Word Like Fire

Text: Jeremiah 23:16-29

The Lord spoke through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes…I did not send [them], yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in My council…they would have turned [My people] from their evil way.”[1] These words, God directed to His people in Jerusalem and against the false prophets that filled the city. Jerusalem was practically bursting with prophets who proclaimed peace and prosperity. Yet, God’s true prophets had preached for over a hundred years that she would fall because of her sinfulness; but the people only listened to the false prophets who promised peace.

We have in this text a description of what a false prophet is: someone who claims to speak from God’s authority, but ultimately speaks from the dreams of their own heart. The false prophets in Jerusalem were not preaching God’s Word of Law and Gospel. Instead, they only prophesied what they wanted to hear. To the contrary God says, “Is not My Word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?[2] Today we confess that a true prophet and messenger of God proclaims both His Word of Law and His Word of Gospel. God’s Word of Law is like a fire and hammer that exposes sin and brings to repentance, while His Word of Gospel offers pardon and peace to those who turn to Him in faith.

I.

This is the second time this year that we’ve been in Jeremiah 23. The first time we heard it was in a very different context – the first Sunday in Advent. Jeremiah 23 is where God promises that a Righteous Branch will come who will reign as king and deal wisely. He will make all of God’s people dwell in peace and safety. That portion of the chapter was given to comfort us with the promise of Christ, but it was also directed against the false shepherds, the wicked kings and priests of Israel. In this later part of chapter 23, God’s Word turns against the false prophets who filled Jerusalem in the decades leading up to its destruction.

If you’re familiar with Isaiah, you might remember that he prophesied before the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C. The hope of the prophets, and dare I say God, was that the people of Jerusalem would learn from that and return to the Lord their God. Instead, Jerusalem got worse and worse. There were high points, like the reign of Josiah – which is when Jeremiah started preaching. But overall, Jerusalem was on a steep and steady decline.

One of the major factors in that decline was the false prophets going around and telling everyone that, because it was Jerusalem – God’s holy city – nothing bad could happen. God says this, “They speak visions of their own minds, not form the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the Word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you;’ and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.'”[3] The priests, also, were aligned with them.

What’d this look like on the ground level? Idol worship was vastly and widely-spread. It was the norm for people to worship false gods, in addition to God. They even set up idols and sacrificed to them in the very temple of God. Nobody kept God’s Commandments; nobody even tried. Adultery and fornication were openly accepted and encouraged. Bribes were given and received. Selfishness and apathy for one’s neighbor were the way to play. And the false prophets said everything would be okay. But, God did not send them. He sent Jeremiah.

II.

Jeremiah was called by God to prophesy to His people. Though there are many good and comforting words in Jeremiah, in large part his call from God was to proclaim that Jerusalem would be destroyed if she wouldn’t repent. Jeremiah’s call was to preach God’s Word of Law. That’s how God contrasted the false prophets. They did not preach the Law. They did not point out sin nor the need forgiveness. They preached only peace, comfort, and happiness – while wallpapering over everything else. “If they had stood in My council,” God said, “then they would have proclaimed My Words to My people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.”[4]

God’s Word, He says, is like a fire and a hammer. He’s talking about His Law, the Ten Commandments. His Law doesn’t wallpaper over sin; it exposes it and shows it for what it is. The author to the Hebrews says God’s Word is, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”[5] The false prophets were false because they did not proclaim God’s Word of Law against sin. They turned the Word into wallpaper, which, before long, just becomes part of the background. When preached as it should, God’s Law exposes sin. It crushes the sinner like a hammer, when it shows that we aren’t as righteous as we think we are. God’s Law offers no word of comfort; it makes demands.

III.

God’s Law exposes and crushes. It shows that we are sinners. The correct response to the preaching of the Law is: yes, it’s true; I repent. To repent means to sorrow over sin. It means to stop doing one thing and do something else; to change directions. This is what God desired for His people: that they repent of their sins and be forgiven. The false prophets declared that there was no sin, and therefore no need for forgiveness. Jeremiah preached the Law to expose sin, so that he could then preach the Gospel. So, also, the true preachers of God’s Word do today.

As God sent Jeremiah, so He sends pastors to us now to proclaim both His Word of Law and His Word of Gospel. The Law is and remains God’s Holy Word, and its job is to point out our sin. Its job is to show that we are sinful in our thoughts, words and deeds. Its job is to show us that there is nowhere to run or hide, that we can’t wallpaper over our sins. Only once our sins have been shown to us, our need for forgiveness demonstrated, can the Gospel then be preached.

The Gospel is also God’s Holy Word. It’s job is to show us Jesus. All those things that the Law demands, all those things we fail to do, Jesus did. The Law says that, for our sins, we deserve to die. The Gospel says that Jesus paid that debt when He died on the cross for you. Then, He rose again to give you new and eternal life. As Baptized Christians, God’s Law now also serves as a guide for our lives. We seek to serve God by obeying His Commandments, even though we do it imperfectly. For those times when we do fail, we are forgiven in Christ.

But if there is no Law, there is no sin. If there is no sin, there is no forgiveness. This is what the false prophets were preaching in Jerusalem. And, because of the people’s refusal to repent and believe, Jerusalem was destroyed. But, even until the end, God sent Jeremiah. Jeremiah preached both the Law and the Gospel, to point out sin and to declare that people are forgiven by God’s grace through faith in Christ. God’s Word of Law is like a fire and hammer that exposes and crushes sin. His Word of Gospel says that Christ gives us His righteousness as a gift. For all those who have been crushed by the Law, there is balm and healing in the Good News of Jesus Christ. God grant that He would continue to send faithful preachers into the whole world, so that we might all hear about the forgiveness that is in Christ Jesus.


[1] Jer. 23:16, 21-22, English Standard Version.

[2] Jer. 23:29.

[3] Jer. 23:16-17.

[4] Jer. 23:22.

[5] Heb. 4:12-13.

As We Were Created to Be

Text: Genesis 2:7-17

It’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you are or where you’ve been. When you’re traveling to a place you haven’t been before, you always keep track of where you started so that, if you end up off course, you know the part you’ve already traveled and can turn back. If you don’t know where you’ve been, it’s hard to know where you’re going. This much is shared with us, I believe, in our text today.

This week, we turn back to the beginning of the Bible, the beginning of the world, the beginning of the universe. We hear how God created man, in what state man and creation originally existed, and what we were created for. Unfortunately, because of sin, the reality of Genesis 2 is no longer what we experience. Instead, the experiences of our lives now are very different than how God intended them to be. The Holy Spirit shows us in this text how things were, so that we might know how they will be again. In other words, the Spirit shows us in Genesis 2 where we’ve been so that we know where – in Christ – we’re headed. In our text, we learn from God how He originally created us to be so that we would know a) the greatness of His creation; b) depth of our sin; and c) the greatness of His mercy.

I.

In Genesis 1 and 2, God gives us a factual and true account of how the world came to be. Before the universe existed, only God did. He forever and always existed in the unity of the Trinity. Out of His own desire to show love and mercy, God created the heavens and the earth. He spoke and all things came to be. Genesis 1 provides the overview of God’s creative activity. In chapter 2, the Spirit directs the focus on the particular activity of the sixth day of Creation: the day that God created man.

Moses wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,

When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.[1]

After God created the earth, the land and seas, trees, all plants, and animals, His hand turned to create something in His own image and in His likeness – man. Everything else, God created by speaking; but man God formed from the dust of the earth. The Hebrew word is the word also used in Isaiah for a potter forming a vessel from clay. So, God molded man from the earth.

God formed man from the dust of the earth, breathed into him the breath of life, and man became a living creature. Unlike all other creatures, whom God caused to be by speaking, man alone was formed by God’s hand and endowed with an immortal soul. After God formed the man, the text says, “[He] planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.”[2] God created the garden for man, and man for the garden. Man’s job was simple. It says in verse 15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” The only instructions God gave were these, “You may surely eat of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”[3]

II.

Man’s job, as God created him was simple. Adam was to live in the Garden of Eden, to work it and keep it and care for it. Adam was to live in the garden and enjoy fellowship with God. His work would’ve been a joy, too. Genesis 2 is before the Fall. So, the unpleasant things we experience while working in the field – scorching heat, never-ending weeds – these would’ve been unknown to Adam. He would’ve needed no pesticide or fertilizer. His work would’ve been one-hundred percent joyful. He only had one command – don’t eat from the tree. This is the way Adam was to worship God, by listening to His Word. And, Adam could’ve done it. God created man with complete free will and the ability to not sin.

But, we know what happened, don’t we? Back on the First Sunday in Lent, the Old Testament text was Genesis 3. Adam was formed by God from the dust of the earth. He was molded like a clay vessel. Alone among all creatures, God blessed him with a soul and free will. Adam’s job, as Eve’s would be, was to live in the garden and work it. This work would’ve been a joy and be done in full communion with God. The way they were to worship was simply, listen to God’s Word. They had the free will and ability to do so. But instead, by the temptation of Satan, they chose to doubt and disobey God’s Word. They sinned. Ever since, the whole world has existed in this corrupted state.

God pronounced the consequences of sin in that text. To Eve, God said that childbearing would now be painful and the relationship between husbands and wives, stressful. To Adam, God said that the ground which used to be a joy to work would be cursed. Because of sin, the earth would now bear thorns and thistles, and food would only come by hard labor. Then, God gave the greatest consequence – which He said would happen – because of sin, man will return to the dust from whence he came. All these things we find true by our own experience. I’d ask you if farming is an easy job, but you know the answer. Sure, we take joy in our work from time to time. But, it’s rare to have a job without stress. And, God’s Word is true: the rest of our lives are filled with pain, suffering, and death.

III.

It’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. Now we know where we’ve been. God created man to be perfect. Man was placed in Eden to work and keep it. This would have been a joyful experience. The work would’ve come easily. Adam and Eve (and all after them) would neither have died nor experienced any illness or hardship. Then the Fall happened, and things have been going terribly. That is, until Christ – the Second Adam – came.

St. Paul wrote to the Romans that sin came into the world through the one man, Adam; and death came through sin. Therefore, all men die because all men sin. That’s how original sin works. We inherit from our fathers the inability to not sin. Because we sin, we die. But, St. Paul says, “The free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through the one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ…as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”[4] St. Paul means, the fall of Adam and Eve introduced the corruption of sin; but the righteous work of Christ – His obedience of the Law and His death on the cross for our sins – brings life back into the picture.

Christ earned for us re-entry into paradise and fellowship with God. After Adam and Eve sinned, God barred entrance to Eden by a flaming sword. But now, in Christ, our fractured relationship with God is restored. Through the forgiveness we’ve received in Christ, we now address God as our dear Father, and He speaks to us through His Word and Sacrament as to His beloved children. The work of Christ on the cross doesn’t just restore us to a right relationship with God, though; but, creation, too. Doesn’t St. Paul also say to Romans in chapter 8 that the whole creation groans as it awaits the redemption of our bodies?

By His death and resurrection, Christ has not only restored us to a right relationship with God, but He also restored creation. Scripture calls the “New Creation,” the place where the lion and lamb will lay together, where children will play with snakes, and death will not exist. These things will take place when Christ returns, and they’re what we mean when we say, “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Now we know where we’ve been and where we’re going. God created man perfect, to work joyfully in the Garden and live in fellowship with Him. That was all destroyed by sin, and we experience that corruption in our lives. But, through Christ’s death and resurrection sin is forgiven. We are restored to fellowship with God. We now await Christ’s return, where He will raise the bodies of all believers and bring them with Himself into the joy of the new creation.


[1] Gen. 2:5-7, English Standard Version.

[2] Gen. 2:8.

[3] Gen. 2:16-17.

[4] Rom. 5:15-16.

In Jesus, the Victory’s Won

Text: 1 Corinthians 15:51-57

“Jesus lives! The victory’s won! Death no longer can appall me; Jesus lives! Death’s reign is done! From the grave will Christ recall me. Brighter scenes will then commence; This shall be my confidence.”[1] St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.[2]

These verses from chapter 15 served as the theme text for our VBS this year. All week long our children learned that God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble; and that, in Christ, the victory is won.

In Christ, we have received the victory over sin, over death, over hell and all the powers of the devil. Apart from Christ, we were held, as it were, in the dark dungeon of death. We were bound and held tight by the chains of sin and doomed to die. But God, in His mercy, sent His Son to die for us. Through Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection, sin and death have been overcome. The bars of death and bonds of sin have been broken. We have received forgiveness of our sins and eternal salvation. Our theme this year, and a sentence we would do well to remember is this: In Jesus, the Victory is Won.

I.

Scripture talks about our life here on earth in many different ways. Sometimes it’s compared to race; Sometimes, to a journey. Sometimes, Scripture talks about our lives on this earth in terms of a battle. We are encouraged, for example, to put on the whole armor of God – the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. These weapons are, of course, spiritual weapons for spiritual warfare against the devil and all his host. However, the spiritual warfare waged against us often carries over into the physical world. In our Bible lessons this week at VBS we learned about some real conflicts and worries that God’s people faced.

Our first two stories went this way. On the first day, we learned how God provided victory to Joshua and the Israelites by causing the walls of Jericho to crumble before them. They didn’t have to do anything, God’s mighty hand alone made the walls come tumbling down. On the second day, we learned about King Hezekiah. While he was king in Jerusalem, the evil king Sennacherib came to wage war. Sennacherib boasted about his own strength and mocked both God and His followers. Hezekiah was greatly afraid until God spoke through the prophet Isaiah that He would provide the victory. Shortly after, Sennacherib’s boasting proved empty when God defeated 185,000 Assyrian soldiers and sent Sennacherib away empty-handed. On the third day, we learned how God provided victory to Josiah and the people of Jerusalem by forgiving their sins against His Commandments.

In Scripture, God’s people faced many battles. Some were actual battles, like with Joshua and Hezekiah. Others faced spiritual battles, like Josiah against the false gods his people worshipped and St. Paul in his missionary work. We also face those same battles. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world, and certainly throughout history, face actual physical danger as Satan wages war against God and His followers. But, we are not so far removed from that. For, just as Satan wages actual war against God’s people, he also fights against us. His weapons in this arena are more subtle: sin and the veil that is cast over all people, death.

In our daily lives, we battle and wage war against sin. We hear in Scripture that God has revealed to us how He desires to live – to love Him above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. These things are expressed to us in the Ten Commandments – to have no other gods, for example, and not murder. When we disobey these commandments, we sin. We also hear in Scripture that there is both a consequence and punishment for sin, and that’s death. The Holy Spirit spoke through St. Paul to the Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” Also, “Just as sin came into the world through the one man, and death through sin, so death spread to all men because all sinned.”[3] The Holy Spirit leaves very little wiggle room there. Try as we might to not sin, we will always fail. On our own, we will inevitably lose the battle against sin and we will die. Death is both the consequence of sin – when we sin we show we lack the glory of God – and God punishes sin with death. Because all men sin, all men die.

II.

And, as I said, the battle against sin and death is one that we cannot win. If it were up to us, the victory would be impossible to win. Therefore, God became man. God had mercy on us in our sinful state. He sent the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, to take upon Himself our flesh. He bore our sin on the cross and is the savior by His rising from the dead. When Jesus rose from the dead, He shattered the teeth of death and cancelled its sting. No longer does death loom over our heads waiting to dropped like a piano on an unaware pedestrian below. No longer can the devil scare and taunt us with sin and death, for, through Christ, the devil is defeated and the victory is forever won.

The children learned about this victory, the most important one in all history, on the final day of VBS. We read how Jesus willingly gave Himself into death for our sins and rose to give us new life. But, the victory of Jesus was present in our other stories, too. God forgave King Josiah and the people though the mercy shown in Christ. He saved Hezekiah from evil king Sennacherib not because Hezekiah and the people deserved it – for they did not love God above all things – but because of God’s own steadfast and eternal love for them. Same for Joshua. God didn’t tear down the walls of Jericho because His people were so good, but in keeping with His mercy and in remembrance of His promise to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Same for us. We also wage war against the sin that resides in our flesh, against the devil, and the power of death. On our own, it is an impossible battle. Often times, we don’t even know what stage of fighting we’re in, nor how serious it is, or that we’re even fighting at all. This deadly battle is revealed to us in Scripture, as is God’s mercy. In love, the Father sent the Son to wage war, to suffer, to die, and rise for us. In Christ, the victory is won. The victory over sin and death has been won. Death is swallowed up in victory. It has lost its sting forever. This victory is given us by God’s grace through faith. Through faith in Christ we are now more than conquerors. God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. And, He has helped us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”


[1] “Jesus Lives! The Victory’s Won,” Lutheran Service Book, 490.

[2] 1 Cor. 15:54-57, English Standard Version.

[3] Rom. 6:23; 5:12.

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.