“The Giver God” – Cantate – James 1:13-18

28. April 2013
James 1:13-18

A sermon by Dr. Norman Nagel preached in Cambridge in 1967, revised.

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Don’t be tricked. There are some things you can rely on and some things you can’t. One thing you can never rely on, one thing that will always deceive you, is sin. Sin pulls the great advertising deception, and what makes us suckers to such advertising is our own desires. We want to make ourselves big. We want people to envy us. We want to do ourselves good. That sets us up to be played for a fool.

The art of advertising consists largely in playing on our weaknesses, our desires. Just check and see how many advertisements seek to take you in by subtle appeal to your pride or to some desire. “Wear this clothing and you will really wow the girls, or this particular alcohol will make you feel luxuriously upperclass.” People must be fools to be taken in by such stuff, we are tempted to think, but the fact remains that such advertising works and pays. The appropriate way to treat people, then, would seem to be as fools . So don’t blame the advertisers so much. They are only being realistic in the way they treat people.

Not all advertising is false. The product may be a good product and the claims true. But the advertising that sin does is always false both as to the technique of advertising and the product. Nevertheless, it works. It works because we are enticed and drawn away by our own desires, so we get hooked. The dishonest money we thought would do us so much good can only be kept by inflicting injury on our consciences and often inflicting injury on those who really love us. The adultery that promised to be such fun results in bitter personal damage. The drugs that promise happy experiences enslave and wreck a person. In the end, sin sits and laughs at us.

The question then is whether we ever learn our lesson: “once bitten, twice shy.” We acknowledge that we have been played for a fool, which is a difficult acknowledgment to make. Like mother Eve, we would rather make excuses and put the blame elsewhere. We are righteously indignant. Sin should have kept its promise and paid up. We have been cheated. Who is to blame? Not us. So, it must be whoever is behind it all. Like father Adam, we can blame God. If you can pin the blame on God, then you have certainly cleared yourself.

But that dodge simply won’t work. God does not trick or entice into evil. Don’t make that mistake. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. The way sin operates is not the way God operates. We can’t do business with God as we are tricked into doing business with sin. God does not trick us with the offer of a good deal as sin does. He does not make dazzling false promises. Not only is God no swindler, He is not a dealer at all.

God is a giver. With a giver you can receive or reject, but you can’t make a deal. And a deal is what we are always wanting to do, for when we are doing a deal, we can negotiate terms, calculate what we put  into it and what we get out of it. Sin is always ready to play this game with us, for this is the way sin gets the advantage of us. James says that the giver God does not try to get the advantage of us. That sort of thing is ruled out with Him, so we can’t get the advantage of Him either. He doesn’t play that game at all.

The game God plays is giving, and what a game and what giving! Every good thing comes from His giving hands. God simply loves to give, and we can never change Him into a dealer no matter how hard we may try. There is no changing the giver God into any other kind of god. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

You can play all sorts of tricks with shadows. Shadows can play all sorts of alluring tricks. But St. James was not thinking here so much of illusions or motion picture lighting tricks but the shadows of the planets and stars. From the shadowy deceptions of sin, God raises our eyes to the bright splendor of the heavens and the pure lights there. God is called their Father, their Creator. He made these clear lights, yet for all their bright splendor, He is more splendid and constant. As we look at planets and stars, they have their turnings, settings, and eclipses. Their light can fail us, but there is one who does not change or fail.

How do we know God and what He has done? We know Him by His giving. God has brought us to life as His children. Life is always a gift. We can’t make ourselves alive, as is shown in our natural birth. Little Esther did not choose to be delivered. This is also true of our spiritual birth—of our coming to life as the children of God. God used our mother’s bodies to give us the first kind of life. To give us new life as His children, He uses the “word of truth.” For us, this new birth was by the Word joined with the water of Baptism. It was plainly all gift. Life as God’s child begins as a gift, and it is gifts, gifts all the way. We live from the giving hand of God.

The greatest gifts are all given by the Word of God. The Word of God not only tells what these gifts are but also conveys them. When the word of forgiveness is spoken to you, forgiveness is given to you. When the Benediction is spoken to you, the blessing of God is given to you. In the sacraments, the Word is joined with extra means of conveying the gifts. It is then as if God takes your hand and presses His gift into it with the assurance, “Now you have really got it. Without a shadow of doubt, it is surely yours.”

Jesus would be nothing for us if the Word of truth did not tell of Him and give Him to us. A silent movie of Calvary would be nothing more than a tragic piece of newsreel. The soundtrack of God’s Word tells us what is going on there, what is achieved, and gives it to us with the words “for you.” Without the word of truth, the gifts would neither come to us nor would they be known as gifts.

This is true of the gifts of faith and also of all the smaller and more obvious gifts that are listed in the explanation of the First Article in Luther’s Small Catechism:

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.

Such gifts of the First Article, of creation, are received by many without the Word of God as if they were not gifts at all. They just happened for some reason or other or for no reason at all. They are taken for granted the way a dog takes his tail for granted. Or (more foolish than the dog) the way some people suppose that their good eyesight, muscles, income, and looks are theirs because there is something special about them that calls for their being treated well. God’s Word has to tell us the truth and bring us to recognize all these as gifts of God. Only then do they do we see them as our Father’s providential care.

You may think that is not such a difficult job for the Word of God to do because good eyesight, muscles, income, and looks are things that we naturally desire and often attain. We can be drawn to these by our own desires and gain them by greed, envy, and deceit. When sin promises good things of this sort, we are apt to sin. Rather receive what God has given with thanksgiving, we take what we want by dealing with sin. When God delivers the same goods, we think we have gotten them from Him by some kind of bargain.

People who take this position suppose that they are still in control of the negotiations, but, in fact, they are in a vulnerable position. If they do a deal with sin, they will be played for fools. If they think of doing a deal with God, they will find that God does not play that game. The idea of doing a deal with God can survive only as long as they get the things after which they desires. When they get things they don’t want, those who hold to a negotiating position with God yell that He isn’t playing the game according to the rules of doing a deal. Then they are likely to say, “If God does that to me, I am through with Him. He is not what God ought to be. I don’t believe in Him. He doesn’t exist.”

Of course, the God whom we could do a deal with does not exist. The living God is the giver God. This we know from His word of truth that has made us His children. That gift and all the others the Word of God tells us of, and the Word of God makes them gifts to us from our giving Father God. This is true of your breakfast and your shoes, and not only of such obvious gifts but also of all the things that God gives us. Whatever He gives is a good gift from Him because His word of truth says so. God’s Word settles it, not our judgment or our desires. It tells us all His gifts are good. He gives us His word that He is our Father.

“Father knows best” when spoken by earthly fathers does not always inspire confidence, but when spoken by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, it does. After Calvary we cannot doubt God’s love. God does not give us any shady advertising talk. He tells us straight that He is going to make something of us, which will mean some sorrow and pain. God intends to kill what we are as sinners and make us new. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6).

The Lord does not tempt or entice us as sin does, but He does test us. He tests whether we are the children of Himself, the giver God, or whether we have a god we have made up to serve our desires. Affliction is such a test. When affliction cleanses us of trust in a false god and draws us closer to the living, giving Father God, then affliction is a good gift, for which we can come to thank Him. He cannot not be our Father. God is bound by His word.

As children of our Father God, we cannot be blown about by the winds of fortune or played for fools by the shadowy allurements of deceitful sin. We can no more be destroyed than God can be made a liar. We belong to Him and are held to Him by His word of truth. We are the firstfruits. There is large promise in that. The first of the harvest was offered to God as token of the whole harvest, acknowledged as belonging to Him and as gift from Him.

To say firstfruits means there are more gifts to follow. With every gift, God pushes our hands wider open to receive a still larger gift. The bother with us is that we often hold our hands open just enough for little gifts in fear that if the gifts get too big they may overwhelm us. The gifts may begin to take us over, and we may not be able to manage them.  This is a genuine danger, for that is the way of gifts. You know how uneasy you get if somebody gives you lots of gifts-and rather big ones too. This uneasiness is born of our habit of doing deals.

Before God it is completely out of place. We can only have such an uneasiness before God if we are still thinking of doing a deal with Him. That we nevertheless have such uneasiness is betrayed by our notions of not letting our religion go too far, not too much Word of God, not church every Sunday, or not devotions every day. Some parts of our lives we simply must keep under our own control. To the extent that we still negotiate terms with God, we are setting ourselves up for a fearful crash. The God that can be negotiated with does not exist. If that is the one with whom we think we do business, our end is darkness.

As we live as the children of the Father of lights, the giver God, He will keep on pouring out His gifts, and they will overwhelm us more and more. The Epistle of James is mostly about what God’s gifts do to us, how they work out in our lives. Nothing remote or beyond the bright blue sky about this. The gifts shape how you use your tongue, how you treat widows and orphans, the hungry, people with money, people you employ. James points out that if you think your religion is just a good deal you have done with God for yourself, you have had it.

But in James 1, we get the starting point: The giver God, from whom comes every good and every perfect gift, has made us His children with His word of truth. As God pours the gifts, with each fresh gift, He gives us another nudge, “Come on, join in My game. Help Me give My gifts away.” God’s children play the game their Father’s way. To everybody else, to the deal-doers, it looks crazy, but, in fact, it is the best fun in all the world. With hands held wide to Him for His gifts, we will be moved and shaped by those gifts forward from firstfruits to the final joyous harvest. When we shall “sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!” (Psalm 98:1)

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

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

“Your Sorrow Will Be Turned to Joy” – Jubilate – John 16:16-22

21. April 2013
John 16:16-22

The Scriptures describe our reality as an exodus, a journey between two worlds. The old world is one of bondage to sin under the tyrannical rule of the Law. This world is marked by suffering, grief, anguish, and death. And roaming about the world is its ruler the Devil. We were born into this world, born of the flesh, to suffer and die as all have since Adam.

Your loving and merciful God wants all to be saved from this body of death. Thus, He sent His Son Jesus in the flesh, to redeem those of flesh. His Son gave himself into your bondage, lived under the law, suffered in your sorrow, and died for you. By His death, He destroyed death’s stranglehold, released you from your sin, and tore you from the Devil’s grasp.

This became yours in Holy Baptism. Satan’s demon was exorcised, all your sin forgiven, your flesh crucified, the old Adam drowned. Each day, by Baptism, your sin is forgiven, your death gotten over with, and Christ’s righteousness given to you. A new Adam rises from the ashes of the old. Being done. God’s work-in-progress. And on the last day God will raise you and all the dead and give to you and all believers in Christ eternal life. Done. Complete. Here in time and there in eternity.

Thus, your life is an exodus, passing from death to life. St. Paul describes it as running a race, a marathon. All along the course of this life, you are still haunted by sin, devil, and death. They nip at your heels, trying to drag you back to Sheol. Your mortal enemies want nothing better than for you to lose faith, lose sight of the goal, to lose Jesus. These defeated enemies are relentless. They have lost but have not given up.

But you are not without hope. You see with faith’s eyes the finish line. You see and know full forgiveness, the resurrected body, and unending life with Christ and all the saints. Christ Jesus blazed the trail of salvation. He entered into the holy city as king, then to be crucified, and die at the behest of the Jews and the hands of the Romans. All cried out to crucify Him. God died your death with weight of the world’s sin upon Him. He was buried but on the third day rose from the grave.

Jesus has shown you the way of salvation. It is to die with Him and then to rise with Him. By Baptism, you were buried. And by Baptism, you also rose. This good work of God is begun in you and will see its completion in the day of Jesus Christ. Thus we are pilgrims, exodus-ing with Christ Jesus on the way He trod. Yes, we will die but so will the old Man finally be laid to rest. And with Christ’s command, with the voice of a trumpet, He will call us out of the grave, resurrected and living in His holiness and righteousness forever.

Jesus describes this reality in today’s Holy Gospel. “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” This became real for the disciples twice. First, Jesus “departed” into the grave but after “a little while,” some three days, He appeared to them again. He rose from the dead and appeared before them as proof. they saw Him and believed. St. Thomas put his hands in the resurrected Savior’s wounds. They have seen and testify this is the truth. Then, after fifty days, they saw Him no longer for Jesus rose into the heavens and is seated at the Father’s right hand. They will not see Him in the flesh again until another “little while,” when He comes on the Last Day. Their faith rested on His promise of return.

Today, we stand with the disciples in the midst of the second “little while.” We cannot see our Lord apart from faith in the Evangelists’ testimony. Indeed, over these recent weeks we have witnessed events that would lead us to believe our Lord is gone and absent from creation. The trial of serial murderer-by-abortion Kermit Gosnell began. Witness after witness described the brutal killing of children born alive. We heard of the explosion of a chemical factory in Texas with a dozen killed and many more injured.  There was the earthquake in China, killing 157 and injuring thousands. Storms blew through the country with many floodwaters still rising and destroying property and possessions. And there was the bombing this week in Boston, killing three and injuring many.

If we look for God in these things, we despair. During this “little while,” Jesus’ words ring true. “You will weep and lament…” Our weeping and lamenting begins for the lives lost, homes and possessions destroyed, and the gruesome murders in that Philadelphia clinic. We weep and lament because we see how corrupt our world is. We witness tragedy after tragedy. We see how nature itself is at odds with us, seeking to destroy us. We observe the corruption of mankind as we struggle to understand the bombers and their motives. As we look to these things we see only the terrifying old world of sin and death.

Our weeping and lamenting won’t end when the sting of this week’s tragedy and deaths fade. Our sorrow continues even when things seem better. When the sun shines, the flower blooms, and even when life comes into the world, we Christians still cry tears. Why? We know the reality of our fallen flesh and corrupt world. We don’t hope for a better life now. We confess our sinfulness in sorrow and contrition. Dear Lord, we want to do better!

The world rejoices while Christians cry over sin. The world thinks disobedience before God a figment of our imagination. The world cheers in mockery when you drag yourself to church. They think it hilarious that we would acknowledge your nature before your God.  And not just sin but forgiveness, too! They laugh at your faith, thinking it absurd that God the Father for the sake of Jesus forgives you. Salvation in Jesus alone is too good to be true. Life eternal is a joke for late-night TV.

For the world and it’s errors, we also are in sorrow. That so many, even those closest to us, would find the true faith to be a joke—that also grieves us. We mourn that so few listen to the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word. We weep that too many ignore the truth and follow after error.

Jesus has a special word for us. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” For now, while we are on this journey, our lives are full of grief and sorrow. We lament that state of the world and our flesh. We grieve that so few believe that forgiveness in Jesus’ blood is the only lasting remedy for this sorrow. But do not grieve without hope. We know that Christ is raised and that we, too, will be raised with Him. On that day, all fear and sorrow will be banished. Only life and joy will remain. Our sin will be forgotten. No trace of death will remain. The evil one gone.

Like the woman giving birth, Jesus says, the sorrow only lasts for a time. Yes, all creation cries out in the pangs of childbirth. Daily dying to sin and rising in Christ comes in those difficult words of contrition. It’s difficult business. The journey is hard, the warfare long. But through this difficulty, your lives are being transformed. God’s image and likeness is being restored in you through repentance and forgiveness.

Just like the mother whose baby is delivered, so also for the children of God. You grieve for now but in the end you will no longer remember our anguish. Each day, through Christ’s forgiveness your sorrow is turned to joy. And when the work of your rebirth by the Holy Spirit is complete, you will have forgotten this present darkness. The way of salvation is known. Christ Jesus has crossed the finish line already. You get to ride in on His coattails as a free gift. On that day you will see the “man born into this world,” Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of God, born of St. Mary. Now in the Lord’s Supper you see Him as in a mirror dimly but then you will see Him face to face. And when we see Him, your hearts will rejoice, and “no one will take your joy from you.”

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

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

“On Flock, One Shepherd” Misericordia Domini 2013 – John 10:11-16

14. April 2013
Misericordia Domini
John 10:11-16

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! In the name + of Jesus.

“There will be one flock, one shepherd.” There are not many churches but one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic church. There are not many shepherds but One Shepherd. Our confession of the church is bound to our confession of Jesus. Today’s religious landscape is marked by many different Lords and as many or more church bodies to match. This is not the Lord’s doing. For Jesus says, “There will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Such religious chaos is not of the Lord but of the lord of chaos. Only the devil would want to see churches rent apart by schism and division. Only the deceiver would lead mankind to think it acceptable to tolerate error and false teaching. Satan rejoices when Christian congregations fight within and amongst each other.

His task is easy. First, we are a fickle people, easily distracted and enticed by our own imaginations and hopes of what the God, church, and faith should be. As the prophet Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way” (Is 53:6). The deceiver tempts us to look within. He would have us devise our own ideas of God, creation, sin, and salvation. Like wayward sheep, all we need is a little shove off the path, a little lie whispered in the ear, a little encouragement to follow our own passions. Thus we put a God of our own devising onto the throne of our heart. We substitute His righteous decrees for our own laws and commands. We reject salvation in God the Son, Jesus, and look for salvation in ourselves. We wander all the while thinking ourselves faithful members of Christ’s flock.

Second, the Great Liar is a copycat. He knows that sheep need a shepherd. Lost sheep are anxious to be found. They desire to hear the voice of a shepherd and to be led again to cool waters and fertile pastures. Thus, he appoints himself shepherd (not good). Unwittingly, they hear a Shepherd but do not distinguish his voice from the truth. Indeed, Jesus calls him a wolf who snatches them away from the truth and scatters them apart from Jesus and His church.

Therefore, Satan’s great deceit is to draw you away from Jesus, the good shepherd, and away from His flock, the holy church. “Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Zech 13:7). The devil loves to see little flocks guided by hired hands. He cannot abide by one flock with Jesus as its one shepherd. He loves to hear sheep bleet: “I’m a Christian” all the while going their own way or following false shepherds. he loves to see churches confess their love of Christ while rejecting the very voice of Jesus in the Holy Scriptures.

No one born of flesh has escaped this wandering. Even after being found by Jesus, washed white in the cool waters in Holy Baptism, we, like sheep, wander. We bathe ourselves in the filthy muck of this world. We are so covered in it that our restored radiance is tarnished or even unknown. After idling munching of the rich grass of God’s green pastures, we wander out of the fold to see what sort of other delectables we might find. We discover the poisonous food of the world, devil, and flesh is quite enjoyable and learn to crave it. We wander from the Shepherd’s care willfully, even if it would lead to our death.

Jesus knows our nature. He knows our flesh, having been born of flesh himself. Thus, He knows our weaknesses and still provides for us. “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” He calls to you and brings you into His fold. Not just you but all those who believe in Him. Jesus promises, “There will be one flock, one shepherd.” How does He keep this promise? How does He gather us into one flock under one shepherd? First, Jesus goes after the lost sheep and brings them home. “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” He is the Good Shepherd who relentlessly pursues the wayward sheep until all whom He has chosen are gathered into his fold. The history of this world and the saving work of Jesus are not complete until the all the elect of God have been gathered into the Shepherd’s embrace.

Notice how Jesus goes about this gathering. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Where the Good Shepherd speaks, there is the true church. You can be confident that you are in Christ’s fold when you hear His voice. The voice of the Good Shepherd is the Word of the Scriptures. Where the Holy Word is preached and taught in truth and purity, there Jesus is speaking.

The opposite must also be said. Where the Word of God is distorted, confused, sidelined, or hidden, there Jesus is no longer speaking. Simply proclaiming, “the Bible says” does not mean you are hearing the truth of Jesus. If the Word spoken does not give you Jesus Christ crucified, then it is not of the Good Shepherd. If the church speaks in error, then it is not within the Good Shepherd’s fold.

Those who follow after false Words and gather with flocks in error are in serious danger. Among them is the Deceiver with his hired hands, seeking to snatch them, devour their faith, and bind them forever in their sin. Therefore, when someone says to you, “I’m a Christian” do not assume they follow the voice of Jesus and are in His flock. So they same for the multiplicity of other Christian branding, including “I’m a Lutheran!”

As family, friends, neighbors, or even fellow Christians, we are duty bound to follow only one voice and to speak this voice truthfully. We boldly proclaim that there is salvation in no one by Jesus only. This salvation is received by faith only, through His grace only, a it can be heard only in His living voice, the Scriptures. Set the branding aside and speak this truth. Therein only do we have confidence of our salvation and the salvation of our neighbor.

Jesus says it this way, “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” This is how you know your Shepherd. He is the one who took on your flesh and all its weaknesses. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the paschal lamb who sets us free. He knows us because He became like us. He is both the lamb of the sacrifice and the Shepherd of our souls. He did not run or flee when Satan sought Him. He willingly went to death like a lamb to the slaughter. Upon the cross, the Shepherd died for His sheep, so that sheep would never die. And He rose victorious from the grave and thereby leads all His sheep from death unto life.

Jesus must gather His flock. Even one who has wandered is still His. He rescues the scattered and calls them by His voice. Indeed, there is no way to become part of the one holy church apart from the one Shepherd. Jesus also says, “I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:7-10).

The Good Shepherd is not speaking in empty words. The church is His sheepfold, where His voice speaks and His hands work. He has placed in His stead undershepherds—pastors—to continue His work. They speak in His name. They proclaim His Word. They forgive sins on His behalf. St. Paul instructs us to consider the church in this way. He told the pastors of the church in Ephesus, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” There can be no lone Christians. Salvation in Christ’s blood comes by the church who continually holds to the Word of the Good Shepherd.

The answer to the religious chaos of this world and Christianity is Jesus alone. He promises, “There will be one flock, one shepherd.” There is only one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic church. There is only one Good Shepherd. Our confession of the church is bound to our confession of Jesus. Where you hear Jesus’ voice in truth and purity, there you are hearing the Good Shepherd. Where the Good Shepherd is laying down His life that you would have life in Him, there is His true sheepfold. Where sheep are gathered to receive their crucified Shepherd for their forgiveness, there is the true church.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana