Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 9

24 July 2005 at Gloria Dei L.C. in New Olreans

Text: Luke 16:1-9 (10-13) (historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Some people really know how to make money work. It doesn’t matter what they do, what kind of occupation they have, they simply know how to make money grow. Some people just have the gift. They know when to buy, when to sell, and when to stand pat. They seem to almost have a sixth sense about the world of business. Jesus uses the word “shrewd” to describe this kind of business savvy.

Now, being shrewd doesn’t necessarily mean dishonest – but in this case, the steward was. He was lazy, and didn’t do a very good job of managing the company for the owner. The owner of the company (perhaps taking a page from Donald Trump’s TV show “The Apprentice”) calls the manager into the board room and fires him.

Now the steward is in a fix. He is not good with his hands, so he can’t get a job as a carpenter or plumber. He doesn’t see welfare as an option. And besides, who’s going to hire a middle-level manager who has such a black mark on his resume? So the manager decides to try to win back his job. He pulls one more business trick from his sleeve: negotiation.

Those of us who do not have the gift of making money foolishly pay the full price for everything. But shrewd people do not. They know how to cut a deal. They know how to bargain. Even large corporations understand that negotiating with a debtor to receive something is better than ignoring them and receiving nothing.

So, our dishonest, but shrewd, manager begins to reclaim his reputation. He knows only one thing will save his job: a quick reversal of the cash-flow problem. And one sure-fire way to get people to pay is to lower the price. He begins to visit each debtor and offer him a deal.

Now, this kind of negotiation is not what makes the steward “unjust.” What made the steward unjust was his getting into this mess in the first place by his own laziness and lack of accountability. No, in fact, this kind of negotiation and collection was just what the business needed. The owner was himself shrewd enough to realize this, and he commended the steward for his shrewdness.

“The sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.” According to Jesus, we in God’s Kingdom are not typically shrewd in matters of money. Maybe it’s because we think money is evil, and so we shy away from it. Maybe we believe being shrewd is somehow in and of itself dishonest. Whatever the reason, Jesus chides his followers for not having a good relationship with money.

And what is that relationship we are to have? Jesus tells us we are not to be the servant of money – since we cannot serve two masters: both God and mammon. And notice the unjust steward’s relationship with money – he was shrewd because he made the money serve him. He was the money’s master, not its slave. He was willing to take a gamble on his plan to negotiate precisely because he didn’t see himself as the servant, but as the master. He also understood that he was the steward – not the owner. The money didn’t belong to him, so perhaps he felt a little more free to negotiate. He also realized who his real master was (in this story, that would be the boss), and that he was in trouble.

As sinners, we should constantly and daily come to grips with the fact that we are in trouble. Based on our own misuse of the Lord’s property – all of the things we like to describe as our own – we should all identify with the unjust steward. Indeed, we are wasting the Lord’s goods, and should he call us into the boardroom to give an account of our stewardship, can we expect anything other than being removed from our position of trust?

And we should also realize, like the steward in Jesus’s story, that we are only stewards, we are only managers. We come into the world with nothing, and we leave with nothing. In between, we are entrusted to care for the Lord’s property. Too often we covet that which belongs to God, and fail to give thanks to him for allowing us use of his goods. Too often we gloss over the fact that the Lord does demand an accounting from all of us.

And so, like the unjust steward, we too should be so bold as to negotiate. Our debts are far too high to pay. Our sins are too burdensome to overcome. No amount of promising, pleading, or old-fashioned elbow grease is going to make a dent in our debts (which, by the way, is the literal meaning of the word “tresspasses” in the Lord’s prayer). And like a person whose credit is damaged, we simply can’t go before the Lord and promise we will do better in the future. No, we need a radical solution to get out of debt. We can’t simply consolidate, take out a second mortgage, or spread out the payments over many years. We are too far gone. We need to have our debt forgiven. We need a form of cosmic bankruptcy that balances the debits and credits once and for all.

Of course, Jesus himself does just this. He takes our debt onto himself at the cross, and exchanges our abominable credit rating with his own perfection before the Father. God himself offers this debt-amortization to the whole world – but most people see it as junk mail and toss it in the garbage. Most people either find the deal “too good to be true,” or they misjudge their own standing before God. Most people either mistake themselves as masters (and not stewards), or they see themselves as good stewards – and not the wicked stewards that we all are. And so, our Lord’s unbelievable offer goes rejected every day.

Jesus wants us to have the right standing with both our boss, and the boss’s money. We are indeed stewards, we are servants of God. He is our master – and we can only serve one master. Too often we serve ourselves, making ourselves the master. Or we turn the pursuit of money (which isn’t even ours to begin with) into a master itself – a false god. We are servants of God, and masters of money.

Ironically, many who see themselves as free from the demands of God and free from financial worries are actually slaves. They serve their master mammon, devoting their very lives to it. They will do anything to get it, keep it, and serve it. They think of themselves as free, but in reality are enslaved. Jesus warns us against such slavery – for we cannot have two masters.

It is important that we have a healthy relationship with money – for it is God’s money, and it is there to do his work. Money enables us to care for our families, to keep the roof over the head, to take care of one another when we are sick, to keep us all fed and healthy. Money also enables the Church to keep its doors open, to keep a pastor baptizing and preaching and administering Holy Communion. Money allows for missionaries to take the Gospel to every nation. And every Christian and every Church is called upon to be good and shrewd stewards.

When we are the masters of money, we can indeed serve only the Lord. When we are shrewd stewards, the Lord indeed uses us to spread his Kingdom.

And let us not forget the greatest act of stewardship and service of all – when our Lord gave himself on the cross so that we might negotiate away our debts. This is why we can be so bold as to approach this altar, eat his flesh, drink his blood, and offer the sacrifice of Jesus as a payment for our debts. For this is the ultimate act of good and shrewd stewardship – to receive the benefits of the Lord’s creation – bread and wine – empowered by his word to become the very payment for our sins.

Let us rejoice in the stewardship the Lord has entrusted to us. Let us make good use of money and the fruits of our labor. Let us offer them all back to God as a thank offering for what he has done to wipe out our debts. And let us serve only him as our Master and Lord.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Sermon: Wednesday of Trinity 8

20 July 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Matt 7:15-23 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

In our Gospel text, Jesus is warning us against preachers who deceive us, who teach false doctrine, who tell us things that are not true, things that do not come from the mouth of God. He tells us to be very careful, for our very eternal destination may depend on it.

There have always been false prophets, from the days of the serpent in the garden, right up until today. And these deceivers don’t come to us with horns and a tail, with ugly contorted faces, with a big sign around their necks that say: “Liar!” Indeed not! For what sheep would follow the wolf if he looks like a wolf? For this is why false prophets adopt sheep’s clothing. This is why they look and sound so warm, fuzzy, and wonderful. This is why they fill our eager (and sinful) ears with promises of wealth, prosperity, empowerment, and even being like God himself. No false prophet worth his sheepskin coat is going to offer us trinkets. No, false prophets swing for the fence! False prophets tell the Big Lie – the very thing we want to hear.

Jesus’ warning that we would have to contend with false prophets – even in the Church – calls to mind our Old Testament lesson. The Prophet Jeremiah was known as a sad sack, a regular gloomy Gus. When all the prophets of Baal were coming up with dreams of peace, with visions of prosperity, old whiny Jeremiah was always a stick in the mud. He was a faithful preacher, who did not make up “visions” or pass his own dreams off as the Word of God. Jeremiah spoke the Lord’s Word faithfully – and that Word is like a fire that burns away the chaff, and like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces. Jeremiah was sent to a stiff-necked, unrepentant people – and his divine call was to preach the law to them, so as to turn their hearts, to break their pride, to re-orient their faces toward the Lord – so that the Lord might again embrace them and forgive their sins. But they didn’t listen. They would rather hear the phony “good news,” the false gospel of wolves in sheep’s clothing than to heed the warnings, the faithful preaching of the law of a simple preacher who lacked the ability to dazzle with brilliance and baffle with nonsense.

A con man is able to get away with fooling people only because people allow themselves to be fooled. People become victimized by pathological liars because they want so badly to believe them, and their false promises. Every day, people respond to e-mails that promise that a million dollars will be deposited into your account if you only give out your bank information. Of course, there is no million dollars – only criminals in Nigeria sucking money out of your checking account. Con men thrive on their victim’s sinful nature. And con men have been running variations of this scam since the serpent told Eve she would get better than a million dollars if she would only disobey God. Her greed got the best of her, and Adam allowed her to do it.

And it is this selfish, sinful nature that chooses the snake who lies to us instead of the God who gives us life. It is this sinful nature that chooses the smiling prophet of Baal with his dreamy visions over the droopy-faced Jeremiah with all his warnings. It is this sinful nature that falls prey to the wolf who lies to us about self-empowerment over the shepherd who proclaims Jesus to us.

For just as in Jeremiah’s day, we need to hear the Word of God call us to repentance. We desperately need faithful preachers who clearly and without waffling warn us – with all the alarm of Jeremiah and our Lord Jesus Christ! We need pastors, not politicians. We need the fire and hammer of God’s Word calling us to repent, not feel-good programs and watered-down doctrine that oozes out of our synodical and district offices. For in the final analysis, a cowardly preacher – all of his cutesy words and smily faces notwithstanding – is not being loving. Jeremiah risked his life preaching the truth to a hostile crowd. Paul was beheaded for his preaching. And we know what happened to our Lord.

Dear Christian friends, I know we sometimes sound like a broken record, but it is because we need to warn you – again and again. Don’t follow a preacher because he gives you a warm feeling inside. Don’t send a preacher money because he promises you health and wealth. Don’t listen to a preacher because he is a polished speaker who makes you laugh. Don’t be deceived by televangelists who even claim the ability to work miracles, who say “Lord, Lord!” and who quote the Bible chapter and verse.

For our Lord is warning us against them, and it is my vocation to do the same. If a preacher is telling you how to be a success in this world, he is a preacher sent by Satan. If a preacher tells you that your works, your prayers, or your money can make God love you, such a teacher is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If a preacher lacks the fire and hammer of God, and instead tells you just what you want to hear – run away like you have never run before! If a preacher is not preaching the cross of Jesus, there is a reason – because the cross is offensive to the devil. Why? Because that is what crushed his head and consigned him to hell. If a church or preacher has a problem with the cross – with Christ crucified, and with our cross that comes from following our Lord – that is a sure sign he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, one of Baal’s dreamers and con men – not a shepherd of the flocks of the Lord God.

And, dear friends, I wish with all my heart that I could simply point at the televangelists and preachers outside of Lutheranism, and even outside of the Missouri Synod. But I can’t do that. For our Lord tells us clearly that the false prophets would come “among you.” Just because we are Lutheran (LCMS Lutheran in fact) does not exempt us from our Lord’s warnings. For faithful preachers in our synod are under increasing pressure to compromise the Gospel, to play the numbers game, to make worship entertaining, to toss away the historic Christian faith in exchange for the dark pottage of a feel-good wishy-washy religion.

The devil will use any and all tactics to cripple and impede the proclamation of the Gospel. Satan will (and does) use the political leadership of our synod to attempt to gag faithful pastors from preaching the true Gospel to the Lord’s sheep.

Our Lord tells us that preachers who bear bad fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Only those who do the will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven. And what does it mean to do the will of God? In John chapter 6, the people asked Jesus: “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Our Lord replied: “This is the work of God: that you believe in him whom he sent.”

Jesus is not saying that unless we are all perfect, we will be sent to Hell. Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the Gospel! But to do the will of God is to believe in him. False prophets do not believe in him. They do not put their trust in the Triune God to rule and govern his church, instead relying on gimmicks and slogans. They do not depend on God the Son to redeem them from their iniquities, rather relying on their own works, their ablazing hearts, their purpose-driven life, rock music, or the latest fad being sold in so-called Christian stores.

As God’s beloved, redeemed people, if you want to tell the sheep from the wolves, pay attention to what they are saying. Do they preach and teach and confess the Word of God? Do they use the fire and hammer of God to purge and pound your sinful flesh? Do they warn you to turn from your sins – even begging with you, pleading with you because they truly believe the warning of our Lord in today’s text? Do they preach the pure Gospel that salvation is a gift of God secured by the blood of Jesus and given to you miraculously only through preaching and sacraments? Do they constantly point you to Jesus – not as merely a wonderful human being, not just as a teacher to imitate, but as God made flesh, as victim and priest, who died and rose again, that we poor miserable sinners might be reconciled with God? Anything less is of the devil. Anything less means you have a wolf in the pulpit.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I plead with you today not to listen to false preachers – no matter how “Christian” they may sound. I plead with you to avoid the all-too-common temptation to think that loving Jesus and being nice is more important than doctrine. I plead with you to heed the warning of Jesus that not every preacher is leading people to heaven.

Unless you are hearing that baptism saves you, that Jesus gives his flesh and blood to you for the forgiveness of sins, that Jesus has ordained men to absolve you of your sins, you are not hearing the Gospel. And if you’re not hearing the Gospel, you’re hearing something else – something evil and diabolical – something characteristic of the ravenous wolf.

The Lord has indeed provided his Church with faithful preachers in every generation – men who truly believe God’s Word, and who see themselves as restrained by it. Our Lord will not leave you to the cruelties of the wolves, but has given you, and will give you, true shepherds who preach the truth to you out of love for you, and devotion to the instructions of their Lord.

Don’t listen to them because of who they are, because of what they sound like, what they look like, or how they make you feel. Listen to them because they preach what is true. Heed them because they preach the Word of God. And rejoice with them not because they entertain you, but because they have been given the authority to proclaim forgiveness to you. A false prophet will never simply invoke the Holy Trinity and forgive your sins, asking nothing in return. Instead, a false prophet will make lavish promises that he can’t keep. He will never be content merely to be a servant of the Word, that is to say, a slave of Christ, and only to speak on behalf of the Lord Jesus saying:

“I forgive you all your sins…”

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 7 (Pentecost 8)

10 July 2005 at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church

Text: Matt 13:1-9, 18-23 (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s text is the very familiar Parable of the Sower. In fact, it’s so familiar, there is a temptation to gloss over it. But it is so important – especially in our culture – when words are no longer considered powerful, and are, in fact, simply matters of interpretation. In fact, our current age is different than most of the centuries of the Christian Church in that most people in our time and place no longer believe words have concrete and unchanging meanings. Today, words are seen as flimsy expressions of opinion, and they can even mean the opposite of what the speaker of those words really means.

In his horrifying novel 1984, George Orwell describes a government department called the Ministry of Truth (whose job it was to lie) and the Ministry of Peace (whose job it was to make war). There were language police and thought police – because we all know that if one can control language, one can control how one thinks, and thus, how one behaves. Political correctness is based on this desire to control the words we use as a way of controlling our thoughts and behavior.

But what does Scripture say about words, and specifically about the Word of God?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us a little short story – and, of course, stories are all comprised of words – words with specific meanings. In this story, a farmer plants seeds by tossing them to and fro. Of course, the outcome depends on the circumstances of where it lands. If the seeds land on the road, they are exposed to being eaten by birds, and produce no crop. Those that fall in shallow, rocky soil spring up quickly, but quickly die off because they have no sturdy root system. The ones that fall in the thorny ground get choked off, and die for lack of sunshine. And the seeds that land on good soil not only grow and thrive, but at the end of their lifespan, will produce up to 100 new seeds, so the farmer can plant anew.

Of course, Jesus explains this story as an allegory, as a parable explaining how God’s Word works. His word is tossed about like seeds by preachers. And although every Word of God has power (just as every seed has the power to become a viable plant) – not every preached Word yields repentance, salvation, and eternal life. We ourselves can become impediments to preaching, either by allowing the devil to snatch the Word from our hearts, or by lacking depth by not being rooted into the Church – causing us to grow quickly only to be scorched at the first sign of trouble. We can also allow the cares and worries of our lives to choke out the little plant of faith as it presses its way toward heaven.

This little story is a warning to all of us hearers of the Word, and also a warning to preachers who think they are anything more than one who delivers God’s Word. A preacher cannot bring a sinner to repentance by being a good speaker, or a salesman, or a debater, or a clown. A preacher may have the best personality and the most charming presence in the pulpit, and yet no-one is converted; while at the same time, another preacher, a dry, dull, uninspiring preacher, may well bring the life-giving Gospel of our Lord to many.

The rock band The Who have a line from one of their songs: “It’s the singer not the song that makes the music move along.” That may well be true for singers. But when it comes to preachers of the Gospel, the opposite is true: “It’s the Gospel not the preacher that converts the wayward creature.” Now, if you hear that line on Bayou 105.7, I need to know about it.

And yet, the Word needs someone to speak it, to proclaim it, just as a seed needs a sower to cast it about.

The preacher is basically a parrot, a mouthpiece. He is authorized to speak, but only what has been given to him: the pure Word of God. His own opinions, thoughts, feelings, plans, strategies, and schemes mean nothing. Whether it’s Forty Days of Purpose, or Ablaze, or Seven Steps to Living At Your Full Potential, or some other spiritual success program – he has no business preaching it. It is only God’s Word that can deliver the goods.

The most frustrating thing for any preacher is the age-old problem (in fact, it’s so old, it’s name is in Latin) “Cur alii, alii non?” Why some, and not others? Why can two reasonable and intelligent people hear the same Gospel. One repents, the other does not. One believes, the other scoffs. One enjoys everlasting life, the other, damnation and hell? This is the age-old crux theologorum, the “Theologian’s Cross.” The fact that some people will not only not be saved by our preaching, but will actually be condemned to hell by our very words – is indeed a pastor’s burden. It’s the kind of thing that makes us look to heaven and ask “Why?”

Our Lord’s parable explains all of this – though perhaps not to our liking.

But look at what comfort this text offers us hearers and us preachers. It is not up to me whether or not people repent. It is the Word alone.

It is not up to you to “empower” yourselves to lead a Christian life – not by seven steps, 40 days, or by telling a hundred million people about Jesus by 2017. In fact, it’s not about big numbers on your part at all: it’s about the one sacrifice of the one begotten Son of God for you!

No, indeed, it’s not about your works (thank God!), for you are merely soil. The power is not in the soil, but in the seed. God does it all for you. He creates the seed, and he provides a sower to plant it within you. He waters you with Holy Baptism, and nourishes you with his Holy Supper. He covers you from Satanic assaults with the canopy of Holy Absolution, and continues to lovingly weed and tend you using the farmer’s preaching and pastoral care.

And contrary to our post-modern culture’s view that words mean nothing, God’s Word is secure and sure. God will not, no, he can not break his own promise. When God created the universe, he did it through his word: “Let there be light, and there was light.” “In the beginning was the Word.”

In our culture, we often think of words only as symbolic squiggles on a page. In the Hebrew language, the word for “word” and the word for “thing” are the same word. To put it another way, God speaks, and there is reality. God says: “let there be…” and there is.

So what does this mean for the Church? We gather here every Sunday to hear and respond in the liturgy (which really is God’s Word). And when God speaks, it is a reality. When God says: “I forgive you all your sins,” and when God says: “This is my body… This is my blood… for the forgiveness of sins,” he is not merely expressing a hope, or describing something – God’s Word creates the reality itself.

You are not merely being described as forgiven, dear friends, you are forgiven. These elements of bread and wine aren’t just symbols, they are reality. When we join the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven in singing the unending hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we aren’t just pretending, we are indeed joining the heavenly hosts around the throne of God himself, in a way that our sin-limited reason cannot understand.

In our Old Testament reading, the preacher Isaiah proclaims the Word of the Lord, and he quotes God as saying: “So shall my word that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

And Paul, in our Epistle explains what the purpose of the Word of God is: it’s all about creation. Just as the Word of God created all reality in the book of Genesis, it is the Word of God that is re-creating the universe, fixing the very thing we broke. God’s word in the book of Revelation describes what this new creation will be like. We are part of this great divine construction project. And it is being carried out by God’s Word.

This Word is there to both condemn and save, it is both Law and Gospel. Preachers are not to change this simple biblical formula, but are there to proclaim it. To those whose hearts are hard, like unfruitful soil, the Word of God condemns (while always seeking the repentance of the sinner). To those who do repent, whose hearts receive the seed like a fertile garden, the Word of God saves. And it does more than save! It brings growth. It brings fruit. It multiplies and benefits many.

Though it seems to the preacher some days that he is wasting his time, that the preaching of the Word of God is doing nothing – this is not so. Though words seem to the world to be worthless wisps of air, this is not so. Though man’s word is laced with lies and easily broken, not so with God’s word. The word of God is always potent, always full of power and might.

As the hymnwriter, the sainted Dr. Martin Franzmann, proclaims:

Thy strong word did cleave the darkness

At Thy speaking it was done.

For created light we thank Thee,

While Thine ordered seasons run.

Thy strong Word bespeaks us righteous;

Bright with Thine own holiness,

Glorious now we press toward glory,

And our lives our hopes confess.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us pray that our preachers may ever faithfully proclaim the Word of God, in season and out of season. And that we hearers may not despise it, but always gladly hear and learn it. Let us pray that the seed planted within us may be nourished, that our faith may grow, that our good works spring from us like fruits on a vine, and that even as we live out our lives on this side of the grave, we may always be a blessing to those around us. And all of this so that our almighty and merciful Lord may use his strong Word to carry out his work of re-creating the universe anew. All glory be to the Triune God alone, now and throughout eternity. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 6

3 July 2005 at Mt. Olive L.C. Metairie, LA

Text: Matt 5:17-26 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

“…you will be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.” This is the Gospel of the Lord.

Gospel? What Gospel? This is one of those Gospel readings that is filled with irony. Jesus is preaching the law in its severity. He tells us we must be perfect to see the kingdom of heaven. He tells us we have to be even better than the Ten Commandments. He tells us that if we aren’t, we are in danger of hell fire. And he ends on this note about being put into prison where we will never get out. After all of this, the pastor says: “This is the Gospel of the Lord.” Of course, Gospel means “good news.” Where is the good news in all of this? It sure sounds like bad news, doesn’t it?

Maybe the church fathers all those centuries ago who decided that we would use this text on the 6th Sunday of Trinity didn’t really understand the Gospel. Maybe Martin Luther, who preached on this very same text on this very same Sunday in the 16th century didn’t get it either.

Well, dear friends, I do indeed have some good news for you today. There is certainly Gospel, lots of it, in today’s text! The church fathers, and faithful pastors throughout the centuries like Blessed Martin Luther indeed knew what they were doing.

We Lutherans tend to focus heavily on Law and Gospel as a way of dividing God’s Word rightly. And we should do this! But we also have a tendency to overdo it. Some folks go so far as to use markers to color code verses of the Bible, categorizing them as either law or gospel, as either showing us our sins, or showing us our savior. But this is an oversimplification. One man’s law is another man’s gospel. The very same passage in Scripture can both condemn and save.

And let’s take a look at our Gospel text. Our Lord says: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Unless you are more pious, more righteous, more holy than the hard-core religious folks who go to church every Sunday, give generously to charity, never curse, or drink, or dance, or associate with the wrong kind of people – you have no hope at all. Unless you’re even more into the Bible than the scribes themselves, the clergy, the theologians, and the teachers, well, you’re doomed.

Think about Jesus’ audience, the prostitutes and tax collectors, the thieves and the desperate poor. Can you imagine their reaction? Jesus tells them they have to be more holy than the very people who look down on them for their unholiness. And how to do this? Well, Jesus says it’s not good enough to not murder anyone in order to keep the fifth commandment. No, you must not even have a bad thought, or call anyone a name – otherwise, what awaits you is hell. This doesn’t sound like a lot of Gospel to me. Jesus may have found himself thrown out of the Missouri Synod preaching like this!

And Jesus tells us that if a legal action is taken against us, if a judge is ready to hear our case and send us to debtor’s prison, the wise thing to do is settle out of court, lest we be thrown into prison. And we all know what debtor’s prison means. It is a life sentence, unless someone on the outside can pay your debts for you. And this, dear Christian brothers and sisters, is where the Gospel begins to poke its head into our dark prison of the law!

Jesus’ preaching in our text, and indeed the Old Testament lesson for today, the Ten Commandments themselves, are law to those who are in need of repentance. To those who stand condemned by the Ten Commandments, and by Jesus’ preaching, there is nothing but Law, judgment, death, and hell. But to those of us who are being saved, those of us redeemed, baptized, reborn children of God, there is indeed hope and promise here!

The only way any of this makes any sense at all is in light of the cross. For only in Christ crucified are these texts gospel, and not law. Martin Luther coined a term for the work and ministry of Jesus – he called it “the blessed exchange.”

Now, an exchange is a transaction, a trade. And to a certain extent, all trades are blessed, that is to say, happy, exchanges. Whether you’re trading baseball cards, or exchanging your labor for money, or using money to buy a car, the trade will only happen if it is beneficial, or happy, for both parties. When you buy a car, you value the car more than the price you pay for it, and the seller values your money more than the car. It’s a win-win situation, a sort-of blessed exchange in its own right. But this is not what Luther is speaking of.

Let’s think about another kind of exchange, one that a parent might make with a child. Maybe your son or daughter is having a tough time financially and is in need of a car, and you sell yours to him or her – not to make money, but rather to help. Maybe you’ll even give it away – not out of a sense of making the exchange profitable for both, but rather out of love. When love – especially the kind of self-sacrificing love a parent has for a child – comes into play, what makes an exchange blessed is quite different.

One of my former students is getting a kidney transplant this summer. The donor will be one of his parents. The mother or the father will not get anything in return – and yet, both are willing to give everything – even their very lives – for their beloved son.

And this is the kind of love Our Father, who art in heaven, has for us.

When Jesus died on the cross in our place, he gave all, and received nothing. We gave nothing, and received all. This is the “blessed exchange.” We are the ones blessed. It is a happy deal for us, and one that gains God nothing. And yet, he does it out of love. Jesus, the Innocent One, undergoes the passion for all the sins of the world, and we guilty ones receive no punishment. Jesus, the only begotten Son of God cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” while we pray: “Our Father who art in heaven.” Jesus, the Lamb of God, dies for sins he never committed, while we, the prodigal, rebellious deserters of God, receive eternal life. Jesus takes on our sins, and we take on Jesus’s righteousness. That’s the blessed exchange.

Now we can see how it is that we “poor miserable sinners” can indeed have a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. This is because it is Jesus’s rightousness! It is a righteousness that is willed to us by our Lord’s testament – “this cup is the new testament in my blood” – shed for the forgiveness of sins. It is only by this last will and testament that we receive the riches to pay off our debts, that we can be released from the debtor’s prison of sin, death, and the devil.

And this is why the Pharisees, and others like them, will never have the kind of righteousness God demands. For they are relying on themselves. They think so highly of themselves that they believe their own righteousness is sufficient. Like the Pharisee who came to Jesus seeking eternal life, he claimed that he has kept the Ten Commandments perfectly from his childhood. This poor man is so deluded by sin that he can see neither law nor gospel in the Ten Commandments! They are saying in effect: “No thanks, Jesus, we don’t need your charity. I’m doing just fine on my own, thank you!”

These Pharisees mocked our Lord, and called him a drunkard and a glutton because he, unlike themselves, drank wine, feasted, and sat at the table with sinners.

And Jesus is still scandalizing the self-righteous today by inviting us to his table, to his feast, eating and drinking with us sinners – even giving of himself and continuing the blessed exchange to this very day, declaring the Law to those who need to repent, and proclaiming the Gospel to all those in need of comfort.

And notice how the Ten Commandments read as Gospel to us redeemed sinners who are being re-created and re-made in our Lord’s image. Not only are they commands, but also statements. “You shall have no other gods.” This is a future tense statement. It is a coming reality. At some point, we will be perfected, and we will worship only God. “You shall not murder.” Indeed, there will come a time when you will keep this commandment perfectly, when you will never utter remarks against others, when you will in word and deed “not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” All of these commandments are in the form of future tense statements of reality. And we, dear brothers and sisters, will see that day!

As Paul says in our Epistle text, “our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” And as we confess in the creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” As we continue to allow our Lord to heal us with absolution and the preaching of the Gospel, as we live out the baptismal life, being recreated anew at the font, and as we continue to partake of the mystical meal in which Jesus joins his flesh and blood to ours – we continue to be remade anew. We are indeed being perfected in body and soul. And while it may well not seem like it to us, we who struggle with sin every day, we have been swapped out by a blessed exchange.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, your righteousness indeed exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes – for it is the righteousness of Jesus Himself! We are not left on our own to struggle and fail – for the struggle ended when Jesus said: “It is finished!” We are now in the last days waiting for the final chapters in history to play out. And we know how the story ends, and it is a happy, blessed ending.

Indeed, we have been freed to reconcile with our enemies, to forgive our persecutors and slanderers, to be reconciled with our brethren before approaching this altar. We have been liberated from the Old Adam so that we might indeed do good works – works of true righteousness unlike the tainted acts of the Pharisees who sought their own glory. And these works are Christ’s works – lest we seek credit and glory ourselves.

And indeed, we have been released from prison, for the last penny has been paid.

This is the Gospel of the Lord! Praise be to Thee, O Christ!

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.