Monday, April 27, 2009

Third Sunday of Easter (Series B: Luke 24:36-49)

“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this third Sunday of Easter is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, Peter was in his element. In our First lesson for today, this one-time fisherman was given the opportunity to proclaim the word of God, and He did so with a boldness that makes even us uncomfortable: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” Jesus, the great teacher from Nazareth, was not dead, but alive! And not only this, but this Jesus was not simply a great teacher, or only a man, but instead He was God in the flesh, the God of the Old Testament patriarchs come to save you and me. And He saved us by giving up His life and rising from the dead. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

What a difference between the boldness of Peter and what we see in our Gospel lesson for today! “As they were talking about these things, Jesus Himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’ But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.” The disciples were cowering in their locked room, listening to the confession of the Emmaus road disciples, that Jesus had made Himself known to them in the breaking of the bread. They were confused, perplexed by this turn of events, but this was only the beginning of the emotional roller coaster they were preparing to ride. When Jesus suddenly appeared among them, this confusion was replaced with terror and fear. They thought He was a ghost! They hadn’t thought that He would truly rise, and they did not expect a flesh-and-bones Jesus to appear in their midst. Jesus tries to allay their fear, but this rollercoaster was heading downhill in a hurry. “He showed them His hands and His feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling…” Even after they see the wounds of their Lord, they still disbelieve! This was too good to be true, and their emotions and feelings cannot handle it, they are left with scales on their eyes, unable to see the reality standing right in front of them. Jesus has risen!

But Jesus knows that it is not just a rollercoaster of emotion that has their minds closed. “And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your hearts?” The word translated here as ‘doubts’ simply refers to the operation of human reason. Their minds are trying to figure this out, trying to get a grip on what their eyes are telling them. Humanity has always thought more highly of its reason that it ought. The first question from the garden was “did God really say?” and you know, when Adam and Eve thought about it, He probably didn’t. We live in an age when there seems to be no bounds to what humans can do when they put their minds to it. Science and technology are doing things that we never thought were possible, and many believe that we can probe the very origins of life and the universe. Science thinks that it can discount God, or at least make Him irrelevant, and when we live in a world with such man-made wonders, it is easy to see God in that way. On the other end of the spectrum are those who think that we experience God individually, with our own minds. We should just go out to the woods and there we can encounter Him. Once again, this focuses on the use of our own natural reason. Now, there is no doubt that some solitude is good for our souls, but can we learn all that we need to know about God from nature? Can science and our own human reason reveal God to us?

The answer that Scripture gives to us is a resounding ‘NO!’ Our emotions, swinging back and forth, cannot reveal God to us. They simply leave us as confused as the disciples. “But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.” Looking at creation can lead us to see a Creator at work, but do we have any idea whether He loves us or not? Our own human reason, and its creations, science and technology, can try to give an explanation for everything, but it cannot probe the mind of God. No, by ourselves, with our own human reason, we are blind and deaf- we cannot see or hear Him. Why is that? Because our reason is perverted by sin, just as the rest of us is. We are born into sin, spiritually blind, deaf, and dead before God.

“And when they were talking about these things, Jesus Himself stood among them.” Into their very midst, into this collection of spiritually blind and deaf people, Jesus Christ came. He came to remove spiritual blindness, to replace doubt, the reasonings of sinful human minds, with faith. “And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.” Those last words are a weak translation- Jesus says, ‘See my hands and my feet, that I AM myself.’ The great I AM, Yahweh Himself, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was standing in their midst. As Thomas said last week, this was “My Lord and my God!” And He stood amongst them alive- whole, bodily, physical, real! He was not a ghost as they feared: “Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when they still persisted in unbelief, He gave them another proof: “He said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave Him a piece of broiled fish, and He took it and ate before them.” This was their Lord, their Savior, the great I AM, the same God who delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt was standing among them, there to destroy all doubt, all of human reason’s feeble attempts to understand Him. He was there to create faith in His Resurrection, for these men would be witnesses of it to the ends of the earth.

And so these men needed some more education. Jesus opened up the Scriptures to them and then to us, He opened what to our human reason and scientific inquiry had been a closed book. “Then He said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” And what must be fulfilled? “Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” The whole Bible is about Jesus, and it is all about Jesus for you and me! God was not willing to leave us in our spiritual blindness and death; in fact His love made it necessary that God do something about our situation. And so, from the third chapter of Genesis through the books of Moses, into the prophets, and finally among the beauty of the Psalms, the story of salvation was told. Jesus was proclaimed as the one who would come and deliver us from our blindness. A Savior was promised for you and me, one who would come to deliver us from the domain of death, but this would not be easy. For the Scriptures proclaimed that “the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” For us, for love of us, Jesus Christ would fulfill the Father’s will, He would take on the necessity declared by Scripture, and He would go to the cross bearing your sin and my sin. He would go there and offer Himself as the price, the great I AM in place of His sinful people. There the debt would be paid, there Christ drank the cup of God’s wrath. But that was not the end. Light broke on Easter dawn to reveal an empty tomb, for Christ had arisen, just as the Scriptures said, and just as He promised. There He triumphed in victory over our enemies, there peace was declared between God and man. That is what Jesus taught His disciples in our text, there He replaced the doubts of their sinful human reason with a new understanding, an understanding shaped by faith.

The disciples are then sent out to illuminate other hearts, to bring this message of all Scripture that Jesus died and rose again to all people, to apply that message directly to you and me. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things.” They saw the risen Lord with their own eyes, they touched His wounds, and now they bring this confession to you and me, the bold confession that Peter declared to the crowd in our First lesson: “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” It is their task, along with the Church in all ages, to fulfill the divine necessity “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” But they could not do this on their own. “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” It is the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father, that opens hearts to believe in Christ, He works through the words of the Apostles and the Scriptures they have delivered to us. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes and ears to see and hear Christ, to believe in Him and grasp onto Him as our very own Savior and Redeemer.

With the eyes of faith, we see Jesus as clearly as the disciples ever did- we see Him as the one who delivered us from death, the one who forgave our sins by taking them to the cross, and we see Him as the One proclaimed on every page of the Scriptures. That is where we encounter Him, through the gift of His Word. But He is not simply a spirit to us, He has arisen bodily, physical, whole and complete. He says to us in His Supper: “Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Our human reason is a good gift of God, and now that Christ has given His understanding and opened the Scriptures to us we use it to explore them and defend the faith. Our reason is now in service to the Gospel, in service to the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen, and we use it to engage our world in its doubt and lies. But eyes can only be opened by the Holy Spirit, only He can reveal what our minds cannot comprehend. And so we place our trust in the words that Scripture proclaims to us- Christ became man for us, Christ died for us, and Christ lives for us. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Second Sunday of Easter (Series B: John 20:19-31)

“Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this second Sunday of Easter is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, denials of the resurrection are almost as old as the resurrection itself. Matthew tells us of the first attempt to cover up what happened on Easter morning. “[The chief priests] gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell the people, “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.”’ Since then, many other theories have been advanced, including the idea that Jesus never really died, but only fainted on the cross, or that there was the clever use of a body double, or the thought that the disciples simply made the whole thing up (and were willing to die for something they knew wasn’t true). All of these theories, and countless others, are poor and feeble attempts by our world to come to grips with the fact that someone who was dead, killed in the most gruesome way, was now alive, they are attempts to give a rational explanation for an empty tomb, for the testimony of Mary Magdalene and the disciples.

But doubting the resurrection is not the exclusive property of the world. Jesus’ own followers fell into doubt and denial. Last week we heard the beautiful and touching story of the resurrection according to Saint John, we traveled with our author and Peter to the empty tomb, we stood with Mary as she wept. Then we felt her joy as Jesus came to her side- alive, never to die again! She is sent to tell the disciples what she had seen and heard, and what is their response? “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews…” What? The doors were locked? The disciples had heard the great proclamation of Mary; John and Peter had seen the empty tomb, and still they cower behind locked doors?

This doubt was even worse with Thomas. Jesus appeared to the disciples that first night, he gave them the proof they needed for their feeble faith. But what about Thomas? “Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’” This proclamation was not enough for Thomas. He wanted an experience, he wanted to see with his physical eyes rather than with the eyes of faith. “But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will not believe.’” The Word of the apostles was not enough, he wanted an experience. That is how doubt assails us- it convinces us that what we have is not enough, that we need more. The promises of God in Holy Scripture are not enough, I need to feel Him in my heart, in my own life for me to truly believe. I need some great spiritual experience, some wonderful act of God in my life before I will consider myself truly a Christian. Satan does not want us satisfied with the Word of God, with the witness of Christ’s apostles. Satan wants us hungering and thirsting for more, for some fleeting feeling or experience that will somehow confirm our faith. He wants us searching in vain for confirmation, because when our faith is based only on our own personal experience, it is on shaky ground. Then doubt can come in and make a home in our heart. I haven’t experienced a resurrection, so why should I believe some fishermen? I don’t always feel Jesus with me, so He probably isn’t.

But Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, comes in to shatter all doubt. “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” He speaks the words that cast doubt aside, the words of peace, of comfort, of love. They do not have to fear, for He is arisen! And then He shows them the proofs of His resurrection. “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” To Thomas, whose doubt was so profound, his thirst for an experience so great, that he was willing to wallow in total unbelief, Jesus also came. “Then He said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’”

In that moment, ‘doubting Thomas’ was transformed into a bold confessor of Christ’s resurrection. “Thomas answered Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” Only the Son of God, true God Himself, could rise from the dead, victorious over all that held Him captive. But not only is Jesus true God, the victor over death, but He is Thomas’ Lord and his God. Faith has grasped onto Jesus and has made Him his very own. But as great as Thomas’ transformation is, Jesus is concerned for all others, He is concerned for you and me. “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus is concerned that all people, both that small group that saw and touched His resurrected body and the many who did not, would all say to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

And so the disciples are sent out to confess. “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” They are transformed from disciples, ‘learners,’ into apostles, ‘sent ones.’ Thomas would travel around the world preaching the message of the Resurrection, perhaps even as far as India, and he would give his life for his bold confession that Jesus is “My Lord and my God.” All of the disciples were witnesses of the Resurrection, and it was now their task to bring that message of victory over sin and death to all people. Saint John took this task seriously enough that he sat down and committed to paper the words and deeds of Jesus: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name.”

And so their message has echoed throughout the centuries, passed down from generation to generation until it has reached us. But this proclamation is not simply a history lesson, simply an amazing event that happened a long time ago- their proclamation does not only describe events, it also declares the benefits of the Resurrection to you and me. When Jesus entered through locked doors on the first and eighth days, what were His first words? “Peace be with you.” Jesus had not used those words before this very moment- “Peace be with you” is His Resurrection greeting. And it is this peace that the apostles proclaim to you and me. Jesus could not speak of peace until that most holy of weeks, because man and God were not at peace. We were estranged from Him, in sinful rebellion against our creator. But Jesus Christ had come to bring peace, to bridge the chasm between God and man, to restore the broken relationship severed in the garden. And He could only do this by offering Himself as the price. Peace could only come by submitting to the violence of Pilate’s soldiers, to the cruelty of the cross. And so Jesus, in the immensity of His love for you and me, did just that. He allowed Himself to be arrested, to be beaten and scourged, to be held up in a mock trial, and finally to be nailed to a cross. That was the price of peace, and it was a price He was fully willing to pay. On Good Friday we turned to the cross and heard that it was all for us, for you and me, for love of us. And that is also why He rose again. With His victory over death on Easter Sunday, peace between God and man was fully achieved because all that stood between us has been removed by the triumph of Christ. He comes forth from the grave proclaiming to you and me that we will live forever in peace with God. That is the promise of the resurrection, that is the proclamation that the apostles bring to you this day and every day.

This peace is then delivered to us through the forgiveness of sins. The apostles were not just sent out to proclaim peace to us, but to actually give us peace through the forgiveness of all our sins. “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.’” The apostles and those who follow them are sent out to forgive the sins of all who believe their words; all who believe in the Resurrection, you and me in whom the Holy Spirit has worked faith. Those who refuse to believe in the resurrection are left clinging to their sin, they have turned away the forgiveness freely given by Jesus. They have chosen to stand naked before the judgment seat of God with their sin. But we who believe in the redemption and victory of Christ by the gift of faith, we will stand before God clothed with the blood of Jesus and His righteousness, we will stand at peace with God forgiven of all our sin. And we will stand before God in His glory, His peace forever.

That is where we place our confidence when doubts circle around us- in the Word of God and His proclamation through the apostles. There we hear that we are at peace with God, there we hear that our sins are forgiven, and when we hear those words we can have the confidence that we truly are forgiven. Our own feelings, our own experiences can leave us at the worst moments, and so we must have an anchor, something to cling to, something that truly and faithfully tells us where we stand with God. That was why the apostles were sent- to confess to you that you have been reconciled with God, that Christ’s resurrection victory is yours, that your sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ. Doubts will still come, but we set against them the sure and certain Word of God. May our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ keep us strong in the true faith through all doubts that assail us, bringing us to that ultimate peace forever in His kingdom, Amen. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Palm Sunday (Zechariah 9:9-12)

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Palm Sunday is from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the ninth chapter of the prophet Zechariah. Dear friends in Christ, the people had heard that Jesus was coming. Of all the miracles that this man had performed, none had been more amazing than the raising of Lazarus. A man who had been dead for days now stood among them alive! And He was alive because of Jesus! “The crowd that had been with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet Him was that they heard He had done this sign.” Their response was to greet Jesus with as much fanfare as they could muster. “So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” At this moment, none noticed that Jesus came not on a chariot at the head of soldiers, but instead on a donkey followed by the twelve out of work Galileans. All they saw was the glory, the triumph, of Palm Sunday.

The entry of Jesus of Nazareth into Jerusalem was a far cry from another entry that occurred centuries earlier. Joseph the son of Israel entered Egypt as a slave, as one beaten and abandoned by his brothers to die, then sold to the highest bidder. He carried that memory of betrayal and deception into Egypt. He had come to visit his brothers, and what was their greeting? “They took him and cast him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” But that was not the only pit that Joseph would find himself in. He served his Egyptian masters faithfully, only to be falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife. And what did Potiphar do? “Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison.” The Hebrew word here for ‘prison’ is the same term used for ‘pit.’ Joseph entered Egypt as a slave, tossed from one pit of bondage to another.

The prophet Zechariah in our Old Testament lesson uses the language of Joseph’s story to describe situation of fallen humanity. We too are prisoners, prisoners in a ‘waterless pit,’ a prison from which we cannot set ourselves free. And what is that prison? It is the prison of death. If you think about it, you know that he speaks the truth. Death is inescapable, it is unavoidable, it has us in its shackles and it does not intend to let go. The penalty of being a child of Adam and Eve is death, and not just an earthly death, but eternal death. This seems unfair, this seems unjust, but so was Joseph’s imprisonment. We cannot advocate for ourselves, we cannot hatch an escape plan, we are more prisoners to death than Joseph was to the Egyptians. We cannot escape it. Why is this? What would make us prisoners to this impersonal force, this abstract concept that is too terrifyingly real, prisoners of death? In Psalm 107 we find the answer: “Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High.” Because of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, we are corrupted with sin, we are born in rebellion against God. We have no peace with God because our every thought and action is opposed to Him. But we should not simply blame our first parents- we have all done plenty to add to our bondage. Lent is a season of repentance and self-examination, and I know that when I do that the results are painfully clear. I deserve the prison of death, there is no way around it. And so what can we do? We have little recourse but to cry out to God for help, for deliverance, for salvation. Once again, Psalm 107 teaches us this: “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart.” There is the promise throughout the Old Testament that God will act to deliver those who are in prison- you, me, and all humanity. And if Zechariah has identified our condition as prisoners in the pit of death, he also has pinpointed God’s deliverance.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, you king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” There is a tension on Palm Sunday. Jesus enters in triumph, but as Zechariah teaches us, He also enters in humility. There was no army accompanying Him, no heavenly choir, no majestic war steed. Instead He rode a donkey and the voices of children and those beaten down by sin that greeted Him. Jesus entered Jerusalem more like Joseph entered Egypt than a king coming into his glory. But this is nothing out of the ordinary for Jesus. That same tension has been following Him throughout His life. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, true God Himself, the Second person of the Trinity, became man and was born in the lowliest of circumstances. From the moment of His birth He humbled Himself, even as the angels sang. Saint Paul teaches us in our Epistle lesson: “[Jesus] made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Jesus made Himself nothing! Zechariah prophesied that the Messiah would come in humility, and in Christ his words are fulfilled. The seeming triumph of Palm Sunday is only a precursor to that great act of humiliation yet to come. We hear again in our Epistle lesson: “And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

For Jesus Christ had come to answer our cries for deliverance, He came to rescue us from the pit of death, to rescue us from the inescapable penalty of temporal and eternal death. And He would do this by His blood, as Zechariah teaches: “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” We who could not set ourselves free were released from our bondage by the blood of Jesus. He humbled Himself to the point of death on the cross, and He did this to deliver us! That is what we look toward on this most holy of weeks- we are looking toward the moment of the cross, for there Jesus, the one who entered Jerusalem in seeming triumph, would hear those cheers turn to jeers and the palms turn into scourges. There at the cross He would suffer for us and in our place, placing Himself in the pit of eternal death for us. He allowed Himself to be bound so that He might set us free. The Jewish authorities, Pilate, and the Roman soldiers all had a part to play, but the only reason they could even touch Jesus was that He had humbled Himself to death for you and me. His love for us is so great that He was willing to lay all that was rightfully His aside and instead take on the form of a servant. “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” And we truly are set free by the blood of His New Covenant with us, as we hear in the gradual for Holy Week: “Therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised inheritance.”

Through His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, Jesus has not only released us from our prison of death, He has established peace between God and man. God speaks through Zechariah: “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and He shall speak peace to the nations.” The rift between God and man is now bridged by Christ’s suffering and death- He can proclaim ‘peace’ to us all, because that is the result of His work. His message is peace, peace to all people, because as Zechariah tells us “His rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Jesus Christ, the humble yet triumphant king, now proclaims His universal rule, entering into human hearts through the Word and Holy Baptism to set people free, just as He came to you when you were in bondage and rescued you. His salvation is for everyone, just as it is for you and me.

We are then set free to become prisoners of another sort. Jesus calls out to us through Zechariah, “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” We were prisoners to death, but through Christ we are set free to become prisoners of hope. We now are in bondage to the hope of eternal life that fills us. We have been taken captive by the promise, we are in chains to the forgiveness of sins. What a wonderful message! We belong to God, we are attached to His promise even more strongly than we were attached to death! We are set free to live in the ‘stronghold’- the stronghold that is Jesus Himself, as He is our rock, our redeemer, our protection in every step that we take in this dark world. We seek our refuge in Him, for He has come among us. “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He!” His Word, the Baptism in which He claimed us as His own, and His physical, tangible coming to us in the Lord’s Supper- those form the stronghold to which we cling. They set us free to look toward ultimate peace, the peace between God and man that He won for us, and the peace which we will ultimately experience in eternal life.

As I said earlier, there is a tension in this day. We see the triumphal entry of Christ, with the crowds crying ‘Hosanna’ and we are tempted to see only glory. There is glory to come, but first must come suffering, first must come humility even to the point of death. Only then, only by defeating our enemies and paying our price on the cross, can the glory come. On this day we look toward the week ahead, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but we also steal a glance toward Easter. For it is on that day that the tension breaks, and the glory shines forth, as Christ rises triumphant over death, our prison warden, the one who held us captive. We steal a glance toward Easter while saying with the words of the Introit: “Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the king of glory!” Amen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fifth Sunday in Lent (Series B: Mark 10:35-45)

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this fifth and final Sunday in Lent is from the Gospel lesson read just a few moments ago from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, the disciples had bad timing. This was not something extra-ordinary, but simply a consequence of the sinful nature that they share with us. Saying inappropriate things at the worst moments is one of the more embarrassing aspects of our fallen nature, and often it leads us into big trouble. Earlier in Mark chapter ten, the rich man goes away sad, and Jesus says “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” He then goes on to tell His disciples exactly how this will play out in His own life. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death… And after three days He will rise.” Could Jesus have put it any more clearly? His kingdom is not of this world, but instead will be founded on His shed blood, as He who is first makes Himself last. Like the rich man, the disciples should not cling to glory but should follow the example of their Lord- “many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

But the disciples still don’t get it. And not only do they not understand, but James and John choose this very moment to make a self-serving request. “And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Him and said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’” Wow! There is something to be said for being bold in prayer, and I would encourage each and every one of you to cry out to your Lord and Savior in the confidence that He will answer. But this request of James and John is self-serving, it is self-seeking, none of what Jesus has just taught is getting through to them. James and John do not see Jesus as the suffering servant, they see Him as an avenue to get what they want. And what they want is glory. “And they said to Him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” Those who believe in Jesus are so often tempted to see Him simply as a distributer of what we want, whether it be money, possessions, respect, or glory. Too often our prayers have more to focus on our wants rather than our needs and the needs of those around us. The kind of request that James and John made has no place among the disciples of Christ, both then and now.

“And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.” The other disciples make quite a show at being upset at the two brothers, but their motives are far from pure. They are simply upset because James and John beat them to the punch, their images of glory are the same. They can outwardly demonstrate their indignation, but in reality it is born of jealousy, and clothes itself in indignation to hide the fact that they would have done the same. The disciples all want to know who the greatest is, each and every one of them has missed the point of all that Jesus just taught. And so Jesus must teach them again.

“And Jesus called them to Him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.’” How often do we play power games in the Church? How often do we have jealousy for the blessings of another? How often do our prayers focus on ‘what’s in it for me’? We are so much like the disciples, tempted to jockey for position, to use Jesus as our ‘wish machine,’ and then show some self-righteous indignation when others do the same. My friends, it should not be this way! That is the way of the world, the way that sinful humanity operates. Not so in the Church! In the Church we are called to be servants above all, servants of every person everywhere. We are to serve them with the love of Christ- our love and service is based off of Him. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Jesus was the only one who truly deserved to be served by all humanity, and yet He did not demand such service, but instead Himself took the form of a servant. Jesus demonstrated that to us throughout His life, but the greatest object lesson of that service was yet to come: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

It was only at the moment of the cross that the disciples would truly see what Jesus was talking about. It was there that His true and ultimate servanthood would be revealed. For at the cross the firstborn of all creation, the One begotten of the Father from all eternity, would allow Himself to be bruised and beaten, mocked and humiliated. There the sinless Son of God, who had no wrong of His own to answer for, would make Himself last, there and only there would the truth of His words be made visible reality: “But many who are first will be last.” There He placed all others, indeed all of fallen humanity, you and me before Himself, counting your deliverance as more important than His very life. There Jesus reversed the request of the sons of Zebedee. James and John wanted glory, they wanted to place themselves first, but Jesus told them what the life of His followers truly entailed. “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” The disciples clearly showed that they did not know what they were asking when they replied, “We are able.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

James and John would drink the cup because their lives were conformed to the pattern of Christ. He would be the one to drink the cup, and He would drink it for James and John, you and me, for all people. For this cup was the cup of God’s wrath, a cup that had been filled to the brim with the punishment that all our sins deserved. The psalmist writes: “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” This was the cup that we deserved, we deserved to face the wrath of God for our sins, but Jesus came to us as a servant and willingly drained it to the dregs. The only human who did not deserve to drink the cup was the one who drank it in our place- He drank it so that we would not have to. On Calvary’s cross He drank it, as the sun hid itself and God turned His back on His Son. There Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled: “Thus says your Lord, the LORD, your God who pleads the cause of his people: ‘Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more.’”
But this drinking of the cup, Christ’s suffering and death on Calvary’s cross, was not simply an object lesson, it was the very means by which Christ would deliver us from our sin. The only way that Christ’s death could be an example of service is if His death meant something, if it actually atoned for our sin. Christ did not simply die on the cross as if to say, “Go and do likewise,” He died to deliver us from our sins, from our sinful jealousy, our jockeying for position, our prideful requests from Jesus, each and every one of those sins were paid for. And they were paid for because Christ gave His life as a ransom for our sin. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Every word at the end of this verse is significant. Christ serves us by dying for us, by dying in our place, on our behalf. We were trapped in bondage to sin, living as slaves, but Jesus came to us, He became a slave like us, He became a slave in our place. But He did not only become a slave, He also paid the ransom price to deliver us from our bondage. And what was that price? His very life. He gave up His life on Calvary’s cross in our place, drinking the bitter cup of God’s wrath for you, for me, for all people. He paid the ransom, the price we owed to God, with His very blood. He is the servant, He is the one that pays the price, and He Himself is that price. Jesus plays all the roles, for we by ourselves could do nothing toward our own salvation. And He rose again on Easter morning triumphant over death- just as He has life, so we too will follow His pattern, because of the ransom that He paid, the cup that He drank, we too will be raised to live with Him forever.

Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” The death of Christ was a bloody baptism, it involved His own suffering and death to pay for our sins, His suffering and death in our place. But for the disciples, Christ’s bloody baptism pointed forward to another imitation of Christ. All those who follow Christ have the possibility of laying down their lives for Jesus, all of us may imitate His death by becoming martyrs. We will not drink the cup of God’s wrath, for thanks be to God that Christ drank it for us, but we will drink the cup of suffering, of persecution for the sake of our Lord. Our lives will be conformed to His, and He will be beside us in all that we face. That is part of the baptismal life, part of being baptized into Christ. Paul teaches us this in Romans chapter six, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Our baptism is into His ‘bloody’ baptism on the cross. The old sinful person in us is drowned and put to death in those waters, and a new person, one ransomed by the blood of Christ, one claimed by God, is brought forth to live before Him. Just as our Lord describes His death as a baptism, so our baptism is into Christ’s death. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the One who stood in our place, the One who drank the cup of wrath for us, the One who baptized us into His death, preserve us in that faith until eternal glory, Amen.