Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Proper 12 of Series B (Mark 6:45-56)

“But immediately He spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, the disciples were in trouble. Just hours before, they had witnessed one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, the feeding of the five thousand. In fact, He had used them as the instruments of that miracle, as they distributed the bread and fish, then picked up the pieces. But they could not remain on that wonderful hill forever. “Immediately [Jesus] made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He dismissed the crowd.” They were alone on the sea as Jesus found some much needed rest. “And after He had taken leave of them, He went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and He was alone on the land.” But the sea is not a safe place, in fact it is a place of danger, it is no mistake that many Old Testament passages use the sea as a metaphor for death. The disciples were soon in big trouble. “And He saw that they were making headway painfully.” This verse is translated too softly. Mark tells us that disciples were being tormented, literally tortured by the wind and the waves as they rowed.

This is the same word used in Revelation to describe the torment and torture of hell. Yes, hell. That is not a word that we like to hear, or even think about. Heaven, yes that’s a place we can imagine, but hell? Even many Christians have a hard time believing that such a place even exists. It’s the subject of jokes and cartoon strips, the devil and his dwelling have become a part of pop culture. And like many things in pop culture, the terrible reality behind these images has been lost. Hear what God has to say about this place in His Holy Word: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.” This is no joke, this is a real place, and it is reserved for those who rebel against God, those who have followed Satan in His rebellion. Torment defines it, torment that was only slightly experienced by the disciples in our text. We cannot understand this terrible place rightly until we understand that unless someone acts to deliver us, it is our destination. This torment is the punishment that we deserve for our sin. We are like the disciples on the sea, alone and in need, surrounded by death and tormented by the threat of hell.

But behold, on the horizon a figure is approaching. “And about the fourth watch of the night, He came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them.” Someone is coming, and even though the disciples don’t recognize who it is, Mark tells us. This is God Himself, the second person of the Trinity walking upon the water, walking toward the disciples. Just as God passed by Moses in the cleft of the mountain, showing to Israel’s leader His glory, so Jesus wants to pass by the disciples, showing them His glory, showing them that He is true God. This is not necessarily a good thing. Throughout the Scriptures, God comes near to His people to give His holy Law, to show them and us how far we have fallen from His standards of holiness, to show us our sin. An appearance of the living and just God is not a good thing for sinful people, for those who with their thoughts, words, and actions reject Him and His love for us. In fact, this is a very bad thing, for the justice of God demands that He remove from His presence anything that is unholy. And we know that we are unholy, just as the disciples knew that about themselves.

“When they saw Him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they saw Him and were terrified.” No one who has a body could possibly be walking on the water, so it must be a ghost. Superstitions kick in for the disciples- they are in the middle of the sea, this old enemy and symbol of death. Moreover, they are being tormented by the wind and the waves, which seem to have the very character of hell itself. And now there is a ghost coming!? What response is there other than fear? But they would truly fear the fear of God’s Old Testament people if they realized what they were seeing. A disembodied spirit is terrifying enough, but a disembodied God brings His just judgment for our sin, He brings the Law, His glory is a terrible and terrifying thing for unclean sinners, His rebellious creation.

But this figure, coming to them through the storm, is not God in His naked glory and wrath, instead it has a real, physical, body. For this mysterious figure is God incarnate, God in the flesh, God come to this earth in bodily form. This is no ghost, this is Jesus Christ Himself, the one born of the virgin Mary as a true man, born to dwell among us bodily. This Jesus, true God and yet true man, ate and drank, He slept and went to the bathroom, He laughed and wept. He felt pain and joy, touched and was touched by others. This was no ghost, as the disciples feared, but a physical person, bearing human flesh just like us, for that was essential to what He had come to do. Jesus Christ took on human flesh to deliver us from the wind and waves of death, from the torment of hell. He came to live a perfect life, to dwell in the flesh just like us, yet without sin, as the Father intended for us. And He did this in our place, He did this for us, on our behalf. He lived the perfect life that we could not. And then He died the death we deserved.
He was true God and true man, and so He wept over those who condemned Him to death. He was true God and true man, and so He felt the excruciating pain as the nails pierced His wrists and feet, as He struggled to pull Himself up to breathe. He was true God and true man, and so He endured the tremendous hunger and thirst of crucifixion, His final fast. He was true God and true man, and so He felt the loneliness of God’s abandonment, the very pain and punishment of Hell itself. Hell is not about fire and brimstone, it is about separation from God, and on the cross, Jesus Christ endured in His body the pain and punishment we deserved for our sin. He did this in your place, because He loves you.

He suffered all of this in His body, the body He took on for our salvation. And in that body, that real, physical, human body, He was raised from the dead. “And about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea.” The fourth watch of the night is the final watch, the one during which you see the sun’s light drive the darkness away. In the fourth watch of the night, at the dawn of the first day of the week, Jesus Christ rose victorious over death, the stone was rolled away and the burial cloths were discarded. For Jesus had crossed the waters of death triumphantly, He had tread death underfoot just as He walked on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. And He did this bodily. The resurrected Jesus was no ghost, but instead He was raised up just as He walked this earth: real, physical, whole.

This resurrected, incarnate, bodily Jesus then speaks words of comfort to all people, to you and me, much as He did in our text. “They all saw Him and were terrified. But immediately He spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.’” My friends, these are the most beautiful words that Jesus could speak to anybody. All people, along with you and me, had reason to fear the just judgment of God, we had reason to fear hell. But Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection, speaks these words to you: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Jesus has taken all fear away, for He has defeated death, He has trampled it under with the power of His resurrection, and He has removed the torment of hell from us. The disciples were in the midst of the sea of death, in torment from terrible forces, and Jesus bodily crossed over those dangerous waters to deliver them with words of absolution. We too were in the midst of death, in danger of spending eternity in torment for our sin, but Jesus bodily crossed over death itself to deliver us with words of absolution. When you read the declaration of the forgiveness of your sins in Holy Scripture, or hear it proclaimed by others, or when the pastor declares absolution in the stead of Christ, Jesus is saying to you: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”

But Jesus does not only operate with words. Remember, He is no ghost, but instead has been raised real, physical and whole, and so He comes to us in ways that are physical and bodily. He delivers to us the salvation He won, His victory over sin, death, and hell, in ways that are tangible, that we can see and feel. “And wherever He came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored Him that they might touch even the fringe off His garment. And as many as touched it were made well.” Jesus heals, He forgives, He saves, through a touch. On this very day, our incarnate, bodily risen Lord comes to us in this place in an amazing way. Mark tells us that the disciples “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” They did not understand the great lesson of the feeding of the five thousand, that God in the flesh was on the scene to provide for His people. But there was an even greater lesson that they would miss until the night of Jesus’ betrayal. For that night Jesus took bread which He declared to be His Body, and a cup that He said now contained His Blood, and gave them to the disciples. What they could not understand about the loaves after Jesus walked on water now became clear. Jesus would be bodily present with His people through the Supper He has established. That would be the means of His physical, tangible presence with the Church until He came again.

Later in this service you will receive Christ’s very Body and Blood with the bread and the wine, the same Blood shed on the cross, the same Body risen from the grave. You will receive it for the forgiveness of sins, in intimate fellowship with your Incarnate, crucified and risen Redeemer and Savior. Through this feast, Jesus says to you: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Come to the table, take eat, take drink, for our Lord is here, real, physical, bodily, for your salvation. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ grant to you the assurance that you have been delivered from sin, death, and hell through His death and resurrection, this day and every day, until that day when you follow Christ’s bodily resurrection with your own, Amen.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Proper 11 of Series B (Jeremiah 23:1-6)

“In His days Judea will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which He will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon today is from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-third chapter of the prophet Jeremiah. Dear friends in Christ, the eyes of Jesus see much more than mere human eyes. He had been teaching and performing miracles at a heavy pace for days on end, moreover, He had just received word that His cousin, forerunner, and friend, John the Baptist, had been beheaded. All He wanted was a little rest, some time to mourn and commune with His Father. But the crowds would not let Him. “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” When Jesus lifted His eyes, He saw a crowd, five thousand men, as many as 25,000 people, all hungering and thirsting for His words. They were dirty and hungry, poor and rich, the scum of the earth and those high in the estimation of others. But the eyes of Jesus Christ, true God in human flesh, saw much more than that. “When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

These are some of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture. But there is little reason to be compassionate to these people. These ‘sheep without a shepherd’ are receiving exactly what they deserve for their sin. Why should rebellious people, why should you and I have faithful shepherds? What have we done to deserve such a gift from God? The entire Old Testament is filled with God’s dealings with His rebellious people. Over and over again they abandon Him and go after other gods, they chase after lust, they are greedy for money. Does that sound familiar? Human nature has hardly changed throughout the centuries. In response to their rebellion, to our rebellion, God declares in Jeremiah chapter nine: “Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice or walked in accord with it, but have stubbornly followed their own hearts… I will scatter them among the nations whom neither they nor their fathers have known, and I will send the sword after them, until I have consumed them.” God promises that His wandering people will receive what they deserve- He will use the follies of wicked shepherds to scatter His own people.

God does not make our shepherds wicked and unfaithful, but He instead their sinfulness becomes an instrument of His judgment. Before and after our Old Testament lesson, God condemns the unfaithful shepherds in the secular and spiritual realms, the kings of Judah and the lying prophets. Once again, human nature has hardly changed- we find unfaithful shepherds in both realms still today. But we who are sinful have often caused these problems through our own sin, and in many cases we ourselves are the unfaithful shepherds. We have all been entrusted with the care of others in some capacity, we all have people in our lives who look up to us in some way, and how often have we failed to shepherd them in the way that they should go? How often have we failed to call them to repentance when they sin? How often have we failed to point them to Jesus? How often have we fallen down in the more everyday tasks of providing for their bodily needs? Think through your life- many of you are fathers, mothers, grandparents, or teachers. Those are the obvious ones, but each and every one of us have others entrusted to us by our Lord, even if we don’t realize it. And all of us, from the ones who lead our country to the ones who shepherd God’s Church, to you and me, have fallen in our calling as shepherds.

God’s flock, you and I, might have deserved scattering, but God still declares His anger at those unfaithful shepherds. “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds,’ declares the Lord.” Things don’t sound good for the people of Israel or for you and me. Whether we are sheep or shepherds, God has thundered forth judgment. Israel herself is like a ruined tree, chopped down to a stump by God’s wrath, by the mismanagement of her shepherds.

But from that dead stump life will sprout. Isaiah declares in chapter eleven of his prophecy: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” God is more descriptive in our text for today: “Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” From a nation that seemed to be dead, that was carted into exile and dispersed, God would send forth a green shoot, a shoot that would bring salvation to all people, to rebellious sheep and shepherds, to you and me. Jesus Christ was that Branch, He came forth from the line of David, from the house of rebellious Israel, from the dead stump that to our human eyes could bring forth no living thing. But yet Christ came, and He came born of a virgin, born as a man, yet also true God, the only begotten Son of the Father from all eternity.

He stepped into our world and looked around at all of us, rebellious sheep and unfaithful shepherds, those afflicted with the disease and curse of sin, and what did He see? “When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” It was precisely this compassion that led Him to take on human flesh in the first place. For God’s love for you and me was so great that even in the midst of words of judgment, He would declare the promise that He would act, that He would bring forth salvation. “Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.”

God’s shepherd, the promised Branch, would be characterized by one word: righteousness. “And this is the name by which He will be called: The Lord is our righteousness.” Jesus is our righteousness. He is our righteousness because He lived a perfect life in our place. He fulfilled the Law where we could not, He was completely and totally without sin. He was the perfect shepherd, the perfect king, the perfect lamb, He was perfectly obedient to the Father. Jesus Christ did not do this simply to show us some grand example of what we can be if we just try hard enough, no, He did this in our place, He did this because we could not. His life is our life, it is given to us because His righteousness extended all the way to a hill outside Jerusalem. On that Good Friday, the only person who ever lived a perfect life, the only person who was truly innocent, God Himself in human flesh, was nailed to a cross. And He was nailed there to fulfill the name that God declared He would bear: “The Lord is our righteousness.” The blood of the Good Shepherd poured forth that day for the sake of wandering sheep and unfaithful shepherds. When Jesus Christ cried out “It is finished!” His righteousness was now ours, for He had died the death and faced the punishment we deserved. He lived and died in our place, to deliver us, to save us, to grant us life. Through His sacrifice Jesus Christ is now your righteousness. Through Baptism His righteousness now covers you like a robe, so that when God looks at you, He sees His Son’s perfect obedience in life and death.

He also sees Christ’s triumph over death, the victory that He won on Easter Sunday. Through His death and resurrection, God is reconciled to us, peace is declared between God and man. We now have forgiveness for when we wander into sin, for when we fail as shepherds, because Jesus Christ took those sins to the cross and there paid the price for them, there He triumphed over them. Therefore our relationship with God is now characterized by peace. Saint Paul boldly declares in our Epistle lesson: “He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

Christ now goes out into the world through His Word proclaimed by His Church to bring that reconciliation near to people, to gather in the lost sheep. The same compassion that led Him to become man, that led Him to face the very punishment of hell on the cross leads Him to claim wandering sheep as His own through the declaration of the forgiveness of sins. “Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” The word used here for ‘fold,’ in the Hebrew, has the sense of the destination of a journey. A shepherd is constantly leading His flock toward green pastures and quiet waters. Despite the dangers and challenges along the way, the shepherd brings his flock to their destination.

The destination of Christ’s flock, the wandering sheep He has gathered in and purchased with His blood, is the heavenly pastures. That is your destination, because Jesus is your righteousness. “In His days Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell securely.” The Hebrew word translated as ‘dwell securely’ has the root meaning of ‘trust.’ Because we trust in a Savior who gave His very life for us, we know that nothing can harm us for all eternity, we have the confidence that we are in His loving arms, that we have forgiveness of all our sins. Isaiah ties together all these themes so beautifully in chapter thirty-two of His prophecy: “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” Because Christ is our righteousness, because we have peace with the Father through Him, we can pray in trusting faith with the Psalmist: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” May the Lord strengthen our faith through His Word and Holy Sacraments so that we may trust in His gracious protection and dwell securely in the heavenly pastures for all eternity, Amen.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Historic Liturgy- A Tool for Missions? (Newsletter article for July)

From the Vicar,
Too often in our church body we have this mindset, spoken or unspoken, that we worship the way we do simply because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ We have this picture of ourselves that we are stodgy old Lutherans who don’t want to change, and therefore that is the only reason why our new hymnal has liturgies much the same as the old. My friends, if that is the reason we worship the way we do, then we are missing something. Furthermore, if we follow that line of reasoning, there is no reason why we should continue to worship in that way. I would even go so far as to say that this thought is the first step toward loosing the liturgy. We do not use the historic liturgy simply because it is historic, but because it preaches Christ.
To be sure, antiquity is one of the reasons we have kept the liturgy around, but not in a way you might expect. The service you find in our hymnals (what I will simply call ‘the liturgy’ in this article) has deep roots, roots which reach into the Old Testament. Its foundations are in the worship of the synagogue and the Passover liturgy. This was how Jesus worshipped, and it is how the early Christians worshipped. They took their Old Testament roots and brought in the gifts of Christ. This was very natural, for the gifts that Christ gives have Old Testament roots as well. The Service of the Word has its roots in the worship of the synagogue, while the Service of the Sacrament is rooted in the Passover liturgy. Each and every generation since has focused the liturgy around the two centers of Word and Sacrament. Some have added elements, and some have trimmed away unneeded additions, but throughout the focus has remained on the giving of Christ’s gifts in Word and Sacrament. Each generation has passed on to the next a liturgy that clearly proclaimed Christ and affirmed that He truly is present in our worship. The liturgy we have been given is truly a gift, a legacy that connects us with all who have gone before.
The liturgy has not become obsolete in the past forty years, after having served faithfully as a vehicle for Christ for nearly two thousand. It remains relevant because it proclaims Christ clearly, and Christ is always relevant. The proclamation of sin and salvation, man’s greatest need and God’s even greater Savior, needs to be heard by every person in every place, in every age. This message transforms people, it gives life to those who are dying and forgiveness to those under condemnation for their sin. Therefore, the liturgy, as it proclaims this message, transforms culture, not the other way around. A liturgy that is subject to the whims of culture cannot proclaim the life-changing Gospel clearly, for it has allowed itself to be changed by the world. Our worship is not bound by culture or subject to it, it is not ‘German’ or ‘American,’ it is biblical, transcending culture and time. It in fact creates its own culture, a way of life centered on the reality of Jesus Christ.
The liturgy is relevant because it acknowledges the fact that God incarnate, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is truly present in Word and Sacrament. The very same Body and Blood that was given and shed on the cross is given to us in the Sacrament of the Altar. The liturgy is relevant because it turns our focus away from ourselves, from the individualism that is so rampart today. Instead we receive God’s gifts in community, using a liturgy that connects us with Christians around the world and Christians throughout the centuries. The liturgy is not our unique possession, to do with it what we please, but instead it belongs to the entire Church. Therefore (and this is the greatest asset of what we have been given), the liturgy takes the focus off of ourselves and what we are doing for God, placing it squarely on Christ and what He is giving to us. That is the gift we have been given, a gift that proclaims Christ for us clearly.
Thinking of the liturgy in this way will involve a change of thinking, a change of mindset. Seeing the liturgy as an asset is most definitely thinking ‘outside the box,’ and it is a lonely road, because very few are looking at it in this way. But I would maintain that this is the first step toward becoming a ‘missional’ congregation. Once we see our liturgy as an asset to our proclamation of Christ, as a great gift that has been lovingly bestowed on us by the entire Christian Church, will we be motivated to bring others into contact with Christ’s gifts. Then our worship will be filled with reverence and beauty, joy and enthusiasm. I encourage you to learn more about why we worship the way we do (this article has barely scratched the surface). When we realize what a gift we have, how can we help but share it with others?
In Christ,
Vicar Maronde

Proper 8 of Series B (Mark 5:21-43)

“But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, a week ago was Father’s Day. On that Sunday we celebrated all those men who cared for us, nurtured us, and provided for us. As you heard the Gospel lesson read this morning, some of you probably thought that this would’ve been a perfect text for that day. If that was the case, then your preacher would’ve been tempted to spend the entire sermon talking about the example of Jairus as a caring and loving father. That’s all true and good to talk about, but this text has much more to teach us than simply the example of Jairus. He is important, but he is by no means the focus, as we will soon find out.

“And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing Him, he fell at his feet.” Jairus was a leader of the Jewish community, and unlike most of the other leaders, he recognized Jesus as one from God, as one who just might be the Messiah. This ruler of the synagogue came to Jesus with a critical request. “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” The urgency of His situation is apparent to all who hear these words. She is in the throes of death, the very last hours of her life. He loves his daughter, as a father he wants to protect her and care for her. He wants to find her help. It is at this moment that the penalty for sin becomes all the more apparent. Jairus is a ruler of the synagogue, a student of the Scriptures. He knows how death came into the world, and now it is extending its cold fingers toward his child. At the deathbed or at a funeral, we need no one to tell us the penalty for sin, we do not need any object lessons. All of humanity is “at the point of death,” facing the penalty for our sin, for the corruption that fills us. The daughter of Jairus is simply another victim of our greatest enemy. But Jairus will not accept defeat, and so he goes to the only one that he believes can help her, the one who has helped so many others, Jesus of Nazareth.

He cries out to this wandering rabbi in words that echo the cries of all of fallen humanity: “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” This father and ruler of the synagogue comes to Jesus with the confidence that He can defeat death and disease. Jairus knows how Jesus operates. All He has to do is lay His hands on her, and she will be made well and delivered from the hands of death back to life again. Only Jesus can reverse the disease and grant her health. In the same way, all of fallen humanity, you and me, cry out to God with these same words- ‘We are at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on us, so that we may be made well and live.’

But even if we know that we need salvation, even if we know the only place to turn for our salvation, deliverance does not come on our schedule. Jairus made the urgency of his situation very clear to Jesus: “My little daughter is at the point of death.” He needs Jesus at her side right now, but other events intervene. A woman touches Jesus’ garments, and His stops to find out who and why. We can only imagine the depth of Jairus’ anguish as he watches Jesus pause on the way to heal his daughter. So often our God seems to be distracted by interruptions. He promised salvation immediately after the first sin, and Eve thought that her son would be the Messiah, but still God waited. We look around us at a world that is getting worse and worse, and we wonder what God is waiting for, what could possibly be holding Him up? Every generation of Christians has asked that question, they have cried out to God, ‘O Lord, how long?’ When we see our loved ones in the grip of death, or we ourselves are afflicted by disease, we want deliverance and healing right now, we don’t want to wait. Impatience can lead us to become angry with God, or to pay no attention to our spiritual life, falling into apathy. When we no longer care about heavenly deliverance, but instead wish to wallow in the filth of this sinful world, we have let impatience for the deliverance of God consume us.

Instead we are to cry out to God for deliverance and salvation, and then wait patiently for Him to deliver on His promises. Just like Jairus, we are right to want rescue from this world of sin, from this body of death, but this desire for deliverance should bring patience and faith, not impatience and unbelief. Jairus, despite the turmoil within him, despite his love for his daughter, does not complain, he does not try to prevent the healing of this woman, but instead having brought his urgent request before Christ, he waits for the promised deliverance. He trusts Jesus to save his daughter at just the right time, even if to his human eyes it seemed like the timing was completely wrong. As our Old Testament lesson for today puts it: “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though He cause grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love; for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.”

As Jairus waits, the woman is healed and sent on her way. Finally, Jesus can now go to heal his daughter. But messengers arrive, and the message they carry is the one he has feared. “While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler's house some who said, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?’” Can you imagine what Jairus felt as he heard these words? Death had won, it had triumphed over his daughter, all of his patience now counted for nothing, and in fact it seemed that only impatience would’ve saved his daughter. The hope he had, the confidence he held in Jesus’ ability to heal and deliver was apparently misplaced. Now there was little left to do but send Jesus away and mourn.

And on a cross only a couple years later, all humanity would think the same thing. The disciples and hundreds of others placed their trust in this wandering rabbi, this one who claimed to be the very Son of God. They believed that He was the promised Messiah, the one sent to restore fallen creation, to release all people from the iron grip of death, the one to answer our urgent request- ‘We are at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on us, so that we may be made well and live.’ But instead, on a Friday afternoon, this man who claimed to be God hung on a cross, dead. The Jewish leaders had accused Him, the Romans had crucified Him, the angry crowds had cried out for His blood. He had been scourged and beaten, forced to carry the instrument of death up to Golgotha. There, as the women wept, He endured the pain of death and the mocking of His enemies. And now He hung there, limp and lifeless, death had apparently triumphed, the hope that Jesus had brought was crushed. What had the patience of centuries of waiting brought? A corpse on a cross.

But if Jairus and all humanity believed that death had won, they were about to be surprised. “But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, "Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was.” The messengers did not want Jairus to bother Jesus any longer, but apparently He wanted to be bothered. He wanted to see the corpse, perhaps simply to mourn with a devastated father. “Taking her by the hand he said to her, "Talitha cumi," which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’ And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement.” Jesus of Nazareth, who up to now had simply been a miracle-worker, here shows Himself as the Lord of life, as the One with the power over death. Amazement does not begin to describe how the family felt. Their daughter, who was dead, is now alive!

Jesus Christ slept in a tomb for three days as His followers despaired and wondered what came next. But on Easter Sunday the stone at its entrance was rolled away, and the Lord of life walked out, triumphant over death. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ rose just as He said to Jairus’ daughter: “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” His death was not some grand mistake, not some interruption to God’s plan, but instead absolutely necessary to it. Jesus Christ was crucified and died for the sins of all people, He shed His blood for you and for me. He died the death we deserved, He took all of our sin to the cross and there He paid the price for them. And now on Easter Sunday, He follows the raising of Jairus’ daughter, with one important difference. That little girl would die again, but Jesus Christ goes forth triumphant over the grave never to enter the grave again, as the Lord of life triumphant over death. He paid for our sins, crushed Satan’s head, and defeated death through His death and resurrection, through the cross and empty tomb. And He did this all for you and your salvation.

And so, while we follow the example of the patience of Jairus, that is not where we see ourselves in this account. We instead will follow the pattern of his daughter. We were all caught in the grip of death, doomed to temporal and eternal death and punishment. But God sent to us Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to take our sin to the cross and pay the price we owed, then rise from the grave triumphant over all that held us captive. Death is a defeated enemy, and so Jesus says to us, ‘Child of God, I say to you, arise!’ With the power of His Word we are raised from the dust of death by the Lord of life, by the one who defeated death for us. He proclaims to us this Word that makes alive through the Holy Scriptures, through the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. He touches you with salvation just as He touched the little girl’s hand when He pours on you water, or gives to your very lips bread and wine which are His Body and Blood. Christ makes you alive through the gift of His forgiveness, giving to you what He won in your place.

And so we pray, we cry out to God with the confidence that death is a defeated enemy, that Christ triumphed over it on Easter Sunday. We live as children of the resurrection, as those incorporated into the death of Christ through Baptism. And because we are now participants in His death, we will participate in His life- forever, a life without end, a life lived in the glory of Jesus Christ, our risen Savior. Death has lost its sting, it has now simply become the gateway to life. On that Last Day Jesus will say to each and every person redeemed by the blood of Christ, to you and me- ‘Child of God, I say to you, arise!’ And we will arise, delivered from sin and death to live with Him forever. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ help us to wait patiently for that day, Amen.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Proper 7 of Series B (Mark 4:35-41)

“And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who is this, that even wind and sea obey Him?’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, sometimes even the most minor details in Scripture have importance. In our text today, Mark gives to us a curious example. “And leaving the crowd, they took Him with them in the boat, just as He was. And other boats were with Him.” What’s with the other boats? Matthew and Luke don’t mention them, and even Mark doesn’t point them out again. Why include this detail? The most obvious answer is that it is true- the Gospels report to us history, and Mark may simply be trying to be as complete as possible. But I believe that there is an additional solution. The Gospels may be history, but they are not only history. They are also proclamation, they tell our story. The Gospel writers want us to see ourselves in the accounts they deliver to us. And what better way to do it than mentioning the presence of other boats? In that way we can imagine ourselves out on the lake, following Jesus by land and by water, when disaster strikes.

The sea is a place of danger to first-century people, it is the very embodiment of evil and death, an impersonal force looking for new ways to kill and destroy. “On that day, when evening had come, He said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’” There is an element of routine here- people travel across the sea every day- but when we hear these words, our hearts do feel a twinge of fear. We can’t help but think of Jonah, another prophet of God who traveled across the sea. We all know how that one turned out. On the Great Sea, the Mediterranean, his ship ran into a storm and Jonah ended up spending three days in a great fish. What possible dangers could be waiting for Jesus? Yet, there is something quite different about this Jesus. Jonah was God’s rebellious prophet, his journey on the sea was to escape the mission given to him. Jesus, however, is not unwilling but willing, He travels across the sea for the express purpose of declaring the Word of God to the Gentiles living opposite the Jews. Just as Jonah preached unwillingly to the Gentile sinners of Nineveh, Jesus goes to preach willingly to the Gentile sinners of the land across the sea, the Decapolis.

So we run to our boats and begin to follow Jesus. And, out on the water, in the middle of the lake, our worst fears come true. This Jesus guy seems to stir up trouble wherever He goes- we can all remember how the demon possessed ran to challenge Jesus, how He cast the demons from them with the power of His Word. And now the entire sea appears to be demon possessed. “And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.” We can’t help but think that this storm is all that we deserve. It was our sin that plunged the world into chaos, that made travel across any part of God’s good creation dangerous. Mankind corrupted itself, and Jesus has been combating the results since He appeared on the scene. Diseases, infirmity, the oppression of the devil, even death itself are the effects of the Fall into sin. But it goes much deeper than that, and it is the ultimate consequence of our sin that gives us the most fear as the water fills our boat. For as much as the storm personifies the corruption of this fallen world and the oppression of Satan, it also reminds us of God’s judgment. We are sinful in our thoughts, words, and deeds, all we deserve is eternal separation from God, and it seems like this storm may be it.

What recourse do we have? As the storm rages, we have only one person that we can turn to, and He has disappeared. As we gaze into Jesus’ boat, the great teacher is nowhere to be seen. “But He was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.” Jesus had found the only sheltered spot on a Galilean fishing boat, underneath the helmsman’s platform, and there He slept. Maybe there wasn’t such a great difference between Him and Jonah after all? That rebellious prophet also slept as the storm raged. But the connections we draw go much deeper than that. God has often seemed asleep to us, we have sometimes been unable to see Him working, to feel His presence. So often, it seems like God doesn’t care about us or what happens to us. The storms of life come upon us fast and furious, they overwhelm us with their power. They come in the form of sickness and disease, or the death of dear loved ones, and we cry out to God for deliverance. Natural disasters, the loss of property, the distressing events of our world continue to pour water into our boat, and we can’t believe that our God is sleeping. “And they woke Him and said to Him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” Our question reveals the turmoil within us. We are in danger of giving up the faith, we are tempted so often to give in to fear and unbelief. If God won’t intervene right now, then why should we believe?

But the One who appeared to be asleep has been watching over us the entire time. “And He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still!’ And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.” We watch in amazement as the thunder of Jesus’ voice sounds out. Just as He told the demons to be quiet and come out of their hosts, so He exorcises the sea with the power of His Word. The sea is rebuked and silenced, the great storm is replaced by a great calm. But the sea is not the only thing that is rebuked. “He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’” The accusation cuts deeply. In so many of the storms of our lives, we have let fear replace faith, and for that we repent.

As we watch the storm clouds quickly fade away, a question forms on our lips. “And they were filled with a great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey Him?’” We can’t help but think of when Job was asked a similar question. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said… ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements- surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?’” There is only one answer- the God of all Creation has appeared on the scene, Yahweh Himself has come in human flesh to deliver from the storm. This great teacher, this amazing prophet, this miracle-worker is no mere man, but our Lord and Savior, the Messiah, the very Son of God. As Luther puts so beautifully in his hymn, “You ask who this may be? The Lord of Hosts is He, Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored. He holds the field victorious.”

But as we follow Jesus and the disciples in our boat, something is still not connecting. More storms will form over the Sea of Galilee, the earth has not been rid of all corruption. When we reach the other side, Satan will oppose Jesus once again in the form of a wild, demon-possessed man. Jesus will cast the demon from Him as well, but each of these victories seems incomplete and temporary. If Jesus is going to cleanse creation of the effects of our fall into sin, He has a long way to go. But as we travel with our Lord, it slowly becomes apparent that He is headed for a once-for-all, ultimate showdown with Satan. These minor engagements are only preliminary to what is to come. For Jesus Christ has come to still the storm of Satan’s domination, He has come to defeat evil forever. But He would do this in a strange way. At least the calming of the storm had the appearance of victory, we could cheer at the triumph of the Creator over His rebellious creation. Christ’s ultimate victory would instead come wrapped in the appearance of defeat. Jesus would allow sinful humans to falsely accuse Him, to beat and scourge Him, and finally to nail Him to a cross. It was only by sacrificing Himself that Jesus could win ultimate victory, our Lord and Savior offered His very blood in the place of you and me. There, on the hill of Golgotha, man’s scorn and God’s wrath raged against Him in complete fury, it was a perfect storm, and He endured it all for us, He endured it all because He loves you. “And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat.”

When the sky cleared, Jesus had given up His very life to deliver you, His blood was shed for you, He lay in a tomb to sanctify your grave, and He rose to give you life. For sin, Satan, and death had done their worst, and had failed, for Christ had crushed them all, defeating them for you and me. The storm was silenced, its fury broken, mankind delivered. Satan had stood before the throne of God, accusing us of our sin, but now Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God, and He silences our accuser. “And He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’” Satan can no longer accuse us of our sin, for Christ took all that sin to the cross, we have been forgiven through His triumph, we are covered in His blood. Satan can talk all He wants to- we are God’s children through Baptism, we are forgiven, we are His own. That is the promise that we have, that is the victory Christ won for you and me.

As God’s children, we still travel the waterways of this life. We still encounter storms, terrible storms that make us wonder if God is asleep. But we have the promise of ultimate and eternal deliverance, we know that God will bring us through every storm to the harbor of heaven, His promised rest. Psalm 107 puts it so well: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and He brought them to their desired haven.” God may not always calm the storms of this life in the way that we want, but we take heart that the ultimate storm has been defeated, that every storm will be hushed in eternity. How can we thank Him, what is our response to this great proclamation of our Creator and Savior? Once again, Psalm 107 gives us the words: “Let them thank the Lord for His steadfast love, for His wondrous works to the children of men! Let them extol Him in the congregation of the people, and praise Him in the assembly of the elders.” Amen.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Proper 6 of Series B (Mark 4:26-34)

“When the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, for the harvest has come.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, I will always be a farmer. The Lord has led me toward a different vocation, but a part of me will always love the life in which I was raised. I grew up with the sound (and smell) of pigs, with baby calves in the spring and mean bulls keeping an eye on me. I grew up with the soil of God’s beautiful earth in my hands, watching dad or grandpa drive the tractor back and forth. For my family, life had a rhythm, and this rhythm had nothing to do with us. We were on someone else’s schedule, whether it was the growing season for crops or the pregnancy of cattle. There was little that we could do to alter it. Spring and summer would come whether we were ready or not, and we were the ones who had to adapt. Each year could hold a disaster, too much rain or too little, and there was nothing that mere humans could do about it. We all knew it- all of my relatives knew it, all of our neighbors knew it, all of the old farmers at the cafe drinking coffee knew it. But that didn’t mean we always liked it, or ever completely accepted it.

It’s simply a part of human nature. We want to be in control, we want to have all the answers. We look around us at a world spiraling out of control, and we want to get a handle on it, to somehow slow it down or turn it in the other direction. At least a farmer has a pretty good idea of the rhythm of nature; when we look around our world, we have no idea what will happen next. It is important to stay current on what is happening in the world, but doing so without falling into despair is almost impossible. Gay activists continue their assault on marriage and the family, while at the same time an abortion doctor is killed, sparking a harsh backlash against all who support the sanctity of life. And scariest of all, we are losing our rights to speak against sin in the public square. But you do not have to tune to 24-hour news channels to see a world spinning out of control. Sometimes we only have to look around us, sometimes into our own homes, or at our own lives.

In times like these, we want to speak the words of the Gospel to others, we want to proclaim the message of hope and peace to a world that has neither. And this doesn’t necessarily mean mission trips or handing out pamphlets, often we simply want to see our friends and family brought into or back to the faith. Children or grandchildren, brothers and sisters, parents and other relatives, our coworkers, our good friends- we want them to be part of the body of Christ, and so we do our best to speak to them about Jesus and what He has done for them. We plant seeds, but then we desire control, we want to cause the growth, we want to do everything. “And He said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.’” We want to have control because it seems like God is slacking off, we can’t understand how He is working.

It is the same way with our own salvation- we want to be the boss, we want to cause our own growth, we want to be active. But that is precisely how we fell into sin in the first place. Adam and Eve wanted to have control, they weren’t going to let God run things. They second-guessed their Creator, and then they fell into sin, plunging us all into rebellion. And now we are conceived and born in opposition to God. We were born with the ability to do a lot, but every act is in opposition to Him, rebelling against His will and His ways. Since the day Adam and Eve fell into sin humanity has been trying to reach God, to somehow attain our own salvation, and the simple fact is that while we can do much to rebel against God, we cannot do anything to accomplish our own salvation.

“The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.” Without human help, without human advice, in fact counter to every way that fallen humanity would’ve planned its own salvation, God brought forth deliverance. His plan was one of seeming insignificance, seeming weakness, seeming defeat, but in that insignificance, weakness, and defeat God would provide the victory. In Genesis chapter three God promised a ‘seed,’ an object of complete unimportance, that would accomplish salvation. But that was not the half of it. “And He said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.’”

Fallen humanity could not save itself, it had no control over eternity, but instead faced the sure and certain penalty of eternal death, and so God sent forth His Seed in the person of Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary, true God in human flesh. He truly was “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” born in a stable, raised by a carpenter, one who grew up to be a dirt-poor wandering rabbi. Jesus appeared to all who saw Him in complete and total humility. He made Himself low, insignificant, and weak. But His life would only show part of his humiliation- His death would proclaim it to all people. Jesus declared to His disciples in the Gospel according to St. John: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This seed, this mustard seed, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” Jesus Christ Himself, was cast into the ground and died. The promised Seed was hung high upon the tree of the cross, the righteous Branch proclaimed by Jeremiah was nailed to the wood. There Jesus suffered, there Jesus bled, there Jesus died, and He suffered, bled, and died to deliver you. This was God’s plan from the beginning, that we, who have no control over our own salvation, would be delivered by the humility and death of the very Son of God.

But that is not the end of the story. “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants.” Jesus Christ, the promised Seed, fell into the ground and died, He was buried for three days. But on that glorious Easter Sunday He rose, and He rose to be exalted for the purpose of granting eternal salvation to you and me, He rose to establish His Church, His very body, which would grow into a magnificent plant. And that plant, His Church, now casts new seed into this world.

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.” The seed is the Word of God, the very Word that proclaims the work of the promised Seed for the salvation of all. That seed is planted in human hearts through His Church, which by means of the Holy Spirit proclaims that Word and baptizes people in the washing of the water with the Word. That is how you came to faith, through the Word of God read, proclaimed, or taught, or through the blessed washing of Baptism. As much as we humans want to take part, it is the Holy Spirit that brings forth growth. Sometimes that growth is strong, sometimes the plant nearly withers, and sometimes it appears dead for years, even decades. But all along the Holy Spirit is working through the means that have been appointed. He works through the Word, He brings to mind the waters of Holy Baptism, and soon He adds another means, the gift of the Supper of Christ’s very own Body and Blood, given and shed for our sin on the cross, and now given to us for the forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament. “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” We cannot create growth by ourselves, but we can stunt it by avoiding the gifts Christ wants to give us. That is where humans are active. We cannot create faith in the heart of another, but we can bring them into contact with the Word of God as much as possible, leaving it to the Holy Spirit to cause the growth.

The Word produces fruit, in God’s own way and in His own time. “But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” That is the day that we look forward to- the day of harvest, the day of Resurrection, the Last Day. It is on that Day that God will gather us in, all those who have been covered with the blood of the Lamb, redeemed through His death and resurrection. On that Day we will dwell with Christ in the Resurrection life He won for us forever.

But for now, we remain in a world out of control. What shelter can we have in the storms of this life? “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The only place that we can find shelter is in Jesus Christ, the promised Seed that has now through His death and Resurrection become a mighty tree. We dwell under His cross, for it is through His sacrifice on the cross that we have forgiveness, life and salvation. Every other ‘tree’ in our world promising shelter is just like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, it provides no protection, no shade in a world spinning out of control. Instead we dwell in Christ’s branches, we dwell under His shade through prayer, through the Word, through the Sacraments, and through this community of believers He has placed us in.

And as we find shelter in the branches, we spread the seed of the Word to others. Just like the promised Seed, Jesus Christ, this seed seems insignificant, and often we can’t tell if it is causing any growth. But we still cast the seed, and we pray, we pray that the Holy Spirit would work faith in Christ through His Word, we pray that God would keep His promise to make His Word fruitful. We do not have ultimate control, as much as we would like to, but that does not keep us from casting seed. We do so in the shelter of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His cross, receiving the forgiveness of sins and looking toward the harvest day. On that day we will dwell in the branches of our Savior forever, delivered from death and hell to live before Him in eternity. May the Lord preserve us and strengthen our faith through Word and Sacrament until that day, Amen.

Holy Trinity Sunday (Series B: John 3:1-17)

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Sunday of the Holy Trinity is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, Holy Trinity Sunday has a tendency to be a bit confusing. The Gradual for this day declares: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable.” After we confess the Athanasian Creed this morning, I think you will all heartily agree. I am of the opinion that only pastors and vicars actually like reciting this creed, and I think we all have this plot brewing to confess it every month, if not every week. Some may say that this is because you need a seminary education to understand the Trinity, but I would disagree. All a seminary education gives you is a shelf full of books about the doctrine of the Trinity, where everyone pretty much says, “we don’t get it either.” But there is a great difference between knowing the ins and outs of the Trinity and simply confessing what the Bible tells us. In the Athanasian Creed we will confess, “The Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another. But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one.” That’s not any kind of math I’m used to, but that it what Scripture teaches us.

Humans quite simply don’t understand God, in fact, we cannot. On the other hand, Jesus has us figured out, as John tells us right before our text: “[Jesus] Himself knew what was in man.” Just in case we don’t believe John’s testimony about Jesus, we are given an example. “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with Him.’” Nicodemus has some flattering words, but he doesn’t know what he is getting himself into. The answers of Jesus leave Him befuddled, all of His great intelligence and standing before the people counts as nothing before Jesus. “Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’” He is in the same boat as the rest of us. Humans cannot understand the mystery of God, we are unable to probe the depths of His mind, and the effort often leaves us confused and frustrated.

Why is this? Jesus tells Nicodemus in our text. “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We have been born in the flesh, the sinful corrupted flesh that was given to us by all who came before. This sin, which clings to us like a disease, not only keeps us from understanding God, it keeps us from knowing Him in the first place. We are born separated from God, unable by any effort of our own to come to Him or know Him. But this separation is not just one of knowledge, as if we could go to the library and fix it. This is a real, physical separation. God created man to be in fellowship with Him, but our sin continues to push Him away. We cannot come to God, but we can and do make the gap wider and wider- with every lie, every evil thought, every moment of hatred toward others, every time we profane His Name. Our focus is in the wrong place, as Jesus said: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Our sinful selves are focused on earthly things, the things of this world, rather than on heaven. The concerns of our lives on this earth so often drown out any concern about the things of God. Isn’t that how the world tells us to live, with our eyes focused on the ground, on our wants here in this world? The teachings of Christ about the Trinity mean little to the world, because it does not see our real needs- that we have a sin problem, we have a death problem, we have a hell problem.

To solve those problems, to fulfill those needs, the only needs that matter in eternity, the doctrine of the Trinity is indispensible, because for our salvation, the Trinity sprang into action. We will confess in a few moments: “We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in relationship together, an intimate relationship that is incomprehensible to the human mind. But Jesus declares, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” Jesus of Nazareth, who appeared to human reason as simply a man, had a window into that relationship, for He was a part of it. He was true God and true man, the Second person of the Trinity. “No one has ascended into heaven except Him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” They are three distinct persons, yet one God. We can spend all day trying to figure out how one God could be three distinct persons, but here we simply confess what we have been given to confess- that the three persons of the Trinity work in relationship to accomplish our salvation.

God saw our corrupted state, that we could neither understand Him nor come to Him, that we were born separated from Him and condemned to death, and He acted. And He acted in love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The first person of the Trinity sent the Second person into our creation, Jesus Christ became man for us and our salvation, that man and God may no longer be separated. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” But the Incarnation was not victory in itself. Jesus had come to deal with our sin problem, our death problem, and our hell problem, and to do that He needed to defeat them all by offering Himself in our place. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.” Moses crafted a bronze serpent, the very embodiment of the punishment for the people’s sin, and placed it high upon a pole. This bronze serpent had no poison in itself, but instead all who were bitten would look to it and live. Jesus Christ, who bore our very flesh, but yet without the poison of sin, allowed Himself to be taken up high upon the pole of the cross. There He gave His life, there He shed His blood, there He endured the abandonment of God for our sin. Jesus was in that intimate relationship of the Trinity, but on the cross, God turned His back upon Christ, unleashing hell upon Him for us. And with His wounds we are healed, with His blood our sin is atoned for, with His death, death itself is defeated, and with His resurrection, we have the promise of eternal life.

But Jesus’ death and resurrection would mean nothing if the benefits were not brought to us. For this task, the Third person of the Trinity would be sent. In our text, Nicodemus tries to butter Jesus up with some flattering remarks about their admiration for His teaching. But Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter. “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” We were born with the corrupted flesh that we inherited from our parents, indeed from our first parents, Adam and Eve. We were barred from the kingdom of God and condemned to death. In love the Father sent the Son, who accomplished salvation, and then the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit, who brings people into the kingdom of the Son. And He does this by giving us a new birth. “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’”

In our physical birth we received the inheritance of sin, and so we needed a different birth to give to us the inheritance of salvation. “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” In Baptism, we are washed with water and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. There the Spirit does His work of bringing us the gifts Christ won for us, of making us new. We are given in Baptism the rebirth in the Spirit, a new birth of life that brings us into Christ’s promises, into the kingdom He established with His blood. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Through Baptism we are given a new birth, a birth from above by water and the Spirit, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. We are baptized into the fellowship of the Trinity- it is no surprise that Jesus instructs us to baptize in that Name: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Through Baptism, the new birth of the Spirit, we are made children of God, God is now our Father, as Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer. That is what characterizes our eternal existence- intimate fellowship with the Triune God. But though we are born of the Spirit, we do not therefore reject our bodies. Our flesh is a good gift of God, and He will raise it up and renew it as well on the last day. That is the promise that we have through Baptism, that all of us, body and soul, will dwell with Christ forever in heaven.

Nicodemus, after hearing of the miracle of Baptism, that God would give life to sinful people through the washing of the water with the Word, asks “How can these things be?” But Jesus has already given him the answer: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The Spirit works as the Lord has ordained, and He works in mysterious ways, bringing people the blessings Christ won through simple words, water, bread and wine. And so, even with the birth of the Spirit in Baptism, the things of God still remain mysterious. We will not be able to completely understand the Trinity, we will not be able to fully comprehend how God could become man and accomplish salvation, nor how the Holy Spirit could use such ordinary means to bring us salvation. We remain in the flesh, and so we confess what we have been given to confess from the Scriptures. And the Scriptures teach us to confess what we cannot see, what we cannot fully understand, that the Father sent His Son to accomplish salvation, and the Father and Son sent the Spirit to deliver His gifts to us. That is where we place our confidence- on what Scripture has taught us, what Jesus has taught us, and what we will confess in the Athanasian Creed. We believe in the Triune God that created us, defeated our enemies for us, and gave to us a new birth through the washing of the water with the Word. May the Triune God, the only true God, strengthen and preserve you in that baptismal faith until life everlasting, Amen.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Day of Pentecost (Series B: Ezekiel 37:1-14)

“And you shall know that I AM the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Pentecost Day is from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the thirty-seventh chapter of the prophet Ezekiel. Dear friends in Christ, the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. But God spoke, and things began to happen. With the power of His Word He brought forth light, He separated waters, He caused plants to sprout, and animals to teem in the sky, on the land, and in the sea. His Word brought the stars into existence, with the sun and the moon. All things came to be through the power of His Word, but the greatest miracle was yet to come. “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” He who had no life in himself, who was only a pile of dirt, became a living person with a blast of wind from God’s nostrils, God put into man the breath of life. And God took a rib from the man, this mound of dirt made alive by the power of God’s life giving breath, and made woman. Adam said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.”

They were united together as man and woman, as husband and wife. And together, they plunged into rebellion. All the gifts that God had given, every good thing brought forth by the power of His Word, even the very gift of the breath of life, was not enough. They wanted more. They wanted to run the show, they wanted to be like God. And so they betrayed God, they disobeyed Him, and they condemned each of their offspring to lives as enemies of God. We are the children of Adam and Eve, we too want to be like God, to run our lives our own way, without His interference or His rules. The wonderful life that God has given us to live is too stifling for us, we think we know better. And so we live our lives our own way, indulging in secret or even public sin, wallowing in thoughts, words, and deeds that thumb our noses at our creator.

And so those created by God, those breathing the very breath of life, wither away. For as hard as we may even try to follow the commands of God, the fact remains that we are estranged from our creator, cut off from His life-giving nourishment. "The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry." Ezekiel sees the results. He sees what humanity’s sin, the sin inherited from Adam and Eve and added to by us, has led to- dry bones, cut off from water. Not alive, in fact the very opposite of alive. These bones are dead, they have very little that would demonstrate that they have ever been alive. And they are left unburied, subject to the elements, subject to the curse. Ezekiel knows that in his day bones were only left unburied as a sign of a curse, and He knows that the curse over all humanity is that of death. “And He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’”

God’s question is ridiculous, and Ezekiel answers the only way he can. Of course these bones cannot live. They cannot pick themselves up and grow flesh and skin and become people again. Bones, dry bones, cursed bones quite simply don’t do those sorts of things. They cannot even move without help, because they are dead. This is the plight of mankind- God quotes His people, they say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, we are completely cut off.” But yet Ezekiel cannot leave it with a simple and emphatic ‘no’- he is speaking with the Lord of all creation, the Lord who created life in the first place by mounding up some dirt and breathing. “O Lord God, you know.”

God did know. God knew that He would soon send someone to give life to dead bones, one who would take the very plight of man and make it His own. This one is the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God Himself taking on human flesh and dwelling amongst dry bones. The people cried out to God for deliverance, saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.” Jesus Christ came to allow His bones to be dried up in the dust of death, as He cries in Psalm 22: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” He came to allow his hope to be seemingly lost. He came to be completely cut off from the Father as He cries out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He came to do all this for He had come to rescue sinful, condemned, and cursed people from death. He came to take on their sin, your sin and my sin, and take it to the cross. He came to defeat death and make dry bones alive. His mission was to suffer everything, even the very abandonment of God, and die for you, me, and all people. He came to the valley of dry bones, and He saw the humanity He loved, you and me, enslaved to death and ensnared in its curse. We were dry bones, unable to raise ourselves up, but He came for our salvation, He came to give life to us. And He did this by giving up His life, by allowing His body to be broken and destroyed, by laying Himself in the dust of death. But God brought Him forth from an open grave. “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.”

The Lord asked Ezekiel, “‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’” God knew that His Son would come to reconcile the Creator with His creation, He knew that Jesus Christ would die on the cross, facing the wrath and abandonment of God for dead and dying people. And He knew that Christ would rise triumphant and then go out to make dry bones live. But He does not answer Ezekiel, He simply demonstrates. “Then He said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” The Word goes forth from Christ and those whom He appointed to proclaim that Word, and it goes forth to give life to dry bones, bones which could not give themselves life. “So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.”
There is a problem- these bones had formed bodies, just as God formed the man from the dust of the earth, but they were not alive. One thing remained- a promise, a promise that was fulfilled on this day. “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” The wind came, and it brought the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift long foretold, a gift that would make dead, dry bones alive. "Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live." So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army."

God recreated His people through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the one who brings the very benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection near to dead and dying people, near to you and me. Through the power of Christ’s word, the Holy Spirit breathed into your nostrils the very breath of life. You were joined to Christ, made His, a participant in the redemption that He won. You who were dead were made alive through Jesus Christ and His Word, which the promised Holy Spirit brought to you.

God recreates through the redemption of His Son, and then we follow the pattern of Jesus. Christ opened the grave as the firstfruits of the resurrection, and now we are part of the harvest to come. “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.” God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” The answer is: ‘Yes, through the redemption of Christ by His death and resurrection, these bones can live, and they can live forever!”
You and I are destined to join that ‘great army’ that Ezekiel sees, the great company of the ones redeemed by the blood of Christ, the ones resurrected to live before the throne of the Lamb forever. “The breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” We are those who will receive the heavenly inheritance, the new heavens and new earth, the new Israel given to those redeemed by Christ’s blood. The Holy Spirit has made you alive through the Word of Christ and His sacraments, and now you await the day on which you follow Christ’s resurrection with your own. “And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I AM the Lord.” The Spirit was given to us on this day, the day of Pentecost, the day on which Christ fulfilled His promises and sent the Comforter, the one who will bring Jesus to us each and every day until the day of Resurrection. On that day we will join Christ forever in the resurrection life, standing before Him in heavenly glory for all eternity. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ work through the Holy Spirit to give you the confidence in God’s promises, that you may believe Him when He says, “I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.” Amen.

Seventh Sunday of Easter (Series B: John 17:11b-19)

“Holy Father, keep them in your Name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this seventh and final Sunday of Easter is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, always pay attention to the Collect. This little prayer, said towards the end of our service today and printed in your bulletin, is supposed to be a summary of the entire service. A good Collect will bring together all the themes of the day from the Introit, the Gradual, the First Reading, the Epistle, and the Gospel, giving you an excellent synopsis of what I should be talking about from up here. Today’s Collect is especially good: “O King of glory, Lord of hosts, uplifted in triumph far above all heavens, leave us not without consolation but send the Spirit of truth whom You promised from the Father; for You live and reign with Him and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.” Do you see what is happening here? The Collect has set the context for this Sunday- last Thursday was Ascension Day, when the disciples saw Jesus disappear as He was lifted up high into the sky. We are tempted to think we are left alone, but wait, Jesus has promised a Comforter, the Holy Spirit who will bring Jesus to us. And for that Comforter, for Pentecost, the disciples wait, and we wait with them.

But waiting is not easy. We know that Pentecost is next week, we know that the first Pentecost was just shy of two thousand years ago, and yet we still wait. We wait for Christ to return, to fulfill His promises by making all things new. And while we wait, the Scriptures tell us we will face hardship. Our Gospel lesson comes from Maundy Thursday, and on that evening Jesus was especially concerned with what His followers will face while they waited. Before our text He tells us: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” We live, we wait in a world that despises us and the Gospel that has been delivered to us. They rejected Christ as Israel rejected her prophets, and having rejected the Master, they have few qualms about roughing up His servants. As He is preparing to travel to the cross, Jesus is giving us a reality check. We will face persecution, we will face rejection, we will face the hatred of the world because we belong to Christ, because of the hope that fills us. This is not some pessimistic prediction; for Jesus, this is simply reality.

When faced with the hatred of the world, there are two options that Christians are tempted to run toward. The first is simply giving up the faith. The history of the Church is sadly filled with people who abandoned what was given to them by Christ at the first sign of persecution. The way of the world looks so much easier, so much more carefree, than a life lived under the cross, facing hatred and rejection from even friends and family. That is where Satan wants us, that is where the world wants us, that is the goal of their persecution. You and I are tempted so often and so hard to simply give up, to take the easy path, to remove the stigma and burden of the name ‘Christian’ from us.

But Satan is still pretty pleased when we choose the second option- compromise. We see it all around us in the Christian Church today, that when faced with the hatred of the world, church bodies and individual Christians simply cave in. We saw it when women’s ordination became a big issue decades ago (it still is today), and church bodies simply followed the tide of culture rather than the truth of Scripture. We see it today as homosexuality finds acceptance even in our churches, when a bishop of the Anglican Church is an advocate for a lifestyle that is clearly condemned by the Word of God. Many Christians even support abortion, the heinous destruction of human life declared unwanted by our world. But before we point the finger at all those other Christians, at those so called ‘liberal’ church bodies, we need to look at ourselves. How often have we allowed the world to set the agenda for our life of prayer and worship, determining when and how often we commune with our Lord and Savior? Are we even shocked anymore by the transgressions of God’s command to ‘not commit adultery’ on our televisions, in our schools, or in our communities, as students ‘hook up’ and adults live together before marriage? How often do we look the other way when someone’s name is slandered through gossip or rumor? And our culture of entitlement has influenced us so much that we so often dictate our agenda to God and His Church. In these and countless other ways we have let the world’s agenda seep into our own lives, because standing against the world’s hatred is a lonely and tough task.

Jesus knows this. He knows that we will be hated by the world- He has told us that clearly- and He knows that we will be tempted to fall away, that we will be tempted to compromise. And so what does He do? He prays. The account of Maundy Thursday in the book of John is five chapters long, and in four of those chapters Jesus is speaking words of warning, the reality check we spoke of before. But He also speaks words of comfort, and He promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, for whom we wait this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost. Having told us all these things, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in that fifth and final chapter Jesus takes all those who believe in Him to the Father’s throne of grace, He holds all of us up in prayer.

“Holy Father, keep them in your Name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” Jesus prays that the Name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, might be placed on all people. This is the Name above all names, the Name that gave salvation time and again to Israel, and now it would be connected to a much greater act of salvation. Jesus is praying on the eve of the Day of Salvation that the benefits of His death and resurrection would be applied to all people. “Sanctify them in the truth, your Word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

Christ was sent into this world, this world of sin and corruption, a world in rebellion against its creator, a world that would reject the very Son of God, to make unclean people holy again. We were all filthy with sin, covered with that uncleanness that had separated us from God from the moment of conception. But Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God, consecrated Himself, He set Himself aside as the One to make all people holy again. He was sent to cleanse all through His shed blood, and after finishing this great prayer, He would go forth to the Mount of Olives to accomplish that for which He was sent. For the next morning was Good Friday, the day on which Christ consecrated Himself for the task of giving His life on the cross, the Holy One nailed to the tree to make all people holy. For when His blood flowed from His hands, His feet, His head, His back, and then from His side, it flowed to cleanse all people. And when He rose again, He rose to show He had overcome every source of our uncleanness, He rose to “sanctify them in the truth.” Jesus prays in our text that this victory, this salvation, this cleansing may be extended to all people through the Word of God, “that they may be one, even as we are one.”

We are those who have been cleansed by the Word, we are the ones who have had the Name of salvation, the Divine Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit placed on us in our Baptism, and Christ prays that we may be kept in that Name. “Holy Father, keep them in your Name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Christ prays for us, for you and me, that we might not fall away from this faith, this salvation delivered to us. What comfort this is, that Jesus prays for you and me constantly that our faith may be strengthened and preserved, that we may be kept in the baptismal Name given to us. Amidst the hatred of this world, we need this assurance, we need Christ’s prayer. “I have given them your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” Christ prays for us, He holds us up in prayer that we may not compromise with the world, that we may be protected from the assaults of Satan. But we all know that we fall so often in this area, and so our Lord and Savior prays: “Sanctify them in the truth, your Word is truth.” He prays that through the power of God’s Word, our sins would be forgiven, washed away by His blood applied to us each and every time that we hear the beautiful message that “your sins are forgiven,” whether in His Word, in Absolution, or in the feast of His Body and Blood. And He prays that the Holy Spirit would continually work in our lives to make us more and more holy, living a life apart from the sin of this world and bathed in the forgiveness of Christ. And this is the life of true joy, living in the forgiveness of Christ, the hope that fills us despite anything we may face. “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.”

We live with the joy of Christ because He died and rose again for us and we live with the joy of Christ because He bathes our lives with forgiveness by applying what He won directly to you and me. But we also live with the joy of Christ because He stands at this very moment before the Father praying specifically for you and me, because He is performing His great work as our intercessor before the Father, praying for us. It is only with the prayers of Christ that the people claimed by Christ’s blood can live in a hostile world. The Church then exists distinct from the world, as an oasis of forgiveness in a desert of sin, as the place where life is given to dying people, as the location where God delivers his very gifts to you and me. The Church is where, as we heard in our first lesson today: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer.” May the Lord sustain you through His prayers for you each and every day as you wait for His return in this world, enabling you to stand and forgiving you when you fall, Amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ascension Day (observed)

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Sunday on which we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord is from the first lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of Acts. Dear friends in Christ, Theophilus is an odd name. Now, perhaps when you compare it to many of the other names that you find in Scripture it doesn’t seem quite so strange, but on the other hand you aren’t going to run off and name your child Theophilus. Maybe your dog, but probably not your kid. But despite its oddity, Theophilus is an important name. Some theologians believe that this was the name of Luke’s benefactor, the one who provided the means for him to write his Gospel and the book of Acts, his ‘sponsor’ so to speak. Others say that this is a generic name by which Luke addresses all Christians. Theophilus literally means either ‘lover of God’ or else ‘one loved by God.’ Either way, such a name is an apt description of Christians. Not only are we those who love God, but we love God precisely and only because He first loved us. So, whether Luke is acknowledging his sponsor, who happens to have a cool name, or he is using a generic name for you and me, we can place ourselves right there in the first verse of our text.

“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Those loved by God who are assembled here today, Luke is referring you back to the story of Jesus. He is the one who records the account of Christmas with all of its beauty, shepherds, angels, and all the rest. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, he records the teaching of Jesus, teachings that make it increasingly clear that it wasn’t Jesus’ intension simply to inspire Christmas cards, but instead to rid the earth of sin. It was His job to cleanse fallen creation, to take on Satan directly and crush Him underfoot, to make all things new. He did that through His proclamation and through His miracles- every person He restored to health was another part of creation made new once again. And He did this for you, because He loved you. You are those who have been loved by God, you are all Theophilus through the work of the Son. But His work was not yet complete.

Those beloved by God, Jesus Christ came for an ultimate and final cleansing, He came to deliver you from the clutches of sin. Luke writes, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen.” His last instructions were about the Holy Spirit, and then Jesus marched forth to fulfill His Father’s will, to fulfill His love for you. For on Good Friday, He was taken up upon a cross, He was hung there to die, to be mocked and humiliated by men and abandoned by God. He was taken up high above the people so that all may see the price that He paid for us. My friends, each and every one of you is a Theophilus, one loved by God, one loved by Christ. He loved you so much that He willingly took on death, hell, and Satan, conquering them by the cross. There He wiped every sin out, on that day all the earth was cleansed. The death of Jesus delivered you, me, and all people from our sin, with His blood we are cleansed, our debt is erased, and the gap between God and man is closed.

But if Christ remained in the tomb, we would still be in our sins, and so Luke boldly declares: “To them He presented Himself alive after His suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Christ came to the disciples alive, resurrected, in victory over the grave. He gave them the proof they needed to take this proclamation of victory out throughout the world, so that all people might say: Alleluia, Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia! You have been loved by God because Christ rose for you, He rose to give you life, He rose to give you victory, He rose to point to our resurrection on the Last Day. He rose, and for forty days He dwelt with His apostles, His friends, eating and drinking the foretaste of the heavenly banquet to come.

And now that time was almost over. The twelve disciples had spent three years with their Lord, and many perhaps even knew Him before that time. They had shared everything with Him, good and bad, the teachings and the opposition, and they all had the terrible memory of abandoning Him on Maundy Thursday. They had traveled with Him literally to death and then were witnesses of His triumph over the grave. But now they weren’t quite sure what came next. You can imagine the disciples thinking, “This can’t last forever, something is going to happen.”

That thought prompts a question. “So when they had come together, they asked Him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus had to be waiting around for something, and it seemed quite logical that He was preparing for His final military campaign. They were looking forward to having Him walking with them as they gloriously and victoriously conquered the world. But there is a problem- Christ has not promised such things: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.”
Instead, He leaves us, rising into heaven until a cloud covers Him. Now our hopes are dashed. Christ is gone, He is up in heaven, far away, disconnected from us. We are now truly and honestly alone. That is why the disciples stand there and look. “And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?’” By all appearances, Jesus has left us. Sadly, on Ascension Day, that is the opinion of too many Christians, even you and I are tempted to think that way as well. Jesus is simply a far away figure, someone who lived and died a long time ago, but now has little bearing on our lives. Isn’t that how we often live our lives- as if Christ is far away? And then to have a truly ‘spiritual’ experience, we must then climb the ladder to heaven and meet Him there. Our Collect for today even teaches this: “may we also ascend in heart and mind and continually dwell there with Him.” If Jesus has locked Himself away in heaven, and it is up to us to ascend to Him, we are doomed. How can we keep the faith, how can we love God, if He has left us? Our hearts cannot come to Jesus, they cannot ascend to Him, because they are full of sin and corruption, the corruption that has filled us since our birth. If Ascension Day is goodbye, then we are left without hope, we are left alone!

Jesus responds to this dilemma in an unexpected way. He points us to a promise He had made many times before: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Then He leaves. “And when He had said these things, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.” In a moment, Jesus is gone. He is no longer visibly present, and as the angels tell the disciples, He will not be again until He returns. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” But my friends, those who are loved by God in Christ, Jesus is still present. He has told us how right in our text. It is now the work of the Holy Spirit to bring Jesus to us. That is why Jesus points us over and over to that promise. The disciples are worried that Jesus was going to leave them, and the promise for you and me today is that He is closer to us now than He ever was during His life on this earth.

“For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” On Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, and He came for the express purpose of bringing Jesus to His people. Jesus loves you and me so much that He did not leave us on this earth, but instead He comes to us through the work of the Spirit each and every day to strengthen our faith and forgive our sins, to deliver the very benefits of His death and resurrection directly to us. Christ is still present among us, only in a different and much more wonderful way! The two angels asked the disciples: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” We do not stand gazing into the sky to look for Christ, we do not have to bring our hearts and minds to heaven as the Collect wrongly says today, but instead Christ comes to us, and He comes bearing His gifts and bringing His grace near to us. He comes in the Word read and proclaimed; He comes in the Lord’s Supper, where He dines with us as He dined with the disciples. He comes as the crucified and risen one, with His arms open in blessing, washing us clean from our sin and giving us life everlasting.

For that is the great message of this day. The entire Jesus, body and soul, His human nature and His divine nature, have been enthroned in heaven, to sit beside God forever. And through His death, the first taking-up of Jesus, this second taking-up points to our future. As those who have been loved by God, loved so much that He was willing to shed His very blood for you and me, we will join Christ with our renewed, restored, and resurrected bodies on that final day. Christ redeemed and enthroned our human nature through His death, resurrection, and Ascension, reversing the corruption that occurred in the garden. What we have to look forward to is the visible presence of our enthroned Lord forever!

And so we wait for that day. This characterizes our entire Christian life. Christ’s visible presence has ended for now, and we await His return as the angels promised: “This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” But yet our Christian waiting is different than any other kind of waiting in this world. For we wait with the promise that Christ is among us right now, that He comes to us each and every day bearing the gifts He won for us, that He is intimately in communion with us in Lord’s Supper, that He joins us with Him in our Baptism. He comes to us and sustains us as we wait, until we see that day of ultimate victory. May the Lord sustain each and every one of you on this pilgrimage, as we wait for the promise to be fulfilled, Amen.