Pray the hard Psalms.

Why, O Lord do you stand so far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? It seems impious to question the will of the divine. But it’s the 10th Psalm. God-given words for us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. It’s a prayer God meant you to utter. It is it hymn God intended you to sing. He actually insists that you ask. Where was God when Herod’s soldiers went house to house slaughtering toddlers? Where is God as the tragedy continues today? Why does He hide in times of trouble? Why does He seem so far away?

After asking, there’s really only two things you can do. Either look to His word, where He speaks to you about it to answer your anger, your pain, and your fear…or you can just assume that He has nothing to say. The Psalm continues, “In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” So today, and really every day since the Psalm was written, it seems deep down like we end up spending more time defending God than He spends defending us. It seems like whenever tragedy arises, we need to protect the idea and reputation of God from anybody that might actually look around and say it’s not OK. Everybody questions it, but the tragedy is that the atheists of the world have become more comfortable praying the 10th Psalm than the Christians. They’ll say out loud what we’re afraid to speak. Instead, we come up with a list of reasons why everything is totally OK right now. God only allowed that thing to happen, He didn’t cause it, and that somehow makes it better even though He’s all-powerful and could have stopped it. Here’s some fortune cookie slogan about God’s plan that tries to reframe the situation so it doesn’t sound so horrible. Here’s something besides His word that makes us seem content when we aren’t because deep down, some poem about footprints in the sand or some man-made parable about a bunch of blind guys grabbing hold of an elephant and trying to figure out what it is don’t really do a great job of answering the issue behind every single religion the claims that its god is loving. Why is there evil?

I’d like to imagine Joseph prayed the 10th Psalm as he gave up every single idea of what his life would be like. As he fled his home to protect a kid that wasn’t even his from being slaughtered. This was not a camping trip. He became a refugee. He was like Rachel, who weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted because they are no more. Thousands of voices join hers, together in lament, as Herod slaughters their children. Because an angel didn’t warn them to run. Why do You stand so far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

This is not the time for a cute poem about footprints that you know full well isn’t actually in the Bible. I don’t have any good excuses here. It’s not because God does not explain it. It’s because we don’t really like the answer that He gives. He describes Himself as a God we are not entirely sure that we want. Because we want a God who gives us free will. We want a God who gives us freedom from risk. Freedom to choose. Freedom from injustice. Freedom from suffering. It was everything that King Herod wanted too. He prayed to the god of security and he made rite sacrifices. He wanted to make his own choices. He wanted not to be deposed from his leadership. Not to face hardship. Not to hurt. If I’m being truly honest, I, a poor miserable sinner, confess to you that I can relate more to Herod in the story than I can’t Christ. I want those things too, but my Lord left them all behind. He left behind the glory and security of heaven to be born in a manger, smuggled across borders, only to die on a cross. I don’t think I’m alone. I think most of us would prefer a Herod to a Christ, as long as he’s on our team.

We want security from God every bit as much as we want security from God. I want security apart from His law. Security apart from receiving His sacrament often for my good. I want security apart from having to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. I want security from His wrath when I ignore His word. So we can all recoil at the price that Herod was willing to pay. Maybe even learn something from the fact that even though he made this awful sacrifice to a false god called security, he still died, so it didn’t work. But still, we play the same game on a smaller scale. I don’t know anyone who sacrificed thousands of lives, but statistically more women enter Planned Parenthood for an abortion identifying as Christian than not. And men, spared from having to sacrifice this way to the false god of choice, are every bit as guilty. We find plenty of other ways to chase the very same securities we think we need. All we’re really doing is quibbling over the price we’re willing to pay for them. Because after praying the 10th Psalm, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” We make it ours to fix rather than turning to His word. Just like Rachel, we refuse to be comforted.

But to those who keep reading, the Psalm concludes “The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land. O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.” Your Lord hears the frustrated and desperate pleas when things do not get better. When, for all of our talk a free will, we still can’t control this creation nearly as much as we want. Our God answers. He tells us that Jesus did not stop Herod from mass massacring children, but instead He works salvation even in the middle of it. He entered into this weakness, entered into this tragedy, to carve a path through death to the resurrection. To create a kingdom not bound to getting your way, voting for the proper things, or building a kingdom of this world. To offer a word that confronts the demands of the law with the promises of the gospel.

The slaughter of the unborn is bad. It’s always bad. There are no excuses. There are no justifications. But there is forgiveness. There is forgiveness because Jesus entered into this creation not simply to stop the bad things from happening but bleed and die bearing the weight of the wrath of God for them, for you, so there is forgiveness, life, and salvation for the murdered and murderers alike. It changes the way we frame the debate. Because if your talk about abortion has to do with winners and losers, understand that Christ would fall on the wrong side. Not because He’s wrong, but because He put Himself into the camp that lost. He died on the cross apart from control, apart from security, or any of the other things that we are so desperate for. And we thank Him for it because He died for us.

God did not enter into this creation to fix the things that we messed up by our sin and hope we learn to do better, but to forgive us sinners. It puts the object of our salvation closer to us when things fall apart. That’s where God puts Himself for you. He does not hang it on the other side of making good choices or dangle it in front of those who do the right thing. When we have no good answer, no good explanation, we have the cross. We have forgiveness made real and made ours, rather than explanations and poems about footprints. Because God does not simply dare to be with us in strength to carry us when we are weak. He dares to be with us in weakness himself, to bleed and die for us that we would have more than just a path through this life, but a path into the next. Because explanations are resigned to how things are, but the cross ends in the empty tomb. It changes how we can confront these things that terrify and destroy. We deal with them in the forgiveness of sins. We deal with them in the gospel of life everlasting. We deal with them by looking at ourselves and each other and simply saying your sins are forgiven you. All of your sins are forgiven you because Jesus died for you. Your abortion is forgiven you because Jesus died for are you, and he is risen from the dead.

Herod slaughtered the innocent. Rachel wept and refused to be comforted. Joseph left his home and his life, but he did so in hope. As much as he endured, the Bible never describes him as being scared. Mary either. I’m not saying they weren’t. I’m pretty sure they were terrified, but it didn’t drive them. It didn’t control them. Herod when mad with fear. It did control him. It took over how he made his choices and warped how he saw the world.

As much as he would try and control his kingdom, it was his fear that controlled him. He became bound to that which left him dead in wrath, while Joseph was bound to our Lord who gave comfort even in the midst of affliction and kept him and all who believe into life everlasting. He gives life to those who have lost their own. To slaughtered toddlers, that the faithful would rise free from such pain and tragedy, and also to you. Cling to He who saves us from death by bearing it for us. Stand firm in your baptism and know that God does not stand back from you, but bears His mercy and will for you upon the cross.

Pray the hard Psalms.

lift up your heads

This time of year everything is magnified. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. I see it in the size of my kids’ eyes get when they see Christmas lights. The highs get higher. The lows get lower too. This time of year, tragedy hits harder. Loneliness and loss are exponentially more painful and only made all the worse by the desire to suffer quietly so that you don’t ruin somebody else’s Christmas. Nobody likes a Grinch. Or a Scrooge. Or anyone else who is vilified for daring to feel hurt or lonely this time of year without knowing what to do about it. It’s probably got at least a little bit to do with why so many people spend their holidays trying to re-create that perfect Christmas from way back when chasing something they can’t quite recapture no matter how hard they try. Not being able to recreate it is probably why some have just given up on every tradition and doing something completely different, like a ground-up attempt to define the day as anything but what used to be, and hurts.

The highs get us caught up in the moment, but the lows only leave us looking back. We look back to some overly romanticized idea of shepherds out in their fields at night. But not real ones who say the kinds of words that anybody has ever worked with livestock tends to say and definitely can’t be repeated by kids during their Christmas programs. W imagine Mary in a stable filled with animals doing animal stuff, looking real put-together despite having just given birth. We look back with the same kind of romanticism to the stuff that we used to have. A time where we didn’t have the problems we have today. A time when things were simpler. Because today, we see the signs. Distress of nations. Fear and foreboding over what is coming in the world. I might not know all your private pains, but I see the ones on the news. I see that telltale reaction of hearts weighed down. We curl in on ourselves. We curl in on the memories of what was. We curl in to shield others from our sorrows and pains. We curl in to hide from the distress of what’s around. So our Lord speaks to us.

Lift up your heads. Straighten up. Your redemption draws near. Your Lord was born to troubles such as these. For sinners such as us. Lift up your heads. Not in pride or some sort of inner peace or strength found within by watching the right number of Christmas movies. Lift up your head and look back not just to a memory of what was in better days, but for actual help. To see something accomplished that changed everything else. Lift up your heads and see that our Lord has entered into this creation for you so that even in times such as these we might rejoice, who stand tall. He entered into an awkward family situation, to say the very least. He lived under an oppressive government, surrounded by death and decay, and sin and pain, loss and death. All of it, to actually address the things that are wrong, everything that turns grinches in scrooges into what they are, everything that’s tarnished memories or left them just out of reach. Christ was born to magnify loss and suffering in sin and to Himself so that in times of trouble we can looked at the fig tree, see the budding leaves, and know that summer is near. That tree is the cross. It is not empty. It flowers as our Lord hangs there. You see it in the nails and spear that pierce him through. You see your salvation there. You hear His promise. It is finished. After seeing that finished, you can finally face today and dare to look forward. Summer is near. Soon all the world will see it. Soon it will be brought into light, but today we still get peeks. Like Christmas lights shining through open windows at night, but the light of white will return in full for you on that last great day when Christ advents and we join Him in the resurrection. Free of darkness. But even now, lift up your heads. Advent speaks to today.

Lift up your heads. This is not a generic ‘we wish you a merry Christmas’ from a stranger that can’t actually fix what’s wrong. It isn’t a hopeless wish things would finally be better again someday met with the reality of having to fake it for another year. It is a present-day promise of what actually was and absolutely will be. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the word endures forever, and this promise is echoed in our cry of ‘come, Lord Jesus!” answered in the now. He advents to weighed down and burdened hearts. He advents today in the communion of the saints, where He gathers angels and archangels in all of the company of heaven and brings them with Him to meet you at the rail. Those who sleep, who you mourn, who you miss are gathered around Him, rejoicing in the same redemption brought to you. You can actually see it. Lift up your heads to the foretaste of the feast that will come on that last day. See the strength to face this one. Lift up your head and look at the peace of the Lord in the body of Christ for you to eat. You are not a people to be bowed over. Your Lord advents to redeem. The kingdom of God is present, so near you can taste it. You are not alone. You are not forgotten. Your redemption draws near.

lift up your heads

it’s not either or

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt tied to a donkey, not a warhorse. He rode into Jerusalem a heavenly king, not an earthly one. You already know that though. So take some time to smirk at the Pharisees who only wanted an earthly king. Christ was not what they wanted. It took about a week before they couldn’t handle it anymore and killed Him. Then go back to asking what good is a God if He won’t heal my sickness and get me a raise at work and fix all my worldly problems.

Especially this time of year let’s ease over over this sin businesses. It’s less important. After all, nobody should know the name of the thing that’s causing them such pain, right? It’s more fun to think about shopping and then maybe a little bit of earthly charity to make us not feel so bad about the shopping than a Christ born to save us from selfishness and sin. We can smirk at the Pharisees, but we want every bit as much the earthly king. Probably because we live on the same earth. There are plenty of problems in front of us. There are plenty of hurts. If we are willing to look at the Pharisees with any bit of the compassion our Lord does, we’d see where they’re coming from. We can honestly relate to more than a little of it. They wanted God to free them from an oppressive government occupation. Like He promised to. The crowds wanted help because they were poor and sick and dying. So instead of addressing that which might actually be our fault, let alone that which God calls wrong, it’s easy to understand why we just want the pain to go away.

When we talk about sin, it’s the diagnosis of the pain that we already feel, not a chance to try and kick somebody while they’re already down. The law is given not to make you feel worse but to diagnose the problem that already has you feeling bad. God gives us His law and it names what’s wrong. It’s great at identifying the problem. It’s absolutely awful at fixing it. So Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to save a people who cannot save themselves, a people sinful and hurting and scared clamoring for an earthly king because we have plenty of earthly problems. We start Advent with a Palm Sunday text because Advent is about God showing up, even inside of a sinful and painful world. Even for a sinful and broken people. Ours is not the God who stands back. He advents. He rides into Jerusalem knowing full well what will happen to Him. He comes into the city to bleed and to die for the sinners who cannot save themselves. He comes into this world to suffer and earn forgiveness for you. This is the name by which He shall be called: the Lord our righteousness. Because he is.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt tied to a donkey so that your righteousness is no longer yours to earn or buy. It was a gift given. Ours is the One who rides into Jerusalem to be our righteousness so that even though we can identify the problems we have from the law, we might look somewhere else for the answer to them. Other than ourselves and our own best efforts. Other than a chance to try and balance the scales so that the things we have done right might somehow outweigh the things we have done wrong. Ours is it the Lord rode into Jerusalem on a colt tied to a donkey to bleed and die on the cross for you. To forgive you all of your sins. He is your heavenly king, your Savior. It’s not that the earthly staff doesn’t matter. It matters so much God will join us in it. Suffering matters so much that our Lord would assume it and sanctify it even as He bears it for you. Poverty matters so much to the Lord that He who is rich beyond measure in the heavens would cast it aside to walk homeless in this world to save us. Death matters so much that our Lord would breathe His last and die so that we would be freed from it and live again. He is our heavenly king because to deal with that which is wrong on earth, He fixes what’s broken underneath it first. This is how we can face the rest of the things wrong down here.

It’s not either or. It’s not a heavenly king or an earthly king. It’s not a refusal to act for earthly needs because He’s already fixed the heavenly ones, so just be happy because at least you’re going to happen. It’s that if our Lord loves the sinners down here enough to get them to the resurrection, He’s gonna have to work with us too. That’s all He’s got. So when He works down here, it’s messy. It would be really really easy for our God to have a perfectly ordered earth where there’s nothing wrong, where there’s nobody hurting and nobody hurting others. He would just get rid of all the sinners. It would be lonely. I know you wouldn’t be there. So instead, when our Lord wants to save sinners He works among them in mercy. Instead of simply dealing with us by the law, He comes by the gospel. Not just into a world full of sin and suffering, but for the people inside of it. Not just forgiving, but healing and helping and loving, so we don’t need to ignore the blame to shield our hearts. We don’t need to hide from our faults. Our prayers don’t need to the hooks baited with charity work done once a year like some kind of sales pitch as to why we are actually worth helping. Instead, we pray to the God who wades into the midst of the pit to pull us out of it. God will not abandon us to our sins and our deaths but will join us to rise and give life everlasting. He gives us the prayers of all of the saints that gathered around Him as he rode into Jerusalem that day. Hosanna. Save us. Hosanna to the Son of David. Because He bears the name of the Lord. He is YAHWEH. God of God, light of light very God of very God. Riding into Jerusalem on a petting zoo pony so that He can save us sinners who cannot save ourselves. Save us sinners who deserve nothing but punishment, but who are died for. Who are worth helping because we have been Redeemed. Purchased and won, not with gold or silver but with His holy and precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. He will save us from all of it. Not just the fires of hell, but He’ll even work mercy in this world too. It won’t be ordered because we make a big mess down here. It will be messy, but He will not stand back from the mess we have made. He works in it even as He joins us to carry us through it. He is risen. We will rise. Even death cannot destroy. Now we can look past simply hoping to leave the land of Egypt. Now we can look past earthly needs. Now we can know that we are brought out of the land of sin and death to dwell in our own land, the resurrection. Life everlasting, free from the pains of this world because ours is the crucified king, even Jesus our Lord.

it’s not either or

Don’t look at the list. Look at the kind.

Matthew 25:31-46

It says something about us that the very second we hear the text about how Jesus will judge on the last day, we have to start looking for loopholes. All we see is the list. These are the things to do. And honestly, the things that I didn’t do. Loopholes help. Sometimes we’ll even invent nice trite sayings to try and add legitimacy. God helps those who help themselves. And then just ignore the entire rest of the book where Jesus only helps sinners who can’t help themselves. Maybe just chalk it up to the fact that nobody’s perfect. It’s not that that stuff doesn’t matter. It’s that if you were to measure out all of the things that we’ve done, both good and the bad, most of us we figure we’re at least trending positive. But the maddening part is when you go and read what the Lord has to say and see that nobody is actually left out for what they did. It’s for what they didn’t do.

Each did the stuff on the list. The sheep and the goats both. The sheep by Jesus own words. The goats by their surprise. “When did we not do these things?” Because they were already trying. When my wife asks me to do the dishes, then I don’t do them and she asks me why the dishes aren’t done, I won’t say “when did you see me not do these dishes?” If I miss one, that might be a surprise. Don’t act like you have to be a Christian just to be nice to people. It isn’t that the goats didn’t do just that. It’s just that apparently they didn’t do enough. Which is a scary thought. Because everybody did at least some of the stuff on the list. The question is whether or not I want to be judged based on how well I did it.

The list only really seems to encourage that kind of behavior. You can go through that list and find a couple of things I really want to hold up as a reward. You can find some things you know you didn’t do. Most of all you can find the things that people should have done for you and didn’t. Which is the thing about attaching any kind of judgment to this list. It becomes about you, not actually helping your neighbor. And when you want to talk about what you’ve earned it’s uncomfortable. Not just because you know what you didn’t do. Also because the Jesus who says that He wants the least of these cared for seems to have set up a system where the only ones who can’t be saved are the least of these.

You homeless people, invite other people into your homes, or be damned. You sick people, make sure you visit the sick so they can catch what you have, pandemic style. You hungry, share the food you don’t have, or go straight to hell. When you look at the list to figure out judgment, at best the least of these, whom Jesus says He loves so much, turn into an object lesson as to why some people go to hell. But the Lord doesn’t wish that. Read the text. Jesus will say to those on his left, “Depart from me you cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Hell was not made for men. It was made for the devil and his angels. God wants no human there. None. It’s just we keep staring at that stupid list.

It makes everyone uncomfortable. Every single person on the last day is uncomfortable with Jesus’ assessment. The sheep and the goats both. Because the goats figured they did enough. They trusted in themselves and they don’t like what they’re hearing. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about doing good things, it’s somewhere down the line they miss somebody. The sheep, though, are every bit as uncomfortable. Even after they hear they already got in, they don’t like this. The one thing in the world they don’t want to be judged on is their works. The concept still bugs them even after hearing that they are sheep. They trusted in God and now they’re freaked out because he’s actually going to look at whether or not they did enough work. Because they know. If you look at works, they didn’t do enough. When, Lord, did we do these things for you?

The thing that separates the sheep and the goats is not what they were doing or even how much they were doing. It’s just where they put their trust. The only real separation is one simple question. Is your religion actually bigger than yourself or not? If your religion is only as big as the things that you can do, that’s one thing. If your religion is in a God much bigger than you, that’s another. The separation between sheep and goat is not measured in works, just whether or not God would have anything to do with His creation.

By the list, we all know no one should be saved. But what if Jesus actually loved the least of these as much as he claims to? Enough to come into this world to redeem those who have not earned it, who do not deserve it, but who our Lord loves? What if God entered His creation and assumed our weakness, our loneliness, our lack, our want, and even our sin? Carried them for us where we could not go? Brought them to that Cross to bleed and to die, not for the righteous but for sinners? Not for those who have earned their place in salvation, but for me and for you? This is our religion. This is our faith. Christ loves the least of these enough to die for them. Even you. He ties them so closely to Himself to feed one of these little ones to feed Him who died and rose for that one. That’s the religion in the rest of the book. Why would you set it aside on the last day? Do you really think that every word of mercy that our Lord would speak would finally stop when it all comes to matter?

By works the only people who can’t be saved are the least of these who God is so concerned with in the first place. So set aside the works. Set aside the list. Stop with the list and look at the kind. Because before we could ever grab hold of that awful list and start to lay out the things we did and failed to do, our Lord already makes clear how you got in. You are a sheep. Before the list ever shows up He separates them by kind. He set the sheep on His right and the goats on His left. Then the king will say to those on his right, “you are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. That’s not about the list at all. It’s about the kind. You are a sheep. You see it in when the kingdom was prepared for you. Before the foundation of the world. The kingdom was prepared for you before you ever were born. Prepared for you before you ever had a chance to even approach that list. You were named a sheep and your place in the kingdom of heaven was set aside. Before you could ever do the work, you were named righteous. Before you could ever want to accomplish that list, the Lamb of God was slain, even before the foundation of the world, for you.

The law only looks at the list. The gospel only looks at the kind. Start with the kind, and it opens up the possibility to look inside of Christianity for mercy and not loopholes. A chance to imagine that even the least of these who cannot do enough to fulfill the law can be saved. Sort of like the whole rest of the book tells us. It even lets us be honest with ourselves. In this life down here, I’ve done some good. I failed to do a lot more. And I’ve sinned a whole bunch. But my sins are on Christ, who was crucified for me. My sins are forgiven because He bled and died my salvation. And for yours.
Hell was not made for people. Our Lord wills no one down there. That anybody enters hell is a travesty, even to the Lord. And it only happens because they would not be sheep. Sinning doesn’t make you a goat. It makes you a goat if your religion is never bigger than yourself. Know where you fit in this. Yours is not to carry guilt or feel fire. Yours is to be saved by Jesus. The kingdom was not just prepared before the foundation of the world. It was prepared for you. Our comfort today is that the kingdom is already prepared with you in mind. With your suffering and your lack, your failures, and your sins. The kingdom was prepared for you by placing your sins on Jesus. Righteousness is yours by His gift to you. It isn’t measured in how much of the list you’ve accomplished. It isn’t measured in yourself at all. Only in what God has already finished. You can know you already have. You are baptized. Before the last day and you ever have to stand before the throne to make excuses and lay out your loopholes to see if they save, be baptized. Put on Christ. You are baptized before you could ever do good work. We wear our baptisms as armor against ourselves. Our shortcomings and our sins and our fears. We put on Christ and His holiness and His righteousness. Because you are baptized, you are holy. You do have salvation. You are now a saint. Because you are baptized, you put on Christ’s works and receive His rewards. On the last great day, you will hear, “come, you are blessed by My Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

Don’t look at the list. Look at the kind.

the church is where you go to fall asleep.

In a world where election news and pandemic news have made us long for the days when we argued about simpler stuff like whether or not it’s too early to listen to Christmas music or not – it is – the church, ever on the cusp of relevance, has deemed a time within the liturgical calendar to talk about the end of the world. But not the election end of the world or the pandemic end of the world or any of the other plates you’re trying to keep spinning but keep wobbling and convince you that it’s the end of the world. The real one the one. Where Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. That end of the world. The one where time ceases and that great endless day comes upon us and the dead in Christ are raised together with all of us alive to be caught up together in a cloud with the Lord in the air. That end of the world. Because as much as I was told that the election would usher in the end of days, thus far at least, it has been unsuccessful. Twitter was proven wrong once again. So watching everything wobble but not actually fall, we’ll hear a parable today about wise and foolish virgins, oil and lamps, and the bridegroom who is late to his own wedding.

You’ll all nod sagely and pray come Lord Jesus with approximately one gazillionth of the attention that you gave to news pundits this week telling you over and over and over again “there are still more votes to count. We don’t know yet. But just keep watching.” And for days on end, you did. I know it because they got paid to say it over and over again. But still, come Lord Jesus. Our Lord is late too. Look around. He told the disciples as He ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand Father that he would be back real soon. The truth is it’s a mess down here and we need Him. The truth is after like 2000 years of him saying “yo brb” it’s just hard to take it seriously. I don’t wanna call Him a liar on account of the fact that He rose from the dead, but still if we have an entire season in the church you’re dedicated to the end so that we would remember that we’re not allowed to be too comfortable down here because our Lord is coming back soon, I still cannot for the life of me shake the feeling that it’s still too far away to matter.

I’m not alone. From all of the churches that would forgo something as trivial as the literal end of the world to talk about something that only feels like it in the name of relevance, to the world that is too quick to remind us that saying words like relevant already prove that we’re not it, to the people who make lots and lots of money standing in front of cameras and telling us what we really need to fear love and trust and above all things, it just sort of feels like there’s way more important stuff to talk about Jesus returning to judge the living and the dead. That’s not new either. Four years ago the right went on actual television convinced that President Obama would not abdicate his office and insist on a third term. The left wrote that there would be nuclear war under President Trump. It felt like the end of the world. Now it feels really quaint to think about while 2020 makes memes about having 2016 hold its beer for likes on social media. It’s not that this stuff doesn’t matter. It actually matters a lot. That’s why we always think it’s the end of the world. That, and we don’t actually know what the end of the world means anymore.

So we don’t really know what to say to each other other than to complain to each other about how much worse things are today than they were back in the day, look for signs to try to predict what our Lord has already told us is unpredictable, and then worry. But when you take all of the actual problems in the world and then mix in the idea that Jesus will come back to judge the living and the dead but nobody can tell you when, aside from complaining it really only leaves us with two things to say to each other, and neither of them are particularly helpful. We can say I don’t know. I don’t know when the end will be. I don’t know why this is happening. I don’t know when it will stop, but don’t be alarmed, for some reason. There’s a plan. God has a wonderful plan for your life. Everything happens for a reason. You just don’t get to know what it is, and it won’t hurt less even if you did, but try to find comfort in the fact that you have absolutely no control over your life and the God who keeps doing things that you hate. It’s not helpful.

Even worse, just wait. Keep watch. Stay awake. When everything falls apart, wait. On your worst week in recent memory, wait. When you are suffering and confused, when you were lost and alone, just wait. Someday you’ll go to heaven. Someday you’ll see the ones you’ve lost again. Someday it just won’t hurt so much to be here. But not today. Just wait. When it all gets to be too much, just wait. Stay awake. Keep watch. And absolutely don’t ask out loud who is late to his own wedding. It makes the church feel like the place that we get together once a week to give each other pep talks about pretending to be hopeful and joyful to impress God while simultaneously complaining about literally everything that we say He’s in control of.

But there’s a parable about wise virgins that has to be addressed. We figure we’ve got to be them. The ones who were prepared for darker days. Prepared to withstand absolutely anything. They had enough oil. We’ll make up some explanation as to what the oil must be. Then try to find it. Scrounge up enough of it to smile in the world this dark, which by the way is the real reason people listen to Christmas music. The thing is some, people hold out longer than others, but did you notice in the parable that oil or not, prepared or not, everyone falls asleep? The wise in the fools together. Sooner or later it just gets to be too much. Everyone falls asleep. Christians are not given superpowers to hurt less or carry more. Still, so many of us put on a brave face and try it anyway. I see us buy wholesale into that lie that we can and then collapse wondering why we fell when we should have stood. So much of it comes from looking at absolutely everything but the bridegroom himself.

We look at the tribulations of this world and fret. We look at the late hour of the day and worry. We look at the oil in the lamps and try and prepare. We look at absolutely everything but God and we miss the promise. He who loves you will be here. It’s not the foolish weren’t prepared. It’s that they left they chased after all those things that they thought would be the end of the world. All those things that they were sure they needed to address right this minute. They chased after the oil they thought they needed and weren’t there when the bridegroom came. He who doesn’t know them isn’t upset about a lack of oil. It’s that they weren’t there. Did you notice in the text it never actually says they found the oil? They went looking for it at midnight and they didn’t have Walmart back then. They were afraid of absolutely everything and by running off managed to fix absolutely nothing. They forgot the point of being here in the first place.

This is not where we go to give each other pep talks so that we will be ready. This is where we go to fall asleep. The bridegroom will be here. So we wait for Him and fall asleep in Christ. We sit here in the dark together and we wait for the end. We fall asleep watching the world decay and sing hymns while we do it and it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful that the wise and foolish can fall asleep here together. It’s beautiful because there is nobody that was not invited to the wedding. Even the fools were invited. There is nobody that the Lord would not have here except those would be somewhere else. There is nobody that the Lord didn’t come into this world to redeem. He came for the wise and the fools alike. He came for those awake and asleep, that they would be caught up together in the clouds with the Lord in the air. Death has been so thoroughly defeated by our Lord that we would not be afraid of it anymore. We won’t stay dead. We’ll just fall asleep in Christ, because we know that we will wake up again. He came into this world to redeem us from our sins. Upon the cross, He has redeemed us from all foolishness. In the waters of baptism, He’s given us a new identity, not rooted in whether or not we are prepared, not in what we have done or said. He calls us His children and invites us to gather here unafraid to fall asleep in the darkest of days because Christ will come back to raise the living and the dead.

He will be here. We gather around that promise, spoken, sung, and even more. Delivered. Everyone falls asleep. Nobody can change that, but nobody has to. It stops being your job to fix every single plate that wobbles in this world. It stops being your job to predict the end. It stops being your job to do anything but wait here and sing because our Lord will be here with you. Some will wander off, chasing what they’re absolutely sure they need right now or else everything will fall apart. Keep singing what you know to be true. Who says the Good Shepherd will not bring them back before judgment day? Just be here so they can sing along with you when He drags them back in. Relax. The bridegroom was delayed but He actually did come. He has entered his world. Christ came into this world. He gave His life and rose again. And on that night that he was betrayed, he took bread and He broke it and begun His wedding feast that has no end. The world missed it. They were all pretty sure there was much more important stuff going on. But the wedding feast has already begun. He invites you to His table. He feeds you with His body and blood. You are invited now to know that you are not alone in this world waiting for someday. You wait with the Lord. God is here with you to forgive you your sins. To strengthen you in a promise that you will not be abandoned. That you will not be forsaken. To strengthen you to endure in this world until the last you can fall asleep in Christ knowing that you will wake up. The Holy Spirit is at work to call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and even keep you in this faith until you are found ready to enter the fullness of His glory. You don’t have to be afraid. You don’t have to worry about the end of the world because even now the feast is going on. You can face the darkest days in the certainty of the last one. The gift given to the church in this parable is not simply the command to wait, but the permission to rest. You can fall asleep here. Our Lord is coming and will grant the fullness of every promise. The resurrection of the body. The life everlasting, free from pain and evil suffering and death. But even here and even now, today, there is rest.

the church is where you go to fall asleep.

you are called out of the outer darkness

“Show up or else” doesn’t seem to win the master many friends. The servants were treated shamefully and killed. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and killed them back. One guy came dressed wrong. If you show up like that they put you in the outer darkness. Right away. No trial, no nothing. We have the best dressed wedding guests in the world because of the outer darkness. Cheerful stuff today.

There’s such a thing as hell. It’s not uplifting, but it’s real. We gloss over it. Not because we don’t think it’s a real place. Just that it’s one reserved for people we despise. Of those that don’t come to the feast, most are pretty sure God completely understands why they can’t make it. Read this parable. You tell me how it goes. I guess the simplest thing to say is if there’s a God who made everything and can unmake it too, He sort of gets to make the rules, and like them or not, we should be glad He at leasts lets us know what they are. Set aside your excuses, put down your coffee, come to the wedding feast, and come correct. It beats the alternative. Outer darkness. Weeping. Gnashing of teeth.

I don’t know if that’s enough for the sermon, though. I’ve found, in my 10 years doing this, that the amount of hellfire in a sermon is directly proportional to the people who tell me after church that they were sure glad someone else was here to hear about it. Also, those who made excuses and didn’t go get the least screen time. They just sort of fade from the story as not worthy. The soldiers were sent after the ones who murdered the servants of the master. It was the man without the wedding garment went to the outer darkness. The thing is, the ones who found excuses to skip were already out there. When we think about hell, we always imagine a lot of fire for something called “the outer darkness”. We imagine a bad place with pain and torture and death and decay. A place where demons roam about seeking those to devour. A place full of sinners doing awful things to each other and suffering. So…basically just like here…but in a cave that’s on fire. Outer darkness actually helps shape the picture. Outer: not close to. Darkness: not light. Hell isn’t measured in demons and sufferings. The worst part of hell is in the name. Outer Darkness: being away from the light. Being not near Jesus, the light of the world, sent into the world so that darkness shall not overcome it. Those who gave excuses and skipped the feast were already there. Look around this world. Look how dark it is down here. Wars and rumors of wars. Suffering. Torture. Demons. Sinners. Death. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s not that there’s no such thing as eternal condemnation. It’s that some of us insist on being early to it. We all live in this. The thing is, why would you want to stay? Would you rather navigate it with or without the light, the help, the salvation? It isn’t come to church or else. It’s never been that. We already live and die in the “or else”. The question is where the help is.

So the Lord comes down into the outer darkness. The light shone in darkness and darkness could not overcome it. On the mountain, the LORD of hosts makes a feast of good food and better wine. In that feast, He swallows up death forever. In that feast, He wipes away tears. In that feast, those who wait in darkness for salvation find the God who comes not to threaten more of it, but to save those who could not save themselves. To call us out of darkness and into light. He invites you to that feast. Here. Now. It was never for the worthy. It was never for the good. It was for those weeping and gnashing their teeth in the dark. It was for you. It is His body and blood, for forgiveness from the sins that condemn. For life that death can’t destroy. For strength in a world that demands too much. For hope in a world that lacks it. For light to hearts that sit in darkness. For sinners. For you. God sets His feast up for people like us. Those who didn’t come were unworthy, but so were those who came. They were both good and bad. The only one called out is the one not wearing the wedding garment.

Because the wedding garment was given by the host. It was supplied and free. It was an identity. Someone who belongs here. God always clothes His people. Calls them out of darkness and sin and shame and death and clothes them. He clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins so that they could look at each other and find peace in their marriage. He clothes you in white robes in your baptism, washed in the blood of the lamb. He clothes you with robes that carry you out of the great tribulation. He promises you are holy, you are worthy of love, you belong here. That guy without one showed up and insisted that not be so. He insisted He not be God’s guest at the feast that swallows up death. He wanted to be there on based on something other than mercy. So he left back to where he came from.

Many are called, but few are chosen. That’s not a challenge to make it fewer. Find more people that you’re sure are going to hell because they don’t live up to the standard the law sets. It’s a realization. Nothing out there can save you. No work you can do will either. In here, you cannot stand on your identity, but He lends you His. You are holy ones of God. Sons and daughters of the king. You stand here as one who takes refuge here. We are refugees at the feast who are told we live here now. We belong here now. None of us are worthy. We’re clothed, though. We’re fed. We’re brought into light and hope and peace. We’re given the gifts that endure even a world this dark. And taking our refuge here, we sing hymns while death is swallowed up forever.

you are called out of the outer darkness

against the blarisees

Jesus couldn’t have been more clear who this parable is against if He said the name of those wicked tenants rhymed with Blarisees. Their crimes are clear. The prophets were most mistreated by the very people they were sent to. It wasn’t the pagans, but the leaders of the people of Israel who beat them. Killed them. Stoned them. They would not be corrected. They would not return to God’s word. They believed that there was such a thing as God’s vineyard. They just hated that they didn’t own it.

The vineyard was Israel, God’s promised nation. It fought wars under Joshua. It walked through the sea by Moses. There was power there. The tenants of the vineyard wanted that. The control. They grew so desperate for that power that, when confronted with the prophets of the master, they committed atrocities to hold onto it. The Pharisees never stopped believing in the vineyard, in Israel. They just came to believe there was no real master of it. It’s how they could ever think, if we just kill this guy, nobody will take it from us. To watch this play out in parable only highlights the desperation that leads to worse and worse decisions. What will happen to those tenants when the owner of the vineyard comes?

What else could happen? He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons. They see their position as under attack. It wasn’t. They were supposed to be the tenants because it was the master who put them there. The prophets weren’t sent to remove them, but to collect the fruits that belong to the master. To insist the institution stand apart from that purpose is to ask “what can I take from this?”, not “what would God give for it?”

It’s that second question we usually miss in this parable. It’s easy to stop here, find the Pharisees at fault, rejoice it’s been addressed, and pledge to do a better job, ourselves. This parable stands almost unique in the problem it presents us. We usually go looking for ourselves in parables and neglect to look for God. We turn them into fables with morals about how to lead good lives. The one stands apart because it’s almost hard to see where we would ever fit. The folks who rhyme with Blarisee are the tenants. God is the master. That the Son is given to death. We actually don’t look for ourselves here. Probably because there aren’t good guys. We’ll just be the ones who come later and clean up their mess.

So we’ll point out how power corrupts. Maybe even make it political. Find leaders who do not use their authority to serve others, but to make others serve them. Then we’ll somehow assume we’re immune to that because we have good intentions. The thing is, the Pharisees started out with the best of intentions too. Their intentions actually didn’t go bad until Jesus preached against them. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot be unwilling to be preached against from God’s word. None of us. The only ones who would not hear God’s word were the wicked tenants.

When we seek to replace them, even with the best of intentions of doing the best of jobs, to increase the harvest, to win something for the master, we ignore the question that matters. What would God give for His vineyard? We ignore the only one more desperate than the wicked tenants. The master who sends His Son. Do you think this was a surprise to Him? Truly? See how desperate the master was to collect what was produced in the vineyard. Think about the price He was willing to pay. Not just the death of His servants, but even the death of His Son. This wasn’t business. This was love. The Master was so desperate to collect you that He sent His son to claim you. It cost Him His life. He gladly paid it.

The vineyard was only ever planted to bring in the harvest to the Lord. The church only exists to save sinners. The stone that the builders rejected becomes something marvelous. The cornerstone. The rock on which everything is built. In His death for you, for all, He falls upon the evil one to crush Him. He buys you, not with gold or silver, but with His holy and precious blood, His innocent suffering and death, that You would be His own and live under Him in His kingdom.

The church stands because God is a part of it. The vineyard is precious because the Lord visits it to collect sinners. The one thing the church cannot be about is its own influence. Either out of zeal, pride, or fear, it always becomes pathetic.

The institution that cares for itself never cares about the people inside it, only sees them as means to an end. Let that kind of vineyard be overrun. If this is where the Lord wishes to collect a harvest, look to Him to do it and rejoice. The church that is built on the cornerstone, Christ, will never carry the influence the world wants. He sent prophets to preach and die. He sent His son, not to build a kingdom in this world, but to win for you the next. Let go of the influence and return to the Lord and know you have been given the better gift, for it wast the Father who sent the Son to bear the cross to bring you to His side. It was the Son who died that you would have life everlasting.

against the blarisees

the judgment seat was found on earth.

Revelation 12:7-12

War broke out in heaven. St. Michael and his angels fought against satan and his demons. Good stood against evil. Light against darkness. Angel legions with power to level cities clashing against the fallen hoard with swords of fire. When the angels sing, people fall to the ground in terror. Their battle cries, I suspect, would kill by sheer terror. Cool story. It’s just hard to imagine it as anything other than a fairytale because you get bored in church.

It isn’t because you don’t believe in a spiritual world that exists beyond this physical world. It’s that you don’t think the two can touch. One day you’ll go to heaven and see some angels. There’s such thing as the dragon and his demon hoard come down to earth in great wrath, even though we can’t see them. They’re just not nearly as scary as germs. Which is why we, as Christian parents, have done a great deal to teach our kids how to wash their hands and cough like vampires, but neglected to teach them to remember their baptisms.

So St. Michael and his war in heaven become, at best, cool stories that might teach us to be brave and not scared, selfless and not selfish, honorable and not wicked. The problem is, we need heroes to do more than inspire us. The religious and agnostics agree things are getting worse, even though we’ve all been watching marvel movies for years. When heroes can only inspire, it’s because you don’t think they’ll actually change anything in your real life. You’ll have to do that yourself. Mix that with a world that tears down what heroes we do have for their flaws so that they would be brought to our level and we’d never have to feel bad about not arising to theirs. Do you think maybe, just maybe, there’s a spiritual sickness too? Do you think, just maybe, the spiritual and the physical are connected?

St. Michael’s war happened, not just in heaven, but also in time and space. War arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. Before the war, satan stood before the throne of the LORD, earning his name. Accuser. He had already rebelled against God in the fall. He was not welcome in that holy place, but stood there by right. Before the throne of the LORD, he accused Job. He only loves you because he thinks you want him to be happy all the time. Let me change that and he’ll curse you like I do. For thousands of years, the devil insisted the throne of God be a seat of judgment, not a place of comfort. The spiritual world brought plagues and captivities and times of trouble into the physical world. After all, those sinners deserved it.

Then something changed. The judgment seat was found on earth. Pilate sat in it and gave the Son of God over to be crucified. The sins of the world were punished. On the cross, Jesus bore the wrath of God for each sin satan would accuse us of. He used His last breath to lead the battle cry. It is finished. That was the battle cry that began the war. There were no sins left to accuse us of, and so satan no longer had the right to stand before the throne. Michael and his angels arose to do battle against the dragon and his hoard. Fiery swords. Epic battle scenes. Moving music. Endgame style. But it was the power of the cross in this world that cast the devil out of heaven. No longer able to accuse you of sins Jesus was punished for, the deceiver only has one move left. Cast down to earth, his time short, he works to keep you from true faith.

It’s the deceiver who whispers that heroes can’t save you. You have to do it yourself. It’s a little lie that weaves itself into all you see. We listened and invented comic books that kept the true heroes outside of the physical world. We love their stories, but never found the motivation to live up to their legacies. Then we tore down the real heroes because they aren’t allowed to get help either. They must be known by their sins, just like the accuser wanted. It’s the same deceiver who lies and says Jesus didn’t atone for your sins, but only taught you to love one another. How’s that going? There’s no real rescue for you in that religion, Any inspiration it gives clearly hasn’t been sufficient. And that changes this place too. Without the atonement, His house isn’t a place of rest, but of judgment. Church is where sinners have come to believe they have no right to kneel. They don’t see the truth, that this is the place God is desperate to give them pardon and call them saints, as holy as Michael the archangel.

Do you see the pattern? That which is demonic pushes you from good godly gifts. That which is godly pulls you to receive them. Look around. See it happening. When you’re told it’s not popular. When you’re told it’s backward. When you’re told it’s not safe. See the spirits do battle. The stuff going wrong in this world has a spiritual component. There’s a war still being fought. I don’t tell you this to scare you, but to show you where the shelter is.

Jesus sent sinful preachers to to cast out demons. The 72 couldn’t believe it actually worked. The words they used had spiritual power. The preachers, flawed though they were, had been sent by God to promise the victory. It was knit together and made real even as they spoke. They preached the same thing Jesus did. The Son of Man will go in to Jerusalem, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Repent. Believe. For the kingdom of God is at hand. Even as their words were preached, Jesus looks ahead and sees satan fall like lightning from heaven. By simple words of absolution, the dragon is robbed of all his power to accuse and deceive. In the stead and by the command of my Lord and savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins. Angels still go to war by these words. Miracles happen when preachers utter them. They tie you to the cross where the Lord forgives you your sins. They tie you to heaven where your names are penned in the ink of blood from the savior. They place you in a spiritual home so firmly you get called saint like the archangel. God joins the spiritual to the physical so that you can rejoice that your names are written in heaven.

There is a spiritual war still going on. See it in burdened consciences, despair, and hate. The Lord still fights it for you. That’s what heroes do. They don’t inspire. They save. So receive His words, His victory, and His peace. This isn’t your war to fight. It was fought to win you. In the stead and by the command of my Lord and savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins. Rejoice and be glad, your names are written in heaven.

the judgment seat was found on earth.

idleness is destructive stuff

Matthew 20:1-16

This is supposed to be the convert text. This one doesn’t get it. When I was new, I’ve never found anyone upset I was here. That came later, once they got to know me. I’ve never had anyone complain that I did a funeral for someone who God brought back in at the 11th hour. I have had a few upset about the funerals we just couldn’t do here though, even though it was for someone who never once set foot in the door. We pretty much want everyone to show up. Better late than never.

Really, it was probably only a shock that people all got paid the same the first time. The problem ever since, in my experience, is people trying to game the system. Before the reformation, the Roman Catholic church taught that baptism forgave only past sins, not future ones. So nobles wouldn’t get baptized as infants. They paid priests to follow them with a bottle of water anytime they thought they might die. Why not get more sins in while you can, I guess? We still play Jesus musical chairs. How long can you stay away from God’s gifts and God’s house before you really need them?

Some of us came at different times, but all of us are here working. The real problem is you don’t know what to say to others to make them actually show up. There’s lots of excuses, some better than others. But really, we don’t make excuses about the stuff we actually think we need. It’s a really good chance to get up on a high horse and complain about people not here to defend themselves, but only the worst kind of sermons try to convict people not here to be upset about them. They’re always tempting for lazy preachers because if I only preach about sinners that aren’t you, I can’t get yelled at because none of you get offended. But the thing is, nobody who needs help gets it either.

And really, they’re sort of right. The parable calls attention to it. The forgiveness of sins is so powerful, so free, that the ones who show up at the last minute get the same resurrection you do. Should they stay away? No, but it turns into more of a discussion of the probability of dying before the average life expectancy, which even in a pandemic isn’t actually a discussion that yields a lot of positive responses. Also, randomly asking your family “What if you die tonight?” doesn’t strengthen the relationship so much as seem somewhat threatening after a while.

2020 changed my perspective on the parable a little. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways, so I’d have done a lot differently this year, but maybe He gave us a gift. I’m not sure this is about the hour the workers come in. The Lord actually tells us that doesn’t matter, even though we want to make it so important. If nothing else, this year reminded us just how terrible idleness is. What seems to frustrate the master isn’t that some come later than others. He’s fine with that. It’s that they stand around idle in the marketplace. Idleness isn’t laziness. Idleness isn’t doing nothing. Idleness is doing everything but not accomplishing anything. Your car idles. It’s on. It’s running. It’s even working. It’s just not going anywhere. It’s wasting gas. Idleness is use without benefit. Idleness is that feeling of being stuck. It’s acacia. The sin of sloth. Sloth isn’t too much Netflix. It’s running your motor and not getting anywhere for so long that helplessness and despair start to set it. Idleness is going about your whole life and not finding the peace you’re looking for no matter how hard you try until you’re tried out. It’s not being able to find the divine. It’s being able to find where you fit. It’s not feeling like you’re moving anywhere despite trying your best to make it through this mess the same as everyone else. But rather than talking about that feeling, which everyone has but nobody knows what to do with, we resort to guilt, which can at past be used to leverage. You really should go to church more. Even if I can’t quite tell you why.

Really, I wonder if the reason we heap guilt is that we can’t help but see it as a system too. This is what you do to get to heaven. Go to church. Maybe it’s slanted system. One hour’s the same as the whole day. Still, this is what you do to get paid. But if it’s just a system, even an unfair one, there’s nothing really unique in it. Life is unfair. There is no perfect system. There’s always a way to game it. There’s always people who are going to try. This is a religion of law without gospel, but worse. You Showed up in beginning of the day, worked the whole time, but the people who did next to nothing got the same. So why bother?

You can say it’s for society. There is work to be done here. But this thing has to be more than civic pride. That only goes so far. I know people that care about their country and neighbors and still won’t go near this place. You know more.

You can say it’s about morality. Be honest. Work hard. Do something religiousy once in a while. In short, be a good person, go to nondescript good place after you die. But again the folks who snuck in at the 11th hour still gets paid in spite of doing none of that. Why try harder than you have to? And really, how’s that different than any other religion? If you just want a once a week pep talk about being a good person, you could go anywhere.

There’s so much time and effort to game the system. There’s so much effort going into how to recruit to the system. The whole point is there is no system, just a God who wants to see everyone cared for no matter what. There’s a God who sees how destructive idleness is for your soul. Jesus says the first shall be last and the last first. If this is a system, it’s a dumb one. If you want Christianity to be about what you earn, it’s never going to make sense. Because that’s not what it is. God already paid it. He just wants to see you cared for.

Because the question isn’t when you showed up. It’s when the Son was crucified for you. For those who worked the whole day and for those who brought staggering in at the last minute, the answer is the same. It is finished. There is mercy for you here. That’s always what this place has been. The place Jesus is given to sinners. You don’t come here to do good works, you come here to receive your pay for His. For Christ’s work, life, and death, you are given forgiveness, life, and salvation.

They’re not just words. They devour idleness. They root you, not where you keep trying and things feel the same, and more frustrating each day, but in Him who has already conquered not just your problems in this life, but also your death. What if you die tonight is an irrelevant question for Christians, but so too is, do I matter? You are worth enough that God would die for you. You are worth so much that God would not simply see you as the product of what you can do, but as a gift to gather to His side. You are not stuck. You’re tied to life. Your life isn’t the sum of the progress you feel you make, the problems you solve, or the feeling of accomplishment. Your life is the sum of the price given for you. You all got bought with the same price. The blood and death of Jesus. You are so priceless to God He’d rather die than lose you. He sets this place up as the one building in the world we would not be judged by what we do, but simply gathered in to receive. This place is where you show up to receive. You could probably skip a paycheck, but why would you want to? The works already been done by Him who died and rose for you.

Instead of talking about church as if there’s a positive reason for going, we only talk about it as if there’s negative reasons for not. Isaiah tells us. There’s actually places you can’t find God. Seek the LORD where He may be found. That doesn’t mean He’s not everywhere, but there’s places it’s just not possible to find him. Sooner or later that feeling of getting stuck, of idleness sets in and works to destroy. God sets this place up so you can actually know He’s here for you. In His sacraments. In His word. He is found, not hiding. He promised to be here, so we actually know even when we have trouble feeling right. He’s here because He promised to be. He’s

giving, not demanding. He is hope, not another thing to do in a life already too busy but not near productive enough. Return to the Lord here, that He would have compassion on you. That He would pardon and comfort. That He would nurture and save.

idleness is destructive stuff

5 sermons in 1 is a fivefer

Matthew 18:1-20

Jesus preaches 5 sermons in 20 verses. His are shorter than mine, but you only have to listen to one from me. That you’re doing math in your head to see whether that’s a good deal already shows why He preaches these 5. The church is full of sinners. Each sermon is about that.

It’s an idea we’re ok with in concept, but when God packs a bunch of sinners into a box and calls it a church, our favorite thing to do is act surprised about finding out there’s actual sin in here. Not generic I-a-poor-miserable-sinners, but the kind that commit specific sins that hurt and anger in specific ways.

To be fair, a box full of sinners ends up being a poor representation of the Lord who loved the us enough to bear the cross for us. I get why so many people’s biggest problem with Christianity is other Christians. It’s easy to love the concept of a perfect Jesus. His fan club can be harder to deal with. We shouldn’t have petty grudges that boil down to ego. Or false teachers. We shouldn’t have anyone who falls away or disputes to resolve. Sin breaks stuff. Our Lord calls us to flee from it. War against it. If you’ve been a part of the visible church on earth for long, you see why. That stuff hurts. It’s not ok. It destroys souls. I understand why so many people want to try and find God without His bride, the church. It’s easier for me to talk about my “personal relationship with Jesus” because that doesn’t have to include you. It’s hard to look at the box of sinners, say this is holy Christian church, and feel good about being tied to each other in the midst of all that’s wrong.

That’s why when most people picture the ideal congregation, they picture one that doesn’t actually need Jesus. Most people want a church will praise His name and hold him on the fringe of what goes on, but not one that finds mercy in Him. Never one that puts the forgiveness of actual sins that cause actual pain at the center of her identity. It’s possibly the greatest insult we can hurl at each other while still clinging to the high road. We leave for each other a Jesus who can only be an example, but never a savior.

When we assume that Christ is a mere example for the church to follow, understand it for what it is. It’s protecting Jesus from the very people He’s trying to save. It’s holding Him at arms length from the people He draws near to help because they happen to have hurt you or someone you care about. We don’t want His reputation sullied by the people we don’t like because it’s easier to love the concept of a perfect Jesus than it is to love His fan club, but that leaves no room to talk about how He bore their sins upon the tree while He was mocked for them. It’s the thing each of Jesus’ sermons are about. Over and over, we look at Christians as the measurement of Christianity instead of Christ. It puts ourselves at the center of the church, not Jesus. It makes it our church, not His.

So our Lord preaches to the sinners in a box. His church. His bride. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is not the one who can do the most. It’s the one who needs the most and receives it. Christians are not measured by what they do for Jesus, but by what Jesus does for them. The little child is not more innocent. He is born in the same sin you are. He is not more trusting, it’s why babies cry when I hold them because I’m funny looking, even if I’m also trustworthy. Little children are, more than anything else, helpless. If you want to do this based on what you can build, your box full of sinners will be nothing more than whitewashed tombs. To receive the kingdom of heaven as a child is to bring nothing to the table but still receive everything from the Jesus gives it all.

Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin should be drowned like the mob got involved. Because Jesus does not only love the helpless sinners in a box, He wants them kept from harm. Even the ones that have hurt you.  He especially doesn’t want them taught that Christianity is measured in themselves. More souls have been lost to despair over trying to be good enough, failing, and giving up than false teachers have been disappeared, mafia style. What if you put your animosity toward your neighbor where it really belongs? Not on them for being a sinner, but on the false teachers who would see them called “a bad Christian” before they could ever be called “a forgiven one”? What if you held as much animosity in your heart for the ones who would leave Jesus only as an example for your enemies as you did for those enemies who Jesus redeemed from their sins?

And before you get all choppity-chop for Jesus and gouge your eye out or add to the sacred scriptures, “If your smartphone causes you to sin, throw it away,” remember that this box full of sinners is called the body of Christ. If you really believe nobody ever gossiped before Facebook, coveted before Instagram, or lusted before websites dedicated to the same, ask yourself why Jesus needs to teach this to people who lived and died before any of it? Here’s the thing though, you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. Not all of you can be the eye, and right now I call dibs on being the mouth, but each part is held in honor because we are the ones made holy in Him who is the head, Jesus Christ. He is your worth. He is your honor. He is what ties us together. But sometimes a part of the body goes so evil and rotten it starts to spread to the rest of the body because sin never stays in the neat little boxes we wish it did. Sometimes, as sad as it is, a part of the body must be removed from the church before their evil spreads to the rest and drags everyone into hell. It’s called excommunication. It’s not as complex as it sounds. There’s a difference between sin and unbelief. Sin is easy to forgive. In the stead and by the command of my Lord and savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins. They’re gone. No more sins. Jesus died for you. Your sins are forgiven. He equips His church to handle sin just fine. His cross was plenty. His word is enough. Sin isn’t ok, but Jesus makes forgiveness free. Unbelief doesn’t want forgiveness. That’s why it’s so dangerous. It wants war. It wants self-justification. It wants to blame others. It just never wants mercy. Unbelief says “I don’t care what the Lord says, this is not a sin” or “here’s why that doesn’t apply”, not “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” This cannot be. The church taught not to need forgiveness is the church taught to race to hell, because even if you cut out your eye and cut off your hands, you’re still a stumpy sinner that needs Jesus.

But even if a part of the body should be taken off, don’t rejoice. Pray that the Shepherd will not leave the lost gone astray, but seek him out to call him back to forgiveness. It’s too easy to find someone fleeing from God and assume God wouldn’t want them either. Yours is the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost, even if they got lost on purpose. Jesus saves sinners. Pray He never stops.

That way when you deal with your brother who sins against you, saying “Matthew 18” can mean more than a checklist to follow in order to get rid of someone and not feel bad. It isn’t a checklist. It isn’t about how to lose your brother. It’s about how to gain them. It’s a desperate attempt to let mercy win them back. The point of this chapter is reconciliation and forgiveness, not loss. This is about helping your neighbor caught in sin, not winning. This is not about being right, but sinners made righteous in Christ. Sometimes someone would rather be right than righteous. Sometimes someone would rather win than be helped. Lord have mercy on that person. If it ends before the whole church with a brother still lost, it’s not because everyone jumped through the right hoops. It’s because mercy was rejected over and over and over again in favor of self justification which can’t save. But when Jesus calls this person to be treated as a tax collector and gentile, remember it’s tax collectors and sinners who He ate with and preached to, so they would once again hear mercy.

Sometimes sin hurts so bad that things can never go back to the way they were before. Call it what it is. Terrible. But don’t think the Lord pulls back His hand from the sinner or the sinned against. Each of these five sermons is about how messy things look when the gospel is given to sinners. Five sermons dare you to let the gospel define the church, not the law. Call the sin what it is. Deadly and wrong. Call the church exactly what it is. A box full of sinners. Just don’t you dare assume it can’t be Christian because we actually know some of the reasons the people here need Jesus. Rejoice that our Lord puts Himself on that altar for sinners, for you, so that the sinners who have hurt you would receive what they need: forgiveness. You can watch them be forgiven so you don’t have to go by your broken heart to measure them. Then receive the same and be forgiven too.

Christians are measured by their Christ, not their works. Your sins are forgiven you. Thank God for this box full of sinners. Even when you are painfully reminded that they actually sin. Thank God He would boast to call the church His own. His bride. Because the church is where God puts Himself to forgive you all, to tie you together based on something more than your ability to get along. Here He names you holy, the box of sinners-made-saints. You are the holy Christian Church because Christ is here to make you that way. You can see it in action each time we kneel together to receive this gift. Eat, drink, and know that holiness was never earned by the people on your left, your right, or in between, but holiness was most certainly given.

5 sermons in 1 is a fivefer