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9 Mar. 2014 - Gen 3:1-19

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil

Lenten Season: Ash Wednesday, 5 March 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

​No! Stop! Cease and desist! Don’t even think about it! After being startled, what was your initial gut reaction to the words I just uttered?  Did you accept them with peaceful acquiescence or did you perhaps feel a little defiant and angry?  If we are all being completely honest, I believe we would have to admit it was the latter and therein lay the problem.  That was and still is the problem presented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  It was the representation of God’s “No!” to humanity.  And we don’t like to hear that word very much, yet that is precisely what God said to Adam in the garden of Eden concerning that tree.  From chapter two verses 16 and 17:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

There it is, the whole of God’s law at the beginning of the world. Don’t eat from that one tree. Adam and Eve had it so much easier didn’t they? They didn’t have to memorize ten commandments like we do, because they had just one.   

The question I’m most often asked about this is why did God put the tree there in the first place if knew they would eat of it?  Just by asking that question we are very much following in the footsteps of our first parents when they were asked by God why they disobeyed Him.

Let us start with Eve’s excuse first.  “The serpent deceived me and I ate?” Who is she blaming? Like Flip Wilson’s Geraldine she says “The devil made me do it?” But did he? Satan certainly provided the temptation and the lie, because he is a lair and the father of all lies, but Eve chose to believe his lie, and in so doing she chose his words over God’s.  Just as we so often do.  As St. Paul points out in chapter one of his epistle to the Romans:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made so that men are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened... They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised.

The first sin, the sin that leads to all other sins, is the rejection of the truth of God’s word.  It is no different today than it was in the Garden of Eden.  Either we take God at his word and believe it and seek to be obedient to it, or we play fast and loose with it and believe the lies the snake whispers in our ears.  Yes, it is that black and white. Whether we like it or not the truth is always the truth and a lie is always a lie.

Now let us look at Adam’s excuse: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave fruit of the tree and I ate.” Now, initially when we read this it sounds like he is blaming Eve just as we often seek to blame our sins on others, but if you look a little closer you’ll notice that he is not really blaming Eve, he is blaming God.  He is in essence pointing the finger at God and telling Him that it is His fault. “You made the woman. You made the tree. You made the snake. So, God you are to blame for my sin.

As ridiculous as that sounds that is exactly what many people believe. Whenever, they sin it is not their fault, it is their parent’s fault, their friends’ fault, it is their boss’s fault, it is society’s fault, and ultimately, since God made everything it is His fault.

By the way have you ever notice that when something terrible happens it is always an “act of God.” But whenever something good happens we are always more than willing to accept the accolades.  Like JFK said: “Victory has a thousand fathers, but failure is always an orphan.”

At any rate from the excuses of our first parents we can see quite well what the true nature of sin is. It is not just some minor personality defect or a slight error or a little as some believe. It is not as Brittany Spears used to sing, “Oops. I did it again.” It is outright rebellion against our Creator. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they not only said “No!” to God, they, in effect, declared war against him and denied His right to rule over them. And all of their descendants, including us, have been rebelling ever since.  And, as with any rebellion or war, there are casualties, there is death.

It is no different in our war against God and because we all sin, we all will die a physical death, just as God had said, but now here is the interesting part, not all of the casualties would be on our side. You see, in His curse upon the snake, God also includes a word of hope for Adam and Eve and for us.

I will put enmity between you (Satan) and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.

This passage is often called the proto-evangel, because it is the first proclamation of the Gospel in the Scriptures. It tells of a savior who would not only come to destroy the power of the devil, but who would also die in the process. So we see that in spite of mankind’s rebellion against him, God, in his grace and foreknowledge, had already provided a solution. And that solution would be a man, a seed of the woman. Notice by the way, nothing is said about Adam or any man in the begetting of that seed of the woman. The virgin birth is already being subtly forecast.  God would be the father of that saving seed of the woman and that seed’s name would be Jesus and he would be the Christ and He would succeed where Adam and Eve failed.

He came to end the war between God and mankind by reconciling us to God through his perfect obedience and death. He did not succumb to the devil’s tempting as did Adam and Eve, and all the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, but He made full payment for all our sins with a perfect sacrifice.

And how did He do it?  How did Jesus accomplish our salvation?  With a tree, of all things. The curse brought by one tree, would be undone by another.  The devil who had gained power over humankind by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was undone by Christ on the tree of the cross.  How perfectly and wonderfully appropriate. And that is, of course, what this penitential season of Lent is really all about.  It is not simply about us giving things up as many believe. It is not about our works or actions at all, but about God’s work and action, seen in the life and death of His only begotten Son for us, so that we could be forgiven and redeemed.

That is why we made the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ashes on Ash Wednesday. We rightly acknowledge our many sins and our rebellion against our God, and remember that we are but animate dust and ashes, but most importantly we remember what Jesus has done for us on the tree of Calvary.

We must remember that all our sins, every single one, has been erased from the sight and memory of God, by faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. They were washed away in our baptism, where we were baptized into Christ’s death on the tree on Calvary.  And, as we kneel at the wooden rail and partake of the sacrament of the altar, we remember that through Jesus’ body and his blood spilled on the wood of the cross, our sin is blotted out from God’s sight forever.

The evil done by Adam and Eve at the beginning in the garden of Eden and all the and all of us has been undone and our reward is the good that our Savior has won for us. And he did it all so that one day we might enter the garden again and eat from yet another tree, one mentioned at the end of this third chapter of Genesis.

And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good from evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and also take from the tree of life and eat and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.

I always find it interesting that this passage is often viewed as a punishment by God, when in fact, it is a blessing.  He is saving Adam and Eve from the same fate as the devil. Who lives forever in his impenitence.  No, by denying Adam and Eve the tree of life in their sin fallen state he is opening up the possibility for them to die and be raised up again, to be resurrected, with incorruptible bodies.  And then they and we will be able to enter into Eden again and take from the tree of Life and live forever.  And that is exactly what he will do with them and us as we see in the Revelation to St. John:

He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

Yes, by God’s grace and through faith in our Savior Jesus Christ we will all eat from that tree and live forever, with those we love who have died in the faith and with those who will come after us, and best of all with our loving Lord and Savior, who took away the curse of one tree by using another. To him be all the glory, wisdom, honor, power and might now and forever. 

Amen. ​ 

5 Mar. 2014 - Matt. 6:1-6,16-21

The King's Wisdom

Lenten Season: Ash Wednesday, 5 March 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

His throne was made of ivory and was overlaid with the finest gold. The six steps leading up to his great throne had carved lions on both sides. At the back of the throne was a calf’s head, a symbol of kingly might. The armrests were elaborate and his footstool was made of gold. Wise King Solomon truly built himself a glorious throne.

But as magnificent as his throne was, the one who sat on it was even more impressive. This king of the Jews was truly a glorious king, but nothing was more golden than what came from his lips. When God told him as a young man to ask Him for anything, Solomon didn’t ask for riches, or a long life, or victory over his enemies. He asked for wisdom, wisdom so that he could rule over God’s people wisely and God was pleased with his answer, so he made him wise and he opened his lips and spoke 3,000 Proverbs.

So wise was he that people came from all over the world to hear his wisdom. The Queen of Sheba came 1,200 miles a huge distance in those days to test his wisdom with hard questions, and the answers that came from Solomon’s lips left her breathless. Yet, in spite of all his wisdom and glory, Solomon’s life came to an inglorious end, because all his glory and wisdom still came from an inglorious heart, a sinful human heart like ours.

So he became a tyrant and while his lips still poured forth wisdom, the way he lived made him no more than a hypocrite. “Rejoice in the wife of your youth,” is what he taught (Proverbs 5:18), yet he ended up rejoicing in 700 of them. “How much better to get wisdom than gold,” He taught (16:16), while his greedy royal hands grasped for as much gold as they could gather. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” he taught (Psalm 111:10), but when we read about how he lived it was as if he feared everything but the Lord. He was a royal hypocrite, indeed.

But instead of merely pointing fingers at Solomon, as we come before the Lord this Ash Wednesday it would be good for us to consider what royal hypocrites we have been. Did you recognize yourself in today’s Gospel as Jesus spoke against the way of those famous religious show-offs, the Pharisees?  Lest we cluck our tongues too loudly at what they did, if the truth be told we’ve done our own share of posing for the camera too. Sure,  maybe we’ve never sounded a trumpet while giving to the needy like they did, but we’ve been known to toot our own horns to others, lest our “sacrificial” giving go unnoticed and un acknowledged.

Maybe we’ve never stood on the street corners and prayed to be seen like the Pharisees did, but how often have we prayed at all or lied, telling people that you were praying for them when we weren’t? And when we fast, we certainly don’t disfigure our faces to be seen as pious like the Pharisees did, but we’re also never be content to keep our fasting between ourselves and our heavenly Father alone are we?

Yes, King Solomon and the Pharisees weren’t the only hypocrites, we are pretty good actors ourselves, which is why we must all repent. Yes, there is a reason for this mark of mortality on our foreheads. There’s a reason those words first spoken to Adam were spoken into our ears this night: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). The reason is that inglorious, show-off Adam that lives inside our heads and hearts, who is always seeking a religious “Atta-boy.” That part of us that believes that if we are just good enough, humble enough, or suffer enough, then God will have to let us into heaven, because we deserve it.

Yes, with glory-seeking hearts like ours, we’ll never be content with being seen by the only eyes that matter namely the eyes of our Father in heaven. So let me ask an uncomfortable question, why would the Father—seeing what hypocrites we are —ever forgive us all our sins and allow us into heaven?

One might think he never would, and yet he does. Why? Because even though He sees what sin comes forth from our inglorious hearts, He has eyes of mercy. He is gracious and merciful and is abounding in steadfast love. And He loves to pour out his grace on those who know and confess their unworthiness. He made us, he knows that we are dust and to dust we shall return, but above all He remembers His mercy and His promise to rescue sinners. He saw and still sees this wretched state of ours, which is why he sent us a King wiser and more glorious than Solomon could ever hope to be, a greater Solomon, if you will, a King of kings and Lord of Lords, whose throne in heaven would have made Solomon’s throne look like a weathered old deck chair; a merciful king who laid aside his divine heavenly glory in order to take on our flesh and blood and rescue us.

It is that King, named Jesus, who sat on that mountainside that he made, teaching in today’s Gospel reading. His proper place would have been a golden throne, but there sat in the grass teaching with divine authority, pouring out golden words of salvation and life for the multitudes to take for free. There He sat with no earthly splendor at all, His arms pointing to the open air and His feet resting in the dirt. He was surrounded not by twelve carved lions, but by twelve flesh-and-blood sinners whom He had chosen to instruct about a Kingdom that can’t be seen or earned, but can only be received by faith in Him.

And this King not only talked the talk, He walked the walk for us. Yes, for miserable sinners like us. He not only talked on that mount, but He also walked up another mount, an ugly one outside of Jerusalem called “Golgotha” to die the death that we deserved. He had to you see, because he was driven by an unspeakable love for you and me and for His Father above. On the way there, He blew no trumpet, His generous left hand and His generous right hand were always ready to heal and to help the needy in body and soul, until those hands were stretched out and nailed to a cross in order to save us all.

Even though He was God in the flesh, He never stood on street corners and tried to impress people with His prayers; He was content to leave the crowds to pray alone to His Father in heaven, that His faithful prayer life might be credited to us. This was a King who was willing to be driven out to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. It was he who fasted forty days and forty nights with no one knowing, but the God the Father and the devil who tempted Him. But He triumphed for us, His emaciated face earning for us a radiance that can never be darkened.

This King is different from all other earthly kings. While wise King Solomon built a throne for himself and his own glory, this King did no such thing. He was content with the One that His Father prepared for Him. It wasn’t a throne made of ivory and overlaid with the finest gold. It was made of wood, to be covered with the finest blood—his blood, the very blood of God. It didn’t have an impressive backrest, or armrest or a golden footrest. His throne was an ugly, rugged old wooden cross, for He came to die an inglorious death for inglorious sinners.

To that ugly throne He dragged all our phoniness, unbelief, and sin so that He might triumph over them and then show us his victory with an empty tomb. And he is just the king we needed: a crucified king, God’s Wisdom in the flesh, His love incarnate.  He is the King with the perfect heart and by whose precious blood atonement has been made for all our sins and the gates to his eternal Kingdom have been opened, which we could never earn or merit. The King, whose glory is not found in power, or gold, or many wives, but in being a faithful husband to one wife, to us, His beloved bride, the Church whom He has absolved and adorned with his own magnificence.

Just ponder those golden words of the King that were spoken to us in the Holy Absolution: “I forgive you all your sins.” Or in Baptism, where He has adorned us with His own righteous splendor and crowned us glory and honor. It is this King of heaven who calls sinners like us to his altar to eat his very body and drink His very blood from the royal goblet, which imparts to us the forgiveness of sins, and enlivens us with the strength and courage to be His kingdom of priests for the sake of our neighbors.

Indeed, beloved remember this day that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, but also remember that from that same dust you shall one day arise, all because of the love of our crucified and risen King, Jesus.  To Him be all glory honor, power and might, now and forever.

Amen. ​ 

2 Mar. 2014 - Matt. 17:1-9

Listen to Him

Pre-Lent Season: Transfiguration Sunday, 2 March 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

St. Matthew gives us a clue that something momentous is about to happen when he writes that Jesus took the three disciples up a high mountain, because several momentous events in the Bible took place on mountaintops.  He signals it further with the little word “Behold” or “Lo” as it is rendered in some translations, since this word is often used before something of importance happens or is said. But all of that pales in comparison to the Words that God the Father spoke to the disciples that day on the mountaintop and to us here this morning: “This is my beloved son,  with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.

“Listen to him or pay attention to what he is saying.” Why is it, do you suppose that God our Heavenly Father was inclined to include that command after Jesus had just been revealed in his divine glory? Could it be that they were not really listening to what Jesus was telling them?

This is highlighted by the event that precedes this account of the Transfiguration of our Lord in St. Matthew’s gospel. Preceding this text is the account of St. Peter’s great confession of faith. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” St. Peter answers correctly and he is duly praised by our Lord: “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you that on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Good job Peter. Now you are getting it.

But then do you remember what happens just after that? Let me read it for you:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but the things of man.” 

This goes along with the last verse of our text today: And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”

You see, Peter and the rest of the disciples’ problem is our problem as well and it is that we don’t truly want to hear everything Jesus has to tell us. We especially don’t want to hear that he had to die a horrible death upon a cross, so that our sins could be forgiven. We don’t want to hear it because it impresses two very important facts upon us; first that we Christians, along with the rest of humanity, sin often and most grievously against our God, and second that it took the death our beloved Savior, the Son to the living God, to ransom us back from the power of sin, death and the devil. The old Adam within us, our sin-fallen nature, recoils at the notion that we are that bad off and that such a sacrifice had to be made, and yet we know that without it we would all be damned in hell forever.

You can see this reluctance to lift high the cross of Christ in many large churches today, with the removal of the cross from the front of their sanctuaries.  It has been replaced with a stage with a large choir dressed in shiny robes, or a flashy Christian rock band, and in the case of one of the largest churches in our nation, there is a large globe that dominates the stage. I wonder what it is that they are truly worshipping?

When you stop and think about it, that is just what St. Peter is doing in our this text, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Good old Peter, good old works righteous Peter, and we are just like him. What can I do for you today God?  Need me to build you a big church, draw big crowds of people, raise millions of dollars. “No,” comes the answer, from God the Father, “I want you to listen to my Son. My Son who has told you that he must suffer and die for you on a cross and then be raised from the dead, so that you can have eternal life, by my grace through faith in him. I will do it all my child and you need to let me.”

And that kills us or at least it kills the old prideful Adam within us. And it causes us to fall down on our faces in fear and awe and adoration at the majesty and the power and the wisdom of such a God. And just when it feels like we can bear it no longer, we feel a human hand on our shoulder and hear the voice we long to hear “Rise up, and have no fear.” And then we, like the disciples lift up our eyes and see no one but Jesus.

Listen to him.” rings the words of God our Father in our ears. “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” Identical to the words spoken by Him at Jesus Baptism, which we meditated on just a few weeks ago, when we began this season of Epiphany, this season of manifestation, where we have beheld God in flesh made manifest.  And here He is in God’s Word for us again this morning, as He was in the word with the water at our baptism, and as He will be when we receive Him later this morning in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion following His words of institution. We see no one but Jesus, because he is all we ever truly need to see or, more importantly, hear.

And when we listen to Him, we hear God’s Word to us, that word is usually a word of love, as we hear when he spoke to His disciples on the night before his death: As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.

And so we come to the foot of the cross again, but not in sorrow and regret for what our sins have cost, but in joy and thanksgiving for what our loving God has done for us and all people. And we in turn are compelled by God the Holy Spirit who lives inside these jars of clay to reach out to others with words and deeds of love, so that others might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven, and come to know his Son who died for their salvation as well.

As I thought of this remembered the story of a little boy named Chad. Now Chad was a quiet sensitive second grader, he was small for his age and wasn’t very popular. He was never invited to his classmates’ parties. Well, one day Chad came home from school and announced that he wanted to make valentines for everyone in his class, 35 in all. His mother was skeptical because she knew that in all likelihood Chad would not get a single valentine in return for all his trouble, but she went along with it. And for 3 weeks she watched as he painstakingly created 35 valentines each thoughtfully made for the recipient.

Valentine’s day dawned, and Chad was beside himself with excitement. He bolted out the door with his creations in his backpack unable to contain his joy.  His mother believed he would be disappointed and probably deeply hurt because he would receive no valentines in return, so she made him cookies and had a glass of milk sitting on the table that afternoon waiting for his return.

When she heard the bus pull up outside she looked out the window and out poured the kids laughing and having a good time, and there was Chad in the rear alone as usual and empty-handed. He walked a little faster than normal and his mother fully expected him to come in and burst into tears the moment he came in the door. She was choking back her own tears and ready to hug him as he marched in the door, but his face was strangely aglow. All he could say was: “Not a one. Not a single one.”  His mother’s heart sank. And then the boy joyfully added. “I didn’t forget a one, not a single one.”

With the wisdom of childhood innocence, little Chad understood that the joy of giving love was as great if not greater than receiving it.

And that is the message we hear from the mount of Transfiguration.  We see Jesus great love for his disciples and for us. He didn’t and he won’t forget a single one. May God grant us his grace to listen to his beautiful gospel; to hear his voice and to believe him, and then to speak and act out his love to a world that is dying to hear it. May God grant it in Jesus Name.

Amen. ​ 

16 Feb 2014 - Mat. 5:21-37

The Righteousness that Counts before God

Epiphany Season: Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, 16 February 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado
Listen to the audio by following this link.

​The text for this morning’s meditation is the Gospel reading appointed for this day, but in order to understand it better we must begin with the verse immediately preceding it where Jesus says: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

These words of Jesus are a stern warning about being religious and yet not being saved. On the basis of them we need to be clear on exactly what kind of righteousness counts before God. In the Bible the word righteousness is another name for blamelessness or holiness and what Jesus is pointing out to his followers is that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is not the type of righteousness God was seeking.

Now, who were the Scribes and Pharisees? Well, the scribes were scholars who meticulously produced hand-written copies of the Old Testament Scriptures. They studied what they wrote very thoroughly and interpreted it for the people. They were regarded as the authorities on all historical and doctrinal matters. The highest ruling body of the Jews, the Sanhedrin, counted many scribes among its members.  They insisted on strict observance of all the laws of Moses and were, from all outward appearances, a highly moral group of religious leaders.

The Pharisees were a strict sect within the Jewish community who believed that God’s grace and the promise of heaven came only to those who could outwardly keep the laws of God.  They were held up as pillars of morality often even going above and beyond the letter of the Law in keeping fasts, giving tithes and observing various religious ceremonies. They prided themselves on their scrupulous religiosity, good reputation, and clean living, and they pinned their hopes of obtaining heaven on those things. They looked with disdain on those they considered less pious than themselves, which is why they viewed Jesus with contempt because he ate with people they considered common sinners. “This man receives sinners and eats with them!” they exclaimed derisively, as they sought to sully his reputation. 

So, what was wrong with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? It was a veneer, pure and simple. It was all on the outside. It was all a show or an act that they put on for others, which is why Jesus called them “hypocrites” (bad actors). Being fully God, he could see through their little act and their deceit calling them “White-washed tombs…full of dead men’s bones.” They were like the ornate sepulchers found on the hillsides of Palestine, beautifully decorated on the outside, but inside full of rottenness and decay.

What did the scribes and Pharisees lack? The words of Jesus in the succeeding verses give us a clue. Jesus uses five examples to show how man's own righteousness is faulty. The first is the Fifth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." The scribes and Pharisees taught that murder was sin. But Jesus reminds His disciples that God's protection of human life extends not only over physical life, but over the whole of life. Life can be threatened by another's angry thought or sneering word. So Jesus said,

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Why? Because whoever hates his fellowman is a murderer, and no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. God looks at the heart. Evil thoughts and words are sin already, and the soul that sins, dies. Bearing a grudge or wronging someone without making an effort to make it all right will damn a person despite all outward piety and righteousness.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

More important than the performance of religious rituals and ceremonies is being at peace with each other and having a forgiving spirit. The fact that Jesus urges us to make friends quickly with our accuser indicates that every day should be considered as the possible last day and should be filled with an urgency to reconcile. For if God's grace and love to us in Jesus have not led us to practice love and mercy and forgiveness, we may not look for mercy in the Last Judgment.

The sixth commandment is also used by Jesus for an example of what righteousness truly calls for.

You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.... It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to commit adultery, and anyone who marries a woman so divorced, commits adultery.

God is witness to the marriage covenant. In Mal. 2:14-16 we are told that God hates divorce as much as bloody violence. Both the lustful look and divorce violate the marriage covenant. While the Law in Deuteronomy (24:1-4) conceded divorce and prescribed the certificate of divorce, it was because the Law could not overcome man's hardness of heart. God's intention at creation was a lifelong and indissoluble union between man and woman.

The scribes and Pharisees felt that if they refrained from outward acts of immorality they were pure. No, said Jesus, God looks at the heart, and lust-filled eyes reveal the heart's evil intent. While the Pharisees interpreted Moses' prescription concerning divorce very liberally, and a man could divorce his wife for almost any cause, Jesus championed her cause because she was left helpless and without honor by such a procedure. But whatever the case, when the marriage vow is broken, God is offended and it is His Name is dragged through the mud.

So what does all this tell us? Well, can you and I say that our hearts are clean? Has no evil thought ever lodged in our mind? No lust-filled desire entered our heart? Does no evil word ever cross our lips? Sinful thoughts, desires, words, and deeds must be eradicated. In Biblical thought various parts of the body are the means man uses to express his will and desire and may stand for the whole man in action. So Jesus said, "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown in hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell," To pluck out the eye and cut off the hand are expressions used by Jesus to show how resolutely we must fight and repress the sinful desire, no matter how painful the effort may be.

Another illustration is used by Jesus to indicate the kind of perfection and righteousness God requires. It has to do with oaths: "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be `Yes,' and your `No,' `No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."

In the case of the fifth and sixth commandments Jesus applies them to the nth degree. In this instance, however, he goes beyond the mere letter of the Law so that its intention can be fully realized. What the Law says loudly and Jesus makes abundantly clear is that when a man speaks he is speaking always in the presence of his God, not simply on one occasion or the other. Jesus removes the oath so that every "Yes" and every "No" a person speaks is spoken as in the presence of God. Anything other than that comes from the evil one, the Devil, who is the father of lies. It is his influence that makes an oath a necessity in the courtroom.

From all of what Jesus said it is obvious that man's righteousness, even if one is a scrupulous scribe or a pious Pharisee, is of no use at all to gain the favor of God or to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, thanks be to God it doesn’t stop there, because if it did there would be no hope for any of us. But, there is hope and that hope is found in Jesus Christ and Him alone, for he came into to the world not to condemn it, but to save it and us. And he did so by making his righteousness our righteousness. He came to live for us, in our place, from conception to resurrection. He came to be our stand-in. He took our place in every respect and He did it perfectly. He kept every command of God in minute detail. And having done all that, He suffered the punishment of hell on the cross for each human being. There the job was finished for all time and for eternity.

So, our hope is in Him and in Him alone. The apostle Paul, writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, proclaims, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Although all our righteousness is like “filthy rags” (Is. 64:6), Jesus' righteousness, and therefore the very holiness of God, becomes our righteousness and holiness through faith in Him.

Paul wrote that for Jesus' sake he suffered the loss of all things in order that "I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" (Phil. 3:8-9). There is forgiveness from God through Christ. He makes the sinful heart clean, and His righteousness becomes our righteousness through faith. And that is the only righteousness that counts before God.

"For I tell you," says Jesus, "that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." Well, it does! It does because of this Christ who takes us to Himself and says, "Your sins are forgiven." With that glorious Gospel let us go forth from this place of worship this morning, striding shoulder to shoulder with Him, knowing that everything we do now by the power of the Holy Spirit will be done in faith in Him who loves us and who gave Himself for us. To Him be the glory, now and forever, 


9 Feb 2014 - Mat. 5:13-20

The Salt of the Earth

Epiphany Season: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 9 February 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Listen to the audio by following this link.

It was stunt night at the rodeo and Rusty Davis was all set to do his famous trick riding.  Even though he was getting along in years, Rusty was still pretty exciting to watch. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” bellowed the announcer, “Rusty will now perform his dangerous and breath-taking feat of picking up his bandana off the ground with his teeth, while riding at a full gallop. Let ‘er go Rusty!”  The drums rolled, the chute opened, and out came Rusty on his swift Palomino.  Nearer and nearer to the handkerchief he came until he was just about to reach it, he quickly swung his legs up in the air and his head down head low holding onto the saddle and Rusty and the horse sped past, but red handkerchief still lay on the ground. There was an embarrassed silence for a moment as Rusty wheeled his horse around and galloped over to the announcer and whispered something to him.  The announcer then turned to the microphone and proclaimed:  “Ladies and gentlemen, Rusty Davis will now ride back and pick up his bandanna, and his teeth!”

My friends whether we want to admit it or not, sometimes we are a little like Rusty. We get so distracted in our daily lives that we leave behind something important, something even more crucial than our teeth behind  -  namely, our faith in God.  Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in the cares and concerns of this earthly life that we forget why God has put here in this time and place, and that is what Jesus was talking about in our text, when He spoke to the crowds in his famous sermon on the Mount, saying: “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its taste how shall its saltiness be restored?”

I find it interesting that many experts are telling us that we need to cut way back on the salt in our diets. Such was not the case in the ancient world, in fact salt was seen as something that was very, very good. This idea still comes across today in old expressions like “he’s worth his salt” meaning he is good at what he does or he really knows what he is talking about. The inimitable Roman historian Pliny wrote this about salt:

So essentially necessary is salt that without it human life cannot be preserved: and even the pleasures and endowments of the mind are expressed by it; the delights of life, repose, and the highest mental serenity, are expressed by no other term than sales among the Latins. It has also been applied to designate the honorable rewards given to soldiers, which are called salarii or salaries. But its importance may be further understood by its use in sacred things, as no sacrifice is offered to the gods without salt.

That last part is especially interesting, because salt was also an essential ingredient in the sacrifices to the Lord in the O.T. as it states in Leviticus 2:13: You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt. Salt was so important it was to accompany every offering that was offered on the altar of the Lord. In fact, no sacrifice was acceptable to God without it.

Why was this? Well, in those days the primary use of salt was as a preservative for meat, so that it wouldn’t rot or spoil as quickly.  Salt is essentially an acid and as such it has antiseptic qualities, which means that it can kill germs.  For that reason it protected meat and preserved it.  So, when Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” He meant that you and I as faithful Christians act as sort of a preservative for this rotten decaying, sin-fallen world.  In other words, we are called to be a positive force within our communities, our church, and our families, in order to stop the spread of spiritual and moral decay. 

In the original koine Greek of this text the “you” is emphatic, conveying the idea “You are the only salt of the earth.” That is a powerful statement because basically it says that if it weren’t for us, if it weren’t for believers in Christ (namely, the church) this sin-fallen world would soon rot and perish in its corruption.  But it is very important for us to remember, however, that our saltiness is not due to our natural goodness or personal worthiness, but because of the fact that Christ dwells in us by the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts via Word and sacrament.  By faith in Jesus, then, we are the church which St. Peter calls in his 1st epistle: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.”

As believers in Christ we have an everlasting salt covenant sealed by the one perfect sacrifice acceptable to God, who is Jesus Christ our Lord, the one who came not to abolish the Law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.  And fulfill them he did.  He lived a perfect life for us as a man under the law and he died a perfect sacrificial death for us upon the cross so that through faith in Him, we could have everlasting life.  It is Jesus Christ and him alone who makes Christians the salt of the earth. 

That brings to mind the question that I am most often asked about this text which is: “How can salt lose its saltiness or how can salt be made something other than salt?” The simple answer is that it cannot be something else, likewise, it should be unthinkable to us as Christians that we should be anything else. That being said, however,, salt can be tainted and that is the idea Jesus is getting at here.  In the Greek text is rendered something like this: “but if the salt be tainted, by what shall it be salted.” While salt is always salt, it can be polluted by being mixed with dirt and other chemicals and made so impure that it is no longer good for anything, except, as Jesus points out, being thrown out on the roads, which was done back then, not for melting ice as we use it for today, but because it was a natural herbicide and prevented grass or other plants from growing on pathways and between the cobblestones on their highways. 

With this metaphor Jesus points out to us the grave danger that we as Christians face of returning again to slavery, or of coming under the influence of the devil, the world, and our own sin-fallen flesh, becoming adulterated or mixed up with the things of this world and worldly ways of thinking. If we allow that to happen, it would be like adding dirt to salt. Eventually, we would become unpalatable and worthless to God.

My friends, the bad news is that, that is exactly what is happening to the church at large in our once great nation. As years go by, it is obvious that the God of the Bible is being left behind in our rearview mirror and a new god, which is really no god at all, is being lifted up. This god is no different than the idols of the O.T., which were made by human hands, whom the Israelites followed to their destruction. Our new god of political correctness, is slowly, almost imperceptibly, adulterating the church and our society at large. The worship of this new God begins with an abandonment of Scripture as the inspired and inerrant Word of God.  

Jesus is taking aim at such thinking when he says in our text:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

The modern church in our nation is largely ignoring this passage, as well as many others, particularly those passages that condemn sin. In fact, sin is often no longer called sin and it is almost never condemned. How often are we reluctant or even afraid to speak out against things like abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and drug and alcohol abuse? We all know that these are hot button issues and they are almost guaranteed to offend someone, but if we don’t speak out against them, what happens? Well, you know what happens, because it has happened. These sins have been accepted by the public at large as normal or even, ironically, moral behavior. And if you have a problem with them, then you are the problem. You are one of those Neanderthal Christians, a male chauvinist pig, a homophobe, a bigot, a prude, or whatever other derogatory name that the world can come up with. So we keep our mouths shut, because we are afraid to offend our increasingly godless, neighbors and family members.

Yes, beloved it’s not easy being salt, but salt is what we are and we must tell the truth even if it hurts, not to harm others, but so they might repent of their sin and be saved, for when you stop and think about it, how did we become the salt of the earth?  At some point were we not confronted with our own rottenness, were we not stung by the law and told that we were dying in our sin and unbelief?  And did that not cause us to realize our desperate need for a Savior, and then, by the grace of God, Jesus Christ and his cross and his resurrection were held before our eyes and we believed and are now being saved?  That is what has made and what keeps us salt.

In the forests of Northern Europe lives the Ermine, a small animal known best for its snow-white fur.  By instinct this animal will go to any extreme to protect its beautiful glossy coat, so that it won’t get dirty and hunters know this, so instead of setting a mechanical trap to catch the Ermine, they find its den, which is usually in the cleft of a rock, and they daub the entrance with tar or pitch.  Then they unleash the hunting dogs and the dogs chase the Ermine back to its hole.  But when the Ermine finds the hole covered with filth, it refuses to go in.  Rather than soil its white fur, it courageously faces the yelping dogs, who hold it at bay until the hunters capture it.  And so, to the Ermine purity is dearer than life! Beloved, by God’s grace and mercy, let it be so with us, so that others might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. In Jesus Name.


2 Feb 2014 - 1 Sam 1:21-28

As Long as He Lives, He is Lent to the Lord

Epiphany Season: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2 February 2014.  Also known as Candlemas - forty days after the birth of Christ it is the Festival of the Purification of Mary & the Presentation of our Lord. 

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Listen to the audio by following this link.

The text for this morning’s meditation is the O.T. lesson which was read earlier (1 Sam 1:21-28). I would like to focus specifically on the final verse of that text. Therefore, I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives he is lent to the Lord.

The beginning of the book of 1 Samuel unsurprisingly begins with the account of the birth of its namesake. The parents of Samuel are portrayed as devout, God-fearing, Israelites. It is clear that Elkanah and his wife Hannah believed in and reverently worshiped the one true God, the God of Israel. the God who comforts and saves the afflicted. And this was crucial because as read about Hannah we see that she was indeed afflicted. She was unable to have children, which was seen by many in those days as a curse from God. And Elkanah’s other wife Peninnah, who had born children, made sure Hannah was regularly reminded of it, which made her sorrow all the greater.

If all of that wasn’t bad enough when she did go to pray earnestly before the Lord at the tabernacle, the chief priest, Eli accused her of being a drunk. But God was merciful and He knew her sorrow and heard her prayers and answered them, and she in turn kept her vow and gave Samuel to the Lord’s service for his entire life.

But this idea of lending or giving someone to the Lord is not something one hears too much about these days. I would submit that this is because it is foreign to the way we often think about things. Most people, and perhaps even many of us, think that we are all sort of free agents and that we are own and that we may do whatever we will with ourselves and whatever we have, but this type of thinking flies right in the face of what the Word of God says. St. James in his epistle writes:

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you… you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.  So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

What this tells us is that everything we are and have is ultimately the Lord’s, including our time and what we do with it. The old expression, you are living on borrowed time is abundantly true for all of us. All our time, from the moment we draw our first breath to the moment we breathe our last is a gift from our Almighty Creator who made everything, including us and these bodies we inhabit as St. Paul reminds us in the sixth chapter of First Corinthians:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

And therein lays the problem, because it runs contrary to everything the world we live in teaches us and what we ourselves often choose to believe. The world teaches us that the three most important people in the world are me, myself, and I. It is interesting that the last of them is always capitalized, unless you are e.e.cummings of course, (a little humor for you poetry buffs out there).  Yes, it just so happens that the first person singular personal pronoun as subject is always capitalized. We always capitalize the word: “I” just like we always capitalize the word, “God,” because “I” likes to play God. And yes, I know that sounds like bad grammar, but it is still true.

The fact of the matter is that we are all natural born idolaters, every one of us, and the biggest idol we have is the one who stares back at in the mirror in the morning.  He or she, will do everything within his or her power to gain the upper hand over others and to take all the credit and give all the glory to him or herself and leave none for God or anyone else.  That is why God, so often in his divine providence, chooses to humble those he loves the most, especially his beloved children. He humbles them and brings them low so that He can later exalt them or lift them up and redeem them.  And that, beloved, is the one constant reoccurring theme that you will find in every story in the Bible, from cover to cover.  It is found in the stories of Adam and Eve, and Noah, and Abraham, and Jacob, and Joseph and Moses and David, and Peter and Paul, and Hannah, and Mary, and most especially Jesus.

Yes, just as Hannah lent or gave her son to God for life, so God the Father lent his Son, Jesus Christ to us for death. Jesus willingly humbled himself and came to live among us and to die on a cross in order to save us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. As it says in our epistle lesson this morning:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

As Samuel, humble Hannah’s son, later became a great judge and prophet, so Jesus, humble Mary’s son, became our Savior from sin and death.  And beloved this is important for us to remember, as we, live out our lives in this fallen world where the devil seeks to make us slaves again to sin and the fear of death, and where our own sin-fallen natures seek to cause us to exalt ourselves and our desires over God.

Instead by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, working through the Word and sacraments (the means of grace), He enables us to surrender all that we have and all that we are to His will. In view of His grace and mercy, poured out upon us in abundance through His Son who humbled himself even to death on a cross for us, how can we not humbly submit our minds, our hearts, and our bodies unto His service and to our neighbor’s, as David wrote in the 25th Psalm:

Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. For your name's sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great…

Indeed our guilt is great, but as Jesus showed us, God’s love is greater, because it humbles itself to save us and all who would believe in Him.

It was Hannah’s faith in God, her belief that he was a loving God who heard the humble and delivered the afflicted, that caused her to pour out her heart to Him in prayer. And as our text shows God heard and answered her prayer. My friends what troubles you? What it is that weighs heavy upon your heart? Why not take it to the Lord in prayer?

Why not humbly lift your sorrows and burdens up to the Lord in prayer, knowing, trusting that He will lift you up in due time just as He did Hannah and so many other faithful people in the past? For He has already granted us the forgiveness of all our sins, life and salvation, and in the end He will exalt all who believe in Him to the highest place, which is heaven, where there will be a joyous reunion with those we love.

In the meantime, as we all continue to live on borrowed time, let us heed the words of St. Peter in his first epistle:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.  Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

What can one say to that but, “Amen.”

And now may that peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  You can depend upon Him He will do it.