Jesus tells us that “the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence.” Just a few chapters from now in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will give the reassurance that the gates of hell cannot prevail over the Church. Even though “the kingdom ours remaineth,” it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a smooth ride. What does it mean that the Kingdom suffers violence? Certainly it means that we have enemies from without, people who cannot stand that the Kingdom exists, that we as congregations exist. They want any semblance of Christianity wiped out. That is violence against the Kingdom. But the type of violence Jesus discusses is doctrinal violence. The days ushered in by John the Baptist were the days of the public ministry of Jesus. He was the voice crying in the wilderness, the one making ready the way. But there were many who rejected Jesus. They knew who He was. There was no question in the minds of the Pharisees and the rest of the Jewish establishment. They know John is the last of the prophets. They know Jesus is the promised Messiah, the one who fulfills every prophecy spoken in the Old Testament. But they will not believe. The truth is plainly spoken to them, but they reject it and then try to destroy the Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven suffers this violence of false doctrine.
Today our lord confronts us with the radical price of forgiveness. To show just the tip of the iceberg of the cost of forgiveness, Jesus tells a Parable about a king settling accounts. A servant is brought to him who owes 10,000 talents. A talent is the equivalent of one month’s wages, so the servant owes 10,000 months’ worth of wages, or, 833 1/3 years. To put this in American terms, the average American’s household income for a year is $51,939. So, this servant owes approximately $42,825,786.90! How could someone incur that much debt?! A house only costs about three years’ wages! The servant lived wastefully, extravagantly, and selfishly, topped off with inexcusable stupidity. Though he begs for more time, he could never repay this kind of debt. Assuming he could repay at the same rate we pay off a mortgage, it would take him just shy of 50,000 years to repay his debt. In other words, this debt is impossible to repay. So the king, in his undeserved, lavish mercy, forgives the debt. He doesn’t give time, he doesn’t even demand a token payment! He wipes the slate clean and acts as if that debt had never been incurred.
What is love? Chris and Catrin have heard this question several times in the last few months as we have met together. We’re accustomed to thinking of love as an emotion, something we feel. As we opened Scripture and looked at the picture it paints of life in this world, we learned that love is not an emotion. Love is an action; love is a verb. Love is certainly tied in with emotions, but love manifests itself in action. Love demonstrates itself in how we act towards one another. That’s what St. Paul was driving home in his great “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13. Love is patient and kind, it does not envy, it keeps no record of wrongs and all the rest. Chris and Catrin, the love you feel for one another today will change. Ask your parents. The love they have for one another now is different from the honeymoon phase puppy love they had years ago at their own weddings. The emotional side of love is now deeper, rooted less in how one makes the other feel and more in how much both realize that the person to whom they are married is the fulfillment of God’s Word in Eden: “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make him a helper comparable to him.” All of us who are married can speak to that. Love changes and matures. Love as an emotion changes. Love as an action does not change. The actions themselves may change, but love will always be manifested in its purest form as an action.
What is faith? We talk a lot about it. We know that it is necessary for salvation, because faith is that conduit that delivers to us all that Christ did for us on the cross. We know that it is created by the Holy Spirit working through the Word. We know that it is strengthened through the Sacraments. We know that it is what motivates our good works towards God and neighbor. But what is faith?
In today’s introit we praised God for His “steadfast love.” If you’re a Psalm reader, you know this phrase well. “Steadfast love” is the English Standard Version’s translation of the very important Hebrew word hesed. NIV translated it as “unfailing love” and the King James used “lovingkindness.” This word is used in the Psalms 127 times, and it is in more than half of the Psalms. Obviously steadfast love as one of God’s many attributes is an important thing. David and the other Psalm writers felt it was so important that it had to dominate their writings. The translations of hesed give us a bit of an understanding of the definition of this major word. It’s much more than mercy. Mercy, while it is something wonderful, especially when it comes from God, falls short. Mercy can be a one-time event. “I had mercy on the passenger behind me on the airplane who kicked my seat, but next time he does it I’m going to get angry.” Hesed endures. It is rooted in patience. It is not temporary or measured.
The church’s best hymns are timeless. Regardless of when they were written, they speak to our condition today. The hymn we just sang, “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” was written by a Lutheran Pastor, Philipp Nicolai, in 1597. Though it’s 420 years old, it’s just as fresh and applicable today as it was when Pastor Nicolai wrote it. His hymn speaks to our condition today: “Now, though daily earth’s deep sadness may perplex us and distress us, yet with heavenly joy You bless us.” Certainly life gives us many perplexing distresses, not the least of which is death. We are here today in memory of our dear sister in Christ, Lois. Certainly her death is part of earth’s deep sadness, one of those things we wish just wasn’t. Though death brings us sadness, for us as Christians it also brings a second emotion: joy. Remember what you just sang: “Yet with heavenly joy You bless us.” As we remember Lois, we remember what St. Paul said to the Thessalonians in today’s Epistle: we do not mourn as those who have no hope. Rather, we mark today with tears, but also confidence and joy because just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so will Lois also be raised because she is Baptized into Christ.
The Church Year is always preparing us for what lies ahead. Advent prepares us for Christmas and Lent for Easter. The Lectionary, our calendar of readings, has its eyes in two places. First, what we need to know for our Christian life at this moment. Second, what we need to know to be prepared for what is coming. This wisdom of the Church is timeless. We have been using this cycle of readings for well over 1,000 years and they are just as applicable today as they were when the lectionary was assembled, yes, and just as applicable as when the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of these sacred Words a thousand years plus before that. As we march on towards the end of the Church Year our attention shifts. Yes, we still see the focus on growth in the faith, but that focus becomes less general and more specific. Our growth in the faith is precisely because the devil wants to defeat us. Over the next several weeks we will see more and more how the devil is doing his best to try to defeat us. Though, thanks be to God, he lacks God’s omnipotence, he still works in this world just like he did in Eden when he deceived Adam and Eve. Today as we hear the healing of the paralytic, the devil wants us to focus on the wrong things. He wants us to see Jesus as someone who doesn’t listen to us, as He first forgave the man and only after a little bit of outrage gave the man what he really needed—or what everyone thought he really needed. The devil wants us to focus on this body and this life as all there is at the neglect of the life to come. But Jesus has come to precisely to heal us, but to give us forgiveness, the only healing that truly matters.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.