Monday, November 28, 2011

The Gift of the Father: A Good King.

1st Sunday of Advent,                                                           November 27, A+ D 2011
Mark 11:1-10

We enter into the season of Advent on Palm Sunday, oddly enough, with Jesus, the King, the Son of David, riding into His capitol, bringing peace and joy to His people.  Which is great news, because we could really use a Good King. 

Can you believe we are in the middle of another Presidential campaign?  Once again the hand wringing, the dirt digging, the endless talking, the phenomenal expenditure of money, all of it is on, again, politicians, journalists, and partisans on all sides gearing up for November, 2012.  Of course, since the campaigns seem to run about three and a half years, we’re almost always in the middle of it. But it’s heating up these days. 

Some people make their living off of the election cycles, some are true believers, and others are just political junkies.  But at the core, aren’t all of us looking and hoping for a good king?  We Americans of course don’t use that title, and certainly elections are very different from coronations of the eldest son of the last king.  But regardless, throughout history, right down to 2011, aren’t we always looking for that wise, fair, benevolent ruler, the one who will know how to take care of things for us? 

Some people reject this idea on egalitarian principle, of course, insisting that every person should be autonomous, ruling themselves, free from hierarchical overlords.  But isn’t it interesting how, whether such protests come from socialists, or libertarians, or anarchists, the groups voicing this particular ‘we don’t want any leaders’ opinion still always seem to have a leader, a spokesman, a guru whom the others look up to for guidance and inspiration?  Even if a radical faction takes over running things, don’t they always end up choosing a leader?  No matter what title is used, the quest for a good king is, I think, close to universal. 

The quest for a good king is close to universal, and it is certainly close to eternal.  Our search for that wise, fair, good ruler never ends, it seems, most often because all the candidates disappoint us.  No one seems up to the task.  The great hero who sweeps into office on a tidal wave of promise always runs aground, sooner or later, revealing previously unnoticed shortcomings, unable to fix every problem, prone to error, and, too often, even to evil.  How many times have we asked ourselves: How could we have been so foolish to think he was going to be the solution?  How many times have we realized that we need to find a new, better leader, a good king, this time for real? 

The quest for a new and good king never ends, in part because no one is up to the task, and in part because we don’t really know what we want.  When things are going well for us, we’d like our king and his minions to leave us alone, and take as little tax as possible.  On the other hand, when problems beset us and we are concerned about surviving, or at least worried that we might not be able to enjoy the same standards to which we’ve grown accustomed, then how we change our tune.  Then we are not so concerned about government overreach, then we want our rulers to step in and help and control and fix things for us.  So which is it?  Do we want our rulers, our kings, to take care of us, or just to do the minimum, the things only kings can do, and leave the rest to us?  We can’t seem to make up our minds, can we? 

The search for a good king never ends, because there will never be a truly good king elected or appointed on this earth, and even if there were, to succeed he would need a truly good people to lead.  And we are fresh out of both truly good kings and truly good people. 

Oh that we Christians would be wise enough to not get caught up in hoping for a new good king, and instead discover the Good King we have already been given.  Advent is the season we prepare to receive and celebrate the Father’s good gift at Christmas, and today, on this first  Sunday of Advent, our readings fast forward us to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when He was hailed as the long awaited King, the Son of David, long promised to return and rule God’s people with justice, equity and glory.  The Father’s gift at Christmas is the One Good King, the eternal King of heaven and earth, come down to live a life like ours, only without sin. 

That He was completely without sin is just one of many ways that Jesus is an entirely different kind of King, different than any king, emperor, president or prime minister in the whole course of human history. 

Every human king or president has limited power to do the things he thinks are right.  But Jesus is all powerful, since Jesus is God, come into human flesh.  Able to change the rules of the universe He created, reversing disease, raising the dead, feeding the masses, controlling the weather, it’s a very good thing that Jesus is also without sin.  Because power, even limited power, corrupts sinners.  That’s why so often seemingly good leaders end up disappointing: they eventually use their power the wrong way, with dire results for all of us. 

But not Jesus, He never misuses His divine power.  In fact, in His ministry He never used His divine power to serve Himself, but only to help someone or to reveal and move forward some facet of God’s plan.  We learn quickly in life to be wary of those who wield great power, for eventually we see them do great harm.  Part of the Good News of our Advent King is that Jesus is completely trustworthy.    

Some human leaders are unselfish, dedicated to the good of their people.  And yet they still fail to be completely and consistently good, because a good king must also be wise.  The best laid plans of mice and men are sure to come to ruin, but Jesus is the Wisdom of God, come down to establish His kingdom.  The ways of earthly victory which we think He should have chosen, the ways of earthly rule that we still would like to see in His Church, these Jesus is too smart to pursue.  Instead He embraces the wisdom of the Cross, foolishness to men, to be sure, but before God it is the power of salvation, the one way for foolish sinners to be declared righteous, to be accepted into God’s heavenly kingdom.  Jesus, the Wisdom of God, hanging on a Cross, for the life of the world. 

Human rulers and kings are notoriously impatient, and for good reason, having only one lifetime to accomplish all they see as necessary.  Not King Jesus.  His triumphal entry into Jerusalem came at the end of an astonishingly long wait.  Before Jesus, with His Father and the Spirit, created the world, the die was already cast, the plan was already in place.  He is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, but only in the fullness of time would the plan be brought to completion.  At just the right time, when all the events of history had converged to set the stage, Jesus acted to establish His Kingdom. 

The patience of King Jesus continues.  Some days we wonder, with the saints in heaven, how long, O Lord, how long until you bring all the struggle and evil in this world to an end?  Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, King Jesus, … to make your name known to your adversaries, to win your final victory over them.  But Jesus is patient, not in a rush, still working, still seeking, still desiring that all come to repentance, to the knowledge of the truth. 

And Jesus is patient with you, not counting your sins against you, not casting you out, even though your lack of faith, like mine, is shocking.  Reflect on the true reality of your life.  Take stock of your deeds, your words, your thoughts.  What separates you from the rebels who openly oppose Christ?  Who would ever say that you are a faithful subject of the Good King? 

Jesus the King says so.  Christ has put His Name on you.  He has claimed you for His own, by the forgiveness of all your sins.  And so, despite what is deserved, He continues to be patient with you, and me, still forgiving, still teaching, still receiving us, despite our sin, which so clings to us.  Turn from your sins, and look to Jesus, your good, and patient, King. 

Which is to say that Jesus is the all merciful King.  Mercy is not a very well liked trait in human kings, we prefer leaders who promise law and order, unless we are the ones in need of mercy.  When a President pardons someone, it usually isn’t for the sake of mercy, though, but rather for a political favor.  And even when a Presidential pardon is truly merciful, it is almost always unjust, because no one has paid the price for the crime committed.  

Not so with King Jesus.  His mercy, for the world, for you, for me, for all us sinners, is not just a whim, not something done to win friends and favors, as if God had need of our favors.  No, the mercy of Jesus is based in the fact that He has taken the sins of the world upon Himself.  The eternal punishment from God that your sins and my sins deserve has been completely vented, poured out, expiated, onto the Good King, who five days after His triumphal entry was enthroned on a Roman Cross.  It is finished, and so you can trust His mercy, you can seek and celebrate and share His mercy, because it is based in the blood of God, the blood shed to pay for every sin of every sinner.  He can have mercy on all, for He has paid for all. 

Which is to say that Jesus is the all loving King.  We hope that our earthly presidents and kings will put the good of their nation ahead of themselves.  And in some instances and for some periods of time, great leaders have sacrificed themselves for the good of their people.  Occasionally an earthly king will even give his life for his nation.  Like Jesus.  Only Jesus’ death is different, yet again.  For His death was not His end, but rather the end of your sins.  His death is not His end, but rather the beginning of His victory, for He rose to new life on the third day.  And His death was not for Himself, but rather for you.  And now His life is your new and eternal hope.  The kingdom of God is every believer, clinging to the resurrected Christ, our Good King, who rules over you, and me, and His whole Church, with grace and mercy, forever and ever, Amen.    

Monday, November 14, 2011

Look to the Judge for Mercy

Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost       November 13, Year of Our + Lord 2011
Matthew 25:31-46

Look to the Judge.  I don’t think this will be difficult, when that great and awesome Day described in our Gospel is actually here. When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, when He sits on His glorious throne, revealed to every nation, I believe our eyes will quite naturally look to Him.  For there before our eyes will be the humble man from Galilee who welcomed little children, touched and healed unclean lepers, and washed His disciples’ feet; the teacher who taught with authority, about Himself and His Mission; the Crucified One who suffered for the sins of all mankind.  And also, at the same time and in the same man Jesus Christ, we will see the Glory of God fully revealed, the bright light of heaven shining not on, but from within this Son of Mary.  Seated on the throne, surrounded by saints and angels, I don’t think we will easily take our eyes off of Him. 

Today, though, Jesus is hidden from our eyes; we must walk by faith, not by sight.  Jesus is hidden from our eyes, but the people who will be gathered before Him, they are visible.  And so, since we can see people, but not Jesus, it is the appearance and visible actions of people that tend to shape how we hear this Word of God.  And what we see in people makes this a hard text.  Because, of course, as we look at people, as we look at ourselves, the question of this text forces itself upon us – sheep or goat?  As we look around at the people of every nation, as we look at ourselves, do we see sheep?  Do we see people welcoming strangers, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners?  Or do we see goats, people shunning and mistrusting strangers, feeding ourselves until we are stuffed, drinking ourselves drunk, pretending not to see the naked, avoiding the sick,  despising the prisoners?

This is a very difficult text for us sinners.  Maybe it seems a helpful thing that we are in the middle of Food Bank November, baskets of canned goods stacking up in the back, actual visible acts of kindness happening in our midst.  If Jesus returns tomorrow, can we point to those canned goods and so avoid the left hand of the Judge?  We hear Jesus describe the lives of the goats, who fail to care for the lowly and hurting, and we tremble, because we know that His words all too often describe us.  Looking at our lives, and knowing the Lord’s desire that we love our neighbors as ourselves, we should shudder at the thought that we deserve to be sent away with the goats, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  In our fear we may even burst into a flurry of attempted good works, running to Reynolds to buy up all the cream of mushroom soup for the food bank, resolving once again to live differently, so that we will have something good to point to, something we can claim for credit, when the Last Day comes. 

Just one problem with that plan.  It’s not that supplying the food bank isn’t a good thing.  It is.  The problem with trying to find some good works to store up for Judgment Day is this: sheep don’t become sheep by doing good works.  The Judgment Day sheep in our reading certainly don’t point to their works.  When the Judge praises them for their works of mercy which He says were done toward Him, their answer is “What works?”  These sheep, blessed of God the Father from before the foundation of the world, look at Jesus on the throne, and they remember nothing of their works, all they see is His mercy.  Looking to the Judge, the sheep see their Shepherd, the Lord God Himself, who fulfilled His promise, who came, and searched for His sheep.  They look to the Judge and see His mercy, which caused Him to seek them out, and rescue them from all places where they had been scattered.  This the Shepherd Judge did, on a day of clouds and thick darkness, when the sun failed, and the earth quaked, as God’s Son died, to rescue His flock. 

The Judgment Day sheep don’t point to their works, because they are too busy looking to the Judge, for mercy.  In fact, mercy is what makes you a sheep.  The Father blessed the sheep from before the foundation of the world by giving His Son in mercy to take away their sins, including their failures to love.  The sheep of God are those who look to the Judge for mercy, knowing that in Him they will find mercy.  Sheep marvel in the joyful inheritance God in His mercy has prepared for them.  And this is, ironically enough, also why they showed mercy in their lives. 

The sheep look to the Judge for mercy, and they see it in His life of selfless service, healing and teaching and seeking and comforting the weary and heavy laden, taking their burdens of sin and guilt upon Himself, carrying all the sorrows of the world on His shoulders. Looking to the Judge for mercy, the sheep see the One who humbled Himself, coming down from His rightful seat on heaven’s throne, coming down to be poor for the poor, and hungry for those without food, to thirst with all who suffer in the wilderness of sin, to be stripped and mocked and imprisoned, to die for dying sinners.  In His sacrificial love, the sheep find forgiveness, and along with that forgiveness they are filled with Christ, and sealed with the Holy Spirit.  Redeemed, reborn, made new by the mercy of Jesus, the sheep then have mercy for others.  The better they understand the gift of the Father, the more mercy they have for their neighbors.  Faith alone saves, our works contribute nothing to salvation.  Faith alone saves, but faith in Christ is never alone, it is always followed by good works, because true faith receives Christ and His Spirit, and having the merciful Lord God in your life changes everything. 

So, if this Judgment Day Word from Jesus makes you uncomfortable, good, you’re being honest.  If you look at your life and know that you do not love the weak and the lowly as Christ has loved you, good, you’re admitting the truth.  Repent of your lovelessness and selfishness.  Repent, and look to the Judge, for mercy.  The answer to your failure is to look to the Judge, for mercy. 

This is the difference between the salvation Christ offers and all the works righteous religions in the world, including some that claim to be Christian.  For false religion, of whatever name, also points out your lack of love, and warns you that God does not like that.  But the solution of false religions is to crack the whip and tell you to get busy, piling up good works to prepare yourself for Judgment Day.  Maybe, say these false gods, maybe you’ll have a positive balance sheet when the time comes.  Maybe.    

No such lies and doubt from Christ your Judge.  Yes, He wants you to love your neighbor, especially those who are the lowest and least lovable.  And yes, He hates that you are a sinner.  But He does not send you off to pursue the impossible task of saving yourself by your works.  No, the Judge has come to seek you out and rescue you from sin and death, and He still seeks you out to remind you that He has completed the task, for you.  Jesus, your Judge is speaking to you: Look to me for mercy.  Look to me, and see my nail scarred hands.  Look to me, your merciful judge, and trust in my Cross and Empty Tomb. 

So look to the Judge, for mercy.  Marvel at the light of love that pours forth from Him.  Be fed and nourished and lifted up by Him.  His mercy is all you need, and it is all your neighbor needs, too.  Be filled with mercy from Jesus your Judge, and His mercy will overflow from you to the people in need that He brings into your life.   

Look to the Judge for mercy.  True good works that are pleasing to God only flow from faith in Christ, for the Scripture says that anything which does not proceed from faith is sin.  Works done to earn God’s favor and forgiveness deny the all-sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ.  Works done in fear are unacceptable to the God who is Love, who has loved the world by sending His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life.

So, look to the Judge for mercy.  Come often to the places where He is giving out advance judgment, and know that you are prepared for Judgment Day.  You have already been judged not guilty in your Baptism.  The same not guilty verdict is repeated in absolution, and whenever and wherever the Word of His blood bought grace rings in your ears.  Jesus’ final meal before His trial has been transformed by Him into your meal of forgiveness and freedom.  Look to these, for your merciful Judge is present in them, for you.

The Words and Signs of Jesus do not impress the world of goats.  But sheep walk by faith, not by sight.  So look to the Judge in His Word and Sacraments, and know that His mercy is for you.  Come, all you blessed of the Father from before the foundation of the world.  Come you Baptized believers, come you children of God.  Receive again the promise of your heavenly inheritance, and look forward with joy and confidence to the Day of Christ’s return, Amen. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Are We Really?

All Saints Day - Observed, November 6, A + D 2011
1 John 3:1

    See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.

     Are we really?  Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, the day each fall when we rejoice in the victory of the faithful who have gone before us, all the saints whose souls rest with Jesus, awaiting the final victory, the re-creation of all things, the Last Day when the dead in Christ shall rise and be reunited body and soul, and those who remain until the end will meet them in the air, in changed bodies, eternally healthy bodies, glorious bodies, to live in perfect joy and peace, forevermore.  All Saints’ Day, a great day, filled with wonderful hymns, hymns of hope and promise, hymns which each year make me say, “We’ve got to sing these more often…” 

     But in the back of your mind, as in the back of mine, the question returns, even on All Saints Day:  Are we really?  Am I really one of the saints, one of the holy ones of God, destined for eternal peace and glory?   Can we really call ourselves saints?  Are we really children of God?

     In part the question returns because so often in our lives we hear people call things by names that don’t really apply.  Like when your daughter is infatuated with some ill-mannered punk.  When you gently and respectfully and calmly question the wisdom of the relationship, she protests:  “We’re in love!”  You’ve been there, maybe you’ve even been that ill mannered punk.  Regardless, you’re pretty sure what they have isn’t love, no matter what they call it.     

     Or in recent years, as our government has been discussing fining people who don’t buy health insurance.  They won’t call it a tax, but it will reduce your bank account in just the same way, and the money goes to the government, so what should it be called?  You can call a horse a duck all you want, but that won’t make it start laying eggs.   

     We know, all too well, that just because a person calls something a certain name, that doesn’t make it so.  And so the question returns, “Are we really children of God?”  “Can we look forward to rejoicing with all the saints?”  Jesus’ words to us this morning certainly create some difficulties for us in this regard.  Our Gospel is from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapter 5, and in this section, called the Beatitudes, the Lord is describing His Church.  So, His words should describe us, if we are truly children of God.  And Jesus says blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers… Jesus describes His Church, and Satan whispers in our ear:  “Well that can’t be you.” 

     The devil whispers, and our own conscience hears the words of Jesus, words about being meek, and pure in heart, about making peace and pursuing righteousness, and we must confess: we cannot call ourselves children of God.  We cannot, for we do not begin to live up to Jesus’ standards in Matthew 5.  We are proud, and boastful, we hunger more for food to fill our bellies than the goodness of God.  The thoughts of our heart are not pure, in fact we are very thankful that no one can know the thoughts of our hearts, for they would be shocked and we would be shamed.  But no one knows our hearts.  No one, except God, of course. 

     Then there are those other beatitudes that Jesus lists.  The blessings that we really don’ t want, blessings in poverty of spirit, blessings in mourning, blessings in persecution, blessings in being reviled by those around us, for the sake of Christ.  We fail at the blessings that require some action on our part, like peacemaking and thirsting for righteousness, and we flee from the blessings that are passive, the blessings of suffering.  Jesus tells us to rejoice and be glad, but we really don’t want any part of suffering for Christ.  Jesus says we’ll be glad we did, but it is pretty hard to overcome the urge to avoid suffering, at whatever cost. 

     So as we ask the question, “Are we really children of God?,” we find little encouragement in what we see in our lives.  We are in church this Sunday morning, but maybe we are not so different from many people who avoid the church altogether.  Many of our neighbors avoid church altogether, because they don’t believe they could ever meet God’s standards.  Like them, we too may find ourselves doubting that we could ever truly call ourselves Christians. 

     Thankfully, our identity as Christians, our status as children of God, does not depend on what we can achieve in our lives.  Nor does it depend on what we call ourselves.  Indeed, we would be fools to call ourselves Christians and stake our eternal future on our self-designation.  We cannot call ourselves children of God. 

     But God can, and He has.  Listen again to what the Apostle John says this morning:      See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.  Who calls us children of God?  God does.  The love He has given to us is His call.  And His call means everything, because God works through His Word.  When God speaks, things happen.  So if God calls you His Child, you are.  The Father has called us children of God, and so, we are children of God. 

     In our world, claims and names have to be proven and earned.  Just because someone says something doesn’t make it true.  With God it is different.  Never forget that.  It is the key to your assurance.  Satan knows the world we live in, indeed, he rules the way of this world.  Satan knows that we tend to doubt everything.  But the Good News is that God has Satan on a leash, and try as he might, the devil cannot undo what God has said, for the Word of the Lord endures forever. 

         See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.  God has called us, He has named us His children.  God has acted.  The same Word He used to create the heavens and the earth, the Word that is the seed the sower went out to sow, the sharp two-edged sword of the Holy Spirit, this is the Word God has used on you. 

     Are we really saints, holy ones of God?  Well, God wants saints, He wants to have people, holy and righteous, with Him forever, to receive all His blessings and to enjoy the presence of His glory.  Now God is not blind.  When He looks at humanity, He does not find what He seeks.  Our robes are not white, that is the garments we patch together with our works.  God did not find the holy ones He desires among any of the children of Adam, and so He has made them. 

     God has made us saints by declaring us holy, for Jesus’ sake.  In order to call you into a new existence, the Son of God became a man, Jesus came to the earth, to live and serve and carry our sins, our blemishes, our pride and selfishness.  All these stains on our garments, Jesus came to wash clean, in the blood of His cross.  And now, because He wants you for one of His holy ones, God calls you His child, He makes you holy by clothing you in the spotless robes of Christ. 

     You don’t deserve it.  You haven’t earned it.  Indeed, what you  and I deserve is frightening to consider.  But fear not, Justice has been served, by Jesus.  Your sins are all paid for, in Him there is no punishment left.  So God is free to call you His child by forgiving you all your sins and binding you to Jesus and calling you His child.  And so He does, and so you are. 

     How can you know?  Listen to God.  He is the One who baptized you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.  There His Name, His Holy Name, enveloped you.  There He adopted you, there in your Baptism, God said “You are My child.”  And in case you forget, God keeps speaking.  He keeps wielding His two-edged sword, calling you back from sin, calling you back with forgiveness.  Jesus is the one who taught us to pray, Father, forgive us our trespasses, and so He does.  God does not want sin to have dominion over you, and so He stands ready, ready to wash your robes in the blood of the Lamb, shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins, fed to you for the forgiveness of all your sins. 

    See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.  Rejoice and be glad, with all the Saints who from their labors rest, and with all the Saints who continue in the battle, with Jesus Christ at our side, Amen. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

In Need of Reformation

Reformation Day (Observed),         October 30th, Year of Our + Lord 2011
Psalm 46:7

     The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  It’s quite fitting, we Lutherans choosing Psalm 46 as a main theme for the Reformation, the inspiration for Luther’s magnificent hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress,’ the cause of all those castles on our Reformation banners and bulletins.  Fitting, because if ever somebody was in need of Reformation, it was Jacob.   

     Jacob was always trying to get ahead, from the beginning, grasping at his twin brother’s heel as he followed in birth.  Jacob’s very name is a play on words, meaning both to grab the heel, and also to supplant, or usurp, that is, to take another’s rightful position, often by trickery.  A ‘jacob’ is one who is always trying to get something that isn’t his, always worried that the things he has been given aren’t enough, always scheming.  A ‘jacob’ cannot be still and know that the Lord is God, who comes to bless His people.  That is how Jacob’s life went, for a long time.  Grabbing at Esau’s heel from birth, Jacob the momma’s boy couldn’t rest in the promise God made to his  mother, that the older twin would serve the younger.  Jacob and his mother couldn’t wait on God’s promise in faith, they had to try to steal the birthright from Esau by trickery.  And, with a bowl of lentil stew and some goat skins to disguise Jacob’s smooth skin from his blind father, Jacob did just that. 

     Which, not too surprisingly, didn’t go so well.  Esau was understandably angry, enough to kill him, and soon Jacob fled.  Jacob’s life was bumpy from then on, the grasping and trickery of others appropriately enough giving Jacob headaches.  Like his uncle Laban who tricked Jacob into marrying the wrong girl.  Later Jacob faced the scheming of two wives, Leah and Rachel, who then added two more wives, all in a grasping competition to be the best wife to Jacob, the schemer.  And not too surprisingly, that whole four wives thing didn’t go so well.  With four scheming mothers and Jacob playing favorites, their twelve sons became a squabbling, hateful bunch who caused their father much grief.  Jacob, and his family, needed a lot of reformation.

     Which God gave.  The Lord came to Jacob, again and again, correcting and guiding him.  The Lord taught Jacob through fear, allowing the anger of Esau to drive Jacob out, alone, across the wilderness in flight.  Later the Lord sent a man who attacked Jacob, wrestling with him all night long.  The Lord also allowed great sorrow in Jacob’s life, years of believing his favorite son Joseph had been devoured by wild animals, then the household arrest of another son, Simeon, detained in Egypt when the brothers went there to seek food during a famine. 

     Jacob kept striving after his own ideas of what makes for a good life, forgetting and doubting the promises God had made to him, and so the Lord kept correcting him.  But along with correction, and even more, the Lord reformed Jacob by repeating the promises, and continuing to fulfill them.  As Jacob fled from Esau, the Lord appeared to Jacob in a dream, revealing the stairway from heaven, with unnumbered angels of God ascending and descending, and the Lord standing next to Jacob, declaring the eternal Gospel,  that the Lord Himself would continue to come to Jacob and fulfill His great promises, most especially the promise of a Descendent who would be the Savior of every nation.  Later, at the end of that night long wrestling match with the man, Jacob discovered that this Man was God Himself, come to strive with Jacob, the Lord who gave Jacob a new name, Israel, and repeated the promises He had made earlier. 

     Finally, the God of Jacob revealed His steadfast love and protection to Jacob when the man who ruled Egypt, who had arrested Simeon, who demanded to see Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, when this man turned out to be Joseph, Jacob’s lost son, who was alive, having passed through slavery and imprisonment in order to be raised up, all so that through Joseph the Lord could keep His promises to Jacob and his family, again.  Through these promises, repeated and fulfilled, through actually coming to Jacob, speaking and wrestling with him, through promises and visitation, even more than through correction, the Lord reformed Jacob, shaping and strengthening his faith with the Word of Promise. 

     The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  It’s quite fitting, we Lutherans choosing Psalm 46 as a major theme of the Reformation, choosing this Psalm of Jacob, who needed so much Reformation, fitting, because Martin Luther was also a man in great need of reform.  Martin Luther was a striver too, different from Jacob, but striving to make his own way, nonetheless.  Eldest son of Hans Luther, young Martin had in his father an example of striving, for Hans was an up and comer, a man from the peasant class who through hard work and determination raised himself and his family up a level, up into what would become the middle class, just beginning to form in 15th century Europe, men made important by doing new work to support a changing world.  Hans left the world of peasant agriculture and became a coal-miner, then an owner of coal mines, and eventually a fairly well-off man.  And Hans had great plans for his eldest, plans to see Martin become a lawyer and move up yet another level in society. 

     Within a life that looks to God for the ultimate good, there is nothing wrong with Hans’ ideas, a self-made family man looking to develop a lasting legacy.  Unfortunately for Luther, but in the end fortunately for the Church, Luther was plagued with another spur towards making your own way, the spur of the official teaching of the Church. 

In its proper place, a solid work ethic and desire to advance oneself in honest ways is a good thing, leading to better lives for everyone in society.  But when this idea of self-advancement is brought into the Church, everything falls apart.  For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  So to teach that men must save themselves by their works is to fight directly against God’s truth, a fight which leads to miserable slavery for all involved. 

     The same inability to trust in God’s promises of blessing that plagued Jacob had infected the entire Western Church.  Getting into a good relationship with God had become falsely defined as a long climb up a ladder of good works, good works that in the end could only be properly done if one entered into Church work.  This teaching, perhaps combined with the pressure to succeed from his father, made Martin miserable, afraid of his father, and afraid of God.  His fear of God, and thunderstorms, eventually led Martin to abandon the law and enter a monastery, much to the displeasure of Hans.  Worse for Luther, his fear was not godly, for Luther’s kind of fear led him to hate, not love God, because his understanding of salvation was wrong. 

     All of which makes for a pretty dismal story, especially if you drop in on Luther as he is torturing himself in the monastery, trying to beat the sin out of himself, trying desperately to climb the ladder to heaven that the Church told him he could, and must, climb.  Luther the earnest monk, starving himself, pursuing pointless vows of self-denial, a slave of works righteousness, was a most pitiable soul, especially because Luther was so honest.  He knew his own sin, that all his outward acts of righteousness only covered up a heart that wandered from God, indeed a heart that, often as not, hated God for all His unachievable standards.  But God was not done reforming Luther, not yet. 

     Luther was assigned by his superiors to study Scripture, to become a doctor and professor of the Church.  Luther was chosen because, despite all his self-loathing and doubts about salvation, he was also a brilliant man, one whom they hoped might be distracted from his spiritual trials through the study of God’s Holy Word.  And man, was he ever.  Despairing of ever meeting God’s standard, painfully aware of his own guilt and sin, Luther was ready for God’s reformation, which the Holy Spirit worked in Luther through the study and teaching of the Bible.  Like a door opening into heaven, Luther, through years of study, meditation and teaching, was brought to understand and believe the eternal Gospel, the good news that, because we are sinners and cannot make ourselves righteous, God the Father sent God the Son into human flesh, to live, die and rise for sinners, in order that His righteousness, His goodness, His perfection, might be given to sinners as a free gift, received by faith, delivered by the Holy Spirit through the Word and Sacraments. 
Like Jacob, finally at the end of his life able to be still and know that God is gracious and merciful, Luther stopped striving to win God’s love, because he now believed that God had already loved him, perfectly, in Christ Jesus. 

     Luther was free at last, reformed by God through His promises, promises fulfilled completely, and delivered to sinners, in Christ alone.  No human works, no human will, no human merit, but God through Christ alone has fulfilled all that is necessary for sinful humans to be declared worthy of God’s kingdom.  In Christ sinners are free to enter into the fortress of salvation, the refuge which is the God of Jacob Himself, into whom we have been grafted by Water and the Word.  Abiding in His Word, dining at His table, we receive eternal sustenance in the Body and Blood, given under the bread and wine. 

     The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  It’s quite fitting, we Lutherans choosing Psalm 46 as a major theme of the Reformation, choosing this Psalm of Jacob, who needed so much Reformation, fitting, because we, like Jacob, and Luther, are also so much in need of Reformation.  Perhaps like young Jacob you strive to make your best life now, focusing all your energy and effort on getting ahead in the world, even if that means ignoring Gods’ Law and Promises and hurting people you are supposed to love.  Or perhaps you are more like the young monk Luther, very serious about meeting God’s standard, so much so that you are plagued by anger and even hatred toward this God who has given you laws that you simply cannot keep.  Or maybe you’ve given up, given up on earthly life, and given up on life with God, resigned to the impossibility of making your own way.  Perhaps you live without hope, muddling through life with no thought for a brighter future, resigned to life on the couch, pursuing a few idle pleasures as you wait for the end. 

     Whichever way your striving tends, and even if you’ve given up striving all together, I declare good news to you today:  God is not done with His Reformation.  The Lord of hosts is still with us.  The stairway from heaven touches the earth wherever God’s Word and Signs are declared, even in this place, on this day.  God is still speaking, to you.  The Lord speaks words of caution, words of warning, convicting words for you  when you live as though this life is all that matters, convicting words for you when you treat your neighbors as enemies, and convicting words for you when you act as though you can earn God’s love by your works.  But even more than with His Word of warning, even more than with His Law, the Lord God of Jacob is still coming to you to speak His Word of promise:  In Christ Jesus, in His body and blood, in His death and resurrection, God has made your way, forgiving your sin, fulfilling all His promises, giving you protection, in His eternal fortress.  Be still, and know that Jesus Christ is your God.  Abide in His Word, live in His freedom, Amen.