Fishers, of Men

Text: Luke 5:1-11

“If I just had this, then I could do that.” You’ve probably said this or something like it in your life. I know I have. I always know that if I just had one more guitar, then I would be happy. If I just had one more guitar, I could be happy and my mind could focus on other things. I don’t expect that’s what you all think about during the day. Maybe it’s the project you’re working on at home. If you just got that done, you could work on something else. Sometimes, we think along these lines: If I could just get this done, then I could focus on church. If I could just get this need taken care of, then I could focus my time on spreading the Good News.

That’s not to say that thinking like this is inherently bad. It’s just that we often let the cares of this world prevent us from hearing God’s Word, studying it, and sharing it with those around us. We know that the Holy Spirit works through the Word to bring people to faith. It’s through Scripture that the Spirit puts to death the Old Adam and creates faith in hearts of stone, causing them to become hearts of flesh. Yet, we say, if we just had x taken care of, we could really get about the business of the Gospel. What did St. Paul say? “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”[1] And yet, it’s rarely strictly matters of food and clothing that hold us captive.

In today’s Gospel, our Lord sets us straight. After He taught the crowds, He told Simon to set out for a catch. At Jesus’ Word, they let down the nets, and He provided them with a miraculous catch – such that two boats were needed to hold all the fish. Through this, Jesus demonstrated His ability to care for our bodily needs. After demonstrating His care for the physical needs of His people, Jesus called the first disciples to care for souls by the preaching of the Word. So also, the Lord provides for our physical needs, and likewise calls His Church to be fishers of men.

I.

The text from St. Luke’s Gospel begins,

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat.[2]

In St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins in chapter 4, where He started going from synagogue to synagogue, city to city, in both Galilee and Judea, preaching about the kingdom of God. He preached that salvation had indeed come to the world in Him. As proof, He healed many who were sick and cast out many demons.

As Word about Him spread, the crowds grew. They desired not only healing of their bodies, but the salvation of their souls. They began flocking to Jesus and pressing in on Him. At this time, when people spoke to each other they stood very nearly nose-to-nose. So, you can imagine what it would be like having a crowd of people all trying to be nose-to-nose with you. It would be nearly impossible to teach the whole group. Our Lord got into Simon’s boat, set out from the shore a bit, and taught from there.

The Holy Spirit relates to us through St. Luke what happens next.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ And Simon answered, ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.’ And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.”[3]

When Jesus finished speaking, He directed Peter to go out for a catch. Peter responded that they had fished all night and caught nothing. This must’ve been highly unusual. Yet, at Jesus’ Word, they would let down their nets. Then they came up with a miraculous catch, such that both the boats began sinking from the weight. Jesus demonstrated through this miracle that He, most certainly, can provide for the needs of our bodies. Do notice how He did it. Simon and Andrew, James and John, were fishermen. They fished for a living. Our Lord didn’t just magically manifest fish in the boats. He told them to go fishing, and then provided the miraculous catch.

He does the same for us. Through our positions in life, our vocations, the Lord provides for our needs, and the needs of those around us. Through farmers the Lord provides food and countless other things for families in our community and around the world. Through teachers, He trains up skilled workers for society. Through nurses He provides healing and care. Notice also, how things happened in the text. They had fished all night and caught nothing. It was only at the Lord’s Word and with His blessing that fish were caught. Same for us. Sometimes we think that it is our hard work that brings in the goods, but it is the Lord’s good will that causes our work to prosper. It does sometimes happen, as in our text, that the Lord doesn’t provide growth to teach us that man doesn’t live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.

II.

“If I just had this, I could do that.” We’ve all used that at some point in our lives. We’ve all used it to excuse ourselves also in matters of faith. If I could just get this taken care of, then I could be in church. If I just felt more secure, then I would share the Good News. My friends in Christ, our Lord has demonstrated in this miracle – and in our lives – that He can and does provide for all that we need. As I look around, we all have clothes on. We all are at least relatively well-fed. These things and more, our Lord provides out of His gracious and good will.

When Simon Peter saw what happened, he fell at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”[4] Amazement at these events had overcome him, so also his brother Andrew and their partners, James and John. But, Jesus answered him, “Do not be afraid; From now on you will be catching men.”[5] Peter realized what the catch meant. He had previously heard Jesus’ preaching, but now he saw clearly. Jesus is God. He knew what the catch meant, and was convicted by his own sinfulness. Peter wanted to run from Jesus. Jesus forgive Peter and called him to be a catcher of men. That is, He equipped Peter with the net of the Gospel, to catch men and bring them out alive from the sea of sin and death. Peter, and those who were with him, left everything and followed Jesus.

“If I just had this, I could do that.” That’s what we say. But, now we realize that our Lord can and does provide for what we need. There is nothing we need that we truly lack. When we put these things above the call that Christ has given His Church, we deserve for our Lord to depart from us. Instead, like Peter, He forgives us. Like Peter, He gives us what we need and then sends us out with what the world needs – the Gospel. The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus Christ has made payment for our sins, and gives eternal life as a gift to all those who believe this.

There’s an important word toward the end of our text. It was translated in our reading as, “catching men.” A better translation would be, “catching men alive.” This word in Greek isn’t just for catching, but catching something alive. Such is what happens when the Word of God is preached, and the Holy Spirit creates faith in those who hear it. They are brought up out of the sea of sin and death and seated in the ark of the Church. This work the whole Church is called to, yet we let things of this world distract us. Let us learn from this text that our dear Lord can and does provide for all that we truly need. With that in place, He call us also to be fishers of men – that we also speak the Good News of salvation to those around us, that they also be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven.


[1] 1 Tim. 6:8, English Standard Version.

[2] Lk. 5:1-3.

[3] Lk. 5:4-7.

[4] Lk. 5:8.

[5] Lk. 5:10.

Be Ye Merciful

Text: Genesis 50:15-21

St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…live in harmony with one another…repay no one evil for evil.”[1] Some of these words we heard last week at the Feast of the Visitation. They also serve as our Epistle this week. It may be that, as the Holy Spirit caused St. Paul to write these words, He also brought to Paul’s recollection our forefather in the faith, Joseph. One needs only glance at the end of the reading to think of Joseph – how his brothers envied and hated him; how they plotted to kill him and then sold him into slavery; and, how, in return, he forgave them and provided for them and their families in time of hardship.

We have in Joseph a picture of the life to which we have been called: a life where we have been crucified and buried with Christ and, through our Baptism, been raised to new life with Him. In this life, we seek to bear each other’s burdens, to love genuinely, to abhor evil and hold fast to good. One paramount aspect of our new life in Christ is brought up especially by our text from Genesis: Forgiveness. Joseph shared with his brothers that, as God has forgiven them, so he, too has forgiven them. We also should aspire to the same. As God has forgiven us all in Christ, so we, too, forgive those who sin against us.

I.

But, boy, can that ever be hard. We pray for the grace to forgive as we’ve been forgiven in the Lord’s Prayer. If we were ever going perfect it at in this life, our Lord wouldn’t have encouraged us to pray for it. If there ever was, by human reasoning, someone who deserved to get revenge and right a wrong, Joseph would’ve qualified. Joseph’s story is one of the most vivid, and most relatable in all Scripture. Our text from Genesis takes place near the end. We read, “When Josephs brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’[2] As you can imagine, there’s a backstory here.

Jacob had eleven sons. Joseph was one of the two youngest. Scripture tells us that, as Joseph was born to Israel in his old age, he was particularly dear to him. It was for Joseph that he made that special robe. God also blessed Joseph with many spiritual gifts, including interpreting dreams and wisdom. Joseph’s brothers did not take these things well. Scripture says, “they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms.”[3] Over time, their hatred for him only grew. They even plotted to kill him. They would’ve, too, had not Reuben suggested they throw Joseph in a pit. Rueben thought he’d come back later and save him. But, while he was away, the other brothers decided they should at least make a profit off Joseph and sold him into slavery. Then they dipped his robe in blood to cover it all up.

Long story, short. Joseph ended up a slave in Egypt. However, God richly blessed him. Joseph used the gifts of dreams and wisdom God have given him and ended up as Pharaoh’s righthand man. God caused everything Joseph did to prosper. That included Egypt, in general. Because of Joseph, Egypt fared very well during a seven-year famine. That famine brought Joseph’s brothers down to Egypt for food. Joseph revealed himself to them and provided for their families out of his abundance. That provision lasted for 17 years. Then Israel died.

When their father died, Joseph’s brothers feared greatly. They feared that – now that dad was dead – nothing would hold back Joseph’s wrath. Maybe he was just waiting…even 17 years. They were so afraid, they sent message to him by a third party. We’ve heard the whole text, so we know how it ends. But, this here is a picture of how the world works and what it expects. When someone does you wrong, you get back at them. And, according to the world, you have every right to do so.

Here’s an example. There is a thing called a spite house. A spite house is what it sounds like. It’s when you’re mad at someone, so you build a house and live in it to get back at them. There’s one in Boston called the Skinny House. Two brothers inherited a piece of land. While one brother was away on military service, the other built a house that took up most of the lot. He thought, surely, there would be no room for his brother. His brother got back and built a house on the remaining portion, anyway. The nine-foot wide house was built specifically to block light and air from his brother’s house.

II.

When Joseph heard his brothers’ message, he wept. Then, it says, “His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?’[4] If anyone had a right to get revenge and return evil-for-evil, it was Joseph. His brothers hated him. They wanted to kill him. They did sell him into slavery. But Joseph offered them these words, “Don’t fear. Am I in the place of God?” Joseph means this: God has surely forgiven them; how should he not also forgive them, as he, indeed, already had 17 years earlier. Or, was God wrong and Joseph should seek vengeance? That’s essentially what his brothers were expecting.

I don’t think any of us have built a spite house, at least not physically. No, most of us bear our grudges and disdain for other people on the inside. If we could afford a spite house, we’d do it. Instead, we settle for internal hatred, favoritism, and gossip. If we can’t get back at people with our actions, we do it with our words. And we even feel justified in it. My friends, that is terribly sinful. Every grudge we hold, every lie we tell, every time we get back at some or desire to do so, we earn God’s eternal wrath and punishment. When we lay in our beds and plot out how to get back at others, we should not think to escape God’s right and just judgement. Except, that is, by His grace and mercy.

God in His mercy sent His Son to die for us, to die even for you. When He was cursed, He did not curse in return. When He was struck, He did not strike in return. Instead, He bore the hatred of the world so that He might redeem the world by His death on the cross. By His death, He has made atonement for our sins. He has paid in blood for all the spite houses we build in our hearts and minds. Joseph knew that. So, when his brothers came to him expecting the worst, he spoke the Gospel to them. Since God had forgiven all their (and his) sin in Christ, so he also had forgiven them. Then Joseph promised to continue providing for them and their little children.

In Joseph, we have a picture to the life to which we also have been called. Like Joseph, we’ve been sinned against. In some cases, greatly sinned against. But we’ve also sinned in return, sometimes greatly; and we’ve felt justified in it. That has all been forgiven us in Christ. We have received mercy through the blood of Jesus. So now, as our Lord says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”[5] We see in Joseph an example to follow. Joseph forgave his brothers and did not hold their sin against them. He even had mercy on them by providing for their bodily needs in time of famine. We have received the same mercy of God that Joseph did, and so we, too, seek to forgive and do good to those who have sinned against us. As the hymn says,

“Keep me from saying words that later need recalling;

Guard me lest idle speech may from my lips be falling;

But when within my place I must and ought to speak,

Then to my words give grace lest I offend the weak.

 

Lord, let me win my foes with kindly words and actions,

And let me find good friends for counsel and correction.

Help me, as You have taught, to love both great and small

And by Your Spirit’s might to live at peace with all.”[6]


[1] Romans 12:14, 16-17, English Standard Version.

[2] Gen. 50:15.

[3] Gen. 37:4, New American Standard Bible.

[4] Gen. 50:18-19, ESV.

[5] Lk. 6:36.

[6] “O God, My Faithful God,” Lutheran Service Book, 696.

The Lord Comes to Us

Text: Luke 1:39-45

“From east to west, from shore to shore let ev’ry heart awake and sing the holy child whom Mary bore, the Christ, the everlasting king. Behold, the world’s creator wears the form and fashion of a slave; Our very flesh our maker shares, His fallen creatures all to save.” It feels a little weird to be singing Christmas hymns in July, doesn’t it? When I was a child, we would sometimes go out for breakfast after church. The place we’d usually go was called Old Country Buffet. Next to the restaurant was an electronics store, which had a large sign out front. Every year, come July, they would put on the sign in big letters “Christmas in July Sale.” They would mirror the sales you normally see around Christmas time in this quieter part of the year.

Today we celebrate a better Christmas in July. Today the Church pauses to celebrate the visit Mary, the mother of our Lord, paid to Elizabeth, her cousin. Elizabeth herself was pregnant, even in her old age, with John the Baptist. When Mary’s greeting reached her ears, the unborn John leaped in the womb and Elizabeth was led by the Holy Spirit to confess her faith in Jesus, while He was yet unborn. Though we celebrate His birth in December, even in the womb, Christ our God has come to save us. In the Visitation, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, and Mary, all bear witness that the Son of God has come to us.

I.

We’ll look at the text today in three parts: first, what prompted this special visit; second, what happened at this visit; and, third, what does it mean? Today we’re in St. Luke’s Gospel. Last year, when we celebrated this day, we talked about how the Holy Spirit led St. Luke to write down an orderly course of the things that happened. To some extent, the other Gospels are arranged by theme, but St. Luke caused by the Spirit’s inspiration to write a straight-telling of all that happened. That meant beginning the Gospel not exactly with Jesus, but with John the Baptist. In Malachi 4, the last chapter of the Old Testament, God promised to send his messenger ahead of the Messiah. This forerunner would speak in the spirit of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and change the attitudes of the disobedient to righteousness.

So, St. Luke’s Gospel begins with the angel Gabriel appearing to the elderly priest Zechariah as he served in the temple. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were old and childless. And, in fact, Elizabeth was barren. Yet, they remained faithful to God’s Word and promises. Zechariah had been chosen by lot to go into the temple and burn incense. While he offering to the Lord, Gabriel appeared and said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.” Moreover, Gabriel said, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb…It is he who will go as a forerunner before the Lord.” So, Elizabeth – Mary’s cousin – became pregnant with John the Baptist in her old age.

Six months later, Gabriel was again sent by God – this time to Mary. He said to her, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High…Behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age…for nothing will be impossible with God.” After Gabriel announced the birth of the forerunner of the Messiah to Elizabeth, he announced the birth of Jesus to Mary. Gabriel offered this proof to Mary that all this would truly happen: Elizabeth, in her old age, was sixth months’ pregnant. Scripture tells us that, up to this point, Elizabeth kept herself hidden. Having heard this Word of the Lord through Gabriel, “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town of Judah.”

II.

We’re looking at this text, our Christmas in July, in three parts. We’ve learned now what led to the Visitation. Elizabeth, though both old and barren, had become pregnant. Mary herself was pregnant with Jesus, and went with haste to see her cousin and rejoice. Now, we read what happened at the Visitation. The text says, “[Mary] entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Having heard from the Lord that Elizabeth was pregnant, Mary hurried up through the 93 miles between Nazareth and Jerusalem. When she entered the house, she found the Lord’s Word to be indeed, true, just she had believed. Then she greeted Elizabeth.

Most likely, this wasn’t just a “Hey, how’s it going.” Much more likely, is that Mary told Elizabeth why she was there – that Gabriel said Elizabeth was pregnant and that Mary herself would bear the Son of God. When Elizabeth heard these things, John the Baptist leaped in her womb. Already filled with the Holy Spirit, even before birth, John bore witness to the Son of God. Later in the Gospel he’ll use words, “Behold, the Lamb of God;” but here, he points by skipping – as the Greek says. The Baptist, filled with the Holy Spirit, leaped in the womb at the presence of the Lord.

His mother, also, was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried out with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognized that the promise of God to save His people by taking on flesh is, even now, happening. In Mary’s womb, the author of all creation has now been found in human form. John leaped in joy at the presence of Christ to save His people. These are the events we celebrate today.

III.

But, now, what does this mean? We’ve learned what led up to the Visitation – Gabriel announcing John and Jesus’ births and telling Mary the same. We’ve learned what happened – Mary went up to Jerusalem and, at her greeting, John leaped in joy at Christ’s presence and Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, proclaimed that the Lord God has come into her house. Now, we must answer: So what? What does this all mean, and why is it important? A lot of people like Christmas music. I like Christmas music. But, I like Christmas music only for like the 7 days surrounding Christmas, then I’m good. But, I make exceptions for days like today. See, in the calendar, Christmas isn’t for another five months. Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus’ birth. But, Jesus doesn’t just become our Lord after He’s born. He has flesh and blood now. Even now, Christ our Lord has come to save us.

That’s what the Baptist and Elizabeth are saying, and what Mary sings in the Magnificat. Even now, Christ is at work for our salvation. Even now, the plan of God hidden from the foundation of the world has become clear. The very God of very God is and does now share our human flesh. It’s Christmas in July. There is never a point in His life were Christ was not our savior and redeemer. From the very moment of His conception, which we call the Incarnation, Christ our Lord is come to save us. He has looked on us in our sinful state. He has now become like us in every way, sharing in our flesh and blood – yet without sin – so that He might fulfill for us the will of God and suffer as the payment for our sins. That work has already started. It’s Christmas in July.

Lastly, Elizabeth spoke by the Holy Spirit, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Whenever we have a holiday like this, one that involves Mary in a significant way, the Lutheran tendency is to recoil. We still have a tendency to react against an overly-high view of Mary instead of simply giving thanks to God for her and recognizing that she is the Mother of God. But, why does Elizabeth call Mary blessed? Because of her faith. Mary was not chosen by God because she was perfect or without sin or had an especially strong faith. She was chosen by His grace. She was counted righteous by faith. And so are we. Now, we aren’t granted the special privilege of giving birth to the Savior. That’s unique to Mary. But, we also are counted as blessed by God’s grace when we believe in Jesus Christ and His death for our salvation.

Today we feast in celebration of the Visitation. In some ways, it is Christmas in July. For, even now, in the womb, Christ our dear Lord has taken on our human flesh and comes to save us.

Faith and the Theology of the Cross

Text: Genesis 15:1-6

30 years ago, this March, Irish rock band U2 released its fifth studio album. The Joshua Tree. The album’s theme was based off the wide-open spaces of the American west. The album, which has gone on to sell more than 25 million copies, truly does bring out a sense of vast openness throughout its 50-minute length – particularly in the second track, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It’s still up in the air what exactly the song is about. There are references to the devil, to Jesus, and heaven. But, we’ll leave it to song critics to discuss it more. Whatever it means, the song brings out this idea of searching; of longing for something you know is there…but you haven’t found it yet.

Our text today from Genesis finds Abram in a similar situation. In the Bible, three chapters pass between when God first came to Abram and called him out of idolatry, promising to bless him and make a great nation out of him. Three chapters pass, but in time it’s about a decade between these chapters, maybe a little more. It’ll be more than that, still, before Isaac is born. Isaac, the child promised in our text. As we’ll see, Abram was a little fearful about his situation, about whether the things God had promised would actually come to pass. Then God appeared to him. He reassured Abram that the promise was not forgotten. Abram believed God, and the Lord counted his faith as righteousness. St. Paul said that these things were written not for Abram’s sake alone, but for ours. Today, we confess that, like Abram, the righteous live by faith in God’s promises – and they are not disappointed.

I.

We should all know the story of Abraham, but let’s recap it for a moment. The Flood happened in Genesis 6. Noah entered the ark with his wife, his sons, and their wives. 8 souls in all. Noah’s sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. After the Flood, the three sons all spread out and had children. Abram is a distant descendant of Shem. Abram and his family lived in a place called Haran and they had become pagans. They were unbelievers who worshipped idols. Then, in Genesis 12, God called Abram. He called him out of idolatry to worship the one true God and to go where the Lord would lead him. The Lord promised to bless Abram and make of him a great nation. So, Abram went.

Abram went as the Lord said, but it maybe wasn’t as straightforward and easy as he might’ve liked. There was a famine, so they went down to Egypt. While they were there, Abram did do somethings that were sinful. He doubted God’s promise; yet God forgave him. God also kept His promise and blessed Abram, who came up from Egypt a rich man. He amassed a large household and many servants – but no children. Abram rightly understood God’s promise to make him into a great nation required a son. But, as time went on, no son came. Abram started getting into trouble with neighboring nations, and with no son to inherit if he were to die, Abram began to fear and doubt whether this promise would pan out. In other words, Abram still hadn’t found what he was looking for.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”[1] As Abram began fearing for his future and doubting the promises of God, the Lord spoke to him in a vision. The Lord told Abram not to fear. For, despite appearances, the Lord was with him. Abram was sure that the Lord had reneged, or at least was second-guessing His promise. Abram said to God, “‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus…Behold, You have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’”[2] What Abram meant was: God promised to make him a great nation, and so far, that hadn’t happened. Sure, Abram was wealthy; but with no son by birth, that wealth would pass from his name to someone else. No great nation.

Then the Lord said, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”[3] Abram was misled by his own conscience and felt that God wouldn’t make good. Things appeared to be the opposite of what God had promised. Abram felt abandoned. Then God made Abram another solemn promise. It wouldn’t be Eliezer of Damascus who would inherit him, but a son from Abram’s own body. Then God took him outside, and told Abram to number the stars. So, would his offspring be. Our text concludes with one of the most important verses in the whole Bible, “He believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”[4]

II.

The readings this week direct our minds to this idea: Even when it appears to the contrary, God doesn’t go back on His promises. God promised to make of Abram a great nation, and this nation would come from a son of his own flesh. The rest of Scripture – and history – tells us that, of course, this promise came true. Isaac was born when Abram was 99 years old. Isaac fathered Jacob, from whom is descended – according to the flesh – Jesus. St. Paul tells us that God’s promise to Abram was ultimately fulfilled in Christ and the great nation, now of billions, who have believed in His name. Abram believed God’s promise, even when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. God counted his faith as righteousness. Eventually, Abram did find what he was looking for.

If Abram, that great patriarch of our faith, was fearful and doubting God’s promises, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves suffering the same temptations. Like Abram, we have each been called out of pagan idolatry. We were all by nature born sinful and unclean, desiring to be our own “God.” But we were called out of that in the washing of Baptism. At our Baptism, the name of the Triune God was spoken over us and we were made heirs of the promise of Christ. Namely, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life that are found through faith in Him. At our Baptism, we were made heirs of the promise, and we are continually reminded of it through God’s Word – yet we are filled with doubts and fears.

Luther, considering this passage, failed to come up with an answer as to why God orders our lives in such a way. At times, we say that our suffering we endure teach us to rely on God or another lesson. Sometimes, we plumb the depths of reason and empathy to find a reason for our suffering. We know that suffering comes as a result of sin. But, more often than not, we fail to find an answer to, “Why me?” Then we begin to doubt, to fear, and to be angry that we also still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

Dear brothers and sisters, St. Paul did write, “The words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also.”[5] Meaning, this passage of Scripture wasn’t written for Abram’s sake alone, but for our benefit, also. We are meant to look at Abram’s suffering and fear, and Lazarus’, and find in them fellowship. Abram suffered, Lazarus suffered, our Lord suffered, we suffer. Abram suffered, at times thinking the Lord would not fulfill His promise; then He did. So, will He also fulfill His promise to us. What promise? The promise to remove our sins from us, which He has done in Christ. The promise to bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey, foreshadowed by the Promised Land and fulfilled in the New Creation. The promise to bring us through this valley of the shadow of death, and feed us beside still waters. The Lord spoke these things and others to Abram. Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted that faith as righteousness.

God grant that we also, by that same faith, would continue to be counted righteous. Scripture does say that the afflictions of the righteous are many, but also that the Lord delivers them out of them all. At times, it does feel like we aren’t finding what we’re looking for. But, God’s promises are sure and will ever stand true – even for us. Abram believed the Lord’s promise of deliverance, God counted His faith as righteousness and did deliver Him. He will deliver us, too. Amen.


[1] Gen. 15:1, English Standard Version.

[2] Gen. 15:2-3.

[3] Gen. 15:4.

[4] Gen. 15:6.

[5] Rom. 4:23-24.

Augsburg Confession, Article XX: Good Works

“Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding good works,” so begins Article XX of the Augsburg Confession. It continues, “Their published writings on the Ten Commandments, and other similar writings, bear witness that they have usefully taught about all estates and duties of life. They have taught well what is pleasing to God in every station and vocation in life.”[1]

Article XX of the Augsburg Confession is subtitled, “Good Works,” and is by far the longest article in the Augustana (the Latin title of the AC). You may remember that the topic of good works has come up already – particularly in Article IV, “[We teach] people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. [They] are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith…” and in Article VI, “[We] teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God.”[2] Despite these clear discussions of the relationship between faith and good works, it still got muddied by our opponents. This topic was, perhaps, the chief difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans – and it remains so today. However, we will allow that the different poles have grown (slightly) closer over the centuries.

This article is a long one, so I will provide the link for you to read it here. In a nutshell, the article answers the question: “What about good works?” The answer is: we do them, not to merit righteousness nor salvation, but because they are God’s will. A living faith is bound to and will bring forth good fruit. The Lutherans were falsely accused by the Romans of both abolishing and forbidding good works. They accused us of removing good works from salvation, and then going as far as to say that we are not allowed to do them. Well, we’re guilty on the first charge: our good works do not contribute to our salvation. On the second charge, some Lutherans did teach this later on and were publicly rebuked for it.

So what do we teach? “First…that our works cannot reconcile God to us or merit forgiveness of sins, grace, and justification. We obtain reconciliation only by faith when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake.” (9) That’s pretty much what we already said back in Article IV. Our good works do not reconcile us to God, nor do they merit anything salvific. We are reconciled to God for Christ’s sake through faith. The article goes on to quote both St. Paul and our Lord on this matter. It also defends against the charge that the Lutherans have created a new interpretation of Paul. “If anyone wants to be tricky and say that we have invented a new interpretation of Paul, this entire matter is supported by the testimony of the Fathers. Augustine defends grace and the righteousness of faith in many volumes against the merits of works. Ambrose, in his book The Calling of the Gentiles, and elsewhere, teaches the same thing.” (12-13)

But, why go over all this again? Both our conscience and the comfort of salvation are at stake. The article says, “This whole doctrine must be related to the conflict of the terrified conscience. It cannot be understood apart from that conflict.” (17) That is to say, when sins wreaks havoc in our lives and we are revealed to be the most terrible and wretched of sinners, it is of the utmost comfort to know that it is not my work that gains salvation – but Christ’s. As the hymn goes, “Thy works, not mine, O Christ.” Now, the article says, spiritually inexperienced people dislike this doctrine. Our sinful flesh would like nothing more than to take pride in our own worth. But, “God-fearing and anxious consciences find by experience that it [this article] brings the greatest consolation.” (15)

The article then points out the fact that, up until then, the consciences of God’s people were plagued by the doctrine of works. There was no comfort offered in the Gospel of Christ. Instead, people were driven into the desert and monasteries, hoping to merit grace by a pious life. Over time, more good works were invented to merit grace – pilgrimages and such. To these things, people were pointed – and not to the comfort of the Gospel of Christ. “That is why the need was so great for teaching and renewing the doctrine of faith in Christ, so that anxious consciences would not be without consolation but would know that grace, forgiveness of sins, and justification are received by faith in Christ.” (22)

Next, the article moves onto what we mean by “faith.” It says, “People are also warned that the term faith does not mean simply a knowledge of a history, such as the ungodly and devil have. Rather, it means a faith that believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history.” (23) This is actually pointing back at our opponents. It was taught that if one simply acknowledges the historical facts of Christ’s passion, it was enough. The Lutherans teach that assenting to the bare facts is not enough. Faith is also trusting in the effects of it all: Christ suffered and died for us on the cross so that we may receive forgiveness and righteousness by grace through faith. As it says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)

Lastly, “We teach that it is necessary to do good works. This does not mean that we merit grace by doing good works, but because it is God’s will.” (27) It is only by faith that we receive the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit creates faith through the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, and through those things He also renews our wills and causes us to bring forth good works. Without the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to do good works. Works that seem to be righteous (considered righteousness even by the world) are in fact sinful, when done apart from faith.

It is necessary to do good works according to God’s holy will. Through the Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit leads us to do them. While we are in the flesh, we will never be perfect in our works. Our sinful flesh is always at war with the law of our minds, as St. Paul would say. Nor are all good works visible. Prayer on behalf of others is an example of a good work that flows from faith, but isn’t necessarily visible.

This was a rather long discussion. But, then again, it’s a rather important topic. Where does our righteousness before God – and salvation – come from? From our works? No, but from Christ. Christ is our righteousness, and His work is counted to us through faith. Do we then discount good works? No. Good works are to be done. It is God’s will. As the hymn goes, “For faith alone can justify; Works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.”

Next month we’ll cover a topic that maybe you’ve had some questions about: the saints in heaven. What are they up to, and why do Lutherans not pray to them? After that, we’ll turn to the next section of the Augustana, concerning errors that had popped up in the practice of the Church, which are now corrected. Examples? Communing in both kinds, the marriage of priests, and the authority of the Church. See you next month!


[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 42. Further quotes from this article are marked by their paragraph number.

[2] Ibid., pg. 33.

Thrice-Holy Forgiver of Sins

Text: Isaiah 6:1-7

 

“Blessèd be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us.” This Sunday is one of the few, if not the only, Sundays, where we focus not on an event in our Lord’s ministry or life, but a doctrine. In Scripture, the God of all creation reveals Himself to us as a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three are co-eternal and co-equal, none existing apart from or without another. We worship one God in three Persons. This is how God has revealed Himself to us.

Unfortunately, over time different and competing understandings of God began to spread. The Jews, for example, believed in the Trinity in the Old Testament, but rejected it when the Son of God became flesh. The Gnostics also rejected the divinity of Jesus. Both of these are addressed in Scripture, in St. Paul’s letters and St. John’s. But, then, in the fourth century, a pastor named Arius began teaching that there was a time when the Son of God didn’t exist. He was a very popular pastor, and his teaching in part led to the Nicene Creed being written, and also the Athanasian Creed.

Today, the Church sets aside time to both praise our eternal, Triune God and to firm up and make clear our confession of faith in the Trinity. We asked in the Collect of the Day that God would keep us steadfast in this faith and preserve us against all adversity. In Sacred Scripture, the one true God reveals Himself to us as a Trinity, who alone takes away our guilt and pardons our iniquity.

I.

I said that today we want to firm up and make clear our confession of faith in the Triune God. The first step in that, though, is acknowledging that we aren’t going to understand everything. There will never be a time in this sinful flesh, when we will perfectly understand the Trinity. I am confident that we will in the new creation; But, for now, we see as in a mirror dimly, St. Paul said. St. Paul also said in our Epistle text, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!”[1] This passage comes at the end of St. Paul’s discussion of another difficult doctrine, predestination. I’ve always pictured him, at this point, as just throwing up his hands, confessing his faith in the Trinity, and being done for the day. And, that’s actually how it ends. He says, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”[2]

That text is good, because St. Paul’s brings out this idea: that we aren’t called to understand everything, but believe. Consider the doctrine of the Trinity. We aren’t called to understand every little bit and piece of it, but we are called to believe it and confess it as truth. Why? Because the Triune God is the true God, who takes away the guilt of our sins and pardons our iniquity. That is plain what the Scripture says. We like to tell ourselves we live an age of science and reason, and we must therefore have a logical backing, first, before we can believe anything. You aren’t going to prove the Trinity from human reasoning nor from science. Don’t even try. Instead, believe; because that’s what Scripture says. It is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”[3] Our Lord also said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.”[4] The Triune God has hidden Himself from human reason, but reveals Himself even to little children through Scripture.

II.

Okay, so we aren’t going to understand the Trinity this side of Eden. That’s alright. We aren’t called to totally understand what has been revealed to us, but to believe it. St. Peter says it this way,

Our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him…there are some things…that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist…as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore…take care that you are not carried away…but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior.[5]

We aren’t called to understand, but believe. And, in order for us to believe in the Trinity, it must first be revealed to us. In Scripture. Where, in Scripture, is the Trinity – one God in three persons – revealed to us?

We’ll start with the words straight from our Lord’s mouth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name (notice, singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[6] We remember also the revelation of the Trinity at Jesus’ Baptism. Remember how the Father spoke from heaven, the Spirit descended as a dove, the Son in the water? Just last week, in the Gospel lesson, Jesus said this: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name…will teach you all things.”[7] Jesus even proved the Trinity, along with His own being God, from the Old Testament. One time the Pharisees came to Him, and Jesus asked them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls [the Christ] Lord, saying ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’”[8] Jesus linked the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son together from the Old Testament and pointed out that David believed in the Trinity.

Time doesn’t permit us to list all the other proofs of the Trinity in the New Testament, how Sts. Paul, John, and Peter, James, and Jude all make mention, as do the Gospels and the letter to the Hebrews. But, what about the Old Testament? Is the Trinity just a New Testament thing? Nope. Where can we go to prove the Trinity from the Old Testament, and show that Old Testament believers knew this doctrine?

The simplest place to go, and the one you already know, is Creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Later it says, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” Then it says, “God created man in His own image.” Even in English, you can hear the one God saying, “Let us.” In Hebrew, the word for God here is Elohim, which is plural. And yet, all the actions are singular. And, of course, it also says in Genesis 1, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

The easiest place to go to prove the Trinity from the Old Testament is Genesis 1. But, how can we prove Old Testament Christians believed this, and that we aren’t just making it up after the fact? Fast forward to Moses. In his final days, he spoke to the people of Israel, “Is not [God] your Father, who created you?[9] Moses mentioned the Father specifically. Move forward to King David. In Psalm 33, he linked all three persons together when he said, in addition to the Father, “By the Word of the Lord (Jesus) the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth (the Holy Spirit) all their host.”[10] You could go backwards to Job, which some believe is the oldest book, and hear, “By His Spirit the heavens were made.”[11] You could jump to Isaiah, two hundred years after David, or to Ezra – some three hundred years after that – both of whom speak of the Father, the Spirit, and the promised Messiah. Suffice it to say, not only is the Triune God revealed to us also in the Old Testament, but the Old Testament Church believed in and confessed its faith in the Trinity.

III.

So now, why talk about all this? Why take a Sunday and cram this all in? Or, why even talk about the Trinity? After all, a large chunk of the world believes in “God,” whatever that means. Couldn’t we just, for the sake of unity, jettison the talk of the Trinity and hope that it’ll all sort out in the end? That doesn’t really jive with the Creed we just confessed, which all Christian church bodies believe, “Whoever desires to be saved, must above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally. And that catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity.”

Why talk about the Trinity? Because this is how the true God has revealed Himself to us. He alone, is the true God who has acted in and throughout history. And, not only has He acted, but He’s acted for us. See, when Isaiah saw God in our text, he feared for his very life. The seraphim were crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” and Isaiah knew God’s holiness and our unholiness cannot coexist. Then, one of the angels flew to him and touched his lips with a hot coal from the altar of sacrifice. He said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sins atoned for.”[12]

We talk about the Trinity because it’s how God has revealed Himself, and it’s how He has revealed Himself for us. God the Father created us, He takes care of us and provides for us. He guards and defends against all evil. For us men and for our salvation, the Son of God took on flesh. He shed His blood for us so that we might live. When His blood touches our lips in the Sacrament, our guilt is taken away and our sins atoned for. God the Holy Spirit, reveals this truth to us through the Scripture. He calls us to faith, and preserves us in the same until we die. We confess our faith in the triune God, not fully understanding, but believing that He is true and has taken away our sin. “Blessèd be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us.”


[1] Rom. 11:33.

[2] Rom. 11:36.

[3] 1 Cor. 1:19.

[4] Matt. 11:25.

[5] 2 Pet. 3:15-18.

[6] Matt. 28:19.

[7] Jn. 14:26.

[8] Matt. 22:43-44.

[9] Duet. 32:6.

[10] Ps. 33:6.

[11] Job. 26:13.

[12] Is. 6:7.