the old will and the birth of the new. It is liberation from slavery to sin, and a new bond to God in Christ. But, as we learn in the Small Catechism, it is a daily death to sin and a daily rising again to new life. And this happens through confession and absolution. As the Large Catechism says, confession and absolution is simply a return to baptism, a remembrance of baptism, a renewal of baptism.

Renewal isn’t a once and done event. It is ongoing, day by day. Death and resurrection. Old will giving way to the new. Flesh giving way to spirit.

You were once a slave to sin, but now you are a slave to God. This is more than a metaphor. Sin has a price—the wages of sin is death. But you did not have to pay it. Jesus shed the blood that is more precious than silver or gold, which purchases you from your captor. You are not your own, you were bought for a price. You are God’s own special possession.

Jesus Paid the Wages of Your Sin, and Gives You the Gift of Life

 

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA

He Must Increase

Nativity of St. John the Baptist
June 24, 2018
John 3:25-30
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

Christmas is only six months away! In six months, we’ll be getting ready for the children’s Christmas service, and putting the Christmas Eve dinner in the oven, and wrapping all the last-minute gifts. Only six months; doesn’t seem like that long, right? Except that that also means that every other day of the year is closer to Christmas than today. Today is the farthest from Christmas that you can get. But, there’s a little Christmas feel today in the service. It’s the celebration of the Nativity (or birth) of St. John the Baptist. And, it makes perfect sense; the cousin of our Lord was six months older than Him, so celebrating his birthday on June 24 is only fitting.

You just heard the story of John’s birth, maybe for the first time, or maybe for the umpteenth time. Today, though, I’d like to focus on something that comes a little later in John’s story:

Then there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified—behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!”

John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:25-30).

2.

The dispute was about purification, which is to be expected if you’re baptizing with water. The Jews had their rites of purification—not only those prescribed in the Levitical law, but also additional laws in the Jewish commentaries on the Law. And John was in the wilderness baptizing with water for repentance. A rite of purification.

And then we find out that Jesus is baptizing, too, and more successfully at that. (Actually, we find out in a few paragraphs that Jesus never baptized anyone; His disciples did all of the baptizing. The people were mistaken. But that’s a different sermon).

But then, John says something peculiar. “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” What appears obvious—that Jesus takes over what John is doing—is actually inverted. John, who is Jesus’ senior by six months, is implying that Jesus is the one behind all of the baptisms. “I am not the Christ,” John confessed. “I have been sent before Him.” Six months before the Nativity of Our Lord is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. But though he comes before Jesus, Jesus is the one who ranks above him, because He was before Him. Even though John was born first, Jesus predates Him. This would be impossible, except that Jesus is more than He appears on the surface.

When a man gets married, he often chooses someone close to him—a brother, a friend, maybe a cousin—to be his best man. He’s the one who holds the rings, pays the honoraria, makes sure everything goes smoothly. John says that he was chosen to be the best man, to stand at Jesus side as He prepares for His marriage to His bride, the Church. Another very important job for the best man—in fact, his only real job—is to be a witness. The groom doesn’t sign the marriage certificate; the best man does. He listen to the vow spoken by the groom and puts his name on the paper to say, “Yes, this word is true.” (Maids of honor do the same for the bride).

And this is John’s task. He is a prophet, to be sure, but his main task is to listen. That’s what got his father into trouble—he didn’t listen to God’s Word spoken by the angel, and lost his ability to speak. John’s task wasn’t to invent a new doctrine, but simply to say what had been given him to say. He is a witness. He is a martyr.

And so, when John’s disciples are getting a little antsy that Jesus is starting to gain traction, John says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Jesus himself says that no man born of woman is greater than John the Baptist. But just as the days are beginning to get shorter, John’s ministry must decrease to make room for the groom.

1.

When Zechariah regained his voice, he sang a prophecy of John. We have it in the last part of the Benedictus, which is a canticle we sometimes sing with Matins. It’s on p. 38 of The Lutheran Hymnal:

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest,
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto His people
by the remission of their sins,

Through the tender mercy of our God
whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

This little verse is directed at the infant John, but Zechariah quickly switches to the work of Jesus. He is the one who gives knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins. He is the one who embodies the tender mercy of God. He is the Dayspring who rises upon us. He is the one who enlightens those who sit in the darkness of the shadow of death. He is the one who guides our feet into the way of peace. John goes before the face of Jesus to prepare His way, but the show is all about Jesus.

That verb “increase” seems to be an intransitive verb. In other words, the action of increasing isn’t transferred to anything else. Jesus must get bigger, Jesus must become more prominent, Jesus must become more important. That is true. But I think there’s also a little bit of transitivity to John’s statement as well. An transitive verb transfers the action to an object. Like when you tell the person riding shotgun, “Please increase the volume.” It means, “Make the volume more.” In this sense, Jesus also increases the ministry of John.

John came in the wilderness preaching repentance and administering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. When Jesus had completed His passion and resurrection, He gave a new, different baptism than that of John. But it’s not completely different. It’s increased. This one goes to eleven. John’s baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; Jesus’ baptism is all that, and a baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. It is a washing of regeneration and renewal. It is a baptism that saves. Jesus must increase, and He must increase John’s ministry. This is the New Testament. Everything that came before the cross of Jesus is a shadow of the reality that comes after.

The lesson for you is that, like John, you must decrease. Your desires, your way of thinking, your way of living. These are, by nature, contrary to God’s desires, God’s way of thinking, God’s way of living. You must decrease. That’s where repentance begins. But it’s when you are nothing that you can be raised up. This is the continuation of repentance. Faith is the increase of Jesus in your heart, in your mind, in your life. This is the goal of John’s ministry, and the goal of Jesus’ ministry. You must decrease,

Jesus must Increase

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA

No Other God

Third Sunday after Trinity
Micah 7:18-20
June 17, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

Who is a God like You? You forgive sin and pass by the wrong of the remnant of Your own people! You will not be angry forever, because You delight in mercy. You will again be kind to us, subdue our wrongs, and throw all our sins into the deep sea. You will be faithful to Jacob and kind to Abraham as You promised our fathers with an oath long ago.

In the name of + Jesus.

Of all the many different religions in the world, there are really only two essential religions that people have ever adopted. The first is the religion of the Law. No matter who or what your god might be—or even if you have no god at all—the religion of the Law is the quest to make yourself right with god, the universe, and everything by works of the Law. The laws may vary across the various manifestations of this religion, but the essence and aim is the same: justify yourself by what you do.

The second religion is not really a religion at all—not in the sense that’s it’s defined by what you religiously do. It’s the religion of the Gospel, a religion where God is the one who makes you right with Him; He is the One who justifies. Among all of the religions ever practiced by mankind, there is one and only one religion of the Gospel, because there is one and only One God who does what is necessary to justify His people. This is the God of whom Micah prophesies, the God who completely distinguishes Himself from every other God by His gracious and merciful activity for His people. This God is the One who is manifest in time in Jesus Christ.

There Is No Other God Who Completely Forgives Sin and Passes by the Wrongs of His People

I.

It is possible to get anyone to do just about anything you want them to do. With the right combination of motivations, every person will eventually turn into Pavlov’s dog, who salivates whenever the bell rings, whether or not there is food. Even the strongest of wills can eventually be broken. And this is the modus operandi of every other religion—other gods demand your obedience and loyalty either by treat of punishment, or by promise of reward.

This past week, I had the privilege of studying with a missionary to Vietnam and Cambodia. He was telling me about the importance of ancestor worship in far eastern cultures, and how difficult it is to present Christianity to them. The religious practice is to offer gifts on the family altar to deceased relatives, and to be baptized and accept Christianity is essentially to reject your family and to be rejected by them. It’s hard for us to comprehend what that must be like, but if you suspend the truth of Christianity for a moment, think of how hard it would be for you to publicly renounce your parents. The gods have a hold on you. If you do what is right, you get rewarded; if you do wrong, there’s punishment.

But gods don’t have to be personal in nature. You don’t have to have an altar and offer sacrifices of food and burn incense to their memory. The Large Catechism teaches us that the most common god is mammon, money, possessions. This is a god that knows reward and punishment.

I can make it rain on you
But Lord I sure do shine
I can bring you love
But I’m not the settle down kind
I can make your eyes light up
Put a dazzle in your smile, yeah
I can make you die for me
      without a single question why
My name is Money
-Sonia Leigh

The threats and punishments of the religion of the Law demand your obedience. Rewards are for those who obey, and punishments are for those who sin. That’s the way the Law works. It is unforgiving.

II.

But then there is a God who sets Himself apart from all the other gods. Not that He claims to be the true God—all gods claim to be true by virtue of their claim to lordship over you. This God is the One who reveals Himself uniquely and distinctly to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To be sure, He is a God of laws. He threatens and He offers rewards. But then, He also does something more. In spite of the threats of punishment and offers of reward, the ones He loves always seem to come out on the reward side, no matter whether they did the Law or not. The God of Abraham and Jacob, and your God, delights in mercy and assumes the punishment into Himself, giving you the reward. And so He creates a remnant of loyal and obedient people.

Who is a God like You? You forgive sin and pass by the wrong of the remnant of Your own people! You will not be angry forever, because You delight in mercy. You will again be kind to us, subdue our wrongs, and throw all our sins into the deep sea. You will be faithful to Jacob and kind to Abraham as You promised our fathers with an oath long ago.

There is no other God like this one. He doesn’t distinguish Himself by His claim to being true, but by become flesh. No other God fully embraces this imperfect creation by become one flesh with it, by marrying Himself to it. But that is Jesus. There is no other God like Him.

And He does this thing that no other god does for a specific reason. He knows full well that the religion of the Law—the religion practiced by everyone who is not part of the remnant—is a religion whose ultimate punishment is death. And by coming into the world to proclaim His kingdom—the religion of the Gospel—He is invalidating every other religious system that exists. And they must do the only thing they know how to do. They must put Him to death.

But it is precisely in this death that Jesus, God incarnate, takes the punishment of the Law into Himself. He suffers everything the Law threatens to do to us. And because He accepts the punishment, He forgives sin and passes by the wrong of the remnant of His people. The God who dies cannot stay angry forever. His delight is mercy.

Now the sins that we commit cannot harm us. That’s the entire message of the Gospel. Not that you cease sinning, but that your sins cannot harm you. It’s as if they are laying at the deepest bottom of the sea. Actually, even better, it’s as if they are buried deep in the tomb of Jesus. Because they actually are. The sins that Jesus bore to the cross, for which He suffered the punishment, He left in the tomb when He rose again to new life.

There is no greater faithfulness than a person who is willing to die for another. God commits Himself fully and recklessly to you. But this sort of dedication has a strange effect. It creates something that was not there before. The mercy of God and His reckless love create new affections in those whom He loves. That’s you. And now, because the love of God in Christ has found you, you are now beginning to do precisely what God’s Law requires, though not for fear of punishment or hope of reward. The reward is already yours in Jesus Christ, and there’s nothing you could do to earn it. But by His utterly unique way of being God—becoming flesh, suffering the punishment, leaving sins buried in the ground—He creates a remnant of loyal and obedient people.

This is why Christianity is the true religion. Not because it makes superior assertions, but because it is the only religion that is not a religion at all, but rather God’s religious devotion to His people. His forgiveness, mercy, and enduring love are what make all things right again.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA

Feasting with Wisdom

Second Sunday after Trinity
June 10, 2018
Proverbs 9:1-10
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

1Wisdom has built her house.
   She has carved out her seven pillars.
2 She has butchered her meat, mixed her wine,
   and spread her table.
3 She has sent away her maids
   and calls from the highest spots in the city:
4 “If you’re untaught, turn in here.”
   If you don’t have understanding, she tells you,
5 “Come, eat my bread,
   and drink the wine I mix.
6 Leave ignorant people and begin to live;
   walk the road that leads to understanding.”
7 If you correct a scoffer, you get insulted.
   If you criticize a wicked person, you get hurt.
8 Don’t correct a scoffer or he will hate you;
   correct a wise person and he will love you.
9 Give advice to a wise person and he’ll be wiser still.
   Teach a righteous man and he will learn more.
10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
   knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

In the name of + Jesus

2.

There is a figure of speech called anthropomorphism. It’s when non-human things are given human attributes. For instance, the animals in Animal Farm are anthropomorphic, because they speak and hold meetings and things of that nature, and Rocket Raccoon and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy are both anthropomorphic characters—a raccoon and a tree that function as humans. (Anthropos means “man,” or, “human” in Greek). But inanimate things can also be anthropomorphic, too. You can say that the fingers of the Mississippi River reach down into the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi Delta.

Anthropomorphism can also be used to speak of God. We use this figure of speech every week when we confess that Jesus ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. God is spirit, so He doesn’t literally have a right hand like each of you have. Rather, it’s to indicate the place of favor and authority. Similarly, we use language like “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” but God doesn’t have a mouth filled with teeth and surrounded with a beard, no matter what Michelangelo may have painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The first verses of Proverbs 9 looks to be an anthropomorphism, attributing to wisdom the activities of building a house, preparing a feast, inviting guests. But this wisdom literature goes beyond an anthropomorphic figure of speech. Wisdom here is not an inanimate object, or an idea, with human attributes ascribed to it. Rather, Wisdom—capital W—is a name for God. This is Wisdom incarnate, God incarnate. Jesus Christ. These proverbs are simply another way of telling the parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.

Parabolically in the Gospel, and proverbially in the Old Testament, God is telling us that in Christ He is setting up a household, preparing a feast, and giving us the invitation to join Him in fellowship. But the wisdom of Wisdom incarnate is not like the wisdom of the world.

Who gets the invitation? It’s not the rich, connected, well-to-do. In the parable, it’s the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. And the vagabonds that live out on the fringes. The “respectable” citizens have all rejected the invitation because, they can set a feast on their own, thank you very much.

And, similarly, when Wisdom prepares her feast, it’s not the wise who get the invitation. Wisdom has built her house. She has carved out her seven pillars. She has butchered her meat, mixed her wine, and spread her table. She has sent away her maids and calls from the highest spots in the city: “If you’re untaught, turn in here.”       If you don’t have understanding, she tells you, “Come, eat my bread, and drink the wine I mix. Leave ignorant people and begin to live; walk the road that leads to understanding.”

1.

There is some more proverbial wisdom that falls out of the nature of Wisdom incarnate. If you correct a scoffer, you get insulted. If you criticize a wicked person, you get hurt. Don’t correct a scoffer or he will hate you; correct a wise person and he will love you. Give advice to a wise person and he’ll be wiser still. Teach a righteous man and he will learn more.

There is some real wisdom here. Practical wisdom. If you try to correct a fool, who is committed to his foolishness, how will he react? He will insult you. He will try to hurt you. Not physically, usually, but he’ll try to hurt your reputation. That’s what an ad hominem fallacy is. It means, “against the person.” Fools who have no ground on which to stand must resort to insults and injury to reputation in order to win their argument. An ad hominem fallacy goes something like this.

Fool: “Abortion should be a woman’s choice, so she can have full reproductive equality.”

You: “Abortion takes the life of a child, even though it’s in its earliest stages of development. Abortion is not about choice, because the child never gets a choice.”

Fool: “You’re a Christian, and Christians have slaughtered thousands in the name of their religion, and so you can’t say anything about abortion.”

Notice how the fool does not engage in the argument, but tries to win by insult and injury. The fool must discredit his corrector because his position is foolish. So, if you’re wise, you won’t even engage in correcting a fool. It’s frivolous and self-defeating. You can’t convince someone who is unashamedly and uncritically committed to their own foolish errors.

The proverb puts you in the place of corrector, but there’s also the obverse, where you are the one being corrected. Here’s something for your self-examination: how do you react when you’re being corrected? Is your immediate reaction to lash out with an insult, to tell your corrector how he or she is wrong, to try to discredit your opponent? Do you come to hate when people correct you? Or do you love it? Don’t correct a scoffer or he will hate you; correct a wise person and he will love you.

Wise people welcome correction. It’s how you learn. Give advice to a wise person and he’ll be wiser still. Teach a righteous man and he will learn more. Even if your corrector is not completely right (and no corrector is completely right, even if it’s you doing the correcting), there is still an opportunity to learn and grow. Because very few correctors are also completely wrong. This is something I’ve come to appreciate in recent years, how to learn from people who are wrong.

Fools become more foolish, but wise become wiser still. But the question still remains: how do you become wise in the first place? All of us are more or less foolish, and we react badly to correction. Where does wisdom begin? The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

Imagine the poor, crippled, blind, and lame coming up to the king’s feast. Imagine the vagabonds knocking on that door. Is there not a little fear? Imagine the novice disciple sitting at the feet of the master philosopher for the first time. Is there not a little fear? Fear here corresponds to humility. This is the way to approach God. And when you sit at the feast prepared by Wisdom, you gain access to a wisdom that exceeds all wisdom, a knowledge that exceeds all knowledge, and understanding that exceeds all understanding. You come to know the Lord and the Holy One in and through Jesus Christ. And the fear evaporates into wisdom of your own. Because,

Wisdom Is the End of the Fear of the Lord

In the name of + Jesus

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA