Click here for the reading: Luke 15:1-10.

The grumbling of the Pharisees and the scribes is emblematic of the self-righteousness into which the religious can easily fall. If the wanton and wicked fail to apprehend God’s wrath over sin, the self-righteous misappropriate God’s wrath. They are pleased to have God’s judgment against that sin of which they themselves feel they are innocent. And they imagine that God will enforce their manmade standards for righteousness. They condemn Jesus, and so condemn God, for they believe that anyone less scrupulous than them must be against religion. But it is not a difference of degree, as they suppose. It is a difference of kind. It is not because Jesus imagines that the sinners are righteous that he eats with them. He eats with them precisely because they are sinners who need to receive life from their savior.

To misunderstand God’s wrath over sin, which is to misunderstand his righteousness, means also missing his mercy all together. Mercy remains abstract and without application if there is no one to receive it or to benefit from it. The Pharisees and scribes can make no sense of Jesus because they reject the prerequisite for knowing him: repentance. In their appraisal of the world, there are sheep in the fold and sheep outside the fold. The former have always been there and the latter may never enter in. There is no room for repentance – not for the sheep who have strayed, nor for themselves, since they think they are safely in the fold.

Jesus speaks plainly to his purpose in the flesh: to seek and call the lost. To gather up the straying. To bind the injured. To raise the dead. He has nothing to do for the self-righteous who would deprive the wandering of God’s mercy and who think they have no need of it themselves. He has no joy to share with the well, who have no need of a physician, for his joy is all spent in celebration over sinners who repent. If you think that you are religious and do not rejoice to see a sinner receive mercy, then you deceive your heart and your religion is worthless. If, on the other hand, you have drawn near to Jesus because he is gracious and abounding in steadfast love, then your joy will be full.

The wandering sheep may not presume on the kindness of the shepherd to seek him out. These are not parables about the security that the renegade or independent-minded may feel in the presence of an indulgent master. These are parables about the concern of the Lord for his lost children. They are parables about how the righteous should understand the Lord’s mercy toward sinners. They are parables that show all who believe that their salvation depended entirely on the goodness and loving-kindness of God.

Click here for the reading: 1 Peter 5:6-11.

It is the will of God to exalt sinners. It is their stubborn refusal to receive exaltation that gets in the way. It is their stubborn refusal to humble themselves, to acknowledge that they are that lost coin or lost sheep that keeps them from receiving grace. And so Peter admonishes Christians to begin with humility. This is not the same degree of humility that he expects of Christians towards one another just before our pericope, for this is humility under the mighty hand of God. This humility is the prerequisite for self-denial in love for the brothers.

But the mighty hand of God does not oppress the Christian, as it does the sinner who keeps silent (Ps. 32:4). Rather, the mighty hand of God is over the Christian to shield him from all that would make him anxious. He cares for you, and so you can put your hope in him and not be ashamed. He means to exalt you, and so you can submit to his yoke and receive his burdens, for he has made them easy and light.

Being humble under the mighty hand of God enables the Christian to resist temptation and endure suffering. The devil is an active and constant adversary, but he can only strike where the guard is down and divine protection is set aside. Hence Peter’s call for sober-mindedness and watchfulness. It is not the fearful watching of one who does not know what lurks in the shadows or whether he is outmatched. It is the confident watching of one who knows his enemy and has the weapons to defeat him. It is a watching of one who is eager to remain sharp and attentive, sober and circumspect, because it could only be a self-inflicted tragedy to fall to such an enemy. That confidence and eagerness are rooted in faith, which believes in Christ’s suffering and death for the forgiveness of sins and judgment of the devil.

It is also a faith that unites the Christian to a brotherhood throughout the world. We watch and pray and suffer and endure not because we are alone and fearful, but precisely because we are not alone and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our brothers in the ranks of a mighty force.

Click here for the reading: Micah 7:18-20.

These final verses of Micah’s prophecy are the faithful response of the Israelite who has seen the salvation of God. The injustice of God’s people and their wanton disregard for coming disaster prompt the remnant to cry aloud to their God. Promises abound, including the promise of a ruler in Israel from ancient days. But before those promises are fulfilled, the Lord’s case is made against his people. They are cut off and the wicked are rooted out. Anger and wrath are prepared and delivered. The mounting turmoil and destruction discipline the faithful to put their trust in God, to wait for his salvation.

The righteous person must have an understanding of God’s indignation over sin. He cannot imagine that God’s steadfast love and pardoning compassion have overridden his righteousness and justice. These are not at odds as they appear to be among men. Rather, God’s mercy impels him to seek justice in some other way than by vengeance against his children.

As God passes over the transgressions of his remnant, as he treads them underfoot and casts them into the depths of the sea, he is also in the land bringing judgment. That means that Jacob and Abraham must trust that there will be shelter in the midst of the storm. Just as the children of Israel trusted that their first-born sons would be spared even as the cry went up in Egypt, so also must the faithful believe that there is blood that has been shed to cover their sins while wrath is poured out on the sons of disobedience. They must believe that they are the ones whom God has sought, whom he has called, and for whom he seeks vindication against the wicked.

Their security rests on the pledge of God to their fathers from days of old. The oath that he swore to their father Abraham is the cord that holds their history and future together. If he is not a God who keeps his word, then they of all people are to be pitied for having trusted and been put to shame. But if He is a faithful God, who keeps his word and fulfills his promises, then they are blessed among men, for God has shown them favor. There can, however, be no uncertainty about which is true of God. He has already demonstrated his faithfulness to promises even as he displayed his glory before the nations. He kept his word, risking his name by offering it to a people who would be wayward and impious. He has held nothing back, sending judges and prophets to keep his people within the bounds of the covenant. He is the good shepherd, whose goodness is manifest in his will to lay down his life for his people.

Click here for the reading: Luke 14:15–24.

Luke 14 places us in the house of a ruler of the Pharisees (14:1) with Jesus under great scrutiny. He, however, takes the opportunity to turn the examination on its head. A question about healing on the Sabbath is at stake along with questions about bestowing and receiving honor. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (14:11). This maxim, as applied to giving dinners and banquets, is the background for the parable in our pericope. There is honor bestowed and received in the daily lives of men, but that honor pales in comparison with the honor of eating bread in the kingdom of God.

The folly of this world is manifest in the striving and scraping after honor bestowed by men. Compare that effort with the complete neglect of the honor bestowed by God. It is the sensible, worldly excuses of those invited to the feast that keep them from tasting the banquet of the master. They are excuses that would be passable if the invitation were to some impromptu or informal gathering of folks, or even if the call were to military service. But the shamefulness of those first invited mounts as we consider the preparation of the master. This is a banquet long-prepared for the honor of those guests.

They show not only their disinterest in the beneficence of the master, but they go above and beyond in showing disdain for him. His sincerity and goodwill are met with scoffing. They choose the trivial over the profound. They choose the temporal over the eternal. They choose folly over wisdom, and death over life. They are as those Israelites who spit in God’s face as they lusted after the fleshpots of Egypt, despising the daily provision of their Savior, not to mention the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. But their refusal and spite are masked in the appearance of sensibility. They sin by doing what only appears right, a sin that is more grievous than open blasphemy. Whitewashed tombs are full of lies on top of the wicked desires hidden within.

There is yet something to say about the gracious master. While none of those scoffers will taste the banquet, he has generosity to bestow. On whom should he bestow it? He finds ready recipients in those who cannot refuse because, in their infirmity, they cannot but perceive wisdom. It is in the lowly and despised, the outcast and degenerate that the master’s invitation finds ready hearts as the kindness of the master softens and warms them.

Click here for the reading: 1 John 3:13–18.

The tragedy of Proverbs 9 is the rejection of Wisdom by the simple, and this tragedy has manifold consequences. The scoffer who refuses correction hates the one who is wise. John illuminates this hatred. It is not merely the hatred that the fool has for the one with insight. It is the hatred that the dead have for the living. Having passed from death to life, there is now a chasm between the wise and the fool that cannot be crossed by appeals to common humanity or shared experience.

But John is concerned that those who once were darkness might continue to live in the darkness. The simple test is love for the brothers. The one who does not love has not received love. The one who hates does violence to his brother and is unfit for eternal life. How can you be fit for life when you desire death for those with whom you would share that life? The impossibility is staggering and brings to light the site of much hypocrisy. External piety, devotion, and fellowship in the church count for nothing if you harbor ill-will towards your brother. If you desire life, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Most importantly, keep from being double-tongued, saying that you love your brother while you withhold the world’s goods from him in his need.

The word love is almost irrecoverable from the world, but John shows us how to save the notion. “By this we know love, that Christ laid down his life for us.” Love that finds its example in anyone other than Christ is defective or perverse. Love that is not sourced in the love of Christ for the world is never genuine. And the genuineness is seen in this: a willingness to lay down one’s own life for the brothers.

The righteousness that we have in Christ – Christ’s own righteousness – is meant to be into practice (Mt. 6:1). The practice of righteousness in charity is not something incidental to faith, but the two are inseparable. “This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (1 John 3:23). The one who refuses to help his brother in need is also refusing the righteousness of faith. He not only hates his brother, whom he can see, but he hates God, whom he cannot see.

It’s a parallel to Paul’s argument about the resurrection – that if there were no resurrection then we of all people are most to be pitied for we have believed in vain. If the believer has no love for his brothers, then he has believed in vain, for what is the purpose of believing besides living in righteousness. Those who claim to believe but walk yet in darkness have misunderstood the purpose of Jesus’ signs, longing for a bread that perishes, longing for this life without end when they should place their hope in Christ’s life which they may begin to live even now.

Click here for the reading: Proverbs 9:1–10.

The preparations of Wisdom are lavish and they reflect her earnest desire to give sense to the simple and new life to the erring. It is in view of her invitation that the scoffing of the scoffer is uncovered. Who could say no to such generosity? Who could say no to such wholesome company and such an edifying feast? And yet, Proverbs 9 portrays a tragedy, for inasmuch as Wisdom would welcome any who would listen to her instruction, there are some who refuse to gain insight.

This divergence of ways among men belies the preference in our world for a broad path on which all who travel may wind up eventually at the destination. Not so in the city of Wisdom. There is a house of life and a house of death. There is Wisdom and there is Folly. There are scoffers and there are righteous men. And the two cannot understand one another. They speak different languages and they love different things. They love differently. And so the reproof directed at a fool falls on deaf ears and only produces bitterness. The warning against unrighteousness and death sounds to the scoffer like the nagging of a petulant wife.

For the wise man, however, such instruction is life and better than life. He has come to understand that there is truth against which all the comings and goings of men are measured. The faithfulness and sincerity of wisdom are to be prized above all else. The fog and haze of delusion and deceit must finally give way to despair. Thus the wise man hungers and thirsts for Wisdom. Her meal is the only one that will satisfy.

This picture holds whether we are describing worldly wisdom or divine wisdom. But the end of our lesson indicates that there is a crucial hinge on which all wisdom must swing else it become folly in the eyes of God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It must be. If it is not, then the wise man who seeks wisdom offers sacrifices at the altar of a false god. Perhaps he does it with great integrity and in self-denial and zeal. But he has devoted himself to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, who own the landscape from worldly folly to worldly wisdom.

Click here for the reading: Luke 16:19-31.

This parable, which appears in Luke with no commentary or dialogue, follows on the heels of the parable of the dishonest manager. The Pharisees, “who were lovers of money,” ridiculed Jesus for his apparent folly when it comes to the things of this world. The fate of Lazarus and the rich man lend weight to his argument. Not only is righteousness more valuable than money, it is more valuable in eternity. The utter uselessness of the rich man’s wealth and luxury as he languishes in Hades stands in immeasurably stark contrast to the comfort enjoyed by Lazarus at Abraham’s side.

Besides the time perspective that is lacking among lovers of money, there is also the finality of the judgment. The chasm may not be crossed. At the point of death there is no changing one’s mind, no going back on the things one has loved. Indeed, what you have loved in this life will be yours for eternity. Lazarus, who did not love wealth, is not failed by wealth beyond the grave.

Something of the hardness of men’s hearts is revealed by the response of Abraham to the rich man’s request. It is not for lack of miracles or proofs that men do not practice wisdom. It is on account of a basic orientation of the heart. Whatever the heart loves determines the choosing of the will and the thinking of the mind. This makes it easy for the hard-hearted to explain away even the most startling, ghostly apparition. Something more is needed.

Why does the rich man receive no mercy? It is not that mercy is exhausted nor that his plight does not warrant pity. Rather, even if mercy were offered, he would not receive it as mercy, but as something he was due. His distaste for mercy while alive simply carries through into the grave. He was utterly unwilling to show mercy to Lazarus, whose need was always before his eyes. Lazarus sat at the rich man’s gate day in and day out even while the rich man feasted in luxury. The rich man’s prideful, selfish consumption of whatever came in his view was a failure to acknowledge that his goods were given to him so he could love his neighbor. He failed to realize the vacuousness of inviting those who can repay to a feast. He saw no use for mercy even when the opportunity to bless Lazarus was plainly laid before him. Nor would he learn a lesson from the dogs, who in their irrationality nonetheless showed pity to this poor man. The rich man’s disregard for mercy in life revealed the attitude of his heart. He despised mercy, and so it would be impossible for him to receive it.

Click here for the reading: 1 John 4:16-21.

If there remains uncertainty about why God would choose Abram, or Israel, or you and me, there can be no uncertainty about the result for those who are chosen and are thereby in Christ. They abide in God and God in them. They have received perfect love. They have received it by faith, and so they have come to know who God is. To others the kingdom is hidden, but to those who believe all has been made plain.

Most of all, God’s love delivers righteousness by faith so that the sinner need not fear punishment, even in the great and awesome Day of the Lord. In fact, the one who fears shows that he has not believed. If Abram were to go on in anxiety that Eliezer would be his heir after God had delivered a promise to the contrary, he would show his unbelief. The one who fears the day of judgment has not received the love of God. Neither has the one who refuses to love his brother. That man is a liar if he claims to love God, and he makes God into a liar, for God sends his Spirit into our hearts that we may be perfected in love.

The absolute language that is so characteristic of John leaves us without excuse. While that may lead to sermons preaching repentance, it also leaves room to clarify what is often confused among us about the Christian life. The Christian does not want to make excuses and finds no delight in them. The Christian does not want to hate his brother and does not rest at ease because of the simul. Instead he agrees with the love of God. He abides in it. He believes what God promises, obeys what he commands, and hungers and thirsts for righteousness. The commandments of Jesus are not burdensome for the Christian.

On the contrary, the Christian rejoices in the clarity with which he can now see the righteousness that he has received by faith. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). He sees his own righteousness in the flesh and blood of Jesus, who shows us what perfect love looks like, not fearing the cross, nor death, nor the grave, but laying down his life for those he would call brothers.

The priority of receiving love is the necessary presupposition for everything that follows. “We love because he first loved us.” Much can be made of the subtle ways this necessity gets distorted. What comes of attempts to love without first receiving the love of God? What deception leads one to believe that he has received love while he still does not love his brother? What false confidence arises from loving one’s brother but forgetting the source and origin of that love? The cure for any of these maladies is to receive again the gracious love of God, to again hear and believe.

Click here for the reading: Genesis 15:1-6.

Melchizedek blessed Abram and God at the end of Genesis 14 with a blessing full of marvel. The LORD is God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth. He is also Abram’s God, who fights for him and defeats his enemies. Abram has no cause to fear the sword or spear of his foes. He has no cause for anxiety about the loss of his property or even that of his nephew Lot. The Lord fights for him.

And yet Abram is afraid, for he is not short-sighted. He sees all his possessions, all the blessings of God before him in this moment, but he knows that in his death they will belong to a man who did not come from his own loins. It is not flesh and blood against whom he wrestles but against the one who wields the power of death. He perceives the malice of that evil one in his childlessness. His body and Sarai’s, even now as good as dead, testify to the curse of sin. Where is God’s blessing in all of this? Where is God’s defense against Abram’s enemies?

The word of the LORD came to Abram, and it uttered a dark saying, something which surely would have been taken as figurative by any man less faithful than Abram. “Your very own son shall be your heir.” He had his answer from God. “Fear not.” God is a man of his word. All that remains is to find out whether Abram can receive this word. Will he let the inevitable questions such as, “How can this be?” inject doubt and uncertainty? Will he hedge and find a way to reinterpret God’s promises? The episode with Hagar notwithstanding, in this moment we see Abram, the man of faith.

The righteousness of faith is the key to understanding Genesis. It is not a book of heroes and villains. It is instead a book of faith and unbelief. More importantly, it is a book of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. While individuals and families and nations wend their way in and out of faith and righteousness, God’s promises are steady and unmoving. And they are magnanimous beyond measure. The graciousness of his blessings cannot be delimited any more than can the stars in the sky be counted.

Most remarkably these promises and blessings are specific and particular. They are for this man and for his offspring. In faith one cannot help but ask: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4). What is this man, Abram, that you have chosen him? Who am I that you should be so gracious and generous to me? Those questions remain unanswered. However, the rest promised to God’s chosen ones is no less certain on account of this mystery. The Word has been spoken, and it is sure. And the one who receives it also receives the benefit. His faith is counted to him as righteousness.

Click here for the reading: John 3:1-17.

In a manner that becomes very familiar throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus and his interlocutor seem to be talking past each other. Nicodemus comes in secrecy with burning questions about earthly things, and Jesus answers him with talk about heavenly things. Nicodemus is fixated on God being above humanity and, at best, alongside a teacher like Jesus. He is blind to the startling closeness of God in the flesh of Jesus. He cannot see the kingdom of God because he is unable to look where he would least expect to find it.  

Unless he is born again, Nicodemus can never believe the heavenly things, but how can he be born again if he cannot elevate his own mind beyond the thought of re-entering his mother’s womb? It is here in this paradox that Nicodemus hears but does not understand the mystery of God’s election: the wind blows where it wishes. Unless the Spirit calls him by the Gospel, Nicodemus will never understand these things. His predicament is highlighted as Jesus marvels that a teacher of Israel would not know better. Even more, the graciousness of God is highlighted when the Son of Man is lifted up before Nicodemus’ very eyes so that he might see and perceive.

The serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness promised rescue from the bite of a venomous snake. The lifting up of Jesus on the tree of the cross promises rescue from the curse wrought by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It is the same triune God acting from beginning to end, disciplining and saving his people. Now, however, in the person of Jesus, the fulfillment of everything that came before has arrived. A prophet better than Moses has arrived. A presence better than a glory cloud in the tabernacle is here. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6), Jesus will say. And he will ask the Father, who will send the Helper, the Spirit of truth (Jn. 14:16-17).

The mystery of the Trinity is wrapped up for us in the incarnation. Nicodemus cannot understand, in part, because before him stands flesh and blood. Why would anyone expect a man bearing the humble form of a servant to be the Son of Man? Why would anyone expect to hear spiritual things from one who by all accounts has been born of flesh? Yet, this is precisely how God reveals himself to sinners. This is what Nicodemus must perceive to be born again: the love of the Father for the world, the obedience of the Son to the Father, and the Spirit-filled preaching of eternal life through the cross. It is a ministry of salvation that surpasses in glory the ministry of condemnation. It is a revelation so unfamiliar and unexpected that believing it cannot be described in any less dramatic terms than being born again.