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Sermon for Thanksgiving: November 22, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝



St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in all likelihood was not among Paul’s first epistles. Guided as he was by the Holy Spirit, Paul also demonstrates in the verses of Philippians some life-hardened wisdom when he wrote this letter. Clearly, by this time, he was no new recruit nor some starry-eyed idealist. Instead, Paul wrote this letter while in captivity – most likely under house arrest in Rome. Paul wrote this letter as someone who had traversed the known world not just once, but three times. He had experienced his fair share of suffering, both by watching it in others, and by feeling it himself. Paul, as a hardy veteran of the cross, was able to see and understand things he could never have fully appreciated in the days of his youth. There was no naïve idealism in his words when he wrote: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

And this is no self-confident boast, rather it’s the experienced voice of a man who knew what it was to be down but not out. It’s a scarred, calloused old man who speaks to us on this occasion of Thanksgiving, but yet he still speaks with a voice of firm conviction when he says: “My God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” You could imagine that he’s like the younger sibling who has no doubt that his big brother will be able to handle just about anything anyone tries to dish out. Notice also that he doesn’t say: “Your God will supply every need of yours,” as if he was some rabbi speaking from an antiseptic, ivory tower – as if he had never winced with fear, or spread his feet to shoulder a heavy load. Nor does he say: “Our God will supply every need of yours,” as if he was pretending to be in the same boat with the rest of his audience.

I say that not because Paul wasn’t a sinner like the rest of us – for he most certainly was – but because his fears might not be the same as yours and mine. In spite of the fact that he had to confront a great number of challenges we haven’t had to face, at the same time he probably didn’t have to confront many of the challenges specific to our age. Paul makes no pious claim here to somehow know personally how you and I feel. He had his own cross to bear – even as you and I have our own crosses to bear. So Thanksgiving is a good time for you and me to take an inventory of our lives. And the unbelieving world might join with us, at least in part. After all, most of the heathens around us are quite happy to survey their possessions and their joys, and on this holiday to feel thankful for the good things they’ve been fortunate to receive. Even the most ardent deniers of God still feel some sense of appreciation for the many blessings of this life – even if they don’t think any of those blessings actually came from God!

But there ought to be more to Thanksgiving than simply recognizing that our Triune God has supplied us with an abundance of the things needed to sustain us, body and soul, through earthly life unto eternal life. There’s a great deal more that separates us from the world than our saying what the heathen won’t say, namely, that “every good gift is from above, and comes down to us from the Father of lights.” Our Thanksgiving and the expression of it should concern itself with more than just what we’ve been given. What I mean is: As you inventory your life this Thanksgiving, don’t merely take note of the things you have, but also catalogue those things that may have been taken away. I’ll say it this way: draw up an account of what you no longer have.

Review that for which you’ve suffered loss, and take careful note of those things under which you now suffer. Look carefully at all this, and then remind yourself that “every good gift is from above, and comes down to us from the Father of lights.” Be bold enough to pray: “I thank you, dear heavenly Father, for those things which You’ve taken away, and will yet take away.” This is where we leave the unbelievers behind on Thanksgiving Day. Here we do more than just simply name our Provider and Benefactor. Here we speak a divine truth which has been handed down to us through the saints of every time and age when we say with confidence: “My God will supply our every need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

We can say that because in Christ – along with St. Paul and all the true heroes of the faith – we know how to be brought low, and how to abound. In any and every circumstance, we have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. Not a one of us knows what the future might hold – for us or for our dearest loved ones. But really, who cares? The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away – and for each of these actions we are to bless and praise His holy name – even as Job reminds us. He who has provided us with forgiveness and life in Christ Jesus will most certainly not fail us in those other things we need, as well.

So when you pray: “Give us this day our daily bread,” remember, these words are more than just a plea – and more than just a reminder of what you may already have received. In actuality, they’re a confession of the steadfast faith which God has already given you. Because when you pray to God that He give us all our daily bread, what you’re also doing is reassuring your fellow Christians – including your dearest loved ones – that God will do this in every circumstance, yes, even in the midst of trial, pain, and hardship. No matter how world-weary or battle-scarred you might become, when you pray this petition you’re speaking these words with a child’s indefatigable admiration and confidence that God will do what He has promised for those who are His own. You’re saying: “My God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sermon for the Third Sunday after All Saints’ Day: November 19, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Barrel Cacti

Barrel Cacti

Remember when the workers in the vineyard were paid their wages at the end of the day? No matter how long they worked, or how much of the heat of the day they endured, they all received the same coin. That parable meant that no matter how great our differences of abilities and service in God’s kingdom, we’re all granted the same salvation by grace through faith in Christ.

Today’s parable of the talents has a notable difference from that, doesn’t it? Here Jesus teaches from the opposite angle. Here, the master of the household doesn’t give equal shares to his servants. One gets five talents—a huge amount—of money. One gets two and the last gets one. He gives according to their ability. They’re all equally his servants. They’re all equally in the household. But while the master is away, they have different abilities and responsibilities; so the master has different expectations for each one. Our Master, Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven and He’s coming back in glory at the end. As Christians, you are all equally His servants, and equally in the household of God. You are equally forgiven, because the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses you from all your sin. In the meantime, as you await His return, He has different callings and plans for each of you. And because He gives you certain callings and responsibilities, He entrusts you with talents, what you need to get the job done. It’s all part of the plan to keep the world in order and the body of Christ going until the Last Day.

Different people will have different callings for the good of all, by God’s design. This applies to all sorts of things. Some will have more money and others will have less. Some will have more talent and others will have less. God doesn’t make us identical, but He gives us various gifts. Together, we make up the body of Christ.

We sinners take this truth, however, and it discourages us. We sum it up this way: life isn’t fair. Yes, if you must push me to admit it, life isn’t fair, and people are different because God made them that way. This is hardly profound, but it’s part of the parable. Jesus adds this, too: to whom much is given, much will be expected. If God has given you much, then you are a steward of much and you’re called to exercise that stewardship faithfully. If you are blessed with abundant wealth, then it is given to you to use that wealth wisely. If it is abundant talent, then it is given to you to make use of that talent according to God’s will. It’s given to be used within your callings in service to others, and in service to God.

This should be good news. This should all be a great comfort from this parable. For one thing, you’re already in the house—you’re not trying to earn your way in. You’re part of the family of faith, not because of what you’ve done with what you’ve got, but because Jesus has already redeemed you. That’s Good News. God has given you what you need to accomplish what you need to do. This doesn’t always mean that things will go easily according to

your plan. Life might be very difficult, as the Lord teaches you to trust in Him, and not in the abilities He’s given you. There will be failures along the way, there will also be times when you learn what you’re not suited for, how God’s gifts to you don’t match up with what you were hoping to do. Frustrating as it can be, it’s part of discovering what God has shaped you to do, and not to do.

What matters is, you belong to the Lord. Until Christ’s return on the Last Day, He has plans for you. And because He has different plans for different people, He gives different talents and gifts to different people. All of this is designed for the good of all, as each uses what he has—and who he is—in service to those around him. Here’s the problem, though. As sinners, we don’t see God’s careful planning and entrusting as wise or good. Instead, we often resent it and we resent God. We, or the people we are trying to impress, are seldom happy with who God has made us to be.

Rather than give thanks for what you are by God’s design, you’ll be tempted to focus on what you aren’t. Dissatisfaction and discontent are two big temptations for the devil. And not only will you be dissatisfied with who you are, but in jealousy you may also resent who God has made others to be.

And when people find something about themselves that they do like, what is the temptation? Self-centered pride. Rather than give thanks to God for the gift and use it in service to others, the big temptation will be to use it in service to yourself, to gather recognition, power, wealth and a sense of superiority.

Or you may not want to use the talents that you have, reasoning that to do so would take too much time or be embarrassing or below your status. Or, another of the devil’s tricky temptations: you’ll be tempted to covet especially what the world glorifies, which may not be at all the greatest gifts for service in the household of faith. Physical beauty and strength are well-known idols. Riches are another attractive god, yet even some who have amassed a great amount of things are not content with them. You and I will also be tempted to covet those showy things every day. All of this is true, and it’s not good. But none of this pride or resentment or jealousy or discontent or coveting is the worst part.

For when you resent who you are, or resent what God has entrusted to you to take care of, you actually accuse God. It’s more serious than a self-esteem problem. You are saying God is messing up in what He has given. By thoughts, words and actions, you say that He isn’t wise, that He doesn’t know what He’s doing, that He’s untrustworthy. That is where discontent leads—to the accusation that God is not to be trusted, that He’s not compassionate like He tells us He is. What next? When a sinner thinks that God is not compassionate, then he concludes that God is a hard master. A sinner isn’t going to want to serve a God who reaps where He didn’t sow. Resenting all that God has done for him, he’ll harden his heart and deny that God has given him anything. That’s what happens to the servant with the one talent in the parable. He’s the only one who thinks the master is a hard man, and so he does nothing with what the master has given him. By failing to use what the master has entrusted to him, he’s effectively saying, “I don’t want to be your servant anymore.”

That is where the devil’s temptations ultimately lead. That’s his goal, to get you to resent God’s gifts for you and others until you say, “This is a hard God. I don’t want to belong to Him.” It would not be God who has become hard, but your heart instead. You would be opting for the outer darkness, for weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So, what’s the solution? It’s not just telling yourself to try to be more thankful and helpful. It’s repentance. Repentance begins with confessing the resentment that your heart feels toward God for what He hasn’t given to you and for what He has given to others. It includes confessing envy, jealousy, coveting, thanklessness and discontent, along with all other sins that would lead you to doubt God’s mercy, to portray Him as a hard master just because He opposes your sinful will.

But then there’s more. When you realize that staying out of His household is not a good idea, then your repentance is met with the Lord’s absolution—you are assured as you are today that you are forgiven for all of these sins all because of what Jesus has done. And here is what Jesus has done for you. For you and for your salvation, He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. According to His human nature, He became a specific person with a specific appearance—and, says Isaiah, a plain and unremarkable appearance. According to His human nature, He took on weaknesses and frailties of man. He could be weary, hungry, sad … bruised and wounded. But rather than resent those limitations or envy others, He remained without sin, using His humanity fully in service to those around Him—and fully in service to all the world.

That service led Him to the cross. There, He was the object of anger, wrath and resentment. They sought His death by the cruelest of means. He submitted to that—not because He was powerless against them, but because He was there to suffer God’s judgment for sin. For theirs and yours.

Risen from the dead, your Savior comes to you. By His Word and Supper, He continues to forgive you all of your sins, keeping you clothed in His righteousness and strengthened in the one true faith. Because of His cross and His grace, you can be sure of this: it is God who made you to be who you are. It is God who has entrusted you with gifts and abilities for service, and it is God who still preserves you and your stewardship. He uses your strengths and your weaknesses for your good, as well as the good of others. Because of the cross, you can be certain that God works this for your good, and not for evil. Because of the cross, you’re set free from resentment and envy and discontent and the rest of those temptations that would harden your heart toward Him.

And when you’re tempted again, you repent again; and His grace is sufficient for you.

Dear friends, rejoice. The Lord has made you who you are for service where He has placed you. Until He comes again, that means there will be inequality in the eyes of man. But what the world calls inequality, unfairness, the Lord calls suitability—indeed, He has suited and equipped you for the things He would have you do in service to your neighbor and in service to Him. And while those gifts may be various and unequal in our eyes for service in this world, His grace is the same for all. In other words, no matter what the Lord has entrusted to you for this life—great or small, you can be sure of this: you are a saint in the household, sealed with baptism’s forgiveness.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sermon for the Second Sunday after All Saints’ Day: November 12, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Font, Shell, Candle

Font, Shell, Candle

[Concerning the Baptism of Turner Austin Stirdivant…] What a miracle that was that just happened here among us! Think of it, a member of the human race has been rescued from the curse of sin and welcomed into the arms of our heavenly Father for eternity. Turner has now joined the Church, the Bride of Christ who is waiting patiently and expectantly for our Bridegroom’s grand return at the end of the world. We have a lot to celebrate and ponder with wonder today, and whenever a child, a child of God regardless of age, is granted this magnificent gift of Holy Baptism. We have every reason to bow our hearts in prayer that we never squander such a blessing that has also come into our lives.

And that may make you think, especially on a day like today, Why would someone despise this great gift and think or act as if it was worthless? Why would there be those careless, foolish believers as they are depicted in the story that Jesus told? To be sure, at the time He told it, He was mere days and hours away from His crucifixion and death. He wants you, His disciples, to know this important fact about the kingdom of heaven, which you enter when you are baptized with water in God’s holy and Triune name. But the story can be confusing to follow. It’s not easy to spot the point Jesus makes. The ten virgins are all ready for the wedding in the early evening. They all have lamps, they all are dressed in the proper wedding clothes, they are all pure, chaste virgins, eligible to enter the wedding hall and feast with the bridal party. It should also be noted that all ten girls fell asleep in light of the fact that the one whom they expected was delayed. Jesus didn’t mention a traffic jam as a possible cause! And again, when he is about to make his entrance to the public welcome, they all wake up together! So far the difference that we are supposed to catch, it hasn’t been made clear.

What finally makes the difference clear, as we read in the parable, is whether the virgins have oil. That’s the only signal Jesus uses to separate the wise from the foolish. All the other markers are exactly the same. But what a difference that little detail creates! As the story unfolds, the wise only have enough for themselves. If they were to give up what they already had to share, none of the virgins would be adequately prepared. The Bridegroom would have left all ten of them behind. This story’s outcome looks unfair to us, so unreasonable, so picky about a slight detail, and that’s partly because we are far removed from this ancient culture. But you will have to set that prejudgment aside for a moment, so you can understand how this warning applies to you and the Church of every time and place.

Jesus was often teaching about two separate ways in His kingdom, a way of life and a way leading to death. Wise and foolish, house on the rock versus house on the sand. Can’t serve God and Money at the same time. Those blessed by the Father safe inside the door as opposed to those outside in the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. In other places, the difference is profound, like a huge gap between those who do the will of God the Father and believe in Jesus for their salvation, and those who trust in themselves or the temporary riches that the world prefers. Here, as we apply the ten virgins parable to ourselves and our lives today, it’s not so obvious; it’s even very subtle-looking, and that can be quite unsettling.

Think of it this way: if the five foolish girls are pure virgins, they are prepared for the Groom’s arrival (if he were on time, that is), if they had their lamps and when they fell asleep along with the wise ones they also awoke; if all of that is true, then why is it that the lack of oil and that alone disqualifies them from entering the banquet, which Jesus is clear to identify as the blessings of belonging to His everlasting kingdom? It sounds a lot like: how can it be fair that a member of a church, who looks so faithful and dedicated, was baptized, taught the faith and appeared to flourish in good works, that when all is said and done, that when the resurrection of the dead takes place, this apparently good Christian person still hears those chilling words of Judgment: I never knew you! That’s unsettling. It shakes us with feelings of despair and uncertainty. When a believer can have it all, and perfectly look the part, yet leave out one little detail that means death and not life, what use is there to stay connected to Christ and His Church? Would the greater effort be worth it in the end?

The answer is all about how you handle the oil. It has to be something that is so important, that it makes the all-important difference between death and life. It cannot correspond to a trivial detail about your Christian life, even though in the story it seems to be such a small difference. Some will try to tell you that having oil means you need to do good works, so that you prove to God and to the Church that you are a committed disciple and you have attained a moral character that makes you deserving of your heavenly Father’s rewards. But if you follow that interpretation, you will soon find that you are not at all prepared with enough oil in your lamp.

You as well as I have sinned against our Lord. We have not made ourselves ready for His glorious return. He seems to be delayed from our standpoint of the world, even though His final arrival is truly according to His perfect, eternal plan. But the more we struggle with our own sin, with violence in our world, violence even breaking into the formerly safe refuge of our church buildings, struggle with the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of our life, the more we figure that God has rejected us. We don’t have the same vigor for God’s work that we used to have. We neglect one another in the ordinary works of love that we used to do gladly and without reminder or nagging. If we were to see the lack of oil as these and similar faults that we see in ourselves, then we figure we should just brace ourselves for the door of Heaven to get slammed right in our faces.

Jesus gives you a gracious word, so that you do not need to feel rejected. He has promised to welcome you in to His banquet feast. He made that promise to you at your Baptism, just like He promised that and more to Turner this morning. You are clothed with Christ, made virgin-pure as a believer faithful to Him alone and not turned aside to yourself, the world or any other false gods that try to tempt us. Not only have you been provided with a lamp, you also have been given oil- you personally, have been given the godly wisdom that hears the Word of forgiveness of your sins, believes it with all your heart, and forgives others as you have been forgiven. You have Jesus, but remember that you have all of Him, not just the parts you like and as if you can discard the parts you don’t. Your baptism was not only a memorable day, a miracle that happened a single time in your life, but it’s also an ongoing identity that you carry with you. It has made a difference in your life so that you constantly remind yourself not to squander it.

You’re probably well aware that Baptists and a few other Christian confessions officially teach the doctrine of what they call a believer’s baptism, and characterize it as a promise or commitment that a Christian must consciously make for himself as a decision to follow Jesus Christ as His disciple. I can readily assure you, they don’t intend to hold to a belief that is contrary to the Bible, and I could even propose that they, as we, are trying to be good Christian people, no doubt about it. But if they were to witness what had just happened to Turner this morning, these otherwise well-meaning Christians would be shaking their heads. What can that little baby do for God right now? He needs constant help, and the parents have to guess what specifically he needs help with- and boy does one parent need a lot more practice than he would like to admit! But that helplessness is precisely why Jesus commands the Church to baptize babies, as well as anyone of any age who hasn’t yet received that gift- it’s all about what God gives rather than what the believer promises.

I’ll tell you that they do have one concern that we should listen to as Lutherans, staunch baby-baptizers as we are. That is the concern that once a baby has been baptized, how often is it that that new believer has little or no further connection with the church, or doesn’t grow in the faith? Maybe it’s a young person who goes all the way through Confirmation instruction, but when he or she is exposed to false spiritual teaching that contradicts God’s Word, then they fall away. Do the parents imagine that the baptism by itself is a ritual that guarantees salvation, even if you have not been taught the faith or you continue in the life of the sinner that we all remain to be, baptized or not? Listen to that concern, and respond to your Baptist friend that Jesus wants us to remember our Baptism, to continue in the Christian life we have been given, totally as a gift and not as our work toward God. There is no such thing as spiritual fire insurance. Baptism needs to be cherished, and not despised as an ordinary, useless thing. Keep thinking of it as a miracle, because it is! God says in the Bible it will save you, so trust in His Word to do what He says.

Yes, forgiveness is free, and you will continue to need it because you and I are still sinners. That constant repentance and trust in Christ’s forgiveness, that total reliance on Him, that constant rejection of self and the temporary world that you have been called to do, that’s your oil that God the Holy Spirit has kept in abundant supply for you. That’s your wisdom that begins with a reverent fear of the Lord. Your Father, to whom you pray, loves you and will not shut you out, even when you face your darkest days.

Embrace the miracle that welcomed you in to the wedding feast of the Kingdom of Heaven, especially on occasions when you see it happen for another child of God. That way, with God’s ever-present help, you will not despise this gift you have been given and when you wake up from death’s sleep on the Last Day, you will rejoice to greet Jesus Christ the Church’s Bridegroom with all the other wise virgins, indeed, the whole company of heaven that is singing along with you in the Divine Service today.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Beveled-glass cross

Beveled-glass cross

Sermon for the First Sunday after All Saints’ Day: November 5, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

White Parament

White Parament

Allow me to introduce to you a friend of mine. No, you cannot see him. But in the next few minutes, you’ll get to know him a little. My friend happens to be a church administrator, but don’t hold that against him. He’s just as much a hypocrite as you and I are, but there’s something to say about the unique “occupational hazards” that this leader in the church faces. When you have a great many people looking up to you as a spiritual head, then it can only be a matter of time before your hat feels a little too small and you’re overcome with self-pride. It’s an easy mistake.

My friend has most likely studied the Word of God very thoroughly before, but at this point the stresses of day-to-day administration have tempted him to stray from that crystal-clear fountain of Gospel truth in favor of the mirages of convenience and legalism. Keeping order among people who are so bitterly opposed to each other seems to be his only work, and what suffers is his God-given task of leading men to Jesus Christ. Thus, unfortunately, my friend relies heavily on the force of his own personality and his unique claims to spiritual authority in order to get done what he believes needs to get done. Personally, I think he has placed on himself an impossible standard and expectation, and yet at the same time, he ignores the only Divine means to fulfill that goal, and so relies completely on himself instead. Based on the sinful human nature that we all have, I would venture to say that my friend’s scenario would be similar to how you and I would act if we were placed in the same situation.

Jesus spoke of my nameless, ancient friend, let’s call him the Pharisee, in the Holy Gospel while He was speaking to His disciples and the crowds who followed Him. And when Jesus tells you to do something, it’s usually safe to assume we have the tendency to do the very opposite. He told them to pay attention to the words that people like my friend spoke because those words were written by Moses, meaning that the scribes and Pharisees read the Bible out loud in the synagogue. This group of church administrators, including my friend, had a holy job to perform, even though they often fell to the temptations of administration and themselves ignored the very words they were preaching. They sat on Moses’ seat, which meant they were officially the mouthpiece of God, teaching from a seated position, like they often did in those days; it doesn’t matter whether they were rightfully placed in that office or they took it by sinful means. My friend sits in the seat, whether he truly belongs there or not, but he still has that seat’s responsibility to perform.

Now, I have asked parents, I suppose teachers too, (since I’m going to be needing this advice now!) when was the last time you said to your children, “Do as I say, not as I do?” Usually, you say it when you’re trying to restore a little order to the ensuing chaos, and as you choke back their accusation of being a hypocrite, you hang on to the last shred of authority you can muster to get some form of obedience. But Jesus says it clearly: the Word of God is the ultimate and the only authority, even when a hypocrite speaks it. However, all of us, young or old, tend to watch the actions rather than heed the words.

And the crowds who heard Jesus were the same way. They saw guys like my friend the Pharisee and boy, were they impressed. The Pharisees read the words of Moses in the Bible that say, “Tie these words around your forehead,” and they took it literally. They made phylacteries, which were little “lock boxes” with Scripture verses inside, and with long straps to fasten them to your head and down your arm. Not too tight, though. The tassels on their synagogue shawls were so long that they flung it over their shoulder while the common people oohed and aahed. Think of it as really showy “prayer wear.” The contradiction between what they did and what they said was plain as day, and Jesus pointed it out.

Like my friend, you also face these same temptations, although Satan likes to tailor them to your specific vocation. You crave less talk and more action. People who may not know any better incessantly chant that the church’s emphasis should be on deeds rather than creeds when those two should actually work together. Either you have done something in public for show or you’ve given undivided attention to another who did. You may have accused someone in front of others, pointing out a sin you’ve often committed yourself with no one watching. Perhaps you prayed in public a prayer that should have been private, in order to make a scene or gain a little credibility. Your ears perk up more when there’s something in God’s Word about something for you to do, or when there’s a commitment for you to make. That’s the Law, by the way. It’s the reason why works-righteousness is so popular in churches: it’s what people like you and I want to hear! It’s a great club to use to remind others that they aren’t as “holy” as you are. But when the Gospel is said, when you hear of forgiveness, of what God does all for you, it’s not important. It’s all talk, and you’ve heard it all before, and you’ll put up with a little bit of it so long as you can get on as soon as possible with the doing. And then you’re back to the Law.

There’s only one way out of this web of temptation in which you are caught. You must repent. That doesn’t mean say one little prayer or repeat a confession of sins and then you’re done. It means stop your practice of relying on yourself and give up on your way. Repent of your tendency to fall into the trap like my friend did. Stop making a show to others and start hearing the Word of God rather than the opinions of men. Even when an imperfect man preaches it, it is still the perfect doctrine that gives you true life. What makes it imperfect is when something false is added or when anything essential is taken away from it. And watch out for the devil’s back door, which is someone who is really nice and a good moral example but then they use those credentials to teach something false. God does not give them that privilege, and no one, not even a majority vote, can cast our Lord’s command aside.

Instead, flee for refuge to your only hope, and the source of your hope is the Gospel words that you hear. Crave forgiveness, because it’s all you’ve got. Jesus has done it all. His actions, not yours are the only ones that count, because they perfectly matched His Words. His blood has already been shed to back up the promises. It is His greatest desire to rescue you. He wants not necessarily to improve your life and relationships here on earth, but rather to usher you into eternal life and strengthen the relationship that He began with you at your baptism. And the promise of this costly forgiveness, the forgiveness that was achieved for you at the holy Cross of Calvary, this promise is for you, even if you are like my friend. All it takes is to believe it, and even that, God the Holy Spirit does for you.

My friend the Pharisee did not escape the harsh lashing of Jesus’ judgment, but you can. Your Lord enables you today to give up on your hypocritical ways, and allow Him, who is the greatest of all, to be your humble servant. That’s what submitting to Him as Lord is all about. As you humble yourself in honest confession of all your sins, He will exalt you with His forgiveness and renewal. Instead of superficial things like phylacteries or church politics, you’ll tie on the Word of God to your heart, and partake of the Lord’s gifts—and that is really the true reason why the Lord brought you here.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

White Parament

White Parament

Pastor’s Postil Nov 2017

Five years ago, a friend and colleague, Pastor Erik Rottman, planned a very interesting and memorable pastors’ conference. The topic he chose for it was Church Security. How safe is your sanctuary? so we were asked. Do you have a plan in place in case of an emergency, a health issue, an unwanted intruder, or an innocent-looking panhandler? Many pastors know these problems arise, even in rural settings, but not all had given enough thought to what one should do in these various scenarios. That is why I personally thought that this conference theme was an excellent idea.

The keynote speaker was a layman—a member of a Baptist church, actually—who was a former law enforcement officer and now he directs a company that helps churches with security solutions. He cited the rapid increase in violent incidents that have been reported from church settings in the United States. From only 18 of these in 2008, the numbers have risen to 135 violent incidents, just in 2011. Typically, intruders are simply wanting to disrupt services and say whatever they wanted to say. The vast majority of these incidents are usually over with and resolved before law enforcement or emergency personnel arrives, however it is still important that churches also have plans in place that ensures that help is contacted quickly whenever it is needed.

For churches that also operate a day care and preschool, some of these security issues are automatically required to be addressed. Safety needs to be a number one priority when parents are entrusting the care of their little ones to others during the week. But it is also true that we have to be safe when we meet for church and for church meetings. Not only children, but all age groups can be targets for a “bad guy” looking for an easy strike.

What should we do to defend ourselves? Is that even a Christian thing to do? What about the idea of offering up one’s life for the Lord? These issues were all brought up in our presentations and discussions. We at Good Shepherd have recently addressed some of these when we upgraded our alarm system. While it is true that our body and life belong to our heavenly Father who created us, and our full trust for protection should remain in Him, we also must realize that He has given us vocations and offices in daily life that put us in responsibility toward others. Parents need to protect, feed and train their children. The strong are needed to uphold the weak. Church members need a place where they can feel safe, so that the most important activity of hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments can go on in Church. People who volunteer for service in the name of Good Shepherd should not be made into “sitting ducks” for a predator.

Far from being scared of the unknown, farther still from advocating violence over against our neighbor, I learned from this conference that we should give some thought to the safety of our sanctuary, take notice of everybody who walks in—whether they are visitors unsure about where to go, or potential threats—and be prepared for anything. Hopefully, none of the serious incidents that are affecting churches these days will ever happen to us. But, with a little effort and good communication, an episode like that need not become an insurmountable obstacle to the church’s ministry.

Yours, in Christ’s service,

Pastor Stirdivant


The U.S. Justice Department released new guidelines regarding the treatment of religious freedom by federal agencies. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a guidance containing 20 “key principles” that spell out the religious liberties of individuals and organizations as they relate to regulations and policies of the federal government.

“Religious freedom is not merely a right to worship in a sacred place,” Sessions wrote in his memo. “Except in the narrowest of circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law. Therefore…religious observance should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity, including employment, contracting, and programming.”

Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, applauded the new stance announced by the Justice Department. “Federal government agencies have now been put on notice: you will not only respect the freedom of every American to believe according to their faith, but also to live according to those beliefs.”

“President Trump is demonstrating his commitment to undoing the anti-faith policies of the previous administration and restoring American’s First Freedom–religious liberty. These concrete steps will once again erect a bulwark of protection around our First Amendment rights.”

President Trump had promised earlier this year to address the continuing threats by government to the free exercise of religion. In a press conference in the Rose Garden that included members of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Trump declared that “we will not allow people

of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore. We are ending the attacks on religious liberty.”

(Source: Missouri Family Policy Council email 10/17/17)


The Reformation was not about anything new, but about returning to the unchanged and unchanging truth. So it still is today. The celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is not a time for novelty. It is time to return. Return to the truth. Return to the basics. Return to the foundation.

Luther wrote the Small Catechism for the instruction of lay people. Luther intended the Small Catechism to be used at church and in the home to instruct children in the faith and to reinforce the faith in the hearts and minds of the adults.

There is no better time than in this year of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to review the catechism.

Read it for yourself. Refresh the theology in your mind. Pray the catechism daily. Memorize it. But even more, teach it. If you are a parent, teach it to your children. As you have opportunity, share it with your friends and peers.

The catechism teaches the fundamentals of the Christian faith: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Confession and the Office of the Keys, and the Sacrament of the Altar. This small book is well worth your time and study.

May this celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation be a time when we return to Word and Sacrament, and when we turn to Christ and His love. It’s Still All About Jesus.

Banner - Dove

Banner – Dove

Sermon for the Festival of the Reformation (observed): October 29, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Red Parament

Red Parament

Dearly beloved fellow heirs of the Reformation:

You and I are reminded nearly every day that we should cherish our freedom. We are often told that it is our greatest achievement, freedom is something we or someone else has worked hard to get. Our liberties as American citizens came to us at a great price. Our independence, which was won for us by the men and women in the armed forces of yesterday and today who made real sacrifices, it is all something we should treasure.

We think of similar sacrifices as we, the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, celebrate the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther put up a notice of academic debate, and from that point onward, the Christian Church has celebrated freedom and independence from Roman Catholic superstitions and the iron-fisted control of the pope. Once again, such freedoms were very difficult to attain. Many suffered death by burning at the stake—something that Martin Luther, however, escaped. Others were innocent bystander casualties of violent mob-uprisings and bloody wars. And yet the freedom of the Gospel they fought for is now our most prized possession as Lutherans.

And so we are reluctant to believe it, or we are downright offended, when we hear that this freedom is actually something you receive as a gift. It would then turn out that you didn’t work for it, or possibly that you didn’t need to struggle for it. Saying that our freedom is something that God has already given us would also say that it was for nothing that those colonists fought the Revolutionary War, or that brother fought against brother in the Civil War. If you were to admit that Christ has achieved our freedom for us, then what need did we have of Martin Luther, or all the other players in the Reformation drama?

A gift is really demeaning to your proud sinful nature, if you want to be perfectly honest. It’s almost a game some people play at birthdays and Christmas to try quickly to match each other equally in their gift-giving. And nothing can be more satisfying but also at the same time offensive than when you have given better than what you got in return. Offensive because you know you deserve better and the other person is able to give better than they have. Satisfying because you’ve proven yourself to be the more generous, benevolent soul, and you have won the game of giving.

So God’s gift of freedom that He gives willy-nilly through His Son Jesus Christ is a gift that puts you on the wrong end of the game. It means you are not in control of yourself; you have no way of making your sinful nature proud. If you were free by what you yourself have done, then your freedom is on your terms. Freedom would be what you deserved as a birthright, just like the Jews imagined when they were talking to Jesus. “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.” They understood that if Jesus were to give the gift of freedom, then they, the recipients, would have to acknowledge that they were in a truly miserable position from birth. Not only were they in political bondage because Palestine was under strict control of the Roman Empire, but they were also in spiritual bondage to sin, death and the devil. The Jews’ claim of lineage from Abraham gave them the bragging rights to freedom in both political and spiritual realms, so they believed. They really earned it and no other ethnicity had those same bragging rights—and the Jewish religion has basically the same pride surviving to this very day.

Remember, though, that this gift of freedom is for you, too, no matter how much you also want to regard it as an achievement. You in your heart know that if your freedom in the Gospel can be thought of in your own terms, then you are independent. You would owe nothing to anybody. It would just be you and Jesus. You would then have every right to come in here, sit in the pew that you have claimed and reserved for years, you then fill ‘er up with the forgiveness that God has to give you as an individual, give just enough to cover your own part, and turn around and walk right out and drive home without having to do anything else. You get all the credit for going to church, and you still have time in the day to do something useful.

That is one kind of freedom, namely, freedom from everyone else. You are an individual, free from sin. This is how you normally think of it when you read the Bible—how does this apply to my personal relationship with God? What are the certain things I must do every day? I must repent of my sins, seek God’s forgiveness, and believe that He has given it to me. And you would be right. Christ has freed each and every individual you out there. You are His child, washed in the blood He shed on the cross and baptized into His name. No one else can believe for you. No one else has control over the salvation that you have. God the Father has specifically forgiven you and given eternal life to you.

But that’s when the devil wants to take over. He wants to capitalize on that individual, one-on-one concept that you have in your mind, and push out everything else. Satan keeps you focused on the time and commitment that you have given, and then he turns your attention to compare yourself against the others sitting in church with you. Something about them may distract you and the devil attempts to use it to pull you away from your Lord and your neighbor and they make you an isolated individual. And so the good of God’s freedom in the forgiveness of Jesus is twisted and contorted to be your declaration of independence from your brothers and sisters in the faith. In the end, that turns freedom into a bondage that says, “I can now do whatever I want,” but really you are fooling yourself, for you would then do what sin wants and what your Old Adam wants and your freedom would be lost.

Red Parament - cross

Red Parament – cross

The true freedom, the freedom for which Christ died and shed His blood, and the freedom that He lavishes upon you, is not only freedom from sin but also a freedom for living as His new creation. It’s freedom for being a disciple, so that your very existence is for the good of someone else. Because the waters of your baptism not only are your individual promise from God that your sins are forgiven, but they also kill the individual in you and remake you in the image of Jesus, joining you to His Body, the Church. The Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion are not just an extra assurance of forgiveness above and beyond all the forgiveness you already get in the rest of the church service. Even more than that assurance of forgiveness is the fact that Jesus joins Himself to you, giving you the perfect holy life and freedom that He is, right into your mouth! And along with Jesus giving Himself to you, He gives you to each and every other person kneeling at the rail with you, who believe and confess the very same faith you do and are joined to the very same Jesus that you are joined to. This is true freedom: freedom for serving each other.

Rather than a declaration of independence, this freedom for which Christ died and that He alone gives to you is a declaration of dependence on your fellow believers. In this new relationship, you bear one other’s burdens, trials, griefs and difficulties, but also their joys, love, and eternal hope, because those are the things that will last into eternity. The bad stuff will all be gone soon. This is why Jesus denied the Jews of their claim to true freedom by being the descendants of Abraham, because it was only freedom for themselves as individuals. But it also applies to you. If the freedom you have from the promises of the Lord is only your individual freedom from sin, then it really isn’t the true freedom Jesus is talking about, the freedom for serving those around you without expecting anything in return. If you don’t have this freedom for, you never really had the freedom from to begin with.

Martin Luther wrote that as a Christian you are completely free, subject to none—that is the first kind of freedom that I talked about, freedom from sin and death. But he also balanced it with the freedom for, saying that the Christian is also in a new type of bondage, a servant to all in the love given through Jesus Christ. In this understanding of freedom, there is still forgiveness, especially for you. Your sins of selfish pride and individualistic attitude are wiped away, and God remembers them no more. And as you live in true freedom, freedom for each other, remember that you do such nice things not because you have to put in your time like it was community service, but because there is nothing more free and natural than to help someone else. Jesus has won the eternal life that you could not earn. His freedom is yours, and when you sacrifice yourself for the good of someone else, something that your heavenly Father wants you to do in the first place, you still get rewarded, even when you had nothing to do with it! Test Him in this, He says, give up a little of yourself for others in whatever way you can, and you still get hundreds of times back what you gave. That is the true freedom of the Gospel: countless blessings above and beyond the forgiveness that is already yours.

So, fellow redeemed, the Church of the Reformation on this the 500th anniversary, stand fast, therefore, in the freedom by which Christ has made you free. Cherish it, not because you worked for it, but because it is God’s gift to you. For you are no longer under the yoke of bondage, but you are free for the benefit of one another, and you wait for the promised freedom of heaven, when you will be set free from the grip of sin, death and the devil for good. Thanks be to the Truth, our Lord Jesus Christ!

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Red Parament - ihs

Red Parament – ihs

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: October 22, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Good Shepherd window, Grace Lutheran, Rialto

Good Shepherd window, Grace Lutheran, Rialto

This sermon is from Pastor Eric Kaelberer of Grace Lutheran in Rialto, who graciously stepped in when I could not make it to church. Then following below is the sermon I had prepared for the 22nd, but did not preach. God’s blessings and thanks so much for your prayers! Pastor and Krika and Turner, whom, God willing, will be baptized on November 12th.

Beloved of the Lord, Happy Birthday! I guess we’ll hear that again next Sunday as we celebrate the Reformation. But as you did a few years ago when Kelly Nava gave birth to Zoe, every time a pastor’s wife gives birth, the baby holds a special place in the hearts of the congregation. My own bride, my Kawai is sitting in the pew with me this morning, rejoicing with all of you, anticipating with all of you, praying with all of you that Krika, your beloved Pastor’s dear bride will be safe and that their dear son will be safely delivered and be healthy.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Every time there is a birth in the church, the pastor and his wife rejoice, for that child of yours becomes theirs as well. I guess that is the true meaning that we are brothers and sisters in Christ! What a miracle, what a blessing. You belong to me, and I to you. We weep with those who weep and we rejoice with those who rejoice. Yes, today my wife and I celebrate with you and with Krika and your dear pastor as we sing and celebrate the birth of this fine little boy… we say it as we commend ourselves and this dear family into His care… Happy Birthday Good Shepherd, Happy Birthday!

That brings us to our texts. Did you catch the Introit? It is from that blessed 121st Psalm:
The Lord is your | keeper;*
  the Lord is your shade on your | right hand.
I lift up my eyes | to the hills.*
  From where does my | help come?
My help comes | from the Lord,*
  who made | heaven and earth.
He will not let your | foot be moved;*
  He who keeps you will not | slumber.
Behold, He who keeps | Israel*
  will neither slum- | ber nor sleep.
The Lord will keep you from all | evil;*
  He will | keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your | coming in*
  from this time forth and for- | evermore.
Glory be to the Father and | to the Son*
  and to the Holy | Spirit;
as it was in the be- | ginning,*
  is now, and will be forever. | Amen
The Lord is your | keeper;*
  the Lord is your shade on your | right hand

It is one of those great Psalms of Ascents, the songs that pilgrims sang as they turned the corner and got their first real look at the City on the Hill, to Jerusalem. They knew that Salvation came from those hills. What they may not have realized when the Psalm was first sung is that on the hills just outside the gates of the city, the hill called Golgotha, that He who watches over Israel, the never slumbering, never sleeping one, the One who keeps you from all evil, that is, who forgives all sins, that is ALL sins, the one who keeps your life… for eternity…

He went to Golgotha to pay the full price for your redemption.

He has you. He has Krika and that beautiful baby. Going out and coming in. That is the movement. Did you catch it, beloved, the first motion is the going out, then the coming back in. For the pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the first time this was particularly important. Though they may never have seen the Temple, with all its gold and fine linen, its woven wool and acacia wood, they knew they were already in the Ark of the Church, they were already in the womb, if you will, of God’s grace. He is our Good Shepherd who keeps us safely in the sheep pen, where He causes us to be found in Him. It is all His doing and it is glorious – thus we can say, “Soli Deo Gloria!”

This Good Shepherd is keeping this Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – He is keeping you, as surely as He is keeping Pastor and Krika, and their dear gift from God, their new son. Thus, the pilgrim coming to Jerusalem, seeing it for the first time from afar already knows that He is safely in the ark of the Church, that Heaven is his home, all because God the Redeemer was to make their Cross His home. We are home. Today we are “in” already. Thus, shortly, after we finish our Fine Meal of the Supper of the Lord, after we finish the coffee and cookies and the Bible Class, we will “GO OUT.” We are home and we will go out. Then, next Sunday, we will “come in” again – we will return home.

But wait! There’s more. He never leaves us, never forsakes us (Hebrews 13:5), He has inscribed us on the palms of His hands (Isaiah 49:16), we are His, for surely He has called us by name! (Isaiah 43:1) He holds us close, as close as a nursing mother and even closer than that! Wherever we find ourselves, He is there, ready to forgive, to heal, to enlighten, to lead, to keep you, ye, from the scorching heat of the day, and yes, the dark cold of the night! He keeps your going out and your coming in from this time and even forevermore.

As the new Stirdivant baby comes out, he will be kept. As He is home here for his baptism, He will know that the Lord has him, from that time forth and even forevermore. Oh, how strong are the promises of our God, How strong is His Cross to save, how strong is our Good Shepherd, who reminds us that we shall never want.

Oh, Pastor and Krika’s son is a sinner, saved by Grace, even as we all are. He will know the depth of his sin and weep over it. He will know the sweetness you all know as you kneel here to receive the pronouncement of God’s grace for you, literally in your mouth as you receive Christ, the full payment for all your sins, as you eat His true body and drink of His true blood, all for your forgiveness, healing and peace. To know what it means to be His own… what a gift… what a God!

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on the Gospel. It is Holy Week, Jesus is just hours away from what is surely your cross and mine, the full payment for all sin, for all time! The Pharisees want to entrap Him, to ensnare Him in His own words, and so, like master politicians they set the trap regarding taxes and Caesar.

But unlike a politician, He answers not with the answer that will garner the most votes, as with the Tennessee politician at the time just before Prohibition (tell the story) .. He does not obfuscate, like, or deceive to curry momentary favor. He will leave that to the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. No, He will answer their question with His gift of life and death on the Cross. He will render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s – in a word, full payment of the tax for living, and He will render God the full payment, the tax to cover death.

Jesus came into this world because of the tax, not of Caesar Augustus, you know the one when Quirinius was governor of Syria, where each went to their home country to be taxed, where Mary, the espoused wife of Joseph went with him to Bethlehem, the City of David, for they were both of this house. Jesus came to Bethlehem because of the heavy tax of sin, and He came to Golgotha some 33 years later because of the heavy tax of sin. He rendered unto Caesar whatever that fool wanted, namely a scapegoat, a payment, and He rendered unto the Father, all that was His, the full payment for all sin, for all people, for all time.

Yes, Krika will bring into this world her firstborn, a son, a sinner, and yes, one who will be as the great Baptismal Hymn by Jaroslav Vijda, “See this Wonder in the Making” –

See this wonder in the making God Himself this child is taking As a lamb safe in His keeping, His to be, awake or sleeping Here we ring a child of nature; Home we take a new-born creature, Now God’s precious son or daughter, Born again by Word and water. (LSB, 593, stanzas 1, 4)

Jesus rendered unto God the things that are God’s – not merely forgiveness of sins as the idea or concept, but the very child of nature now become the new-born creature. You, beloved are safely in the Ark of the Church. He is leading you out and in. He is keeping your beloved Pastor and his dear bride, He is keeping their son, and He is the One who causes us to look up, to see that our redemption, it draweth neigh. We know that our help comes from the Lord. Therefore, this morning I greet you with a blessed and happy Birthday, in the name of Jesus, Amen!

Pastor Eric Kaelberer
Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rialto, California

In today’s Gospel our Lord Jesus speaks a most profound, divine truth when He says: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” With these words, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the lifelong duty of every Christian is to faithfully serve our government in whatever righteous demands it might make upon us – yes, including even those mundane things like taxation, civic-service and voting – but more importantly, that we must also faithfully and dutifully serve our Heavenly Father in all He gives us to do so long as we live here in this fallen world and await Christ’s return.

But an honest desire to clarify a citizen’s duties toward God and country wasn’t what started this conversation between Jesus and His opponents, the Pharisees – indeed the whole question of whether or not it was right to pay taxes was nothing more than a ruse that they cooked up in a futile attempt to ensnare Jesus. You see, these enemies of Jesus couldn’t have cared less about this question – nor were they all that interested in how He answered it. The only reason they asked this question at all was because they hoped to destroy our Lord no matter what He said. If He answered, “No, you shouldn’t pay taxes,” then these enemies of His could have had Him arrested as an enemy of the State. But if He answered, “Yes, you must pay taxes to Rome,” they could have turned Him over to the people to be lynched – for there was nothing the Jews hated more than Roman government.

Truth be known, the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus in His words because they quite simply hated His words. Remember, He’d just finished telling them the Parable of the Wedding Feast, which we heard last week. And when Jesus spoke in that Parable about how the King of the Feast would destroy all who ignored His invitation, everyone knew He was talking about those Pharisees. So, should it come as any surprise that from that moment on they began to lay plans to trap Jesus in His words and find a way to kill Him? For Christ’s words required a change of heart and a change of mind, and the Pharisees weren’t about to do either one! Jesus’ words demanded proper recognition from them that He was the Man of integrity who taught only “the way of God in accordance with the truth” – a way which stripped His enemy’s words of all authority and power and removed the hold they had over others. Believe me when I say they wanted none of that!

And so what we learn from this is that Jesus isn’t really speaking about taxation, but rather about the clash of God’s Word over and against the false words, thoughts and opinions of sinful men. It’s about the false assumption that we fallen human beings make even today – that is, that the pure Word of God cannot endure in today’s world as we know it. But Jesus proclaims to you and to me that faithfulness to the Word and Promise of God isn’t merely an ideal that we can try to see if it’ll work, but instead, His life and peace make up the very substance of our life here in this world as we wait for the Resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day. He’s all we have that we can rely on.

Now when some hear the words of Jesus – and you and I would certainly have to be included in this group from time to time – they may be tempted to say: Well, that all sounds fine and good, but how about when I come up against the real world? We can talk about grace and peace in church all day, but I still have a boss, a neighbor and a husband or wife who will give me no peace! You can talk all you want about generosity and Christian giving, but I’ve got my own problems and my own bills to pay. It always sounds so good, to hear what God says in His Word about marriage, family, gentleness, concern, faith and piety, but there’s not much room in my reality for such things as these! This may have worked in days past or with people who have been Christians all their life, but life is different in today’s real world. We live in a place filled with divorce, anger, temptation, strife, and yes, even physical harm. “Pastor,” you may say, “Life ‘out there’ in the real world very seldom measures up to what I hear you talking about when I’m sitting here in Church.”

Yet, dear friends these thoughts and questions that may be in your mind today are, in fact, the very things Jesus confronts in today’s Gospel. His enemies came to Him and asked: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But is that question any different from the kinds of questions on the minds of believers today? Haven’t you ever wanted to corner Jesus and ask Him, point blank: “Exactly how far can I take Your words, Lord, when You speak of soaring over clouds while I live stuck in the gutter? Are you speaking about ideal conditions, or do Your words actually have a place here in my reality? You talk all the time about this Kingdom of God, and that’s fine, at least until those who are firmly entrenched in the world hear about it – because they aren’t interested in any competition from You, Your Church, or Your people! You talk about the forgiveness that comes from the Father, and that’s fine, too – at least until I fall into sin again and my guilty conscience starts holding up all my past sins against me. You talk about how Your Church is holy, pure and blameless, but all I see is a bunch of poor, miserable sinners huddling together for a while on a Sunday morning – then leaving – by themselves – to brave the storms of this world all over again. Just how far can I take Your words, Lord?”

Dear Saints of God, what you need to know and remember is that our Lord Jesus isn’t some ivory-towered professor who shrouds Himself in abstract theories and potentialities. He isn’t some mountaintop guru who spends all His time telling you how things ought to be, and could be, if you’d only get your act together and be more obedient. No! Jesus’ only desire is to speak to you about the way things really are. And when He speaks His words to you, you need to know that these words will not fail you or let you down – even though admittedly they oftentimes appear to be colliding with – and sometimes even seem to be destroyed by – the awesome forces of this world and the sad realities of life. Everybody wants rules for self-improvement. Jesus instead kills sinners and raises up from their dry bones His own dear children.

The Pharisees, you see, came to Jesus asking their question, in the hopes that it would set up an impossible situation in which Christ’s Word couldn’t possibly prevail. “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not,” they asked. What they didn’t know is that our Lord Jesus always remains above intimidation by whatever so-called “impossible” situations life might try to throw at Him. So He answered them, saying: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” With those words, Jesus not only answered their question about taxation, but He also spoke – and He speaks to you now – the reality by which you and I live in this real world. And the reality is this: Christ and His Word are not separate from you. He not aloof and ideal, nor a God who is far away out there. Rather, Christ and His Word have come to you – and made His life your life now and forever.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” With these words, our Lord Jesus was really describing the whole of our Christian life – and the fact that our allegiance to one facet of that life need not collide with any other allegiance we might have. According to Holy Scripture we owe to the world the things which are of this world, for naked we were born and naked we shall die. From dust we came, and to dust we shall one day return. If the government should ever require of us every earthly possession, what Jesus is saying is that even that would not be too great a price for us to pay. It would be a huge injustice, but none was a greater injustice than killing the perfect Son of God on a cross. Luther once said: “If someone takes my clothing, my life, my property, or obstructs me in this way or that, so be it. As long as I cling to Christ I have nothing to fear.” Or again, to quote Luther’s most famous hymn: “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife. Though these all be gone, our victory has been won. The kingdom ours remaineth.” Caesar – that is, the government – can only lay claim to things temporal. Our brothers and sisters in the Lutheran Churches of Siberia or of Haiti or Southern Sudan can back me up on this one. The Word of the crucified Christ remains, and is powerful to grant endurance and strength in every struggle here in the real world – in every so-called “impossible situation” created by the evil hearts of men.

Caesars of all stripes will come and go, but the Word of the Lord stands forever. That Word has imparted to you many great gifts, my dear brothers and sisters – gifts unseen except by the eye of faith, but real gifts nevertheless. These have come about – and have been delivered into your hand – by our Lord’s refusal to remain separate from you and your situation – and by His willingness to take your life into His own body, which was then sacrificed on the cross for us all. And these unseen gifts which flow to you from this cross – forgiveness of sins, life and salvation – are indeed and really yours. So you see, There’s really no clash between your life of faith and your life in this world, for the life of faith is most certainly lived out here in the world. There’s no impossible situation which can be devised that our Lord hasn’t already overcome by His death and resurrection. And His promise to you is that His Word will always remain and be there to strengthen and guide you through the ministry of His Church – as it comes to you in water, Word, bread and wine – no matter what daily life may demand.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: October 15, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Altar reflected on piano

Altar reflected on piano

Did you know that God loves planning a wedding? He is probably the only Father who doesn’t dread the expense that looms on the horizon. He doesn’t roll his eyes when He looks at the ever-increasing guest list. In fact, a wedding was the first thing God had arranged, right after He created man and woman. Our Lord is THE specialist in setting up a relationship that is based on unconditional love, without a hint of fear, and with no requirement of paying Him back. No reality TV show producer comes close. God is most pleased when a man obeys His divine command and leaves father and mother to be joined to his wife. Such an activity proclaims to the world that the Son of God, true God and true Man, wants to join Himself to us in an eternal spiritual marriage. Such an invitation is precious, and ever since the world fell into sin, the invitation has gotten all the more valuable, because now the alternative to the heavenly wedding is everlasting punishment, you know, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is a totally free invitation to the Lord’s wedding, and it would be ludicrous to turn Him down.

The prophet Isaiah sings about this wedding feast that the Almighty Lord is putting on: the rich food, the well-aged wine. Nothing will be left out. It is truly going to be perfect. It is set on scenic Mount Zion, which is a favorite Old Testament symbol for the dwelling of God with men, and it is a fitting description that the Old Testament prophets have of the Christian Church, which for them was still to come. This banquet is not an empty symbol, it doesn’t merely stand for some future, heavenly happiness, but it also describes the gift you have standing before you this day in the worship service. Not only is this a wedding banquet, but a royal wedding banquet, and that if you’re invited to this event, you have just been given the highest honor that you’ll ever receive. And if you ever get to read through the whole Bible, you’ll find that it is all about this royal wedding banquet, about all the invitations that went out, the many and repeated rejection of those invitations, then the invitations were given to other people, and finally what will happen once the Royal Host of the wedding finally visits face-to-face with His guests. So Jesus, in telling this parable, is actually giving you the entire history of the world, from God’s point-of-view, in the form of a little story.

So, since this parable is a summary of the world’s history, where do you and I fit in to it? Now, the first invitation already went out: Adam and Eve were given the promise of a Savior immediately after they fell into sin. Many other generations after them received the same invite anew. The dinner has already been prepared, the animals have been slaughtered and everything is ready: this refers to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and His resurrection. Plainly speaking, the way of salvation is complete, otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have said “It is finished,” while He was hanging there on the cursed tree of Mount Calvary. Those who were invited first and rejected Him have already been demolished, meaning the old Jewish way of Temple sacrifice and the many detailed preparations for the Messiah are over. You can therefore find yourself in the final invitation: where the King’s servants went out to the roads all over the world to gather all people, good and bad, so that the wedding hall of the Church would be filled with guests.

I can understand if this identification hurts your pride a little bit. No one wants to take an invitation merely out of charity. If you weren’t first on the list, then it’s a slap in the face, even if there’s free food. At first glance, it looks from this story at least like you were God’s second-thought guests. Like it was all by chance that you ever came to faith and received the forgiveness of all your sins. Just so you know, that is all cleared up in other parts of the Bible that speak of your eternal election, that your heavenly Father had it in mind from before creation to save you and make you His own. What is emphasized here, though, is that those guests who were last invited, they relied totally on the generosity of the Host. That you can identify with. In the exact same way, you had nothing about you that made you worthy to receive the Gospel invitation; it was all by grace that you got in to the banquet of the Lord’s salvation.

But remember from this Gospel parable, getting in the door is not where it ends. There is a wedding garment to put on; house rules. Mind you, this is not something those guests needed before they arrived. They were fresh off the street. The wedding garments were handed out as the guests walked in. These clothes meant something very important. They were a sign that the guests belonged inside; a sign that the Master of the banquet had done everything to make it possible for them to attend the banquet. If they refused these garments, they would be no different from the other guests who had outright refused the earlier invitation. Which also means that they would suffer a similar retribution of destruction, complete with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

For each and every one of you, your heavenly Father has set aside a wedding garment for you to wear. It is the pure white gown of Christ’s perfect righteousness that clothed you when you were baptized. Though you were completely soiled in sin ever since your conception within your mother’s womb, it doesn’t matter anymore to God. He has washed away your sin completely and you are clean. You are presented to the Lord in radiant white wedding clothes that you did not earn or work for, but were given to you by God’s free grace, which is the main reason why many families pass along a baptismal gown from one generation to the next as a family heirloom. Since you are dressed in the forgiveness of all your sins, which was paid for by the Blood of Jesus Christ, you are most certainly welcome to your heavenly Father’s wedding banquet.

And yet, for the rest of your life you will face the constant temptation to throw this all away. You remain a sinner, and sinners reject the Lord and insist on their own way. They want to be independent from God; a sinner often falls for the alluring, but empty promises of the devil. Like others before you who rejected the Master’s invitation and one preferred to tend to his farm, another to his business, the pattern continues today: one to believe it’s more important to watch the football game, one to take the weekend off to relax, and another, she may be worried about what she’ll see in their next retirement fund or social security statement. All sinners, that is, all human beings, face these opportunities to gratify their sinful flesh. But for you, your Lord offers to strengthen you through these temptations and take away your sin, clothing you over and over again in the perfect wedding garment that you inherited when you were baptized.

And yes, there will be some, some even within the Church itself, who will continually refuse to receive this forgiveness. There are those who will insist on their own way of trusting in themselves rather than in Christ and what His Holy Word clearly says. A few will listen only so far as they agree with what the Lord has to say. In fact, God has promised that there will be such guests appearing for a time at the banquet. You might recall a similarity between this parable and the story Jesus tells about the weeds that grow in the field of wheat. False Christians will indeed look very good to others in this world, they may even stand as religious examples. Unless they make a clear denial of the faith in word or in action, you would probably never realize it.

But the Lord, the Master of the Banquet Himself, He will know when He personally appears to meet with His guests who heard His generous invitation and got inside. This refers to what will happen at the Last Judgment following the resurrection of everyone who has ever died. Then, all people, good and bad, will appear before His throne. Those who wish to continue independent of the Lord and refuse His forgiveness, will be instantly ushered out of the banquet hall and into utter darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. That is no symbol either, that is chillingly literal. But those wearing the wedding garment of Christ’s righteousness, even though they did not deserve it, they will dine at the never ending feast, and forever enjoy the presence of God in heaven.

That baptismal wedding garment is still available to you. Repent of your sin, including your worries and concerns. Believe that as the called and ordained servant of the Word speaks it, you have actually received full forgiveness; then extend that forgiveness within the context of your particular vocation, and forgive those who sin against you with the same Divine power that God gives to the pastor in his vocation. Believe that the heavenly banquet is here laid before you on the Altar, only for now it is hidden under bread and wine that truly is the Body and Blood of Christ, just as He says. You are worthy of this feast because Christ Your Savior bestowed His perfect worthiness upon You by faith. Be assured that your heavenly Father loves to put on His Son’s wedding feast to end all wedding feasts, sparing no expense, and that He and the myriad host of angels rejoice to know that they will one day also welcome you in face-to-face.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Pastor Stirdivant’s Postil Oct 2017

There is a notable holiday in the Church Year calendar that gives us an opportunity to give thanks to the Lord for a unique disciple of Paul the Apostle and an inspired teacher of our church, the Evangelist Saint Luke. His designated feast day, October 18, is perhaps, like Holy Cross Day (September 14), the date of dedication of a church that was named in his honor.

Luke wrote two large books of the New Testament, together comprising over a fourth of its content, and those are actually two volumes of one work, referred to as Luke-Acts. He wrote an introduction, or prologue, to both of them (see Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-3) and addressed it to a Christian named Theophilus. The theory about this unknown man is that he had been already taught about Jesus and baptized, but he requested Luke to present a clearer and more orderly account of our Lord and His mission from beginning to end. Theophilus could possibly have also helped finance the major project, which in terms of our money today, might have cost over $10,000 to produce a single copy of each book!

Codex Sinaiticaus Luke 1 "soi grapsai, kratiste theophile, ina epignos peri hon katechethes logon ten ...

Codex Sinaiticaus Luke 1 “soi grapsai, kratiste theophile, ina epignos peri hon katechethes logon ten …

Codex Sinaiticus, Acts 1 "ton men proton logon epoiesamen peri panton, ho theophile, hon...

Codex Sinaiticus, Acts 1 “ton men proton logon epoiesamen peri panton, ho theophile, hon…

Luke probably grew up a Gentile, living not far from the Apostle Paul’s hometown of Tarsus, near the border of Syria and Turkey. When Paul received the vision and call from the Lord to begin proclaiming the Gospel in Europe, Luke joined him as he sailed for Philippi. This is clearly indicated in the book of Acts when all of a sudden the narrator changes pronouns from “he” to “we.” (See Acts 16:10) It seems that Luke stayed in Philippi as the brand-new church there was getting started, but then rejoined Paul as the Apostle traveled back to Jerusalem, bearing an offering that he had collected to relieve the struggling poor Christians in that city. It’s likely that while he was staying with Paul during his imprisonment, Luke collected writings and interviewed eyewitnesses that gave him the material he needed to write the unique Gospel stories that his book includes.
Luther Bible, Luke 1

Luther Bible, Luke 1

Luther Bible, Acts 1

Luther Bible, Acts 1

Luke has included in his narrative lots of unique events, for instance, the birth of John the Baptist, the angels singing to the shepherds, the Baby Jesus in a manger, the boy Jesus teaching the teachers in the Temple. He repeats the well-known parables of the Good Samaritan, the prodigal son, and the story of the different prayers of the Pharisee and the publican (or tax collector; the one who said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke 18:13). The Biblical songs or canticles found in the Gospel of Luke are Magnificat (Mary’s Song, “My soul magnifies the Lord…”), the Benedictus (Zechariah’s Song, “Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel…”), and the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon’s Song, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…”).

Luke was a physician and well-trained in the Greek language. It was thought that he used specifically medical terms when describing diseases or Jesus’ sweating blood in Gethsemane, but it has been more recently discovered that those words were widely used in Greek literature, more so than just among physicians. He wrote (with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of course) for the benefit of Gentiles who might not have been aware of Jewish ceremonial requirements or have an extensive background in Old Testament history. Church legend also claims Luke was an artist or painter. Each of the Four Evangelists has been associated with a “living creature” symbol, which are borrowed from the vision that originated from Ezekiel 1. Luke’s symbol is the ox or calf, and it is sometimes depicted with wings. The other symbols are the angelic man (Matthew), the Lion (Mark), and the Eagle (John).

The Ox, Luther Bible

The Ox, Luther Bible

God bless your observance of this unique gift to the church, the Gospel-writer or Evangelist Saint Luke!

Yours, in Christ’s service,

Pastor Stirdivant

Mt. Rubidoux

Mt. Rubidoux

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: October 8, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Cross and blue sky.

Cross and blue sky.

Whenever a prophet comes on the scene, it means that it is a critical time for God’s people. It is a critical time because that prophet’s message is basically this: “God’s judgment is just around the corner, and time is running out for you to repent and turn back to Him.” It is not a happy message. Rather, it is dark and foreboding and it stings you with the fear of the Lord. Its weight is meant to crush you so that there is nothing left for you to claim. If you had happened to live during the time of one of God’s prophets, he would usually tell you that God is about to punish His chosen people for turning away from Him. There is no comforting word that ever comes from the mouth of a prophet until God’s people have heard that harsh message: stop your sinning! They don’t preach the Good News of God’s mercy until the Law has cut the hearers’ hearts in pieces and condemns them for the sinners that they really are.

Isaiah certainly had that message for the people who lived in and around Jerusalem over 700 years before Christ. Like in Jesus’ parable, he said that they were God’s vineyard, which He had planted with care. This vineyard was as perfect as the Garden of Eden in His sight. And yet these people were bad vines: instead of good, ripe, sweet grapes perfect for wine, they produced wild grapes—the bitter kind that do nothing but set your teeth on edge. They did violence to God’s Name by worshiping other gods that they themselves have made up. They rejected the righteousness that God gives, turned their noses up at the help the Holy Spirit gives to live a holy life, and they preferred shedding the blood of God’s prophets instead. And so here is God’s Word for this critical time in the history of Israel—you will soon be destroyed. A foreign army will cut you down and trample you underfoot. If you don’t end up killed then you will be deported with almost no chance of ever coming back again. Your carefully watered and fertilized land will soon become dry, weedy, thorny wasteland. This is none other than God’s judgment and you will not escape it. That was what Isaiah had to preach.

Obviously, no one in the Old Testament would have liked to be a prophet. Their message is never easy to proclaim. Moses had pleaded with the Lord, using one excuse after another and then finally saying, “Please send someone else!” before he actually went to Egypt in obedience to God’s command. Jeremiah complained that he was only a child and that he didn’t know how to speak in front of God’s people as a prophet. One man after another is thrown into the task of going to sinners and telling them that the time of God’s judgment is near.

But not only is proclaiming the message a difficult task for a prophet to do, the response to that message usually makes it even worse. People with itching ears who want to hear only what sounds good have a real problem with hearing about their sin. Deep down, whether you realize it or not, you also don’t want to be stung with the fear of the Lord. For that would mean that you have failed, that you are not better than those other “hypocrites” and “sinners” whom you know. That would mean that the good things you do contribute nothing to your standing before God. To hear and believe God’s Word spoken by His prophet is nothing more than giving up on helping yourself and trusting in Christ instead to save you. Nobody is ever ready for a prophet’s harsh message, and some may even try their hardest to keep that message quiet.

And so, prophets will be persecuted for the sake of God’s Word. According to a tradition that is outside the Bible, Isaiah was said to be murdered by being sawn into two pieces, as mentioned in Hebrews 11:37 but without saying who that was. God sends one servant after another into His vineyard, and the workers continue to beat, kill and stone them. But not only did God not stop sending preachers at crucial times pleading with His people to repent, He then sent Jesus! His death, and the deaths of every prophet who preached before Him, these deaths were none other than the Lord’s doing. Every time we remember it, it is marvelous in our eyes. Isaiah himself says about Jesus: “It was the will of the Lord to crush Him.” (Is. 53) As it happened to the prophets, so it also happened to Jesus.

For our Lord, just like the prophets, appeared at a critical time, too. According to God the Father’s own design, just like in the parable, He sent His Son. The message Jesus preached sounded like that of the prophets through whom He preached in time past. He also preached that God’s judgment was right around the corner. And yet here was the difference: God’s final, once-for-all judgment was not going to fall on His sinful people, but instead it would destroy Jesus as He stood in their place. With His crucifixion only days away, Jesus spoke with urgency in His voice to call sinners to repent of their own ways, to stop sinning, and instead trust in Him to take away their sins. He wanted them to give up on trying to please God by their own good deeds and instead receive His free forgiveness and absolution. It was truly a critical time for God’s people—it was indeed the fullness of time. For God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that He would get the punishment and we would have God’s righteousness and good favor.

Fellow citizens of heaven, this is a critical time for you! God’s judgment is right around the corner, and time is of the essence. The day of God’s final verdict is at hand. All those other times when God handed out punishment, those were really the first installments of the great Last Day, the Second Coming of Christ that will soon be here. I tell you now, be ready for that day! Stop your sinful thoughts, words and deeds that test the patience of your heavenly Father. God’s punishment is still very real and we have every reason to fear His wrath. Why? Because it is all too easy to reject God’s Word. It is all too easy for you to say, “I know all this stuff already.” But do you believe it? Can you defend it if someone challenges you? All who refuse to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins will be deported to the permanent punishment and damnation in the everlasting fire of hell. This would have been your future were it not for Jesus, who took your place and He already suffered hell for you.

So if you are crushed under the weight of your own sin and you realize that there is nothing within you that pleases God, then the sight of Jesus despised and rejected, hanging on the cross—this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in your eyes. Your sins are all paid for, and your guilt is taken away. The coming day of God’s judgment is a day when you will finally see your Lord face-to-face and He will welcome you with open arms.

Though you were torn down and destroyed by the law and God’s condemnation, you are now replanted as a new vineyard by the Gospel. You are an heir of eternal life, a citizen of heaven. You as a fruitful branch are connected to Jesus the true Vine, and He uses you to bear good fruit in His vineyard, the Church. The very body and blood of Christ feeds you and waters you, and you are grafted into Him. Jesus has planted you Himself and you are the vineyard of His good pleasure. He gives you His Holy Spirit, so that by His power working in you, you can then, instead of sinning, serve others whom God has put in your path and so bring glory to Him. You had no ability within you to do good things, but it is Jesus and His Holy Spirit within you that bears the good fruit, in whatever responsibility in life or calling that God has given you.

Hear God’s Word from the mouth of His holy prophets and receive what it gives. God’s judgment is right around the corner—so do not reject His message. Recall Isaiah’s words about the vineyard of the Lord. Believe in Jesus Christ, His Son, who was sent to tear you down and destroy your sinful pride and replant you as His own vineyard, a Garden in which He delights. For the Son who was sent to the vineyard and killed—He is no longer dead. That is the happy Easter message, your punishment is gone. And joined with Christ, you too shall rise from the dead to be with Him on that last judgment day. Until that time you have your Lord and Savior here in front of your very eyes, giving you His life-giving body and blood and proclaiming forgiveness to you. You are the vineyard of the Lord, and He has promised to take care of you until the great harvest day.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.