Thursday, April 20, 2017

Easter Sunrise (Isaiah 25:6-9)

“It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.’” Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning of joy is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ: come to the feast! You have fasted long, come eat, come drink! You have held back your alleluias, come sing them so that all the earth can hear! You have spent forty days in repentance, come rejoice in the forgiveness won by Jesus! You have worn the mourning veil, come watch Christ swallow it up! “And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.” You have wept, come to have your tears dried! You have been ashamed, come in guilt and shame no more! “The Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth.” Come to the feast, come partake of the good things Christ has to give; His abundance is for you!

Come to the Mountain to eat and drink. Do not be deceived by its humility, do not be offended at its stature. Do three steps make a mountain? Yes, if the Lord’s feast is there! “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” Come to this mountain, come to the feast; here Christ feeds His people the wedding banquet of the Lamb in His kingdom, the marriage supper of the Lamb. Here He is both host and meal; here the sacrifice sits at the head of the table, giving His Body and His Blood to eat and drink. He bears the scars, but the nails afflict Him no longer; He was slain, but now lives forevermore. No sacrifice ever sat at the head of his own feast, but this one does, for He lives, never to die again, and He lives to feed His people. Rich food He gives: Body and Blood riding on bread and wine.

Rich food, the very Body of the incarnate Son of God, the Lamb without spot or defect. The costliest gift that God could ever give, given into death on the cross, given to you in this feast. Well-aged wine, the Blood shed from the very foundation of the world. Every drop the most valuable liquid this earth has ever drunk, and it is poured out on the ground for your salvation, and poured out into your mouth in this feast. His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death, given on this mountain, given in this feast. The promise complete, the prophecies all fulfilled. God doesn’t lie, and today He gives you the proof. Rich food full of marrow, aged wine well refined, food which gives life, food which annihilates death, food which fills us body and soul for eternity, food on this Mountain which gives us all that He won on another mountain, so long ago.

Come to the Mountain, see your Lord hang derelict and still. Do not be deceived by its appearance, do not be offended at its horror. Does a knobby, rocky little hill make a mountain? Yes, if the Lord of glory is perched on its top, suspended high upon the cross. Then this hill of death and punishment is the very Mountain of the Lord, the Mountain of salvation. On that Mountain God offers His sacrifice, it is the high place where the altar is constructed. On that Mountain God does not spare His Son as He commanded Abraham to spare his, on that Mountain God Himself provides the fire for the sacrifice, and the consuming fire of His wrath is poured on His Son. On that Mountain God Himself provides the sacrifice that His justice demands, He gives His Son into death. And on that Mountain, death greedily swallows up Jesus, as the whale swallowed up Jonah, thinking it has won the victory, and it takes the Lord of life into its slimy, stinky gullet.

Come to the mountain and see the place where death holds its prisoners. Do not be deceived by its peace, do not be offended at its lack of prominence. Does a peaceful hillside in a garden, with a cave cut into it like the wound of a spear-thrust, make a mountain? Yes, if the Lord of glory dwells in its belly. Then this hill of captivity is the very Mountain of the Lord, the Mountain of salvation. For look! This Mountain is not full any longer, but it stands empty, gaping and hollow; its prey has been taken away, never to return again. Death swallowed up Jesus, but it could not hold Him, it could not keep Him, the grave will stand empty of Jesus forever. Jesus picked up His life again after having laid it down, and He left the tomb as empty as He found it. Death thought it had the victory, but victory was robbed from it; certain victory turned on Easter morning to certain defeat. Death swallowed up Jesus, and now Jesus goes forth to swallow up death.

“And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.” Come to the feast, for this is a feast of destruction! Come to the feast, where what He takes away is just as important as what He gives! On this Mountain, Jesus swallows up every barrier between you and your God. On this Mountain, Jesus destroys every one of your enemies. On this Mountain, the mountain stained with His blood, the mountain gashed with an empty tomb, the mountain on which the feast is laid, every veil and covering is swallowed up. Our world was shrouded in darkness, choking, thick darkness, smothering us with sin, death, and suffering. We could not see God, we were blind to Him, and the veil of mourning simply hid our tears. But on this mountain, every covering is destroyed.

Come to the feast of destruction! Here the covering that divided you from you God is abolished! No barrier remains, no divide exists; your sin has been paid for, done away with, eliminated. You are in fellowship with your God, the divide is gone, the harmony of the garden restored; He is your God and you are His people. Come to the feast of destruction! Here the shroud that hid your eyes from God has been destroyed! No spiritual blindness remains where Christ preaches His Word; He opens eyes, He creates faith, He makes enemies of God into beloved children. You can see your God with the eyes of faith, and a Day is coming when your own eyes will see Him, and not another; the time for faith will be over, and the time for sight will have begun. Come to the feast of destruction! Here the mourning veil will be removed; Jesus Himself will take it from before your tear-stained eyes, for He has replaced sorrow with victory.

Come to the feast of destruction! Here your greatest enemy is annihilated. “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” On this Mountain, tears are destroyed, they are wiped out, eliminated, abolished, ended forever. Jesus has gone to war with your tears, and He has defeated them. Jesus has gone to war with death itself, and He has left the tomb behind in victory. At this feast, at this table, Jesus stoops down low to you and in tenderness wipes your face clean. He doesn’t tell you not to weep, for He knows that you will weep in your journey through the valley of the shadow of death. But here He wipes away your every tear, here He comforts you with His victory, here He gives you the promise of a mountain and a feast where tears will be no more. For at this feast, on this Mountain, He takes away all that is evil and gives to you all that is good.

Come to the feast of destruction! Here your sin and guilt, your shame and embarrassment, is removed. At this feast, there is no more humiliation, at this feast, Christ looks down on no one, at this feast, each is given the honor belonging to Christ Himself. You belong to God, every one of you, for your sins are forgiven and you have been made His child. You each are loved by your God, because Christ loved you into the grave and then back out again. No more divide, no more blindness, no more tears, no more death, no more guilt and shame. Only rich food full of marrow, and aged wine well-refined. At this feast there is life in place of death and forgiveness in place of sin. At this feast you eat and are satisfied.

Come to the feast! Come to the feast where death is destroyed, come to the feast where every covering is swallowed up, come to the feast where reproach is taken away from the earth. Come to the feast that points forward to a greater feast to come, on the final Mountain, Mount Zion, where the Lamb who was slain will hold His marriage supper for all eternity. On that Mountain, on that Day, we will say, as we say on this Mountain, on this day: “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.” On that Mountain, there will never be a tear again, on that Mountain, no one will ever feel guilt or shame ever again, on that Mountain, every barrier between God and man will be torn down forever, and you will see with your own eyes what you today see with the eyes of faith.

Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He who was held prisoner of it, has annihilated it. Death took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. O Death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one of the dead will remain in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Good Friday (John 19:19-22)

“Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews,” but rather, “This man said, I am the King of the Jews.”’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this holy night, Good Friday is that portion of the Gospel lesson that I just read, from John chapter nineteen. Dear friends in Christ: the charge was placed upon the tree, a sign to declare to all who passed why this man, or any man, should suffer so. Such signs were public declarations that justice was being done, and they were warnings: do not go and do likewise, or you will find yourself nailed to a tree. I N R I. We still place it upon our crucifixes, the Latin abbreviation of this title written in three languages. Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. This Jesus suffers so, this Jesus will die, because He is the King of the Jews. Pilate didn’t really believe it, or else he would’ve swiftly approved crucifixion for a rebel and usurper; any political threat to Caesar’s authority must be quickly dealt with. The Jews didn’t believe it, or else they wouldn’t have called out for His death.

Who could believe it? Who could look at this Jesus, beaten, bloodied, and dying, and think that Pilate’s sign was anything other than a dark and sarcastic joke? “We esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” This is the King of the Jews? Naked, scourged, bleeding from every pore; He who once commanded crowds of thousands with His words now hangs between two thieves, their equal in torture, their equal in suffering, their equal in death. The One called by Pilate, the One proclaimed by the sign above His head as ‘the King of the Jews’ is a beaten mess. When He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we have no answer, but we agree with His cry. This man is forsaken by God, abandoned by Him. No man has ever suffered more, in the history of the world, than the One called ‘King of the Jews.’ “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him.” All who pass Him deride Him, they reject Him, they are horrified at the spectacle that hangs above their head. The sign upon the tree, denoting majesty and honor, nobility and beauty, points to a man who has none of these things, whose very appearance is a terror, from which men shield their eyes.

“As many were astonished at you—His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and His form beyond that of the children of mankind.” This is the King of the Jews? He barely appears to be human, much less a king, and those who cried out for His death want it to be made clear that they utterly and completely reject Him. “the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews,” but rather, “This man said, I am the King of the Jews.”’” He is not our king, they say, they declare as loudly and insistently as they can. They want no such king; they refuse to be ruled by a man who suffers so. This is not the kind of king we would choose. We want our rulers to be strong leaders, we want our heroes to be mighty warriors, we want those whom we choose to exercise authority to be worthy of honor, not just from us, but from everyone else. We want our rulers to look the part. And this One declared the King of the Jews does not look the part. He is weak, He is bloody, He is rejected by the mob and condemned by the governor, scourged and nailed to a tree, His crown made of thorns. He has no attendants, all who followed Him have scattered, only a few women and one young disciple are left. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” Most reject Him, most want nothing to do with such a king, most refuse to be associated in any way with such weakness. “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am the King of the Jews.’”

But Pilate refuses. In spite, the governor, who has been bullied by the chief priests and their mob the entire day, gets in one last jab. This man, hanging upon the tree, beaten, bloodied, dying, is declared to the world to be their king. “Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’” He doesn’t believe it, but still he declares it. The governor, the Roman government in that place, the representative of Caesar, whose authority ultimately comes from God Himself, imposes this dying man upon the Jewish people. This is their king. He refuses to take the sign down; he has spoken his last word on the matter. “Kings shall shut their mouths because of Him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” Pilate has not read the Scriptures; he knows nothing about God’s promises, but what those who have been told about the Messiah refuse to see, what those who have heard the prophecies refuse to understand, he confesses, despite himself. In his vengeance toward those who have humiliated him, Pilate makes the good confession: the Suffering Servant is the King of the Jews. This man, suspended between earth and heaven, hanging there in order to die, is the King of the Jews. This man, despised and rejected by men, whose appearance is so marred that He is barely recognizable as human, is the King of the Jews.

His throne is a cross, His reign is established in blood, for both Pilate and the chief priests are part of a much larger drama, the conflict between this King and His foes: sin, death, and Satan. The cross is not an isolated tragedy, or a miscarriage of justice, this is justice, done upon the King for the sake of those over whom He rules. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” The King is a servant, and He establishes His throne by dying for His people, defeating their enemies by surrendering Himself to them in our place. He laid Himself into the jaws of death bearing the iniquity of His people; He did not die for Himself, for any crime that He committed, He died because He is the King of the Jews, the Messiah, and the Messiah does one thing: He dies in the place of His people. “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” This is the King we need, no matter how weak and rejected He is, no matter how horrifying He is to our eyes. This is the King we need, because He dies the death we deserved. He was forsaken by God so that you would never be forsaken, justice was done upon Him so that it would not be done on you. This is your King—this is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, as Pilate declares and God confirms three days later. For the King of the Jews is not just the One who dies for His people, but the One who rises again in victory for them over the grave. “When His soul makes an offering for sin, He shall see His offspring, He shall prolong His days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.”

The will of the Lord is that this King establish His rule over all creation, that the crucified and risen One will be not just the King of the Jews, but the King of all, Jew and Gentile. The will of the Lord is that the confession of Pilate is published throughout the world, a mission that Pilate Himself began. “Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek.” Pilate gives us a preview of Pentecost, as the proclamation of the Suffering Servant as King goes out in the languages of the world. To all creation this message goes forth: this is your King, the Suffering Servant. Do not despise Him as the chief priests did, do not refuse this title of love. Do not look down upon His sufferings, His marred face, His lack of form or beauty, for He did this all for you. He is your King, and He is your King chiefly in suffering for you, His people. “Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities.” He has made you righteous, for He, the righteous One, has borne your iniquities and paid their penalty, once for all people, once for all time. “Pilate said, ‘What I have written, I have written.’” May these words stand forever as a banner of love, of victory, of salvation. I N R I. Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. In His Name, Amen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Holy Monday (John 12:1-23)

“Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you but you do not always have me.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Holy Monday is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twelfth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John, particularly the first eleven verses. Dear friends in Christ: We are Lazarus. Raised from the dead, brought over from death to life, summoned forth from the grave by the powerful word of Jesus. He made us alive, crying: “Lazarus, come out!” “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He made us alive, He raised us out of our watery grave new and alive, a new man, to live before God our Father in righteousness and purity forever. He raised us to dine with Him, to have table fellowship with the One who raised us, to sit us at the table with Him. “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for Him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with Him at the table.” We are Lazarus, gathered at the table of Jesus again and again, receiving His Body and Blood in fellowship with Him, who is both host and meal. Our life in this world is sustained by this meal, this fellowship with our Lord at this altar. Those who are raised by Jesus dine with Jesus, forever. We are Lazarus.

We are Mary. Thankful for all that Jesus has done for us, filled with deep and abiding affection, overwhelmed by His grace and love. No price is too high, no expense too great, to show our love for our Lord. “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair.” In humility, we offer all that we have to our Lord; our lives, our very selves into His service. Our costliest gifts are hardly enough, but they are all we have to give. In humility, we give thanks to Jesus for making us alive, for releasing us from bondage, for pulling us out of the grave with His powerful cry of command. We gather here in this place to praise the Lord who raised us from the dead, to fill this place with our joy. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

We are Mary. Mary embraced Christ’s burial, she rejoiced in it. In boldness, she prepared our Lord for His death, a death that was just around the corner, that was lurking ahead. She knew what was coming, she heard the predictions of our Lord’s Passion, and she did not fear, she did not hesitate, she did not question, but prepared His body beforehand for burial. The thought of His death filled her with love, with devotion, not fear or revulsion. She knows the time is urgent, she knows that while she has a lifetime to serve others, Jesus’ departure is soon, and she pours out herself in humility for Jesus. And Jesus gives Himself to her. He gives Himself to Mary to be anointed, He receives her love in all of its beauty. He gives Himself to the saints, to those who love Him, so that He can be anointed by their love. He receives the gifts we bring, accepting them in joy as thanksgivings for His salvation. We are Mary, and the fragrance of our love fills the room. But there is not only Mary in that room, or in our heart.

We are Judas. Greedy for the things of this world, concerned only with ourselves, filled with confusion about the coming Kingdom of God. “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” Any price is too high, any gift is too extravagant. Spending money on the Church, especially the beauty of God’s house, is more than wasteful, we imply that it is sinful. We cover our greed and selfishness with a veneer of piety, but at the core, we are concerned only with ourselves. “He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” Why put what is mine into a dying cause? Why give up what belongs to me, what I have earned, for something that has no tangible benefit? Why sacrifice my life, why sacrifice my things, to Christ and His Church? We reject the burial of Jesus because we know what it might mean for us: our own burial. Christ may call on us to die a physical death for His sake, but we are all called on to die to our desires, to our sinful nature, to lay down everything and follow Him. We are called upon to die to ourselves, and for Judas’s like us, the price is too high.

We are Judas. Judas despised Christ’s burial, he rejected it. The burial of Jesus is an offense to him, he has scorned Christ’s death and all that it means. No Messiah he wishes to follow would allow himself to be killed; no deliverer worth believing in would be scourged and crucified. If that is the kind of ‘Messiah’ that Jesus wants to be, then Judas will be glad to oblige. And Jesus gives Himself to him. He gives Himself to Judas to be kissed, the kiss of betrayal, the kiss that would lead to the cross. He gives Himself to sinners, to those who love themselves, so that they can do their worst to Him. He gives Himself to a world that hates Him, He gives Himself to Judas, for the supreme act of humble love. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to the One who judges justly.”

He gives Himself to those who love Him, and He gives Himself to those who hate Him. Mary prepared Jesus for burial, and so did Judas; Mary by anointing, Judas by betraying. And Jesus received both anointing and betraying for the sake of the world. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.” Mary gave a precious gift to her Lord: “a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard.” Jesus gave an even more precious gift to Lazarus, to Mary, yes, also to Judas, even to you and to me: His pure, spotless life, the costliest gift that could ever be given, the precious blood of the incarnate Son of God. The same body anointed by Mary, the same body betrayed by Judas, would be laid into the grave. But the burial of Jesus was not the end. He trusted in His Father’s vindication. “The Lord God helps me; therefore, I have not been disgraced; therefore, I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” Jesus is Lazarus; on the third day He who raises the dead would Himself be raised in victory, so that He could go forth and raise others, so that He could raise you and me.

We are Lazarus, raised from the dead by the powerful Word of Christ; we are Mary, humbly devoted to our Lord, refusing to be offended by His burial; we are Judas, self-seeking and self-centered, rejecting the burial of Jesus and all that it implies. We who are Lazarus are Mary and Judas; at the same time saint and sinner. Our life in Christ is then putting Judas to death and raising up Mary; Jesus raised us up to die, to die to Judas, to die to the world, to die with our Lord. “So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” The world hates those who have been raised by Christ. The world hates every Lazarus, because every Lazarus is a testimony to the power of Jesus, the world’s enemy, and because through every Lazarus many believe. So the cry goes up: ‘Kill Lazarus!’ But the world is foolish. How can it destroy one who has already been raised from the dead? Jesus has raised Lazarus once, He can certainly do it again. Jesus has raised you once, He can certainly do it again. He can, and He will.

Death has already been shorn of its power over you, this world can do nothing to you; you who have been raised up in the font will be raised up on the Last Day. You will follow the path of Jesus, as Peter says: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you might follow in His steps.” You are Lazarus; you follow your Lord into death, and you follow Him back out of death again into life. You go forth with the confidence that Jesus had, the confidence that He would be vindicated, the confidence that He would be raised, that His enemies would not triumph over Him. As Jesus Himself, who passed this way for us, declares, “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Judica (John 8:46-59)

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: you can’t have Jesus as simply a good teacher. You can’t have Jesus as only your friend, your companion. You can’t have Jesus solely as a philosopher or giver of advice. You can’t make Jesus a saint, a doer of good deeds, a banner for political or social causes without considering these words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Anyone who claims to have any opinion about Jesus must deal with these words; they cannot be ignored. They came from the same lips that said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another,” the same person who, just verses before, saved an adulterous woman from mob execution. The same Jesus who said all those wise sayings we like to hear, who did all those kind things we want to emulate, also said, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Decades ago the Christian thinker C.S. Lewis wrote that when you are confronted with the question, ‘What do you think of Jesus?’ there are only three options. Either Jesus is a lunatic, that is, He thinks He is God and He isn’t, or He is a liar, that is, He knows He isn’t God and He’s the most successful con man in history, or He is Lord, that is, He knows He is God and He is telling you so.

The Jews understood this dilemma perfectly. They actually listened to the words of Jesus—all His words—and they understood what He meant by them, better than most people today. Better than any political interest group, any social activist organization, better than many Christians, they took Jesus seriously. They looked beyond the miraculous healings and the wise sayings and they saw the fundamental claim of Jesus: ‘I am God walking this earth in the flesh, and all who believe in me have life in my name.’ “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” They heard Jesus loud and clear, they understood Him perfectly, and they gave an answer: Jesus is a lunatic, or He is a liar, but He is certainly not the Lord. “The Jews answered Him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’”

The Jews didn’t want Jesus as a teacher, they didn’t want Him as a friend; they cared little for His wise sayings, and they despised His acts of mercy, because they rejected who He claimed to be. Why take the advice of a crazy person? Why appreciate the miracles of a con man? Why befriend a liar? They were much more honest than most who deal with Jesus today, who superficially follow Jesus, who see Him as an advocate for a cause, the companion we lack in this world. We think we can have Jesus without dealing with the words of our text, but the Jews knew better; they took Jesus’ claims seriously, and they rejected them. They didn’t want a superficial Jesus, they didn’t want Jesus as a banner or slogan, they didn’t want a Jesus who made them feel better about themselves. If Jesus wasn’t God, as He claimed, then He was of no value to them.

They took Jesus seriously, they took the question ‘What do you think of Jesus?’ seriously, and they gave their answer. There is only one problem: they were wrong. “Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.’” Any false view of Jesus dishonors Him, any view that calls Him a liar or a lunatic just as much as any view that doesn’t take His claims seriously. Jesus is dishonored when people call Him simply a good teacher, He is dishonored when His compassion for the sick and needy is emphasized at the expense of His claim to divinity. He is dishonored when you simply think of Him as a good friend or companion, but not as your Lord. He is dishonored when His salvation is minimized or ignored, when His cross is skipped over in favor of His teachings or miracles. Jesus told us what is important: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

The Jews took His claim of salvation seriously. They heard Him loud and clear. “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my Word, he will never taste death.’” They bring forth Abraham as their expert witness, claiming that he testifies against Jesus by the fact that he still lies in the grave. “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” But Jesus takes their witness and turns him against them; Abraham knew of Jesus and confessed Him. “Your Father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” Abraham rejoiced when he saw the day of Jesus in God’s promise that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in his offspring, Abraham rejoiced when he saw the day of Jesus in the provision of a ram in place of his son Isaac. He saw the day when the very Lamb of God would substitute for all sinful people, when that Lamb would be placed on the altar instead of Isaac or Abraham, you or me. He saw that day coming, and He was glad. He didn’t call the name of that place ‘The Lord has provided,’ but “The Lord will provide,” and thousands of years later it would be just outside the city built on that very mountain where God would provide the Lamb for the sacrifice, once for all people, once for all sin.

For it is God Himself who testifies to Jesus, who glorifies Him, who honors Him. “Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’” Jesus takes their every witness away from them. Not only does Abraham testify to Jesus as Lord, but God the Father, who they claim to worship, calls Jesus His own. The Father glorifies the Son. Jesus doesn’t seek His own glory, He doesn’t grasp after the honor from all men that is certainly His due. He will wait patiently for His Father to glorify Him, to witness to His identity throughout the world. “I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and He is the judge.” And the Father will seek the glory of His Son. He glorified Him when the angels sang at His birth, when the Magi brought great gifts. He glorified Him when He testified to His identity at His baptism in the Jordan and on the mountain of Transfiguration. But those were simply previews of the glory to come, glory that would begin in the strangest way.

When Jesus is nailed to the tree, when He is lifted up high upon a cross, at the moment when the Jews said, ‘I knew He was a liar or a lunatic!’—there the Father is glorifying His Son. He is glorifying Jesus as the sacrifice for the sin of the world, He is glorifying Jesus as the Lamb who substitutes for us as the ram substituted for Isaac. As the sun is darkened and the earth quakes, God is glorifying His Son as your Savior. That is who Jesus is—not a liar, not a lunatic, not simply a good teacher, wise philosopher, good buddy, or political activist, but your Savior. He is given bloody glory as the deliverer or all people from sin, death, and the power of the devil. The proof is three days later, as Jesus leaves an empty tomb behind. From there He passes from glory to glory, as He ascends to heaven, taking His place at the right hand of the throne of God, from whence He will return on the Last Day, when all people will give Him the honor and glory that He is due, with joy on the one hand, and with weeping and gnashing of teeth on the other, the terrible realization that having dishonored Jesus they have dishonored the Father, and His words of judgment are true: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

That’s why they reject Him; while they take His words seriously, they refuse to believe them. “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham?” They could never have predicted what Jesus would say next: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” The world so often doesn’t take these words seriously, it doesn’t understand, but the Jews did. “So they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.” They know what Jesus claimed, they know that with this simple phrase Jesus was declaring Himself to be not just before Abraham, but the God of Abraham, the very One who spoke in the burning bush, true God from eternity. Liar, lunatic, or Lord? Their actions tell the tale, and it will only be a matter of time before Jesus hides Himself no longer and they nail Him to a cross.

What do you think of Jesus? Is He a liar, lunatic, or Lord? Is he simply a good teacher, a wise companion in life’s journey, an example of compassion, the friend that you cannot find anywhere else, or is He your Savior? Is He simply good for you in this life, to help you make it through your day, or is He of eternal significance? So many churches and so many pastors spend all their time on the former, but Saint Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” A Jesus who only helps us during our life on this earth is worthless, and those who follow Him are most to be pitied. He did not come so that your life in this world would be comfortable before you spent eternity in hell. Jesus Himself declares why He has come. “If anyone keeps my Word, he will never taste death.”

Jesus has come to give you eternal life, to deliver you from the bonds and shackles of sin and death. Jesus has come to forgive all your sins by dying in your place. Jesus has come so that you will live forever. Through the cross and empty tomb, Jesus was vindicated, He was proven to be the Son of God and the sacrifice for the sin of the world. Through the cross and the empty tomb, the Father was vindicated, as He was proven just and loving, exacting justice on Jesus to show love to you. And through the cross and empty tomb, you are vindicated, you are rescued from your enemies and made right with your God. You are justified, declared righteous in God’s sight through the death and resurrection of Jesus for your sake. That is a Jesus worthy of honor, that is a Jesus worthy of joy and gladness, that is a Jesus glorified by His Father, not a lunatic, not a liar, but your Lord and your Savior. In His Name, Amen.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lent Midweek 3 (Isaiah 53:4-6)

The following is adapted from a sermon series by Rev. Rolf Preus.

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to His own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this day is that portion of Isaiah’s suffering servant song that I just read, Isaiah chapter fifty-three, verses four through six. Dear friends in Christ: when sheep wander into the wilderness, they turn away from life to death, they stray from protection and safety into danger and terror. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We have wandered, we have strayed, we have turned away from the God who gives life to wander in sin and death. All mankind fell in Adam’s fall, all like sheep have gone astray since the first man and woman entered into the wilderness, and we are lost, condemned to die in the desert.

How can wandering sheep return? How can we turn back to God after we have turned away from Him? Surely, we need forgiveness, but our sin seems to be a wall between us and our God. How can God forgive sin? How can God forgive me, a sinner? How can I know that when I have sinned against God that I can receive any mercy from Him, any grace, any forgiveness? How can I know that He will be a loving Father for me, forgiving all my many sins against Him? Human reason cannot conceive of an answer, we cannot know this on our own. God Himself must teach us, and He does in our text. How can God be gracious to me, a sinner? Two words: vicarious atonement.

These two words hardly seem to clear up the confusion. Perhaps you’ve never heard them before, or only in passing, a far-off memory of a bible class or confirmation lesson. But these words are life, they are your salvation. They reveal to you the suffering Servant whose suffering brings us forgiveness, peace and health. Every spiritual blessing God has to give He gives on account of the suffering of His Servant. The suffering of the Servant has opened to us the doors of Paradise, it has taken away our sin, reconciled us to God, and brought us eternal life. That is what the words ‘vicarious atonement’ teach us. His death is vicarious. That means the Servant did what He did, He suffered what He suffered, as our substitute. He took our place, He stood in as our representative. What was done to Him was supposed to have been done to us. His death is atonement. That means that the Servant did what He did to bring us back into fellowship with God, establishing true peace between Creator and creature by paying everything that we owed. Vicarious atonement. Those words describe the very center of our faith, and they reveal God’s love to us.

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” At first glance, it appears that the Servant suffered on His own account, for something He had done. But nothing could be further from the truth. They were our griefs. They were our sorrows. He didn’t just sympathize with our sorrows, our sins. He carried them, He bore them in His own body. While the Servant walked this earth, He healed many of the corruptions of sin. But every act of mercy, every declaration of forgiveness, every restoration of disease had a cost. The illnesses He cured He bore. The griefs He removed He suffered. The sins He forgave He died for. He paid the ultimate price for every gift He gives to His people, not only suffering, not only death, but the very wrath of God Himself.

“Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” Understand these words well: Stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. God did it, God put His Servant to death. We all know the political machinations that went on during Good Friday, the power games and the terrible miscarriage of justice that let Barabbas go free and an innocent man hang upon the cross. But do not be deceived. God did it. He used corrupt religious leaders and cowardly politicians to carry out His will, but He did it. When we see men abuse Jesus, we must remember that they are only instruments: He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God Himself. God punished His Servant. This is the most amazing kind of love, beyond anything the world has ever seen. It certainly doesn’t look like love. The Father strikes, smites, and afflicts His dear Son, the one whom He loved from all eternity. But make no mistake: this is love.

“But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.” This is love, love for you and me. When God punished Jesus, He punished the sins of all sinners of all times and place. Does God punish or does He forgive? On the cross, He does both at the same time. The Servant was wounded, the Servant was pierced, the Servant was punished, the Servant was crucified. For what? For our transgressions. God loves us, He forgives us, by punishing Jesus. “Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” He was punished instead of us. God makes peace with us by punishing Jesus in our place. Vicarious atonement. That is love. “With His wounds we are healed.” The Servant was whipped, the Servant was scourged, the Servant bore a crown of thorns for us. All health was taken away from Him to give us healing. He takes our place and by taking our place He gives us what is His takes what is ours. In Jesus God is both gracious and just. He both forgives and punishes. God doesn’t forgive without paying the price for forgiveness. The reason we can know for certain that God forgives our sins is because He laid those sins on Jesus.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to His own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” This is love. Vicarious atonement. For Christ’s sake all our sins are forgiven. How do we know? “He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities.” We know because He bore our sins to the cross and paid the price for them there. His piercing pierced the dragon; His crushing crushed the head of the serpent, our ancient foe, because He was pierced and crushed in our place, removing the devil’s power over us. Vicarious atonement. This beautiful doctrine teaches us about our God, it gives us confidence that we can always run to God in repentance when we sin and find Him a loving, forgiving, and gracious Father who will never turn us away. We know our sins are forgiven because we know Christ. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

It is only through the vicarious atonement that we are forgiven. Our sins aren’t forgiven because we believe they are forgiven, because we have faith. Our sins are forgiven because Jesus Christ, true God and true man, suffered and died for them. Jesus and Jesus alone takes away our sins by suffering and dying for them. But faith is still necessary, because faith receives this gift, it clings to the forgiveness that has been won. There is no one for whom Jesus did not die, and God forgives all those for whom Jesus died. God forgives the entire world. But the entire world is not saved. Forgiveness is not received except though faith. Only those who trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins receive from God the forgiveness of their sins. Apart from Christ, our sins are not forgiven; apart from faith in Him, we cannot receive that forgiveness. That is how wandering sheep return to their Master: the forgiveness of sins, purchased by Jesus, received by faith. Vicarious atonement. When we know Christ and Him crucified we know that God sees us at our very worst and forgives us all our sins, sets us at peace with Himself, and rescues us from death and hell. Like foolish sheep we wandered away. But by God’s grace we have returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. He sought out wandering sheep, and He paid the price for them, giving to you and to me green pastures and quiet waters, forever. In the Name of the Servant, Jesus Christ, Amen.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Reminiscere (Matthew 15:21-28)

Neither Saint Matthew nor Saint Mark tell us how the Canaanite woman came to faith. There is no conversion story, no account of how she, who lived miles up the coast from the homeland of God’s people, heard of the one born King of the Jews. There is no digression by either evangelist, telling us how someone could believe who lived in the region of Tyre and Sydon, a place so wicked that the prophets and Jesus Himself repeatedly decree its ultimate destruction. We’re not told how a Canaanite woman, part of a people that Israel was to destroy centuries before, came to have faith in Israel’s Messiah. It’s often this way. There are many who come to Jesus who already believe in Him, who believe without seeing, who cry out to Him believing He can save. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Faith cries out to God. Faith sees its object, its Lord walking this earth, and it cannot help but cry. For faith sees not only its Lord, faith sees its need. This is what believers do when they experience affliction: they cry out to the One who can heal, the One who can save, the object of their faith, the One who has promised to help. Faith cries as only faith can: “Have mercy on me.” Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy. This is the right cry, the right prayer, directed at the right man, the only One who could help. She recognizes her God walking past her in the flesh, somehow, by some miracle, in her darkest, most desperate hour miles from His home, seemingly there simply to bring her daughter healing.

But her God doesn’t listen. “He did not answer her a word.” Silence. God ignores her cries. God doesn’t heal. God doesn’t save. She isn’t crying out to a false God, she isn’t offering a blasphemous prayer. In faith, she is crying out to the only true God, incarnate for her salvation. She is offering the prayer that Jesus has heard so many times, the prayer that seems to tug on His heartstrings, that causes Him to spring into action, the prayer that halts Him in His path. But not for her. Faith cries out, and God doesn’t listen. He doesn’t pause, He doesn’t stop, He doesn’t acknowledge her at all. Her God ignores her. He who has healed so many, who has given such great promises, is silent. The ministers of the church, the clergy, join their voices to hers, entreating her God to listen, to heal, to save. “And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’” But their prayers are no better than hers in moving God to action. She could’ve gone to Facebook, sent out a mass e-mail, called the church office to be put in the bulletin or on the prayer chain, but it would’ve made no difference. The volume of prayers makes doesn’t matter when God remains silent.

Faith cries out to the right person with the right prayer; faith cries out in humility, in sorrow, with tears, but God does not answer. It seems that unbelievers are quickly freed from their troubles; their time of trial is short and insignificant. They pray to the wrong gods, they pray in the wrong way, if they pray at all, and they seem to be blessed, while the children of God, who in their suffering take refuge in the true God only sink deeper and deeper into distress. There is no relief, there is no answer. They just continue to suffer. The fire gets hotter, the trials get tougher, the suffering gets worse.

Faith gets no reward for its cry, not even an acknowledgement. God, who is seemingly never at a loss for words, has no words or action for us, only silence. “And Jacob was left alone.” The sufferer feels alone, abandoned by God, abandoned by men, left to his own devices. And we can’t handle it. Like Jacob splitting his camp and sending people back and forth across the river, we try to fix the situation ourselves. We fill the silence with our own words, our own works. We put our trust in ourselves, or in other people, depending on human resources alone to fix our suffering. We are impatient, unwilling to wait for God’s answer. I want to be delivered right now, and if God won’t do it, I’ll quip praying, I’ll look somewhere else. But that is not the path of faith. Faith is persistent. Faith is not deterred. The silence of God is anguishing, but it does not stop the voice of faith. “She came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”

Faith doesn’t quit crying out to God; faith doesn’t give up the fight. Martin Luther teaches us, “Even if [God] hides himself in a room in the house and does not want access to be given to anyone, do not draw back but follow. If he does not want to listen, knock at the door of the room; raise a shout!” Faith is persistent, faith is stubborn, faith refuses to be cast aside. Faith knows that there is no other place to go, that no one else can help if God Himself is silent. Faith enters the arena with God, faith takes Him on, faith wrestles with the God who has promised to be gracious. The woman doesn’t leave, though Jesus has given her every reason to; she doesn’t give up. But as Jacob wrestled with God all night, she is in it for the long haul. She will wrestle with her God, she will take Him on, and she will struggle with Him until the sun rises.

But this Jesus is no ordinary man, just as Jacob was wrestling with no normal combatant. “When the man saw that He did not prevail against Jacob, He touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with Him.” When you wrestle with God, expect to be put in your place, expect to be reminded of who you are. “He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” You deserve nothing from me; no grace, no mercy, no salvation. I came for the people of Israel, you have no reason to claim anything from me. Then He gives His most devastating blow, more terrible, more painful than Jacob’s hip being put out of socket. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” You are a Gentile dog. You have no right to ask anything of me, for you deserve nothing of what I have to give. You are a sinner, you are not part of my chosen people, you stand condemned.

So it is that God appears as our enemy. He not only ignores us, with devastating silence, but often He actually seems to be opposing us. The more we pray, the worse it gets. Job complained that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, the Psalmist threw up his hands and said, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” Loving, gentle Jesus, full of mercy and compassion for so many others, has nothing for us but His wrath; the wrestling match has left us defeated. Our hip is out of joint, we are crushed and crippled, filled with excruciating pain. God has given us every excuse to give up, to run the other way, to follow the advice of Job’s wife, echoed by many others in our lives, perhaps the voice in our own head: “Curse God and die.”

But faith does not let God go. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She doesn’t argue, she doesn’t dispute His accusation, the voice of God’s harsh Law. She agrees. She owns her sin, she owns her identity, she agrees that she deserves nothing from her God, that there is nothing Jesus has to give that she has earned. Faith knows that it has done nothing to deserve anything from God but His wrath. “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” She agrees with this truth, clearly revealed by God’s Law. But then she declares her trust in a truth that is greater than the truth of the Law. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Yes, Lord, I am a dog. I deserve nothing from you but death and hell. But you came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost, and here I cling to your mercy, your grace. The crumbs are enough, they are sufficient, for they are everything. The crumbs from your table are a food that lasts to eternity, and you have them in such abundance that even those who wait under the table are filled with eternal life.

She doesn’t say this based on any merit of her own, any worthiness that she possesses. She clings not to herself, but to His promises. She knows she is not worthy, she hears the Law and she agrees with it, but she clings to a truth that is greater than the Law’s demands and threats: this Jesus has come to fulfill the Law’s demands and destroy its threats. She clings to the mercy of a God who promised a Savior from sin and death, who through this Messiah He will give the forgiveness of sins, along with every good gift. Like Jacob of old, on the basis of His promises, not her merit, she refuses to let her God go, she wrestles Him to the ground, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

This is the faith which conquers God. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” The Canaanite woman understood her identity as a fallen, sinful creature, and she knew His identity as the One who came into this world to save sinners. When God is silent, when He appears as our enemy, faith doesn’t give in or give up, but it clings to the promises God has given despite everything that it sees to the contrary. Martin Luther teaches us, “If [God] should cast me into the depths of hell and place me in the midst of devils, I would still believe that I would be saved because I have been baptized, I have been absolved, I have received the pledge of my salvation, the body and blood of the Lord in the Supper. Therefore I want to see and hear nothing else, but I shall live and die in this faith, whether God or an angel or the devil says the contrary.”

You do not look to your sufferings, your afflictions, your tribulations, or your sins to know what God thinks of you. You look to the cross where Jesus bled and died to win your salvation, and you look to your baptism, to the Lord’s Supper, to Absolution, where Jesus delivered that salvation directly to you. With those gifts, those pledges of God’s grace, you can then be persistent in prayer, but also patient, constantly crying out to God but waiting patiently for Him to answer, clinging to the ‘Yes,’ even when all you seem to hear is ‘No.’ And whether He answers your prayer in this life or in the next, He will deliver you from evil, He will give you every good gift. He will remember His promises, for He remembers your sins no more; He remembers you not according to your iniquity but according to His mercy. Today, we live on the crumbs, but a day is coming when we will feast at the table with all of God’s children, forever and ever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:16-21)

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Ash Wednesday is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, are you giving up something for Lent? We modern Christians don’t fast much. We don’t skip meals in preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper, we don’t withdraw from the pleasures of the flesh to focus on prayer, self-denial isn’t really a part of our piety. But we do often give something up for Lent; this practice, which both Christians and non- Christians participate in, oddly enough, is the last vestige of fasting left in our world. What will it be for you this year? Chocolate? Caffeine? Facebook? Steak? It’s usually something that won’t put much of a dent in our lifestyle, that we can give up with a little pain, but not too much, something we can mention in passing to our friends. There will be articles again this year, by Christians and non-Christians alike, touting the benefits of this Lenten ‘fast;’ no more Facebook? More time for jogging! No more sweets? You might lose a few pounds! Lent can help you become a healthier, happier you!

When teaching us about the Lord’s Supper, Martin Luther instructs us to confess, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.” He is simply echoing Jesus, “And when you fast…” Jesus assumes that His followers will fast, He assumes that this spiritual discipline will be part of their lives, not just in Lent, but in every part of the Church Year. And because His disciples will fast, they need some instructions. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” Hypocrites fast so that others can see them; hypocrites fast so that their friends, their neighbors, their fellow church members will be impressed. Hypocrites fast to earn the praises of men, and they will get what they asked for. “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.”

Our reward will be given in full from our fellow men; they will be impressed, but not our Father in heaven. “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” This seems like strange advice on a day when two pastors and a vicar lined up before the service to disfigure faces. We did not do this to make you all hypocrites, but we applied ashes to the outside of your body to point you to inward repentance; ashes stain your forehead for this one day as a reminder to you of sin’s penalty and sin’s destruction. If you are wearing the ashes tonight because you wanted to show everyone else how pious you are, if you are planning to wear them with pride back to work or to the store or when you go out to eat, go to the bathroom and wash them off. Repent. “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” God thunders forth through Joel.

Quit playing around with the outward show, quit simply giving up things that have little real effect on the comfort of this life. What should you give up this Lent? How about your sin? Give up your sin this Lent. Repent. That is the Lenten discipline to which all Christians are called: repentance. Lent isn’t about self-improvement, it’s about death, dying to your sins in repentance. Turn from your sins, refuse their hold on you. Rend your hearts in sorrow over your sins and cry out to God for mercy, for He is merciful. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” He will reward you not because you are so good at being repentant, He will reward you because of Jesus. In Joel we are told, “Then the Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” He had pity on His people, He had pity on you, and sent you Jesus to take that sin and endure its penalty, leaving it nailed to the cross.

Lent is for sinners, sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Those who do not think they have the disease see little need for the cure. Maybe you are one of those who steadfastly and publicly refuses to give up anything for Lent. Perhaps you cover it with a veneer of piety, pointing out how ridiculous the whole ‘giving something up for Lent’ fad has become in our culture, and you are right. But it goes much deeper than that. Luther said, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training,” which you interpret as ‘Fasting and bodily preparation are probably detrimental to your faith and are to be avoided at all costs.’ Jesus said, “When you fast…” which you interpret as ‘If you fast, and you probably won’t, fast this way…’ Why should you fast, why should you give up any of the pleasures that this life can offer, any of the things that you have earned? I’m a Christian, I go to Church, that should be plenty. The things I have, they are mine, to use as I please. Who has the right to tell me to give any of them up, even for a little while?

Jesus has that right as your Savior and Lord, and He calls on you to loose yourself from the bondage of your things. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” If you refused the ashes tonight because you wanted to show everyone how pious you are, if you did not come forward because you didn’t want to sully your head with a reminder of death, repent. No one is required to take the ashes, but if you refused them because you want nothing to do with giving up any of the pleasures of the flesh, repent. Give up your sins this Lent. Give up all that has a hold on your heart, that pulls you away from your Lord. Do not pile up your treasure on this earth, give it up, lay it aside, refuse to let anything of this world have its clutches upon you.

For you have a greater treasure. “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Your treasures, your things, whether they are the praises of men or the pleasures of life or the things that you enjoy, will all fade, they will all be corrupted, they will not last. Not one thing that you own or enjoy will last beyond the grave. But what Christ has given to you lasts, it endures. It will not fade, because it is attached to Jesus, and He lives, never to die again. Nothing, and no one can destroy that treasure, for it belongs to you even now, and you will receive it in full on the Last Day. That is what Lent is all about: taking our eyes off the fading and fragile treasures of this world and fixing our eyes upon the treasure that lasts, the treasure that endures, the treasure held in heaven for us by the One who died and rose again to win it for us.

Are you giving up something for Lent? “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training,” training for a body consumed by sin. Fasting is discipline, discipline for the flesh, part of killing the Old Adam within you; fasting is always in service of repentance. Fasting from food or any other pleasure is not to help you lose a few pounds or to give you time to read a book, but to provide opportunity and focus for prayer, to lead you to repent of all the sin that entangles you. This Lent, die to yourself, examine your idols and in repentance cry out for God to break them. Lay aside all that holds you in the chains of sin, all that distracts you from receiving Christ’s precious Word. Repent and believe. Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but they are worthless without faith. Luther teaches us to confess: “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”

Repent, and hear the Gospel. “The Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” He was jealous for His land, His chosen Zion, and He had pity on you, you who are bowed low with sin, you who are subject to death. He had pity and sent His Son, His only Son, whom He loved, to die in your place to win you treasure in heaven, treasure that no moth or rust will corrupt, and no thief will ever break in and steal. That is what Lent is all about. The ashes on your head, a reminder of death, are in the shape of a cross, a reminder of who actually died that death. Jesus, for you. That is Ash Wednesday. That is Lent. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.