Comforting Love (Psalm 119)
- Order of Service: Divine Service 1
- Hymns: LSB #578, 813, 622, 637, 655
My soul longs for Your salvation; I hope in Your Word (Psalm 119:81)
This morning's readings leave us with a longing in our souls. Especially having just heard Jesus' terrifying words in the Gospel reading. Words that many would like to either remove from the Bible or skip over when they appear. These words cause our souls to long for God's salvation. To desire to be rid of the troubles of this life. Especially because of the divisive nature of Jesus' teaching. We long for God's salvation because our hope is firmly set in His Word.
We hear Jesus' words and cry out with the Psalmist, "When will You comfort me?" (v82) We seek comfort when Jesus says, "I came to cast fire on the earth" (Luke 12:49). He further says, "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division" (Luke 12:51). This contrasts greatly with the words of the Gloria in Excelsis: "Glory to God in the highest, and PEACE to His people on earth." This contrasts with the Kyrie: "In PEACE let us pray to the Lord." This contrasts with other places in the Bible where God promises peace. We seek peace from God. But here Jesus says He brings division. "Is not My Word like fire ... and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?" (Jeremiah 23:29)
God's Word has always separated people. Not just believers and unbelievers. His Word has always broken up families. God approved Abel's sacrifice and despised Cain's (Genesis 4:4-5; Hebrews 11:4). Before they were born, God chose Jacob instead of Esau (Genesis 25:23-26; Malachi 1:2-3; Romans 9:10-13). Jews who believe in Jesus are cast out of the synagogue. Shunned by their family for leaving the faith. This is why the parents of the man born blind in John 9 would NOT speak about how he received his sight (19-23). The family was broken up because the man born blind was thrown out of the synagogue for his faith in Jesus. His parents remained in the synagogue because they feared the rulers. The fire and the hammer of Jesus' words receive their full effect in the lives of those He teaches.
Jesus' teaching also broke up His own earthly family. Mary and His stepbrothers "went out to seize Him, for they were saying, 'He is out of His mind'" (Mark 3:21). They saw no comfort in His preaching. They saw insanity. Much like Festus speaking to St. Paul, "Your great learning is driving you out of your mind" (Acts 26:24). But Jesus rebukes His family, "Whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother" (Luke 3:35). God's Word divides and separates families, but it also brings people together into the mystical family of the Church.
And our families are divided. Almost every family in this congregation is affected by denominational divisions. For some families, there are a couple of relatives--children, siblings, parents--who are a different denomination. For other families, like mine, they are the only member of the Missouri Synod in their family. Division in the family is not easy to live with. However, we must live with it in our fallen world. The problem is individualism. I am only responsible and accountable to myself.
The downside of that philosophy is that there is no objective standard for everyone. You are your only judge. Therefore, when someone tries to say anything you disagree with, you bristle and become defensive and even offended. One of the great slogans of our time is, "You can't see into my heart. You can't tell what I really believe." That is very true. Just because I'm an ordained pastor, I don't have the ability to see into anyone's heart. Nor do I want that burden.
This comes to a head as those denominational differences bar one or more family members from our altar rail. As a confessional Lutheran pastor, I do not stand as judge over anyone's personal beliefs. However, I am called not to serve individuals but the community of Christ that is Trinity Lutheran Church. Several have voiced concerns and complaints over my six years here about especially ELCA family members not being able to commune at our altar. And the purposeful language of the communion statement. How they feel offended by my judgmentalness. How they don't feel welcome even to come to worship with our congregation. I have never said that they are not welcome to attend our services. I have never told ANYONE in my ENTIRE life they are not welcome at church. That's the exact opposite of my calling as a Christian. A Christian invites those who are struggling with life and their sins to hear Jesus' life-giving words. Even when our Savior's words are harsh to our sinful ears. Christians should invite EVERYONE to hear Jesus' words.
Why the purposeful language? Because of the great confusion among the family. Many do not understand the differences. Many don't want to understand. Their emotions get in the way. But as the pastor of this congregation, I cannot look only to the offense taken by one person not allowed at the altar. Especially if allowing that one offends others because their family member has been asked not to commune.
I wish we didn't have to have a communion statement at all. That everyone believed and confessed the same. But each of us has been called to uphold our beliefs in our Confirmation vows. When you join a congregation, whether it is by conversion or transfer or Confirmation, you vow to "continue steadfast in this confession and Church" (LSB Agenda p. 33). You vow to uphold the beliefs of the congregation and the church body you are joining. Therefore the ONLY window into the heart a pastor has is the congregation and church body that you have CHOSEN to associate yourself with. I cannot say for certain what anyone personally believes. Whether it's the ELCA children who were confirmed here or the members of our congregation who sit in the pew ever Sunday. But, by becoming a member of a congregation, you promise to "continue steadfast" in that congregation's confession. That vow becomes the barrier. That vow fuels the emotional chafing that brings about offense.
And the sad news is ... It's only going to get worse. The divisions will only escalate the closer we get to Judgment Day. The closer we get to Judgment Day, the louder we'll cry out: "How long must Your servant endure? When will You judge those who persecute me?" (v84) Or, as the souls of the martyrs under the altar of incense in Heaven, "How long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (Revelation 6:10) Those who seek to remain faithful to God's Word will find themselves crying out even more in days to come. "They have ALMOST made an end of me on earth" (v87). The divisions tug at our emotions. But they will not destroy us. The Great Tribulation of the world's outward pressure on the Church will not destroy the Church. Not even the gates of Hell will be able to stand against Christ's Church (Matthew 16:18).
It would be bad enough if it were just outward pressure against the Church. The greater pressure comes from WITHIN the Church. "The insolent have dug pitfalls for me; they do not live according to Your Law" (v85). This happened in Jeremiah's day as the city of Jerusalem was besieged and close to being conquered by the Babylonians (23:16-22):
- Thus says the LORD of hosts: "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, 'It shall be well with you'; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, 'No disaster shall come upon you.'" ...
- "I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in My council, then they would have proclaimed My words to My people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds."
The false prophets prophesied in God's name, but did not proclaim His Word. St. Paul warned St. Timothy of the same in the Church, "The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths" (2 Timothy 4:3-4). We have that in spades here in America. So many denominations. So many churches. So many choices. It's like standing before a giant buffet bar of Christianity. The false teachers thrive on being in those choices. And American Christianity has become all about choices.
Many use tradition as the lens to interpret Scripture. Whether it is the Apostolic traditions of history or "the way we've always done it." Some reserve the ability to interpret Scripture to their pastor. Others view society as the means to interpreting Scripture. Whatever the consensus of society is the teaching of the Church. Still others, predominantly the television preachers, teach self-help instead of salvation, because salvation from sin doesn't belong in people's everyday life (Joel Osteen, Fox News Sunday 12/23/2007).
Other false teachers have revived the heresy of Pelagianism in their preaching. Often referred to as decision theology. One of the greatest preachers of our time was Billy Graham. His great crusades canvassing the country, seeking people to make a decision to believe in Jesus and MAKE Him their Savior. That Church is useful to most, but it is not necessary. Their theology boils down to the basic premise of Christianity being the relationship between me and Jesus. This is the basic idea of the non-denominational churches, the Baptists and anyone influenced by Pietism's emphasis on personal--individual--devotion and piety. I am in charge of my salvation.
While this has been a long list of things, it is my calling as your Pastor and undershepherd of Christ to point out the false teachings that permeate our world and even our own personal beliefs. Amd this is NOT a complete list by any means. But no sacred cow should be left standing. I'm not picking on anyone. I'm not stirring the pot. I'm proclaiming the truth. The truth of Jesus that divides people.
Jesus' dividing Word leaves us longing for His salvation as we hope in His Word (v81). The dividing Word that brings us to our knees, crying out, "In Your steadfast love give me life, that I may keep the testimonies of Your mouth" (v88). Even in His harshness, Jesus' Word gives life. Everyone who hears Jesus' Word receives the Holy Spirit. "The Lord and giver of life" (Nicene Creed). The Holy Spirit gives the testimonies of Jesus' mouth that we keep through His steadfast love. In this, Jesus is "God at hand" (Jeremiah 23:23). Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). In His steadfast love, Jesus became flesh to endure the cross. To despise its shame. To be seated at God's right hand (Hebrews 12:2). In His steadfast love, Jesus "endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted" (Hebrews 12:3). Through the testimonies of His mouth, revealed in the Gospels, proclaimed by prophets, apostles and pastors, Jesus gives us the ability to endure hostility and hatred for His name's sake. "You will be hated by all for My name's sake. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives" (Luke 21:17-19). "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10).
This endurance is empowered by Jesus' coming Baptism in His crucifixion. "How great is My distress until it is accomplished," He tells the disciples (Luke 12:50). His distress for the impending Baptism leads Jesus to cry out during His Passion. Both before His crucifixion and while He hung on the cross:
- "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will" (Matthew 26:39).
- "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children" (Luke 23:28).
- "Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed" (Luke 23:29).
- "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
- "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).
- "Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit" (Luke 23:46).
In order to bring this endurance from the cross of Calvary to the hearts of twenty-first-century people, Jesus sends pastors and preachers to point Christians to the great cloud of witnesses that surround us on our journey (Hebrews 12:1). Pastors are sent to focus the hearts of God's faithful on the examples of the witnesses who have gone before us. Just a few of them were highlighted in our Epistle reading. Abraham was tested to offer up his only son as a sacrifice, but he believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19; Genesis 22:1-19). Jacob was driven away from his home twice so that he might be blessed by God (Genesis 27:41-28:5; 31:1-42). Jacob's son Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers. Imprisoned for something he didn't do. But raised by God to be second in power to Pharaoh in Egypt (Genesis 37:12-36; 39:1-23; 41:37-57). Moses "refused to be called a son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin" so that he would lead God's people out of bondage (Hebrews 11:24-25, 28-29). Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who was brought into God's covenant people so that she could become an ancestor of Jesus (Hebrews 11:31; Joshua 2:1-24; 6:15-25; Matthew 1:5).
These examples, and many others, point us to see that their examples are about keeping the testimonies of God's mouth (v88). Keeping God's testimonies separate us from those who refuse to keep them. This is the separation God's Word causes between believers and unbelievers. Keeping God's testimonies is seen throughout Psalm 119 and the rest of Scripture as the avenue of blessing God gives each believer. God gave the Ten Commandments to show us how to live as His children (Exodus 20). Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount to expound upon these commandments (Matthew 5-7). We keep the commandments because we know that He who gave them gives us life (John 5:39-40). He empowers us by fulfilling our longing with His life, death and resurrection. Comforting us with His life-giving testimonies.
God's life-giving testimonies are not empty. They create the life they speak. God spoke His strong Word and everything came into being. God's Word created the heavens and the earth (LSB #578.1; Genesis 1:1-2:3). God's Word broke forth from His heavenly throne to breathe the very breath of life He gave to humanity (LSB #578.2; John 1:1-14; Genesis 2:7). God's Word speaks us righteous, forgiving our sin, giving us His holiness (LSB #578.3). God's Word beams brightly from the beams of the cross (LSB #578.4). God's Word gives us the lips to sing His glory (LSB #578.5). His resurrection bringing us peace and comfort in our troubles.
Jesus came to bring division on the earth (Luke 12:51). The divisions will get worse as we approach the Day our Lord returns to bring the peace promised in the Bible. The divisions cause us to cry out for His salvation. Longing for His comforting love. The comforting love that gives us everlasting life. Amen.
Spirit of the living God, teach us to know and to consider the vanity of all earthly things, that we may be made truly wise to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven, that our souls may not be left empty. Cause Your Word to grow in us, and to bring fruit which will remain unto eternal life. Amen.