Monday, October 25, 2010

Thy Strong Word Radio Broadcast

Once again, I am up for the daily morning radio broadcast at KDSN in Denison, Iowa. What follows is a transcript of each day's devotion, which focused on the upcoming celebration of the Reformation.

Program number 1 for October 25th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. As some of you may know, October 31st is Reformation Day. On that day the Lutheran Church celebrates the work of Martin Luther, a monk who God used mightily to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of the various churches that we see in our communities are various offshoots of the Reformation that Luther sparked. This week, I wanted to talk about Luther and the Reformation as we look toward Reformation Day on Sunday. Today we will set the stage by looking at Luther’s own struggle with sin, a struggle that led him to the four ‘alones’ of the Reformation, which we will talk about in the days to come, ‘Scripture alone,’ ‘grace alone,’ ‘faith alone,’ and ‘Christ alone.’

Luther’s life was filled with spiritual struggle and conflict. He was fully aware of his own sin and God’s punishment for that sin. Luther knew only of a God who judges, a God who condemns, and His condemnation is terrible, it is unavoidable, it is final. I think that we today have much to learn from Luther’s struggles. We are in a culture that dismisses sin- we are not conditioned to look at ourselves as sinners. But that is what you and I are. We can fight it all we want, you can tell our pastors to quit proclaiming it, but the simple fact is that we are poor, miserable sinners. And as we read in Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” Luther’s awareness of his own sin is something that we can all learn from, as it is only from an awareness of sin that we have any need for a merciful God. Those without sin have no need of a Savior.

This acute awareness of his own sin drove Luther to find salvation for himself. It drove him to the monestary, where he was an exemplary monk, and he followed each and every regulation and instruction to the letter. But he could not find peace. As he said himself: “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience… I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.” The more he worked toward his own salvation, the more he was aware that he was reaching for an impossible goal. All he deserved was death, eternal death. He needed a Savior from sin, and thanks be to God he was turned to God’s holy Word, which shows us our sin, but much more importantly shows us our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, who shed His blood to pay for that sin. Much more on that great Gospel that was revealed through the Scriptures to Luther tomorrow!

Let us pray: Almighty, everlasting God, for our many sins we justly deserve eternal condemnation. In Your mercy You sent Your dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who won for us forgiveness of sins and everlasting salvation. Grant us true confession that, dead to sin, we may be raised up by Your life-giving absolution. Grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may be ever watchful and live a true and godly life in your service; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Program number 2 for October 26th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. Yesterday we spoke of Luther’s awareness of his own sin. Luther knew that he was a sinner, and all he could see was an angry God ready to crush him for that sin. Luther was nearly driven to despair, but by the grace of God, he was delivered.

It was Scripture that saved Luther, and that is no surprise. God has a habit of changing hearts through His Word- He has been doing it since the Creation, and he has not stopped since. Luther was led through his struggles and anguish to Romans chapter one, verse seventeen: “For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” These words tortured him, as they gave a picture of a righteous God who condemned all those who did not live up to His righteousness. God, however, continued to work through His Word. Finally, Luther realized that the righteousness demanded here was the righteousness of Christ given to us as a gift by faith. It was at that point that the Scriptures opened up for him, and for us! He said, “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely… the righteousness with which God clothes us when He justifies us.”

Jesus Christ was the one who fulfilled the requirements of the Law by becoming man, by taking on our human flesh. He was the one who faced the wrath of a just God over your sin, the one who died on the cross to fulfill all righteousness. On that Good Friday, Jesus hung upon that cross in your place, taking on the punishment that you deserved, and when He said ‘It is finished’ your salvation was completed. He shed His blood for you! He defeated your enemies- sin, death, and Satan. He dealt them a blow from which they will never recover when He stepped forth from the tomb on Easter morning. This same Jesus Christ then bestows on you His righteousness won on that cross through faith. This righteousness covers you like a robe so that when God looks at you from the judgment seat, He only sees Jesus. Righteousness is no longer an unattainable goal- in fact, it is not a goal at all, but a gift, a gift given to you through His shed blood. You are a poor, miserable sinner, but because of what Christ did for you, you are now saved from your sins, you do not have to fear the wrath of God. What wonderful news! The Scriptures all opened up for Luther to reveal the glorious narrative of God saving His fallen creation through the sacrifice of His Son. Therefore, the first great pillar of the Reformation is ‘Scripture alone.’ We’ll look at the next pillar, ‘grace alone,’ tomorrow morning.

Let us pray: Blessed lord, who has caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of your holy Word we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Program number 3 for October 27th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. Yesterday we heard about how Luther was turned from the crushing awareness of his sin to the pages of the Scriptures. Listen again to what he read in Romans chapter one: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” This week we do not celebrate a man or even a movement, but instead we commemorate the Gospel, and God’s chosen instruments used to proclaim that Gospel clearly. God chose a simple Augustinian monk from Germany to reform the Church, to create a movement that would result in the Gospel once again being clearly proclaimed. This should be no surprise to any of us. God has a certain habit of using means, whether it is water, bread and wine, or the sinful lips of a pastor. He takes hold of those means and uses them to create and strengthen faith, He connects them with His Word in order to give life. But because He likes to use sinful human beings, you, me, and many others throughout history as His means, the proclamation of the Gospel rarely occurs without trial or stumbling. Even Martin Luther, a figure that seems to tower over history, was a sinful human, and it would be his struggle with sin that would define the rediscovery of the Gospel.

Luther needed a God of grace because there was simply no way that he could achieve anything on his own. Grace alone was what was required, God’s free grace for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ. Saint Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter two: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Grace is not truly grace unless it is a gift. It is something freely given to us by God, given to us when we could do nothing to earn it. In fact, it was given to us when we were completely opposed to God, in open rebellion against Him. That’s what makes God’s grace so amazing. Saint Paul says in Romans chapter five, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus Christ died for you, for me, for all people, even those who nailed Him to the cross. What amazing love! What wondrous grace! This leads Luther to what I think is one of his more profound observations. He said that “we are beggars,” that is, we come before God empty-handed, with nothing to give Him but our sins, and yet He takes those sins and pays for them in His overwhelming grace. That is the kind of God we have. Thanks be to Him for His abundant grace!

Let us pray: Lord God, heavenly Father, from Your hand we receive all good gifts and by your grace we are guarded from all evil. Grant us Your Holy Spirit that, acknowledging with our whole heart Your boundless goodness, we may now and evermore thank and praise You for Your loving-kindness and tender mercy; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Program number 4 for October 28th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. Earlier this week, we heard of how Martin Luther watched the Scriptures open up to him like a flower in the spring, revealing to him the great treasures that it held for him. Those Scriptures revealed to him a God of grace, who in loving-kindness sent His only begotten Son to die for our sins, to deliver us from death to live before Him forever. The only question that remained was: how do we receive this grace proclaimed by the Scriptures? Luther found the solution in the same passages that pointed him to ‘grace alone.’ We heard Paul say yesterday in Ephesians chapter two: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” For Luther, only faith could appropriate the free grace of Christ Jesus. In addition to ‘Scripture alone’ and ‘grace alone’ we now have ‘faith alone.’

But the thing about faith is that it is never alone. It always has an object, something to put its focus on. Faith does not focus on itself, it does not exist in a vacuum. Faith looks to Jesus Christ and Him alone, focusing on our Lord because He is the One who has delivered us by the shedding of His blood for us on the cross. Faith believes in the promises of God declared in Holy Scripture, the great promises of salvation through Jesus Christ. Faith alone saves us, but faith does not exist apart from the object of that faith, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Where does this faith come from? Luther emphatically denied that it came from anything in us. Instead, he declared in the explanation to the third article of the Apostle’s Creed in his Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Only through the work of the Holy Spirit can we believe in Jesus and take hold of His free gifts. That is the amazing thing: not only is grace a free gift, but the faith which grasps onto that grace is a gift as well! Luther proclaimed the primacy of God-given faith throughout his life. His personal struggle had led him to see the folly of trying to earn his own way to God, and now he trumpeted faith alone as the means by which man is reconciled to God. Scripture alone showed him that grace alone won by Christ alone is the basis of our salvation, and that salvation is only appropriated and applied to us through faith alone.

Let us pray: Almighty God, our heavenly Father, because of Your tender love toward us sinners You have given us You Son that, believing in Him, we might have everlasting life. Continue to grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may remain steadfast in this faith to the end and finally come to life everlasting; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Program number 5 for October 29th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. Over the past three days, we have discussed ‘Scripture alone,’ ‘faith alone,’ and ‘grace alone.’ Having heard about those three ‘alones,’ it should be no surprise that the final ‘alone’ is Christ alone. Everything this week has been about Christ, and that makes perfect sense, because all of Luther’s life and work focused on Christ.

From the day when the Lord worked through His Word to bring him Jesus as his righteousness, Luther’s life focused around proclaiming and defending this message, this glorious Gospel of God’s free grace for the sake of Christ. Every sermon and every page that came from his pen dripped with the blood of Jesus, it revolved around Christ and Him alone. This focus on the Gospel also led Luther to highlight the Sacraments, those means by which God comes to sinful man, the means by which He comes to you. In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Luther did not see something you do for God, but instead simply another way that God’s overflowing grace comes to you. Baptism encapsulated the Gospel, as the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to you through water joined with the Word. In your baptism, you are clothed with Christ’s righteousness; you are one of those who, in the words of Revelation, are “coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” As Luther says in the Small Catechism: “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things… with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

In the Lord’s Supper, the fact that God took human flesh, becomes reality, a reality that you join in each and every time that you receive His Body and Blood. As he states in the Large Catechism: “Here you have both truths, that it is Christ’s body and blood and that these are yours as your treasure and gift. Christ’s body can never be an unfruitful, vain thing, impotent and useless.” When you receive the Lord’s Supper, you receive the very Body and Blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the same Body and Blood which was given and shed on the cross for all of your sins, and now it is given to you for the forgiveness of your sins. Luther always taught that salvation was accomplished on the cross, but it is distributed to His people in His Word and Sacraments- and it is distributed to you each and every Sunday in Christian churches throughout the world!

Let us pray: O God the Father, the fountain and source of all goodness, who in loving-kindness sent Your only-begotten Son into the flesh, we thank You that for His sake You have given us pardon and peace in this Sacrament, and we ask You not to forsake Your children but always to rule our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit that we may be enabled constantly to serve You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Program number 6 for October 30th

Good morning! This is Rev. Christopher Maronde, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Kiron and Faith Lutheran Church in Deloit. This week we have journeyed from Luther’s awareness of his own sin and his desperate searching for a Savior to the pages of Holy Scripture, which revealed the grace of God in His Son Jesus Christ, given to the world and received by faith alone.

Luther’s goal was never reform for the sake of reform, or change simply for the sake of change. His goal was to proclaim the Gospel freely, detached from all had been added to it. He did not introduce anything new, but instead sought to restore what had been lost, to bring the Church back to its Scriptural roots. How do we follow in his footsteps? We do this first of all by defending the Gospel with everything we have, opposing any teaching that adds any ounce of our own effort or striving to the Gospel. This isn’t just a struggle between Christian churches and false teachers, this is first of all an internal struggle. That is what Luther was talking about when He spoke about a daily return to our Baptism. Listen to what he says in the Small Catechism: “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” What we especially need daily repentance from is our own attempts to please God with our own righteousness, rather than trusting in the righteousness given by Christ alone. We despair of our own abilities to earn anything before God and instead throw ourselves on the mercies of Christ our Savior.

Secondly, we can follow in Luther’s footsteps by proclaiming this same Gospel, freely and clearly, to all whom you come into contact with. That is how the message of God’s free grace through Christ first spread in the earliest days of the Church, and things hardly changed in the days of the Reformation. From hundreds of pulpits and countless mouths came forth the message that God has been reconciled to His rebellious creation through the blood of Jesus Christ. Today things may seem much different than during the Reformation, but one thing hasn’t changed: all people need to hear about Jesus. The victory of Christ rings forth from every Christian, because we cannot help but speak of what God has done for us in Jesus. Thanks be to God for the victory He has given! Thanks be to God for giving us Martin Luther to proclaim to us that truth so clearly!

Let us pray: O God, our refuge and our strength, You raised up Your servant Martin Luther to reform and renew Your Church in the light of Your living Word, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Defend and purify the Church in our own day and grant that we may boldly proclaim Christ’s faithfulness unto death and His vindicating resurrection, which You made known to Your servant Martin through Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen. God’s blessings on your day!

Proper 25 of Series C (Luke 18:9-17)

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 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 morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, I am not a first-century Jew. I think that is probably obvious. Moreover, I don’t think any of you are first-century Jews either. This simple fact means that in a certain sense we have to work harder to understand Jesus’ parables than His first hearers did. They knew their Old Testament better than most modern Christians, and in addition they knew the Jewish religion inside and out. And that meant that they could fill in the context when they heard one of Jesus’ parables. An important example of this is in our text for today. Jesus tells a parable about two men who go to the temple to pray. For us modern day Christians, that makes sense, because the temple seems like a perfectly reasonable place to pray. But Jesus’ original hearers would’ve known the important fact that public prayers only could occur in the temple twice a day, at 9am and 3pm. Those are the two times that the atonement sacrifices were offered each day. As the people prayed in the courtyard, the priests were killing animals to atone for the sin of the people, for as the author to the Hebrews reminds us, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

Therefore, the Pharisee Jesus describes in our text entered the temple courtyard at the very moment when animals were being sacrificed, slaughtered for the sins of the people of Israel, and for his sins. He stands off from the others a bit, not for privacy, but so that everyone can see him, can observe his piety. In the background the gathered multitude can hear cattle bellowing and sheep crying as they are prepared to bear the people’s sin, but his voice rises above the clamor. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

He has appointed himself as judge over his fellow man and over himself, declaring the obvious verdict- ‘I am better than all these other poor slobs!’ In the Christian Church this attitude can be unfortunately all too common. “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that family down the street, or my brothers and sisters (man, they sure screwed up their lives!), or even that person sitting next to me in the pew. I show up at church, I put some money in the offering plate. Thank God I am not like other men!” It is so easy to see the sin in the lives of others, so much so that we can ignore our own sin, or at least explain it away. “I may have screwed up, but I’m not nearly as bad as that family I read about in the paper!” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has something to say about this attitude. “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Whenever we set ourselves up as judge over others or ourselves, as the Pharisee did, we are taking the place of God, and that is the textbook definition of idolatry.

The Pharisee quite simply does not get it. At the very moment when animals are being sacrificed for the sins of Israel, for his sins, he goes to the temple and declares that he has no sin. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” He has convinced himself that he is righteous, and that seems to be a reasonable assumption to make. At least he isn’t as bad as the other people he unfortunately has to rub shoulders with each and every day. He trusts in what he has done for a right relationship with God. “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” His righteousness flows only from himself, because he doesn’t really need God. He is the judge, he is the righteous one, and the only reason there is to talk to God is to brag. Notice what he doesn’t do in his prayer- he doesn’t ask for a thing. And that is no surprise, because he doesn’t really need anything. He has everything he needs, God is simply someone there to affirm him, to tell him ‘good job, that’s the way to do it, you show em!’ For this Pharisee, God is some kind of lazy basketball coach, someone who has no criticisms or corrections to offer, but simply and only affirmation. And that’s the kind of God our human nature wants. ‘Just give me the thumbs up, God, I got this handled!’

That is the kind of God we may want, but it is not the God that we have. We have a God who hates sin, all sin, and in His righteous and just wrath punishes it. That is the kind of God the tax collector prays to. He stands off to the side, not so that men may see him, but because he knows he is unworthy to even be in the temple courtyard. He does not lift up his eyes to heaven, because he knows that he cannot look a righteous God in the eye. He beats his breast, an act of anguish and mourning. And he prays. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He doesn’t offer anything to God, not his piety, not his good works, not his decent life. He doesn’t offer anything to God but his sin, because that is all he has. And yet, like the Pharisee, he compares himself to other men. Our translation misses it; the tax collector does not say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” but “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” He considers himself the sinner, the worst of sinners, for the purposes of his prayer, he is the one and only sinner. “Chief of sinners though I be,” as we sang earlier in the service.

The tax collector gets it. He understands what is going on in the temple at that very hour, that cattle, sheep, and goats are shedding their blood for the sins of Israel, for his sin. And so his prayer is one of confession, a prayer asking for atonement. I hate to criticize our translation too much, because I do really like the ESV, but once again, it doesn’t say enough. The tax collector prays, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner,” but it is more accurately, “God be atoned to me, the sinner!” Now, that may not be good English, but that is what he is saying. The tax collector is asking that God would atone for his sin, that the Lord would be reconciled to him, that his great sin would be covered up. That is what ‘atonement’ means, to cover up and do away with sin. He prays for this because he knows that blood is being shed in the temple for that very purpose. But he also prays this looking forward to the final atonement for sin.

Jesus has come to answer the prayers of those who, like the tax collector, have nothing to offer God but their sin. He took that sin upon His shoulders and then offered Himself as the atonement sacrifice for the sin of the entire world. The unique and amazing thing about the biblical concept of atonement is that ultimately God took it upon Himself to provide the sacrifice which would reconcile Him with His people. He did it all, for you and me! He offered up His own Son as our sacrifice, and Jesus willing accepted that charge because of His great love for us. He shed His blood for the sin of all people who ever had or ever will live just as the cattle, sheep, and goats shed their blood for the sins of Israel. And He did so willingly. The animals who gave their lives in the temple as the Pharisee and tax collector prayed probably would’ve passed on being sacrificed if given a choice, but Jesus freely and willingly took on our sin, your sin, my sin, and the sin of the entire world, and faced the wrath of God for it. We have a God who hates sin, all sin, and in His righteous and just wrath punishes it. And that is what He did to Jesus on Calvary’s cross. Jesus shed His blood there to satisfy that wrath, to take on that punishment, to pay for our sin, to answer our prayers for mercy. For we needed mercy, we needed deliverance, we needed forgiveness. And God answered our prayers with His Son Jesus Christ, just as He answered the prayer of the tax collector: “God, be atoned to me, the sinner!” Jesus Himself gives us the outcome of this prayer: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The tax collector went home justified because he despaired of himself and instead threw himself on the mercy of God. He was a spiritual infant, unable to give anything to God, but only to receive from Him. And what does Jesus say about infants as our text concludes? “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” We are not incorporated into the kingly rule of God through self-righteous comparisons with others, or by exalting ourselves, but by being spiritual infants. An infant exists only through the love of another, it lives in a constant state of dependence, unable to do anything for itself. That is how we are before God. We have nothing to offer God but our sin, and He takes that sin upon Himself and pays for it on the cross. We live only through the love of God, in complete dependence on Him for His overflowing gifts of forgiveness. That is why we baptize infants, because they are like each of us, unable to give anything to God, but only able to receive. Each time a baby is received into the Lord’s waiting arms through the washing of the water with the Word, we are reminded of our own status before God. We come to this place week after week to be fed, to eat and drink of the forgiveness of the Lord as He offers it to us freely. Even as we mature and grow in the faith, we still remain spiritual infants, praying daily with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

For we remain beggars, we stand openhanded before God, with nothing to offer Him, not our good life, not our piety, nothing but our sin. We come before God not to brag, but only to receive what He gives in such wonderful abundance. We are bowed down by sin, but the Lord lifts us up. We hunger and thirst for righteousness and He fill us. We are spiritual infants, but as Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” The new heavens and new earth will be populated by beggars, by infants, by forgiven sinners just like you and me. Thanks be to God that He is merciful to us because of Jesus Christ our Savior! In His precious name, Amen.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Proper 24 of Series C (Genesis 32:22-30)

“So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’” 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 Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the thirty-second chapter of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ, Jacob was in trouble, trouble of his own making. He had came from the womb clutching his brother’s heel, and that was hardly the last time that he antagonized Esau. Jacob cheated his brother out of his birthright, and then with the help of mom, he stole from Esau the blessing of their father Isaac. That last offense angered Esau so greatly that Jacob fled his murderous wrath. After years spent serving his uncle Laban and raising a family, Jacob is now ready to go back home. He sends messengers on to Esau, hoping for a favorable reception, but all they return with is the ominous report that his brother is coming to meet him, at the head of four hundred men! Now it is the night before he will see his brother again. The questions swirl in his mind: What will happen tomorrow? Has Esau forgiven him, or will his four hundred men simply crush Jacob and his family?

Jacob is rightfully afraid. His past sins have come back to haunt him, and they may perhaps lead the death and destruction of him and his family in the morning. He has learned one of the most difficult lessons that a fallen human has to learn in this world: sin has consequences. Each of us has learned this lesson, we know that our own sin has led to strained relationships, to conflict, to temporal punishment from friends, family, or even the government. So often, the troubles we face in our lives are the consequences of our own sin, not to mention the consequences we face for the sins of others! And while we are often the cause of our own troubles, like Jacob’s family we suffer as well in this life because of the sins of others. Sin surrounds us, and we, like Jacob, are afraid. We do not want to face those consequences, because the results are too terrible to even contemplate. God’s law tells us what our sin deserves before God: the same death and destruction that Jacob’s family faced, but more than that- eternal punishment from a holy God.

Jacob spends that last night at the Jabbok River, a beautiful rushing stream that cuts deep canyons on its way to the Jordan. This river forms the boundary between kingdoms throughout the Old Testament, and on this night it is the very boundary between life and death. He will meet Esau in the morning, and so he spends a sleepless night arranging his possessions and family, trying to do everything he can to prepare for the next day. And he prays. The sin of this world drives him to his knees in prayer. “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with their children.” But will God really answer? Does He even care? What is His answer to the sin that surrounds us, that condemns us to its consequences; that condemns us to face His wrath? We see no end to sin in our world, and so we wonder with Jacob: is God even listening?

In desperation, Jacob cries out to God to remember His promise, protesting: “But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” God’s answer is a strange one. He does not answer with a word, but instead with an action. “And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” Jacob wrestled with God. Let that sink in for a moment. God almighty came to Jacob in human form and allowed this sinful, scared, sleepless man wrestle with Him. That’s pretty amazing, but what is even more amazing is that God allows us all to wrestle with Him too- in prayer. For you see, this wrestling match is not some random event, but is instead the physical embodiment of what Jacob has already been doing as he prayed. He has been persistent, he has held God to his gracious promises, and he has prayed in faith and confidence that God can and will deliver him.

That is what prayer is for each and every one of us. We wrestle with God in prayer by holding him to His promises, His promises to take care of us and preserve us. That is what Jacob did, as he cried out to God to recall His promise to give him many offspring. We hold God to the promises He has given to us, we do not let Him get out of His pledge to deliver us from sin, to protect us from danger and the devil. That is what the psalmist does in our Introit for today. Listen again to what he says: “Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old, which you have redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage!” That is the very definition of holding God to His promises, and that is how the Bible teaches us to pray. We also wrestle with God when we are persistent in prayer, calling out constantly for deliverance from this world of sin. That is what Jesus teaches in our Gospel lesson. The widow demanded justice, she would not stop until she had received it. Jesus concludes: “And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily.” Wrestling is not a single action, but a continuous activity, one that fills our lives each and every day, because we are surrounded by sin each and every day. Jesus concludes His parable by saying, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” This persistent wrestling with God in prayer only comes by faith. We do not wrestle with a God that we do not believe in. We don’t hold God to promises that we do not trust. We wrestle with God because we believe in Him and in His promises, and that is why for a Christian, the highest form of faith is to struggle with God in prayer.

God in His grace does want us to wrestle with Him in prayer, but His will ultimately prevails, as Jacob learned quite painfully. “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” With a divine touch, Jacob is defeated. God has proven that while we can and should wrestle with Him, there is no question who is divine and who is merely human. God’s deliverance may not come when or how we would want it to, but yet it does come, and it comes in the very person who wrestled with Jacob, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. This incident is probably one of the places in the Old Testament where we see Jesus appear before His incarnation, and it makes perfect sense, for Jesus is the ultimate answer to every prayer for deliverance. He took on our human flesh thousands of years later to shed His blood, die, and rise again to defeat the sin that surrounds us, the death that condemned us, and the devil that accused us. He came to answer every prayer for deliverance by giving Himself for ultimate deliverance. Now, while sin may torment us in this world, its days are numbered, and we know that sin is a defeated enemy, crushed by the mighty arm of our Savior, who triumphed over it’s corruption on the cross. Christ’s victory over the grave on Easter Sunday gives us the promise that we will overcome death, and this promise is given to us through a new name.

Jacob doesn’t realize until the very end of his wrestling match that his wrestling with God in prayer has taken on physical form, that he is actually wrestling with God Himself, and those two forms of wrestling have the same ultimate request: “But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” And the pre-incarnate Jesus answers Jacob in the same way that He answers you and me. “Then He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’” You may be familiar with the name that Jesus gives to you and me, because you heard it again at the beginning of the service. At your baptism, you had the Name of the Triune God placed upon you, as you were baptized “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We called upon that Name as our service began, reminding you of the day the Lord gave it to you. Because we bear this Name we can wrestle with our Father in prayer, we can depend on His promises, because we are those purchased with the blood of Christ, those who are joined with the Triune God for all eternity. It is only because we bear that new name that we can pray “Our Father, who art in heaven…” holding God to the promises He made in our baptism.

Jacob’s new name transforms him, it gives him a new identity. There on the banks of the Jabbok, that border river, at dawn, the border between darkness and light, Jacob is brought over the border from the darkness of sin into a relationship with God that is characterized by light. Jacob is made a new man, one fit to carry the messianic line and pass it onto his children. We too are given a new identity with our new Name. We are made Christians, those purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ, those belonging to the realm of light. We are conformed to the likeness of Christ, seeking to follow Him by loving our neighbor. We are truly saints, but we are also truly sinners. Jacob is now known as Israel, but he does not perfectly carry this name through the rest of his life. Moses describes him with both his old and new names, reminding us that while Jacob was transformed at the bank of the Jabbok, he never completely leaves his old self behind. It is the same way with us. We have been given a new identity, one that gives us the privilege to wrestle with God in prayer, but yet we remain sinners in constant need of God’s grace. Therefore we live under the forgiveness won by Christ, knowing that He has brought us from darkness to light, and that He will bring us fully into that light on the Last Day, when we will be brought over the border between death and life and will experience life forever.

God kept to His promises, and as Jacob limped toward his brother, assured of God’s grace, Esau ran to him and embraced him. The two brothers were restored by our God who keeps His promises, our God who restores relationships, our God who answers our prayers ultimately with our Savior Jesus Christ. In the name of the One who truly is the answer to our prayers, Amen.