31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave[b] to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Dear Friends in Christ,
• Oliver hungry to go on the tractor with dad
• Hungry to be set free
There are at least two kinds of slavery – that which is inflicted by others, and that which is self inflicted.
Some time ago, I read an excerpt from a book written by Jacob Timmerman, “Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number.” He was a Jewish journalist who was imprisoned in Argentina in the 1970’s for daring to criticize his government. He writes, “The cell is narrow. The floor of the cell is permanently wet. Somewhere there is a leak. The mattress is also wet. I have a blanket, and to keep it from getting wet, too, I wear it on my shoulders constantly. If I lie down with the blanket on top of me, I get soaked from the mattress. I frequently urinate on myself. And then I must get special permission to have my clothes washed. I wait in the cell, naked, until they are brought back. It takes several days, they say, because it is raining.”
Worse than that, he writes about his interrogation, “A man’s hands are shackled behind him, his eyes blindfolded. No one says a word. Blows are showered upon him. Then, stripped, doused with water, and tied down, hands and legs outstretched, he is subjected to electric shocks. The amount of electricity is regulated. Sometimes it merely hurts, sometimes it burns and destroys. It is impossible to shout, you howl. Someone sticks his hand into your mouth and prevents you from choking. And then it starts again. And then questions. And insults. And it starts again. It feels as though your flesh is ripping away.” Oh how hungry he had to be and how his desire to be set free had to be his consuming passion in every hour of every day.
A second kind of imprisonment is self inflicted. The kingdom of God is like a married man with children who develops a habit of drinking too much, which leads to a gambling problem, which leads to spending money he really doesn’t have, which leads to serious conflict with his wife and children, which leads to more drinking and more gambling and more wasteful spending, which eventually leads to separation and court hearings and divorce and custody battles and ruined holidays and dashed dreams and more drinking and oh how hungry he is for another start. It is this second kind of slavery we want to focus on this Reformation Sunday – a Sunday where we celebrate what it means to be saved by the grace of God alone through faith in Jesus Christ.
May I suggest that there are only two kinds of redeemed sinners here today – those of us who are pretty satisfied where we are in our journey of faith and those of us hungry for a new start. In the case of Martin Luther, he knew there was something wrong with the idea that you could in some way earn the favor of a righteous God. He knew that no matter how hard he tried, he could not merit the forgiveness of sins. He was hungry for assurance that he was right with God. Or to say it another way- to be set free from the slavery of sin and to live and serve with a clear conscience and joyful spirit. Two truths we want to consider this morning about what it means to get a new start.
The first lesson we want to learn is that fresh starts begin with a renewed understanding of the nature of (slavery). The Jewish religious leaders took great pride in being the offspring of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and were aghast at the idea that they were slaves to anyone. To which Jesus replied with an irrefutable argument, “Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who does sin is the slave of sin.” Peter said it this way in his second Epistle, “For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” Paul wrote in Romans 6, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience , which leads to righteousness.”
Even pagans voice what Jesus says about slavery. A teacher named Senaca declared that no bondage is harder than that of the passions. Plato wrote that liberty is the name of virtue, and bondage the name of vice. To this very day, there are all kinds of Lutheran Christians who take pride in the fact that they were baptized in the Lutheran Church, instructed and confirmed in the Lutheran Church, married in the Lutheran Church, and planning on getting buried out of the Lutheran Church. All of that is fine and wonderful unless we are not realizing in each one of our days that as often as we sin in our thoughts and in our words and in our deeds and in our habits, that often we are slaves to sin and to the devil himself.
For anyone here today who isn’t feeling a particular need for a new start in life or to receive our Lord’s Supper, Luther has three words of advice – 1) put your hand in your bosom and see if you still have flesh, 2) look around and see if you are still in the world, and 3) remember that the devil and his demons are all around you tempting and causing trouble.
Step #1 of the Christian’s 12 steps to sobriety is to admit that we are powerless over our addictions and dysfunctional behaviors and that our lives had become unmanageable. Step #4 is to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Step # 5 is to admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Step #7 is to humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings. Step # 10 is to continue to take personal inventory and when we were wrong to promptly admit it. Hear the words of our theme song: Blessed are the poor in spirit who are torn apart. Blessed are the persecuted and the pure in heart; Blessed are the people hungry for another start, For theirs is the kingdom, the kingdom of God.
Our second lesson today is that fresh starts will have staying power to the extent that we (abide) in Christ and His Word. In John 8, Jesus is talking first of all to people who were just starting to believe in Jesus. They had seen Him do miracles, they had listened to his severe warnings about rejecting the Messiah, and they had permitted the beautiful words of Divine Grace sink into their minds and soak through their hearts. If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
To abide Jesus and His Word is to regularly hear and hold onto and treasure the teachings of Holy Scripture. It is to let the Word of Christ dwell richly in your hearts and homes instead of to have a hit and miss approach to daily devotions and church attendance. To the extent that we remain in His Word, to that extent we will be set free from the sinful passions and harmful habits which will chase after us until our dying breath. In chapter 17, John records Jesus praying for His Father to sanctify His disciples with the truth, thy Word is truth. Jesus says that if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. The commentator William Lenski says it this way, “For by realizing we are set free; hence the more we realize, the more we are set free. The one action grows immediately out of the other. Any measure of inner penetration on the part of the truth produces a corresponding measure of freedom…To believe the word of Jesus ever so little means to realize the truth to that extent and to be set free correspondingly. Then of course, to remain in the Word of Jesus, to be fixed and firm in that Word, means a realization and an emancipation fixed and firm accordingly.
In closing, we note at least two kinds of freedom – that which is temporary and that which is permanent. Temporary freedom was experienced by that Jewish journalist in our opening story who eventually had his day in court. The charges were found to be without basis, and he was set free and in fact lived to write a book about his experiences. Assuming that he remained in the Jewish faith however, we may conclude that his freedom was just for a time here on earth and not into eternity. Unless he was baptized into the Name of the Triune God and called on the Name of Jesus as Lord and Savior – he will never taste the forgiveness of sins, and where there is no forgiveness there is no permanent freedom.
Permanent freedom is that which Jesus offered to those early believers and to believers in every generation, without exception. It is freedom earned for us by Christ at the cross, sealed in His resurrection, delivered to us in Holy Baptism, worked in our hearts in the preaching of His Word, and celebrated in Holy Communion. To be set free by Jesus Christ is to live free from the guilt of past failures and faults. It is to live free from the worries of what tomorrow may bring. To be set free by Jesus Christ is be still on a regular basis and to know that God is God. It is to give every day the best you have and as you lay your head down on the pillow to ask God to forgive what you have done wrong and bless whatever you may have done right and then to sleep in peace.
The kingdom of God is like a man who destroyed his first marriage with a habit of drinking too much, which led to a gambling problem, which led to a spending of money problem, which led to a crazy cycle of self inflicted slavery which seemed to have no end. But it did. You see one thing he kept on doing right was to use his ears to hear God’s Word. Through thick and thin, marriage and divorce, bad times and good, he kept on abiding in the Word of God. As time went on, his wife and children forgave him, as they had been forgiven. And the more he realized that his sins had been washed away and sent away and were never to be thrown in his face again – he found a way to live by the grace of God one day at a time. As often as he received his Lord’s Supper, that often he realized a new beginning. And although he really didn’t know how each chapter of life would end, he was certain that a mansion in heaven had been prepared for Him and that the best was yet to come. God help each of you to live free in knowing that your past has been forgiven and that the best is yet to come. In Jesus Name. Amen.
Blessed Be The Name of the Lord
(Job 1: 20-22) “At this Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.’”
Dear Friends in Christ,
In a conversation with Dorothy yesterday, she mentioned that Alvin had come into this world without a dime and left it the same way. The context of that remark was how the Lord was to be trusted in good times and in bad, through thick and thin, for better and for worse. I was reminded of Job, who responded to great tragedy in life not by cursing God and wanting to die, but rather by getting up, tearing his robe, shaving his head bald as a sign of grief, and then falling down again in worship to the one true God. By remembering that all that he had in life was given by God and by being willing to yield it all right back to God.
What is particularly fascinating about the story of Job is that Satan and God engaged in conversation about his life and his faith. God initiated the conversation by commending Job as a decent and upright and righteous man. To which Satan replied by cynically suggesting that the real reason why Job had such a good attitude in life was that God had spoiled him rotten, that he had shielded him from dangers and calamities, and that God had arranged life so that Job’s flocks and herds had multiplied and grown far beyond those of other men. Satan challenged God to strike Job with tragedy and predicted that Job would curse God to His face. And so God gave the devil permission to do whatever he wanted to do to Job, short of afflicting his body and death itself.
And so the unbelievably horrible day happened. First, his thousands of oxen and donkeys were carried off and all by one servant were put to the sword. A second messenger brought the news that the fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants, and only one man escaped to tell him about it. While he was still speaking, a third messenger indicated that the Chaldeans had attacked and the camels were carried off. A fourth messenger indicated that his seven sons and daughters were partying the day away when a windstorm blew down their house and all were dead.
To which Job responded by shaving his head bald, worshiping His God, shrugging his shoulders, and saying in effect – well, I came into this world without a dime, and that’s where I’m at today, as well. That’s what you have to call a really good attitude.
This is what the Christian author Chuck Swindoll had to say about attitude, Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home.
The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude... I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.
It seems as though Alvin figured that out a long time. Life here and now doesn’t get much worse than having an explosion and fire ripping through your house and having two younger and beautiful sisters die of smoke inhalation. It doesn’t get too much worse than losing your hand in a grain auger and no doubt there were plenty of lousy days on the farm where the crops were failing and the prices were low and the bills were high. And yet by the grace of God, Alvin kept on finding a way to keep on trusting in His God, to keep on having a sense of humor about life, and to have a decent attitude about life.
Were there times where he felt like cursing the darkness instead of lighting a candle? Were there times when he felt like the victim in life and wanted to spend his days moaning and groaning about what he didn’t have in life instead of praising the Name of the Lord? No doubt there were those days, and perhaps he did his share of feeling sorry for himself and looking with envy on neighbors who were better off than he.
But this one truth we celebrate about Alvin and Dorothy this morning – and that is that they kept on throwing themselves on the mercy of Almighty God as the years went on. And the beautiful thing about that is that this is God’s greatest desire – to have mercy on sinners. This is the victory that we celebrate today, even as we stare in the face this last enemy of Christian faith – death and burial. The Good News we revel in this morning goes all the way back to Alvin’s Baptism, where the Triune God claimed Him and marked Him with the sign of the cross both upon his forehead and upon his heart, signifying that his sins were forgiven. Signifying that his name was written in the book of life. Signifying that a mansion in heaven had been prepared by Jesus who lived the perfect life that Alvin couldn’t come close to living and dying the death that Alvin deserved to die and by rising up again on the third day in glorious fashion.
This was Alvin’s Confirmation verse – And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. This is how Jesus loved Alvin and this is how Jesus has loved each of you here today – by taking on flesh and living in our midst. It was for the joy set before Him, the Bible says, that Jesus endured all that He endured and suffered all that he suffered and died the death His Father asked Him to die.
This morning, I invite all of you to live your lives with joy as well, to endure all that God asks you to endure, to suffer all that you have been appointed to suffer, and do so in anticipation of the glories of paradise which will be so much better than the best times we ever might experience here and now.
In addition to that, I invite you to imitate all that was good and God-pleasing in the life of Alvin Priem. Imitate the faith of Alvin and Dorothy and so many in this great generation who didn’t grow frail and melt away in their days of great trial but rather developed a spirit of perseverance which in turn produced strong character, which in turn produced Christian hope which refused to go away. Imitate his sense of humor, as best you can, by focusing on what is amusing in the daily grind of life instead of that which is so very frustrating. Spending time with Alvin was a laugh a minute, almost without exception. He was funny, as you know, without even trying. His smirk was never far away, and in his presence it was hard to have a pity party for long.
You all have your favorite memories of Alvin, and today is a great day to spend some time to share and enjoy. My favorite memory in recent years was of Alvin attending Holy Communion at Park Road Plaza on the third Tuesday of each month. For two reasons, I say that. First was his sense of humor, as he hobbled in and sat down as one man in the presence of 12-15 women. Second was his Christian faith, which God’s Spirit had worked in his heart over the years – as often as he sat still and let God be God in his life. As often as I would ask him if he was sorry for his sins, as often as I asked him if he believed in Jesus Christ as Savior, and as often as I asked him if he would amend his sinful life – that often he would say yes. And then what a privilege it was to say to him that his sins were forgiven and that his place in paradise was secure in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dorothy and children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, as you lay this wise cracking man of God to rest today, do so with humility, do so with thanksgiving, and do so with confidence. Humility because in fact the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Thanksgiving because your Good Shepherd promises to follow you around with goodness and mercy all the days of your life. And confidence in the fact that the good old days have not passed us by, in fact the best is yet to come. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Dear Friends in Christ,
There are weddings that take place on the spur of the moment and there are weddings planned out years in advance. There are weddings that cost a few hundred dollars and there are weddings that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Average cost of a wedding in USA – I looked it up - $25,200! (Research suggests that the high cost of weddings causes future marital stress). There are guests who RSVP promptly, those who respond late, and those who respond not at all. There are guests who accept the invitation with joy, those who decline with regrets, and a few who reply maybe (we had a farmer and his wife reply to our son’s wedding invitation that they would come unless hay was down). There are wedding receptions with name tags and those without. Receptions with assigned seating and those without. Some receptions have an open bar all night, some have it partially open, and at others guests are asked to pay for their own drinks. Some receptions have one meal – take it or leave it. Others have several options, including a children’s menu. At a family wedding in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago, there was a time for hors d’oeuvres in a smaller room in anticipation of the main meal in the main hall set forth in beautiful and extravagant fashion. This morning we study Matthew 22 where salvation is pictured as a wedding feast prepared by a king for his son and the invitations were delivered but the people wouldn’t come. As we do so, I would suggest to you that as often as you hear the Word of God and believe it and as often as you eat and drink at your Lord’s Supper, and as often as you enjoy and live in the grace and the mercy of your Savior, you are enjoying the hors d’oeuvres as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that is to come.
Two truths I invite you to consider today, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, under the theme, “The Wedding Feast is Ready!” The first truth has to do with the awesome privileges of living as invited guests, and the second has to do with the awesome responsibilities that come along with great privilege. Privilege and responsibility.
The first lesson we learn from Jesus today is to come on in and enjoy the wedding feast, or die. In this parable, the King is our Father in heaven, and His Son Jesus is the Groom. The Father prepared this Wedding Feast not with credit cards and checks written, but with the very blood of His one and only and precious Son. He prepared this meal not with the slaughter of oxen or fattened steers, but with the once and for all sacrifice of the very Lamb of God. He sent out round one of invitations through Old Testament prophets, but they would not come. So many of the Jewish people treated the invitation with indifference and simply went about their business as if the love of this King was no big deal. Others did worse than that. They mistreated the messengers who delivered the invitations, and in many cases put them to death. Instead of accepting this royal invitation with great joy, so many first century Jews were put to death as part of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Already then, the choice was to come on in and enjoy the wedding feast or prepared to die.
In ancient days, wedding celebrations often lasted for 7 days, and to decline the invitation was to miss out on all kinds of eating and drinking and being merry. These days, a wedding celebration is a half a day or so and to decline the invitation is to miss out on a few hours of feasting and conversation and dancing the night away. But the wedding feast of which we speak today is life in paradise face to face with Jesus where all of your tears will be wiped away and where death itself will be swallowed up and the feast of rich food and well-aged wine will go on without end. To decline this invitation is to be damned. To refuse to wear the wedding garment provided in the waters of Baptism is to be bound hand and foot and to be cast into the outer darkness. In that place, Jesus says with tears in His eyes, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The Gospel invitation has always been, is today, and always will be as sweet as it can be, but is followed up with an ever so stern warning. Here and now, come on in to the presence of the Lord and enjoy, or go your own way and suffer. Here and now, come on in and be set free by the forgiveness of your sins or go your own way and live in prisons of your own making. Here and now, come on in to the sanctuary and enjoy the hors d’oeurves already paid for or go to a restaurant of your own choosing and pay your own bill. Here and now, throw yourselves on the mercy of God, or spend your days making excuses for your failures and rationalizing away your faults and hurting others with your bad attitudes and miss out on all the benefits and the ripple effects of God’s amazing grace. Here and now, sit still and enjoy the rest and the relief and the refreshing breezes brought your way by the Spirit of the living God, or spend your days weary and anxious and indifferent and overwhelmed by life with all of its challenges. O dear Christian friends, what a great privilege it is to wake up each day by making the sign of the cross and remembering the Triune God’s desire for us to live as invited guests where the forgiveness of sins has been provided and mansions in heaven have been prepared. How much simpler and how much more joy there to live as people of privilege rejoicing in the blessings we do have instead of living as victims complaining about how the world is out to get us.
With great privilege of course comes great responsibility, at least in the kingdom of God. That’s the second truth the Spirit of God would teach us this morning what it means to say yes to the King Who has invited us to be guests in His wedding hall. For earthly weddings, the obligations of a guest seem to be far and few between. There is, of course, the responsibility to keep the happy couple in your prayers and as time goes on, to do whatever you can do to support them in their effort to enjoy a Christ-centered marriage. But to be gathered as a guest into the heavenly wedding feast is to be sent back out to the main roads and to the not so main roads and even into the alleys to invite to this same feast as many as you can find.
This past week I ran across an article about Pastor Jay Reinke, a former Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Pastor in Williston, North Dakota. Williston is in the heart of that great state’s oil boom, and he had made the decision to open up his church doors to would be workers. Many of them had histories that included drug abuse, alcoholism, crime, and all that goes along with the bad decisions of life. They were what polite society has determined to be bad people. And so when this pastor initiated an “overnighters” program which offered Army cots, floor space, and parking spots to over 50 unemployed men and a few women, there was a fair amount of rejoicing mixed in with all kinds of objections and concerns of congregational members.
One particular man named Todd had served in Iraq and had come to the oil fields in absolute desperation. He confessed his evil ways to Pastor Jay and added that he was born only because his mother was raped. To which the Pastor replied, “Can I tell you something? You and I are a whole lot more alike than we are different. I’m broken. We’re broken. We’re just broken. We’re in this together.” I don’t really know the whole story, but we do know that the Pastor eventually had to leave the ministry, that his marriage struggled to survive, and that he now works for a company that provides welding supplies to the oil field. Now a movie called “Overnighters” has been produced and has already won an award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
What does it mean to go out into the highways and the byways to invite sinners into the Kingdom of God? What is our responsibility towards loved ones who have drifted from the means of grace and seem to be keeping God at a distance? What is our responsibility towards confirmands who have drifted from their Savior for one reason or another? What is our collective responsibility towards the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the abused, the unemployed and the underemployed, the addicted and the afflicted? Where do we start when we have no idea where to start? Why should we try if we have already tried and failed? How do we invite folks who have already declined the invitation one or more times?
I don’t really know the simple answers to those questions, but this we do know for certain – that we are saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ and that faith never comes alone. By definition saving faith is alive with good works. Another way of saying that great privileges in life never come our way alone. They always come with great responsibility. With that in mind, permit me to offer five practical suggestions on how to go out into the main roads and the not so main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as we can find.
1. Pray for opportunities.
2. Look people in the eyes, and listen. Listen to their stories. Be slow to speak. Let me say it again. Listen to what people are saying.
3. Ask questions. Ask good questions. Before you give them good answers, make sure you ask them good questions.
4. Keep on inviting people, even if they have refused previous invites. Invite them to church / Bible Class / church activity/ your home / out for coffee / beer.
5. Trust that the Spirit of God is at work as often as you pray for opportunities, as often as you look people in the eyes and listen, as often as you ask good questions, as often as you keep on inviting people to know that God isn’t mad at them, to know that Jesus Christ lived and died and rose for them, to know that nothing they have done or are doing or will do will cause God to love them less, to know that their sins have been forgiven, their salvation has been secured, and that the wedding feast is ready.
Amen. This is most certainly true!
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther