Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter Day (Matthew 28:1-10)

“Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, as He said.” Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! 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 Easter morning comes from Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-eighth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, when Jesus died upon the cross on Good Friday, Saint Matthew tells us that the very earth shook. Rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the curtain of the temple tore in two. At the death of the Son of God, the created order reacted, quaking as if in agony. Whether the earth shakes in mourning or in celebration, one thing is clear: something very significant has just happened. Three days later, in a peaceful garden not far from the hill of Golgotha the earth was shaken again. “And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat upon it.” The earth shakes in reaction once again to the mighty deeds of God. All creation was affected by what happened on that bloody hill, and now all creation is affected by what is happening in a quiet graveyard. God has done something amazing, something wonderful, something miraculous, and the earth itself responds. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

The created order reacts to the mighty deeds of God, but humans are ignorant. “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb.” They came expecting to find a body to anoint, they came expecting to find a sealed tomb. They came in the expectation that their Lord, their leader, their friend, remained in the grave. Now, Jesus had testified to His followers quite clearly that He would die and then three days later be raised. They knew the end of the story, but on that morning, they came to the tomb in doubt and unbelief. Their doubt has been shared by many throughout the centuries, especially today. Some simply argue on the basis of their own experience: “people just don’t rise from the dead.” Others turn to the ridiculous, claiming that Jesus had a body double, or that He simply fainted upon the cross and then woke up in the tomb. The most common objection is the oldest. Matthew tells us right after our text: “They gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people, “His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep”’… And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” Perhaps some of you have bought into those explanations in the past. Perhaps a few of you are even now denying the resurrection in your hearts and minds. But even if we don’t deny the resurrection, doubt assails us each and every day, for our enemy is the father of lies. Make no mistake, such doubt is sinful, for in doubting we call Jesus a liar when He promised that He would rise again. The women had heard those promises from Jesus’ own lips, but still they doubted; they came to the tomb not expecting a resurrection, but instead a dead body.

Pay close attention to how Matthew tells us of the resurrection. Even as the women travel to the tomb, things are happening. “And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.” Plenty of people saw the death of Jesus. The Roman soldiers, the mocking crowds, the women and the disciple whom Jesus loved could all testify that Jesus died. But no one saw the actual resurrection of Jesus, for the witnesses showed up after it had occurred. Even before the women arrived at the tomb, filled with doubt, God had already raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection occurs before the witnesses arrive, it occurs before the women believe. The resurrection is not dependent upon man, but upon God.

The resurrection is true whether you believe it or not. It is an objective fact, more true than any other event recorded in history. Neither your faith nor your unbelief affects the plans and purposes of God. The resurrection of Jesus isn’t created by your faith, and it isn’t denied by your lack of faith. The resurrection of Jesus instead creates faith; when you hear the proclamation of Christ’s Easter victory, the Holy Spirit is working faith within you to grasp onto the truth of the resurrection of the Crucified One. This began early that morning, for the angel at the tomb had the privilege to preach the first Easter sermon. “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, as He said. Come see the place where He lay. Then go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him. See, I have told you.” The result of this message was nothing else but faith. “So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell His disciples.”

The response of the women to the first Easter sermon seems strange. Fear and joy don’t really go together in our minds. Now, the joy we understand. In fact, joy is the proper response to the resurrection. That is why we let the alleluia’s ring forth again this morning after keeping them buried for the season of Lent. The resurrection greeting is full of joy: Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! We rejoice for Christ has been vindicated, God did not let His Righteous One see decay. We rejoice because the resurrection is the seal of the victory Christ won through His sacrifice on Calvary’s cross. Good Friday and Easter belong together as one mighty act of God for our salvation, and we rejoice that Jesus did not leave us in our sin, but instead gave Himself as the sacrifice. All joy in the life of a Christian flows from Easter. But do we always have that joy? Do we go through this life in the joyful knowledge that Christ has indeed been raised for us and our salvation? Or do we find ourselves with the same emotions as the women on that first Easter morning, filled with fear? We come to worship this morning knowing that we should have joy, but instead we still feel the burden and fear caused by sin. In a world filled with corruption, surrounded with plenty of reasons to fear, how can we rejoice?

The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t depend on our faith or our joy, but instead it creates both faith and joy. His victory over death gives us joy even in this valley of the shadow of death. But Christian joy, the joy of the resurrection, isn’t some fleeting emotion. Having this joy doesn’t mean that we’re happy all the time or that we never feel sadness or fear. Instead, the joy of the resurrection expresses itself throughout the varied experiences of our lives in this world. This joy is much more profound than simply an emotion. It is the confidence that death, sin, and suffering have no permanent hold upon us, but instead that they are defeated enemies, trampled under by Jesus’ death and victorious resurrection. This confidence only comes from Jesus, only from the proclamation of the cross and empty tomb. Only the Gospel can give us this joy in the midst of sorrow, joy that is fed and sustained by the comforting words of our Lord. Jesus has been raised whether we feel joyful or not, indeed He has been raised because our hearts are filled with fear. The empty tomb and the risen Jesus is an objective fact, true despite all appearances to the contrary.

Christ is risen even if there seems to be no cause for joy in this world. Christ is risen even though we suffer. Christ is risen even though we mourn. Christ is risen even though we die. In fact, Christ is risen because we suffer, Christ is risen because we mourn, Christ is risen because we die. Christ is risen as the solution to suffering and death. Only He provides the answer to sin in this world, for He bore all of the sin of the world to the cross. The risen Jesus is the crucified one, as the angel reminds us this Easter Sunday. He will bear His wounds for eternity, a testimony that the living One is He who was crucified, the Lamb who was slain for the sin of the world. He died in our place, He died to destroy death, He died to pay the price for all sin. The solution to suffering was His suffering, the solution to death was His death. His resurrection proclaims that sin, death, and Satan are defeated, and for that reason, we can have true joy. Christian joy is His gift to you, for only He can banish fear.

The first words from the mouth of the angel were intended to drive out fear and bring joy to those frightened women. “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, as He said.” They heard these wonderful words, but they still had fear. Only one person could remove that fear, and soon He was standing before them. “And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.’” The resurrection of Jesus removes all fear. When Jesus tells us “Do not be afraid,” He is speaking words of absolution. ‘Do not be afraid, for my resurrection is your victory. I died for you and now I live for you.’ His resurrection means that death’s reign is done, sin can’t condemn us, and Satan’s accusations are now empty. Jesus has conquered them all, and the empty tomb proves it. When you hear the beautiful words, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ Jesus is saying to you, “Do not be afraid.” And today, hear that message again: because Christ died and rose again for you, your sins are forgiven! Each and every one of them has been washed away by blood of the Lamb, swallowed up by His victory. You are forgiven- do not be afraid!

We no longer fear sin, for it has been forgiven by the shed blood of Jesus. We no longer fear Satan, for His head has been crushed by the foot of Jesus, just as God promised in the beginning. We no longer fear death, for the message of Easter is that just as Christ was raised from the dead, so you too will rise. Your destination is not eternal death, but eternal life, for your Lord and Savior died for you, and He rose again for you. Christ’s tomb is empty, and so shall yours be, for He will raise you up in victory on the Last Day. His life is your life, for God raised Him up for your salvation. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! In the name of the crucified and risen one, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Good Friday (John 18:1-19:42)

“When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished,’ and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” 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 Good Friday evening comes from the passion narrative according to Saint John, specifically chapter nineteen, verses sixteen through thirty. Dear friends in Christ, last night, as the altar was stripped, God’s gathered people spoke Psalm twenty-two. Even for those who have encountered this psalm before, the details are astonishing. Jesus spoke at least the first verse of this psalm on the cross, and some scholars believe that He prayed the entire psalm there. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” It is no surprise that Jesus prayed this psalm on the cross, for in it David speaks of his own sufferings in terms that point forward to the sufferings of his descendent, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. Jesus suffered in accordance with
the Scriptures, in each and every excruciating detail.

John emphasizes this for us by telling us of how the soldiers divided the clothing of Jesus. “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took His garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also His tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.’” John is quick to tell us that this seemingly unimportant detail fulfilled a part of Psalm twenty-two: “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” The psalm describes a man who is still alive, yet treated as if he were dead, at the whim of his executioners. Psalm twenty-two also describes the verbal abuse heaped upon Jesus: “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads. ‘He trusts in the Lord; let Him deliver him; let Him rescue him, for He delights in him!’” Not only that, but even the method of Jesus’ execution is prophesied. “They have pierced my hands and feet- I can count all my bones.” Not a bone of Jesus would be broken, but His hands and feet would be pierced by the nails.

Psalm twenty-two describes the suffering of Jesus in graphic terms. “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” John pays special attention to the fulfillment of this detail. “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst.’” Jesus was thirsty on the cross. This is not just a throwaway comment, but a window into His suffering. Jesus’ last drink was probably right before they departed for the Garden of Gethsemane the night before. He was severely dehydrated, and had lost much more fluid during the beatings that led to the cross. His body literally screamed out for water. However, it seems that more is going on here than simply a graphic image of His suffering. John tells us that Jesus said this “knowing that all was now finished.” Immediately after He takes His drink, Jesus dies, saying, “It is finished.” The thirst of Jesus is a seemingly minor detail, but it has much greater significance.

Jesus has fulfilled every detail of His suffering prophesied beforehand in the Scriptures, but He has done much more than that. The thirsting of Jesus in accordance with Psalm twenty-two is a sign that He has completed all of the Scriptures; He has finished the plan of salvation according to those Scriptures. Jesus dies to fulfill all that the Scriptures said of Him. Psalm twenty-two tells us the details, while our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah fifty-two and fifty-three tells us the significance of those details. God’s prophet tells us why Jesus suffered and died.

Isaiah teaches us in our Old Testament lesson two important truths: Jesus died because of us, and Jesus died for us. Conjunctions and prepositions may seem to be small and insignificant words, but as you see here, they are vitally important.
When Isaiah tells us that Jesus died because of us, He means that we are the reason that He hangs upon the cross. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned- every one- to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Jesus is on that cross because of you and your sin. Those nails were driven through His hands because you sinned, because you rebelled against God. Jesus suffered because you disobeyed your parents, because you had lustful thoughts, because you cheated your neighbor. His flesh was torn by the scourge because you took God’s name in vain, because you harbored hatred toward your neighbor. As Isaiah says, “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities.” This is a night of repentance, of sorrow over our sin, our rebellion that placed Him on the cross. Look to the cross and see the wrath of God over sin! Look to the cross and see the results of your rebellion! Tonight we will read, as the Church has for centuries on Good Friday, the Reproaches. These are Old Testament passages put into the mouth of Jesus, in which our Lord cries out to us, asking us why we have rebelled against Him. The Reproaches are difficult to hear, but they reinforce the teaching of Isaiah, that Jesus suffered because of our sin.

After we speak each of the three Reproaches, we will say a prayer to our heavenly Father, asking for mercy. Then we will sing a verse of the hymn Lamb of God, Pure and Holy. “Lamb of God, pure and holy, who on the cross didst suffer, ever patient and lowly, Thyself to scorn didst offer. All sins Thou borest for us, else had despair reigned o’er us: Have mercy on us, O Jesus!” Jesus bore all sins for you; He died for you. He died because of your sin, but He died for that sin, to take it away. Isaiah doesn’t leave us in despair, but teaches us that Jesus hung on that cross for you and me, for our salvation. “But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.”

His wounds bring us healing; healing that is eternal, healing from the deep wounds inflicted by sin, the healing that we so desperately need. Forgiveness won by His blood is poured onto your wounds, and you are healed and made whole every time that you hear the Absolution, every time that you are reminded of your Baptism, every time that you receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. Through His death for you, you will spend eternity no longer wounded by sin, no longer wounding your neighbor, but healed and finally whole, for your relationship with God is restored. His chastisement brings us peace; peace between God and man, peace that this world cannot give, peace forever. The violence of those who afflicted Him results in eternal peace. This was God’s plan from the beginning, as Isaiah teaches us. “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief.” We see the love and mercy of God when we look to our crucified Savior. Look to the cross and see the love of God for you! Look to the cross and see your forgiveness, your salvation, your life! God planned this all for you!

It was this plan and will that Jesus completed upon the cross. “When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished,’ and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” No one takes Jesus’ life from Him, but He gives it up willingly into death for you and for your salvation. He doesn’t bow His head and give up His spirit until all is completed. “It is finished,” He says. Jesus has drunk the cup of God’s wrath down to the dregs, and He has done so for you and for me. He has completed His suffering; the price has been paid in full, there is nothing yet to do for our salvation. He has left nothing undone- there is nothing we must add; it is all finished! The Scriptures have been completed, not just the details, but the meaning and purpose of His death. Jesus is the righteous sufferer of Psalm twenty-two, and He is also the Suffering Servant of Isaiah fifty-three. And there is one more detail in Isaiah yet to be fulfilled: “When His soul makes an offering for guilt, He shall see His offspring, He shall prolong His days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.” In three short days we will see this verse completed as well, for Jesus truly shall see His offspring, you and me, He shall surely prolong His days; God will not let His Son remain in the tomb. In the Name of the righteous sufferer, the Suffering Servant, who gave up His life for our salvation, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, Amen.

Maundy Thursday (Exodus 24:3-11)

“And [God] did not lay His hand on the chief men of the people of Israel. They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” 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 Maundy Thursday comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from Exodus chapter twenty-four. Dear friends in Christ, a covenant is an agreement between two parties, a solemn pledge by both sides that they will fulfill what is required of them. We don’t necessarily use the term too often today, but we do see the concept all the time in our world. We have covenants between renters and landlords, lenders and borrowers; even nations have agreements with one another: “If I don’t attack you, you won’t attack me.” Human relationships would have a difficult time operating without covenants.

God is also in the business of making covenants. He made the covenant with Noah to never destroy the earth again through a flood; His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob promised many descendents and the Promised Land for them to live in. In our text, God makes another covenant with His people as He prepares to take them to that land. This is a covenant of obedience, for God has finally delivered to His people His promised Law, which tells them how to live before Him. If they obey, He will care for them and defeat all their enemies, and it sure sounds like they intend to obey: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” To show how serious this is, oxen are sacrificed. “And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood He threw against the altar.” The altar indicated God’s presence, and half the blood was thrown there to show that God would keep His end. Then the people were reminded of their obligation. “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold, the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”

Having pledged and promised their obedience, having received the blood upon their heads as a sign of this covenant with their God, the leaders of Israel are summoned up the mountain to eat a meal. Moses doesn’t tell us if these men knew what kind of a meal this would be, but when they reached the appointed place, they experienced what few ever had. “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel.” They saw the God of Israel. The creator of heaven and earth, the One whose mighty arm had brought them out of Egypt, the God who fills all things with His power and glory appeared there before them. They fell down in worship, and Moses records for us what they saw under the feet of the living God. “There was under His feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” We can tell that Moses is having trouble finding the words, at a loss to describe through human language the appearance of the glory of God. This is a holy God, clean and pure, as indicated by the pavement He stands upon, and that is a problem, for these are sinful men. They had made a covenant of obedience on the bottom of that mountain, a solemn pledge to obey God, but when Moses returns to those same people, they will be worshipping a golden calf. Mankind is sinful, we are completely corrupted to our very cores. We can make all the promises that we want to God, but we fail every time. By rights, then, this holy God should strike down these decidedly unholy men, but He doesn’t. “And He did not lay His hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.” In His great grace, God permitted them to eat and to drink in His presence.

Wouldn’t it have been amazing to be on Mount Sinai that day, to actually eat and drink in the very presence of God? Moses describes one of the more amazing events in the Old Testament with just a few words: “they beheld God, and ate and drank.” So much of this event is a mystery, even for those who experienced it, but it truly happened. They beheld the God who created the universe, and they ate and drank. Too bad that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore, right? “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”

The Lord’s Supper doesn’t look as impressive as the meal of Mount Sinai. There isn’t a pavement of sapphire stone, there isn’t a visible manifestation of God, simply bread and wine set on an altar, with words spoken by a man no different than you. As Christians, the ordinary appearance of the Lord’s Supper often deceives us. Do we truly appreciate how amazing and miraculous the Sacrament of the Altar is? Or do we simply go through the motions, coming forward because it’s just ‘something we do?’ Here the God of the universe, who created you and all things, comes near to you and physically touches you. The incarnation becomes real as the God who took on our human flesh here offers His Body and Blood for you to eat and to drink. This isn’t a show, this isn’t simply spiritual, this is real, this is a miracle, this is truly Christ coming to you to touch you with salvation. If we truly understood this reality, I think it would have a great effect on how we prepared for the Lord’s Supper and how we acted before, during, and after we received it. If we knew we were going up Mount Sinai to see God, we would sure be prepared, and make no mistake, what happens here tonight at this altar is an even greater miracle that what happened on that mountain. For here we do not simply eat and drink in the presence of God, here we actually partake of Him. He is the host, but He is also Himself the meal. Jesus gives Himself to us: the same body that hung upon the cross for our sin, the same blood that was shed there as the price for our redemption. God Himself touches your lips in the Lord’s Supper; in this feast you taste and see the Lord is good.

When we fail to appreciate the great miracle and gift that Jesus gave to His people on that first Maundy Thursday, we demonstrate the same sinfulness that the Israelites did. They couldn’t fulfill the promise they spoke so boldly to God: “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” God was faithful to His covenant, while His people rebelled time and time again. What was needed was another covenant, this one a gift from God to His sinful people, and once again blood would seal it. “And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” This new covenant is established in the blood of Jesus Christ, poured out and shed for all people upon the cross.
Tomorrow night we will gather to ponder the sufferings of Christ. You will see Him suffer and die for you and for all your sin. On Good Friday He poured out His blood to bring you the forgiveness you so desperately needed. Christ won your salvation upon that cross, and He delivers that salvation to you and me in this most holy Supper. The holy things of God are offered tonight to you and me, people who are by no means holy. The Lord of the universe dines with His sinful people, bestowing forgiveness upon you and me. This feast actually makes you clean, it forgives your sins, it makes you holy, allowing you to dwell with God forever. The ancient fathers of the church called the Lord’s Supper the ‘medicine of immortality’ precisely for this reason: in this Sacrament, salvation is delivered to you!

Tonight you will not see God with your physical eyes, only with the eyes of faith. But what Jesus gives to you in the Lord’s Supper is forgiveness, life, and salvation, the very promise that you will behold God for eternity. Job declared, “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” Come to the feast, for here Christ gives Himself for you! Here the very benefits of His death and resurrection are brought to you; here the Savior of the world comes to you to touch your lips with salvation! Taste and see that the Lord is good! In the name of Jesus, who shed His blood for the forgiveness of all your sins, Amen.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Palm Sunday (Series A: Isaiah 50:4-9a)

“But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” 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 Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fiftieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ, He rode in majesty, surrounded by adoring crowds. They waved Palm branches, they placed their cloaks on the road in front of Him. The people shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” This man has raised the dead, He has healed the sick- could He be the Messiah? They remembered the words of the prophet Zechariah: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, you king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” This is the king of Israel, the Christ, the One promised of old. He has come in triumph, in glory, arriving in Jerusalem to conquer His enemies. But this is not the kind of king we would expect. In Isaiah, He is called the Servant of the Lord. He has come to rule, but He will rule only by serving. He is the Servant, and today, the Servant speaks to you and to me.

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.” I am the Servant of the Lord. I came from my blest throne, from the position of glory that I held as the only-begotten Son of the Father. I took on your human flesh, was born of a virgin, and emerged to preach the Word of God thirty years later. I only speak what the Father has given me to say, I do only the deeds of He who sent me. The Father teaches me, and I am an obedient student. I listen to His Word and then I teach it to you. I taught you the ways of God, His Law and His wrath over sin. From me you learned what God requires of you.

I didn’t only come to teach, but also to act. I have come to the weary. Sin fatigues us, physically, mentally and spiritually. Your bodies wear out, but I have come to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind, to even raise the dead, as you heard last week. It was my greatest miracle that drew the crowds on that Palm Sunday; they wanted to see me, for I had defeated death by raising up my friend Lazarus. But sin doesn’t just weary your body, it wearies your mind and soul. I brought comfort to the distressed and peace to the troubled in heart. I said to the people: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I taught you the way of the Lord, I brought comfort to you in your distress. In obedience to the will of my Father I taught you, for I do nothing apart from Him.

“The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” I spoke to you the very words of God, but you did not listen. I taught you His ways, but you did not obey. I lived a perfect life of obedience to my Father; you refuse to obey Him each and every day. You turn from God’s Word, you refuse to hear me, you refuse my comfort and aid. I come to you because you are weary, but you deny your fatigue. You claim that you can stand strong without me, but I am the Great Physician, and I can see that you have deep spiritual sickness. You live as if you mattered most and my Father mattered little at all. You may not say those words, but that is what your life in this world indicates. You do not live in obedience to the Word I have given to you, but instead you live a life focused only on yourself. I have called you to love God before all else and to love your neighbor as yourself. You are to serve your neighbors, to place their needs above your own, but you refuse. You instead focus on your needs, your wants, your desires. You have forgotten that I have placed you in this world to benefit others, not yourself.

There is a deep divide between your rebellion and the obedience of the Servant of the Lord. I am obedient to my Father, I am obedient where you are disobedient, and I am obedient in your place. It was the will of my Father that I should live the perfect life you couldn’t, and then suffer the punishment you deserve. I am obedient to my Father’s will, even though it means flogging, even though it means torture, even though it means humiliation. “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” I didn’t flee, I didn’t fight back, but I submitted to the scourge and whip of the Roman soldiers, to their disgrace and humiliation. They mocked me, they called me names, they caused me pain and anguish. I am the Servant of the Lord, I am the creator of the universe, I am God Himself in the flesh, but I did not struggle. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, I did not open my mouth. I was obedient to the Father’s will; I lived the perfect life you couldn’t, and suffered the humiliation that you deserved.

“But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” I will not be ashamed. The soldiers disgraced me, they destroyed my body with the rod and the scourge, they nailed me to the cross, but I will not be ashamed. For the Lord is my helper, and I have set my face like a flint. I am resolute, I go to the cross willingly. Nothing is going to deter me from dying there because it is the Father’s will, and I am obedient to the Father’s will. His will is that I die in your place, that I take your sin upon my shoulders and carry it to the tree. No one takes my life from me. No one. Not the Jewish authorities, not the Roman soldiers. They think that they have power over me, that they can do with me what they want. But they are wrong. I lay down my life willingly, I freely give it up to death. With a word, with a thought, I’m off that cross, those soldiers are dead, and I am free. But I won’t do that, because you are too important to me. I taught you what God requires of you, about His Law and His wrath over sin. But that is not the final word. I also teach you of God’s love, His mercy, His grace. You are sinful, rebellious, and disobedient, but I love you. You think only of yourself, but still I love you. I love you so much that I am willing to lay down my life, I am willing to follow the Father’s will through torture, humiliation, and death for you. My suffering is for you, my death is for you. I lived my perfect life for you, because nothing is more important to me than seeing you standing around the Father’s throne for eternity.

“He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord God helps me; who will declare me guilty?” I am righteous, but many contended with me. I am innocent, but many declared me guilty. Isaiah wrote about me: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” I am the righteous One, and I willingly suffer in obedience to my Father’s will because through that cross He will declare you righteous. My life is now your life and my death is now your death, for I bore your iniquities. The Lord vindicates you because of me. You are declared righteous and innocent, your sins are forgiven, because I gave my life in your place. My death is your salvation, your vindication; the Lord looks at you and sees me and what I have done for you.

Today you saw me enter into Jerusalem in triumph. On Friday you will see me hanging upon a cross. Today the crowds shout ‘hosanna!’ By Friday they will be crying ‘crucify Him!’ But I am innocent- I have done nothing wrong. There is only one human being in history that did not deserve death, and He hangs upon a cross. They falsely accused me, they condemned me as a criminal, but I lived a sinless life. Still, I do not open my mouth, I do not protest. I know that the Lord will vindicate me. Wait and see; I may die on that cross on Friday, but I trust in my Father, I trust in the Lord. He will vindicate me. My righteousness, my innocence will be declared throughout the world. Come back next Sunday and you will see. God will not let His righteous one remain in the grave- I guarantee it. “But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” Amen.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Lent 5 of Series A (John 11:17-27, 38-53)

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” That was what Martha said when she met Jesus that day. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Her words echo our own whenever we lose a loved one. Why didn’t you provide healing, why didn’t you save? Martha doesn’t say this out of stubborn unbelief, but instead she questions Jesus because she believes. She trusts her Lord, her Savior, her friend. She knows that He can heal, she knows that He has healed many people before, and she can’t figure out why He didn’t heal here. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These words sound like an accusation, and in a certain sense they are. This is the cry of those who are mourning to the God who heals the sick. This is the cry of faith, a cry that cannot understand why death has invaded our lives. But Martha doesn’t stop there. No, she moves from that cry to a statement of firm confidence. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Martha is teaching us how to pray. She encourages us to cry out to God in sorrow and suffering, but this prayer doesn’t spiral off into unbelief. Instead, we find our rest, our confidence in God’s love and mercy, knowing that despite the sin and death that swirls around us, we have a God who has us in His embrace. We cry out to the God who has promised to care for us, holding Him to those promises and placing our lives into His hands. We cry in boldness, for we have a God who sympathizes with our sorrow, a God who became man.

“Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb.” Why was Jesus deeply moved? What caused Him such sorrow? Jesus was sorrowful because He was coming face to face with the consequence of man’s sin and rebellion. Because of sin, death came into this world, and it is a scourge, a blight upon this earth, and no one is exempt. Jesus mourns because it was not supposed to be this way. Death was to have no place in God’s perfect creation, but sin intervened, and sin can have only one consequence. Jesus looks at His dear friends, Mary and Martha, who have lost their brother, another friend, Lazarus, and He mourns with them. “And He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept.” Jesus wept. The shortest verse in the Bible shows us Jesus’ humanity, but more than that, it shows His compassion for His mourning people. Death is a tragedy, and Jesus shares our sorrow, our grief; Jesus weeps with us.

But God did not become man simply to share in our sorrow. Jesus took on human flesh to do something about the scourge of death. “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” He proved this by raising up His friend. “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’” Martha protested, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” She still didn’t understand what was happening, that the One who called Himself the resurrection and the life was proving it right before her eyes. “When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” He who was dead is now alive! Death has met its match, for the Son of God has power even over death! The powerful Word of Jesus brought life back into a dead man, and he came forth from the tomb, restored to his sisters, restored to his friends.

Jesus had a much bigger point to make than the end of sorrow for Mary and Martha. Our Lord didn’t spend the rest of His ministry traveling from funeral to funeral, raising people from their coffins. Even Lazarus himself would someday die again. Jesus raised Lazarus that day to demonstrate that death had met its match, that the destroyer of death stood upon this earth. “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” The raising of Lazarus was a preview of Jesus’ own resurrection on the third day. Death was only dealt a temporary blow that day at the home of Mary and Martha; on Easter Sunday, Jesus proved that death is now destroyed, that just as it had no hold on Him, so it will have no hold on those who are joined with Him. Yes, we still die, we will still mourn. But as Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Even though we die, we will live. Death may intrude into our lives in this sinful world, but it has no permanent hold on us. Lazarus’ resurrection demonstrates that the resurrection and the life has come to destroy death; Jesus’ resurrection proclaims that you and I too will be raised, as the Lord told Ezekiel in our Old Testament lesson: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.” We will not die forever, for we are joined with the One who conquered death.

What wonderful news! The resurrection and the life has shown up on the scene, and He has come to conquer our greatest enemy! There seems to be only one proper response to such a miracle, such a triumph. “Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what He did, believed in Him.” Surely all of humanity, which has been under the tyranny of death for so long, can rejoice that someone has finally come to defeat our greatest enemy, right? “But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” The Pharisees were not impressed by this victory over death. “So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” In the face of victory over death, the very triumph of the Son of God over our ancient enemy, the religious leadership can only think about the things of this world. They fear persecution and a loss of status, both for their nation and for themselves. The Jewish people may be under foreign rule, but at least they have some measure of independence. What if even that is taken away? The chief priests and the Pharisees like things the way they are. They enjoy their high status in the eyes of the people, they love their power and authority. Jesus threatens to destroy their prominent place just as surely as He has destroyed death.

Today we look back at those Pharisees and shake our heads. If death itself has been defeated, shouldn’t you follow the One who has brought that victory, whatever the consequences? Surely all the other concerns of this world pale in comparison to eternal life. If Jesus has defeated death, then we should boldly follow Him and proclaim Him as the resurrection and the life. These are easy words to say within the four walls of a church. How often do we put them into practice in our lives in this world? Do we speak of Christ’s resurrection victory to those around us? We all know those who do not believe in the victory of Jesus over death: friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even family. Have you declared the message of Easter to them? Or do you fear, like the Pharisees, for the things of this world? Your reputation, your friendship, and your family relationships all seem to be in danger if you proclaim the victory of Christ. Do you fear a loss of status in the eyes of others? Do you fear ridicule or even persecution? Our world tries to tell us that our faith is a private thing, something to be kept hidden and inside, and we as Christians have all too often bought into this. But if the message we have to proclaim is that of victory over death, how can anything keep us from proclaiming it? This is a message that all people need to hear, for all people live under the threat of death. As Christians, we aren’t pushy, and we seek the right time to proclaim this message, but we finally must speak, for this message is life and death: Christ’s death and our life.

The Pharisees refused to proclaim the victory of Jesus over death, and instead they sought to put an end to Him. “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.’” God used this man, seeking to destroy Jesus, to proclaim to us the meaning of Christ’s death. Caiaphas was only looking out for the status of the Pharisees and the place of their nation; what God had in mind was much more universal. “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” It is better for us that Jesus die for all people, for we are all sinful, we all deserve death. Without the death of Jesus, all people perish eternally. But Jesus died for us, in our place, taking our sin upon Himself. Even our sin of failing to proclaim His victory was placed upon His shoulders and He shed His blood for them. His death was for our advantage, for our good because it was in our place. Now all people will not perish eternally; no, instead all those joined to Jesus will live forever. “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Death is defeated by Jesus’ death. It is better that Jesus should die for us, in fact it is the greatest good that we can ever imagine. His death has conquered and destroyed our greatest enemy, and now, even though you die, yet you shall live. The raising of Lazarus has proved it, for Mary, Martha, me, and you.

So I ask again: Why was Jesus deeply moved when He stood at the tomb of Lazarus? Indeed it was in sorrow over death, the enemy He had come to conquer. But could it also be that Jesus saw in the tomb of Lazarus the path He must trod to win that victory, the path of suffering and death? Did Jesus see His own tomb in the tomb of Lazarus? He was sorrowful, He was deeply moved, but as in the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, Jesus was not deterred. He had come to defeat death, for you and for me, and nothing was going to keep Him from dying in your place. Thanks be to Jesus that He gave us His life for us! In the Name of the Resurrection and the Life, the One who through death defeated death, Jesus Christ, our crucified and living Lord, Amen.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Lent 4 of Series A (John 9:1-7, 13-17, 34-39)

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” 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 ninth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, I think that we are all at least a little afraid of the dark. If you have ever visited a cave, you know that inevitably the tour guide will shut off the lights to give you a feel for what that cold, damp place was like before electric lights and paved walkways. As you dwell in darkness so deep that you cannot see your hand in front of your face, she tells you about how the darkness affects the human body. Just a few days in such deep darkness is enough to drive a person insane, and after a minute or two, you are beginning to believe her. What is it about darkness that makes us nervous? Is it the lack of references, the fact that the sense we depend on the most has been eliminated? Our nose, ears, and hands are forced into new roles, guiding us without any help from our eyes. Do we fear those who take advantage of the darkness for evil deeds? Filmmakers get this, using the darkness to inspire suspense and terror. But despite our nervousness, we know that the sun will come up, we know that a light switch will illuminate the cave again; can you imagine dwelling in darkness each and every day?

But you don’t have to imagine, for you know what darkness is. You know that you dwell in a world of darkness, filled with sin. In Psalm twenty-three, King David calls this earth the “valley of the shadow of death,” and you know the truth of these words. Darkness envelops you, it intrudes upon you each and every day. The darkness of broken relationships, lost friendships, failed marriages, conflicts between husband and wife, parents and children. Disease also casts a shadow upon our lives, the very shadow of death itself. For it is death that ultimately causes this darkness, and when it intrudes, we feel the darkness most profoundly. We can light candles, we can flip the switch, but those actions are only compensating for the much deeper darkness we feel in our lives. We can cry out to the God who created light itself; we can put Him on trial, searching for an answer to the darkness that surrounds us, asking with the disciples in our text: “Who sinned?”

The simple answer is that all have sinned. It is our sin that has plunged this world into darkness. When Adam and Eve introduced sin into this world, the shadow of death was cast over this earth. We were made blind, groping in darkness so profound, so deep, that we had no escape. Darkness is not the fault of God; He brought light, He created light, He intended that we would dwell in light. But man sought instead the works of darkness. Now, not every encroachment of darkness upon your life can be linked directly to your sin, but all darkness is caused by sin: sometimes we do suffer the consequences of our own deeds of darkness, but sometimes we suffer because others bring darkness into our lives, and most often we suffer simply because we dwell in a darkened world.

But the story hardly ends there, with you and me dwelling in darkness forever. No, instead the One who created light shone His Light once again into a dark world. The darkness of sin manifested itself in physical blindness for a man sitting alongside a Jerusalem street. Did he suffer because of his own sin? Did he suffer because of his parent’s sin? “Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” Darkness had encroached upon the life of this man, both spiritual and physical, but darkness is no match for Jesus, who will use this darkness to show forth Himself as the Light of the world. “As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.” Like a candle in a cave, the One who created light sent His Son into a world filled with darkness. This Light, true God born of the virgin Mary, came to shine through the shadow of death, indeed, this Light entered our world to overcome darkness at its source. He came to destroy our sin, to defeat death itself, to crush the prince of darkness. To do this, He freely allowed the forces of darkness to have their way with Him. After Judas departs the company of the disciples on Maundy Thursday in order to betray Jesus, John tells us ominously, “And it was night.” Jesus Himself said in our text, “We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” As Jesus predicted, the night had finally come.

In the darkness of that night, Jesus was falsely accused, spat upon and beaten. The sun did rise that Good Friday, but only to be snuffed out at Jesus hung upon the cross. As the Light of the world suffered in humiliation, God’s created light refused to shine, as if in protest against the powers of darkness. The shadow of death encompassed the Light of the world as Jesus cried out and breathed His last. But in overshadowing Jesus, even in killing Him, the darkness itself was overcome. For Jesus, the Light of the world, died bearing our sin, our corruption, our darkness. His death, though it appeared to be the ultimate triumph of darkness, proved to be instead the victory of light. This was confirmed and proclaimed when light shone upon an open tomb three days later, for the Light of the world had not been extinguished, but instead had conquered the darkness.

“Having said these things, [Jesus] spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then He anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.” The Light of the world came to this man trapped in physical blindness and gave Him the gift of sight. The One sent by the Father instructed him to wash in pool called Sent, and after washing, the darkness had been destroyed. Jesus demonstrated His power, that He had come to bring light into the midst of darkness, pointing to much greater works of illumination to come. “Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him He said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is He, sir, that I may believe in Him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen Him, and it is He who is speaking to you.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped Him.” This man’s physical blindness was eliminated, and by the grace of God his spiritual blindness was washed away as well. In your baptism, the Light of the world washed your blindness away, He brought light into your dark life. You were washed in the pool of the one Sent from the Father, and now the shadow of death will not have the victory over you, for you dwell in light. Even in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death, you can say with David, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Though darkness surrounds us each and every day, we have the confidence that it has been defeated, we know that the Light of the world has the victory. He is with us, comforting us, assuring us of His promise of an eternity where there is no darkness, only the Light of the world.

We realize that we were blind, that we dwell in the midst of darkness, and so we cling to the Light of the world, we cry out to Him whenever darkness encroaches upon us. But there are those who refuse to see the darkness that surrounds them, who deny that they are blind. In fact, they arrogantly believe that they see much better than anyone else. The Lord spoke about His rebellious people in this way in our Old Testament lesson: “Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the Lord? He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear.” This describes perfectly the Pharisees in our text for today. They saw the blind man, they heard his witness to the miracle of Jesus, but they refused to believe. “They answered him, ‘You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?’ And they cast him out.” The man who spent all of his life blind saw things much more clearly than the Pharisees. While he moved from blindness to physical sight and finally spiritual sight, these men plunged deeper and deeper into spiritual blindness.

If you refuse to acknowledge your blindness, then you have no need for the Light of the world. The Pharisees arrogantly believed that they could see; they had no need for Jesus. They couldn’t see the darkness in their own lives, they wouldn’t acknowledge their blindness. How many people in your life refuse to admit their spiritual blindness? How many of you believe that you were not conceived and born blinded by sin? Those who reject the Light choose to dwell in darkness for eternity. They have no need for His salvation, for His illumination, because they refuse to see the darkness. Repent! Acknowledge your blindness, see the darkness around you, and turn to the One who came to heal blindness and bring light into the darkness. Jesus heals our own spiritual blindness, and He has defeated the darkness that surrounds you. He has done all that for you, out of His great love for you. Those who think they see believe that they have no need of healing from blindness; they arrogantly refuse the gifts that Christ so freely gives and cling to eyes blinded by sin all the way to an eternity of darkness.

But that is not your destination, for the Lord has shone His light into your life, removing your spiritual blindness. You were washed in the pool of the Sent One, who gave you eyes of faith to see Him as your Savior from sin and death, the very Light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome. Your eternity will be spent looking toward our God with perfect eyes, as our Introit for today puts so well: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple.” When we follow our Lord’s resurrection with our own, we will gaze upon the Lord who has redeemed us forever. In the Name of the One who heals the blind, the very Light of the world who has overcome the darkness, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.